Part of the onslaught of post-World War Two western capitalism has been the privatisation of the individual. By the 1980’s, consumerism, managerialism, post-modernism in academia and neoliberalism in politics and economics provided a three-dimensional onslaught against notions of collectivism and community. In the United Kingdom, the Great Miners Strike of 1984-5 provides a useful historical fulcrum as the point of the turn of society away from commonality and shared welfare. Prime Minister Thatcher’s declaration summed-up the ideological assault: “there is no such thing as society”.
The People of the UK were the subject of a test-tube experiment for a specific model of neoliberalism. Whilst in Germany, the Berlin Wall was to fall and the consequent reunification required continued State investment in health and welfare, and in France the expectation of State-funded infrastructure stayed strong, In the UK the demolition of the Welfare Principle was the order of the day and the far-Right dogma of “small State” fast-tracked privatisation.
Privatisation not only of all utilities, transport, housing, social care for the elderly and drip-by-drip marketisation of the National Health Service, but privatisation also of the People. The State may still help “hard-working people” but would give no succour to the “underserving poor” or self-abusing sick, now to be vilified by a fearful population. You are now alone, your welfare and destiny completely down to you.
You may have had the luck to buy a house but in your old age would have to sell it again to fund your care. You may have worked all your life but would be stuck in your house, isolated and alone through your final years unless you had paid heaviy towards a private pension – the State Pension would become the lowest (by far) in Europe.
Little wonder that mental ill-health increased and society became defensive, wary of others and deeply competitive for scarce resources. Of course, we sought the natural experience of joining because humans are gregarious by nature. The clan of the football match would unite for 2 hours and then disperse. The music festival would allow for a manic celebration of being together “en-masse” but as a testy and wicked exception to the rule of privacy and reserve. The rapidly expanding gap between rich and poor would ensure a deeply polarised social life with no chance of shared community.
Today we are certainly not “all in this together”. One significant outcome of this has been the fragmentation of ways of seeing. History, politics and philosophy heavily censored inside the school curriculum and segregated to ensure no holistic understanding. Consequently, people have become more self-reliant upon how they interpret the world around them. This apparent freeing-up of thinking belies the reality of deepening confusion and anomie, or in Marxist terms, Alienation. We are less in touch with or coherent about our relationship to the natural world, the people around us, and our inner selves.
A meeting last night highlighted this for me. The guest speaker offered a method for understanding why the climate emergency is happening, from a perspective of historical materialism: to understand the human world today we have to understand the history of how we got here. The audience of 25 had, almost to a person, a seperate and individual interpretation of human history. Each had a different idea of both the cause and the solution.
One person felt passionately that only when each individual reattuned to Nature in the heart could we solve the climate crisis. Another blamed the Abrahamic religious books that had falsely interpreted human being’s relationship with Nature fo the past 5,000 years. Someone else was certain that the crisis would end-up with totalitarian autocracy controlling all humanity, and yet another suggested that people with Autistic Spectrum Conditions were most likely to be right-wing individualists ready to undermine any collective response to the Climate Emergency. (I must add that these description are each a shallow summary of the more complex statements they offered, each too long to give full credit to here).
My observation was that we were mostly wallowing around struggling to make some sense of our current society. Our privatisation, the individualist doctrine of the Age, had led us to fester in our own living spaces behind closed doors, making-up patterns of thinking devoid of much debate or scrutiny. Indeed, the meeting was stultified in terms of open and confident debate and shared discourse. We’ve lost the confidence to argue as well as to listen openly and be ready to think again. This is not a criticism of the people in the room but an example of how detached from one-another the prevailing ideology of individualism has made us.
I was reminded of the Practice Nurse who I had chatted with in my doctor’s surgery. I was in for an innoculation, it being the chest infection time of year. She prepared the needle whilst arguing against all forms of immunisation, not only on the basis that the ingredient lubricant, aluminium, would cause me to have Alzheimers in later life, but that vaccines were part of a corporate conspiracy to control the population.
This was not the first debate we had enjoyed over the years, knowing each other of old as politically vocal. She had long-ago declared herself a Flat-Earth protagonist and we had oft-debated whether the moon landings were real, humans beings controlled by a lizard-race, or whether the NHS was of benefit or a curse upon the working class.
Me, a Marxist, she a right-wing libertarian, would find little to agree upon. As the needle pierced my skin, she injected the fluid of the “Night-Watchmen State” she despised, but felt no pang of hypocrisy in earning her pay from the taxes she deplored. We all have to earn a living. Because the human mind is so complex it is quite possible to think anything you like. There is always a battle of ideas in any human society.
By the end of last night’s meeting my head was in a spin about how we can ever unite such dislocated minds back together sufficiently to act in unity to prevent our own extinction. Thatcher’s anti-social Post-Modernism, originally Althussar’s concocted thesis against Marxism, has done it’s job. We only have individual narrative from which to live. The collective experience is irrelevant. And in their wise revolt against the oppression of closed Party ideologies and dogma, individuals have shredded any shared method for interpreting the world around them.
In the climate debates I remain amazed at how many people feel earthly salvation an impossibility to the point of resignation to the End of Humankind, the Will of the Universe or their chosen God, and their private descent into small worlds of close horizons and numbing palliatives. The privatisation of the individual under neoliberal Capitalism has demanded we despise ourselves.
I reject such hopelessness as both unnecessary and uninformed. As I said on the night, all 24 of us in the room were keen enough to seek understanding of the world around us, so why should we, for one moment, think that the rest of humanity isn’t. All human beings think, question, wonder and seek answers. We talked as mass revolts continue across the world: Chile, Catalonia, Porto Prince, the Lebanon, Iraq, Hong Kong. And seven million people had taken action to protest the inaction of the climate emergency throughout the last month. We can unite and fight with common cause.
We have to reconnect. We have to rebuild community and commonality. There is more that unites than divides despite our tendency to make-up an infinite variety of interpretations of the reality we experience. In the end we live in one world, divided by a ruling ideology that demands we see human nature as competitive, avaricious, violent and individualistic. But that’s just how those who choose to live like that have raised us to think. We are not all Earth-killers, those who are just want us to think we are. As Karl Marx wrote, the ruling ideas of any society are the ideas of the ruling class. It stands to reason.