Today I finished with Putnam’s book “Bowling Alone” – it is fascinating and depressing, and the chapter provides a little inspiration.
The book is a data junkie’s dream, documenting, in scholarly detail, the decline in social capital in the USA. As Putname defines it, social captial is:
collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”].
The most lamentable and high profile example of the decline is demonstrated by the percentage of Americans that vote in every presidential election. This has steadily been dropping over the last hundred years. It seems almost certain that there will be a blip next week with so much attention on Bush vs Kerry, but this seems to be the exception.
The trend is for people to care less about their community of fellow citizens, and to do less to help them, which in turn leads to benefiting less, and so on. It is a downward spiral.
The last chapter of the book is so fascinating because it describes the end of the 19th century as a period similar to the current – the telegraph and the railroads revolutionised communication and society even more than the internet is so often portrayed as doing. The pace of change was probably faster than today’s. Corruption was rife in government, with cronyism exceeding Cheney and Haliburton. Social Darwinism was the mode of thinking, with the poor getting poorer, the rich getting much richer, and the rich feeling thoroughly entitled and deserving.
What is inspirational however is that the seeds of change were sown during that same periods – hundreds of societies started around the country, as citizens began trying to return the sense of community that they had felt in small towns. The Scouts and the NAACP, the NRA, the Klu Klux Klan and the Masons, all these groups formed and mushroomed in the USA in the thirty years after 1870. And they form the majority of the stable organisations in the USA today. (A second period of flowering was the 1950s and 1960s, but it was not as impressive in scale.)
These organisations then formed the nucleus of the progressive movements, eventually propelling the likes of Wilson to the presidency, and spearheading scores of legislative acts that reversed the injustices and poverty.
Putnam argues that the USA is at a similar crossroad. What interests me the most is his discussion of the role of religion in the formation of those organisations in the 19th century. It was the glue that allowed citizens to trust and invest in each other.
This changes my interpretation of the Bush’s mixing of religion with government: it might well be part of the next set of solution. Apparently at Wilson’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1912, the crowd spontaneously erupted into singing “Onwards Christian soldiers”.
The world is becomig more religious. In the USA, no presidential candidate can hope for nomination if they do not invoke their faith in their rhetoric. And in Arab world, religion is advancing its grip on the political process. For me, this trend was troubling, because religion has always been about excluding and occasionally attacking those of another religion. But on the other hand, perhaps there is no other way that we have of advancing as communities and societies. Putnam’s book has changed my mind – so I am now agnostic about religion and faith in politics.