Community: An Eroding American Value

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.

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Except when we’re animals.  But animal citizenship is a digression.

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 beingswho 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.

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“This doesn’t look like DC.  Or even Pennsylvania….”
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“But they were right there next to each other on the map!”

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!

applepie-DSAflag
I photoshopped this image myself for our chapter’s Socialism 101 presentation.

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.

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15 thoughts on “Community: An Eroding American Value

    1. Yes, absolutely! I generally have liked the word “socialism” because it points to capitalism as being the problem per se — in other words, control of the productive resources by the very few — I’d be very happy to adopt a different word if it could convey the same ideas. And I think community allows a pretty good back door that essentially gets to that very same core problem. Another positive word: “democracy”!

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      1. It’s funny–I’ve developed a negative reaction to the word “democracy,” simply because of the way it’s been misused! 🙂 I really enjoyed this post of yours, and I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit over the past few days! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, thank you! That’s an honor!

          And I understand your learned response to the word “democracy.” It’s so sad how some terms that start off meaning something very positive can get warped….

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  1. Excellent essay. And to answer your question, your logic applies equally well to Australia, very different as the two cultures are.
    Community, caring, mutual support, empathy, decency are as central to human nature as all the negatives people stereotypically assign to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much, Dr. Bob! Though I didn’t want to presume anything, I’m not surprised that this applies in Australia, too. We are all humans and we all share this basic need, no matter how it plays out (or fails to!) in our national mythos. And it’s so true that there’s much good to be found in human nature, too. We need to look for policies that amplify that, while dampening the downsides….

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    1. Thank you, Leon! It’s my fault if it wasn’t all clear; there are some mental leaps in this piece for sure, so I’m honored that you still found something of worth in it enough to share it. Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought it was really good. The only question I had was about the system in the early capitalist period, and what it looked like before the industrial era and severe wealth disparity. I read somewhere that Adam Smith’s version of it was intended to imply that common men would be the owners of businesses and those who worked for them would be apprentices, preparing to own their own someday.

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        1. That’s an excellent point, and frankly, I think a lot of people calling themselves socialists (including me) would find that kind of system a tremendous improvement. It would certainly strengthen community! Indeed, some models of “community ownership” would basically go back to that. It’s kind of wacky (though only to people steeped in American political dichotomies) to think of “socialist entrepreneurs,” but my conception of socialism would readily allow for this. The only catch is that when an entrepreneur brings community members in to help with the enterprise, there’s an understanding that their dedication of time and effort affords them some rights/control over the enterprise. (What those should be is up for further discussion…for now I just assert there should be something more than there is now!)

          Sadly, today we live in an age of globalization and multinational corporations, so even the early capitalist period seems like an egalitarian utopia from a certain angle.

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          1. Yes! I think that path could bear fruit. My experience as an elected leader of a rapidly growing activist group have affirmed to me that some sort of executive is needed; and that they can be held accountable to the democratic body. There are better and worse ways to do this, of course, so there’s more work to be done in figuring out the implementation. (How much is the democratic body really presented with information to make their decisions, vs. the opinions of an elite clique for their rubber stamp? What is actually best decided by the executive? There will be tradeoffs; there’s no perfect answer to these.) Nevertheless, this is a promising goal, I think — the least bad option!

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  2. Community has been a contested thing in the history of socialism. There were those who thought socialism would sweep away family and nation, while others thought socialism would perfect them. It’s the same with community.

    In The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell worried about what modernist socialists would do to the working class living room and by extension, the working class community. Conversely others regarded community as the repository of backwardness, authority and obedience, and the vortex of modernism was needed to sweep all that away.

    You can see the point of the latter when even affectionate portrayals of community show its leaders as pompous busybodies like Captain Mainwaring, the vicar and the mayor in Dad’s Army, and the mayor in Gilmore Girls. Much more seriously in America community often meant the ‘solid’ South, the sundown town and the insular enclave that protects its gangsters, wife beaters and child abusers. Even Orwell could easily be seen as defending smug male supremacy.

    In view of that it would seem that All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is right and such structures need to be liquidised to set people free and shift them from local to global class loyalties. But despite the spectacular vision of that book, that kind of eternal rootless maelstrom doesn’t appeal to me. Communities can be both bastions of the old order (and in some cases the rock on which every revolutionary wave breaks) or the strongest centres of resistance to it. Even if some of them need to be seriously shaken up to loosen old prejudices and strictures, most peole will then want things to settle back into something stable, comfortable and reliable, although likely quite different to what went before.

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    1. I’m also opposed to eternal rootless maelstrom! It seems that in the twenty-first century, community really is breaking down, and to no one’s pleasure. As you note, they can be bastions of the old or centers of resistance to it…which is because communities are where people live. And it’s only really recently that we’ve been able to fragment them to such an extent. Modern socialist analysis should have a lot to say about this…and modern ordinary people of all stripes will surely find that this topic resonates, I think!

      (It’s also funny how one might make a strong case that capitalism is doing what it can to strongly erode, if not completely sweep away, family and nation…!)

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  3. This is the most helpful and broad ranging text I’ve read here until now, thank you for posting it!

    I’m from Europe and can confirm, that an increase in individualism, egoism, and callousness, complemented by a lack of compassion and integrity, is happening here also. In our globalized culture, the US may be spearheading, but most other nations follow.

    Personally, I was either self employed (as a musician) or a public employee (as a music teacher on a public music school). I would have felt deeply alienated to work for the wellbeing of faceless shareholders who could be anyone from old world aristocracy to criminal East European oligarchs to Gulf princes to high risk stock exchange gamblers to the omnipresent charlatans, con men, tricksters, and hustlers of politics and high finance.

    Changing it all seems to be a mission impossible, because it is not a matter of a particular social and economical organization, it is a matter of the social climate, the sum of social relations, the sum of individual mindsets, moods, and resulting actions.

    It is all in our minds. Our combined lifestyles, habits, daily choices form society. If we want to strengthen local communities, we have to reach out, find new friends, take part in local activities. If we want to stop military spending, we have to stop paying taxes (Cindy Sheehan did that). If we want to combat consumerism, we have to stop shopping. If we want to end exploitation, we have to organize our own co-ops (Mondragon). If we want to alleviate global warming, we have to minimize our carbon footprint.

    We need to live an exemplary life, and beyond that we have to agitate and organize.

    I tell you nothing new, you know that all. I only wanted to reaffirm and encourage you.

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