I read a very interesting article last week in The Economist (paywall) about the way that stakeholder capitalism works in Japan. It was interesting to listen to how it contrasts and compares to the society that we have here in Canada for. In a nutshell, the article describes how large corporations in Japan are more willing to protect employees for life, and do things for the greater good of society at large, acting as a sort of private industry safety net, so to speak, even at the peril of maximizing shareholder profits.
Without painting too rosy or utopian a picture, this is very different from how we envision corporations in the West, where this obsessive drive to maximize shareholder profits resembles a bunch of pigs fighting at a trough to consume as much as possible, without any care or regard for human welfare, the environment, or the plight of the developed nations where our goods come from. Obviously, Japan has its own host of problems, particularly as it relates to its aging workforce, and its very conservative attitudes when it comes to women and immigration. And maybe to a certain extent, the fact that it is a more homogeneous society than say, a Canada, might explain part of this reason why there’s a feeling that they all “pull from the same rope.” Others have pointed to the idea of moral collectivism which comes from the teachings of Confucius.
Regardless of where it comes from, I would really like to further explore in my own free time the notions of collectivism versus individuality more broadly in society, and the ways in which they may have eroded—in philosophy, economics, law, to name a few scopes of human thought—the idea that we are all working towards an “common good,” and instead have become a deeply individualistic society, where we all look out for number one.
I’m not some doe eyed idealist who thinks that it would be easy or quick to try and institute some sort of a collectivist society here in my own home country. Maybe we don’t even want it. There are a lot of people that I despise. Viciously even. Especially in the age of social media, you’re easily exposed to all kinds of views, opinions, and just general nastiness that makes you not want to pull from the same rope as all of your peers. I can’t be the only monster that wishes ill on people who have extremely different politics and views from my own, particularly when they’re so damn sure of themselves. I don’t want to pull from the same rope as those scum.
Right now, it seems as though half of the people that I follow on Twitter want to abolish the police force altogether and replace them with social workers. The other half think that wearing a paper mask the same thickness as a restaurant serviette in order to stop the spread of a very virulent, deadly disease, is a greater infringement on their freedom than anything they’ve seen since the rise of fascism in the 1930s.
When you hear all this sort of polemical idiocy, it’s very hard to lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of people, even people who engage in such ridiculous hyperbolic language, are at their core (probably) decent people who want very simple things. To be able to live in peace and prosperity, without fear of where their income is going to come from, and be able to have a relatively safe and happy life. Intellectually I feel I know this. In practice…eh.
A lot of people wax poetic about the polarization of our politics and society. But I wonder if there are examples from other cultures and societies that may point us in a direction to where we might return to a sense of all working together. Perhaps “return” isn’t even the right term; did we ever even have that? I have to believe that it existed in some form in at least the Middle Ages, if not before that among the plebeian masses of ancient Rome. But perhaps it is a pre-Enlightenment notion that has fallen out of vogue. One cannot be a collectivist and think about the greater society and greater humanity, while also supporting chattel slavery, to name but one egregious example. Are we collectivists if we all work together as part of, say a nation-state, to the detriment or harm or exclusion of people halfway across the globe, whose faces or names we will never encounter?
As always, I don’t really have any good answers. But it is something that I think about a lot, particularly in the age of covid-19, when the actions of people a world away suddenly have direct and dire consequences at home. It’s hard not to question how selfish some of your fellow countrymen can be when we continue to bicker and fight and politicize our way out of the largest existential crisis of our lives.
Or maybe that’s just the way that it appears when we look at the Internet all the time. Maybe if we had Twitter back in the 1940s, the “Greatest Generation” would not have looked so unified in its fight against the axis powers as it may seem. Maybe the technology itself is to blame, and an attention economy necessarily allows conspiracy theorists and contrarians to tell us outrageous things that wedge us apart.
I’d like to be optimistic, and hope that once it is epidemiologically safe to do so, we can all get together and perhaps hug this all out. I’d like to. But I don’t really think it will happen.