The Destruction of Community

As I see it, there are two main causes of the destruction of community in the modern world: increased privacy and increased mobility. In many apartment buildings or neighbourhoods – which are not at all the same thing as communities, which difference can be encapsulated by saying that while all communities are neighbourhoods,[1] not all neighbourhoods are communities – the physical layout of the spaces is such that it discourages rather than encourages interactions between the residents. In turn, the reason for this is the strong desire of the residents to protect themselves and their property from others, as well as their acquired desire for privacy, since the desire for privacy is not an innate human desire. It is generally true that the more private property a person has, the more apprehensive one is of thieves, and consequently the more barricades one erects to protect oneself and one’s belongings from one’s neighbours, whether with walls, doors, locks, fences, alarms, guard dogs, or security guards. These physical barriers and security devices are the modern equivalent of castle moats and town walls, which protected the castle’s or town’s inhabitants from the threat of attack by one’s enemies or roving bandits and marauders in those lawless times.

An important consequence of both increased privacy and possessions is that one spends more time within one’s residence, meaning that one spends less time outside in one’s neighbourhood interacting and getting to know one’s neighbours. In the past, when there were no television, radio, record players, computers, home movies, Internet, computer games, and so forth, people spent their free time socializing with their neighbours because there were not many other things for them to do. Moreover, they were not in a hurry to do something or go somewhere else, as many people who live in cities are today, and so they tended to linger in these informal meetings. This regular socializing was important in developing and maintaining a sense of community. The term “a community of strangers” is an oxymoron because it does not exist. Many neighbourhoods today in wealthy countries consist primarily of strangers who may have lived next to each other for many years, but without getting to know each other or developing a friendship.

I am sure that most people have experienced the difficulty of maintaining a friendship or relationship with someone without regular face-to-face encounters, such as when someone moves away or when students graduate and go their separate ways. In most cases, without these encounters, the mutual affection that binds the two people together gradually diminishes and dies. These regular encounters are to friendships what sunlight and rain are to plants: without them the plant, or the fondness and affection that is the basis of the relationship, will wither and die.

Communities are based on mutual trust, which in turn is based on long familiarity between its members. The fact that people who live in cities lock their doors and windows is a clear indication of the absence of trust. In the past, in rural communities where everyone knew each other, it was rare for people to lock their doors, or even to have locks on their doors. But as the residents began to accumulate more and more things which they were afraid of losing, and as their familiarity with each other began to diminish, their fear of their neighbours, as well as of outsiders, gradually increased – or what is the same thing, their trust in them diminished.[2]

Another important fact about trust is that you can only trust the people and things you know well from personal experience; however, most people are willing to trust a person they don’t know if that person is recommended or vouched for by a person they know well. The common practice of references and recommendation letters is based on this transference of trust. In addition, trust depends on predictability or regularity: if, for example, a person we know suddenly behaves in an unpredictable manner, that is, in a manner contrary to the way we have seen the person behave previously, then our trust or confidence in the person will often diminish. This is especially true of professional relationships, such as work relationships, where wild, unpredictable, or erratic behaviour can lead to a person’s demotion or dismissal.

The fact that trust depends on familiarity[3] is related to the second of the two main causes of the destruction of community, namely increased mobility. As people’s physical mobility has increased, primarily because of mechanized means of transportation such as trains, buses, cars, and airplanes, it has become easier for people to move from one place to another, or to spend the bulk of their free time away from the place where they live. When many people do so regularly, it can happen that many neighbourhoods are composed of residents who do not know each other, and therefore it is not possible for them to trust each other, even if they believe that their neighbours are good, decent, honest, and law-abiding people, just like themselves. In urban residential areas, including apartment buildings, it can happen that two or more people who have lived next to or near each other for many years still do not know each other, something that would have been unimaginable in small, stable rural communities in the past. Of course, when city dwellers move to rural areas or smaller communities, they often bring with them the habits of aloofness from their neighbours which they acquired from living for a long time in large, anonymous cities.

There are other features of modern societies that contribute to the destruction or weakening of communities. Two of these are the recent emphasis on individualism and competition in some societies. Individualism is related to privacy, since without privacy the members of a community are more likely to resemble each other. The Western desire to be different from other people, which is entirely due to imitation and is therefore not innate, tends to erode the sense of community, since this sense is based on group resemblance, such as shared values, preferences, and traditions, among its members. Many Westerners who travel to non-Western countries fail to appreciate that the inhabitants may not share their concern with individuality and being different from everyone else, or “being one’s own person,” which are concepts and concerns that are alien to most non-Westerners.

In general, one is not friends with one’s competitors, who are regarded as one’s rivals. This is evident in team sports, where the members of a team try to establish between them the camaraderie that characterizes small, cohesive social groups, while the members of all other teams are regarded as rivals that one seeks to defeat and, in some cases, humiliate. Hence, it can be difficult for a player who is traded to a team that has been one’s adversary for many years to make the adjustment to regarding one’s former rivals as one’s teammates. Teams where some of the members compete with each other, in the sense of a hostile rivalry, are usually not as successful as a team whose members coordinate their actions and support and encourage each other in order to succeed. In the case of love relationships, such rivalries can destroy or weaken friendships, when two or more individuals compete for the affection of the same person.

The capitalist system of social organization is based on the assumption that encouraging and legislating competition, so that this model of behaviour is imposed on all people, is the best way to create the ideal society. However, as I have discussed in several other essays, the widespread belief that competition is innate in human behaviour and social relationships is wrong. There is a growing recognition that the consumerism, hyper-individualism, and hyper-competitiveness that have been encouraged by the growth and dominance around the world of the capitalist market economy, which inaccurately measures human contentment and happiness in purely material terms, have led to a breakdown of community. Consequently, there are individuals and groups of people who are trying to re-establish the warm, intimate communities that many of us yearn for but are unable to find in the indifferent, overpopulated, highly stressful, and largely anonymous cities in which many of us live, together with the market economies that prevail in these places, where, for the most part, human relationships have been reduced to cold, calculating, monetary exchanges, even in the case of relationships that are not usually based on money, such as taking care of children or the elderly.

Economists devote their professional lives to studying only monetary exchanges between individuals, companies, and countries. Hence, it is completely unjustified for them to generalize their conclusions about human economic behaviour to non-monetary relationships, as some of them have done. The dominance of economics in recent decades has led to an attempt to impose the cold, impersonal, and frequently selfish form of social interaction that is monetary exchange on all human interactions. This has been facilitated in part by the fact that more and more people live in large, anonymous cities, where monetary exchange is very common. But economists are completely mistaken when they claim that this is the only possible kind of human relationship, one where people do things solely in order to get something they want from other people. Their understanding of human relationships has been greatly distorted by their preoccupation with money and monetary exchanges.

It is time for the rest of us, who are not economists, to stop listening to these deluded, prating, overconfident fools, for these intellectual charlatans have proven to be very bad guides in the journey of life. Certainly jobs and material wealth are important, but the economists’ obsessive emphasis on wealth and how we can increase it indefinitely have produced many harmful effects. As other writers have pointed out, the obsession with GDP AND HOW WE CAN MAKE IT GROW BIGGER has led many people to prostrate themselves before this false numerical idol, while we ignore the many other non-monetary things that are also important and make our lives worth living.

[1] Although this statement may have been true in the past, it is not always true today, since there are many communities or social organizations whose members do not all live in the same residential area. The Internet has facilitated the formation of such groups by allowing individuals with common interests, beliefs, values, and practices to meet and associate with each other. These are attempts to form a cohesive community within the larger anonymous, heterogeneous, often indifferent, and sometimes hostile urban population in which its members live.

[2] When urban dwellers move to rural areas, they bring with them the models of behaviour that are based primarily on impersonal monetary exchange between strangers and keeping a social distance from those one does not know well. It can be as difficult for them to adapt to the more intimate models of behaviour based on trust that exist in small communities, where most of the residents know and trust each other, as it can be for rural residents to adapt to living in a big, cold, anonymous city.

[3] This feature of trust has been used by con artists, swindlers, and other shysters to dupe people out of their money or possessions, or to get something else they want from them. By first establishing a sense of familiarity and trust towards oneself on the part of the person one intends to deceive, one makes the attainment of one’s goal more likely.