Sunday, April 13, 2008

State and Community

The function of the State or government is essentially two-fold; to act on behalf of the community as a whole and help to promote or foster community. Everything that the State does, or should do, falls under the heading, in one way or another, of one of these. Ideally, the State acts on behalf of the community as a whole in various ways; through the creation and support of the police and courts, regulating what people can do and how the economy can function, protection of the environment and the lands of the nation, national defence, support of hospitals and schools etc. The State helps to foster community by aiding people and groups in the creation of community organizations and culture. This process could be everything from support for women’s organizations, promoting the nation’s film industry, funding literacy groups, bestowing grants upon a community organization for the building and staffing of a community centre, or even, arguably, the support of business creation programs. I believe that most political debates between the left and right are centered around the degree to which the State should act in these ways.
Unfortunately, since the end of the long post-war boom and the gradual emergence of what is often referred to as a ‘neo-liberal’ ideology, the terms of debate have radically changed. Rab Butler once said that “politics is a matter of the heart” and fifty years ago the heart of politicians, even conservative ones like Butler, was concentrated much more on communities than it is today. In recent years it has become acceptable and commonplace, even in centrist politics, to deride the State as though it were something that is imposed upon the people rather than representational of the people. Furthermore, there is a growing acceptance of the idea, despite obvious and ubiquitous evidence to the contrary, that the State is profoundly inefficient and somehow incapable of fulfilling its fundamental role as community builder. As a result, in the current political context it is hard to imagine the most important community projects that the State undertakes, such as universal education, ever getting approved if they were just being introduced today. In this radically changed atmosphere, those on the political Right have a tendency of throwing epithets such as ‘communist’ or ‘Bolshevik’ at people when they advocate for a larger role for the State either in acting on behalf of the community as a whole or helping to foster community. For example, a proposal like universal childcare is treated by many on the right, and even some centrists, as some kind of socialist plot to take our children, even though it is arguably a simple extension of an already existing universal education system. There is a intense hypocrisy at work here because almost no politician will publicly argue for the elimination of the education system but any talk of universal child-care along the same lines is scorned as evidence of a dangerous and creeping socialism. This hypocrisy is even more pronounced when one considers that you never hear anyone being accused of Bolshevism when they advocate that the State should put more community resources into police or prisons. The fact is that almost everyone, right or left, believes that the State must fulfill these basic roles, the main question of political discourse concerning the issue should therefore be ‘to what degree’ the State plays a role. The right believes that a healthy or necessary degree of community will simply emerge spontaneously out of the free market, and often accuses people on the left of being too paternalistic or lacking faith in the power of people on their own to create community solidarity.
But there is a central issue that the free-marketers and right-wingers do not understand, and the left has failed to articulate: capitalism has a deep-rooted tendency to undermine communities. Capitalism, particularly contemporary (So-called, ‘post-industrial’) capitalism, individualizes and atomizes society in such a way as to make the spontaneous creation of communities increasingly difficult. This is one of the fundamental problems of modern political discourse; right-wingers, and even many centrists, fail to understand this degenerative aspect of capitalism and the necessity, regardless of one’s place on the political spectrum, of compensating for this issue. The atomization of society is a fundamental pressure exerted on communities that creates a situation in which communities cannot be expected to prosper spontaneously. This effect is further exacerbated by the increased technologies that allow people to work and play in increasingly isolated ways. Understanding this fundamental problem, many on the left continually advocate for the State to play a larger role in acting on behalf of the community as a whole or helping to foster community at a smaller level.
For most people this advocacy has nothing to do with a belief in socialism or any ‘ism’ per se. Rather, this is a simple sign that they feel that their communities are threatened and becoming increasingly vulnerable in a globalizing market in which all ideology is reduced to dollars and cents. The atomizing effects of capitalism are not, of course, the only thing that creates difficulties for communities. Poverty, racism, domestic violence, narrow distributions of wealth, also poses serious threats to healthy communities and they are issues that the state needs to actively work on in order to help build healthy communities. But it must understood that the right-wing and those who possess undue faith in the market, continually fail to comprehend the damaging effects that capitalism can have on the creation and maintenance of a strong healthy community and the necessity of counterbalancing this effect. It is the very failure to compensate for the pressures put on communities by our contemporary economy that leads to increases in gun-violence, increases in high-school dropout rates, increases in suicide rates in certain communities, and many other fundamental social problems. Only by increasing the strength of communities and the ability of people to be active in them will we face the challenges of the future.

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