“What we think, we become. My father always said that…” was something that Margaret Thatcher said and signed up to. Given the influence of her ideas on political and economic life, it seems right, on her death, to consider what we think and who we are.
Her idea that society is simply the sum of individuals was clumsily put and widely and probably unfairly pilloried, but it is a prompt to think about something fundamental, which is the extent to which we act alone or act together. Martin Buber, last century, characterised this as looking to the ‘I’ or the ‘we’.
Eric Fromm, who wrote The Sane Society in 1955 – a powerful case for co-operative economic democracy, builds on this distinction between individual and society by looking at what we have and who we are. His ideas on ‘having’ and ‘being’ are set out in a short interview before he died.
In conversation with Pat Conaty, Robin Murray and John Restakis – colleagues and associates in our work at Co-operatives UK – prompted by this, it becomes clear that if value rests in what you have, rather than who you are or what you are part of, then sharing and co-operation can be seen as a threat to the identity of the haver. In contrast, if value rests in who you are, then there is a wider sense of identity and meaning that comes from sharing, and from collective affiliation. Hence the importance of the experience of co-operation, at home and work, and of festivals and dance, of common meals, of working together on a common task. This is widely affirmed in all the great work of recent years on ‘well’ being – where co-operation and social reciprocity is the outstanding predictor of happiness.
This is the real sense of society as something not just natural, rather than artificial, but also adaptable rather than fixed. The society that we are part of, or rather the multiple communities that we affiliate or adhere to, are not given but made and remade by what we think and how we act. With co-operative and mutual models of enterprise, we are doing just that – by sustaining, exploring and affirming models of ownership, investment, work and reward that find a better balance.
If it is possible to think about both the ‘I’ and the ‘we’, we can become more fully human and more fulfilled in how we live.