My last rant about individualism was about systemic problems being framed as “personal responsibility” (usually of the affected themselves, sometimes in the form of charity directed at individuals), which leads to various problems, like perpetuating or creating new TotC’s, putting the burden on the shoulders of the poor, disabled etc. who are least likely to have the resources to act, and so on.
This time, I want to make a sort of reversed rant: that placing responsibility for change on an amorphous “them” doesn’t help either.
I see and hear this all the time, usually in the form of “well yes, it’s a big problem. I really wish [insert name of public agency here] would do something about it! oh, well, what can you do.” Which is a way of allowing oneself to do nothing at all, ever. But it just doesn’t quite work like that, since a government/public agency can’t do shit by itself. It’s not a living, cognate thing with its own will, it’s a tool to be used by people. It’s very specifically a tool to deal with those problems that can only be addressed at a system-wide level, but in the end, it can and will only do whatever the people that engage in it/use it are telling it to do. And if you aren’t using and maintaining it, it will either rot away, or be used by others in ways you might not like.
I’m thinking part of the problem is with the idea that the people in government are “leaders”. Except in the very short-term and especially emergency situations, they usually aren’t. I suspect the naming was historically more accurate, but on most issues a government and its agencies are usually more conservative and inert than the society in which it resides*, which means that people always need to drag their government kicking and screaming to where they want it to be, rather than expecting, as we now often do, for the government to literally lead the way (which is especially stupid considering this works like a Tug o’ War, and if you’re not pulling, your government will actually move AWAY from your position, rather than leading in the desired direction).
Another reason for this attitude might be the unexamined wrong assumption about how to make a government agency act on something. People in their everyday lives are used to “voting with their wallets” in restaurants, shops etc. (usually about relatively trivial matters, or matters that can be supperficially patched up. But that’s a topic for another post), in which a simple announcement that you won’t do X at place Y anymore unless they correct problem Z can be a motivation for place Y to fix the problem, and similarly stating “if only place Y would fix problem Z, we’d definitely go there more often, but unless they fix it, we’ll stay away” can lead to the desired change. This does absolutely not work in government. It’s especially bad in a two party system, where the “choice” for participation is limited anyway and the parties really only care about a small subsection of voters in the middle, and therefore often cluster relatively close together on the overall spectrum; but to declare that you’ll stay away from a governmental agency entirely just renders you irrelevant to their decision-making process. The only time political parties care about whether someone will vote or not is when these potential voters already agree with them, and now just need to be coaxed into validating them. Otherwise, they only care that you do not vote for the other side, since they win if they have proportionally more than the other side, while businesses win both when they have a proportionally larger share, but also when they simply have more people “voting” for them, since the all-important growth can be achieved in both ways (conversely, the political parties don’t care if the total number of participants shrinks, as long as their slice if the smaller pie is still larger than the other guys’; businesses OTOH don’t handle the shrinking of their customer base well, even when their share of the market rises).
So anyway, a government agency isn’t going to change itself to “win you as a customer”, and a political party is only going to try if otherwise you’ll support the competition. So, participation is essential. And equally essential is vocal and highly visible participation, since government agencies cannot follow your lead if they don’t know what the fuck you want. And so it’s not just about voting, but about making it loud and clear why you’re voting, and why your vote should matter: because you have many friends you can take with you to the other side; because if they listen to you, you will give them your time and money to help them convince others to support them; etc. For that reason, building, supporting and joining interest groups and relevant public organizations for the issues that matter is often more useful and more important than just voting (though, without the voting part, the rest won’t carry enough weight).
And how does this square with my previous complaints about how problems cannot be solved by individuals? Well, the problem is that I wasn’t quite specific enough previously. The highly privileged can, as a matter of fact, solve the majority of their own problems; but the less privilege you have, the more difficult this becomes, because on the one hand you have to address fewer problems less thoroughly because you have fewer resources at your disposal, and on the other you’ll be more affected by more problems. But if the problems are being addressed in a collective manner as described above, then “from each according to his ability” actually can amount to enough to make the systemic change happen, which then will make it easier for people to address their problems**, leaving them with further resources to address the other problems, and so on. But this only works if even those participate in the group solution who could have managed to solve the problem individually, as well. It’s similar to the insurance principle, where those who won’t use it subsidize those who will, so that all remain taken care of. Looked as a whole, this will benefit everybody, since only the super-rich and super-powerful can solve all their own problems by themselves***; and therefore, pooling resources to address everybody’s problems means that your problems will be addressed, too, to a degree that you couldn’t accomplish individually.
So, while “acting alone” won’t solve problems, depending on others to act for you won’t, either. Participation and cooperation is essential. On life-or-death issues, this is so important that it needs to be universal and mandatory (healthcare most notably), but really almost all systemic problems require widespread and hopefully universal engagement, lest they become TotC’s in which cooperation unravels at ever-increasing rates, as is now happening with education for example.
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*and this is true regardless of whether the society is moving forwards or backwards. Reactionary elements may be more common in government, but government rarely leads in that direction, either. as fucknuts as some Republican politicians might be, they’re not nearly as reactionary as the Teabaggers as a whole, and certainly they aren’t their leaders; rather, they’re hanging on to the movement as it drags them violently to the right.
**for example, walking instead of driving requires either a lot of free time and a very convenient location of your choosing, or: all useful things to be closeby, everywhere; infrastructure and maintenance thereof (only a masochist (*cough*) would stomp through 2 foot high snow on the unplowed sidewalk instead of getting in the car and driving on the cleared road); community moral support (if it’s seen as a virtue, more people will do it than if it’s considered something only fucking weirdos and poor people do). Once those systemic problems are addressed, the treshold to doing it becomes lower in terms of willpower and physical resources, so that for one more people can start doing it, and two the people who used a lot of effort to do it before can now redirect that effort & resources into addressing other problems.
***though they often solve them by using the same sort of systemic tools available to us, they don’t need them. If there was no government for them to use to bully the populace, they could do it directly, and easier to boot. But other than that, even such systemic problems like bad air quality can be addressed with enough money for a state-of-the-art air filtration system. the rich will survive most of the disasters, unless they get killed off in a revolution. And even then any individual rich fucker has a higher likelihood of surviving than any individual revolutionary does. Private armies can do that.