Progressives are pretty pessimistic these days. That's because, Murray Dobbins writes, they've forgotten the importance of community. Margaret Thatcher famously said, "There's no such thing as society, only individuals." That notion -- with a misguided push from Ayn Rand -- became the prime directive behind neo-liberalism.
Dobbins believes that renewal does not begin with a search for individual leaders but with a search for community:
Peter Block in his insightful 2008 book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, dissects the preoccupation of citizens with leaders and leadership:
"It is this love of leaders that limits our capacity to create an alternative future. It proposes that the only real accountability in the world is at the top…The effect of buying into this is that it lets citizens off the hook and breeds citizen dependency and entitlement."
When citizens don't feel accountable, they increasingly act as consumers. Beyond neoliberalism's obvious imperatives such as free trade, privatization, tax breaks for the wealthy, etc., its most pernicious impact on society is the destruction of community. The greatest weapon the 1% has is our isolation from each other. And all efforts to defeat neoliberalism, no matter how valiant, inspired, smart or sustained, will fail unless they somehow ultimately contribute to the rebuilding of community. Unless and until that process begins in earnest, the systematic isolation of individuals and families from each other and from community will make garnering significant citizen power impossible.
That's an important insight. Atomize citizens and they become powerless. Allow them freedom and a desire to assemble, and they become -- not consumers -- but a force to be reckoned with:
After 40 years of neoliberal social (and economic) engineering, we are at a stage where as consumers we have virtually endless choices -- a mind-numbing variety of choices streamed at us at a speed and volume that leaves us stupefied -- shell-shocked by choice, diverted from our possible lives by shopping. But our choices as citizens are now so constrained by the erosion and corruption of democracy and the endless promotion of small government that our citizenship has atrophied.
The dominant form of politics in fact reduces most people to passive consumers of politics just as they are consumers of goods. As consumers of politics rather than intentional citizens, we simultaneously abdicate responsibility and end up indulging in the culture of complaint. Says Block, "Consumers give up their power. They believe that their own needs can best be satisfied by the actions of others..." whether they be public service providers, elected officials or store managers.
As long as progressives buy into the notion that politics is product and that salvation can be found in individual leaders, they are buying into neo-liberalism. The difference between individuality and individualism is the difference between -- in Mark Twain's words -- the lightning and the lightning bug.
Renewal starts with community.
Image: IM Publications