In an individualistic society such as ours, it can be challenging for people to imagine collective solutions to social problems. Whether the crisis is climate breakdown or coronavirus, most people can’t help but conceive of the necessary response in individualised terms.
The common sense of our consumer culture tells us ‘saving the planet’ is an individual choice, which requires people to recycle, give up plastic straws and make other ‘ethical’ consumption decisions. Meanwhile, the chorus of voices condemning the ‘idiocy’ of members of the British public visiting the beach on the bank holiday was deafening.
Individual responsibility has become the mantra of neoliberal capitalism: if there’s a problem with your life, with society, or with the planet, it’s up to you to fix it. And if you can’t fix it, it’s probably the fault of an individual somewhere else: a bad colleague, a bad boss, or a bad politician.
But more often than not, the challenges we face as a society are structural – they result from the interaction between our individual behaviour and the political, economic and social systems that structure our lives.
Even if everyone in the UK suddenly started recycling tomorrow (no small task given the complex array of recycling practices across different local authorities), climate breakdown would continue for as long as big polluters continued to extract and burn fossil fuels. Similarly, even if everyone in the UK knew what the lockdown rules were (the government’s confused messaging has ensured that many do not), our death toll would likely still be high given the delayed implementation of lockdown, the absence of testing and the failure to provide PPE to frontline staff.
To those who view the world as an assortment of atomised individuals, these arguments often sound jarring. Many people think of themselves as responsible citizens who are ‘doing their bit,’ and sincerely believe that if everyone else followed the rules and did the right thing, most of society’s problems would vanish. If others fail to live up to these standards, rather than considering the systemic issues that led to the problem in the first place, they react with moral outrage.
The results of our individualised disposition are often counterintuitive. Any uninformed observer who arrived in the UK today could be forgiven for thinking that Dominic Cummings caused the coronavirus pandemic himself, such is the level of public outrage directed against one man. Cummings’ actions were obviously unconscionable, but he is only one small part of a much larger problem: a government that has failed to protect its citizens from the worst pandemic in a century.
Rather than considering the structural factors that might lead a Conservative government to react less quickly and less decisively to a crisis that requires substantial state intervention, people would rather find an individual who has done the ‘wrong thing’ and blame them for all the country’s woes.
From climate breakdown, to coronavirus, to Cummings, the context differs, but the pattern is the same: anger and confusion about decisions that we feel we cannot affect and do not understand is channelled towards another individual (or group of individuals), who come to act as the repository for our rage against a fundamentally unjust system. Jeremy Corbyn asked the nation to consider that climate breakdown, mounting inequality and escalating poverty might be the result of systemic factors rather than individual failings. But then he became the target of individualised hate campaigns himself.
How are we supposed to challenge this thinking? The only way to fight back against individualism is to experience life as part of a collective. Engaging in collective struggle – whether in the labour movement, social movements, or even the mutual aid groups that have sprung up around the country over the course of the pandemic – allows us to develop a healthy sense of the balance between our individual and group identities.
Collective struggle was the pillar that was missing from Corbynism. When Corbyn became Labour leader, the UK’s progressive forces had been weakened by decades of neoliberalism. As a result, many socialists allowed ourselves to believe – to a greater or lesser extent – that all of society’s problems could be solved by one man.
As we move into the post-Corbyn era, we must root our hope for the future not in the abilities of a uniquely talented leader, but in the solidarity we derive from the experience fighting alongside one another for a better world. Only through class struggle will we learn that there are no individual solutions to collective problems, and no shortcuts to socialism.