Community in crisis
Community in Crisis -
A roadmap to repair
In this talk I want to do two things. The first is to explain what I mean when I say that communities are in crisis. What does this crisis consist of and what are its causes? Second, I want to outline what it means to repair the damage and why co-operatives, along with other social economy organizations, are central to rebuilding the foundations on which community is based.
Now this is a huge issue...but it has become central to what drives the effort for economic, social and political reform in Canada and around the world. It is central also to why many of us are gathered here together and what drives us to do the work we do when we return home. The restoration and repair of community is at the heart of our work.
Let me begin by sharing two stories that help to illustrate the points I want to focus on. They tell with how different communities respond to natural disaster and why. The first deals with Hurricane Katrina and the experience of New Orleans. The second talks about Sri Lanka and the tsunami of 2004. To this can be added the catastrophic experience of Japan and the tragedy that is unfolding there as we speak.
We all remember the images of those isolated figures on the rooftops waving desperately for help as the floodwaters rose around them. New Orleans was underwater. For days, meteorologists had been warning that the approaching hurricane was unlike anything seen in the last thirty years. By the time it made landfall on August 29, 2005 the storm had been jacked up to a category 5, gathering lethal force as it sliced across the Florida panhandle and slammed into the gulf states of Louisiana and Mississippi. When it was all over, Hurricane Katrina had become the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. Its material toll was estimated at US 100 billion. Five hundred thousand homes were destroyed.
But New Orleans was lucky... the storm only grazed the city. What destroyed New Orleans was entirely a man-made disaster - the failure of the city"s levee system due to shoddy design and engineering. The political fallout that followed marked a watershed in public perceptions not only of the Bush administration but of government itself. At a deeper level, Katrina emerged as a freeze frame of the shocking dysfunction beneath the surface of contemporary American society.
What happened to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina was a horrifying portrait of a society falling to pieces in the face of crisis. Wynton Marsalis, a New Orleans native and one of the city's proudest proponents, put it this way, "I feel that in this moment we see a lot in what's wrong with us, it's a signature moment...this is like you stood in front of the mirror and you couldn't turn away from it. You stayed in that pose, and everything in that pose shows us what's wrong with us."
What was it that Americans saw in that shattering reflection? It was social breakdown - a primal descent into a struggle of all against all, the abandonment of a people by their government, despair and desperation, a turn to savage individualism. As soon as the storm had subsided, a tide of crime and violence swept through the city. New Orleans was already the murder capital of the country, with an average of 200 murders per year. The annual arrest rate was 100,000 for a population of 485,000. With many of the city's police officers preoccupied with their own families' misfortunes, there was an immediate breakdown in law enforcement.
City residents, black and white alike, turned to looting. It wasn't just food. Pharmacies were picked clean by armed gangs seeking drugs. Gun stores were emptied out. One could see people leaving stores with armloads of expensive sneakers or television sets. There was no one to stop them. Often, the few available police were dispatched to protect the properties of the well off. Many survivors had to defend their lives and property unaided. Scores of police officers were later charged with abandoning their posts and joining in the looting. In the stadium some 25,000 people were stranded without food, water, or communication with the outside world. Most appalling of all, there were confirmed reports of snipers firing on doctors, nurses, and rescue workers struggling to evacuate critically ill patients from two of the city's hospitals.
The social fabric of the city was coming apart as an astounded nation witnessed not only the collapse of an entire community, but also the total inability of government to provide help. Americans were finding it hard to believe they weren't witnessing some distant disaster in a third world country. But they were. They were watching the tragic truth of third world America right at home. Deeply shaken, they were coming face to face with the kind of society they were now living in.
Even before Katrina, New Orleans was not one city but two-left along the fault lines of class and race. There is a small, affluent city of great beauty and charm, centered on the French Quarter, and almost entirely white. But New Orleans is two-thirds black. If one took a map of the city's black population and laid it over a map of the poorest districts, the two would correspond almost perfectly. These are also the neighborhoods that are the lowest lying - the ones most likely to flood. Being black in New Orleans, usually means being poor. It would be easy to dismiss the lawlessness that followed Katrina as a symptom of endemic poverty, or rage at the injustice of a system that had turned its back on so many, both before and after the catastrophe. But poverty and anger do not explain the apparent failure of empathy for one's neighbours, the collapse of moral obligation to the plight of others that was perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this tragic spectacle. For what seems to have been laid bare by Katrina was the underlying condition of American society. It is always in crisis that the truest character of a society comes to light. At a socio-psychological level, Katrina's legacy was even deeper and more painful than the terrible toll the storm took on the lives of the thousands of victims that lay in its path.
But it didn't need to be like this. Let's compare the aftermath of Katrina to the events following the devastation of the Asian Tsunami in Sri Lanka in December of 2004. The differences are revealing.
Despite decades of ethnic conflict and a war in progress, Sri Lanka was able to rally a truly remarkable restorative effort that quickly repaired much of the damage left in the wake of the largest natural disaster in modern history. Over 250,000 people were killed throughout South and East Asia. Sri Lanka was the most heavily affected in relative terms. Within a few hours on December 26 2004, without prior warning (unlike Katrina), 35,000 Sri Lankans were killed. When the tidal waves came, everything within half a mile of the affected coasts was obliterated.
For a small developing country of 20 million with a per capita annual income of USD $1,000, the destruction was a terrible blow. In the immediate aftermath of the tidal wave, the government was overwhelmed. There were predictions of civil breakdown and the spread of epidemics among the homeless. But a different story emerged. Communities across the entire affected region banded together. Within hours of the tsunami, local groups had established shelters in neighborhood homes, schools, and temples. Among the very first groups to start organizing relief efforts was SANASA, the credit union system that mobilized its members throughout the affected areas. Private relief supplies also began to pour in from across the nation. Food, water, and shelter were provided to survivors, while bands of volunteers combed the affected areas to remove thousands of decomposing bodies before they became a health hazard. (By contrast, bodies were still being found in boarded up homes in New Orleans, 7 months after the storm).
Most tellingly, incidents of lawlessness - looting, violence, and predatory behaviour - were minimal. Just 10 days after the tsunami hit, a broad range of civil society organizations were meeting to co-ordinate efforts and ensure maximum deployment of available resources. A comprehensive action plan for recovery and renewal was drafted and delivered to government on behalf of civil society and a full report was sent to the Second UN Conference of Disasters held only a few weeks later in January 2005. On February 20, over 100 miles of railway track that had been torn away by the tidal wave had been repaired and re-opened through the combined efforts of 1,000 railway employees, troops, and countless village volunteers. It was the largest development of the railway in a century and it had been completed in just 57 days.
If anything, the immediate social impact of the tsunami in Sri Lanka was to strengthen the social bonds that existed before its onset. Even the ethnic fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lanka army was put on pause as Tamils, Muslims, and Buddhists joined their rescue efforts in the weeks immediately following the disaster. What accounts for this profound difference in the social effects of Katrina and the Tsunami? Why is it that the utter devastation that has been visited on Japan has not produced the social breakdown that we witnessed in New Orleans? The answer to this question, and its relation to the social role of co-operative institutions, is the key to what makes communities work and what it takes to repair the decline of community both in the U.S. and elsewhere, including Canada.
My starting point is primarily the United States, because I believe that the American experience has most to teach us about the challenges that industrial societies face as a result of the specific economic and social system that has come to define globalization. America is at the epicenter of the culture of consumption and the neo-liberal doctrine that drives it. The social effects of this doctrine, and their impact on the very idea of community are most visible there.
At the start of the twenty first century, ordinary Americans share a profound sense of civic malaise. The rampant lawlessness that followed in the wake of Katrina was an unsettling spectacle that both crystallized and amplified this sense. But the feeling had been growing for years. In his book, "Bowling Alone " - a study of the decline of community in America - Robert Putnam provides disturbing evidence of the growing isolation and disengagement of Americans from their communities and the profound social and personal costs of this withdrawal. Signs of this decline have been accumulating for decades. On every measure of civic engagement, from voter participation, to involvement in religious organizations, to membership in social clubs and even the giving of dinner parties and visiting friends, America has experienced a catastrophic decline in the willingness of individuals to become active members of their communities.
Political involvement is a case in point. Voter participation in the US has declined by 25 percent over the last thirty years, from 62.8 percent in the Kennedy/Nixon election of 1960, to 48.9 percent in the Clinton/Dole election of 1992. What Putnam documents in his study is the progressive "hollowing out" of civic life commencing in 1960 down to the present day. The high water mark of civic engagement, it turns out, was in the period between 1945 and 1960, the time when the generation born just after 1910 grew up during the Great Depression, fought in the Second World War, and dominated the American demographic. It was with the succeeding generation of baby boomers and Genration Xrs, born between 1965 and 1980, that the decline of community life became epidemic in the US.
The one thing that distinguishes these generations from the preceding one is precisely their rejection and distrust of mainstream politics and institutions. As Putnam notes, they are defined more by "what they don't like and don't do, than what they like and do ".
Boomers became "free agents " - disengaged, atomistic, less deferential to authority, and uncommitted beyond a relatively narrow circle of friends and family. They volunteered less and contributed less to charity than their parents or grandparents. They became more materialistic. The trend was further amplified among Generation Xrs. When asked by Roper pollsters in 1975 to identify the elements of "the good life ", 38 percent of all adults chose "a lot of money " and an additional 38 percent mentioned "a job that contributes to the welfare of society ". By 1996, those who aspired to serve society had slipped to 32 percent while those who aspired to "a lot of money " had grown to 63 percent. In addition, Xrs have adopted an extremely personal and individualistic view of politics. They emphasize the private and the personal over the public and the collective. They share no collective sense of a higher purpose in political or civic involvement. Their political engagements are narrow and specific and relate to one-off issues that affect them personally.
How have these dramatic changes affected the American social fabric? To begin with, American society has become more atomized. The fraying of civil institutions such as social clubs and religious organizations has also meant that the civic structures that brought disparate people in relationship with one another are no longer playing this role. One consequence has been a general decline in trust. This in turn, has increased the social isolation among individuals. At a personal level this is one of the most disturbing effects of the generalized decline of community in the US.
Since 1940, the onset of depression has struck earlier and more pervasively in each successive generation, reaching alarming levels with today's youth. The rate of depression over the last two generations has increased tenfold. Between 1950 and 1995 the suicide rate of teenagers aged between 15 and 19 more than quadrupled. In that portion of the population born just after 1910 and that also felt a stronger connection and had a deeper involvement with their community, the trend was exactly the opposite. What is more, this rising suicide rate among generation Xrs is apparent not only in the US and Canada where rates are almost identical (11.1 per 100,000 versus 11.4) but throughout the West. Inconveniently, suicide rates overall are even higher in those countries that have attained what many would imagine a kind of contemporary welfare state utopia. In the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark suicide rates per 100,000 number 11.7, 13.6, and 13.7 respectively.
The crisis in community life that has arisen in the last few decades seems to correlate with the rise of personal anxiety, insecurity, isolation, and personal unhappiness. But how has this come to pass? What are the reasons for this disastrous decline? Putnam identifies two main culprits: the advent of isolating technology - television in particular - and the rise of a disengaged, disenchanted generation that took the place of what he termed the "long civic generation " of the first half of the twentieth century - a generation that is now fading away. The result has been the loss of social capital, the norms of reciprocity and trust that make civic life and healthy communities possible. In its shocking clarity, New Orleans displayed the end results of this decay. But the decline is not confined to that city alone. It is pervasive and apparently a by-product of the socio-economic system that now defines American culture specifically, western culture generally, and global culture increasingly. But the question remains: what is the cause of this generational disaffection and discontent? Not only in America but also around the world? Putnam doesn't provide an answer.
I think the answer lies in the rise of consumer culture since the end of the Second World War. This in turn, is a consequence of the rupture between our economic system and the requirements of an authentic form of human living, of a form of life in which economics serves the needs of humane societies. Instead, what we are struggling with is an economic system which subordinates the needs of society and of personal well being to the insatiable requirements of capital. The new frontier of this culture of consumption is the reconstruction of the human personality through the manipulation of personal identity. The modern consumer is the end product of this process.
In his description of the generations that succeeded the "long civic generation " and that now dominate American life, Putnam identifies two key characteristics: the intensified sense of individualism and the devotion to materialism. This is not a novel perception. Acquisitive individualism has been the defining feature that typifies the postmodern personality. In their book "The New Individualism - The Emotional Costs of Globalization " Anthony Elliott and Charles Lemert describe the psychological costs of the consumer personality as follows:
"Individualism today is intrinsically connected with the growth of privatized worlds. Under the impact of privatism, the self is denied any wider relational connection at a deeply unconscious level, and on the level of day-to-day behaviour such "new individualisms " set the stage for a unique culture of anguish, anxiety, fear, disappointment, and dread ".
According to Elliott and Lemert, this does not mean that collective ideals have come to an end, or that the public sphere has died. Rather, it means that social matters are increasingly understood and responded to in individualist ways. This new reality signals a fundamental breakdown in the connection between the individual and society. The decline of community is the inevitable result.
Social problems cannot have personal solutions. But this is precisely the delusion under which much of western society has been labouring over the last thirty years, the years during which the current crop of "lost generations " has grown up. It is the period when market forces were deified by the state itself, a golden age of privatization ushered in first by Thatcher and then by Reagan. The decline of "the public " as a meaningful concept has cost us dearly, and not merely in political terms. More profoundly, it has unmoored any sense that the individual is an organic part of the society they live in. In turn, both society and the individual must pay a price.
On the one hand, the erosion of a common sense of connection to broader society beyond strictly selfish, or instrumental, interests renders that society less capable of providing those social goods - like security and safety - that are of such fundamental value to its citizens. On the other, the individual feels more and more stranded, more vulnerable to the twists of fate, more isolated in the fear and anxiety that must surely follow. In short our consumer culture has trapped us in a kind of twilight zone where the cultural sources of community decline also create the mental attributes that disable us from solving the problem.
The decline of everything social coincides with the rise of the individual as the key to the attainment of the good life. This is a concept as old as liberalism itself. The "new individualism " that Elliott and Lemert talk about is the radical extension of an evolution in human psychology that commenced in the 15th century. But something has altered over the last fifty years. Somewhere around the mid point of the 20th century the post modern personality took on a decisive form, and this was the point at which purely commercial forces became the determining influences over human behaviour. The crucial question that faces us today is, how is it possible to reverse this process?
I believe the answer lies in the construction of economic and social institutions that in their nature repair the social and psychological damage wrought by our consumer culture and also offer a credible alternative to the ideology that propels it. Reciprocity and economic democracy are the social and economic tools we need to do this work. This is the reason why co-operatives have such a central role to play in this struggle.
Social capital is at the heart of healthy, vibrant communities. To return to my earlier examples of New Orleans and Sri Lanka, the restorative power of social capital has also become a central theme in disaster studies. There is now empirical evidence that it is not the material condition of communities - their relative prosperity - that determines their resilience to disaster. Rather, it is the presence of dense social networks based on relations of mutual trust that turns the tide.
I am arguing that similarly, the key to addressing the current crisis in community is rebuilding the stock of social capital in society. And the key to this is building up the kinds of organizations and institutions that, in their nature, develop social capital and the relationships of reciprocity and generalized trust upon which community rests. Co-ops are a prime example of such organizations, as are non-profits, charitable organizations, volunteer and service organizations, and the wide array of groups and institutions that make up our social economy.
Like all social economy organizations, co-operatives are based on the principle of reciprocity. But co-operatives have a unique capacity not only to build of a sense of community but also to challenge and reform the economic structures that are so often the cause of the social breakdown I am describing. The very nature of a capitalist enterprise demands that it consume social capital without replacing it. The direction of contemporary capitalism is driven by an ideology of predatory competition, of profit maximization at any cost - whether material or psychological. Unchecked, the logic of this system will sooner or later deplete a society's stock of social capital, just as if it were water, or wood, or oil. Capitalism, and the consumer culture it generates is not only environmentally unsustainable, it is socially and psychologically unsustainable as well. Social poverty and personal unhappiness are the hidden costs of consumerism.
Conversely, co-operatives generate social capital even as they draw on it for their sustenance. Their use of reciprocity means that trust is regenerated and repaid both to their members and to the surrounding society. The more that trust is used as the basis of social exchange, the stronger it becomes. Co-operatives and other social economy organizations are like batteries that recharge a society's capacity to link people together, to establish networks of mutual trust and to undertake collective action around shared goals. In short, to behave like healthy societies ought to behave.
There are other ways that co-operatives replenish social capital. Members of co-operatives (just as members in other social organizations) are more likely to volunteer their efforts to other organizations. They bring to them the skills they acquired in their co-ops. Often, the staff and volunteers of co-operatives first learned their civic skills in the course of setting up and running their organizations. They learned how to clarify goals, how to identify and recruit supporters, how to assemble needed skills and resources. They had to learn how to plan and run meetings. How to raise money. How to set up and run the kinds of complex organizational structures that mobilize people around common goals, that sort out conflicts, and that allow for the democratic give and take that is at the foundation of successful co-operative organizations.
The relational imperative that these organizations run on teaches individuals not only how to work with others, but at a more intimate level, how to identify their own interests and well-being with that of others. Co-operatives socialize individuals without extinguishing their individualism. If any social form were the ideal template for remaking society in the context of rampant individualism, it is the co-operative. This is why I am so passionate about them.
In closing, I want to say that as practitioners and activists for social change we need to be thinking about the organic structures of society that play formative roles in moulding personal identity and interpersonal relations. As thinkers from Aristotle to Tocqueville have pointed out, one of the chief virtues of democratic civic life is that it teaches people how to be citizens. This is the political dimension of an open and inclusive society. At a personal level, the nature of the organizations that mediate the interests of people have a defining influence on how these individuals see themselves and their connection to others. Institutions that promote selfishness, individualism, competition, and dependence on authority, have the predictable result of simultaneously isolating and disempowering people. On a mass scale the effects are clearly visible in the societies we have created.
On the other hand, social institutions that identify and reinforce the mutual interests of people, that invite them to seek common solutions to common problems, and that link individual fulfillment to the support and co-operation of others, create those habits of mind that are the building blocks of healthy societies.
This is probably the only route, a most challenging and difficult route to be sure, of reweaving the social fabric that has grown threadbare around us. What makes it especially difficult, and especially precious, is that it is precisely at those times when co-operation is most needed that it is in least supply. We are in this predicament because the instinct to co-operate, to relate to others, is so weakened. The hardening of peoples' sense of self-interest works against the attitude that sees others not as competitors in some race to realize our personalized utopias - an autistic dream - but as fellow travelers on a common road to building a better society for all.
But as I say in the closing section of my book, the times change, and the obstacles to constructing humane and caring societies change also. But knowledge is fragile and it is perishable. The one crucial inheritance from the past that must be safeguarded is the knowledge that more than one world is possible.
In the end, it doesn't matter whether co-operatives ultimately prevail as the norm for how we organize our economies. It matters that they survive. For in a dark age, the one indispensable value is the knowledge of an alternative. Once this is lost, all is lost. Co-operatives are enduring evidence of another way of living our lives. Like the monasteries of the middle ages that kept alight the ideals and knowledge of classical antiquity for a later age, co-operatives the world over safeguard a humane vision of social and economic life. Triumphant or not, so long as they exist they recall another understanding of human economies, another sense of how people might live together in the pursuit of common aims. They will always remind us that the human fabric is made up of individual threads, each distinguishable and apart, each an integral part of the whole that in turn sustains and defines us as individuals.