Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 19, 2010

Social Networking in an atomized society

Filed under: financial crisis,socialism,technology — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

While the social isolation that led Catfish’s Angela Pierce to construct multiple identities on Facebook in a bid to break out of that isolation does not fit neatly into the standard Marxist analysis, it is broadly speaking symptomatic of a society that has become increasingly atomized. While most people understand that a deficiency in food, shelter and health care is immediately traceable to the economic circumstances capitalism foists on a defenseless population, there are broader needs that the system cannot deliver.

In 1995 Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam wrote an article titled Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital in the Journal of Democracy published by the National Endowment for Democracy, a government body best known for its meddling in places like Nicaragua, Cuba, Iran, etc. The article was expanded into a best-selling book of the same title in 2000.

Putnam frets over the decline of civic engagement and community but as the reference to “social capital” would imply from the standpoint of making the capitalist system function adequately:

The norms and networks of civic engagement also powerfully affect the performance of representative government. That, at least, was the central conclusion of my own 20-year, quasi-experimental study of subnational governments in different regions of Italy. Although all these regional governments seemed identical on paper, their levels of effectiveness varied dramatically. Systematic inquiry showed that the quality of governance was determined by longstanding traditions of civic engagement (or its absence). Voter turnout, newspaper readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs–these were the hallmarks of a successful region. In fact, historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic modernization, were a precondition for it.

Putnam tries to pin the blame for a decline of social capital on a number of trends that have gathered momentum since the 1960s:

1. The movement of women into the labor force: This has reduced the time and energy necessary for groups such as the PTA, the League of Women Voters, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Red Cross, according to Putnam.

2. Mobility: A population that picks up and moves every few years will tend not to put down roots of the kind that would lead to civic engagement. Putnam writes: “It seems plausible that the automobile, suburbanization, and the movement to the Sun Belt have reduced the social rootedness of the average American.”

3. Other demographic transformations: The family has traditionally provided the foundation for social ties but “fewer marriages, more divorces, fewer children” undermine their formation.

4. The technological transformation of leisure: Technological trends, especially television and the Internet, are “individualizing” the use of leisure time. We can assume that Putnam’s 2000 book would certainly have identified the Internet as another atomizing trend.

Putnam considers the same question that bedeviled V.I. Lenin in a concluding section titled “What is to be Done”. Facebook, which he does not refer to by name since it did not exist in 1995, would be ruled out:

What will be the impact, for example, of electronic networks on social capital? My hunch is that meeting in an electronic forum is not the equivalent of meeting in a bowling alley–or even in a saloon–but hard empirical research is needed. What about the development of social capital in the workplace? Is it growing in counterpoint to the decline of civic engagement, reflecting some social analogue of the first law of thermodynamics–social capital is neither created nor destroyed, merely redistributed? Or do the trends described in this essay represent a deadweight loss?

As we might have expected from a Harvard professor, so accustomed to the role of gatekeeper to the capitalist system, there is no understanding of the role of the economic system in creating an atomized population. Marx called attention to the impact that the new social system was having on traditional binds in The Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society… All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

In the face of the melting of old relationships into air, reactionaries try to breathe life into institutions that have lost their viability: the nuclear family, the church or synagogue and an idealized small-town community. It is the kitschy Reagan-era iconography that people like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin want to shove down our throats even as they work day and night to strengthen the corporate dreadnaught that is destroying the possibility for “the way things used to be”.

The United States probably leads the world in smashing the kinds of social ties over which Putnam waxes nostalgic. It has all but destroyed the family farm and turned rural America into a wasteland that will not support an economically viable population of small shopkeepers and factory workers enjoying lifetime employment at a paternalistic firm. The naked drive for profit what is destroying the Norman Rockwell version of America more than anything.

While it is inconceivable that the pretty, bright, young things that made Catfish could have ever concerned themselves with the conditions of life in Ishpeming, I was struck by the abandoned horse farm and office building that were supposedly the place where Nev Schulman’s idealized lover and her sister’s artwork would be found respectively. Both were obvious victims of Michigan’s economic collapse.

In the 1930s and the 1960s people came together and formed new social ties largely as a response to an economic and social crisis. While few people would want to see a return to the massive unemployment of the Great Depression or the unending warfare of the 1960s and 70s that cost the lives of American servicemen by the tens of thousands and Vietnamese villagers by the millions, there was something positive about people coming together collectively to fight against injustice and to develop social ties through a common interest in economic justice and peace.

It is too soon to say whether the current crisis will have the same exact effect, but there is little doubt that a need for survival will force people away from their televisions and their computers and into what Putnam calls “civil society”. The capitalist system has a way of creating its own gravediggers and we might as well enjoy each others’ company while we go about our work with shovels in hand.

2 Comments »

  1. [In the face of the melting of old relationships into air, reactionaries try to breathe life into institutions that have lost their viability: the nuclear family, the church or synagogue and an idealized small-town community. It is the kitschy Reagan-era iconography that people like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin want to shove down our throats even as they work day and night to strengthen the corporate dreadnaught that is destroying the possibility for “the way things used to be”.]

    Speaking of “the way things used to be” just turn up your speakers and groove on this special rendition on “selective amnesia” — an excellent recording with unique graphics:

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 20, 2010 @ 2:00 am

  2. As a follow up, just try and get your hands on a vinyl copy of this 1984 recording. Just dig the lyrics and the haunting spectre of this very rare tune:

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 20, 2010 @ 2:24 am


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