Will Individualism Survive The Coronavirus?

The current national and global crisis in which we find ourselves has exposed the myth that a society based upon individualism can work, flourish and be sustainable. We can overcome these challenges we face. However, this requires a collective response with inclusive social responsibility at its heart. It will also require a realisation that a generally socialist approach and not a neoliberal approach is necessary. For some, this is going to be very hard to come to terms with, for others it will vindicate the thoughts that they have had for a long time. Indeed, the realisation that self-serving individualism does not work for a fully functioning society speaks to a wider deeper understanding that humans have only ever been successful because we are social creatures that, when we work together, can achieve almost anything.

Selfish individualism has become symptomatic of dominant and prevailing social and cultural narratives and directly links to our neoliberal consumerist society. We inhabit a world where the general narrative or understanding of the world, our society, ourselves and others is read through a now familiar defensive, reactionary approach and understanding, whipped up and fueled by media sensationalism and echo chamber panic – this could be in relation to the EU, immigration and of course now the Coronavirus. However, this is a deeply ideological construction.

This form of understanding society, and oneself within it, have long historical, political, and cultural roots in neoliberalism and our hyper-individualised consumer-based economy. We have become atomised self-reliant consumers detached from a wider sense of communal co-operation and responsibility, one where we have become weened away from the state and the services we need and desire – not to mention responsive government and communal power.

This self-reliant individualism flies in the face of a mythical ‘Blitz Spirit’ – everyone and society pulling together in times of duress and hardship – that Conservatives are so quick to latch-on to. The ‘we’re all in it together’ hypocritical myth exposes the true nature of the contemporary reality of our deconstructed community experience. The heart of vital social and community services have been ripped out by the vicious and self-serving ideologically motivated Tory administrations since 2010 exposing how very much we are not all in it together. Even just in terms of the NHS, we are deeply exposed and unprepared in a very practical sense. In an ideological sense, we are even more unprepared and exposed to deal with a national emergency that requires a collective response.

The cosy nostalgia fetish of the past decade of ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is a cruel fantasy when faced with a trip to the supermarket. Many individually associate with a bucolic nostalgic myth of pulling together under duress – showing some sort of true national character which is so readily celebrated by the press on the Right – yet the reality is that the normalised conditioning and dominance of individualism throughout our society has made us woefully unprepared to effectively and efficiently deal with a national crisis that requires a national response. Crises have been dealt with by creating fictions, and blaming scapegoats. This model cannot work in the current situation. Indeed, it has become very apparent that, in fact, quite the opposite not only works but is necessary.

Rampant individualism does not make for a fully functioning and sustainable society. More so in times of crisis. However, this form of social understanding has become the norm and accepted orthodoxy within our society throughout years of conservative dominance. Some key overarching lessons have been taught in recent history – modern capitalism cannot work or function without huge state support and intervention – however a dominant conservative narrative has repeatedly reinforced an opposing constructed narrative. This current crisis is proving, quite comprehensively, that society can only function along themes of mutual cooperation and collective responsibility which also runs counter to accepted conservative narratives that dominate society. The narrative of state aid and intervention (aka socialism) towards the banking sector (to the tune of hundreds of billions of pounds) in the financial crisis of 2008 was quickly refashioned within dominant conservative narratives. The direct aid and intervention required this time (aka more socialism) cannot be hidden or reimagined regardless of how much spin or refashioning of the narrative is tried. 

Mutual co-operation and collective response is the only real effective and efficient way for the best practical outcome for the general population in all respects. The ideology of me-first-and-screw-everyone-else does not work, in fact it is counter-productive. However, this has become engrained as normality within a society that has been dominated by a conservative ideology. For oneself to flourish in a society you need all of society to flourish. We live in a society where we have a moral and ethical responsibility towards each other. This society will fall apart if we allow individualism to guide our actions and choices. Indeed, we have seen the fraying of the very fabric of society under the Conservatives. Crises magnify society’s failings, but they also show us the best means to solve them.

This crisis will be over, and its impact will be measured in terms of victims – which will hopefully be minimal. However, what is becoming clear is that the pandemic is exposing the myth that has dominated our society for so long: that we can have a fully functioning and sustainable society based upon selfish individualism. Instead, this crisis could serve as a positive moment after which it will be no longer possible or plausible to deny that if we really want to overcome the huge challenges and crises we collectively face as a society and as a planet we must embrace a shared sense of collective responsibility and mutual cooperation.

Stuart Cartland is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Sussex and recently completed his doctoral thesis on ‘Discourses of Englishness in the contemporary era’.

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