What we are waking up to

13 Nov

Historian Niall Ferguson’s newest book, Civilization: the West and the Rest, argues that the West achieved its “dominant” place in the world by developing six “concepts” that other polities did not: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic. The development of these six stars of Western society meant, and continues to mean, that other societies have been left in the dust.

The tautology of it aside (the West has these 6 things, the West is dominant, ergo these 6 things are the markers of success), along with its exceptionalist and colonialist underpinnings, there’s a growing reason to doubt Ferguson’s argument.

Parade of Cree Indians at H.B. Co.'s 250th Anniversary Celebration, Edmonton, Alberta. 1920. Library and Archives Canada / PA-040722

The book has launched just as the West’s superpowers are waking up, to varying degrees, to something discomfiting: the possibility that they might not qualify for the title of “dominant society.” The West may well be “dominant”, sure – but it is hardly a “society.”

I’ll explain.

There is a dead-end street in my hometown, steps away from one of the largest shopping malls in Atlantic Canada, where the houses are large, the driveways are wide, and there isn’t a sidewalk or a front porch in sight.

It would be an overstatement to say that the neighbourhood’s residents don’t see each other, but it probably isn’t far-fetched to say that its design means that neighbours are more likely to see one another through the windows of their cars than they are to encounter one another outside, face-to-face.

At the end of that dead-end street, there is a small playground—one colourful play structure jutting out of a bed of pea gravel, bordered by pressure-treated railway ties. It belongs to no one, and is accessible to anyone. A few metres away, in the modest backyard of the large house closest to the playground, there is an almost-identical play structure, intended only for the members of that household.

1930s Playground - St. George's Island, Calgary. Library and Archives Canada / PA-040791

This is the Canada in which my generation—and even more of its successors—grew up. It is a place where the costs of good living—of recreation, education, health care, arts and culture—are increasingly shouldered by individuals, rather than shared collectively by a community.

It is tempting to blame governments for doing this to us, but it only takes a look around (at redundant, private playgrounds where community playgrounds are within spitting distance, at people driving cars to work on the same routes that near-empty buses take) to realize that we have done it to ourselves.

King Street East, Toronto. 1907. Library and Archives Canada / RD-000422

People in other Western polities are fidgeting in the face of this realization too. In a recent interview in the Toronto Star, prominent U.S. economist Jeffrey Sachs relayed the basic premise of his newest book, also about civilization. It caught my eye because Sachs put it, as I do, in generational terms:

“I have found in my own generation, among my colleagues and among people whom I know well, a kind of loss of civic virtue, a disappearance of responsibility, and I have hoped and believed that the young generation is ready to help lead in a new era…”

The “loss” Sachs is talking about struck the same chord as Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay did a few days earlier, speaking on CBC radio about his city’s response to the Occupy movement there.

Unlike my hometown’s mayor, who sneakily evicted Occupiers from Grand Parade after they agreed to move temporarily to make room for the city’s major Remembrance Day ceremony (the ceremony that celebrates veterans who fought for our right to express dissent and speak freely – a principle integral to liberal democratic society), Montreal’s mayor welcomed the Occupiers. “We’re willing to spend time to show the world that we care,” he said.

“The leaders of state in 1948 signed a declaration of human rights; everyone wants equality and liberty which are two of the values in that important charter, but they forgot there’s another value, which is fraternity, or if you prefer brotherhood and sisterhood or solidarity.”

(The full transcript of Tremblay’s segment is available on Tim Querengesser’s blog.)

Sachs and Tremblay are just two of the voices echoing in a void that many others do not, or do not want to notice. That void is where we would find fraternity, responsibility, civic virtue and the other forms of true interdependence that make a society a society and not just a mass of individuals who happen to be standing side-by-side.

The void did not happen overnight. Sociologists and Political Scientists, mostly in the U.S., were the canaries in the coal mine, shrieking warnings about the imminent “collapse” of community (Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone), the dangers of individualism (Robert Bellah and colleagues’ Habits of the Heart) and the “corrosion of character” that happens when individuals and communities get “confused” about their proper connection (Richard Sennett’s Corrosion of Character).

These warnings were troubling in their time, but they were also shrugged off. Critics responded that the U.S. had never been all that much better, or that these “diagnoses of decline” saw a disappearance of community where there was, in reality, just a reorganization of it.

But what we are waking up to now, in certain circles and with varying degrees of clarity, is the realization that so many of our putative “advances” have actually marked the blurring of the once-defended boundary between the market (whatever that is!) and the civil sphere; we have allowed society, as an idea and ultimately as an entity, to be subsumed and supplanted by market.

The latter has the capacity to give us the narrowest, economic version of “equality and liberty” we want – or so we thought, until Occupy reminded us how far we are from both ideals, in economic terms – but unregulated and in the absence of critical reflection, it cannot give us the values that spring from recognizing our interdependence: fraternity, civic virtue, and community responsibility. In fact, the market-society (a contradiction in terms), actually survives (and thrives, for those shrinking few on whose whims the stock markets rise and fall) on our collective blindness to the things that bind us together in relations of interdependence.

It survives especially on our reluctance to be dependent on anyone but ourselves, our castigation of those who are dependent on others, and what Sachs called “the demonization” of the main economic measure (redistribution via taxation) that is meant to institutionalize and streamline our interdependence. What we are waking up to is the sad fact that we need these measures to be institutionalized, because without them, we will let each other down.


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