Policy#6.3 - A Capitalist Conundrum: The need for 'collective individualism'

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We continue our discussion on society. In an earlier post, we discussed the policy around both energy resources and minerals. In Islam, these are commonly owned and must be used for the benefit of the people. What I argued in the previous post, was that the key to arguing for common ownership of such wealth is to embrace that society is in reality a collective endeavour where its members share the same thoughts, emotions, and systems. This is why public relations works: governments and corporations direct their advertising efforts to the 'public mind'.  In this post, I delve deeper. 

Why care about society? 

This issue will be something I refer to in future posts. Whether we look at insurance or so-called intellectual "property", it largely comes to understanding the reality of society.  Simply put, if the society is really just individuals then the focus of the economic policies should be on them. Conversely, if society consists of collective emotions, thoughts and systems plus individuals, then the policy should focus on all of these elements. 

A Capitalist conundrum: 'collectively individualism'

In this video, a biker moves to ahead of the traffic jam to rescue a woman who's attempting to commit suicide.

Why didn't the others get out of their cars to help?

Because we've been collectively conditioned to be individualistic. 

If you or I we're in that situation, what would that voice in our head tell us?

Perhaps, 'if you help her, she may sue you' or 'Is this a trick and someone may come rob me?' That's collective individualism at work: we've been trained to think in a way where we only care about ourselves; how else did we know about these stories before clicking on the links?  

It’s for the same reason that billionaires, like the Koch Brothers, are willing to spend $300 to $400 million to change public policy through think tanks, universities and foundations. In other words, they realize that the focus of policy-based initiatives is the collective aspects of society - not the individual. 

Why would the Koch Bros pay millions?

Why would the Koch Bros pay hundreds of millions, unless they had a clear return on investment (ROI)?

This is the crux of the issue.

It gives us a live illustration for the battle for the “public mind”. If organization like Greenpeace get their message to society, society will embrace thoughts such as “keep coal, oil and gas in the ground” or “sustainable future for people, wildlife, and the climate does not include fossil fuels”. Such thoughts will generate positive emotions towards companies, such as Ikea, who portray their energy usage as green. Conversely, the Koch brothers are the object of negative emotions because of their bad reputation in the environmental arena.

Consequently, the Koch brothers will naturally use their vast fortune to fight climate change because it intrudes on their interests. For example, one of the think-tanks allegedly funded by the Koch brothers published this on the web, claiming that “South Texas Fracking is not a risk to air quality”.

What the elites realize, is that the common glue that is society – the media, schools, university, government, authors and other influencers – must all sing from the Capitalist book of hymns. And so they will make sure everyone sings the same tune. If they don't make such investments in PR, then the society will adopt a different way of doing things; to the detriment of those that benefit from the status quo. 

The trouble with individualism

Linda McQuaig also tackled this concept in her book, The Trouble with Billionaires. She highlights how material success we enjoy depends on the inheritance we have from the society:

“One of the crucial ways that society assists individuals in their ability to generate wealth lies in the inheritance from previous generations… This inheritance from the past is so vast it is almost beyond calculation. It encompasses every aspect of what we know as a civilization and every bit of scientific and technological knowledge we make use of today, going all the way back to the beginning of human language and the invention of the wheel.” 

Even uber-Capitalist billionaire Kevin O’Leary recognizes this past debt when he was asked “To what do you attribute your entrepreneurial leaning”, he replied, “I was born in Montreal and my dad died when I was young. My mother remarried and my stepfather was an oil executive, so we moved every two years. We lived in Cyprus, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Tunisia, Switzerland, France. That gave me an opportunity to understand how the world works.” 

Imagine no one taught us to language, would we amount to anything? Imagine our mothers didn't feed us, would we have lived? Consider the plight of the Romanian orphans who grew up without such love and care:

What about your co-worker who covered your shift while you did an-all-nighter, allowing you to pay for medical school, pass that exam and ultimately become a doctor?

Or what about the barista who served you fresh coffee before you delivered that impressive presentation that got you promoted? 

Or what about your neighbour who makes sure your garbage cans don't fly away when you are out of town? 

It's only if we take our families and fellow members of society for granted can we ascribe success solely to ourselves. Given the interconnected reality of society, attributing one's success solely to one's efforts is the height of injustice.

Islam and society 

Prophet Muhammad (saw) narrated that:

"The example of the believers is like the body, if part of it hurts the rest of it is summoned" [Ahmed]

The example of the body is really an amazing analogy for society. Each part has its individual features and requirements (e.g. it's okay to put all your weight on your feet, but not your head).  But at the same time all parts of the body need to work together to achieve a functioning whole (e.g. the foot must take the head to safety). 

Prophet Muhammad (saw) also used the analogy of how people coordinate on a ship to illustrate the nature of how society sails or sinks together:

"The example of the one who stands for the Hudood (limits) of Allah and the one who compromises the Hudood (limits) of Allah are like the people in a boat, some of whom occupy the upper deck and some occupy the lower deck. Whenever those in the lower deck need water, they have to go to the upper deck to retrieve it. So some of them said, ‘why don’t we make a hole in our deck so we do not harm the people of the upper deck?’ If the people do not stop them, they will all fall and be failures, but if they stop them they will all be saved." [Bukhari]

What's a good illustration of this? 

The subprime crisis.

Extending the analogy, the rich (Goldman Sachs et al) actually gave the poor the drills to make holes on the lower deck of the society, resulting in an economic catastrophe that didn't just impact the US but the whole world. For the 99%, there was higher unemployment, increase in children's mental health issues and greater poverty that remains. But the rich were affected as well. The 1% needed trillions in bailouts or they would have joined the ranks of the 99%

Islam: Humility is an Ideal

On the issue of interconnected-ness and the reality of our place in the universe, Islam is unparalleled in creating a personality that is humble, subdued, recognizing that all praises only belong to the Creator, Allah (swt):

"Has there [not] come upon man a period of time when he was not a thing [even] mentioned?" [TMQ 76:1]

"Then He proportioned him and breathed into him from His [created] soul and made for you hearing and vision and hearts; little are you grateful."  [TMQ 32:9]

"And do not walk upon the earth exultantly. Indeed, you will never tear the earth [apart], and you will never reach the mountains in height." [TMQ 17:37]

Reflecting on the last ayah (verse), unlike the dinosaurs we don't even leave footprints when we walk on the earth. In terms of our size, we are barely specks of dust when we stand in front of a mountain.


This "right-sizing of the ego" helps us to recognize that all praises are indeed due to Allah (swt):

"Then, to Allah belongs [all] praise - Lord of the heavens and Lord of the earth, Lord of the worlds." [TMQ 45:36]

This gratitude must also be extended to others in society. The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said:

“He has not thanked Allah who has not thanked people.”
[Abu Dawud]

These verses and sayings are meant to shape our mental outlook, which helps to recognize that we are dependent on the Creator, Allah (swt) and our fellow members of society. Such an outlook makes it easier to recognize how the economy should serve all of society as well as how each member of society is an integral part of a greater whole. Such a view in turns lends itself to accepting that resources can be commonly owned . 

Concluding thoughts

Individualism is native to Capitalism but is distant from reality. Even those that benefit the most from Capitalism realize they must control these commons to ensure their interests are protected.  

Instead, society is a collaborative endeavour that is defined by the collective thoughts, emotions and systems that bind its members together. Consequently, when discussing how mineral and energy wealth should be commonly owned its more important to start with understanding how the mechanics of society work and then move to this economic policy that would result in a fairer distribution of wealth in society.