Covid-19 crisis and the ideology of individualism

By Dan O’Rourke

Before the pandemic, it would have been difficult for many to imagine neo-liberal and right-wing governments nationalising failing industries, freezing rents, and the partial (and temporary) lifting of austerity. Before the pandemic, essential workers were “unskilled”. Before the pandemic, we were told by capitalist commentators that it was common sense that people are individualistic and selfish, thus justifying the greed and profiteering of the bosses and super-rich. We were not “all in it together” before the pandemic.

Like a storm unearthing a gem from the mud, collective hardship has revealed the international solidarity that exists amongst the working class. The sheer scale of our good will and collaboration has been a massive force in fighting the pandemic and giving people a new sense of hope.

Take for example the Debenhams workers who were left high and dry by their employer who decided to up sticks in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, leaving the workers to organise together to fight for their jobs or a decent redundancy. Their struggle is ongoing, but notwithstanding their own position, the workers have set up a GoFundMe page for their colleagues in Bangladesh who were also shafted by Debenhams, but are in a much worse position regarding unemployment benefits. 

It is now clear that our individual health is dependent on collective cooperation. No one is an island, especially during a pandemic. All the same, we should guard this sense of solidarity against people who try to claim it and abuse it. Cynical politicians and businesses have used the idea of solidarity as an opportunity to consolidate their wealth and power as the world is being upended. During the last major capitalist crisis, the idea of “national solidarity”, i.e. solidarity between different classes in society, was used as an argument to implement austerity in the interests of the super-rich and the banks. It has also been used to justify capitalist wars for power and profit. 

A changing world 

It’s not the first time the ‘natural order’ and its supporting ideology has been undermined. Forcing women to give birth against their will; criminalisation of homosexuality; the supremacy of the Church; the divine right of the monarchy to rule; even slavery at one point; all were immovable objects that have been overturned through the struggles of working people and the oppressed.

Although they were not voted or debated out of existence, each of these rotten regimes were propped up with their own ideological crutch. From white supremacy, to “original sin”, ideas are used as justifications and excuses by the ruling class to justify the oppression and exploitation which their systems are built on.

Today, the bogus philosophy of individualism is the weapon (not to be confused with individuality, which is necessary for human development). Individualism says that humans are inherently lazy, greedy and selfish and incapable of solidarity and cooperation. This idea is used as justification for the dominance of capitalism and to discredit the argument that a socialist alternative is possible. Even while selfless healthcare workers die from lack of PPE, the anarchy of the free market reigns supreme and powerful states are forced to bargain with price gougers for vital equipment.

Neo-liberal economics and human nature

In the 1980s, Thatcher and Reagan introduced neo-liberal measures that demolished the living standards of working-class people. Workers’ conditions and collective bargaining was attacked and state-owned industries that had been built up with public finances and millions of hours of labour were sold off for next to nothing. 

All over the world, the IMF and the World Bank enforced neo-liberal policies on developing nations that destroyed social welfare programmes. The approach is summed up in this quote from Thatcher:

“Whether manufactured by black, white, brown or yellow hands, a widget remains a widget – and it will be bought anywhere if the price and quality are right. The market is a more powerful and more reliable liberating force than government can ever be.”

This philosophy was reflected in the media as the glory and power of the individual was demonstrated through movies, music and television. “Greed is good!” was a political, cultural, and social mantra repeated until it became concrete. Selfishness, combined with the power of the free market, would provide for all. These ideas did not exist in the abstract, they were a cudgel used to promote the unfettered profiteering of big business and bankers at our expense.

Changing the status quo

Bogus science and logic is still used to enforce this world view, despite the fact that research and recent events shows that human nature has a tendency towards cooperation. All over the world, mutual aid groups have organically sprung up. Workers are organising to ensure workplaces are safe. Under-paid healthcare workers are making massive sacrifices to keep society from crumbling. Even a real life ‘Lord of the Flies’ has come to light in an article published in The Guardian, with starkly opposite outcomes to the nihilistic and brutal version of the fictional story.

We have a contradiction where politicians, who once favoured the idea of harsh individualism over collective solidarity, are touting the idea of being ‘all in it together’. And what’s more, expecting workers to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep the economy going while ironically scapegoating the population for the establishment’s failure to contain the outbreak. We are not all in the same proverbial boat, there is a conflict of interest between those who own and control the wealth of society and the majority of working people.

Need for socialist change 

One thing that remains constant is the fact that it is the working class who kept people fed and healthy before and during the pandemic. It is the working class who will continue to provide for society. It is the capitalist class whose inherent greed and drive for profit is destroying our planet, creating wars and fostering divisions.

Their rule must be overthrown and replaced with a democratic, socialist society, in which wealth is publicly owned and democratically controlled and planned in the interests of all. On this basis, we can create a society worthy of the name humanity, based on solidarity and cooperation.