The erosion of community in America has been a topic of discussion and concern for decades, most notably in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) by Robert D. Putnam, based on his 1995 essay Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979) by Christopher Lasch and The Lonely Crowd (1950, revised 1969) by David Riesman.
In an age which seems abundantly well-served by individualism, consumerism, the central state and global corporations, why does this erosion of community matter? After all, aren’t we doing rather splendidly despite a declining sense of community?
The Fraying Ties That Bond Us Together
In my recent essay The Real State of the Union: The Erosion of Community, I suggested that social cooperation (another way of describing community) is essential to human progress, communication and well-being, and that the dominant forces of our era, the central state and consumerist cartel-state capitalism, actively dismantle community as a byproduct of their dominance.
Riesman’s sociological analysis identifies the primary driver of the erosion as the shift from tradition-directed and inner-directed social character to other-directed; shorthand for a consumerist obsession with gaining others’ approval. Riesman distilled this change thusly: "The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed.” (In today’s social media-drenched social character, we might amend this to “wants to be ‘liked’ on Facebook.”) In his view, the consumerist social character’s dominance threatened democracy and self-awareness.
At the risk of over-simplifying Lasch’s analysis, the essence of narcissism is fear of the emptiness that lies at the core of other-directed consumerism.
Putnam identifies isolating technologies—videogames, the Internet, TV, etc.—as critical drivers for the decline in social interaction. He also posits that a loss of trust in political process has led to lower rates of political participation.
In The Strange Disappearance of Cooperation in America, the author proposes that social cooperation waxes and wanes with wealth inequality: as inequality rise, so, too, does polarization. People become less cooperative and socially engaged as polarization increases.
Centralization Actually Pushes Us Farther Apart
This perspective misses the political point, which is the structure of our centralized state-dominated economy leads to both wealth inequality and the loss of community from the same dynamic: the substitution of the state/corporation as the organizing/controlling structure for society, effectively displacing community.
Since human behavior is guided less by ideals and social character than by whatever incentives and disincentives are present, perhaps we should consider what incentives and disincentives are influencing social cooperation capital.
In our current system, the impersonal state replaces the material value created by participating in community with direct payments of cash; there is no need to invest the time and energy needed to cooperate with others once the state provides the basics of life.
The aimless armies of unemployed people receive just enough from the state to eliminate the incentive to rebel. But this does not fill the gap left by the destruction of community with anything positive or fulfilling. It simply maintains the void via bribery.
The notion that corporations pursuing maximization of return on capital for their shareholders can organize society to benefit everyone is nonsensical. How could organizations dedicated to reaping profits meet community needs that cannot necessarily be commoditized for a profit?
A Witch's Brew of Causes
Clearly, the erosion of social cooperation is complex. And just as clearly, no one explanation accounts for the decades-long trend.
Two longtime correspondents recently made observations that suggest additional avenues of inquiry. Kevin K. wrote:
“I'm no defender of the Central State and Central Planning, but I don't think they are to blame for (most of) the lack of ‘community’ we have today. I don't know the exact reason (TV and the Internet have something to do with it) but people in America just seem to get together less and less every year. It seems like this trend has accelerated in the years since Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone. As I'm pushing 50 I've been reading a lot more obituaries as more my peers’ parents pass on. Almost all the parents have a long list of clubs, associations, churches, and charities that they were actively involved with until they day they died, while few of their own kids are actively involved with any clubs, associations, churches, and charities at all.
I don't think inequality has as much to do with polarization as the changes in our culture that Charles Murray writes about in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. When Warren Buffet comes in to talk to the ‘common man’ over a Coke and a burger most people don't seem to have a problem with his wealth, while there will often be polarization when a ‘new money’ guy drives up in a leased Ferrari and talks down to the ‘common man.’”
This suggests to me the potential role of both a decline in shared values and a new class polarization as factors in the decline of community.
Frank M. submitted these observations:
“When I was growing up, almost all adults participated in civic organizations — Elks, Lions, Grange, 4H, Rotary, student sports, hospital fund drives, veterans' groups of all sorts, Garden Club, Little Theater, book clubs, $5/month investment clubs, planning committees for fairs and parades and fireworks displays, and on, and on. The great majority of adults were active in not just one but several such organizations at any given moment.
Very little of that has survived. The animating concepts have not disappeared altogether, but they are ghostlike wisps of what used to be normal. Yes, there was pettiness and resentment. There was jealousy and gossip and cliquishness. But there was also a natural and robust commitment to life in that small-town community.
Rationalizing such commitment was unnecessary. In fact, even articulating it would have been pointless. No one would have understood the question. A sense of shared destiny was never stated explicitly, and any attempt to do so would probably have been considered weird. Things were just the way they were, and that was the way things were supposed to be.
In retrospect, that dynamic now seems to me a great deal more valuable and worthwhile than I could ever have grasped in my youth. And at least we *had* a middle class that was large enough and functional enough to qualify *as* a class.
In its place today is precisely what you describe: federal support checks and Wal-Mart jobs — a witch's brew of government bribes and corporate bait-and-switch schemes.”
Is rising inequality the root cause? Or the drifting apart of civil society into divergent classes with very little social mixing or mutual understanding?
Neither is entirely satisfactory, as communities with roughly the same level of inequality as existed in 1960 have seen a visible decline in social organizations, and the social classes described by Murray (one favors NASCAR and pickup trucks, has relatives in the military and is often unmarried; the other is married with two incomes, has little contact with the military, tends to attend church, etc.) could be expected to form associations within their class. Yet social organizations are declining across the class spectrum.
Even churches are not immune to a decline in participation. Buddhist temples in Hawaii, for example, are being abandoned by the young generations; many if not most of the participants are over 60.
In sum, inequality and widening gaps between social classes do not adequately account for the broad-based erosion of civil society. The social fabric formed by membership in a variety of community groups described by Kevin and Frank has decayed, and none of the factors discussed above seem to fully account for the erosion.
In Part 2: The 10 Factors Destroying our Social Health, we examine the worst-offending practices in modern western culture that are dissolving the bonds that once made our society thrive. These are important to understand well, as it's through this awareness that we can identify and work to reverse these factors, should we have the constitution and courage to do so.