by Dave Spencer
When we are talking about building communism from below, we need to know our starting point – the state and the consciousness of the working class.
One of the greatest influences on the theory of this matter and on the consequent policies and actions of local government and of workers in the voluntary or “Third” sector is Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone (2000). In it Putnam introduces the term “social capital”. By this he means any type of social or community engagement whatsoever – formal, informal, to do with friends, work, the family, hobbies, faith, politics, sport, the community. In other words social capital refers to how society works at grass roots, street and community level.
Putnam’s startling claim is that in the USA there has been a significant decline (45%) in every form of social capital and community engagement since 1975. This trend has accelerated since 1985. He states that the USA has lost one third of its civic infrastructure. Clearly the situation will be worse now in 2010, since the book was written in 2000.
If this is true and the results shown to be parallel in Britain, this means as far as the working class is concerned that a good deal of the possible alternative organisations to those of the state have disappeared. When it comes to fighting the cuts in public services many of the communities affected will not have organisations to fight back. The atomisation of the working class is growing apace.
Putnam makes the case that “social capital” is as equally necessary to the functioning of society as “physical capital” – the buildings and machinery needed for manufacture – and “human capital” – the educated, skilled and healthy work-force needed to operate the physical capital.
His argument is similar to what Dan Finn calls “the dual repertoire of reformism” or the policies of Old Labour. For example the Attlee government claimed that both the NHS and their policy of equal opportunities for all in Education were fundamental human rights and a pillar of socialism. On the other hand the policies were also very useful to employers because they gained an educated and healthy work-force at the expense of the state, thus improving productivity.
Putnam goes into great detail to prove his point. Visiting friends, families eating meals together, Cheers-type local bars, full-service restaurants, card-playing, sending greetings cards, talking to neighbours, playing a musical instrument – all have declined by as much as one third. The USA spends more on guns, dogs and locks to deter crime than it does on “social capital”.
To re-enforce his points Putnam quotes from studies made by the National Institute of Mental Health (USA) which conclude: “There has been a reduced integration of adults into the social structure.” Informal socialising, membership of organisations, church membership have all declined. This decline has had an adverse effect on individual mental health in the USA.
The main blame for falling social interaction, Putnam claims, is television. He points to a correlation between the amount of television viewed and civic disengagement. Television competes for scarce time. It produces lethargy and passivity in the individual, reduces the attention span and gives the illusion of companionship without any actual social interaction taking place. It boosts celebrities rather than discussion of social and community issues. Advertising encourages materialist values and individual consumption. The spectatorship of sport has increased through television at the same time as involvement at grass roots level in sporting clubs and teams has decreased markedly. In party politics, party finances have increased and therefore so have regular paid workers who can spin the propaganda on television but party activists are very thin on the ground.
Putnam does not mention the more recent phenomena of the internet and mobile phones. It would be interesting to research the effects of these on actual face to face social engagement and on mental health.
It has to be said that Putnam’s message has generally been accepted as correct New Labour has put money into funding schemes and voluntary organisations in “deprived areas”. Even the Tory Iain Duncan Smith and his “Centre for Social Justice” seem to go along with the argument that “social capital” needs to be supported by government and aspects of the idea have already crept into speeches by the spokespeople for the coalition. The buzz phrase in the public sector are policies and actions that lead to “community cohesion”.
Clearly there are contradictions in these various policies and actions and these will become very apparent during the proposed cuts in public services. The notion of “social capital” is directly the opposite of the Thatcherite “There is no such thing as society” and “I’m alright Jack, pull up the ladder”. How the Tories will cope with this is far from clear.
As far as New Labour are concerned there have been a number of criticisms of their policies. One is paternalism where funds have been used to buy off communities. A friend of mine who was part of a voluntary women’s group in an estate reported that the Council had “piloted a University chick in to manage the group full-time. Of course it was to put the lid on us!” And so it proved to be and the project ended in disaster.
On the other hand a few years ago I did some research evaluating the government‘s Adult and Community Learning Fund which ran from 1998 to 2004. I went all over the country visiting projects and was surprised by how much creative and inspiring work was going in the most unlikely places by people really committed to change. Some people of course had not got a clue and were treading water just for the funding but basically the results were very good. I also did some evaluation of Educational Action Zones and the same was true. Situations can be transformed by some dedicated people with some funding. There have been some successful attempts to maintain or increase social capital and it would be a disaster if this whole experience were wiped out by the cuts.
The cuts in public services will have a direct effect on communities and will escalate any breaking down of what civic infrastructure remains. Putnam’s argument stands in the way of the cuts and will of course lead to dispute. The Coalition will need a new set of ideas for public sector workers to put in its place. The old Thatcherite ones will not be enough.