I’ve chosen to center today’s post on my home country, the United States of America, because I’m largely unqualified to speak about other countries in this respect. But even though I’m talking about the US, I’d love to hear the thoughts of those of you with different colored passports regarding community in your country or mine!
If you were asked to name some core American values, what would they be? Freedom? Self-determination? Free enterprise? The rewarding of individual initiative? Equality, of opportunity if not of outcome? Innovation and progress, the legacy of a frontier mythos?
Whatever you named, the odds are good that it’s centered around the individual. So—what about community?
In my last post, I asserted that this, too, is an American value, even though we rarely think to name it as such. Church is a major source of community for many Americans; and interestingly, even as traditional religious belief may be waning, atheists are retooling the church experience (see for instance this article) to meet their needs—with community perhaps foremost among them! But even if we don’t go to any religious or secular church, most of us look for other ways to belong. We join activist groups—and if we’re initially drawn in by the hope of making a difference, it’s the community we find there that often entices us to stick around (or drives us away if it’s lacking). If we have kids, we might volunteer for the PTA or get involved with the Boy or Girl Scouts. We participate in Meetup.com groups, where we go hang out with a group of strangers in the hopes that we might find the seeds of even a small community.
And if we don’t have it, we generally miss it. In this way, community is a value in the same way that health is a value. You take it for granted until it starts to erode—like the mundane but critical ground beneath your feet, or your house on the seashore—and then you realize it belongs right at the top of your list of values, where it was sitting unnoticed all along. Perhaps, then, it’s most accurate to say that community is a human need, and that we Americans value it because we are, in fact, humans.
And of course, there’s another place important to community that I didn’t name above. It’s especially important to the notion of American values because it’s where our individual initiative and community merge; and it’s also where many of us spend a third of our waking life: I’m talking, of course, about work.
Most basically, we have a community at our place of employment. On a deeper level, our work is a contribution to our broader community, and we depend on the work done by others in our community. It’s because we live in communities that we can specialize and, if we’re somewhat lucky, use the talents that are unique to us and that give us particular satisfaction, benefiting others in the community by so doing.
This points to the economic basis of community. Indeed, the word economic comes from the Greek oikonomia, which means “household management.” As Americans—or really, as human beings—who value both autonomy/self-reliance/freedom and community, it’s essential that we have some ability to influence the economic decisions that are the foundation of our community.
As it happens, an earlier form of capitalism made this work somewhat well, with price signals giving us information that we could autonomously follow to engage in meaningful work that in turn benefits the healthy community we’re depending on. The only catch was this: capitalism orients itself using people as a means to profit instead of profit as a means to people. And though this worked well enough as long as these goals followed the same road, there is a point where those roads diverge. you can head out on a road trip from Detroit to Washington, DC with the initial instructions to get on the Ohio Turnpike and follow the signs to “Cleveland,” but eventually, if you want to get to DC, you’re going to have to stop following those signs. Or think even bigger: it’s like launching an interstellar space ship and wanting to head toward Orion’s Belt, not realizing that Alnitak (leftmost star in the belt) and Alnilam (center star) are actually over 600 light years away from each other. Getting to one won’t put you near the other, except relative to a much more distant point.
So we’ve come to the point where, since we’re orienting by profit, we’re now heading away from what should be our true aim: people, and their well being. Economists are slow to recalibrate their over-simplistic models because of how they’ve been taught to think about the problems. So now we’re lost somewhere in the hills of southwest PA with a faulty GPS and no map, because who carries paper maps anymore?
The result of this, of course, is that the people who control certain key economic levers no longer saw themselves as linked to any community at all. Because they were orienting only by profit, they didn’t think to rotate their model and see that Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka don’t actually line up the way they appear to from our vantage point.
Therefore, seeing themselves as above the community, these people—the owners of the means of production—see fit to dictate the community’s economic choices. Choices about housing. About business. About development and the use of common spaces. About the best use of limited common resources. About how people will spend their time. About the needs that are most worth meeting. The more power accrues to the owners of the means of production, the less autonomy—the less meaningful freedom—these community members have. This means that as wealth and its attendant power become consolidated, people’s freedom erodes, and community breaks down.
To live up to our ideals, we need to reorient our economic engine. We need to find ways to extend to all the members of the affected community the ability to participate meaningfully in economic decisions.
Yes, I’m talking about democratic ownership and control of the economy.
This can take a number of forms, from local to global. It will become more meaningful as it moves from grand and lofty abstraction (which is all it is in this post, I know) to a series of concrete proposals, ripe for the laboratories of democracy to test and for economics students (with a more modern understanding of how to orient themselves) to study.
But as a first step, we’ve got to get the idea out there. We’ve got to give people a vision of how things could be different, and how we could better meet our needs and live up to our values!
Happily, as I was drafting this post, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter in Denver took this first step, in a fashion that surprised even those of us who believe in it with the response! Witness this tweet, which is four days old as I publish this:
And guess what? THEY SUCCEEDED. It was adopted into the Denver Democratic Party Platform. The socialists are, indeed, speaking for the values of Real AmericansTM, who are well aware that both their autonomy and their community are eroding.
Just look at this exchange!
I love this so much. Because, see, “democratic ownership and control of the economy” is literally what socialism means. I know lots of people now think of it as meaning “central economic planning,” but that was just one attempt that was tried a hundred years ago and didn’t work out.
This is what I mean when I say socialism is a return to community. It has nothing to do with “free rides.” It’s about returning to ordinary people—and to the communities that make wealth creation and well-being possible—the fruits of their labor and the autonomy and freedom that go with them.
This Twitter exchange suggests that if you take away the S-word (which I know is still scary to most Americans), you’ll find that plenty of Americans actually already agree with us. As it turns out, socialism is as American as apple pie!
Well, I’d be happy to ditch the S-word if that’s what it will take to get us to economic democracy. A rose by any other name would indeed smell as sweet! (The rose, incidentally, is the symbol of democratic socialism, as opposed to the authoritarian communist hammer and sickle.) And there are people out there outside of rose-stamped organizations who are trying to advance precisely this goal. Take a look at this one from the Democracy Collaborative, which just happened to pop up on my Twitter feed right after I saw the above exchange:
See how, where I’ve been saying “socialist,” they use the word “community?” They’re close to interchangeable.
I’ll be talking about “community” in some upcoming posts that may not seem to be directly related to “socialism.” But it’s all part of the same story. It’s a thread that ties together so many today’s most important discussions. Reorienting our society around community is going to take a huge amount of effort, a lot of new ideas, and a good bit of trial and error. But given that it’s a value that virtually all of us share, I have hope that we can get there.