Thursday, 14 September 2017

Restoring community - an imperative for conservatives

Each day I see more and more that us conservatives, by allowing assorted Marxists to capture sociology, have done the world a disservice. This is because Marx was an economist meaning that he had little or nothing to say about sociology - as a result left-wing sociologists became activists not academics. Much - not all, a long way from not all - of the subject is arrant nonsense.

But it matters. The questions it asks are not answered by economics - for sure there's a bunch of economists splashing about pretending they can inject morality into their subject's dry modelling but this isn't asking the questions a sociologist would ask. Here's Aaron Renn:
There are a number of people in the national media who make the argument that things aren’t so bad, that if you look at the numbers this idea that things are horrible in much of America just isn’t true. It’s easy for me to believe this is actually the case in a quantitative sense. But man does not live by bread alone. When you have an iPhone but your community is disintegrating socially, it’s not hard to see why people think things have taken a turn for the worse.
There are social goods (if you want to use that dreary economics language) that are as necessary as the material benefits brought us by liberal capitalism. And most of these goods are about community rather than anything definable in the typical national politics. As I wrote a little while ago:
If conservatives are to make a difference - and what's the point if that's not the aim - we need to stop trying to make everyone's lives better by centralised fiat. And start with making our and our neighbours lives better. Conservatives should apply that old shopkeeper's adage - 'look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves'. Look after communities - the bit you can see from your front door - and the whole of society, even the bits we can't see, benefits.
It may seem trite, as Renn does, to hark back to a past age when we didn't have to lock our doors and left the keys in the car on the drive. The local concerns about burglary here in Cullingworth are real yet we have so much more than a past generation who lived lives less plagued by the fear of crime. But we can't blame the good life, the betterment of our lives as consumers - running water for folks in Aaron Renn's home county and the central heating for families here in cold, damp Cullingworth.

The willingness to be a community is still there but it is suppressed by the manner of public service management, by the transformation of voluntary organisations into agents of the state, and by the permissions and regulations laid down by the state between ordinary folk and helping their neighbour:
That's right - permission to care. That professionals in the employ of the Council, the NHS or their satellite agencies needed to allow people to look out for their neighbour. In this I saw a dead culture - one murdered by the good intentions of public agencies. That we might not be allowed to pop in on Mr & Mrs Jones to make sure they're OK, maybe make them a cuppa and have a chat for half and hour. Unless we've undertaken the official "befriending" course, got the required clearances from the state and been attached to an organisation that "delivers" looking out for the neighbours.
We need to look again at the risks of individual social action and start to err in favour of community and its capacity to self-police rather than respond to every bad case with more rules, controls and regulations. It is the suppression of social innovation, suggesting it is only possible through endorsement by the sate or its agents, that damages community. Anyone who has been involved in local communities (and I've been a local councillor for two decades) will know they are buzzing with ideas, filled with people who want to be involved. We have a generation of wealthy and healthy older people who aren't just looking to have extended holidays, yet so much of public rhetoric seems to be about how those folk are uncaring and selfish.

For me the biggest lesson from things like the Brexit vote isn't about divisions but rather about distance. Government - nearly all of it - is distant, complicated, unapproachable, opaque and thoughtless (and this is a large part of why we dislike the EU so much). We look at what happens and wonder why decisions are made the way they are, why no thought is given to neighbourhood, why the word community is used without, it seems, even the vaguest understanding of what it means, and why the narrow interests of a small economically-successful class seems to dominate the thinking of every political party, every academic and every pundit whose number the BBC producer has in her mobile phone.

When we talk about social capital, we tend to do so in a sort of abstract way - as if it it something that can be bottled by middle-class academics and civil servants and poured onto struggling communities. But social capital is all about people standing on their doorstep, seeing something that could be better and saying "we can fix that, we can do that". It's not about local councils having 'community strategies' or lottery agencies funding middle-class experts to administer to places needing help. Nor is it about trying to turn that willingness to help into the new vanguard of the proletarian revolution let alone the need to resist neoliberal hegemony.

The starting point is simply giving places - local communities, neighbourhoods - the capacity to do what they think will make where they live a little better. From fixing some fences, clearing paths and picking up litter to helping mind neighbour children or doing what Mr Sparks did for me, my brothers and dozens of local children in the South London suburb of my youth - took us to play cricket in the summer and swimming in the winter. So long as people think they have to wait for permission to do these things, they won't do them. The imperative in building that social capital we say we've lost is to get government out of the way of people who want to help.


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