Jonathon Shafi: There is such a thing as society, Maggie Thatcher, and we're taking it back

CommonSpace columnist Jonathon Shafi explains why it's vital to restore a sense of community in order to prevent the far right taking hold

'THERE is no such thing as society.' This claim was popularised by Margaret Thatcher, who played a key role in ushering in neoliberal capitalism - a type of economics defined by deregulation, privatisation, destroying the power of unions and creating atomised consumers.

Yes, I know, the last thing you want to read about on a Friday is economic systems, but stick with me, it'll soon make sense.

The idea of there being no society is crucial in justifying the way our economy works, and how that ultimately steers us away from collective action and common purpose – essentially, away from each other.

The idea of there being no society is crucial in justifying the way our economy works, and how that ultimately steers us away from collective action and common purpose – essentially, away from each other.

This outlook on how humans should organise themselves and the world around them is often cast as being fundamental to human nature itself. It's as if all of human society has always been about individual competition, personal greed and motivation based on material gain. 

But this is not the case. In fact, this is a relatively recent development intertwined with the rise of consumer capitalism and an economic system based on economic growth at any expense. It's hard to imagine that there is actually a different way of doing things when you've been born into a particular system, but it's true.

Often we look at the environment, inequality and wars based on the scramble for resources as consequences of the system we live in. But at a very profound level, it has also privatised us as individuals. We are statistics on a graph charting how much we spend and consume, and we are told what to aspire to based only on one thing: profit. 

We are the subject of an industry whose sole purpose is to make us feel the need to consume in competition with one another. Insecurities are drilled into us  and every conceivable tool is deployed to make sure you don't feel happy unless you have this or that product. 

Rally to support school janitors in Glasgow

More than that, despite your derisory wages, you are force fed from every angle the importance of being wealthy. The community doesn't matter, your society at large is not to be the subject of questioning or enquiry, and the future of humanity as a whole is not important. If your house is not on fire, why should you pay taxes for the fire service?

When you look around your community, you can see the very real consequences of this way of life. Along with the neoliberalism system came the end of the mass workplace, connected to a community. The pubs and social gatherings which grew around them also went into decline and now barley exist. We have empty pubs and empty high streets, and communities falling further and further into depression.

Austerity added to this massive attack on society and social bonding by shutting down community centres, libraries and by decimating the public sector. These were the last standing spaces for people to meet, learn, enjoy company and deliver service as a public good. 

As a result of the decline of living standards, this economic system can only survive - and the rich who are still benefiting from it want it to survive regardless of the damage - if the general population is divided, individualised and scared. 

The idea of social solidarity has to remain buried under a tirade of marketing and fear. Its physical scaffolding has to be dismantled. There is no such thing as society was not a turn of phrase. It was a weapon, and spoke to a grand strategy for the continuation of capitalism in its neoliberal phase.

It has been said that each great empire has within it the seeds of its own destruction. The fatal flaw in neoliberalism is that, despite the claim, it is the polar opposite of what humans really need to live happy lives. 

It has been said that each great empire has within it the seeds of its own destruction. The fatal flaw in neoliberalism is that, despite the claim, it is the polar opposite of what humans really need to live happy lives. 

Contrary to the idea that it reflects human nature, we need collectivity. People don't get real satisfaction from endless products, but from friendships, relationships of all kinds and working on common projects. We are at our best when our work provides something useful for our society. 

As the sociologist David Graber points out: "Huge swaths of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they believe to be unnecessary. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it." 

Thus we see the full range of symptoms: depression, alienation, loneliness, fear. Such a society cannot last, because we as human beings are social animals. We cannot function properly without society, without something more than ourselves, without purpose beyond money.

In the starkest possible terms, this is now coming to a head. Our atomised society cannot continue sustainably, on any metric. Donald Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, believe it or not, understands this. He believes that the crisis of capitalism is in a sense precisely located in the idea that solidarity has broken down. 

Our atomised society cannot continue sustainably, on any metric. Donald Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, believe it or not, understands this, but his antidote is to make race, national identity and 'Judeao-Christian values' the collective underpinning of society.

But his antidote is to make race, national identity and 'Judeao-Christian values' the collective underpinning of society. That is why so many people, alienated and atomised as they are, look to find a sense of collectivity and yes - society - in these vectors. 

As Noam Chomsky explains: "Fear, along with the breakdown of society during the neoliberal period has given rise to Trump. People feel isolated, helpless, victim of powerful forces that they do not understand and cannot influence."

This speaks to the strategic conflict at the top of the system. There are those like George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Tony Blair, Hilary Clinton, the CBI and the Institute for Economic Affairs who are not giving up the idea of the transnational neoliberal order. And then there are the likes of Bannon, Nigel Farage, Liam Fox, Michael Gove and the new radical right who are pushing a return of colonialism and with it national unity based on ethnicity and imperialism.

But what both will fight tooth and nail against is independent working class solidarity from below. This indispensable form or organisation and action cuts through both the alienation of consumer capitalism, and the racism of the radical right. 

Whenever there is a crackdown people band together, realising that chugging along the 'I'm alright jack' road is a dead end. Just look at the history books.

It generates comradeship across racial divisions, it creates product-free space and reconnects us with ourselves and our community. It has within it the embryo of a new society. It gives people hope, and an objective. It is the most precious social resource available - and that is why so much effort goes into destroying it. At every turn, wherever it might arise, it is shut down.

Only when we realise this do we fully grasp the full potential power that we have. Whenever there is a crackdown people band together, realising that chugging along the 'I'm alright jack' road is a dead end. 

Just look at the history books: the civil rights movement in America, the anti-apartheid struggle, the new municipal movement in Spain, the English levellers, the rent strikes, the poll tax. The list goes on.

Within this is the sort of action we need to beat the far-right and the system that breeds it. Last week in Glasgow we saw a glimpse of real solidarity which puts the political theory outlined above into the context of everyday life.

After hearing that janitors in Glasgow schools were to be cut, parents and pupils organised a picket of their school defending their janitors. In doing so they made common connections with one another, they involved their families and they made it clear that  unity with the janitors was unshakable - not just to the level that they would write a letter, but that they would collectively organise, make placards and physically manifest their solidarity together at the school itself.

In the coming years we need to rebuild solidarity from the grassroots of our society at large.

In arranging this action - this taking back of control - we see most apparently the concern for the janitors' job. But we also see the alternative to fear and division. We also see the ability to make a stand, and to do so regardless of background. Here, the far-right have nothing to latch on to. Here, we see hope - and when hope is married with action - we have a weapon of our own: solidarity.

In the coming years we need to rebuild solidarity from the grassroots of our society at large. There is an army organised against it: the marketing industry, the grinding alienation of much of our work, the quick fix that consumerism can offer, the generation of fear and insecurity to keep us divided. 

Alternatives will be rubbished, and collective action will be tested. But rebuilding the solidarity we need is like pushing a rock up a hill. It's difficult and takes effort, but once we get to the top - building momentum from there is easy. 

In the coming months I will use this column to highlight examples, and would like to hear your stories in a bid to generalise their lessons and to inspire others to take action.

Picture courtesy of Stefan Krajcik Photography

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is: Pledge your support today.