I and we – the eternal duality

20/05/2013 § 5 Comments

My recent post about my mother made me reflect further on the duality of “I” and “we”. If, like my mother, we’re all both individuals and part of a wider whole, then our thinking, our society, and institutions and our day-to-day actions need to acknowledge that duality. It seems to me that the politics of the last 40 years or so (and no doubt of a lot longer – but history isn’t my strong point!) have been characterised by a battle between those who want to see us simply as individual particles, unconnected with those around us, and those who see us as mere parts of a whole without individual identity of any significance. Thatcherism and Reaganism emphasised our particle-like qualities (the “I”) and communism our wave-like qualities (the “We”). Neither is right or wrong, and seeing this as a choice we have to make is not serving either the I or the We.

If we acknowledge that there is a duality, and a tension between our needs as individuals and the needs of the whole, we can ask that our institutions and our representatives in these institutions creatively manage the balance so that both our qualities are acknowledged. If, as happened under communism, the state (the big “we”) owns all property then individupalace in decayals stop caring about property. I saw this when I lived in Saint Petersburg, where after 80 years of communism the beautiful buildings were steadily deteriorating due to lack of maintenance. When privatisation came, everyone suddenly had an incentive to look after their property and, externally at least, the city was transformed. By contrast if we over-emphasise the I, then we do what Margaret Thatcher did and sell-off state-owned houses with the inevitable consequence that some individuals get rich out of it and others less fortunate have nowhere to live.

Wouldn’t it be good if, rather than left-wing and right wing politicians arguing over whether the I or the We are more important, we could all be a bit more creative and explore solutions that balance and harmonise. There are some good examples in a recent book, the Resilience Imperative, by Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty. They highlight the community land trust model in United States, an example of how land ownership can be solved (interestingly, their relevant chapter is entitled “Uniting the I and the We” – great minds think alike!). In this model there is a separation of the two cost elements of real property: the market price of the land and the price of the house itself. The land is removed from the market and placed in a trust, so that escalating land values do not make the price of a house (which is much less significant than the price of the land) unaffordable to those of low and moderate income. This concept has its roots in the successful village land trust movement in India, which was inspired by Gandhi. Its roots go back further to Ruskin, who may have been inspired by practices of traditional communities where land was held collectively but individuals could eat what they grew. There are other examples given in the book including mutual home ownership housing in the UK and tenant owned co-operatives in Sweden.

These examples are a reminder of our human ingenuity, which we will need to manage this apparently irresolvable tension between “I” and “we”. I have no doubt other effective solutions will emerge as global consciousness increasingly recognises our dual nature.

Our aim, it seems to me, is maximum freedom (allowing individuals to shine) and maximum cohesion (being the best we can be collectively).  A sound maxim for the 21st Century.

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