The Careless Society

Natural Economy

For most of our civilization’s 30,000-year history, most of us made our living in agriculture. Then, about a thousand years ago, we began making other goods in a more organized fashion, through guilds, apprenticeship systems etc. Later still, about 250 years ago, with the advent of the industrial era, we realized that mass production could allow us to produce more, for more people, than personal craftsmanship. This era was powered by inexpensive energy — slaves and animal power and then coal, and now, oil.

The problem with this cheap energy is that, while it was powering mass production, bringing more and more of the labour force into manufacturing, it was also enabling automation, that was destroying those same jobs, and destroying jobs in agriculture. By the middle of the last century, we began to realize that there were far too many people to keep gainfully employed in manufacturing or agriculture. We needed to find something else for billions of people to do, so we could justify paying them so they could buy more and more of the products that our industrial economy produced — an economy now addicted to endless growth, as the failure of the Great Depression so clearly showed.

What we invented were “service” businesses, businesses that produced nothing tangible, but instead did things for us that we (as members of communities) had always done for ourselves and for each other without charge. The first of these services to be developed were the risky services — fire, police, justice. Soon we added education (including ‘babysitting’) services and a raft of health services. More recently we added ‘professional’ services (legal, accounting, consulting etc.), construction and maintenance services, nursing home services, bereavement, funeral and other counseling services, financial services, security services, mental health services, religious and spiritual services, and so on.

In each case we took some activity that we once self-managed, collaboratively within our communities, and made it into a ‘specialty’ someone else did for us, for money. We went from self-sufficiency to helpless dependence, from collaborative citizens to ‘clients’. Now, the large majority (and growing) of our society’s jobs, costs, and GDP, all come from this vast, amorphous ‘service sector’.

This is the principal message of John McKnight’s 1995 book The Careless Society. He blames our headlong rush to turn everything we used to do for ourselves and for each other into a ‘service’ for the breakdown and alienation of our communities, for the vulnerability of our economy, and for an anomie and indifference to others that comes from being paid to care — health care, child care, elder care, funeral care etc. that are increasingly care-less. We can’t care for an assembly line of people who take a number to be served, and who we don’t know.

These services have ‘colonized’ our communities, he says, and they are distinguished from authentic provision of care by three pervasive characteristics:

  • Commodification: Services are provided as one-size-fits-all commodities (it’s more ‘cost-efficient’ that way) instead of customized filling of individual needs. 
  • “Professional” Management: The hallmarks of professional ‘management’ are hierarchy, corporatism and control, rather than local self-empowerment, prevention, collaboration and self-management. 
  • Curricularization: Every profession has its curriculum that dictates how services must be delivered, and what professional credentials you must have to ‘care’ for another person.

The shocking reality is that the ‘customers’ of these service ‘industries’ don’t need these services — the service-providers need us as customers. We are no longer the customer at all — we are the product, the raw material to be ‘processed’ into a ‘serviced’ end-product.

As a consequence, when we attempt to look after these ‘services’ ourselves, the response from the service industry is annoyance: We are competing with them, unprofessionally, not letting them do “their” jobs, depriving them of the raw material they need. The service industry lobbies to prevent us from doing so, with money we can’t match, and point out that when they do something it’s part of the GDP while when we do it ourselves it is not. It is unpatriotic of us not to outsource our caring for our children, seniors, and sick loved ones. And it’s difficult now, as anyone trying to look after these loved ones in our own homes quickly discovers.

No matter that eight out of the top ten reasons for admission to hospital are not disease issues, but holistic community issues that the hospital ‘service’ industry is not designed to address — traffic accidents (mostly caused by overtired or drugged drivers), personal attacks (often related to the anger and hopelessness of poverty), and misuse of drugs (in search of escape, or because of mis-prescription). The hospital ‘service’ merely processes bodies, it does not concern itself (i.e. it does not ‘care’) about the cause, or possible prevention, of the circumstances behind the presence of those bodies in the hospital.

What’s worse, our feelings of helplessness as the mere product of these systems exacerbates other social problems — reduced self-worth, poverty (because of the high cost of these ‘services’), alienation and segregation from community and family (schools, hospitals, jails, old age homes, nursing homes, and child ‘care’ services all incarcerate us away from our loved ones), and disempowerment.

McKnight offers some solutions to this problem, but they will take a great deal of political and social will to implement:

  • De-institutionalize services and re-integrate them into community life, through “communities of associations”, such that these associations are interdependent, self-managed, essential to the community’s success, acknowledged as fallible (and hence capable of great, local learning), open and participative, diverse, responsive, creative, adaptable, individualized, and expressive of that community’s identity and ideals
  • Cease treating people as products and clients who are “labeled, exiled, treated, advised, counseled and protected”, and instead “incorporate them into community where their contributions, capacities, gifts and fallibilities allow a network of relationships involving work, recreation, friendship, support and the political power of being a citizen”.
  • Stop counting the cost of services that people could be doing for themselves in community for free, as part of the GDP

In short, he says, we must regenerate communities, and allow them once again to take charge of their responsibility for the essential services of community, collaboratively and inclusively, to genuinely care for their members. “There is a mistaken notion that our society has a problem in terms of effective human services”, he concludes. “Our essential problem is weak communities.”

This is our “essential problem” in many other areas as well. The breakdown and alienation of our communities has allowed them to be colonized not only by “service” industries but by hollowed-out workplaces where people do not live near where they work, and where faraway owners do not care a whit for the welfare of anyone living in these communities. It has destroyed our sense of place, and the differentiation of place that made our homes what they were. It has produced the Tragedy of the Commons. It has prevented our young people from learning what they can do, and are meant to do, in the communities in which they leave, forcing them into exile. It has hugely complicated the simple tasks of sharing local knowledge and capacities, and of collaboration and innovation suited to local needs. It has made us terribly vulnerable to economic events that occur far away and over which we have no control. It has eaten a hole in our souls and in our sense of identity and belonging.

This task of “regenerating community” may well become one of the greatest challenges and imperatives of this century. Kurt Vonnegut famously said:

Human beings will be happier — not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find waysto inhabit communities again. That’s my utopia.

Before we can inhabit them, we need to build them, create or recreate them. We have a lot of work to do.

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12 Responses to The Careless Society

  1. Great article. This is similar to what Charles Eisenstein said recently in the article “Money and the Crisis of Civilization” – I wonder if he drew from McKnight’s book as well. His focus is on how the commodification of the cultural and social commons relates to the financial meltdown, providing a rationale for reclaiming and re-localising some of these services to provide resilience against economic collapse. It’s important to remember in tough times that while the money runs out the skills and ability to to still provide services (and even create products) does not. “As a consequence, when we attempt to look after these ‘services’ ourselves, the response from the service industry is annoyance.” Indeed. Alternative health practitioners know this only too well, with their more empowering, community-based approach under constant attack from mainstream health professionals and legal bodies that support them, fending of claims that they are unqualified charlatans, quacks and a danger to the community.”We have a lot of work to do.” Indeed! What a huge task!p.s. Should the line “in the communities in which they leave” be “in the communities in which they live”?

  2. Oh… I forgot – as I was reading Eisenstein’s article I thought of your work, and wondered how you reconcile the reclamation of services back into the community with your encouragement to build entrepreneurial, natural enterprise. I haven’t read your book, but what I mean is I’m wondering if you make a distinction between those enterprises that don’t exacerbate the problem, and those that do, because we’ve see where unfettered entrepreneurship has led us (even walking the dog has become professionalised!).

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Really good question Sean. As an example, with the new focus on growing your own healthy, local, natural food, the irony is that the fastest growing home service business is “outsourced gardening”, where someone else will come in and plant and tend nutritious plants for you. Such ironies are probably inevitable, and I think as people learn more they will reconcile these issues and start to learn to do more themselves, pushing the astute entrepreneurs into providing what people can’t reasonably provide for themselves. (And thanks for catching the typo).

  4. MatthewJ says:

    Agriculture is 10,000 years old, not 30,000, and for most of that time in most places, people practiced horticulture, not agriculture.Homo Sapiens Sapiens is 30,000 years old

  5. MatthewJ says:

    “pushing the astute entrepreneurs into providing what people can’t reasonably provide for themselves.”Is there really that much between industrial-scale projects (building computers, automobiles, etc), and community/self-scale projects (food, basic shelter, “careing”), for these astute entrepreneurs? I’m not seeing it.

  6. David Parkinson says:

    Matthew, maybe the idea is that many of these services that have been professionalized are only taken on by specialists and entrepreneurs because people are too occupied with other things — not because the average person cannot do them for him/herself. Growing food is a good example: It’s something that almost anyone can do on the scale of a kitchen-garden, but few people nowadays have the time or knowledge to do it. In the past, in many communities, it was a routine part of the household economy, as were babysitting, schooling, elder care, and many other services that have been ‘outsourced’ from the home to the institution.Obviously, some services benefit from professionalization and economies of scale. But McKnight is saying that we have gone too far, and continue to go too far, in the direction of hyper-professionalization. And that this is linked to the decline of productive work and the rise of a totalizing service economy. If you haven’t read The Careless Society, it’s worth a go. I found it to be quite an eye-opener; one of those books that you may not agree with, but you find yourself really engaged in the argument.

  7. Wow. This seems like such a Duh!-slaps-head thesis, but I really hadn’t thought of it in these terms until I read this. So thank you once again, Dave. You’re awesome.I’m curious, though, about the chart(s) at the top. Where do they come from? Is there a post where you discuss the lower one in detail? I’m curious to see where I fit into it. I’d say “teacher/interpreter”, but I use a lot of actorly skillz to do it, and every once in a while, have been known to actually create something.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. C’trix, the chart at top was discussed briefly in my June 25, 2007 post, though the nine roles chart is actually a draft of the communities I will be describing in my utopian novel The Only Life We Know (if I ever get it written).

  9. George says:

    If most services were done voluntarily, man no one would have a job! Sure there would still be some need for some service jobs: mechanics, electricians, doctors and the like, not everyone is going to want to do all that for themselves. We’d still need people to grow our food and build our houses and manufacture things (but that’s ALL been outsourced, either to other countries, or to illegal immigrants). So what’s a person to do for work? In the existing economy there might be some service they can parlay – offer counseling, write a book, but in a totally volunteer economy that book would all be published online for free with no copyright.

  10. George says:

    So yes I think there’s a basic paradox there. The jobs people reading a blog like this are probably most attracted to (and probably doing or heading towards doing or at least WISH they were doing) are probably jobs that would never even be needed in a BETTER type of economy.And of course there’s also the problem that there’s few real jobs left, although that’s a slightly different problem.

  11. I think there is a strong case for the benefits of some professionalization. (Surgery comes to mind.) I think many professions are, unfortunately, modeled on a billable hours scheme that requires making clients dependent.

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