Friday, January 15, 2010

the costs of community

Archdruid Report | Much of what's wrong with the current American political system is the result of a vacuum at the center of that system – a very large empty space where organized pressure from the public used to go. Consider, for example, how political parties used to work in the United States. The basic unit was the precinct caucus, where neighbors would get together, debate issues and candidates, and organize publicity and get-out-the-vote activities for the next election. Each precinct elected representatives to the county convention, where this process was repeated, and cascaded upward through state and national conventions. These last weren't the pointless media spectacles they've become; they were working sessions where the candidates and proposals that rose up from the grassroots finally got sorted out into the slate and platform the party would offer the voters come election day.

These days precinct caucuses are moribund, and county and state conventions are little more than exercises in going through the motions; policy initiatives and candidacies begin, not with neighbors meeting in living rooms, but with media campaigns orchestrated by marketing firms and strategy sessions among highly paid party officials. Yet it wasn't some conspiracy of corporate minions who brought about that state of affairs; what happened, by and large, was that most Americans dropped out of the party system, and the professionals filled the resulting void.

It's interesting to speculate about why that took place. I suspect many of my readers have encountered Robert Putnam's widely discussed book Bowling Alone (2000), which traced the collapse of social networks and institutions straight across American society. The implosion of the old grassroots-based party system is simply one example of the trend Putnam documented. Putnam's book sparked a great deal of discussion, some of it in the peak oil community, but nearly all of that discussion fixated on the benefits that might be gained by reinventing community, and left out a crucial factor: the cost.

By this I don't mean money. Communities need regular inputs of time and effort from their members, or they collapse into mass societies of isolated individuals – roughly speaking, what we've got now. Communities also need subtler inputs: a sense of commitment, of shared purpose, of emotional connection, of trust. To gain the benefits of living in community, it's necessary to sacrifice some part of the autonomy that so many Americans nowadays guard so jealously. The same thing is true of those subsets of community already discussed – political parties, for example, or citizens' organizations, or any other framework for collective action that's more than a place for people to hang out and participate when they feel like it. Deep bow toward the laser-like focus of my man Dale.