Obsolete social capital

In preparing for a workshop on trust and the economy early next week, I picked up Robert Puttnam’s famous Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which I read in 2000 and not since. It isn’t too hard to supplement Puttnam’s tale of declining mutual cohesion and understanding with the additional evidence of executive/financial greed during the mid-2000s boom and its aftermath.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Of course, social capital has an ugly side, as Dalibor Rohac points out in an article in The Umlaut (which seems a very promising new magazine). It depends on the scope and aims of the group of people among whom there is social cohesion. In the presence of a tightly cohesive ‘in’ group, such as a mafia family, or predatory political party, or circle of corporate executives rewarding each other generously, it is just as well not to be a member of the ‘out’ group.

Still, economic policy requires ample social capital to the extent that it requires trade-offs between groups or over time between generations. People in general need to believe that even if a policy does nothing for them – or harms their interests – now, it will be worthwhile in the end. Puttnam concluded: “Over the last three decades a variety of social, economic and technological changes have rendered obsolete a significant stock of America’s social capital.” We need, he said, a new era of civic investment.

This challenge of building new institutions is a bit of an obsession of mine – it was my theme at FutureFest recently. If our stock of social capital has become obsolete, there’s nothing for it but to invest in new kinds of social institution. On optimistic days, I think there’s plenty of that going on, but it isn’t clear.

Update: Moments after posting, I read this excellent Scotsman article by John McTernan about trust in politics (lack of) and the ‘small battalions’ of party workers.

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3 thoughts on “Obsolete social capital

  1. There existst a meme called “capitalist realism”. It states that not only has capitalism won, it has also erased any other ideals and possible alternatives from our consciousness. So there are no ideals anymore to fight for other than to win in the struggle of production or consumption. And without ideals there is no more cohesion.

    BTW, does any of the ideas of Fukuyama about trust help? I still have to read that book.

    Years ago I read a heavily feminist book by Greer where one of her theories was that the state had broken up the large connected families and had installed the core-family of man + woman + child because that was a weaker unit giving the state more power.

    Just some random thoughts triggered by your post …

    • Some random thoughts back. I don’t find the old isms helpful categories any more & am anyway feeling optimistic this morning so think ideals are possible. Greer’s hypothesis is untestable and anyway attributing agency to ‘the state’ is at best incomplete analysis. Will have to go back to Fukuyama – I liked it at the time but can’t remember all that much about it now.

  2. Pingback: Friday afternoon reading: October 11, 2013 | The Democratic Society

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