I have, for a while now, been lamenting the decline of community. And, as far as I am in tune with the Zeitgeist, I reckon I am far from the only on who has. Indeed, this endless roaming, this frantic search for community, has manifested itself in different ways – many of which unsavoury – in society in the past five years (or arguably even longer). The answer seems to be searched for amongst the segments of the internet that have effectively radicalised young men, increasing nationalism manifest in Brexit and Donald Trump, in the addictive scrolling on the internet and its social media influencers, and endless consumption of new technology, clothing, and other commodities. At times one is overcome with confusion and cynicism and ends up, like Pontius Pilate, exclaiming ‘what is truth?’. But this is, in my opinion, not the answer.
Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party once exclaimed that ‘there is no alternative’ to market (neoliberal) capitalism. Perhaps complimentarily, she also stated that ‘there is no such thing as society’. These two adages, although perhaps not publicly endorsed with as much fervour as in the past, seem to have percolated through society as a whole – even decades later. To me, these two famous slogans embody the decline of community better than anything else; if there is no such thing as society, and there is no alternative to neoliberalism, then surely this system is what we have to do with, faults and all.
Many people have been suffering from depression and loneliness. We have seen an increasing atomisation of society, and an alienation from others, ourselves and our work. A constant need to compete with oneself, each other for jobs and social capital, and the system as a whole, has caused us to see each other less as fellow travellers and more like potential enemies. I am far from the first person to suggest that neoliberalism has caused this epidemic of loneliness and mental illness we have been living through, and I think this is something more and more people are taking seriously. These are the symptoms of the system.
We have seen an increasing atomisation of society and an alienation from others, ourselves and our work. A constant need to compete with oneself, each other for jobs and (social) capital, and the system as a whole, has caused us to see each other less as fellow travellers and more like potential enemies.
When it comes to offering diagnoses, the system itself will convince us to consume more and malevolent individuals and groups might point in the direction of immigration, open borders, and women. The former might push us to see Youtubers, celebrities and other ‘influencers’ as our friends and our community, whereas the latter might make us find solace in online forums and controversial ‘thinkers’. The symptoms are identified, but the diagnosis is made incorrectly.
The era of strong trade unions, a connection to places of worship, community service, free and open third spaces such as libraries, and perhaps even a closer relationship with one’s neighbours might have given us a sense of community. Certainly in The Netherlands religion and political affiliation used to be central to one’s personal identity and sense of community. The era of neoliberalism has eroded the power of trade unions in many ways, and many previously public third spaces have been privatised. Indeed, after the financial crash many people made the diagnosis that the system was failing, however we are currently still living in its final convulsion. The symptoms are identified, the consequences are seen, but many people are scared to make the correct diagnosis.
So what do I think is the correct diagnosis? And more importantly, what do we do to cure it? As I have tried to express in this piece, I believe neoliberal capitalism is part of the reason why there is a sense of loss and a very human search for community. Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no alternative’ has been internalised so much that many would state that we just have to contend with the system, and that it is just ‘human nature’ to be competitive and atomised. I suggest that that is just a small part of the vastness that is ‘human nature’. In fact, we came so far as a species because of cooperation and altruism – is this not human nature too?
There is resistance in creating your own communities locally, and in serving these communities. This can be through volunteering, joining your trade unions, protesting, demonstrating, running for office or simply paying some attention to your neighbours and performing some acts of kindness to strangers. Will that overthrow the system? Probably not, but it shows not only that society exist, but also that there is indeed an alternative, and maybe, just maybe, it means that we find it within ourselves to band together and create that alternative. The system, after all, was not given to us by the Holy Spirit, but instead was created by humans. That means it can be changed by humans too. And looking at glimmers of hope in the world today, I think it will.