- The Destructive Practices To Stop Doing
- The Regenerative Behaviors To Do More Of
- Getting The Foundational Pieces In Place
- The Payoff, For Both You & Society
In Part 1, we compared non-hierarchical, bottoms-up secular social revolutions with hierarchical, top-down political and technological revolutions managed by the state and corporate sector. Next, we surveyed the erosion of social connectedness and social capital, and asked who benefited from this fraying of the social order. While certain players derive some benefit from political divisiveness and from the sale of technologies that undermine authentic connectedness, it seems that much of the social-order decay is collateral damage—destruction that wasn’t intentional.
How can we strengthen or repair our own connections and social fabric in such a disintegrative era?
There are two basic approaches: stop participating in destructive dynamics, and assemble the foundational pieces of a connected social life.
The First Step: Stop Consuming Poison
If we use physical health as an analogy for social health, the first step towards improved health is stop consuming poison, i.e. stop destroying one’s health.
In the realm of decaying social relations, the poisons are readily apparent:
- The mass media, with its dependence on hysteria, fear, group-think and obsession with virtue-signaling as publicly displayed proof of one’s fealty to righteousness.
The mass media and social media both substitute passive watching and clicking for doing things in the real world via active participation.
- Smartphones, when they cease to be occasional means of communication and become addictive: those who take their phones to bed, interrupt sex to check their phones (yes, studies have found this to be disturbingly common), ignore live conversations to respond to texts, etc., have a monkey on their back.
- An overly busy life that serves the needs of the workplace and household logistics but leaves no time, energy or awareness for actual intimacy, communication, friendship, sharing or belonging.
The process of limiting these toxins is akin to withdrawal from physically addictive substances; some people may feel a great emptiness once these addictive sources of stimulus are limited. The emptiness of life stripped of over-stimulus can be painful, and this is a core driver of addiction: if we fill every waking moment with media, texts, social media feeds and so on, we don’t have to experience the pain of an intimacy-connectedness deprived existence.
The analogy of physical health and toxins is useful; those who stop physical addictions (smoking, etc.) and limit their consumption of junk food may experience a very trying period of deprivation. It isn’t easy to construct a healthy world of social connectedness from scratch when exiting a life of junk-food social media and deranging smartphone over-stimulus.
Why is It So Difficult to Make and Maintain Meaningful Social Bonds and Belonging?
Why is it so difficult to make and maintain meaningful social bonds and belonging? While the long answer could easily fill several volumes, the short answer is something like the structure of modern-day life conspires against making and maintaining authentic social bonds.
By structure, I mean the modes of production and governance, the large-scale financial /built structures of the economy and the large-scale structures of government—the two hierarchies that dominate everyday life.
As I noted in Part 1, I don’t see much compelling evidence that these structures actively benefit from the unraveling of the social order; rather, each will eventually be endangered by the unraveling. I think the dynamic here is very common in history: the single-minded pursuit of self-interest by concentrations of wealth and power leads those at the top to ignore the disintegration the social order and dismiss it as unavoidable collateral damage.
This dynamic is only possible in a hierarchical mode of production/governance.
In decentralized societies that lack autocratic hierarchies and immense concentrations of wealth and power, those who ignore the social good in favor of self-interest have limited means to impose their pathological self-service on everyone else. The few cannot pursue limitless gain at the expense of the many in decentralized, self-organizing societies with limited centralized authority.
In contrast, autocratic hierarchies such as states and corporations are tailor-made for the exploitation of the many by the few, and there are no compelling reasons for those at the top of the wealth-power pyramid to consider the consequences of their actions on the social fabric.
Those at the top of the mobile telephony industry focus on maximizing the number of hours users spend on their mobile phones and on the number of profitable transactions they make on their phones. That’s their job. If they notice the fraying of the family, or worry about the impact of their relentless marketing of addictive technologies, they are powerless to change the mode of production that has only one goal: maximize profits by any means available. If the best means is addiction, so be it.
The state, meanwhile, is influenced by private lobbyists to either enable addictive technologies and pharmaceuticals, or actively subsidize their spread. In our mode of governance, state fiefdoms focus on increasing tax revenues to fund their own payrolls and benefits, and the fraying of the social order doesn’t even appear on their radar: it’s not our job to track the decline of social connectedness, much less address it. What sort of policies would impact such an amorphous trend? Is it even in the state’s purview to manage social connectedness?
In effect, a vast experiment is taking place without any controls: a mode of production that focuses exclusively on maximizing profits is fostering 24/7 marketing and addictive technologies while a vast central state expands its reach into every aspect of daily life. Meanwhile, both dominant large-scale hierarchies have little reason to concern themselves with the erosion of the social order: that’s not my job.
Busyness and the Built Environment
Maintaining social bonds requires time and attention. If both are scarce, it’s easy to zone-out via “white-noise” media in what little free time is available. The demands of work and the logistics of a resume-based childhood (must get Caitlin to piano lessons, math tutoring, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu class, play-date, etc.) leaves many households with near-zero family time and little time for friends.
A built environment of long commutes and scarce public spaces doesn’t help; much of a household’s non-work time may be spent on the road. How many social gatherings can one attend if it takes two hours to get there, and another two hours home? How many social gatherings can one afford if the gathering place costs a lot of money (upscale bistro, brewpub, etc.)?
Dependence on State and Corporate Structures
One of the most insightful essays I’ve found this year is a report from the Guardian (U.K.) on What Happened When Walmart Left a low-income rural community in America’s Coal Country.
One of the most tragic findings, in my view, was that Walmart was the social hub of the community: Walmart was the place to go to meet friends, people-watch, walk around to pass the time, etc.
The other tragedy in my view was the near-complete lack of any non-state, non-corporate social structures; the general zeitgeist was near-total dependence on the state and corporations not just for income but for the structure of everyday life, to use historian Fernand Braudel’s phrase.
While the reporter found a few households had started gardens, the majority of people with what I term enforced leisure (i.e. little to no paid work available) did not use their leisure to create art (the fantasy of supporters of Universal Basic Income) or invest time and energy in non-state, non-corporate social structures; they spent their time watching TV, surfing the Web, scrolling through social media, etc.
This near-total dependence on state and corporate structures is so ubiquitous that it goes unnoticed and unmentioned. Not only have non-state, non-corporate social structures vanished, people have lost the values, skills and tools needed to assemble and maintain such structures.
We have lost much of the social connectedness that humans need, and we mourn this loss in ways that are not directly connected to our loss of social capital: addiction, loneliness, and early death.
Getting the Foundational Pieces in Place
How do we as individuals and households foster and nurture the social bonds that are fast-eroding in civil society?
The basic strategies are not difficult to understand, though they are extremely difficult to put in place in modern-day America:
- Strip out busyness to free up enough time and energy for social life and connectedness.
- Live in a place with short commutes to friends, family and public social spaces.
- Recognize (and then limit) the addictive nature of media, social media, gaming and mobile telephony.
- Invest time, energy, cash and social capital in making social connections and gatherings happen.
- Invest time in belonging to groups that manifest our interests, passions and joys.
Every social gathering starts with an invitation. We can each be the one who extends the invitation.
Healthy food—real, homemade, home-grown—is the core of many social gatherings globally. Preparing real food is time-consuming, and making enough food for groups (or organizing a potluck) is a higher-order skillset. It takes practice to develop it, and practice takes time as well as effort.
The scarce resource in connectedness isn’t money—it’s time. Many of us feel time-deprived, as if we never have enough of it each day, but as a society, we appear to have plenty of time for our smartphones/screens.
Surveys find many Americans spend much of their day/evening consuming mass media, social media and gaming, texting, etc. on mobile telephony—upwards of 6 hours per day, almost as much time as people spend at work—and this doesn’t count time spent watching older media such as TV. (Source)
Though it is self-evident, it’s important to note that governments and corporations cannot restore social connectedness and balance to our lives. Only a social revolution that is self-organizing from the bottom-up can do that.
The values and skills required to form and maintain authentic social connectedness have been eroded by the superficially attractive screen-based forms of interaction. Connectedness requires time and effort, both resources that have been leached from our social order by a confluence of dynamics.
We understand tangible financial wealth because it is the focus of our economy and indeed, of our society. Collectively, we seem to have lost the ability to understand intangible social wealth—the wealth of friendship, of social gatherings, of belonging. We sense our impoverishment but seem powerless to reverse the drift and the collateral damage wrought by our economic and political system.
Fostering social capital/wealth is difficult for so many reasons, and the payoff is largely internal; having close friends doesn’t elevate one’s status like the corner office, an impressive title or credential, a luxury vehicle, and all the other signifiers of success in our society.
It takes courage and independence to swim against the toxic tides of our economy and society, and “success” in nurturing social wealth is largely invisible to the outside world, while the sacrifices that must be made to free up the necessary time and energy are visible and real-world: moving to a place that’s more conducive to social wealth, quitting a high-pressure job that leaves little time for socializing or the family, enforcing strict limits on addictive technologies, and so on.
The good news is that social wealth is within reach of everyone who is willing to invest time and effort in connecting to others.