On occasion, falling down the rabbit hole that is Instagram yields positive results. It was there, on the social media platform, where I learned that American writer Anand Giridharadas would be speaking in Amsterdam. And, as though the gods of procrastination were this once glad to reward me for my fealty, the event would be free.

And so off I went to listen to the best-selling author of talk about the fallacy of “win-win”. Our economic model, Giridharadas explained, was indeed creating winners – But, there were also losers, left to gather up the crumbs from under the table; and a new entrepreneurial class who believed in their ability to “do well and do good”. 

Giridharadas himself looked like a sleek corporate executive, had spent time with sleek executives in order to write his book, but was preaching taking an axe to the tree in whose lofty heights billionaire businessmen sat, cushioned from the economic shocks the rest of us feel, and paying little tax for the privilege. Heads in the audience nodded in incessant approval.

While the discussion from the stage had been interesting, it was the questions from within the room I had found most enlightening. Not just once, a well-read, well-meaning – and yes, well-heeled – fellow member of the audience stood to their feet to ask about what they themselves could do to ‘be the change they wish to see in the world’. 

I get your point about billionaires, but I still use an iPhone. Aren’t I just as bad? One woman had asked. Giridharadas would say something to the effect of “of course there is more you can do, but what we need is systems change”, before the question would roll back around in a different guise.

I was perplexed - and more than a little irritated. Why was it so hard to distinguish between the impact of Joe/Jane Public and that of Giridharadas offered an answer: perhaps the success of our current system was in part thanks to the ability of that system to focus our attentions on personal agency rather than systemic transformation.

Collective agency is a muscle we are leaving to atrophy

I was once very much like Hilary Cohen, whose story Giridharadas recounts in the first chapter of his book. Eager to change the world, recognising the ever-expanding reach of the private sector in society, and rather than rile against it, I would change the system from the inside: After all, who can you help if you make no money, right?

I believed in the power of my own agency: if the social enterprise lark didn’t work, I would choose an employer with a moral compass. And I would be a better consumer; picking products and services that were good for people and planet. Politicians didn’t listen, I reasoned, but corporations did, and they were in charge anyway, so I would vote with my “spending power” – boycotting those brands who had poor records on the things I cared about, and rewarding with my meagre income those companies who took their social responsibility seriously.

I lived well over a decade of my life this way and for much of it, felt a complete hypocrite. I was not changing the world, My immigration status in the UK put an end to my social entrepreneurship dreams. No bank would give an international student a loan big enough to match my ambitions and I had no oligarchs for parents. In fact, many areas of my life remained exactly as they had been before I declared myself an ‘ethical consumer’. 

It is from this experience that I empathised with the honest seekers of a better way, who kept asking Giridharadas versions of the same question. Most of us, caught up in a system that feels infinitely bigger than our own lives, recognise the privilege we have and want to use it to make the world a better place. 

We scarcely consider the fact that for all of its virtues, ethical or conscious consumerism is no substitute for tax reform, migration policy reform, criminal justice reform, intellectual property law reform, international trade law reform and so on. What we have contented ourselves with doing instead is essentially playing the same game (consumerism) by the same rules (I buy, therefore I am). We’ve simply changed the ball (ethical products and services).

This point has been made several times, by people who have seemed to be screaming into the wind, and most recently – or perhaps most visibly – by Giridharadas himself. Less addressed is why our attachment to our own individual actions persists, when it is clear that all of us buying organic cotton pyjamas have hardly made a dent in the global pesticide industry, for example.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”

My guess is that we fear that if we weren’t doing this – buying better, recycling more, eating less meat – we would be doing nothing at all. We have lost sight of the value, or even the possibility, of collective action and it’s easy to see why.

Call a protest movement to mind, or most any form of collective civil disobedience. Then think about the media and political framing of these actions. Protesters are practically synonymous with pests. Blocked roads keep hardworking “regular people” from getting to work; striking teachers force parents to have to look after their own children as schools close. News reports at the end of a day of protest remind us of just how much the ‘inconvenience’ has cost the economy. It’s no wonder that the Standing Rock Sioux tribe – who led the months-long protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline –  

In many parts of Africa there is a saying: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Truly being part of a community can feel like the best of times and the worst of times. Introducing processes that allow all voices to be heard and for consensus to be reached is painstaking. Compromise often feels like failure. But more than that, in a world where what is good for corporations has been convincingly sold as also being good for people, we have sought our validation as individuals. “I did it my way”, the song goes.

Where do you even start with joining with your neighbours to bring about change in your neighbourhood if you don’t know who your neighbours are? Giving money to a cause, buying Fairtrade roses and sugar, signing an online petition: one can do all these things without having to deal with another person and their thoughts about what is best. Collective agency is a muscle we are leaving to atrophy.

Realising this at the end of my evening out in Amsterdam, I followed up on a thought I’d had, but kept putting off, to sign up to volunteer at a local centre. 

Will spending four hours a week helping out in a space that offers workplaces for formerly addicted and homeless people “change the world”? Not in any headline-making way. 

But it will force me to reimagine what good I can do alongside other people, rather than in spite of them. I will see and hear the challenges of those who are most intimately affected by the issues, and maybe one day, when one of us has a grand idea that can “bring the whole system down”, we’ll know other foot soldiers who can stand alongside us.

Correction: The Native American tribe that lead the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline is the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, not the North Dakota Sioux Tribe.