Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The myth of lost community

We're still discussing Deirdre McCloskey's book The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.

She also argues that the idea that we have somehow lost a golden age of close community or embedded meaning is simply wrong. Everyone believes it, except, she says, historians who have actually looked at it. The German 19th century belief that Gemeinschaft, organic community, had lost out to thin, rational Gesellschaft is not actually true.
Since capitalism took command, the social landscape has been enriched, not eroded, as many modern sociologists have discovered-at any rate those who have looked into the matter rather than accept nineteenth-century German romanticism and twentieth-century Catholic nostalgia.
Nor does capitalism or market behavior encourage greed or discourage trust.
In other words, it's not the case that market capitalism requires or generates loveless people. More like the contrary. Markets and even the much-maligned corporations encourage friendships wider and deeper than the atomism of a full-blown socialist regime or the claustrophobic, murderous atmosphere of a "traditional" village. Modern capitalist life is love-saturated. Olden life was not loving; communitarian life was not; and actually existing socialist life decidedly was not.

So how did this view that capitalism destroys the community come about?
Intellectually speaking the claim of "fragmentation," I say, descends from German suspicion of French Enlightenment, which around 1800 emerged as Romance, and later in the century was intellectualized as the particularly German theme in professional folklore, history, anthropology, theology, and at last sociology. One finds many central-European intellectuals and their followers early in the twentieth century repeating what they learned about the modern world's lack of solidarity from Marx, Weber, and the rest, accented by the passing bells of 1914-1918: thus Karl Mannheim, Martin Heidegger, Karl Polanyi, Arnold Hauser, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and many others after the Great War declaring themselves to be hollow men.
Of course, capitalism does cause gales of change - or at least does not inherently try to resist change. And change can disrupt communities and socieites. Factories close. Trade routes change. New inventions put old firms out of business.

But this rapid change can also lead to more social freedom, she argues,
A faith rooted in the economic importance of land made elders and imagined ancestors powerful, for good or ill. You can see it in the twists of eighteenth-century plays and novels right through Jane Austen, in which the elders control inheritance and therefore the hopeful young. The displacing of land by human capital as the main source of wealth sharply devalued faith, the past, the dead hand, the mortgage, the family line, the ancestors. And it upvalued hope, the future, the children, the individual.
Again, there is no necessary link between the modern economy and social dysfunction. She keeps coming back to the fact that the astonishing increase in wealth and productivity in the last two hundred years has given people the means and the time to take up all sorts of other issues and hobbies and interests and affiliations.

And one thing she does not mention is Toqueville's observations about the United States - the most competitive and capitalist society at the time was also a nation of compulsive joiners, full of associations, societies, voluntary unions and social enterprise.

Maybe we slump over the television after a long days work now. But that is partially a matter of choice. People don't want to be bound too tightly in social convention.

Incidentally, I'm not sure which parts of Karl Polanyi she is complaining about. I read his book The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time about ten years ago, and as I recall, the main argument is not so much we have lost an organic sense of community, as the rise of demoncracy has made laissez-faire and the gold standard politically impossible.

In other words, Polanyi was arguing an early version of the same kind of transformation I'm saying is taking place. To him, the economic mechanism that worked - with some volatility - in the 19th century could no longer work in the 20th century, precisely because a wider franchise meant social resistance was too strong. I am saying that evolving social aspiration is changing the nature of the things we want. We have a wider set of wants than before, and that too makes earlier versions of the economy somewhat obsolete.

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