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02 February 2023

The collective makes fewer demands than you think, get in on it

Director of Learning and Influence Genevieve Maitland Hudson explains why we shouldn’t worry about collectivism being messy and unpredictable.


Committing to a positive version of public spending for social rather than primarily economic ends should have the effect of developing a sense of collective responsibility. There might still be a lingering concern, though, that the collective sense needs to come first, before the public spending begins, or perhaps that a determined effort will need to be made to enhance it or the spending will be wasted. Blair and Brown worried about the cultivation of a shared identity alongside their own spending programme and growled and prowled ineffectually, like terriers at the mouth of a rabbit warren, at an elusive definition of Britishness.

Was the worrying really warranted? Almost certainly not.

Effective collective identities, of whatever kind – national, communal, professional – are best understood as fuzzy sets rather than exhaustive lists. In the words of Raymond Geuss: “Members of the same community will often have much in common, many habits, attitudes, reactions, ways of doing things, beliefs; however, it does not follow from this that they share a single determinate, well-defined, explicit set of organised beliefs about the world.” Eric Eisenberg, writing from the perspective of organisational communication, notes that the experience of co-operation is “lumpy, serendipitous, messy and unpredictable” and the best way of promoting coordinated action is cohesiveness, which he defines as the “willingness to work together in the absence of shared understanding”. In other words, collective engagement is much lower stakes than we tend to assume, does not require an explicit set of shared values – in fact is often hampered by trying to have anything of the sort – and is overlapping, messy and open-ended.

The best everyday pop-cultural examples of this kind of collective are not the breathless online ‘communities’ that police their members’ subjective states of mind and professions of faith, but the television programmes like The Great British Bake Off and Pottery Throw Down that assume very little about the internal psychological states or deeply held beliefs of their participants and focus instead on the mastery of a defined skillset. It is noticeable when watching these shows that participants consistently experience a powerful sense of collegiate belonging, indeed they frequently voice their wonder at it. It is not, however, so very wondrous, except that we tend to live our lives with too little of this very ordinary participative experience and have instead a working definition of ‘community’ that assumes homogeneity not only of belief but of action.

We should resist that working definition. Our societies are irremediably pluralist and likely to become more so. Exclusionary models of engagement are very bad for our politics.

This is an important reason why we should be wary of too vigorous a rush towards the ‘personalisation’ of public services. There is a real collective benefit in experiencing services that are imperfect and for everyone, rather than targeted and ‘for me’.

It is also why we should be warier still of would-be ‘progressive’ political movements that advocate for personal fault-finding as a means of advancing equity. To quote Geuss again: “Is my own personal purity always what is at issue? What does this very focus on what is or is not “the fault” of some individual tell us about the society in question? Or, for that matter, about an individual who is keen to make this claim? Is the attempt to avoid being at fault a good project for a whole human life? Is a society of people trying to develop and exercise their “moral fibre” actually all that attractive?”. Geuss intends these questions to be rhetorical, but lest there be any doubt, the answers are no, not much good, ditto, no and no.

It is the collective good that is good for us, and you can bank that as an idealist or a consequentialist. Jump in, live long, and die happy.