28 Sep 2010

Squalid Isolation – Social Cohesion, Quality of Life and Losing the Ties that Bind

by Gabor Gyori

A few weeks ago I called on social democracy to come to terms with the fact that many of its voters are not on loan to other parties, but for the most part gone for good. One of the key problems behind this, I argued, is that the traditional bases of all mass parties are disintegrating, fragmenting, etc.

Though this insight is not revolutionary, there is little political engagement with the issue and what is worse, there is no policy engagement with the underlying problem that is far more pressing than the electoral and organisational woes of social democracy: the political story is part of the larger problem that social networks and social trust are severely weakened and increasingly leave us with societies only held together by shiny biometric passports that let us travel to more places than ever before.

The paradox of today’s society is that on the face of it, it appears more vibrant and activist than ever: there are, for example, the vast anti-Iraq demonstrations, the myriads of NGOs – some of which are quite successful – and the online social networks that completely transform the way we think about relationships and how we maintain them.

At the same time interpersonal ties, trust in other people and institutions, including democracy itself, decline ominously. A people that become more lonesome also become less amenable to notions of solidarity and community.

And it appears that the blame does not entirely fall on Facebook et al., if they are to blame at all. Inequality figures among the complex reasons, as does the increasing heterogeneity of lifestyles and life experiences (the elite-populist divide is part of this). In the West, there is also the experience of multiculturalism, which is enriching for many and alienating for others.

What is being eroded now is thus not only the social democrats’ voter base, but much of the social cohesion and basic solidarity that made the social democratic and Christian democratic welfare state project possible in the first place.

These all herald problematic consequences for democracy, social justice, the individual, and yes, the (market) economy as well.

For lack of space I can’t go into sufficient detail about the looming problems, but beyond the obvious institutional dilemmas (hollowed-out democratic institutions), there are tragic hidden consequences, such as the effects of growing social isolation on health, which Robert Putnam, the scholar most identified with this field of research, paints in quite dramatic terms: ‘People will get sick and die, because they don’t know their neighbors…And the health effects of social isolation are of the same magnitude as people smoking’.

This is not to say that the problem is universal or equally distributed. As the East/West divide is concerned, for instance, Westerners are both less afflicted and face less dramatic trends, while the Eastern Europeans started their democratic and market economy experiment with very little social trust to begin with – not exactly the most promising preconditions – only to lose a lot on the way. And it shows in numerous ways that make the latter societies less liveable, socially colder, and definitely less open to whatever the political left has to say (neo-populists excluded).

While progressives (rightfully) try to determine the fair levels of taxation, the right environmental policies, etc., and generally seek a way to adapt social democratic values to a rapidly changing society, we have very little grasp of and next to nothing to say about this hugely problematic aspect of societal change.

So what is to be done then? For starters, I have my doubts whether this is a problem that public policy can solve; at most, we may be able to alleviate it. For a variety of very good reasons, the notion that government dabble in people’s private lives – even if it is the most public aspect thereof – is deservingly disturbing. This side of the former Iron Curtain all the more so. Great feats of social engineering are thus out, in many respects social development will take its course and we can’t completely undo or alter it.

But even when policy can’t turn the tide (cf. globalisation), it can certainly finesse it, make it friendlier, especially given the vital need for maintaining a level of solidarity and a basic joint purpose in society.

Putnam has grappled with this question and said ‘I don’t think we should have a government Department of Friendship that introduces people to one another.’ But as he notes, things can be done, beginning with genuine measures of social links.

Here in Eastern Europe, where the European Union and other international funds keep afloat independent NGOs and the politically engaged civil society tied – often unfairly – to whoever is in opposition at any given time (governments supply their own, at least), the connection between money and building social institutions is all too apparent.

Some of the money spent on building civil society is wasted, but that is not necessarily atypical of government spending (especially in this region), and as far as worthy objectives go, I hope I’ve at least managed to point out that this is one worth considering further study and intense policy debate.

Finally, another approach towards community building leads through the classroom. I am not an education expert, so I will tread carefully here, but it does appear to me that schools that focus intensely on community-building tend to be more successful, relatively speaking, at churning out socially active individuals than schools that do not (this is based on purely inductive inference). Without necessarily adopting the entire educational package of such schools, it would be useful to consider whether this particular element is one worth adapting to public education in general.

These are two specific ways to start thinking about responses to the problem, but I hope there are a lot more out there. To bring them out, progressives need to turn this into one of the key policy debates for the coming decades.

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