One thing that Vietnam does fantastically well is community. There is an unspoken familiarity between people there. Even the way you address people (‘hey big sister’, ‘hey grandpa’) is predicated on a sense of underlying connectivity. There are no strangers, just people you haven’t met yet. Wealth might divide people, but class largely doesn’t. Business men driving enormous silver Land Rovers pull up by the side of the street and buy passion fruit juice from street vendors.
You sit drinking a beer and the man running the beer stall plays with your hair. His wife sits down next to you and leans against you while she takes an order from another table. Little ones grab your legs, your young waitress finds out you’re the same age, puts her arm around you and calls you sister.
To us in the U.K, it’s incomprehensible. We subscribe, or are forced to subscribe, to an idea of individualisation that prevents this kind of society. Individualisation, in its rawest online definition form, is simply the belief that each person on this earth is wholly unique. There is no denying that life and the burden of existence can seem a little isolating at times. How many of us have cried ‘you just don’t understand me’ to our parents, convinced that our consciousness is unique and completely unfathomable?
But the fact that I can say with confidence that most of us were irritating teenagers illustrates how, on an emotional level, individualisation is misleading. Most people experience the exact same feelings of love, grief and joy. As Tony Benn famously said, don’t Iraqi women cry when their children are killed? Human beings are all fundamentally incredibly similar. Arguing otherwise is at best, short sighted, and at worst, manipulative.
Maggie Thatcher wasn’t just thinking out loud when she said ‘there is no such thing as society.’ She was peddling an ideology that focused on eroding human relations and promoting profit above all else. By breaking down a sense of collective and shared experience, Thatcher was encouraging people to engage in social Darwinism. We are all individuals, we owe each other nothing. We are all individuals, and the best will succeed.
Social Darwinism is dangerous. It completely disregards the fact that our society contains both privilege and oppression, which help and hinder certain people in our desperate race for success. It also implies that the sole goal of human kind is to compete against each other. And this mentality is super handy for capitalism, but it’s also soul destroying.
Vietnam is not a capitalist country. It doesn’t feel profit orientated because it just isn’t, at least not on a personal level. The way people relate to each other in Vietnam puts us to shame. It’s laughable that no one makes eye contact here. You don’t talk on the Tube. That old lady in the train station struggles alone up the stairs with her bags. She isn’t your grandma, so she isn’t your problem. And don’t you have things to do, things to achieve?
Individual achievement and individual reality can be positive. We all make choices about how we see the world, and our personal realities are just that. But the hyper individualisation required by British and American society is not designed to promote a populous who’ve nailed self love. It’s designed to break down the chains of cause and effect that lead to atrocities in other parts of the world. The U.S. supplied the bomb that killed those children in Yemen, but you are just an individual, so what can you do about it? It’s designed to turn people into cogs, to stop being caring about each other so they can exploit each other without a backwards glance. This ideology might have been designed for the work place, but it seeps like sewage, polluting our ability to communicate with our unknown friend who sits opposite us on the commute to London.
As Franco Bifo Berardi said in his book on the subject, we need to collectively ‘rethink the true meaning of the world wealth.’ In a world where you sacrifice others for your bank balance, we are all just getting poorer.