Our sense of community is gone

19:27, Mar 27 2014

Is it possible to renew our social contract without a sense of community?

Heather McGhee, who heads up the Washington office of the British-based research and advocacy group Demos, calls it "the great question of our time".

According to the 33-year-old graduate of Yale and the Berkeley Law School, this is because "if you look at all this hostility and anxiety around public solutions, at its root is the anxiety about who the public is. And I think that's happened because of the real explosion in diversity."

Ms McGhee is not alone in identifying diversity as one of the most potent solvents of the social contract that underpins our welfare state. But, as a young African-American, she has a better appreciation than most of how all those "hostilities and anxieties" play out in a non-academic context.

Because no matter how earnestly we are encouraged (by people like Ms McGhee) to think otherwise, the ordinary person's understanding of "community" is generally reducible to just three words: "people like me".

In the English-speaking countries the welfare state was born out of two world-shattering events: economic depression and total war. In both situations it proved virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to remain unaffected by the great happenings in which they found themselves entangled, and these common experiences fostered powerful feelings of social solidarity. Everyone was "all in this together" and relying upon one another to make it through to the "broad sunlit uplands" promised by Sir Winston Churchill in the finest hour of that darkest of years – 1940.

So pervasive was the impact of the Great Depression that the experiences of poverty and marginalisation began to lose much of their social stigma. Working-class and middle-class citizens alike were winnowed by the near collapse of the capitalist order, and even those whose material wellbeing remained unaffected – like the Prince of Wales – could see that "something must be done". And later, when the bombs were falling, that sense of solidarity only grew stronger. In spite of pleas to remove themselves to safety in Canada, the royal family refused to leave the capital. When Buckingham Palace was hit during the Blitz, Queen Elizabeth told the press: "Now, at least, I can look the East End in the eye."

On the battlefields, where men of every rank and station quite literally rubbed shoulders, the essential equality of all human beings was daily demonstrated. The roughest working-class battler could prove himself a bloody hero and the bloodlines of 1000 years produce nothing more than a craven coward. Nobility came not from class or money but from character. In war, only deeds mattered.

This, then, was the historical forge in which the welfare state was fashioned. When people used the word "community", when they thought of people like themselves, the picture included everyone from the King and Queen to the local "night-soil" collector. Everyone had been through the fire together – and come out the other side.

To live for longer than that single generation, however, the social contract that had been fashioned in "blood, toil, tears and sweat" would need to be sent to the forge again. A new generation would need to feel the hammer blows of history. Some did.

On union picket-lines. Registering voters in the Deep South of the United States. Opposing the obscenity of war. Demanding entry for all those who were not "like me". Envisioning a more diverse and democratic definition of "community". Too few.

The moment the social contract was deemed to include people with darker skins and different gods, the moment people's taxes were doled out to those whose behaviour flouted the values and conventions of the "community" – that was when the solidarities born of depression and war began to fade and wither. The mental picture of who was – and was not – "people like me" narrowed radically. Class and money regained their lost prestige and all the old stigmas attached to poverty and marginalisation returned. A social contract is never for "people like them".


The Dominion Post