|“The people, united, will never be defeated!” That is as true today as it was in 1793 when the French revolutionary government pioneered the Levée en masse – the mobilisation of the whole nation to resist the invader. And it still works.
FROM WHENCE ARISES our malady? This bewilderment at the present. This confusion about the past. This fear of the future.
The world no longer works the way we think it does. It is run by people we do not know. Such control as we once exerted over events has dwindled away to almost nothing. We have become powerless.
We all feel like this at times. When the world looms so large, and our ability to make the slightest difference appears so very small. We’re wrong, of course. The most powerful force on this planet has always been, and always will be, human-beings acting collectively.
Witness the people of Ukraine: outnumbered, outgunned, but determined to preserve their independence. And they’re winning! “The people, united, will never be defeated!” That is as true today as it was in 1793 when the French revolutionary government pioneered the Levée en masse – the mobilisation of the whole nation to resist the invader. And it still works.
Remembering the power of collectivism isn’t always easy, however. Our society’s relentless focus on the individual all-too-often transforms the experience of powerlessness into a demoralising confirmation of personal weakness and failure.
If you’re not winning, it’s because you’re a loser.
That’s a hard thought to shake – especially when the advertising messages with which we are bombarded every day confirm it. The banks’ ads make the securing of a home loan seem easy. The builders’ ads show satisfied clients singing the praises of their lovely houses. Two delightful children discuss the specifications of their parents’ brand new SUVs. If these stories are not about you, then, clearly, that’s because you haven’t done the things necessary to inhabit them.
“If you’ve got lots, it’s because you’ve been good. If you’ve got nothing, it’s because you’ve been bad. Just ask Santa Claus.”
But that’s not true, either. In the early 1930s, in a country ravaged – like so many others – by the dire economic consequences of the Great Depression, the working poor organised themselves into an unstoppable political force and won full employment, state houses, a public health service and free education for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren. By acting collectively, they turned all New Zealanders into winners.
That could be done again if we were willing to abandon selfies for selflessness. But, it wouldn’t be easy. Following last week’s Budget, Danyl McLauchlan, a scientist, novelist, former Green Party staffer, and social media commentator, had this to say about the enormous difficulties of getting anything done in this country – even when you’re the Government:
… the modern day public sector is very far from the one Michael Joseph Savage built, or even the walk-shorts and glide time stereotypes of the 1970s. It’s an amalgam of public and private entities: departments and ministries and commissions co-existing with law firms, consultancies, public relations companies, NGOs, corporations and other private sector providers. It’s carefully optimised to redirect vast amounts of public spending into private hands, and this is a problem this government struggles to confront.
Danyl has put his finger on the source of our malady. It is the structural negation of collectivism. The transfer of public money into private hands. The deliberate dismantling of the social and economic machinery geared towards meeting the needs of the many, not the few. A system of disempowerment, where not even Ministers of the Crown possess the authority to appoint, or sack, the bureaucrats upon whom we must all rely for the implementation of democratically mandated policies.
Five thousand years ago, acting collectively, the Ancient Egyptians constructed the Pyramids. These astonishing monuments were not the work of slaves, but of a vast army of free labourers dedicated to keeping the spirit and will of their civilisation – symbolised by their Pharaoh – alive for all eternity. Two hundred-and-thirty years ago, acting collectively, the French people preserved Liberty, Equality and Fraternity against the concerted opposition of the crowned heads of Europe. Fifty-three years ago, working collectively, the American people put a man on the Moon. Two years ago, acting collectively, a nation of five million, facing a deadly global pandemic, limited its Covid-19 death-toll to fewer than 30 citizens.
“For, oh, what strength is weaker than the feeble strength of one?”
Acting collectively, there is nothing we cannot conquer – not even our present and besetting malady of individual greed and selfishness.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 May 2022.