June 28, 2006


Caption: This baby peacock needs friends.

This post is part of a series of reflections on America’s declining stock of social capital. Social capital can be defined as the various formal and informal ways in which people interact. A recent study that found a growing sense of isolation among Americans prompted this series.

A post-Cold War joke goes something like this. Two former communist true believers meet in the former Soviet Union. The first one says, “It’s terrible—everything they told us about communism was a lie!” The second one replies, “And you know what’s worse? Everything they told us about capitalism is true!”

There are some points behind the joke relevant to this discussion. One is that totalitarian political systems such as Stalinism mistrust and repress civil society (defined as voluntary associations outside of business or government) and attempt to monopolize or destroy social capital. That’s hardly news. The other is that unrestrained capitalism can also erode social capital, although usually in a more subtle way.

For politically divergent social thinkers in the 1800s, a central problem was how this dynamic economic system disrupted communities and long-standing human relationships.

For the conservative sociologist Emile Durkheim, a major feature of modern life was the paradox that industrial societies become more interdependent even while people feel more disconnected. This led to anomie, a sense of normlessness or rootlessness.

German sociology pioneer Max Weber worried that the means/ends rationality of business and government bureaucracies would make the world more impersonal. He feared that human life would be increasingly trapped in this “iron cage.”

Marx believed that alienation was a basic feature of life under capitalism as virtually every aspect of life became a commodity and all values were reduced to exchange value (living before TV commercials, he didn’t know the half of it). In the Manifesto of 1848, he wrote that capitalism “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’”

The relationship between economy and social capital is more complex than that, however. The United States economy has been capitalist from the beginning, but voluntary associations seemed to rise and decline at various periods.

We do know that any successful campaigns to counter the worst abuses of cut-throat capitalism such as slavery and child labor or promote good government would have been impossible without voluntary associations.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously commented on American voluntary associations in the early 1800s in his Democracy in America

In no country in the world has the principle of association been more successfully used or applied to a greater multitude of objects than in America. Besides the permanent associations which are established by law under the names of townships, cities, and counties, a vast number of others are formed and maintained by the agency of private individuals…

If some public pleasure is concerned, an association is formed to give more splendor and regularity to the entertainment. Societies are formed to resist evils that are exclusively of a moral nature, as to diminish the vice of intemperance. In the United States associations are established to promote the public safety, commerce, industry, morality, and religion. There is no end which the human will despairs of attaining through the combined power of individuals united into a society.

(Of course, while this was written, African-American slaves were forbidden the freedom to form their own voluntary associations.)

Voluntary associations flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s as populist, progressive, labor, and other social movements grew. These were instrumental in making reforms that removed or reduced some of the injustices of the time. The civil rights movement would have been impossible without the rich social capital of the African American community, particularly the churches.

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone (see yesterday’s post), is willing to speculate that economic globalization may be partly responsible for today’s decline in social capital:

The replacement of local banks, shops, and other locally based firms by far-flung multinational empires often means a decline in civic commitment on the part of business leaders. As Wal-Mart replaces the corner hardware store, Bank of America takes over the First National Bank, and local owners are succeeded by impersonal markets, the incentives for business elites to contribute to community life atrophy… the connection between civic disengagement and corporate disengagement is worth exploring.

The bottom line is this: strong networks of social capital make it possible for ordinary people to challenge the abuses of powerful impersonal systems such as transnational corporations or government bureaucracies. We need it now more than ever.



Anonymous said...

Great series. Kudos.

Bob Putnam

Woman who herds cats said...

I fully agree. To previous poster: Are you THE Bob Putnam as in author of BOWLING ALONE?

Anonymous said...

what nice additions to the farm....