I did not think when I posted the previous the blog on a need for liberals to look forward that it was the start of a series. It was a one-off blog but I have since been fleshing things out a lot more. Let me start with the question “When did social progress occur?” There seems to me to be two key times when that happened in relatively modern history. Quite a lot of social progress happened during mid to late Victorian times and then also post-World War II. First I need to make clear one critique here is not sustainable. These were not times when the “City of Gold” became a reality, they are times when moves were made that reflect what I see as the social reform was achieved towards something inspired by the imagery of it.
In Revelation 21:1-4 (ESV) we read:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
It is a place without pain and suffering and where God dwells with humanity so things happen according to his will. At its core “imagining the city” must take seriously the reduction of pain and suffering and living in harmony with God. For me, harmony with God is not marked by religious fervour but by the way we treat other people as icons of Christ particularly the weak and the marginalised.
Before I tell you what in my opinion they have in common, let me tell you one significant difference. They are not both times of wealth in the UK. Yes, the British Empire was at its zenith during the Victorian times and we manufactured goods that the World wanted. However, the 1950s were post-World War II and for much of that time, the UK was experiencing austerity. What is more, the British Empire was largely being dismantled and in the words of 1066 and All That, “America was thus clearly top nation”, So this progress was made despite financial constraint rather than by extra.
What they have in common is both stand out as high tide marks of institutional strength. The Victorian model was that largely of philanthropy and campaigning, while the 1950s was state formalised institutionalism. If you like Victorian was bottom-up while 1950s was top-down. Both were followed by anti-institutional movements. Now institutionalism is not in itself what I think of as good, I think that for people to be busy creating institutions, there needs to be a good cohesive civil society. A society where the owner of the biggest conglomerate feels that they are connected to the sick child in a damp B&B.
Many of the old-fashioned civic institutions are failing. I do not mean state institutions like NHS; I mean things like Working Men’s Clubs, Trade Unions, Literary and Philosophy Societies, Local Professional Associations. These are groups that make up a lot of the third space. By this I mean a space between the Big Institutions – e.g. State, Finacial Markets and Business and the closed small space of family and friends. In this, I am picking quite strongly on what Ray Oldenburg calls “Third Space“. The difference is that whereas he talks of individual Third Spaces, I tend to talk of the whole as “Third Space”. His US argument and from what I know of the last fifty years in the UK would suggest a steady decline in the institutions in this space. The occasions where we function outside the two sphere’s of family and work has decreased because of this.
With the failure of these broad-based civic institutions, many activities formally done by them have been taken over by professional bodies. I freely acknowledge that the number of charities in the United Kingdom has stayed broadly static in the last twenty years as shown in this briefing paper. What has to be understood is the nature of the charity has also changed. It is no longer a group of like-minded individuals who get together to accomplish a task and may raise money with respect to it. There is a separation between those who do the work and are financially paid to do so and those who raise the money. To belong to many of these charities involves no more than putting your hand in your pocket. You never need to meet another silly faced human. If you decide to raise money that normally involves some interaction with others but often largely those individuals are colleagues and family. The others on the increase are small caring and support groups such as described by Robert Wuthnow. Although in Britain they are less likely to be Bible study and more likely to be hobby focused. Their problem is they often only attract a very specific demographic. Campaign groups which are also on the rise seem to adopt one or other of these two models. The medium-sized group that attracted people from a variety of settings to engage with its aims and more generally socialise is in steep decline. This is in line with Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, which is often wrongly represented as portraying an overall fall.
This means that the following is largely true:
- many people exist in a social bubble largely made up of family and colleagues with few friendships that go outside this
- equally the charities, support groups and campaign groups also function in a bit of bubble and do not necessarily connect to those outside their sphere. What relationships there are tend to be with like. Writers groups will connect to other writers groups, feminist groups to other feminist groups, health charity to health charity etc.
- the small support/hobby groups do not have the skill to grow much beyond their current base yet are probably the groups that engage most fully many people. People do not get experience in other groups to bring back to the group and given current legislative practise, there are major disincentives to doing so.
- Many people are not engaged outside of work and family (close friends) networks. When these break down they can very easily lead to those individuals being isolated.
- cohesion between this third space relies on a few individuals who are active in multiple organisations. These individuals are increasingly either becoming professionals or are facing burn-out.
- that means that Milgram’s Six Degrees of Separation is only maintained by a small thread because it is these cross civic institution ties that are essential for the process to work. What we are getting is smaller more highly connected groups and then fewer links to wider groups.
I think I will leave to the next post why this is of concern. Let it just be stated is what I am describing is a thin gruel for sustaining a common life. However it is not good enough to know this is thin gruel, we need to imagine what it would be like to have a properly sustaining common life.