Covid-19 Is Laying Bare the Fantasy of Individualism

Photo by Branimir Balogović on Unsplash

For much of the past forty years we have lived in a society that has doubted its own existence. Thatcher made it clear: There is no society, only a collection of atomized individuals seeking prosperity for themselves and their families. This individualistic worldview reached its zenith in the 1980s with the introduction of a radical politics of neoliberalism and the free-market economy. Once a fringe movement championed by a small minority on the right, this economic system has since become normalized to the extent that it now goes mostly unquestioned. There is no other way, we are told, even if the idea that markets should dictate human lives has only been around for a fraction of the time that we as a species have organized ourselves together on this earth. In order to stimulate endless growth, we are encouraged to foster that side of ourselves that is greedy and self-centred. We are told that our neighbours are our competitors, that collective effort is useless, that public services should be drained and privatized and that labour movements should be dismantled. We are encouraged to cultivate an insatiable and psychologically damaging appetite for material wealth and status, and we are told that once these ephemeral goals have been achieved, happiness and success will be our lot.

This worldview has been marketed so well that it comes to appear quite normal. It is not normal. Anyone who has suffered from economic hardship or psychological alienation knows full-well just how abnormal it is. The human species could never have reached the technological, scientific or cultural heights of today if our earliest ancestors had decided to wander aimlessly away from the tribe and try their luck on their own. Far from being innate, this belief that the self comes before the collective is a product of two contemptable attitudes all too common in the modernized West; arrogance and ignorance. Arrogance – in believing that the material comforts we enjoy today are the products our own individual efforts. And ignorance – of the innumerable women and men throughout history whose toil and labour helped construct the foundations of the society in which we live. Their names have been forgotten, but the residue of their thankless efforts permeates our comfortable, denaturalized lives.

Some will quite rightly argue that human beings have always placed a high value on the individual. The moral philosophy of Individualism goes back to the ancient worship of anthropomorphic deities, the need to believe that a single being can change all our fortunes for the better. It is easier to admire the hero, after all, to aspire to be the lone figure who dares to change history single-handedly. It is harder, however, to contemplate the forgotten efforts of the many, to consider all those nameless lives upon whose backs the great historical leaders stood.

Indeed, most of us already know that individualism is a lie. It is a fantasy, created in order to consolidate power amongst those at the top who benefit from seeing a populace too distracted competing with itself to address the real structural inadequacies of the system it inhabits. Individualism is the philosophy of the ego, and like the ego it only scratches the surface of the human psyche and its capabilities. Below, deep in the unconscious networks of our social and bodily systems, below the shallow characteristics of self-satisfaction and greed, there are those greater, more complex urges to co-operate and to belong. The denial of such basic needs is a key contributor to today’s mental health epidemic. Many of us feel isolated, socially anxious, alienated from our own bodies, desperately unsatisfied with ourselves and our place in the world. The myth that we are in this alone is as damaging as it is unfounded. It has alienated us from the one thing we need most to succeed – each other.

It has only been a few weeks since Covid-19 switched from being a foreign affair, the worst effects of which were a worrying spike in far-orientalist xenophobia, to now being the biggest global crisis of our lives. The worldwide economy has shut down in a way no recession ever achieved. Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has introduced what is, without doubt, the most socialist policy the United Kingdom has ever seen, promising to pay 80% of wages for those out of work due to the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, the 24-hour rolling news channels have begun to discuss something never before heard in our lifetimes – the possible collapse of Capitalism itself. Just like that, those social and economic structures we were told were indestructible appear weak. The rich are holed up in their mansions, faced with a problem that money cannot solve. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, any notion that we could ever exist alone, for ourselves and by ourselves, sounds like an historical memory applicable to some distant epoch.

It is fascinating that, in such a crisis, the widespread political consensus has been to move towards the introduction of socialist policies which, only a few months ago, were dismissed at the ballot box as being extremist. The fact that, in a time of absolute crisis, we choose to abandon the free-market and accept, however temporarily, collectivist economic measures rings almost as an endorsement. In recent years, nationalization of industry and governmental responsibility to workers have been pooh-poohed as unthinkable, radical ideas. Imagine a year ago suggesting that the Tories would cover the incomes of those being made redundant by collapsing businesses? And yet, just like that, here we are.

The inherent truth, actually blindingly obvious, is that Capitalism is itself anything but self-reliant, anything but individualist in the way we are supposed to be. It is a precarious and interconnected web, reliant on a balancing act to ensure that the whole system remains stable. We have seen that as soon as one pillar folds the integrity of the whole structure is weakened. One too many industries fail – the airlines, the hospitality sector, retail – and all of a sudden, the entire economy is at risk of collapsing, with effects resonating across all of our lives. The idea that failure is a cross we bear alone now shows itself to be ludicrous.  All of our fates are inherently, unavoidably tied together in a single mesh.

And yet, this pestilential crisis we are facing is really nothing particularly new. It is only our historical amnesia that makes us conceive of this situation as anything but inevitable. Since the dawn of time the human species has faced innumerable diseases that have threatened our existence on this planet. The only novelty in today’s situation is our arrogance in assuming that we had left such primitive concerns as disease behind. It has only taken one new outbreak – one that is neither unprecedented nor particularly alien to us – to force us to acknowledge the limits of so-called civilisation and progress. We have not overcome nature, we have not left behind the struggle for survival, and the systems that seemed indestructible are in fact incredibly precarious once their foundations have been lightly shaken. No, this not a new situation; we have always faced disease, and we have always had to seek out the materials we need in order to survive. The difference is that now we have come to take those materials for granted. Our instincts have been blunted by modernity, and that is why all this has come as such a shock. The only thing new is the false belief that we were somehow beyond all of this.

For the past ten years it has felt as though some cataclysmic shift was coming. Some said it could be Brexit, others pointed to the presidential election of Donald Trump. Though undoubtedly seismic, these were both national affairs, too localised to have any significant impact on the human race as a whole. Even the 2008 Financial Crash, despite its global shockwaves, only seemed to reinforce the belief that those at the top were too big to fall. No, the crisis could never come from politics nor economics, because both of these are nothing but the games us humans play with each other. The real crisis had to come from something outside of humanity. It had to remind us that we are not infallible, that we are in fact very vulnerable. Climate change seemed like the obvious threat. But its effects were too gradual; it was too easy for the powers that be to shrug it off because it made no tangible changes to our daily lives. Instead, something quick had to happen, something that took us all by surprise and shook us out of our comfortable modern existences. That something was the coronavirus.

So what does this tell us, if anything? How are we to make sense of the collapsing businesses and the buckling healthcare system, so stripped in recent years that it is now unequipped and unprepared for all that lies ahead? How do we understand the sudden food shortages induced by the panicked rush to stock up on tinned tomatoes and toilet rolls? It is hard to say anything for certain at this stage, but one thing does seem clear; that the philosophy of Individualism which our society has centred around for the past forty years is false. No doubt, there are elements of greed in our nature, evidenced in the needless hoarding of key supplies by some at the expense of others. But what makes this situation different is the growing realisation that this crisis cannot be overcome unless everyone, collectively, does the right thing. We are not outside the laws of cause and effect after all; our actions do have repercussions on people around us, on our communities, on those we have never even met. Until there is a cure for Covid-19, the only way to contain its spread is through a conjoined, mobilised effort and a resistance of selfish panic. We are no longer atomized individuals. We are all component parts in a bigger organism called society. And far from making us irrelevant, this only means that our actions have even greater consequences than we previously imagined.

Individualism loves a hero, but what hero can step in to solve this? No one person can single-handedly halt the spread of a virus. In the blink of an eye, the people upon which our society places most value have shown themselves to be basically useless. Their high status is tied up with the fantasy that is life under Capitalism. Suddenly the people we thought were important (at least in terms of the economic value we place on them) are nowhere to be seen. Where are the business leaders, the Instagram influencers, the pop stars, the sports men and women? What impact can their woeful renditions of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ have in this very real-world crisis? They shelter in their homes just like the rest of us, their ability to change the situation as small and seemingly insignificant as our own. The real heroes now are those whom Capitalism placed on the lowest rungs. These are the supermarket workers, the child and social carers, the binmen, the NHS workers at all levels, from the highest-paid clinicians to the lowest-paid cleaning staff. None of these people can afford to stay at home, and all of us are dependent on them continuing to do their jobs in increasingly frightening conditions. The very people who have been repeatedly overlooked by the financiers and the politicians are now showing us just how indispensable they really are. There is no single hero in all of this mess – there are many.

It is rather difficult to believe in anything optimistic right now. These are without doubt the strangest, scariest and most uncertain times any of us have ever known. Nobody can say how long this will go on for, and nobody knows how many people are going to die, either directly or indirectly from this virus. Nobody knows how many people will lose their livelihoods, and nobody knows where all the money the government is introducing to bail out the economy is coming from. But there is one thing that we can say, one thing that is abundantly, inescapably clear in all of this mess: We human beings need each other to succeed and to survive. The past few decades have been a carnival of prosperity, a fantasy where we were led to believe that we could have everything we wanted without sharing it. Now, in the midst of a global pandemic, as things are only going to get worse for the NHS and those putting themselves on the frontlines to keep it afloat, the individualist’s mindset shows itself to be totally useless. We need each other’s help, we always did need each other’s help, and goodness knows we always will.

I sincerely hope that what we are seeing right now is a paradigm shift – a change in how we are taught to treat each other and in how we are taught to view the roles each of us have to play within the wider community. Perhaps this is the crisis that we have been needing, something that shows us how individualist greed and selfishness are not unavoidable human characteristics, but are inevitable products of a generation riding a wave of its own arrogance. Perhaps this is the moment when that wave comes crashing down, and we are forced to recognise that, despite all the progress we have apparently made, we have not actually come very far at all. We are still herd animals, huddling together for warmth in a world that constantly presents us with new obstacles in our struggle to survive. In the aftermath of all this, in the chaos and tragedy that is likely to come, perhaps we might return to a state where we value empathy over competition, where humanity is placed on a higher rung than the cold logic of quantitative wealth. Perhaps this is the moment when us atomized individuals come crashing back together with force, giving birth to a new system in which people are measured not for their wealth or fame or assets, but for the unglamorous, unspectacular efforts they make on a daily basis to improve the lives of their fellow human beings, and the world around them. At this stage, we can only hope.

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