the cuts agenda and ‘social capital’

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.

4 thoughts on “the cuts agenda and ‘social capital’

  1. i suspect activities like texting and posts on social networking sites like facebook play a significant role here. i guess the question is are these developments (cellphones, facebook, etc.) the simulacra, the high tech substitute of the kind of social capital putnam describes? the face-to face encounter mediated by a small screen, which, perversely, seems to fit a society that’s becoming more and more atomized and more and more inward looking. in fact, i would have to say, that in baltimore, where i live, one of the more popular activities is sitting in starbucks alone with a laptop. that’s picture i form simply walking down the street and looking in through their windows. but, on the other hand, i also suspect that social network theory tends to emphasize a conservative world view, and it wouldn’t really surprise me if it will be mobilized in some form or other in cameron’s “big society” project, where voluntarism (i.e. unwaged labor) and local charities (especially religious groups serving a specific constituency) will be primed to step in to further relieve the state of its fiscal burden. moreover, given the still dominant nature of the neoliberal mentality, civic infrastructure, like the physical one, is all too easy to degrade, and then privatize.


  2. Yes, Les, I do worry that Putnam – and ‘civic republicans’ like him – operate to an ultimately conservative agenda. I like the spin on his book here, but fundamentally this is the kind of thinking that informed Blair’s ‘tough on the causes of crime’ ASBO agenda, and the social engineering that is no doubt implicit in the idea of a ‘big society’ at some stage (I’m terrified to look too deeply into the philosophy undergirding that particular idea).

    One of the books that is often raised in a similar context to this one is Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by Robert N Bellach – apparently Blair picked up on it via the Clinton’s and it was one of the major works informing his policies on ‘community’ and ‘society’. We all saw what that led to, and it ain’t pretty.


  3. My main point is to stress how atomisation has affected working class organisations and culture. My parents used to talk of how the working class organised in the 1920s and 1930s and the difference between then and now is very marked. Even in my own life, the 1960s still had the Labour Party and the Trade Unions as mass active organisations. This is no longer the case.

    In building from below we start with what community organisations do exist and how can we mobilise them to build confidence to fight the cuts. As les rightly says — they won’t remain for very long because they will be privatised or closed down. In Coventry the Labour Council have just announced they are to close down 5 Community Centres in the most deprived areas. In the estate next to me, Stoke Aldermoor, there is no pub, no club, no Post Office, the park is a wreck and they are closing the Community Centre. The amazing thing is the full-time manager of the Centre is the Chair of the Residents’ Association and a member of the Labour Party. Betrayal or what? The Council have also passed planning permission for 1,700 houses to be built on the old Peugeot site next to Stoke Aldermoor and our own area with no community facilities whatsoever — not even a school.

    The situation is dire. So far our local residents’ group has saved our local club, stopped cuts in the local bus routes and made connections with various community groups in the area like the local pub, Children’s Centre, School, Old Folks’ homes, the surgery, Post Office, the Library. At least this gives us a base for a fightback.

    I don’t see Putnam as a conservative or as a plank for neo-liberals like Blair and Cameron. “The Big Society” is obviously contradictary and we should exploit the contradictions as part of the fight against the cuts. The buzz words of “community cohesion”, “diversity” etc which are used by community development workers in the public sector and in the voluntary sector do actually mean something and in my experience are believed in by these workers. We should build on that.


  4. Clearly the basis of this book is wrong – stating that television can destroy social interaction and organisation is to look at things probably from the viewpoint of sociology rather than materialism or Marxism. While the observation that organisation and interaction particularly in the US has collapsed is probably correct the reason for that lies with the ruling class turn to finance capital in the early 70’s and the destruction of workplaces and the communities around them that went with that decision. This process has continued – leaving very little industry and removing workplace organisations, social clubs etc. Looking at the US now the organised working class is down to the public sector, a rump of manufacturing largely war industries and their suppliers and some aspects of service like health.


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