Please can we all stop pretending to be independent?

I’ve been campaigning about mental health or over 20 years. In that time, some of my views have remained firm and others have changed or developed. One of the things that bothers me more than it used to is all the talk we face about being “independent”.

Of course, independence in some contexts can at times be a worthy goal. If you’re wanting to do something on your own that you previously could not, and that personally matters to you, then fair enough, go for it.

If you don’t want to be dependent on someone who has too much influence over your life, your home, your work or your money, then you may well talk about “independence” to mean no longer being so dependent on that person, which may be very important. I certainly don’t mean to discourage you.

However, it can be hard to resist the lie that we all can and should be “independent”. People who turn to social security for help (which is what it is there for) are told they should not “rely” on state benefits. They are accused of “welfare dependency”. Everybody is encouraged to be “financially independent”.

This attitude is not only wrong and immoral; it is absurd. It has no connection with reality. Nobody is independent.

I have just drunk a cup of tea. To do so, I depended on hundreds of people on the other side of the world, who picked the tea. I depended on hundreds more who packed and transported the tea. I depended on the people who put the tea into tea-bags, who designed the boxes in which the tea-bags were sold, who worked in the supermarket at which I bought the tea-bags. That’s even before I consider the sugar and milk, and the supply of water to the taps in my kitchen.

I cannot drink a cup of tea without depending on literally thousands of people.

In a less tangible but equally important way, good mental health can rarely if ever be achieved in isolation. It depends amongst other things on our connections with others and the nature of the communities and the society of which are part. When the economy and culture of society encourage greed and prejudice, mental health is one of several things that suffers.

The attack on “welfare dependency” implies that it is the poorest people who are the most dependent. This is the opposite of the truth.

Rich people recieve their wealth from others. The wealthy owner of a business is dependent on all the people who work in that business, and often on those who buy its products as well. People who profit from buying and selling shares are dependent on the workers in a vast range of businesses that they seek to profit from. Billionaires are dependent on the rest of the population not overthrowing them and redistruting their wealth. So-called “wealth creators” create wealth only through the labour of the thousands they employ, who are the real wealth-creators (billionaires don’t create wealth on their own, do they?).

I suggest that we need instead to embrace interdependence, in which we rely on each other as equals to meet our own and each other’s needs. This requires fundamental changes to our very unequal society. We cannot even begin this process unless we challenge the attitude that praises rich people for supposedly being independent, and condemns poor people because they are not.

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