Modern society has been characterized by a struggle over whether the aspirations of the community or those of its individuals should be promoted. On one hand are those who believe that by promoting the common good the individual pursuits will be taken care of and that most importantly, it will ensure that at the very least the basic needs of each will be assured.
On the other hand, those who promote individualism assert that society is nothing but individuals: if the individual pursues his or her interests undisturbed, then society is better off.
In one view, the promotion of society is deliberate and that of the individual is incidental. On the other, the protection of the individual (liberty) is essential and that of society is incidental.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made famous the phrase, “There is no such thing as a society.” But the entire quote sheds light to individualism, “They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society.
There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbors.” And so, in its short form it became: “there are no societies, only individuals.”
And yet, Margaret Thatcher always understood the importance of community when it came to defending British interests. Here, she became clear eyed about which community she belonged to.
But Thatcher was a product of her time. The 1990s when she was promoting capitalism against a counter current that was selling communism and (scientific) socialism to the world; the world was being pulled either towards capitalist individualism or communist collectivism.
The victory of capitalist individualism at the turn of the century with the collapse of the Soviet Union tells a human story. Since that time, there has been a savage quest for personal profit (veiled by the language of advancement) over the quest for mutual care, the degradation of social bonds in increasingly solitary and unequal societies and the acceptance that some will have to work hard and harvest crumbs, unable to take care of their families, while others amass fortunes that they will never be able to consume during their lifetime.
This logic where a rent economy has a minority few speculating around the scarcity of resources has been validated across the world. As a matter of fact, we are told that it has no alternative.
Africa a prize to win or lose
For much of its independence Africa was consumed by this struggle of capitalism and communism or scientific socialism. Africa was a prize that was won by the triumph of capitalism. Consequently, the pursuit of ragged individualism was cemented and validated against a resistant society.
Julius Nyerere had long warned that the alternatives that were available to Africa lacked the social infrastructure for them. He was sure that the philosophy of Ubuntu through which Africans make sense of the world was antithetical to capitalist individualism. Similarly, Nyerere warned that there was a danger of misinterpreting communism to mean communalism a system of social organization that expresses the philosophy of Ubuntu, the idea that one’s aspirations are inconsequential outside of those of society “I am, because we are; we are because I am.”
Ironically, a closer examination of Ubuntu reveals a degree of individualism within the collective. If it didn’t it would have simply said that “we are because we are.” Nonetheless, Africans have pursued ideas that masquerade as individual freedoms that in fact harbor unmitigated greed and selfishness as dominant traits.
In my country Burundi, the greedy are erecting ever higher fences to keep out those they steal from. Their neighborhoods are unwelcoming, their dogs are trained to treat neighbors like intruders. It’s between you and the dog.
On the contrary, in the poor and modest parts of our country, one wouldn’t cry for help and be met by a cold silence; neighbors rush to the rescue before pondering their own safety. Solidarity is the norm, not the exception. There’s community.
Nyerere’s warning was intended for Africans to look within for a socioeconomic model that was grounded in Africa’s historical memories and realities. Such memory has for the most part been preserved by our people in rural areas where ancestral systems of values that emphasize mutual assistance, strong social bonds, collective ownership of means of production, and an obligation to work with, and for, the community, among other things. Today as I was writing this article Rwandans were returning to their homes from community work that is popularly known as Umuganda. In other words, the historical memory is there if only Africans would pay attention.
Since Africans have excelled at replicating failing systems, soon they too might be compelled to embrace who they are. The individualism they have been trying to mimic is collapsing around capitalism. Western societies that had perfected individualism are prepared to reconsider due to the erosion of community that has resulted from the collapse of neoliberalism at home and abroad. As frantic as they are in searching for avenues to recover community, Africans are running towards a burning house still frantically knocking for admission.
What these societies are looking for Africa already has. However, Africa always wants what others have regardless of how bad it looks on them. Of course it never fits. We are living the tragedy.