The Joys of Combination

In the last post of the four year arc of The Combination, Tanya Jones debunks some ‘toxic and manipulative myths’ of ‘human badness’, and champions the ‘experience of working with others, for a common goal and the common good’.

As we end this particular combination of ideas and perspectives, words, images and sounds, I’ve been thinking about the ways in which people voluntarily combine for mutual and common good.  That includes, of course, the unions referenced by Maurice in our very first post, against whom the Combination Acts were deployed, but also campaigns against inequality, poverty, war and environmental destruction, as well as cooperatives, reconciliation groups, arts initiatives, citizens’ assemblies and the mutual aid responses to this year’s pandemic.  I’d like to suggest that, as well as the specific objectives of these groups, they also serve to combat three toxic and manipulative myths.  These myths, interrelated and shifting, are used, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not, to stifle truth-telling voices and to stymie precious opportunities for change.

The first tells us that human beings are essentially bad.  This conjures up, of course, and especially for anyone who has lived in Northern Ireland, the specific Christian doctrine of original sin.  But both Catholic and Protestant iterations of that pernicious claim present potential solutions, however inhuman.  The secular version presents no hope. 

It co-opts the construct of the Anthropocene, which makes sense in purely scientific terms, to argue that climate catastrophe is the collective moral fault of humanity, which therefore deserves its impending doom.  Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital forensically dismantles this claim, showing how the hydrocarbon economy resulted from specific capitalist decisions, which were neither inevitable nor uncontested.  Nevertheless, the narratives persist, even intensify with the worsening crisis: this is our fault, whether we are minority world consumers or majority world parents, our greed and profligacy has brought us here, and only corporate technofixes can save our worthless skins. 

Similar stories are told about inequality and injustice, that they are the natural consequences of our fallen (or never elevated) nature.  If humans are incapable of more than racing to accumulate the most stuff and status, then, as the sententious Tories like to tell us, there will of course be ‘winners and losers’.  So the logic of meritocracy, ‘to he who has, more shall be given’, is as good as anything else, and a lot less trouble.

But the experience of working with others, for a common goal and the common good, shows this to be untrue.  No, we’re not perfect, and neither are our comrades, but we see reflected in others, along with our anxiety and mistakes, our real worth and agency.  There are conflicts within groups, of course, a choice of paths to the envisioned outcome, but rarely malevolence.  When we are let down, then we feel betrayed, yes, but that very feeling is evidence that we expected something better. 

The second myth, connected to the first, is that we can’t expect much of those with power, wealth or authority.  There are two versions of this: the patrician, that the rulers are doing a good job which the rest of us are too ignorant to recognise; and the populist, that politicians and experts are all corrupt anyway, so we might as well let the most egregious liar run the shop.  Again, experience of actual campaigning, on specific issues, gives us the tools to challenge these claims, and to interrogate those with power about the details of how they exercise it.  Many, maybe most, fall short of what we ideally want, but it is certainly not the case that they are all the same.  Our electoral systems need urgent reform, but it is a dangerous illusion to think that dismantling them altogether would in itself reduce the influence of fossil capital or monopolistic media.

And the third myth is that the general badness of humanity is concentrated in particular groups.  We know all too much about this one.  But again, the best remedy is actual experience, either directly, if the combination is inclusive enough, or through relationships of solidarity between different campaigns.  It is in these connections that we recognise both our own privilege and the fact that human rights and justice are not a zero sum game.

In their focus on the specific, on particular and achievable reforms, voluntary groups and campaigns give us invaluable tools and measures, enabling us honestly to assess ourselves and our representatives. In order to keep our activism alive, through hard and harder times, we need to reiterate generosity and kindness, towards our own human fragility, our group dynamic, and the peopled world beyond. More than this, we need constantly to challenge our susceptibility to the myths of human badness.  Our small campaigns, our shared initiatives, may be more important than we realise, giving us opportunities not only to strive for a better world, but to model it in miniature, and to assert the reality of original virtue. 

We need our combinations, and not only on winter nights.

Tanya Jones

26 December 2020