Doing the International Baccalaureate this year. Before I’d even started sixth form I was sent homework to do, but this actually turned out to be quite interesting. I had to choose a question to explore from the four that were given and write 1500 words on it. I chose “To what extent do you think society works best when each individual pursues their own best interest, or do you think this is a recipe for disaster?”
In the light of the recent UK riots, this seemed the most appropriate question to explore. I live in Peckham, just a few minutes walk from where smoke billowed out from an underwear shop on Rye Lane on the third night of unrest. Windows were shattered as shops were looted. Having been walking down Rye Lane that same day, it didn’t feel right. The violence shown on the news is always distant and even if just as serious, this felt so much more real. The London rioting, which spread across the UK, was a disaster but is it an example of society collapsing due to individuals pursuing their own interests?
The UK’s capitalist economic system has its upsides and downsides. Ultimately it works by having an open and free market where businesses are privately owned (as opposed to state-owned) and operate for profit. Capitalism works on the fact that people want money or at least want to live a lifestyle suited to them that money can allegedly bring. Companies in the market are motivated by money which our business, as customers, provides them with. To gain our business in a competitive market, they must supply us with quality products or a quality service we are willing to part with our money for. This causes companies to come up with innovative ideas and to constantly improve their products, in theory at least. Competition brings out the best in people and that theory is evident in our capitalist economy.
A company’s motive for money matches a customer’s desire for material things. They depend on each other. Mobile network companies, Orange and T-Mobile, came together not too long ago. This has resulted in a reduction of major companies in the mobile network industry. A committee had to decide if three major companies (Orange & T-Mobile, O2, Vodafone) were enough competition to drive the appropriate amount of innovation and advancement to keep the service satisfactory for the customer. If there was just one company that was to monopolise the industry, then there would be no need for innovation or competitive prices as they would be guaranteed business, to a certain extent at least.
Capitalism needs customers to be investing into the economy and for customers to be driven by money and material objects. For years, businesses have sold us the idea that everything we need can be bought. That money can get us whatever we want and what we want can be found in shops. Is it any surprise then, that rioters targeted these shops when unrest began? Who wouldn’t want a product that a company has been trying to sell to us for hundreds of pounds, for free? Companies satisfied their personal interests by making our personal interests their products.
Nina Power wrote an article on the riots for the Guardian, which is on the website. She makes some good points looking at some underlying causes of the riots. She says about England:
“…a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country” ¹
Even more interesting than that, was one of the best comments at the bottom of a webpage I’ve ever read.
“There’s a widespread myth that law and order is preserved by police, politicians and other forces of authority. Not true. Never has been. If we all decide to go out and chuck a dustbin through Argos’s window and help ourselves, it would take about 15 million coppers to contain it. We actually have about 150,000.
Law and order is kept by a collective acceptance of mutual goals. If, as a society, we look after each other, offer everyone a share and a stake in the common wealth, maintain some semblance of a Rousseauian Social Contract, then the vast majority of people will mostly stick to the rules without ever needing to see a police officer.
When people lose that sense of being looked after, no longer feel part of society, no longer feel like they have any kind of share in any kind of collective, the ties that bind begin to be broken.
Rioting, especially the type of vandalism & looting we’ve seen in London, is a sure sign that the social contract is unravelling around the edges. In the days and weeks and months to come, we shall see how far it has frayed.
There are few things more dangerous to a society than a populace with nothing left to lose.” ²
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th century Genevan philosopher, wrote Of The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right which outlines his concept for political society. In his philosophy, he contrasts individuals with their own personal interests and desires which are largely self-serving with those same individuals as part of the state.³ He believed society needs to be united by a common goal. If society provides security and protection of life and property, then individuals have a strong incentive to collaborate and be part of society. People can be united by this common goal of desiring security and should therefore be willing to co-operate.
Citizens need to feel they have a stake in society – much like a stake holder in a business. If I had a share in a business, then it’s in my personal interest that the business do well so that I can benefit from that share. Being part of society makes it our personal interest to do what’s best for our community so we can all benefit from it.
So in the midst of the cuts, some are feeling left out of society; they’ve lost their stake. If citizens begin to think the people at the top of society are pursuing their own personal interests, the response will be, and was, one of anger. As we saw in the riots, there were a lot of angry people with nothing to lose. A very dangerous place to be. If society can no longer provide the security that we desire, then there is no longer a common goal that we can strive for.
Anyone with a stake in society is expected to contribute to it. As the gap between rich and poor widens, society splits in two. The problem with this is that the top end of society’s personal interest does not involve the security of the bottom end. The distance means the personal interest of the bottom end is unreal to the top end. Just like the riots happening in my area felt so real, compared to disasters on the news we tend to distance ourselves from. People at the bottom end of society are not even considered by someone at the top end as they pursue their personal interests – the gap is too great. The pursuit of the personal interest can then be at the cost of someone else.
Returning to capitalism, and we can draw ideas from the example of the mobile networks. All of the major companies have similar motivations. They want to be successful and make money. If one company did in fact become the only mobile network, innovation would stop. They would still be satisfying their own personal interests because more money would be coming in as they would be the only company for customers to go to. But the customer’s personal interests would be compromised as they wouldn’t be getting the best products at good prices. If there was just one company, they could charge as much as they liked for a service that we require. The balance that existed between the customers’ interest and the companies’ interest is gone. Without someone to control the company, they can make more money and become more successful but at the expense of the customer.
The balance is crucial. Individuals are always going to pursue their own interests, but responsibility is needed by everyone to make sure personal interest doesn’t come at the expense of others.
The riot events brought a lot of confusing feelings. Paradoxical feelings. Heaven and hell in one place. It was hard to believe that Poundland on Rye Lane, smashed to pieces the day before, had become a work of art. The wood chip board that was pinned up against the frame of the window was covered with post-it notes filled with feeling and emotion. “WHY WE LOVE PECKHAM” written in big letters on the derelict shop. In no time, the board was overflowing with messages of hope and love; so many message that the original lettering became illegible. People wanted their community back and were united with that common goal. The community’s interests were put first and the outcome was spectacular.
This board by no means ended some of the massive problems the country currently faces but it was an encouraging sign of what can happen when people are united by a common goal. When personal interests don’t damage anyone else. When personal interests becomes the security of others, not just your own.
So pursuing personal interests is a recipe for disaster? Not necessarily – we all do it. But selfishly pursuing our personal interests which badly effects others can be disastrous.
To end with, a message posted on the Poundland board that highlights a major imbalance in society. It read:
Loot a shop, go to jail. Loot a nation, get a bonus.
1 “There is a context to London’s riots that can’t be ignored”, Nina Power. Guardian website http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/08/context-london-riots?CMP=twt_gu Accessed on 03.09.11
2 There is a context to London’s riots that can’t be ignored”, Nina Power. Guardian website http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/08/context-london-riots?CMP=twt_gu In the comments section by ‘AllyF’ . Accessed on 03.09.11
3 Nigel Warburton, Rousseau Social contract podcast. Listened to on YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M40waSvXwBU&feature=related 03.09.11