Privatopias and the New Social Capital

What is the impact of homogeneous thought on political action? It is a pressing question, and one that has received extensive media and scholarly treatment since the explosion of information enabled by recent technological advancements. On the one hand, we have more access to information than ever before, and with it more access to diversity of thought. Such access makes those who can sift through and aggregate information into easily understood patterns and trends extremely valuable, as I discussed in my post about cultural intermediaries. They can make sense of it all, and turn the incoherent information noise into music.

But information can also divide. More information means more segregation, as like-minded individuals take advantage of technology to seek each other out and self-select into communities of shared interests. The result is millions of small forums for like-minded individuals, and less and less interaction with those who think differently in broader, more general social settings. It has also led to decreasing tolerance for those with different views, since it is easier and easier simply to retreat into isolation with those who will not challenge how we think.

It is an ever-quickening acceleration of what Robert Putnam famously wrote about in his 2000 article “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” These days, he argued, we (and by “we” he meant “Americans,” though I believe the trend can be seen in other western societies) are more likely to join organizations centred on specific common goals and interests, such as professional associations, and less likely to participate in more general ones, like community action groups, boy scouts/girl guides, or (hence the title) bowling leagues, as citizens did forty or fifty years ago. Instead of bowling as a collective with others who may have different backgrounds, we are bowling alone.

For Putnam, the problem with all of this was the subsequent breakdown in “social capital,” a sociological concept that covers the networks, norms, and trust shared by a group of people. Social capital is important for individuals (from navigating new situations by relying on information from those they trust, to acquiring a job), for groups (to get things done by falling back on established norms) and for nations. Putnam in particular linked high levels of social capital with high civic engagement, and concluded that nations with lots of social capital are more democratic by virtue of their comparatively high voter turnout, newspaper readership, and general civic participation.

He describes this, in part, as the shift from “I” to “we,” from prioritizing the benefits to individuals to prioritizing those of groups. Lower crime rates, better government, and faster economic development are all signs of groups with high levels of social capital and “we” thinking. In contrast, he argues, in newer organizations that are more focused on the interests of a narrow group, the shift is less powerful. The very nature of many of these organizations sees members interacting with each other less than ever before as they form “chequebook” connections, being more likely to donate their money (in an impersonal cheque-writing process) than their time (through interpersonal ones). A technological analogy is the even smaller commitment implied by forwarding a cause on Twitter or “liking” something on facebook. The “I” to “we” thinking shift Putnam describes is significant for civic engagement, as federal politics are one of the most important and diverse “we”s to which individuals can contribute. And when he was writing, the contributions of Americans (and Britons, and Canadians…), in the form of voter turnout and civic involvement, were declining steadily.

However, a lot has changed since Putnam’s article was published. The trend toward decreasing voter turnout has reversed itself: according to this American University Media report, the turnout in the 2008 presidential election 63% of eligible voters, an increase of 2.4% over 2004 and “the highest percentage to turn out since 64.8 percent voted for president in 1960.” The same is true in the United Kingdom, where in 2010 turnout increased to 65.1%, an increase of 3.7% over the 2005 election. (Canada is the exception to this trend, where voter turnout in the last, particularly uninspiring, election of 2008 was a record low, at 58.8% of the eligible population.) A recent road trip through the small towns of upstate New York also showed the democratic process in full force, with spirited campaigning and signs everywhere (including some for one candidate hilariously named “Button” – we hoped he also had campaign buttons). And rarely a day goes by without news of another American political rally, whether serious or in jest, as in the case of the upcoming March to Keep Fear Alive.

The same trend is visible in Britain. In a paper published in June of this year, four social history and policy authors refute the assumptions of David Cameron’s “Big Society” – namely that a government that steadily increased in size over the past 50 years imperfectly supplanted existing non-governmental organizations, resulting in less civic and community engagement and ultimately failing British citizens. (I wrote about this policy goal in an earlier post about political intermediaries.) In fact, they argue, larger government did not mean less involvement: it has been relatively continuous and increasing over the last 50 years, with governmental and non-governmental organizations working together to create and enact policy. Trust in government institutions alone, moreover, has been replaced by trust in experts to improve communities through their specific knowledge and skill-sets. We now have equal faith in the government and Oxfam to alleviate the trials of global poverty.

The biggest threat to the “we” thinking of social capital is obviously not lack of civic engagement, then, or that we are putting our trust in experts with our money and facebook liking. Putnam’s conclusion – that declining involvement in general organizations will result in less political participation – has proven untrue. But there is little doubt that the chunks of people the average citizen includes in his or her definition of “we” are getting ever-smaller. Today, the danger is the kind of participation that is produced by social capital: extremist thought has only been reinforced through association with those who share it, and we are at the point where political extremists lacking in empathy are threatening to dictate the political agenda of millions the world over.

Indeed, the biggest threat to diversity, tolerance, and reasonable debate in politics today comes from the growth of what Evan McKenzie in the 1980s termed “privatopias.” His definition (notably from the Reagan-Thatcher-Mulroney era of privatization more broadly in every sector) centres on the privatization of physical living space into “common interest housing developments” that cater to the desires of consumers (i.e. home-dwellers) to live among those who share common interests. These can be anything from religion to political belief to age, but taken together are a large and growing segment of the real estate market.

While self-selection into physical communities is commonplace – think “family-friendly” suburbs or “Gay Villages” – these areas take the idea of common interest to a whole new level. According to McKenzie’s classification, many common interest housing areas also require individual private governments and common ownership of property, a huge generator of social capital. As a result, the heterogeneity and serendipity of the “open city” of planners’ dreams has disappeared. As Tobias Armborst, Daniel D’Oca, and Georgeen Theodore have discussed in a fascinating article in the journal Places:

[T]he ideal of open city is often contrasted with the reality of the American built environment, where a preference for what some call ‘purified communities’ has produced a landscape of homogeneous and often walled privatopias where meaningful encounters between diverse groups are rare.

In other words, instead of interacting with those who think differently at PTA meetings, neighbourhood associations or bowling leagues, many have now separated into schools, neighbourhoods and other physical geographies based on beliefs. The segmentation of 2010 makes the gerrymandered districts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries look favourable – they had to work to get that many like-minded voters in one area! Now places are red or blue (or Liberal or Conservative) strongholds for vast swaths of land, and “safe” districts are commonplace.

And it isn’t just physical spaces; it’s in ideological ones too. It is easier than ever before to self-select from the various slants in the media, and quite possible not to read, hear or see anything at all in favoured publications that does not confirm one’s own beliefs. An interesting January/February 2010 article in the Atlantic talked about the decline of a coherent public consuming relatively centrist mainstream media that acted as aggregators of opinion and appealed to a wide variety of people. Now there is a proliferation of partisan voices, each with its own narrow audience, and the result is the increasing polarization of the voting public. The article’s author points out that the advantage of the passion stirred up by the media is an increase in political involvement, which is no doubt true. But the involvement is serving less to get things done than gum up the cogs of politics.

The example that is at the forefront of everybody’s minds today is the Tea Party Movement, which historian Alan Brinkley termed the “Party of Me” based on the incoherence of its policy aims, and the central focus of the movement on preventing a decline in its adherents’ own living situations. This extends even to the point of fallacy – often those who have benefitted most from government taxes protest their very existence.

In an example much closer to home, the divisive and narrow thinking of voters in Toronto has propelled a mayoral candidate embracing the “me, my family, and my area first; city last” mentality to clear frontrunner status. If nothing else, he will prove a cog in the machine of city politics for the next four years, if elected, as this recent article points out.

At worst, this trend could mean the continued fracturing of the larger group/national consciousness into smaller and smaller “we”s, with political stagnation everywhere as a result. But here technology can step in and bridge the divide: in the vast, unregulated public space of the Internet, it’s hard to go very long without hearing a dissenting voice. More forums mean more space for debate, and more space for contention. I read some of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty this morning, and found comfort in seeing the same basic message of this post in his writings. Society, it seems, is always feared to be fractured and continually fracturing, but perhaps this is just the outcome of dissention and debate. I can live with that.

I’ll leave you with a quotation from that venerated (and much debated!) work:

The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded. If the challenge is not accepted, or is accepted and the attempt fails, we are far enough from certainty still; but we have done the best that the existing state of human reason admits of; we have neglected nothing that could give the truth a chance of reaching us: if the lists are kept open, we may hope that if there be a better truth, it will be found when the human mind is capable of receiving it; and in the meantime we may rely on having attained such approach to truth, as is possible in our own day.

MARGINALIA: Today’s post marks the 50th on posthistorical, and as such I would like to thank my visitors for your post ideas, insightful comments, and continued readership. Keep it coming!

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One Response to Privatopias and the New Social Capital

  1. […] mostly by car. The ability to cover a greater geographical distance day-to-day has resulted in “privatopias,” communities segregated by economics, politics and other affinities. In the Bay Area, reports […]

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