Sunday, 8 November 2015

Individual or Community?

I am working on a new project for about the next 2 months and that project is called INDUSTRIAL SOUNDS FOR THE WORKING CLASS. It is an overtly political project with things political, cultural and social to say about our world and our species. It has been borne in on me this year more than ever that we humans are all human beings together on this planet. We are the same but we devise bureaucratic, cultural and social ways to divide us one from another. This, to me, seems like self-defeating craziness. Others will say that it is only the state of nature and will then go on to delineate some "nature red in tooth and claw" ideas about how all life progresses only by antagonism and by setting one being against another. But all of these ideas, whichever side of the notional divides we invent you find yourself on, are just ideas. And ideas are not compulsory. We can swap the ideas we have now for other ones. We can change the way we live now and live other ways. It would be a very foolish person who said there is only one way to live and this is it. 

Today, as part of a series of articles that will build up to the release of INDUSTRIAL SOUNDS FOR THE WORKING CLASS, I want to showcase and somewhat discuss two ways of looking at people, human beings, our species. These I have called "individual" and "community" in an attempt to not use partisan language of any kind. For some the use of partisan terms will be a stumbling block to actually reading what I say, so locked up in various kinds of rhetoric will they be. Political partisanship is a great problem today as many people only ever hear the viewpoints they approve of and feel to be right. There is a general lack of willingness to see that every way of doing things is in some sense a compromise and that other ways are always possible. People get caught up in their own fantasies of personal identity and put this before the actual lives of people with disastrous results. I, however, hope that I am aware enough to recognize the fallibility of all human thinking and the need to have an appropriate humility in all things.

But there is a further point to be made here. Society, that thing which Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s said does not exist, does not operate with equal benefit to all. Structures of power do not favour everyone equally either. There will be winners and losers. And there will be ideology in operation. For some, their ideology will be that there should be winners and losers and this will have consequences for other people. The point I'm trying to make here is that in political, social and cultural contexts we are required to take a stand here and take a stance towards all the other people that are around us. This is what newspaper owners do when they brand unemployed people "scroungers". This is what politicians do when they describe refugees as a "swarm". This is what presidential candidates do when they say they want to build walls along their borders. They are making their personal position in regard to everyone else known.

The two attitudes I want to showcase today, then, are that way of looking at us which regards us as individuals all responsible for ourselves as men and women alone in the world and another way which regards us all as people, members of the same species with far more in common than will ever divide us. For avoidance of doubt and to make clear where I'm coming from I choose the second one. Of course, I do have to choose because in life we all have to choose. And we all do choose, if not in a ballot box then in the regular decisions of our daily lives and in our habitual practice. You cannot be politically neutral. If you refuse to share your beliefs then you act them out every day anyway in every choice that you make. To take part in society is to make choices that affect the lives of others. To go along with a system is to give it the support of your practice.

It was Ayn Rand who said "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask for another man to live for mine". Rand is a poster girl for a politically right of centre individualism which lauds the individual as the basic unit of life itself. You should rely only on yourself and to rely on others is an abdication of this responsibility. You are nothing more than a lazy burden if you need things from other people. This creed is quite powerful and thorough-going in today's world, not least in political circles. There is also a very common political rhetoric which really springs from this kind of original thought. This is the rhetoric which lambasts those without a job, immigrants, the poor, the sick and generally anyone who is, for reasons of their own making or not, economically unproductive. For this mentality if you cannot look after yourself then there is something wrong with you. You fall into a kind of sub-human category and need to reclaim your dignity by looking after yourself. 

Of course, this ideology has problems. Have you ever noticed how all these private individuals with their Ayn Rand beliefs who run companies are more than happy to take government money to help their business or subsidies to provide this and that service? They don't believe in society, especially when it is giving money to other people, but they will happily take any benefits that come their way and use facilities built with public money. But I thought life was all about looking after yourself and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps? Not so, it seems, if the money is being put into THEIR pockets! Of course, in business it was always this way. Business, as we now know, and especially in terms of manufacturing things, began when wealthy people needed the mass of common people to move into towns and cities and work in their factories. This social upheaval from about 1750 onwards changed the way of the world. From the beginning, workers were always exploited and had to fight for their rights. 

Now I don't mean to deny it is very true to say that those on each side of the divide see things their own way. In researching my project yesterday, for example, I came across the following meme:

The first thing I noted about this meme is that it uses a certain rhetoric. The bad guys here are "socialists" and the good guys are "capitalists". Those familiar with political argument will be well aware of these terms. This argument is reduced to a discussion about nice houses. I picked this meme out because I am familiar with pretty much the same point being restated in almost the opposite way. There was a famous football manager in England called Brain Clough (manager of my home town team, incidentally) who was also famously a socialist. He once stated that the difference between the two parties this meme addresses was that the capitalists wanted something nice to keep it for themselves and that the socialist was the one who believed that everyone should be able to have nice things equally. Remarkable how the two positions can be swapped around, isn't it? My own view here is that the meme writer has swallowed his own rhetoric a little bit too much. I've never met a "socialist" who thinks no one should be allowed to live in a nice house. (Clough himself had a very nice house.) But I have seen many who do actually live in nice houses and get criticized for doing so! Often this is by very rich individualists who have a confused understanding of what it is their opponents are meant to believe. But it  is also true that I don't know of many "capitalists" who think that everyone should have a nice, big house. Of course, they believe in this theoretically and they sell things like the so-called "American Dream" as a support of the idea that one day they might. But, as has been said, "Its called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."

Opposed to the individualist view is the community view. This is that view which looks at people all together as the same, members of a common species, having a common dignity and worthy of equal treatment. For people who hold this view a person's worth is not measured in Pounds Sterling, Dollars or Euros. It is measured in a simple human dignity it is believed we all have just by being here. Rather than imagining that any station in life is achieved by you and you alone, this mentality accepts that we are all in some sense related and stand or fall together. Such people would tend to believe that "An injury to one is an injury to all" which is a far cry from the ethics and philosophies of Ayn Rand. Such people might smile to themselves approvingly when hearing the French motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" - Liberty, equality, fraternity.

Of course, the main difference between the two views I'm talking about here would be, from my point of view, that the first takes a "devil take the hindmost" view of life whereas the second thinks that since we are all linked together as inhabitants of the same planet then, in some sense, our fates are linked too. Therefore, we should help our neighbour because, in doing so, we are helping ourselves. The individualist seems in some way scared that by helping others he somehow lessens his own position or disadvantages himself. The community person I describe does not. The individualist sits in his home oblivious to the world outside his front door, hoping that it will not invade his peace. The community person recognizes that for the world inside his house to be ok then the world outside it needs to be somewhat ok as well. The individualist thinks about his advantage, the community person everyone's advantage.

You can see where I am going with this and maybe extrapolate in different ways what this might mean. Where you stand changes the game and each position leads to consequences. I write this blog only to point up this basic difference in outlook. Of course, I'd be the first to admit that its much more complicated than this. No doubt people on many political sides are already calling me all names under the sun and thinking that I have misunderstood them. Well, I wasn't trying to understand them. I was putting forward my view. If you have Twitter you will be finding more of my views on this as I tweet under the hashtag #IndustrialSoundsForThe WorkingClass as part of my current creative project.

We live in a world of the extremely rich who live in gated mansions and the extremely poor who live in boxes or under bridges. This did not happen because it is nature's way or because some principle decreed it must be so. Neither is it the case that things must be this way. It is also true that fairness and equality are not principles that operate all by themselves. They only operate by the actions of human beings, human beings who can also choose to act neither fairly or equally. Similarly, what we value - money, principles, wealth, power or people - are also our choices. And choices always have consequences - and never just for us. The last word here goes to Dr Martin Luther King who criticizes individualist thinking:

The project INDUSTRIAL SOUNDS FOR THE WORKING CLASS will be published in January 2016. Further blogs will follow this one in the lead up to its release.

No comments:

Post a Comment