“As the waterhole gets smaller, the animals get meaner.”
Before he died a few years ago, former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed delivered a speech in which he deplored what he called “the decline of collectivity” in Canada.
“We are becoming increasingly Americanized,” he noted, “and this has imposed an un-Canadian individualism on our ethic.”
This warning came from a prominent Conservative political leader. Considering his long tenure as premier of a province that was, more than any other at the time, being Americanized, his belated concern came as an unexpected shock. Lougheed had never shown any previous sign of being a left-leaning “Red Tory”.
Nevertheless, in this speech he rebuked his party’s then current leaders for so relentlessly pushing the corporate agenda. He was especially alarmed by their promotion of the American-style cult of individualism, which puts personal wants ahead of community needs.
Like many others on the left, I was surprised that Lougheed used the term “collectivity” with such approval. Usually, conservative politicians equate collectivism with socialism or even communism, and the word leaves their lips dripping with scorn.
They are quick to cite both fascist and communist states (Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union being the prime examples) where collectivism was taken to the extreme of completely suppressing individual freedom. In the insect world, they can also point to the regimental conformity of the anthill and the beehive.
Guilty of heresy
The consequences of unrestrained individualism, on the other hand, are not so easily demonstrated. Even when it leads to gross inequality and global financial crises, the conviction that unregulated capitalism is the best possible economic system remains deeply embedded, in Canada almost as much as in the United States.
Any constraint on the freedom of individuals – or, for that matter, of individual corporations – is considered abhorrent, even if such curbs are imposed in the broader public interest. To contend otherwise is to be guilty of heresy.
This glorification of individual liberty, however, is by no means universal. In democratic socialist countries, such as Norway and Sweden, capitalism is not permitted to run rampant. The rights of corporations are firmly restricted and they are commensurately taxed. Income is more equitably shared. Social programs enhance the lives of all citizens – and without limits on individual freedom.
Quite rightly so. After all, weren’t governments originally established to protect and advance collective interests? And wasn’t such an overriding purpose inherently opposed to individualism? Indeed it was, and still is in many countries in Europe.
But elsewhere the corporate, political, academic, and media champions of “individual rights and freedoms” were able to reverse this prime government mandate. They succeeded in converting governments into promoters of private and individual interests.
Regulations that curbed the socially harmful activities of persons and companies have been eliminated or laxly enforced. Social programs that alleviated poverty and unemployment, and thus interfered with the freedom of the markets, were gutted or underfunded. Services and programs that were best provided by governments were privatized.
“The best government,” its corporate and political wreckers proclaimed, “is the least government.”
Boosters of private profit
Governments were thus transformed from guardians of the public good to boosters of private profit; from upholders of social justice to destroyers of the welfare state.
This monstrous economic and social transformation has spawned poverty and inequality on a scale last experienced in medieval times. In these nations now brought under corporate rule, feudal lords once again reign over a modern serfdom, this time under a brutal economic system in which eight multi-billionaires possess more wealth than nearly half the world’s population.
When any of us complain about this horrendous injustice, we are told that, thanks to the triumph of individualism, we are now just as free as our corporate overlords. Like them, we are free to live in mansions, dine and shop at the ritziest restaurants and boutiques, drive Rolls-Royce, Bentley, or Mercedes-Benz automobiles, and spend our winters in posh tropical resorts. And the rich, for their part, are as free as we are to shop at Giant Tiger, dine at McDonald’s, drive Fords or Mazdas, and spend their winters shoveling snow.
The worst outcome of this colossal metamorphosis, by far, is that many people, even if they haven’t willingly embraced individualism, have reluctantly come to believe they have no choice. They have lost trust in our economic, social, and political institutions – or, rather, have had that trust betrayed.
The glue comes unstuck
The glue that holds any society together is faith in its governments, courts, churches, unions and non-profits – faith that these organizations, no matter how flawed, will always be committed to serving the people’s basic needs, to protecting them from the worst effects of poverty, unemployment, and sickness.
That glue comes unstuck when governments put private interests ahead of the public interest; when corporations put the uncontrolled pursuit of profits ahead of the well-being of workers and their communities; when unions are stripped of much of their capacity to help their members.
No wonder, then, that so many people have concluded that they can no longer depend collectively on these institutions, that they are now on their own as individuals, each locked in a struggle for survival with little or no help from any quarter.
Self-protection has always been a powerful motivator, so it is not surprising to see it surging in a society that seems to be reverting to a stark survival-of-the-fittest lifestyle. The reaction of people plunked into this kind of jungle-law environment is sadly predictable. If their employers are outsourcing work and cutting staff, if their governments keep destroying jobs through “free trade” deals and social service cutbacks, if their unions’ rights and ability to represent them have been slashed – in a society so bereft of collective values, a resort to individualism may seem like their only option.
The tendency of many will be to start looking at their co-workers, their neighbours, immigrants – anyone outside their immediate family circle – as rivals for the slim pickings of a ruthlessly competitive culture. Individualism will run rampant. The virtues of co-operation and solidarity will be overwhelmed by a single-minded devotion to self-interest.
The erosion of health care, unemployment insurance, pensions, and other social services spurs this flight to individualism. These public programs are the tangible expressions of our willingness to look after one another’s needs, to pool our contributions to the common good. As underfunding dismantles them, we are being thrown back on our own resources.
It’s not irreversible
This mass adoption of individualism, however, is not irreversible. There is still time to re-educate people and even to re-establish some semblance of true democracy. It starts with exposing individualism as a philosophy that is as fundamentally flawed as it is destructive.
It rests on the spurious notion that, if each business firm and each person is left free to pursue individual advantage, the “market” will somehow ensure that the overall consequence will benefit everyone. In fact, as we have seen, the result of this “trickle-down” theory is the precise opposite. Only the strongest, the smartest, the luckiest, and the most ruthless prosper – at the expense of those less gifted, less lucky, and less unscrupulous.
Curbing and humanizing individual enterprise, whether personal or corporate, doesn’t mean we have to behave like Hitler or Mussolini, or like the ants or the bees. It does mean, however, that some limits, some regulations, some basic community standards have to be in place to preserve collective rights and meet collective needs.
Otherwise we fall back into the worst kind of early industrial society, brutalized as it was by vast income disparities, masses of poor and jobless, urban slums, and high levels of crime and social unrest. It was a period of desperation and decay that, unfortunately, seems to be in the process of recurring today in many countries where the cult of individualism holds sway in boardrooms and legislatures.
Surely, if a committed conservative like Peter Lougheed could have had that insight, it is not beyond the comprehension of most Canadians.
Note: This op-ed is an adaptation of one originally published in 2008 by the same author in Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives publication The Monitor.
Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.