individualism

Responding to Collapse, Part 7: A Team Sport

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Published on The Easiest Person to Fool on March 18, 2019

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At the end of my first "Preparing for/Responding to Collapse" post , I said that we'd be considering the following subjects in this series:

  • where you want to be—where bad things are less likely to happen
  • who you want to be with—people you know, trust and can work with
  • what you are doing—something that can support you, and allow you to develop the skills and accumulate the resources you will need

 

I think I've given the first one adequate treatment in the last 5 posts (2 to 6 in this series) so now I'm moving on to the second item—who you want to be with.

So, who do you want to be with? The main thing, I think, is that you want to be with people, rather than being alone—to borrow a phrase from Douglas Rushkoff, being human is a team sport. (Here's a podcast with Rushkoff and Naomi Klein that I found interesting. Of course Rushkoff isn't talking about exactly the same thing as me, but it's still good stuff.)

What I am talking about is this: it is in the nature of human beings, and very much to our benefit, to work together in groups. Such groups act as a force multiplier, achieving more than what you would expect from simply adding up the number of people involved. And that's more both in the sense of 1) achieving the group's common goals and 2) enhancing the individual well being of its members. For most of the time that people have existed, we've lived together in small groups (less than Dunbar's number), made decisions largely by consensus, and allocated resources in a sort of "primitive communism"—from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, if I can be forgiven for quoting Karl Marx.

During the difficult times that lie ahead of us, I think we will need to fall back on this way of living, in order to successfully meet the challenges we face.

But over the last few centuries this sort of thing has gotten a bad name. People have gone from living in small, close knit communities made up of large, extended families to living in isolated nuclear families or as lone individuals, and relating to other people mainly via the formal, money based economy. During the time when this change was happening, the level of affluence in our society continually increased, allowing us to get by just fine more or less on our own. It seems that many people have come to believe that individualism is at least partly responsible for the progress we have experienced, and that our former way of living probably had to be abandoned in order to reap the benefits of that progress.

I would say that such ideas are a long way from reality. So much so that I think we'd better stop here for a closer look at the advantages of living and working together in groups, and follow that up by considering why we have given up on this way of life. Best to be clear on this before going on to the practicalities and pitfalls of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

It's interesting that while today's corporations are intensely capitalistic and competetive, within them people are often organized in teams or crews whose members relate to each other in a very "communistic" way. I'd say that this is a tacit acknowledgement of what actually works best. For much of my career with Hydro One (Ontario's electric transmission and distribution utility) I worked as part of a crew of maintenance electricians. While it is true that there are some jobs that can be done by one person, most of the work we did went much better when done by a small group of people. Once such a crew gets to know each other and the work they are doing, they can organize themselves to do that work more productively and enjoyably than the same number of individuals could do working separately.

Within a crew there is usually a diversity of skills that complement each other, and allow people to focus their efforts on the parts of the job best suited to them. And of course the nature of most work (be it physical or mental) is such that it can be done quicker and more easily if the people doing it help each other.

Teams like this are an excellent learning environment, where you can pick up a great deal from people with more experience or different experience than you. Not just job related learning, but also contributing to your growth as a human being.

Beyond productivity and training, there are many benefits to the members of the crew which are not an intentional part of the situation or necessarily supported by management, but which certainly make for a better work environment— camaraderie, companionship, support (both in times of difficulty, and in growth and accomplishment), and the ability to make the boring parts of the job go quicker with humour, story telling, singing, etc.

As it happened we were also members of a labour union, which did its best to shield us from the worst predations of management. Unions are a pretty clear case of the use of group solidarity in dealing with a situation where the power dynamics would otherwise be completely one sided.

Co-operative efforts of groups of people in organizations like food co-ops and housing co-ops enjoy the benefits of enhanced bargaining power and economies of scale that are not available to nuclear families or single individuals. A group can also provide a safety net for its members in a way that conventional insurance, provided by a company whose main responsibility is to its share holders, can never do.

People working and living together also get to know each other quite well. Because of this the group can effectively discourage its members from shirking their responsibilities and provide them with a strong incentive to contribute to the full extent of their abilities.

And lastly I'll just note that compared to an isolated existence, living in groups with people that care about you and will help when you need it, has considerable psychological benefits.

So, given all these advantages, why have we largely abandoned our extended families and close knit communities?

Certainly, there is some overhead involved in living and working in close knit groups, and you can see why people who have attained a sufficient level of affluence might choose to exercise their independence and strike out on their own.

But the idea that group life is not worth the effort is somewhat of a self fulfilling prophecy. Living as we do these days, with a big emphasis on individualism and little opportunity to practice working in groups or learn it from experience people, we have forgotten many of the interpersonal the skills that make primitive communism work so well. And as long as things are going well there is little incentive to really try to make co-operative efforts succeed. We can do just fine on our own, without the trouble of getting along with others. Those whose lives are the most precarious, for whom individualism really isn't working, have come to simply not trust other people, and would never think of working together for their mutual advantage.

But even allowing for all that, I think we also need to keep in mind that isolated people are a lot easier to control and exploit, and this is very much to the advantage of the people who are running things in our society.

Whenever I see people making choices that clearly run counter to their own best interests, I've found that I only have to look a little further to uncover a great deal of effort that is being expended to make them do so. Effort that is being made by those who do stand to benefit from those poor choices. This is certainly the case practically everywhere in the world today, with most countries ruled by oligarchies who at best give only lip service to democracy, and are not of the people, by the people or for the people.

So, I would like to suggest that what going on here is rather different from the way we are encouraged to perceive it. Maybe, for most people, the growth of individualism was anything but progress. And while it is true that this happened while a lot of progress was happening, you don't want to confuse cause and effect. If you look closely, you can see that much of that progress was basically economic growth, or very closely tied to economic growth, which was largely driven by our switch over to using fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. So I'd say economic growth and the rise of modern capitalism drove the growth of individualism, rather than the other way around.

A excerpt from David Graeber's Debt: the first 5000 years may help clarify:

By the end of World War II, the specter of an imminent working-class uprising that had so haunted the ruling classes of Europe and North America had largely disappeared. This was because class war was suspended by a tacit settlement. To put it crudely: the white working class of North Atlantic countries, from the United States to West Germany were offered a deal. If they agreed to set aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system, then they would be allowed to keep their unions, enjoy a wide variety of social benefits (pensions, vacations, health care…), and, perhaps most important through generously funded and ever-expanding public educational institutions, know that their children had a reasonable chance of leaving the working class entirely. One key element in all this was a tacit guarantee that increases in workers' productivity would be met by increases in wages: a guarantee that held good until the late 1970s. Largely as a result, the period saw both rapidly rising productivity and rapidly increasing incomes, laying the basis for the consumer economy of today.

This was the world into which I was born and grew up. Essentially, "setting aside fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system" amounted to abandoning our communities and extended families, in exchange for individual affluence and economic security. Unfortunately, because of 1) a financial system based on interest bearing debt and 2) a growing population, this world required endless economic growth in order to continue fulfilling its promise. In another reality, where planets have infinite resources, this might have been possible, but not here.

After a few paragraphs about how this relates to Keynsian economics, Graeber goes on to say:

When the Keynsian settlement was finally put into effect, after World War II, it was offered to only a relatively small slice of the world's population. As time went on, more and more people wanted in on the deal. Almost all of the popular movements of the period from 1945 to 1975, even perhaps revolutionary movements, could be seen as demands for political equality that assumed equality was meaningless without some level of economic security. This was true not only of movements by minority groups in North Atlantic countries who had first been left out of the deal… but what were then called "national liberation" movements from Algeria to Chile, which represented certain class fragments in what we now call the Global South, or, finally, and perhaps most dramatically, in the late 1960s and 1970s, feminism. At some point in the '70s, things reached a breaking point. It would appear that capitalism, as a system, simply cannot extend such a deal to everyone. Quite possibly it wouldn't even remain viable if all its workers were free wage laborers; certainly it was never be able to provide everyone in the world the sort of life lived by, say, a 1960s auto worker in Michigan or Turin, with his own house, garage, and children in college—and this was true even before so many of those children began demanding less stultifying lives. The result might be termed a crisis of inclusion. But the late 1970s, the existing order was clearly in a state of collapse, plagued simultaneously by financial chaos, food riots, oil shocks, wide spread doomsday prophecies of the end of growth and ecological crisis—all of which, it turned out, proved to be ways of putting the populace on notice that all deals were off.

I would say that the underlying problem causing this failure of capitalism is economic contraction caused by the reduction in the surplus energy available as we've been forced to tap into ever poorer quality and/or less easily accessible fossil fuels. And sadly this is a problem for all economic and political systems. Indeed, it is a problem without a solution, which is bringing about changes that we will just have to adapt to.

I am not certain if Graber agrees with me that the crises we've faced since the 1970s are quite real, but I do agree with him that those in power have certainly used those crises to "put the populace on notice that all deals are off." He is also quite right that this is a "crisis of inclusion"—as the economy contracts the rich and powerful are not about to be excluded, so a great many other people have had to be, in order for the rich to keep a relatively larger slice of a shrinking pie.

But how, you may ask, does this relate to the problem of diminishing community in our modern society? Well, it seems that all the fixes that are available to the excluded majority involve us being separated from our former support systems (family and community in an informal economy) and striving to perform better as competing individuals in the formal economy.

We are told that to secure a good job we need an education, at least a bachelor's degree. This means (in many countries) taking on a significant amount of debt, so that after you graduate, you'll be desperate to get a job and pay off your student loans. This leaves you very little choice in the job you take and little choice about leaving it if it doesn't suit you.

To get that job it is very likely that you'll have to move a long way from where your family currently lives and set up as a lone individual, in a place where you, at least initially, have no support network.

If you meet the love of your life and decide to live together or actually marry, you will both have to go on working to pay off those student loans and make a start on building a family together.

This is a stressful situation, especially since you don't have any sort of support network and I suspect it contributes to marriage breakup. If you do break up you'll be left as a single mother or a lone individual.

Or perhaps instead of seeking higher education, you could go for a job in the trades. As I said earlier, crews of tradesmen are among the best examples of communistic relationships found in today's world. But in most companies there is a strong push to have people working by themselves whenever possible and to have as little contact with their co-workers as possible, lest they organize a union. Unions are in a desperate situation today, with no effort being spared to break them and leave working people completely at the mercy of management.

All this is very convenient for those who are in power. It is easier to exploit people who are not organized, who see each other as competitors rather than comrades. And in the process you can monetize much work that used to be part of the informal economy and make some additional profit out of it, while keeping people conveniently isolated from each other. I'm not saying this is a conspiracy of any sort, just rich people supporting the kind of politicians who will benefit them the most in the short term, and rest of us taking the path of least resistance through our lives.

Even if you are fortunate enough to have a good, secure job, it is pretty easy to look around and see than many other people find themselves with no support from family or community and working for minimum wage with no benefits in a job where their schedule can be adjusted and their hours reduced arbitrarily and they can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. And if they end up jobless and homeless, there is a definite tendency to put the blame for this onto them, rather than a system which sees workers as liabilities rather than assets.

No wonder many people are starting to express doubts about the current world order. As BAU continues to collapse it will become more and more clear that there must be a better way to live. Many would tell you that things are more likely to break down into chaos and violence but a closer study human behaviour in disasters shows that when there is trouble, people feel a strong urge to work together to help each other pull through.

Well, that was a lot of words expended in support of a proposition that I originally thought was obvious. I do think it was worth it, but now this post is just about as long as it should be. So I'll wrap things up here and continue next time with a look at the pitfalls and practicalities of forming and working together in groups within your new community.

The Disaster Mythology is a subject that keeps coming up on this blog, and to save explaining it again and again in various posts, I've finally created a page about the subject: The Disaster Mythology. Check it out.


Links to the rest of this series of posts, Preparing for (Responding to) Collapse:

 

Coming Soon to a Laptop Near You on Diner YouTube

Just another day on the Farm with FarmGal

 

 

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