June 29, 2006

LONELY AMERICA: REBUILDING SOCIAL CAPITAL



Caption: It can be done! These critters have got the bridging social capital thing going on.

This is the final post in a series that began Monday about America’s declining stock of social capital. Social capital can be defined as all the formal and informal ways people interact. The series was prompted by a new study that found more Americans feeling isolated.

If this is Friday, it must be time to wrap this up. Here are some conclusions:

1. Social capital can be used for good or evil purposes, but you can’t anything positive done without it. One vital component of social capital is civil society, which consists of all the voluntary organizations that are neither government agencies nor businesses. Think book clubs, volunteer fire departments, union halls, athletic clubs, community groups, support groups for wretched goat herders, etc.

Totalitarian regimes usually consolidate power by destroying civil society. That would be bad. Unrestrained market forces, especially globalization on steroids, can also erode it. That’s not good either.

2. Civil society can play a vital mediating link in helping people come together and deal with various personal and public problems. The organizations in civil society can and in the past have positively influenced the behavior of corporations and governments.

Many groups that want to create social change have often focused exclusively on gaining political power when they might have done better by spending time building a base for the changes they support in civil society.

Groups that gain political power without first creating a base in the broader society often wind up either losing power or resorting to repression to keep it. On the other hand, groups that build a base there can make their influence felt regardless of who holds political office. To do that, however, it’s necessary to develop bridging social capital (see previous posts) which builds connections between diverse groups.

3. Not only has social capital (and hence civil society) declined in recent decades, but we are also facing a shrinking public sphere as mass media and mega money make public life a spectator sport and as more aspects of public life are privatized. That’s not good either.

This has been a major theme of the work of German social theorist Jurgen Habermas. Several years ago, possibly as an effort to purify his past evil karma, El Cabrero spent a lot of time trying to read his stuff. Here’s the standing on one leg version of what I got out of it:

There are two ways society is going to change our lives. One way will happen if we do nothing and let impersonal forces jam things down our throats. The other way is for people to get together and rationally discuss the issues and try to make informed decisions together, the more the merrier.

Of the two possibilities, the second looks better to me.

That’s about it.

GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED

1 comment:

Mark said...

Great series. There's a lot to think about.

And I still love that photo of the cat, dog, and peacock.