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June 28, 2005 || 6:03 am
Myths of social capital

Something I've just read that makes me want to rant and rave, rather...this post speculating about the future of American society after the oil starts to run out.

Will the citizenry not attempt to return to some kind of social structure from the past? If so, what will that social structure look like? 1960? 1920? Does it depend on the pace of the economic and cultural decline?

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the shape of 'communities' or 'neighbourhoods' or 'cities' in the present and the future - how people relate to each other and what this nice word 'community' really means. I write as someone who has always been wary of whatever community I found myself in, who relishes the anonymity of a big city like London but who now finds themselves happily ensconced in small-town America and with all the community acquaintances and network that the steroetype demands (auto mechanic, gas station attendant, lawyer, judge)

The Oil Drum's posting mainly refers to Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Basically the title says it all - we don't know our neighbours and have, apparently, a tattered social fabric. The Oil Drum goes on to the obvious speculation of 'well, when we run out of oil, are we going to get our nice community spirit back again?' [I paraphrase.]

I really hate those kind of comments. In defence of myself, I'm going to refer you to a really good article in the CS Monitor [the irony that actually, a Christian-run paper is really one of the most balanced and thought-provoking news feeds in the US] on why marriages are better, although more difficult now. Isn't it the same with our 'community'? The nostalgia for the 60s, or the 20s, or whenever, is like harking back to the days when no-one got divorced. That doesn't mean that everyone was happy. Those close-knit, incestuous communities were responsible for the stifling of independence and eccentricity, for the ostracism of anyone who dared follow unorthodox passions, and for much worse crimes too - Emmett Till, for example. That 'social fabric' was also the fabric of knowing your place, of being judged on who your family was and which side of the tracks you lived on.

The point, to me, about 'community' is that yes, we need to have social structures that support those who need it, that notice when someone is lonely or unhappy, and where people do things for others as a matter of course. But we also need to be able to opt out on whatever level you choose. I'm incredibly lucky in small-town Alabama because I have no past. No-one knows what my family are like in England, or how I'm meant to behave, so I can pretty much do anything. But this town is gossip central, and it's only the unthinking [and the New Urbanists, aka the net-curtain-twitchers] that suggest we really want to return to those kind of neighbourhoods, or that we should be perversely grateful for a lack of oil because it will force us to leave our suburbs and get to know each other.

The double irony is really that, if you believe the hype, a situation where there is not enough oil will mean that big cities will get bigger because you will have to live in a big city to live near enough to your workplace for public transit or walking. And big cities are more anonymous, less about social fabric in this nostalgic sense, than the suburbs. I can walk down my street in London and 95% of the people I pass don't know who I am.

The other scenario is that we will all have to become self-sufficient farmers living on the land. In which case we will also be deeply anti-social because we won't have enough gas to drive to visit each other. So once a week we might walk the 2 or 3 miles to the neighbour but I bet, mostly we won't bother. [The next stage would obviously be highly incestuous communal living where a few families bond together to farm. Arrgh, this conjecturing gets worse.]

Anyway, all these scenarios are extreme. But the main point is, who says we don't have a sense of community any more? We have extraordinarily broad and wide-ranging networks of contacts, friends and family that span the globe. I remember reading a while back about Hispanic communities that lead a dual life, one half in some American city and one half back in the home country, and how the American half vote, stand for public office, sponsor charity work and in all sorts of ways lead in the community back home without physically being there. The poorest families here have ties all over the country who find jobs for their school-leavers, house homeless relatives and pay for new curtains for people like my client. Isn't this a fantastic and innovative redefinition of community and how we can use the globalisation process to create new and rich social fabrics?

And yes, we have the internet which means that I can sit in deepest Alabama and earn my keep without driving anywhere, and I can keep in contact with my friends without having to burn a hole in the ozone layer zooming around to physically see them. We should be excited about these new processes and how they co-exist and mesh with the old ones which will never go away (in London I will always know the guy in the corner shop and the local greasy cafe) and not get all nostalgic about the 'good old days' of social repression and claustrophobic misery.

[This is the partner post to another unwritten ramble on 'How Jane Jacobs has been co-opted and all the meaning lost from her wonderful perceptive work, if I was her I would be fuming'...]

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