The Loss of Community and the Role of the State in a Mass, Market Driven Society
What is community and why is it so important to understand what a community is and the role it is supposed to play in society?
Community. This is one of those words which gets thrown around all the time. There is a kind of mystique to it. A sense of longing. We all seem to want it. We all claim that we are a part of some community or another, even if it’s just an online community. But one gets the sense that we talk about it so much because so few of us experience real community any more. It seems like the kind of thing that, if you have it, you don’t need to talk about it. So what is community? What are its characteristics? How do we know it when we see it? And why is it so important to understand what a community is and the role it is supposed to play in society? If we don’t, we cannot properly understand the role that our political institutions—that is, “the state”—must play in today’s mass society.
If you have not read Alan Ehernhalt’s “The Lost City: the Forgotten Virtues of Community in America,” I highly recommend you do. His book looks at community at time when it was passing away. He interviewed the older members of dissolving communities, asking them about their experiences, trying to understand what was changing. At the time he conducted them, the handwriting was already on the wall. Communities were largely disappearing in America. Today, you have to look hard to find functioning communities.
Having done his research, Ehernhalt came to the conclusion that most of us want the feeling of community without its reality. We abandoned them precisely to get away from the things that make them what they are:
“We don’t want the 1950’s back…what we want is to edit them. We want to keep the safe streets, the friendly grocers, and the milk and cookies, while blotting out the political bosses, the tyrannical headmasters, the inflexible rules, and the lectures on 100% Americanism and the sinfulness of dissent. But there is no way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved. Every dream we have of re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a pipe dream.”
Ehrenhalt makes the case that what destroyed community is the idea of personal autonomy, this notion that I should be free to make whatever choices I want to make. I should have the freedom to do what I want, to live my truth. No one should be able to tell me how to live. Live and let live. My choices don’t affect you. I am not harming anyone, so why should you care what I choose to do? It is this understanding of the world which makes community impossible. This idea that everyone should be free to make their own choices has a devastating impact upon the health and viability of communities.
So what gave people the idea that we should be free to make our own choices, that we are morally autonomous beings with the freedom, the right, to make all of our choices ourselves? For three, maybe four generations we have been living with this idea of the autonomous individual, long enough that it seems natural and that to violate this autonomy somehow seems to be a violation of the very idea of freedom itself. It has quickly become so ingrained in our thinking that it is almost impossible for us to conceive of the idea of liberty in any other way than through the lens of the autonomous individual. So how did we shift from liberty as “freedom from political oppression” to an idea of liberty conceived as “personal moral autonomy?” The answer is largely one of economics and technology working together in what we know as “the market.”
There was a time when most of the economic activity that happened, did so locally or regionally. Small proprietors. Family businesses. Small shops. As mechanization enabled an increase in the scale of production, businesses grew to take advantage of this. More and more businesses expanded their size and reach. They grew their market. The took advantage of economies of scale. This brought a greater choice in goods. It brought new options in employment. New specialties were created to deal with this new industrial environment. It had to be managed and staffed. This created opportunities. You were no longer bound by the small scope and scale of your community. You could choose to go off and make your fortune.
These new opportunities also caused disruptions. Small, local shops found themselves competing with larger, more efficient, often cheaper regional operations that could take advantage of their scale to the detriment of the small operator. Gradually, the connection between ownership and the community was severed as well. As businesses grew, they would seek capital from beyond the confines of the local domain through the stock market. This new reality brought about the severing of the bond between business owner and the community. No longer was the businessman’s primary focus and responsibility to the place and people, the community, in which his business was located, but to anonymous shareholders. Ehernhalt says this of the decision of Lennox to move their headquarters from out of Ames, Iowa:
“Once the pressure of the global market had persuaded the Lennox Corporation that it had the moral freedom of choice to make air conditioners wherever in the world it wanted to, the bonds that had tied it to a small town in Iowa for nearly a century were breakable.”
It could be argued that the global market was inevitable. Some will try to make the case that the market is the best guarantor of freedom and that this freedom is the most important value for a society to preserve. Others will argue that the market is the best way to put dollars in people’s pockets, to bring prosperity to the most number of people.
“But in the end, there is no escaping the reality that the market is a force of disruption of existing relationships. To argue that markets are a true friend of community is an inversion of common sense.”
It disrupts the relationship of businesses to the community. It disrupts how people relate to the community.
“To idealize markets and call oneself a conservative is to distort reality.”
What Ehrenhalt means here is that if you wish to conserve the social fabric of a society, built up and sustained at the level of the local community, then you have to recognize that the mass market is a force which works to undermine that same community structure. The market proliferates choice, for businesses and for individuals. People and businesses have options they never used to have before the mass market. Everyone involved welcomed these choices. They come to embrace choice itself as a moral value. The right to choose, to make one’s own choices, began to transcend the attachment to community. In the end, what destroyed communities was a devotion to “the market” and to “personal choice” as ends to be pursued for their own sake. Once they were elevated above other, older commitments, the handwriting was on the wall for the local community.
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