The term community is thrown around like wedding confetti. We claim it, desire it, experience it, and as humans we so need it –now more than ever. But how real is a ‘sense of community’? Can the places and spaces we inhabit justifiably claim to be communities? The temptation here is to go back to our sociology 101 courses to seek out suitable definitions. I won’t bore you with that, other than to say that the word community is as contested as any other in the English language. It’s wheeled out during times of need, as an expression of tribal loyalty, when we face imminent threat, or when we need to comfort ourselves with the thought that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.
But then again, community can often appear transitory and illusory. Having experienced 4o years or more of neoliberalism, with its emphasis on individualism and competition, and buoyed by the Thatcherite proposition that “there’s no such thing as society”, we’re now reaping its social consequences. In Out of the Wreckage, George Monbiot refers to “an epidemic of loneliness”, while in Australia Reimagined, Hugh MacKay speaks of “an epidemic of anxiety.” Others, like Johan Hari in Lost Connections, maintain that the scourge of depression is in large part a reflection of social disconnection and separation from nature. Others argue that we’ve become more inward looking, selfish, and, according to journalist Anne Manne, narcissistic.
This shouldn’t come as any great surprise given the prevalence of materialism, consumption, wealth acquisition and other dehumanising values in today’s world. More and more of us are living alone, fewer are getting hitched, and growing numbers of married people don’t want kids – why all the swaddling clothes when you can purchase a new dishwasher or 4WD? The hollowness of materiality and its disconnecting effects are compounded by other things that make life less than fun: records levels of household debt, economic inequality, entrenched poverty, wage stagnation, and plummeting asset values.
Clearly, something has been lost in all this: something light years away from a sense of community, belonging and attachment which many of us crave. The social and psychological benefits of what Canadian psychologist, Susan Pinker, refers to as the “village effect” have been diminished by the impacts of the modern world. The majority of the planet’s population now live in crowded metropolitan centres, the net consequences of which are to render us more isolated and divorced from nature, more dependent on external services, and cut adrift from localised culture and Indigenous wisdoms that connect us to the land and the cosmos.
Nature itself been reified, commodified and viewed increasingly through digital portals or used as occasional therapy to cope with everyday life. It’s still seen as separate from us, and for many it’s simply a resource to be exploited. Is it any wonder, therefore, that in rich societies like Australia there are stratospheric levels of what we describe as ‘mental health problems’, most notably depression and anxiety?
The origins of such social suffering are ideological and systemic: we’ve been sleepwalking into a world of social disconnection for some time now, evidenced in the collapse of social infrastructure and social capital. For those of us – which is just about everyone – reliant on social media, the illusion of connection can ninduce all manner of suffering, as noted on Katherine Ormrod’s Why social media is ruining your life. Our ‘friends’, ‘networks’ and ‘communities’ are largely illusory, entombed in a digital world replete with photo-shopped images of the illusory self. It’s a world of hyper self-consciousness, contrasts and comparisons, infused with commercially generated notions of beauty and desirability. In short, for many of us, the digital world is the road to personal malaise and social disruption.
Tech companies, marketing gurus, billionaire investors and various unscrumptious profiteers are behind this existential black hole. These people know about the market opportunities afforded by rampant self-interest, and how identity games suit corporate interests. They also know how social power works. The formula is simple: turn citizens into denizen consumers, cut them off from each other, add the spice of egoism, and you soon weaken social bonds, civil society and our capacity for collective action. And who does this benefit? I don’t’ need to answer that one, do I? What’s left is a kind of retreat into a form of social nihilism in which empathy is diminished and social estrangement enhanced. Too strong? Possibly.
After all, you might say, just look at the recent climate strike, the power of social media to connect distant others, and its capacity to expose the actions of the powerful. All true, but at the same time the digital empire has ushered in a new era of “surveillance capitalism”, political manipulation and commercial exploitation that turns on the very worst of neoliberal values – values and associated practices that have contributed to various epidemics of social misery.
The take-home message from all this is that the drug crises around the world, rising rates of suicide and social misery are symptoms of a world gone mad. But none of this is entirely random. Rather it’s a consequence of a system that privileges economy and competitiveness over much else. The task facing progressive activists is not merely to expose who’s behind all this, but also to consider how we might set about rebuilding a revitalised sense of the commons, community, civil society and ultimately, social democracy.
Given the existential threat posed by the climate/ecological crisis, there’s never been a more important time to consider what we mean by community. Life-threatening environmental events will require us to think long and hard about who we can connect with in times of acute crisis. We may need to forge new relationships based on life-affirming values rather the dehumanising drivel offered up by corporate capitalism. Our assumptive stories will alter as we seek to make sense of what is unfolding. We can no longer take any aspect of life for granted, if we ever did. Just as the geographies of the world are being refashioned, so too will our sense of place transform.
We should, I believe, begin to listen more intently to the wisdom of our Indigenous elders – something we should have done a long, long time ago.