Why don’t we just give up the illusion that each of us is a wholly separate individual and learn to solve our collective problems by acting together?
This is beginning to happen. A “we” is taking shape that needs us to join in.
Today’s change is unexpected, because of what I call the lie of the “I”, which has remade so much of the world. Margaret Thatcher sounded its keynote. “There are individual men and women and there are families… There is no such thing as society.” At a huge cost we’ve been living this lie for a generation, pretending that each of us is on our own.
In the name of individualism and freedom, efficiency and the market, the bottom line and austerity, vital social services have been privatised, public institutions attacked, and essential support eliminated. People are becoming poorer, inequality has intensified, life has become harsher and coarser. These changes have been implementing Thatcher’s mission “to change the soul” and create a “personal” rather than a “collective” society. People have been trained to be less dependent, less prone to look to labour unions and to government to solve their problems, and instead to assume greater responsibility for their own lives. Thinktanks, politicians, and media have drummed it into anyone who will listen, reshaping values, ideas, and attitudes.
They’ve implored us to turn away from treating the public realm as a terrain for improvement and change. A generation has been raised, educated, indeed shaped, to neatly fit into what the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman – who taught at Leeds University – called the “individualised society”.
Not only have institutions and functions been privatised, the collective hope that inspired the great movements of the past two centuries has shrunk and been displaced onto individuals. Each of us is charged with finding our own personal solutions to social problems instead of seeking to make the world a better place for all of us.
Tony Blair and Bill Clinton appeared to perform the coup de grace to a collective democratic sensibility, and the crisis of 2008 seemed to demonstrate that it was too late to reverse this transformation. Then Occupy happened, briefly galvanising young people in the name of community, equality, and social responsibility – but it vanished almost as quickly as it came. However, since 2015, both in the UK and the US, the once marginal politicians Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have surprisingly found themselves at the centre of electoral movements rejecting the atomising neoliberal trend.
A new consensus has been emerging among young people that is social democratic, as that term has traditionally been used, or democratic socialist, as Sanders and Corbyn have described themselves. By whatever name, young people brought up to be self-seeking entrepreneurs are rejecting the notion that every last corner of the world, and their own lives, should be organised by the logic of the market.
How is this possible? It turns out that the political, economic and ideological reshaping has reached its limit. The younger generation’s sense of the world springs from the fact that we are fundamentally social and historical beings. We belong to structures, networks and processes that include our work, friends, neighbourhoods, cities, nations and the earth. As the reality of climate change has made clear, in our survival and in every activity of our lives we are utterly dependent on forces, people, relationships and structures beyond ourselves.
In some ways each of us is on our own, true, but on our own we can do nothing about inequality, the power of the 1 per cent, austerity, rising poverty and climate change. These are not accidents of nature but the result of political decisions and economic structures that can only be challenged by people acting together. Acting together with others generates a sense of “we”, the collective power to make our world a better place. It is by acting together that we visualise the systems and structures needing to be changed and strategise how to do this. Uncovering our roots in past movements, rejoining the great democratic tradition of modern history – it is only by acting together that we can revive social hope.
Ronald Aronson is the author of We: Reviving Social Hope (University of Chicago Press)