We Live in a Society

A month ago, everything was normal. Cities bustled as people commuted to and from work in crowded subway cars and on congested freeways. Big glass office buildings were filled with afternoon meetings and cubicles of business casual. Kids sat in lines of desks at school, listening as their teachers explained algebra or the scientific method. After a hard day’s work, people ate out at restaurants with their friends, worked out at 24/7 gyms, and went for walks in the park.

Now, that normal has been shattered. Public gatherings have been banned or discouraged across the country. Only essential businesses remain open. Schools and universities have shifted to “remote learning.” Globally, millions will be infected by the coronavirus, and hundreds of thousands (if not more) will die — both from COVID-19 itself and from shortcomings of overwhelmed health care systems. The scale of this loss of life is tragic. To slow the spread of the virus, millions are social distancing, spending months isolated in their homes to reduce contact with others.

This virus has forced the United States, the richest country to ever exist, into crisis. In addition to the suffering from the virus itself, COVID-19 has brought nearly all economic progress to a halt. Offices, factories, and construction sites are all shut down. Projections show GDP falling by up to 30% this quarter. Millions of workers have been laid off, causing weekly unemployment claims to skyrocket to the highest levels in recorded history.

The coronavirus has revealed the fragility of modern society. We are all incredibly interdependent on one another — and that means a disruption or crisis anywhere in the world could have ripple effects that impact everyone. And yet at this time of peak interconnectedness, the dominant cultural and political narrative is still centered around a social atomization of individuals, as if each person’s life were unrelated to the lives of others. In an interdependent society, we must acknowledge our obligations to the collective: We must care for each other in our most extreme times of need and work together to survive.

After all, in the course of human history, our current normal is incredibly abnormal, and it is only able to exist because of specialization. Ancient hunter-gatherers and their small, nomadic tribes had to individually find enough food and water and shelter to survive. But after the Agricultural Revolution made it easier to mass produce crops, humans were able to live in large communities. Not everyone had to focus on immediate survival concerns, so people were able to specialize and accomplish other tasks. This decentralization of work and our resulting interdependence allowed us to do more collectively than we could individually. It allowed us to have inventors and doctors and carpenters and merchants, which made the curve of human progress exponential. And we still depend deeply on specialization today. We rely on global supply chains supported by thousands of people for the production and transport of our essentials. We need farmers to grow our food, builders to make houses and offices, power plant workers to create electricity, and many more people to make this hyper-advanced, decentralized system work.

But it seems like sometimes we forget that we live in a society. The rise of “rugged individualism” in the 20th century championed the idea that individuals should be independent from the help of others and responsible for their own circumstances, which has become the dominant view in America. Yet being completely self-reliant is not just impossible but also undesirable. Our society is made so much better by the vast web of people who depend on each other for both economic and social prosperity. And who is “responsible” for a global pandemic? We face collective risks like the coronavirus and climate change, brought on by recurrent factors such as nature or our own mistakes. And when these risks threaten all of us, the best way to deal with them is not to work individually: It’s to work together. The individualist approach simply cannot contend with collective crisis.

What does it really mean to replace rugged individualism with collective solidarity? First, it means fixing structural problems by reckoning with the reality of our interdependent society, in which the success of others is good for everyone. The most obvious example of the need for structural changes during this pandemic is in public health. Our individualistic view fails to acknowledge that there are collective benefits to having everyone being healthy — and that, during a pandemic, our health can even depend upon the health of everyone else. But in the U.S., health care is not a universal right, and nearly 30 million people are uninsured. Those numbers are estimated to increase by 7 million during the pandemic, since health insurance in the U.S. is employer-based and the pandemic recession has caused mass unemployment. Additionally, the U.S. is one of only 14 nations that do not guarantee paid sick leave for workers. Even the coronavirus response bill passed by Congress in March only requires paid sick leave for businesses with fewer than 500 employees, leaving millions of workers without protection. Thus, if a worker is feeling sick and decides to stay home, they might risk losing both their income, which is essential to pay for immediate necessities (like groceries and rent), and their health care. Moreover, essential workers are less likely to seek testing or treatment because many cannot afford it. 

Both of these policy failures worsen the spread of the virus to coworkers and customers and communities. Some of the worst outbreaks in the U.S. have been the result of essential workers going to their workplaces, from meatpacking plants to prisons, while sick. These problems in our health system worsened the coronavirus crisis, and allowed it to hit our most vulnerable especially hard. Collective, structural solutions that think about promoting public health to minimize overall suffering are essential, especially during a pandemic. Statewide stay-at-home orders, which mandate social distancing, are one example: They require many individuals to bear a small, temporary personal restriction for the immense benefit overall that comes with flattening the curve and protecting the elderly and the immunocompromised. Our individualistic view can have dangerous consequences, and we should do more to center our policies around reducing collective suffering.

The U.S. has a collective action problem larger than the coronavirus. Our institutions have internalized a flawed individualistic mindset, which fails to meet the challenges and moral imperatives of solving collective problems. The world would benefit if these institutions (businesses, governments, nonprofits) or individuals collaborated, but they fail to do so, motivated by self-interest to avoid the personal costs associated with actual problem-solving. If this mindset guides our response to the coronavirus crisis, imagine how inadequately we will deal with climate change, a potentially even bigger threat. Widespread teamwork and collaboration are necessary to address these collective risks. No individual or single institution will save us. 

Image Credit: Flickr/RogierChang 

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