Nigel Collingwood


1985; for private circulation.


Most animals are hunters or gatherers of food. They survive by preying on other species, but rarely prey on members of their own. Human beings, too, used to be hunters and gatherers, but have since moved towards the present world of a minority having immense wealth and power, and a majority struggling to live or even starving. In this world human beings kill one another in wars and progressively destroy the environment needed for their own, and the other animals’, survival.

Some people attribute this development to a flaw in the human make-up – perhaps to some kind of original sin. Others explain it in purely economic terms as the result of the means of production being owned and controlled not by the community, but by individuals. These two views give rise to two different strategies. Proponents of the first see the solution as lying in a change within each individual, whether by religious conversion or by a secular process of self-realisation and therapy. Proponents of the second view look to radical change in the social and economic structures, so that the world’s resources will be used rationally and shared fairly.

These two views tend to be at loggerheads: one saying that individual change must precede social change, the other the reverse.

However, this dualism between individual and society is misleading; just as misleading as that between mind and body. To be a human being simply is to be a member of society. Each person sees the world from their unique viewpoint, but understands what is seen by means of a language – and a language is a social creation. Moreover, no longer hunters and gatherers, most human beings sustain life by taking part in, and consuming the fruits of, the interaction with the environment that is production. The life that is sustained is itself a complex social life. Many are occupied in producing not food, shelter or clothing, but the society itself; for they are involved in teaching, the media etc. Thus whatever our individual gifts and peculiarities, we are brought together not only by language but through the human social activity of work. Even when unemployed we are still defined in relation to the work that we do not do!

So far this is simply to have established a point of view: what might be called a personal-political, or perhaps a psycho-social, point of view. What does the world look like from here?


Hunting and gathering was replaced by agriculture. This allowed a surplus to be amassed – goods over and above what was needed for immediate use. It seems likely that this surplus tended to be controlled by the males in the group, the females spending much time in bearing and looking after children. It also had to be defended against attack from other groups. Thus probably arose both patriarchy – domination of women by men, and war – attempted domination of other groups. Further, as the surplus became more complex and led to trade, the people in control of it needed others to produce it. Hence another kind of domination: one set of people paying others to work for them. As competition with other controllers increased, there was a pressure to keep wages down. Domination became oppression, while production was now aimed at making profits, not at meeting people’s needs.

The resulting split society (particularly since the industrial revolution) has led to split individuals. There is a split between working under another’s control and expressing ourselves creatively: roughly a split between hand and heart. Furthermore, education is basically to produce many obedient employees and a few tough employers. For in the scramble for profit, conscience and serious criticism must go by the board. Hence a split between heart and head.

There is also a stunting of our emotions and a consequent distortion in how we perceive the world. These stem from our earliest experiences, since parenting is crucial to human development. Although inadequacies and difficulties in this area are often due to emotional stunting (and physical shortcomings) in the parents and carers themselves, there are powerful social pressures working in the same direction. Poverty and insecurity make for unwanted and insufficiently loved children. Also the necessity to compete leads to a holding-back of their emotional life. The consequent emotional scars can leave them, for example, cold and withdrawn; or sad and needy; or fearful and apt to find scapegoats; or resentfully submissive; or lacking in conscience and manipulative; or sexually over-aggressive; or sexually over-passive. Virtually everyone has some scarring, some character difficulty, of these kinds. Each has the effect of rendering us not fully alive as individuals, yet all the more able to carry out our roles in an oppressive society. For the system based on profit needs cold, calculating planners; needs depressed people apt to blame themselves rather than the system; needs scapegoaters to direct attention towards enemies within or without; needs obedient and compliant workers; needs hard-hearted bullies to coerce those out of step; needs dominant men and dominated women.

In fact, of course, most people are emotionally distorted in a number of ways. The oppressive society affects not only our behaviour, but our attitudes. Like the hero of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, we are tempted in the end to “love Big Brother” (i.e. the forces oppressing us)!


Thus there is an alarmingly close fit between the oppressive, profit-oriented society all around us, and the psychological splits and distortions within us. This makes it absurd to try to remedy one before the other. The strategy must embrace both the external and the internal. The task is enormously difficult, yet because of the danger of annihilation, both through nuclear war and through the erosion of the planet’s resources, it is extremely urgent.

It is not, however, hopeless. The people who are victims of the oppressive economic system have a real, if still largely unrealised, interest in changing it. They far outnumber the controllers of power, who can of course be expected to resist the change. With advanced technology the production of goods could now be for the benefit, and under the control, of all. The project is socially and economically possible. Further, in spite of the effects of emotional stunting, virtually everyone has a spark of genuine humanity that can be fanned by love and called upon in time of crisis – although too much stress can throw us back on the distorted perceptions mentioned above. The trouble is that attitudes die hard, and could prevent the establishment, or endanger the stability, of a future non-oppressive society. Yet being involved in political struggle (e.g. a strike) can bring about considerable change in people’s attitudes, as happened, for instance, with many miners’ wives in the recent coal strike. There are, too, other more consciously undertaken ways of unlearning our emotional habits, e.g. co-counselling. The project is psychologically and therapeutically possible.

What is needed is an understanding of what is possible, and the will to do it.

If for a timid moment
we submit to love
exit from the inner cage
turn each to each to all…
we sense the magic net
that holds us veined
each to each to all.
– M Tippett, The Knot Garden