On selfishness and mutuality

Supermarket shelves are depressingly stripped. People have (in some instances violently) clamoured to stockpile toilet paper. It is increasingly difficult to find any kind of soap or painkiller. Pasta and rice has disappeared. And – today, at least – the aisle of canned goods was utterly depleted and not a single carton of eggs was left in store.

None of this is caused by COVID-19, of course. The virus doesn’t use toilet paper and has no appetite for eggs. As far as can be told, after some brief interruptions, supply chains are still delivering goods to retail outlets (although the profit-preserving ideology of Lean – particularly the whole notion of just-in-time – may yet serve to undermine this).

Whilst the scientists discuss herd immunity, we seem to be confronted with a herd mentality: others are buying up the toilet paper, so everyone goes hunting out fresh stocks of toilet paper.

Underpinning this, though, is an aggressive model of individualism. This, to my mind, is not a human essence, something intrinsic to personhood. It is, instead, a perspective that resides in some key ways of thinking and social practices, none of which are natural and all of which have been absorbed and are now enacted by all of us.

It flows from the Enlightenment but has been distorted by late capitalism’s need to ensure we actively embrace our roles as consumers. It is a prop in the overbearing ideology of neoliberalism in which we find ourselves enmeshed, where the individual is utterly sovereign only insofar as this person can be sold things (whether they be physical commodities or political ideologies).

This individual is the one that assumes that it can aggressively grab goods from the shelves notwithstanding the impact on their fellow human beings. It is the “I” that constantly asserts itself, in terms of demanding that the world accommodates to it; it is the “I” that aggressively engages with others through social media, going from charming exchange to mindless brutality in the space of 140 characters.

This, of course, is not the only way in which human beings can be. We can choose to collaborate, to work to one another’s mutual benefit. It takes a crisis like this to remind us that capitalism cannot truly meet all of our needs as human beings. Indeed, at the slightest nudge, the system folds in on itself, both practically and in terms of the discourse that is vital to sustain it.

In an instant, as the shelves clear and the naked self-interest that has been encouraged in all of us runs riot, it is so apparent that the system is fragile, not least because it does not do what it says it can do – meet all our needs at all times. Instead, we need to get back in contact with the sociability and capacity to collaborate that is a potential in each and every one of us.

That doesn’t need to be a grand political gesture or subscription to a detailed programme: it can be a simple thing like taking time to talk to a stranger in the course of the day; to offer support to someone, as a matter of course and not simply because they look as though they need it (although we need to attend to those among us who need support, especially at a time like this); and to connect with the idea of neighbourhood – in contrast to the slightly more nebulous notion of community – in order to link up with those who live in close proximity with us, the better to offer mutual aid.

And, lastly, it requires us to shop normally and with others in mind, to pick up only what we need. If we prove unable to do this, then a minarchist perspective might serve us well, although it carries with it a shameful abrogation of our individual human responsibilities: the government will need to act collectively for us by introducing rationing, not least to protect the elderly woman with whom I passed the time of day in the store today, who does not have the resources to fight for herself like a character out of an Ayn Rand novel.


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