To receive and to communicate assistance, constitutes the happiness of human life: man may indeed preserve his existence in solitude, but can enjoy it only in society: the greatest understanding of an individual doomed to procure food and clothing for himself, will barely supply him with expedients to keep off death from day to day; but as one of a large community performing only his share of the common business, he gains leisure for intellectual pleasures, and enjoys the happiness of reason and reflection.
(Samuel Johnson; The Adventurer No. 67, Tuesday, 26 June 1753)
It’s a feature of the times and places we live in that the gap between is and ought-to-be is becoming more visible while growing wider; as many people engaged in many activities, from all points in the space of political outlook, continue to work at filling in this gap — or at least to spread awareness of alternatives. The value of common action, and particularly the gap between working together and simply being an isolated individual in an anonymous economic system, goes at least as far back as Dr. Johnson’s time, which was a period during which traditional ways of living were changing quickly.
We now live in a time when the trajectories barely sketched out in Johnson’s lifetime have reached some kind of culmination, although there’s no way of knowing how much further they will be carried by their momentum. But the observations that Johnson makes are no less true now than they were then; only more obscured and hard to talk about. They have become like an occult knowledge bubbling under the surface. It’s starting to become a commonplace (in uncommon places) that the real key to successful social organization and the creation of alternatives will be collective projects that harness much of the energy which is currently wasted. Only no one really knows how to make this happen, so these wishes for better forms of social organization remain just that: wishes. (As a former colleague was fond of saying, hope is not a plan.)
A good recent overview of some of the ferment happening in the world of ‘re-commonization’ is in this article by David Bollier. The historical narrative he presents is one that is starting to filter back into the conscious mind of the culture, and it’s interesting to see that the past years of a somewhat ahistorical future orientation to social change are fading into a new awareness of the paths by which we got to where we are and the forces that moved us along those and not other paths. The works that Bollier points to by Raj Patel, Lewis Hyde, and others take care to present the history of ‘de-commonization’ as the subterranean history of the rise and triumph of capitalism — as its side effects or collateral damage. But are we to work at restoring what has been lost? Or to work at creating counterforces that will inevitably do that work for us? The former looks difficult but possible; the latter daunting beyond all imagining.
Increasingly, or so it seems to me, the search for alternatives of any kind is becoming more appealing to people whose allegiance to the way things are is strong as long as things are working well for them. As more systems pass the threshold into counterproductivity and begin to produce more ill than good effects while somehow still retaining their manic vitality, we might expect more people to step away from isolation and extreme individualism and into… what, exactly?
None of us has any idea how to answer that question. The best we can do is construct new and better systems within which the answers will emerge. And for every system we devise which generates progress and increases social cross-fertilization and cooperation, we’re likely to create a few which just lie there and do nothing useful. Our fear of failure, of wasted time and effort, causes us to fear this outcome more than just about anything; but we have to push through the fear and frustration, through the feelings of blockage and futility, redirecting our efforts where that seems right and doubling down when that seems right.
The far-off goal is for everyone to have some part in the collective creation of a community that consists of innumerable networks, some official and recognizable and others which serve a very particular purpose for a small number of participants. These networks — or their proto-networks — are out there now, arising out of people’s needs and their willingness to sacrifice individual initiative to the convenience (or inconvenience) of depending on others with their added labour and insight (and conflicting needs and desires). As a society we’ve gotten ourselves into a place where the benefits of individualism and the costs of collectivism are presented as higher than they really are. The costs are buried and not to be spoken of.
Like many people, I’m often frustrated by the slowness of social change. It feels as though we are moving into a time of almost perpetual crisis, in which the only way to insulate ourselves from feelings of fragility and threat is to tune out, to retreat further into the isolation which is the leading symptom of the malaise. There’s no real way of knowing, but I can’t help but think that this withdrawal can only worsen, at least among some segments of the population, over the next few months or years. Its costs will be an impoverishment of the human potential that we’ll have at our disposal and more drag on our efforts to get things done, at least to the extent that those things entail popular support. It might be hard to accept this as a natural response, but a society in denial can only expect that denial is one of the few tools in the general arsenal. (We can always deny that we’re in denial.)
Meanwhile, let’s hope, a part of every community will find ways to go from wishing we could organize and get more done together to finding more effective ways to make it happen, to reward individual effort while keeping it under some kind of collective oversight so that the interests of the whole network are always represented. For people raised in a culture where walking away is always an option, this will take real conscious effort and the kind of humility that doesn’t always come easily to people who were promised everything. There is little science to this, but a great deal of art. The exciting part is that it continues to be uncharted (unchartable?) territory; traditional societies have had to nurture and appreciate these skills, and it’s a hopeful sign that we are now starting to value them and talk about them. How we can weave them into our daily lives remains to be seen, but it’s the great work of our time.
The last words go to David Bollier:
I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. Tragically, the expansion of centralized political and economic structures tends to eclipse our need for gifts and duties. We rely on money or the state for everything. And so we forget what Ivan Illich called the “vernacular domain” — the spaces in our everyday life in which we create and shape and negotiate our sense of how things should be: the commons.