Blog 3 of 3 in the INDIVIDUTOPIA series.
Margaret Thatcher once said, “There is no such things as society”.
The second half of this statement is not so well known. Thatcher would go on to claim that instead of there being a society, there were only “Individual men and women”.
This ideological belief has dominated the political mainstream ever since…
On the one hand, we’ve seen a deliberate attack on the things which unite us within society; unions have been crushed, welfare has been demonised, and communal spaces (such as post offices, social clubs and libraries) have been closed or sold off.
On the other hand, we’ve been encouraged to be individuals; to be different from our peers, and to be better than our peers. To compete.
But this ideology comes with a small but significant caveat: We can’t be too individual.
This is how I put it in my new novel, “Individutopia”:
“This is the thing with individualism, please understand: Everyone has to be different, of course, but their differences must conform. Everyone must wear different clothes, to be an individual, and everyone must personalise their clothes, to outdo everyone else. But those clothes must all be made by Nike. There’s simply no choice in the matter, and no one can conceive of a world in which an alternative might exist.”
Individutopia is set in a neoliberal dystopia, in which Nike have become the monopoly supplier of clothing. Everyone’s clothes are made by Nike, and yet everyone still believes they’re unique.
We may not have reached such a state just yet, but the principle remains: We must express our individuality through the market. We can buy any clothes we like, and personalise them in any way we deem fit, but we must buy clothes. Even goths buy makeup. Even people who knit their own jumpers buy wool. If you were to leave home naked, a perfectly natural thing to do, you’ll be arrested. That’s just a little too individual for comfort.
And since you need money, to buy your individuality, you need to have a job. You can have the most individual job in the world. God knows jobs are becoming more unique. Gone are the days when everyone in a village worked in the same factory or mine. These days a hundred people living on the same street may have eighty or ninety different jobs. We’ve created all sorts of new positions, which no-one really understands: Brand Ambassador, Hacker in Chief, Company Philosopher. But whatever we do, we have to have a job. We have to work.
This mentality is driven into us from the first day we arrive at school. We are all made to sit in a regimented fashion behind a desk, wear uniforms, follow the same curriculum, obey the teacher, fall in line with the timetable and take exams. Of course, we can get totally different results, in totally different subjects. It doesn’t matter so much if our grades are good or bad; our unique grades make us individual. But we can’t be so individual as to refuse to take exams, question the national curriculum or challenge our teachers.
It’s as if our lives have been placed on a conveyer belt. We have no choice but to proceed in a straight line: Birth. School. Work. Buy a house. Repay the mortgage. Retire. Die.
Within this structure we can express our individuality, through the market, in any way we choose. We can buy different things, wear different clothes and live in different houses. But we can’t be truly free: We must be moulded into shape at school, we must depend on the wages we are paid at work, and we must live in the shadow of our debts.
Of course, some brave souls do try to live outside of this system. But these people, who are a little too individual, are almost guaranteed to come face-to-face with the full weight of the establishment’s might. I would know. I was expelled twice because I was too rebellious for school. My behaviour didn’t conform to expectations; I questioned my teachers one too many times, broke one too many rules, and was made to feel like a worthless wretch because of it.
People who don’t work, and claim benefits instead, face the scorn of the mainstream press, a majority of politicians and a large chunk of the population.
A few years ago, a new movement popped up in the USA, whereby people chose to live “Off Grid”; purifying stream water, using solar panels for electricity and growing their own food. They didn’t express their individuality through the market. And, as such, they were just a little too individual for the authorities, who quickly made living off-grid illegal.
These days, you can buy yourself any sort of house, in any location. It can be any size. But you have to buy or rent through the market. It’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to find yourself a council house, which have mostly been sold to the older generation. Tony Blair abolished Squatters’ Rights, meaning its now illegal to squat in an unused building. It’s virtually impossible to live in a commune these days, because the price of land is so high, and there’s no land left over for people who do not believe in private ownership.
Perhaps the biggest victims of this system are the gypsies…
Gypsies remind us of a natural way of living which would have been familiar to our ancestors. They don’t respect the idea of private property, and believe in the freedom to move and live wherever they choose, whenever they choose. They tend not to work for big corporations, often take their children out of school, and might even make they own clothes. Their individuality really doesn’t conform.
And what is the consequence?
Fifty-eight percent of Brits had a negative impression of gypsies, according to a 2015 poll carried out by YouGov (see above). To put this in context, only 8% had a negative impression of black people and only 7% of people had a negative impression of Jews. The difference is staggering.
Gypsies, squatters, people who live in communes or off-grid, and people who rely on benefits are all scorned or abused in this neoliberal era.
Because their individuality doesn’t conform. It’s not expressed through the market.
In a world where there’s no such thing as society, only individuals, these people are a little too individual for comfort.
Joss Sheldon’s new novel, Individutopia, deals with the themes introduced in this blog. It’s set in a neoliberal dystopia, in which there truly is no such thing as society, no-one looks or talks to anyone else, and people spend their lives battling to be as unique as possible, just so long as their individuality conforms.