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:
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:
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.
Category: Building Community
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