This blog is my exploration of collectivity.
I once heard a story concerning the evolution of bacteria. A long, long time ago, bacteria were doing really badly. They were fighting each other for resources and were starting to die out. Luckily they learnt to cooperate, by sharing both information and resources, and so retained their success as a life form. Bacteria engage in both mutual aid and altruism. Although there are free loaders, most bacteria share what they have for the good of the whole community they live in. Given that bacteria are so critical to all other forms of life, thank goodness that they managed to learn how to do this. And now, the story says, at this critical moment in history, where human beings and entire ecosystems are on the verge of dying out, we must learn to do the same thing. If we don’t learn to cooperate, to share information and resources for the good of our ecological communities, things are going to go increasingly badly.
As we’re vastly more complex than bacteria, learning to work cooperatively and collectively is not nearly so simple. It’s not just a matter of sharing information and resources, but of creating systems in which redistribution and equality are able to occur. After thirty years of neoliberalism, after several centuries of imperialism, colonialism and enclosures, after millennia of the divisions set between pampered elites and everybody else, we live atomised lives of individualism and consumerism, unable to produce for our own needs, embedded in intricate hierarchies of power. The question of how to do this is huge. Resources cannot be fully shared when they have been concentrated at the top of the hierarchy. And a proportion of us still have some resources, even if we’re further down the hierarchy and don’t have exorbitant wealth, though we’ve come to believe that what we have actually belongs to us – to hold onto it out of the fear that we won’t have enough, to be mistrustful of putting resources in collective hands where it may be misused.
I’ve said that we need to learn to cooperate, but I recognise that we already do, if only by coercion. I’ve heard it said that it takes one hundred people to produce a humble lead pencil. The networks of cooperation involved in any complex object – an iPhone for example – boggles my mind. What would the world look like without this coercion? Are we able to cooperate in complex networks without the threat of being left destitute if we do not comply? What would we produce? Would the production of complex technology be possible? What do we do if we still want its benefits? Do we automate everything so that no-one has to do alienating or dangerous work any more? And where would the resources and energy for the automation come from?
And what about me? As a child of Thatcherism, neoliberalism is all I’ve ever known. I’m certainly not immune to individualism by any means. I’m nearly forty now and it’s true – you do sell out as you get older, in all sorts of small ways. You get tired, you become resigned. You start to know how little the difference is that you actually make, beneath the weight of the enormity of it all. You start to want some modicum of peace and comfort. It’s always easier to go home, to keep to myself, to shut the door.
We human beings are creatures who have evolved to live in bands of several dozen, yet mostly now live in proximity to hundreds, if not thousands, if not millions of others. The need to collectivise and cooperate must create a bridge between these extremes. It’s small wonder we want to run away and close the door if cooperating means the ongoing intensity of dealing with mass culture and society, of things being in constant flux, of never having your band of people you have built long-term relationships of trust with, and you know that you can count on them, no matter what.
And yet – the best times of my life are the ones where I come together with other people, where I’m part of something bigger than myself, where I have a shared sense of purpose, where I can see the effects of what we’re doing together. These beautiful, creative processes are what keep me alive, keep me sliding off into the despair of the abyss. Though I’m broken by capitalism, neoliberalism and individualism, I’ll still keep trying to collectivise, in different ways, at different times, because I believe that’s how we’re going to make it through.