SOCIAL COHESION AND THE QUALITY OF LIFE.
“We are more isolated, lonely and anxious
than ever before.”
Even if we did not have alarming problems to do with resource scarcity, poverty, war, sustainability and global justice we would still be confronted by profoundly unhealthy societies in which many are unhappy, deprived, insecure, stressed, depressed or dumped into “exclusion”. The quality of life most of us experience is nowhere near what it should be. Social cohesion and community are in poor shape and deteriorating. The following argument is that our sorry state is a direct and inevitable consequence of the mistaken commitments to affluence, growth, competition, the market and individualism. That is, some of the core ideas, values and ways of consumer-capitalist society are inevitably socially destructive. These problems of cohesion and quality of life cannot be fixed within such a society, but they would be eliminated if we took The Simpler Way.
The living conditions most Australians enjoy are probably among the best in the world, and there are many aspects of our society we can be proud of, especially to do with political freedoms, the rule of law, security and health. Yet there is a long list of disturbing observations regarding the state of social cohesion, including the breakdown of families with almost half of marriages ending in separation, drug and alcohol abuse, crime and violence, almost the world’s worst youth suicide rate, an epidemic of stress, anxiety and depression and mental illness, eating disorders and obesity, unemployment, homelessness and poverty suffered by millions, the decay of rural life, and insecurity in retirement and old age. There is political apathy and cynicism. The situation indigenous people experience is an embarrassing national disgrace. In addition most environmental conditions which impact on the quality of life are deteriorating, such as traffic congestion, urban over-development, and climate effects.
Andrew Leigh’s Disconnected (2010) and Reconnected (2020) document increases in the share of Australians who live alone, school students feeling “very stressed’, suicide rate, discontent with the nation’s direction, and falls in the average number of close friends, neighbours known, parents who would allow their children to roam the neighbourhood, trust and confidence in the federal government, the number of organisations and associations, amount of volunteering, organised sport, number of close friends, membership of political parties, money donated.
In a satisfactory society there would be high levels of cohesion, solidarity, integration cooperation, common values, and community. There would be strong agreement about important ideas, ways and values, and a strong concern with the common good, the public interest and the welfare of all, especially of those least fortunate. There would be strong desire to cooperate, care, give, be generous and nurture.
These issues are to do with the dimension is runs from individualism to collectivism. It is not possible to have a society made up of individuals pursuing their own self interest. A society only exists in so far as individuals have concerns for other than their own interests. If there is no concern for social values, no control of individual thought, feeling and action by social considerations, then there is no society. Obviously there can be societies in which the focus on the good of the collective is too strong and unnecessarily interferes with the interests and freedoms of individuals, or binds the clan into hostility against outsiders. The former is what we rightly reject in the case of totalitarian societies where the common good has been identified with the state or a dictatorial elite. These days “collectivism” is usually taken to be a recommendation of greater state control, but that can be avoided. The task is to find a satisfactory balance between the good of all and the freedom of individuals to do what they wish. Unfortunately Western culture with its long capitalist history has come to put far too much emphasis on the freedom of the individual and far too little on the welfare of society.
A society is like an ecosystem with many components, inputs and feedback mechanisms that determine its condition. Unless they are all ticking along well, meshing, providing each other with what they need, in the right quantity and at the right time, then the whole thing won’t work well, and could die. That’s what we see in a rainforest. An enormous number of organisms and processes automatically generate and maintain the self-regulating conditions making it possible for each of them to exist and flourish. The insects pollinate the trees and the trees give insects their food.
In a satisfactory society conscientiousness, cooperation and helpfulness are required, but they are also rewarded and reinforced. The core elements are to do with cooperation and mutual benefit. Your helping is enjoyable, appreciated, and makes your own existence go well, so it is automatically encouraged and reinforced. The rainforest requires the bat to eat the fruit and spread the seeds, but bats don’t do it grudgingly, they like doing it. Thus mutually beneficial action is reinforced. There is a self-maintaining pattern of purposes and actions, an automatic meshing and integration. There’s no need for artificial force to get things done. No one has to make that bat spread seeds. In a tribe there’s no need for police and a bureaucracy to make people do what’s necessary. Most of the time it’s voluntary and automatic, not even thought about. This is a core principle of Anarchism; in good systems there is no need for top-down power and control because participants can work out mutually beneficial arrangements.
In a healthy dog functions are well coordinated and integrated. When a cat appears feet do their stuff, blood is diverted from stomach to limbs and growl apparatus clicks in. Back left leg never decides to go at right angles to front right leg. All parts work together smoothly for the common purpose, each making its precise contribution. This is how a good crew gets a sailing ship to work well. No need to detail scarce sailors to go below and rouse the rest of the watch out of their bunks when they were supposed to be on deck by now. In a well integrated system problems tend not to arise or are dealt with by the routine functioning of the system so there is little or no need to add on solutions. In the traditional village of Ladakh many formal and informal processes enable conflicts to be identified early and to be quietly resolved by family and community as they go about their everyday activities. There is no need to apply a patch of social workers or counsellors. Most tribes have been highly stable and cohesive for thousands of years without any need for police forces. The controls are mostly internalised and automatic. People have within them the ideas, values, habits and dispositions that ensure integration and cooperation and stability over time.
But in our present society the integrating conditions and forces are weak and are damaged by some of the major structures and processes of our society. As a result there is a lot of breakdown so we need to add on armies of social workers, police, counsellors, courts, judges, prisons, parole officers and lawyers…and still the problems multiply. The result is increasing system complexity and cost as society becomes more encrusted with inadequate patches on patches taking more and more resources. This contributes to the diminishing returns Tainter (1988) identifies as the essential cause of the collapse of complex societies. It is as if more and more of our crew members have to be set to rounding up those who fail to come on deck and guarding them in the ship’s lock up.
In The Way Edward Goldsmith (1983) discussed the conditions which have enabled many societies to remain stable over very long periods. He saw that these societies were cooperative, cared for their members, prevented significant inequality, cared for their environment, were not hierarchical, and were not greedy. That’s The Way, and we have lost The Way. lndeed our way contradicts all these crucial prerequisites, and it is therefore no surprise that our society is at such conflict with itself, creating problems that then require such effort to deal with, in a losing battle. (Polanyi discussed much the same phenomena in his The Great Transformation, on the emergence of capitalist society.)
The fundamental cause of the malaise is of course the competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness and an economy driven by these values, which not just condemns many to struggle and exclusion but damages the whole of society. (See below on Wilkinson and Pickert, 1990.) The disintegration is a direct consequence of this society’s fundamental structures and processes. It is not a superficial effect that can be righted by the application of patches while those structures remain.
A major concern in the following passages is to show that the conditions in a society following The Simpler Way would strongly require and reinforce integration and cohesion. Those conditions would provide powerful positive incentive to think, feel and act collectively, to want to do what is good for society. This would firstly be because all would be acutely aware that their own welfare and quality of life would be due, not to their own wealth or talent or effort or their nation’s GDP, but to the richness of their small local society and its landscape, orchards, gardens, infrastructures, festivals, artists, public works and climate of support and community. Secondly all would know from experience how satisfying it is to participate in and contribute to a thriving caring community. Their everyday experience would have taught them the miracles of synergism. They would know that the more they give the more they receive, especially spiritually. The goal should be, not seconding the wishes of the individual to the good of the collective, but aligning the good of both so that clashes don’t arise or are minimised. One way of doing this is to get individuals to love Big Brother, but a better way is for us to work together to develop social systems and rules which can be seen to maximise the long term welfare of all of us.
It is commonly assumed that there is an inevitable tension between individual and society. In competitive consumer society doing the socially appropriate thing is often difficult and unpleasant, because you have to go against your immediate self interest. You pay your tax but that means you have to send in money you’d rather keep. You stop at red lights, but that conflicts with your desire to get there fast. Individual interests are felt as clashing with the good of society. However in The Simpler Way, with its sensible organisation of resources to meet needs, to do what is good for society is much more likely to be to benefit yourself and to do what you like doing anyway. It’s enjoyable to attend working bees, and you benefit when the job is done. Consequently it is less likely there will be significant tension between individual and society.
Thus the motivation in a good society is almost entirely positive. There’s not much point in trying to force people to be good, creative, helpful or conscientious, by threatening to punish them if they aren’t. Things can only go well if people want to give, create, help, take responsibility and come to working bees, because they find these socially-crucial activities satisfying.
So collectivism does not need to imply docile compliance with the herd or the state, or absence of criticism, dissent and deviance. A robust society needs self criticism, to ensure that assumptions are challenged and possible problems identified and arrangements are improved. But criticism need not be hostile or destructive. Ideally its essence is careful examination of the issue, and it can result in positive suggestions, or recognition that an arrangement or theory accepted long go is still a good one.
The disintegrating forces at work.
Consumer-capitalist society is structured in terms of fundamental, irreconcilable, zero-sum conflicting interests, which at best can only result in the exclusion or destruction of many people. In other words this society has conditions and forces built into it which have a strong tendency to damage cohesion and cause breakdown. (Of course there are also some forces at work which tend to integrate.) It is a society in which individuals strive to maximise their own advantage, to get more wealth, status and power, and to get things others then can’t have. The welfare of the tribe or the public good are far from the focal concerns guiding thought and action. It is accepted that those who are energetic, fit, lucky, rich and/or who work hard can end up with much more wealth than the rest, and that many who are less so will end up with too little. The games are zero sum.
It is in other words more or less a winner-take-all society…with miserly provision for some of the winnings to be redistributed to the biggest losers. All compete and it is quite alright for the few rich and powerful to win and take things many poor people need, such as materials for their too-big houses, and fish for their pet food. It is not just alright but it is a sign of admirable success to drive business competitors into bankruptcy and take their sales and markets, leaving them without a livelihood. If you insist on having a society structured on such principles then it follows as night the day that you will have many serious problems. For instance, if you exclude a lot of people from a livelihood, a worthwhile role, self respect, decent housing or supportive communities, don’t be surprised if they to turn to crime, drugs, alcohol, depression and self-destruction, and cost you billions.
Our society then puts patches on these festering sores. It does not try to eliminate their causes, which lie in an economic system that is not designed to provide for all. It just tries to get the failures and deviants to shape up, get back into the system, compete against others and perform properly. When it can’t do this satisfactorily it manages the irritants in order to minimise inconvenience. Thus we have vast “welfare” industries including prisons, remedial schools, drug and alcohol clinics, and mental health institutions. Then there are the industries the employed and respectable middle classes turn to for coping advice, from the books on self-help and stress relief to the consulting and life coaching and depression clinics. None of this questions a culture of far too much work, competition, risk, stress and insecurity in order to produce and consume far too much. The biggest health problems we have now are probably to do with depression, stress and anxiety. The fact that on average we work about three times too hard and struggle to pay for houses at least ten times too expensive is not on the agenda.
Agencies representing disadvantaged groups then plead to the state for assistance. The state a) ignores them as best it can, b) gives some assistance to the squeakiest wheels, and c) usually band-aids, administers, manages the problems but can never solve them. Dissent and discontent are kept low, and in any case are experienced as individual misfortune or defined as due to personal error/failure (unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse…) so the system is not threatened no matter how bad the experience it inflicts on individuals. The fact that most of the bad behaviour is due to the bad conditions the system imposes is not considered. The existence of social problems is normalised, and anyway rugged individuals don’t complain, they just soldier on.
“Welfare” therefore takes the form of compensation, always grudging and inadequate, for those who loose in the competitive struggle. The existence of welfare proves that the system is charitable. “End of pipe” “tech-fixes” are applied. Band-aids and patches are put on the spots where trouble breaks out, and then patches have to be put on the patches. So, build another freeway, bury the CO2, build more prisons, send more police to deal with drunken Aborigines … but don’t ask about the connections with an economy which automatically creates and impoverishes losers, destroys community, ignores the need for livelihoods and dumps whole regions into unemployment and boredom. Drug abuse provides a perfect example. Declare “war on drugs”, develop more high-tech equipment to detect the shipments, impose higher penalties for the pushers who are “killing our children”, but don’t ask what is so seriously wrong about a society where the most attractive thing many young people can find to do is to take drugs.
The quality of life.
It is well established that as long as wealth is above a very low level, increasing economic wealth makes little or no difference to the quality of life. Long ago Easterlin (1972) reviewed more than 30 studies and found that in “developed” countries the experienced quality of life shows little if any relationship with GDP. Various measures find that even with a doubling of the US GNP per capita (in deflated terms) over recent decades there has been no increase in the experienced quality of life. We are about three times as rich as our grandparents were but it cannot be said that we enjoy life any more. Richard Douthwaite's The Growth Illusion, (1992) and Short Circuit (1996) argue in detail that not only has economic growth not increased the quality of life in Britain, it has deteriorated it since 1955 (pp. 3, 9). Among those reviewing the extensive and convincing evidence that above a relatively low income, quality of life does not increase with increasing income are Hamilton (2000), Hamilton and Dennis, (2005), Eckersley (2004), Speth (2001), and Alexander (2012.). The above list of social problems aligns with the indices suggesting that in general the experienced quality of life in the rich countries is now actually falling, even though as GDP constantly increases. For years Herman Daly has been pointing out that economic growth is now adding more to costs than benefits; it is uneconomic growth.
These facts should be a policy bombshell, but their significance is largely ignored. They show that there is a head-on contradiction between prioritising economic turnover, profit maximisation and growth of GDP on the one hand, and on the other seeking to raise the quality of life.
The supreme goal of all governments and of just about all people is still to increase monetary wealth, yet it is clear that this does little or nothing to increase happiness, or the quality of life, while it is the main cause of damage to social cohesion and the environment. Politicians do not ask “What policies might best increase the quality of life?” They only ask, “What will maximise the GDP?” … which is precisely what the owners of capital want us to focus on. Politics should be driven by concern to improve the quality of life of all, and effort should constantly be going into researching and monitoring the conditions which will do this. Instead by making growth of GDP the supreme goal social policy is geared to the interests of those who benefit most from selling things. Many of the actions taken to raise the GDP damage the quality of life, directly by for instance driving workers harder, and indirectly by increasing the climate of insecurity and callous selfishness.
Community is an extremely important element in a satisfactory quality of life, yet its significance is rarely given much attention. Many of the problems our society is encountering can be explained in terms of the lack of community. It is an imprecise concept and is not well understood, but it would seem to involve the following elements.
Note how none of these elements has anything to do with money or conventional economic theory and practice. They are all about the social forces, structures, bonds and rewards that make a society harmonious and robust, caring, satisfying to live in and a source of pride.
These factors are also sometimes thought of as making up "social wealth" or "social capital". In a strong community people have much social wealth, i.e., relationships, habits, reputation, past experience and climates of good will and expectations which will guarantee access to friendship, security, cooperation, civil interactions, assistance and pleasant social experience. These sorts of factors are much more important in enriching life than merely having financial wealth. In pre-industrial societies people devote a great deal of time to maintaining these social relations, which then give them community, support, security and satisfactions.
Do not use the term “social capital”.
Social cohesion is utterly different to mere monetary capital and it is important not to think about social “wealth” in the way that conventional economists think. They collapse everything into the single dimension of monetary value, and thereby grossly distort understanding. The stuff sometimes referred to as “social capital” is extremely complex and largely incomprehensible, involving many mysterious factors such as pride, friendship, reputation, memories, morale, manners, social connections, history, ideology, tradition, emotional bonds, religion, trust, and feelings of security, reciprocity, obligation, debt, gratitude and generosity. It is impossible to think of all these in terms of one dimension that can be quantified, like monetary value. You can’t take a quantity of this stuff from one place and invest it or spend it anywhere else, as you can with money from a bank. You can’t buy or sell or trade or hire out your social wealth. You can’t bank social wealth. If you hoard money it grows, but if you don’t use social wealth it wastes away. For instance you must constantly renew friendships or they will weaken and eventually cease to exist. Often when you “spend” social wealth you then have more than you had before, such as when you give advice or a kind word or tell a joke. Money transactions are zero-sum; what I get you lose, but when I give you a friendly smile we both gain. Social wealth has no financial value and does not behave according to the “laws” of the market place.
So don’t let the economists with their impoverished conceptual tool box (containing only one thing, the measurement of money) take over the discussion of social phenomena and the nature of a good society. Their paltry and misleading theoretical apparatus cannot deal at all satisfactorily with this field.
How do we rate on community?
How much community is there in the typical city suburb? Some of us do enjoy considerable experience of community, e.g., in football clubs and churches, but many do not and this is a major source of social breakdown.
The lack of community most seriously affects people with problems, notably the single parent, the disabled, deserted wives, poor people and the aged. The young and the affluent can to some extent find or buy alternative satisfactions, but without community many old people are condemned to a life of isolation and boredom. Elderly men have a high suicide rate.
The community is a crucial and irreplaceable agent of socialisation. As people interact with others in a satisfactory community, social values are reinforced. People experience the benefits of helping and cooperation. Children hear their parents discussing important local issues, valuing the welfare of each other and of the area, and of standards and traditions. They experience parents and friends helping each other, cooperating to do important things for our community, expressing concern for others. They get satisfaction from participating in the festivals and civic duties that we can then see contributing to the welfare of all. They come into frequent contact with many others and share their perspectives on the locality. These experiential learnings about the way the world is and about what is important cannot be gained from books or from the pronouncements of parents and teachers. Contrast this with the socialisation experience of children who live in high-rise units without contact with neighbours and whose parents shop as isolated individuals in supermarkets.
Especially perverse is the way we neglect adolescents. They have no important role in society, no valued status and no contribution to make, precisely at the time when they need to form a healthy identity. It is a time when they should be learning to be useful and appreciated contributors to society, committed to it and eager to serve. But instead adolescents in present society are alienated and excluded. No effort is made to include them in socially useful activity. The work to be done is allocated to paid workers. This society’s only interest in them is as consumers. So young people turn to spending their time with each other doing things that are at best time-consuming entertainment, and often physically and socially destructive. They also spend hours every day on average watching electronic screens, unconnected with the real world. In tribal societies young people are not ignored and cut off like this. They are part of society, working and playing with all the others, doing useful things, under the eye of older people, learning by experience what it is to be a respected and valued member of society. In a Simpler Way community the kids might be responsible for running fish or poultry cooperatives.
This again reflects the lack of integration. We isolate the toddlers in day care, the aged in nursing “homes”, the workers in factories, the housewives in kitchens, the teachers in classrooms. In The Simpler Way they would all be rubbing shoulders most of the day, engaged in important, purposeful and mutually beneficial contributions, fuelling the synergism.
At the bottom of the heap are the angry alienated many. More than 200,000 teenage Australians are not in work or in school. This is no way to form a good citizen. It is not surprising that many turn to drugs, alcohol, tattoos, hooliganism, car stealing, body piercing, graffiti, over eating or under eating, fast cars, to achieve identity and status and to defeat boredom.
As Illich (1973) pointed out so well, much of this trouble is due to the way the economy has taken functions from us. Long ago everyone in the village had to think about the management of the well and the commons. Now just about everything is done for us by councils, professionals and corporations. The economy constantly needs to enable them to do more business, which means there is constant pressure on us towards more passive consuming. Hence another blessing that will come with scarcity; we will again have to get together, from toddlers to the aged, to do many of the things now done for us.
Much of the disintegration can simply be put down to lack of purpose. Nothing matters more than having things to do, interests, projects, goals which one is keen to work on. This is another reason why arts, crafts, gardening and hobbies are so important. The tragic situation of many native people, homeless, drug addicted, unemployed and depressed people is in large part due to circumstances which have left them without purpose. In winner-take-all society there’s little interest in making sure no one is left without interesting and worthwhile contributions to make and things to do.
We pay a high price for our poor level of community, not just in terms of the isolation many people experience, but in terms of the costly social problems it generates. If people experienced more community fewer people would become depressed or turn to drugs or crime. Friends and neighbours would foresee many problems emerging before they became serious such as domestic violence, mental illness, suicide and child abuse.
Market relations drive out and destroy desirable social relations.
If the top priority in a society is merely increasing the amount of production for sale then many things that undermine community will occur. Many industries and regions will be "restructured" as factories close down or open in new areas, changing familiar townscapes, depriving people of livelihoods and requiring many families to move and break emotional ties to people and places. Freeways will be put through stable neighbourhoods. Peasants will be displaced as foreign corporations come in and take their land and their markets.
Especially important is the increasing pressure to commercialise as many functions as possible, i.e., for corporations and professionals to take over the provision of many goods and services we once produced for ourselves outside the cash economy. The more they do this the more the GNP rises, but individuals and communities lose functions, connections, control, autonomy, livelihoods, self respect and the incentive to interact and to take responsibility. For example we are now preparing less of our own food while buying more take-away food and we purchase entertainment, furniture, child minding, counselling, insurance, security, education, aged care…
The social relations which used to govern all these economic activities, for instance determining how things are shared, how help is given, how less able people are included and provided for, are eliminated and replaced by market forces and the activity of governments and professionals.
It is of course very much in the interests of the corporations for us to exist as isolated individuals who do less and less for ourselves and have to buy everything from them. So they spend vast sums on advertising to persuade us to buy products but no one makes any effort to persuade us to get together to do things for our neighbourhood or town. Most of our society's capital and development resources flow only into ventures that will increase production for sale and therefore lead to more passive, private consuming. Few resources go into projects that might stimulate more community self-sufficiency, mutual aid, cooperation and sharing. For example almost no resources go into developing neighbourhood workshops, drama clubs, commons and leisure-rich environments. Such developments would not only contribute nothing to "getting the economy going", they would actually reduce GNP by enabling people to live better while purchasing less.
However by far the most destructive force eliminating social values is the market system. When buying and selling within a market situation is allowed to become the main mechanism whereby people acquire the things they need, then desirable social attitudes, bonds and relations are damaged or driven out.
When you enter a market situation to buy or sell you have to be selfish. You go into the market to get things for yourself, and you must focus on how to maximise your own advantage and to minimise that of the other person. Markets allocate things to those who can pay most for them. The situation does not encourage thought about what would be good for other people or for society as a whole. But it is impossible to have any society, let alone a good one, unless there is much more than self interest, i.e., unless there is concern with what would be good for others and for the society as a whole. Self-interest is only one of the many motives and values people have, and the quality of their society depends on their social and moral values, not on their self interest, competition and acquisitiveness.
To repeat, a society is not possible unless people have concern for more than their own self interest. There must be concern for social values such as being honest, doing the right thing, seeing justice done, standards, the public good, what is good for others, traditions and customs, cultural values and practices, equity, and the situation of the least fortunate, morality and decency, pride in society, respect for law, appreciation for good institutions, concern for the environment and desire to see social progress. These are the things that constitute society; if they are absent you do not have a society. Yet the relations you have in a market situation contradict and prohibit these relations. The more emphasis we put on mere market relations, i.e., trading to maximise individual monetary wealth, then the less attention and value will be given to the other-regarding values that make society possible, let alone satisfactory or admirable.
What would happen if mum made the toast and sold it to the highest bidder in the family?
Dad would get the toast, because he can pay more for it. The kids, and grandma, would starve.
Thus we can see the serious mistake in allowing the market to have much influence in society, let alone in identifying a society with its economy which economists are strongly inclined to do. Markets, wealth-seeking, trading, investing and making money are dangerous to society, because they are about individuals pursuing self-interest. It might be acceptable to have a large market sector within a society, so long as it is a minor part of the society, and so long as moral, pro-social values and rules are much more important considerations.
The Neo-liberal scourge.
Over the last 500 years there has been a titanic struggle for freedom for the individual, i.e., freedom from rule by tyrants, kings and popes, and freedom to do one’s own thing and to believe what one wishes. This has been of immense significance for human emancipation. The trouble is that it has also freed acquisitiveness from moral/social control. For instance, once lending money to receive any interest was regarded as a mortal sin, banned by the Catholic church. In the Medieval period feudal lords were bound by moral laws to provide for and protect their serfs. But in the capitalist era there are only weak moral considerations restraining some from taking more and more. Over a period of a hundred years or so the labour and ”socialist” movements managed to institute stricter controls over the freedom of the entrepreneur, by giving the state power to regulate in the interests of the less powerful. But by the1970s capital’s ceaseless and fierce drive to find more investment outlets led to these measures to be increasingly seen by the corporations as thwarting their access to good business -– so capital determined to get rid of them. Hence Neo-liberal globalisation.
The worst thing about globalisation is not society’s loss of capacity to regulate the economy in order to meet needs (not that this was often done well), or the resulting economic catastrophe afflicting millions. It is the ideological shift that has come with Neo-liberal globalisation, the increased affirmation of the desirability and legitimacy of individuals having freedom from social regulation to maximise their own self interest.
Neo-liberalism makes us all into individual entrepreneurs who must focus on our own self-interest and survival in a difficult and hostile market place, working against all others, knowing that not all can get jobs or prosper or be secure. It causes rapidly increasing inequality. It makes altruism and cooperation and concern about social issues irrelevant at best, or liabilities holding us back. It generates a more selfish, mean, unequal, predatory, brutal and callous society, destroying the fundamental social bonds, solidarity and cohesion. The result has been the accelerating destruction of society itself, of the attitudes, habits, ideas and institutions which assume and reinforce the importance of other than self interest.
It should be clear that these problems of cohesion cannot be solved in or by consumer-capitalist society. The problems are caused by the fundamental, defining elements of such a society, by the competitive pursuit of affluence and economic growth and especially by the excessive and increasing freedom given to market forces. Again markets cannot attend to justice, equity or the needs of society or the environment or future generations. Solving the problems the market creates is not possible unless there is a vast and radical change to another, very different kind of society in which markets are very minor determinants of what happens, if they exist at all.
Following is an indication of how some of the main factors that are important for social cohesion and quality of life are central in The Simpler Way. It must be stressed that this is not a wish list of desirable things. These are social conditions which come with the nature of The Simpler way. They are integral to it. The community-reinforcing effects, the benefits to quality of life and cohesion and the automatic avoidance of problems are characteristics and consequences of the normal functioning of a satisfactory society.
Small, highly self-sufficient, cooperative communities running themselves.
The Simpler Way is about small communities which take control of their own affairs and organise local resources to meet local needs (with some but few inputs from outside the region.) Such economies cannot function satisfactorily unless there is a high level of community, social responsibility, mutual aid, concern for each other and the common good. The day to day functioning of these communities will have a strong tendency to reinforce these good values and ways.
Because of the severe resource limits we will have to come together to cooperatively organise our own local economic affairs, and this will help to create interaction, familiarity, mutual concern, sharing, responsibility and therefore community. We would have transferred much economic activity into a large non-cash sector where giving, cooperatives, mutual aid and working bees would automatically build community, social bonds and cohesion. We would have taken control over much of our own government, i.e., of determining how things will be organised and run, mainly via town meetings. Because all would have a valued, rewarding contribution to make, a livelihood, no one would suffer unemployment, or lack of purpose or self respect. That is, no one would be “excluded”. We would organise such a cooperative economy, under social control, because we would have to, because local productive capacity would have to be geared sensibly to meeting local needs. The new economy would have many free goods, commons, working bees, committees and town meetings, and it would (have to) be driven by citizens focused on what is best for all. Everyone would see that if the town doesn’t work well they themselves would suffer, so it’s in their vital interests to pitch in. Thus the radically new economic structures and processes would have a powerful tendency to generate mutual cooperation, concern and solidarity.
Especially significant here is the smallness of scale. Settlements would be walk-able. We would therefore be constantly engaged in face to face contacts with familiar neighbours as we walked or cycled to work, shops, leisure and events. There would be a vibrant street life, including things like the evening “promenade” as a significant leisure event. To leave one’s front door would be to run the risk of convivial conversation, which would inevitably get onto important community issues, reinforcing awareness and concern and spreading ideas. When you have to get into a car to go anywhere these things don’t happen.
Many of the exchanges of goods and services taking place would not involve cash sales but would take the form of giving (and therefore receiving). For example the surplus from your fruit trees or any left-over materials from a repair job would be given to others or left at the neighbourhood recycling centre for others to use. We would also give our time to voluntary neighbourhood working bees. The artists, gardeners, comedians would give and enrich the landscape and concerts.
The distinction between giving and getting is important here, and easily overlooked. In consumer–capitalist society the dominant outlook and motivation is to get. People work to get money, they go shopping to get things, they compete to get jobs, they live as individuals who have to get what they want in competition against others. Outside the home their lives do not involve much giving. However in The Simpler Way this situation is reversed. All will give much time to (voluntary) working bees, will give surpluses away, and will give attention to social issues and needs and will give assistance to each other. If they don’t do these things their society will not work well, but more importantly the giving will be enjoyable. This situation will build solidarity. The society requires giving, but it also rewards and reinforces it. Giving brings out the best in us, and makes us feel good. And if people are doing a lot of giving, they will also be doing a lot of receiving. More importantly, giving creates the right climate and outlook. It creates the generosity that releases and multiplies goodness; it generates synergism. In The Simpler Way giving is the basic economic mechanism – most of the things you need will be given to you, from others or from the commons and social institutions, rather than bought.
The fear of insecurity that consumer-capitalist society increasingly imposes on everyone generates great pressure to accumulate monetary wealth as an individual. Unless you can pay for insurance, educational credentials, superannuation, health cover, aged care, etc., you are vulnerable and will probably suffer serious deprivation, because your fate depends on your individual capacity to buy the things you need. But in a tribe anyone who suffers a loss will be helped by all the others. In general people who live in tribes are far more secure than we are in western society.
The Simpler Way involves a mutually supportive community, in which everyone knows that everyone is needed and that it is vital that everyone is in good shape. People know everyone has an interest in looking after each other. Our town needs a baker so if he has a problem we have a problem. In addition we will know him personally and would want him to be OK even if we didn’t need him.
In The Simpler Way there would be intense mutual interdependence between people in their small settlements. We would all clearly understand that our individual welfare would only be secure if we could get many goods and services from each other, especially via bonds of familiarity. In consumer society we are highly dependent on others, but in a quite different way. We could not last more than a few days if the vast, complex and fragile global supply networks bringing everything to us broke down. This is dependence on people you don’t know and have no bonds with, and who have no concern for your welfare. It is dependence on oil tankers and satellites. It makes you extremely vulnerable. You have little resilience. By contrast the person in a tribe is least vulnerable and most secure because of dependence on familiar people close by who care for him and who are in full control of the systems for providing everything they need. His “insurance” payments take the form of years of contributing to tribal activities, building his reputation as a good citizen. Knowing that your quality of life depends entirely on whether your local ecosystems and social systems were functioning well would feedback to reinforce your eagerness to contribute.
The dominant assumption in consumer society is that what matters most is economic or monetary wealth. If this is high and increasing then everything else will either be good, or much better than it otherwise would be. From the perspective of The Simpler Way wealth and welfare are seen in a totally different light. In the present “social-democratic” systems of the rich countries people compete to get and take as much as possible, a few succeed most and become obscenely rich while most struggle, then those with incomes pay taxes to enable some of the wealth to be redistributed to those at the bottom. In this process the most successful few take livelihoods from many others; e.g., many little shops are wiped out as supermarket chains take their business. Therefore there is a strong tendency for the numbers of people needing “welfare” to increase. Even in the richest societies large numbers are dumped and “excluded”, without employment, in lousy jobs, homeless etc. The avoidable economic cost (e.g. in bureaucrats and social workers), let alone the social cost, is enormous.
The Simpler Way scraps this entire concept of “welfare” as compensation. Income, inequality of income and redistribution of income are not important. Instead, the Simpler Way ensures that all have equal access to the things that enable a high quality of life regardless of monetary wealth. This is not about having big enough incomes to purchase all you want or need from the normal economy. It is about not having many material demands in the first place, and more importantly it is about establishing a new cooperative and socially controlled economy which provides well for all in the locality, including basic goods, a livelihood, purpose and abundant leisure and cultural activities. The most important things it provides are public, the commons, landscapes, workshops and activities, friendliness and access to support. Thus it is possible for people with extremely low monetary incomes to be very “rich”, i.e., to have access to the things that make their lives very satisfying.
This approach has been partly evident in the history of “Distributivism” (Matthews, 2009), which seeks to spread productive capacity widely among people, as distinct from redistributing the wealth created by unevenly owned productive capacity. Perhaps its most spectacular instance has been Mondragon where workers own their firms and the community bank. The Simpler Way goes much further, distributing to all the opportunity and responsibility for providing most social services and infrastructures, and in distributing to all access to the many intangible benefits of community.
In a good society there are mutually reinforcing effects, positive feedbacks, i.e., synergism. Consumer society is very competitive so if you beat someone to a job or a deal he’s resentful and the relation between the two of you is damaged, and then he won’t be inclined to help you or be nice to you, or to others because he’ll be in a bad mood. Often therefore the outcome is less than zero-sum. But in The Simpler Way all the incentives and the rewards are the other way around. If I help you get what you want, or do things that make our institutions function well and enable you to thrive, then you’re more happy and therefore more inclined to be nice and helpful to me and to others, and if you’re nice to someone else then that person is more likely to be nice to me. So goodness multiplies. If I show you how to grow good strawberries then there will be more people in town who can provide us all with good strawberries. But in consumer society, if I show you how to grow good strawberries you might then put me out of business. The goal in a good society must be to foster those conditions and arrangements that require and reward cooperation, conscientiousness, helping and giving, so that positive knock-on effects multiply.
Synergism can’t thrive in a competitive situation. Synergism flourishes only in an economy of giving. It dies in an economy of getting. Consumer society has an economy where individuals struggle against each other to get income, goods, wealth, prestige, property and power. Goodness can’t multiply there. But when I give you something then the value received is more than I gave. Miserable, stingy, warped, narrow conventional economic theory can’t deal with any of this. It’s only good for accounting zero-sum self interested transactions in monetary wealth.
In a sustainable and just world most government will be of and by small communities, through intensely participatory democratic processes. This is not an option; our new communities will have to be highly self-sufficient local economies and the right decisions can only be made by the people of the town, largely through town assemblies. The right decisions are those which suit the town’s conditions, especially its social conditions, and only we who live here can work those decisions out. This situation will make us develop the necessary skills and attitudes, and these will inevitably focus us on the public good. You will realise that you can’t have a good quality of life unless the town thrives. Our “political” situation, focused on self government, will push us towards cohesion and integration.
Can we restore cohesion and community?
No we can’t, in consumer-capitalist society. The fundamental structures and processes of this society involve powerful forces that corrode cohesion and community. The best you can do is stick on pathetic patches that redress a little of the damage. Say hello to your neighbour, organise a street party, give more funds to Meals on Wheels, hire some more community workers, set up a Youth Off The Streets charity … while the fierce individualistic quest for wealth goes on generating the ocean of alienated and angry youth, drug abusers, single parents, lonely old men, depressed people, homeless, alcoholics and over-eaters. Community and cohesion are not things that can be added on or fixed up later, as if it were a coat of paint or a spray on deodorant or a bolt-on air conditioning device. They are integral characteristics of the whole system, “emergent properties” produced by the myriad conditions and interactions within the system. They are like the thriving evident in that healthy rainforest. You can’t take an unhealthy forest and put into it some thriving. Only if the huge number of complex conditions and interactions and relations are in good shape will you see thriving. Consumer-capitalist society is built on foundations that thwart and damage and drive out social thriving, because the supreme concern is to promote a thriving economy.
One of the great but easily overlooked virtues of The Simpler Way is the “poverty” it involves. When you are affluent you can be independent of others and you do not need to get together to think about and organise collective supply and security. But the great scarcity is coming and soon we will have to take these collective actions to provide ourselves with many of the goods and services we need, and this will generate community. The interactions will not be optional or matters of charity; we will have to get together locally and cooperate and share and organise. It will not be a matter of feeling that you might give a little time to Meals on Wheels when you don’t have to, you are busy, and most other people won’t do it. If the getting together is only a matter of charitable good will then not much of it is going to occur in a society which preoccupies us with looking after our own interests in competition with everyone else. But in The Simpler Way the required getting together will be non-optional, and enjoyable.
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