Community and collectivism must overcome individualism

On June 17, 2017, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the world’s wealthiest person after accruing over $90 billion. That same year approximately 9 million people died from hunger.

In 2021, Bezos was dethroned by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. A  study published in the scientific journal Environmental Research estimated 8.7 million people would die from air pollution caused by fossil fuels in 2018.

Oppression is the unjust or cruel exercise of power. This is oppression at a scale and depth beyond that of feudalism. Everyone, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, communities, people who share passions, interests, hopes and fears are all being oppressed. 

The exceedingly wealthy are stealing our money, time, livelihoods and health. They are hoarding in vast, immovable mountains of wealth and great, eroding rivers of power. 

These bandits have had mythologies written about them that exalt the virtue of their ability to miser away the world’s resources, just out of the reach of the sick and dying. People take these myths to heart and style their lives based on their example.

Seemingly in the grips of an intense case of Stockholm syndrome, these strange acolytes jump to the defense of their beloved abusers whenever the ethics of their disproportionate wealth comes up. 

Meanwhile, the lords of avarice pay others to cover up the ways in which they are destroying the viability of life on this planet as they amass riches greater than that of nations.  

Many question what these issues have to do with them or their own well-being. We have implicitly come to this conclusion through the use of individualistic messaging within Western society. 

This mentality implies individuals are responsible for all their successes and failures, and are therefore deserving of whatever those successes or failures entail, whether that be dying of poverty or becoming the wealthiest person alive.

For example, oil companies are destroying the planet. They are actively responsible for millions of deaths a year

These companies wag their finger in admonishment and cry that responsibility lies not on the companies, but on the consumers. 

They suggest it is the audacity to heat a house or refrigerate food that makes all consumers complicit in the suffering of millions. These inconsiderate corporations suggest we should recycle, or better yet, line their pockets by switching to energy-efficient appliances.

People eat it up. They serve spoonfuls at business schools. They lecture on the imperatives of the free market, consumer choice and deregulation. Child slavery will end when the market is incentivized to make it end. This is mass madness.

If the myth of individualism is the pyre on which humanity burns, then collectivism is its savior. Through collectivist action — time and time again — humanity has seen, shown and reveled in its power to create a better world.

The movement for women’s suffrage and the work of feminist activists before and since has created a world in which women are steadily, if too slowly, gaining ground toward a true place of equity. 

The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a massive collectivist assault on the powers of Jim Crow and segregation and made drastic steps toward justice that, to this day, is still long overdue. These are steps that are being continued by today’s Black Lives Matter movement. 

The disability community rose up against the state in the ’70s and secured recognition and protection under the law, but are still fighting for justice. 

Minority groups have fought for centuries against the forces of oppression.

These have all been collectivist actions because only communal actions can bring communal gains. Yet, retrospection on these gains often gives more credit to individual icons of these movements, thus furthering the cult of rugged individualism. 

Thinking of social movements as a matter of timing and waiting for leaders instead of looking for partners keeps the masses and their potential power inert. 

Grace Lee Boggs, an activist and philosopher who spent her 100-year life dedicated to community activism, said it best. 

“We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for,” Boggs said in an interview for nonprofit story sharing platform StoryCorps.

Community engagement skills can be practiced and strengthened just like any other. 

Volunteer, attend meetings, talk to neighbors, check in with family, meet new people and cultivate ideas from people with different circumstances than your own. Collaborate with others and begin seriously pondering the balance between what you take from the communities you are a part of and what you give in return.

It is important to remember that community is boundless and can be extended ad infinitum. However, to get to the point where all of humanity is part of the same community, we have to start small. More importantly, we have to start.