Strange things happen when you read two books at the same time, especially when they’re both equally eye-opening on the way we live our lives. Especially when those books are “Art of Life” by Zygmunt Bauman and “Envisaging Real Utopias” by Erik Olin Wright.
Ever since university, Zygmunt Bauman has been one of the writers who has managed to capture the deeper story about where our society is going, beyond the trendy “nudge”, “blink” or other “freakonomics” that hunger for the zeigeist. I can’t remember how I found out about Erik Olinn Wright, might it have been at @theplayethic lecture at the Really Free School.
If you have the chance to read both of the books (and obviously I would recommend it!), you’ll see they don’t really go together, but then read these two quotes from the Pole and the Sweede:
“Our concern with the way the world is managed has given way to concern with self management…We transform our collective grievances into personal problems” (Art of Life)
“The actual trajectory of large-scale social change that we observe in history is the result of the interaction of two kinds of change-generating processes: first, the cumulative unintended by-products of the actions of people operating under existing social relations, and second, the cumulative intended effects of conscious projects of social change by people acting strategically to transform these social relations” (Envisaging Real Utopias)
It made me think that even though the trends in society have moved towards a transfer of risks from society to the individual, from social movements to transactional clictivism, collective action to self help — that it might help us deconstruct the current trend towards “random acts of kindness”.
There is surely nothing random about being kind, but perhaps what’s random is that we have been taught that everything we do is guided with rational self interest, hence, the irrationality and randomness of the act of kindness to people we don’t ask anything back from.
But if we look back at Zygmunt’s quote, the random acts of kindness are still influenced by our “self-management” not just of our problems, but of our response to other people’s problems, or what Erik calls “the cumulative unintended by-products of the actions of people operating under existing social relations”.
Rather than these random acts of kindness becoming more than the sum of their parts, how can they interconnect with more collective strategic actions to improve society?
The process of connecting those individual random acts with the more radical collective transformations isn’t easy. Often the motivations of the different actors mean that the individual acts won’t always be valued by the more collective social movements and those who act out the random acts of kindness won’t always want their personal connection and story (and pride and self-worth) to the act to be diluted by the wider efforts of the collective. Likewise the social movement will want to prioritise collective actions that are more than the sum of their parts.
So how can we enable people who want their “random acts of kindness” to be spread by other people and be connected to others they can work with on positive social change without their personal story behind their act being lost in the process?