From Bowling Alone to Supercommunities

In the early 1990s, political scientist Robert Putnam was finishing a twenty-year study of local government in Italy, and casting about for a new project, when it dawned on him that one of the conclusions of the Italian research – that democracy depended on social capital – might have implications for contemporary America. Over the next two years, he convened academic workshops on social capital and its implications for economic development, urban poverty, and American democracy, beginning “idly to explore what statistical evidence I could find that might reveal trends in civic engagement in America.” He presented initial reflections at a pair of academic conferences in August, 1994 in Uppsala, Sweden, in a paper titled "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital". What followed is every academic’s dream and nightmare rolled into one. Here is how Putnam tells the story.

In January 1995 an abridged version of the Uppsala paper was published in a respected but little-known periodical, the Journal of Democracy. Without warning, a deluge struck. Until January 1995 I was (as one critic later observed with perfect accuracy) "an obscure academic." Although I had published scores of books and articles in the previous three decades (many of them, I immodestly believed, of greater scholarly elegance than "Bowling Alone"), none had attracted the slightest public attention. Now I was invited to Camp David, lionized by talk-show hosts, and (the secular equivalent of canonization in contemporary America) pictured with my wife, Rosemary, on the pages of People. The explanation was not late-blooming genius, but the simple fact that I had unwittingly articulated an unease that had already begun to form in the minds of many ordinary Americans. (This period quickly taught me the power of the media spotlight to elicit personal reactions: spontaneous generosity from friends, relatives, colleagues, and total strangers soon made me the proud owner of one of the country's finest collections of bowling tchotchkes - from bowling pins and towels to bowling ties and salt-and-pepper sets.) The hubbub was intoxicating, but as I wrote to two friends in February 1995, “Pretty heady stuff, but it has kept me away from my computer, where I'm supposed to be working out a fuller version.... We may be running a risk of our marketing operation getting too far out in front of our product development.”

With all this attention, Putnam was able to recruit a large number of generous supporters and blue-ribbon collaborators to complete the research. In 2000, he published the eponymous book. "Bowling Alone" became a bestseller, Putnam's White House visits continued, and in 2013 President Obama awarded Putnam a medal. Putnam is still exploring the theme of community today. Here is how Professor David M. Kennedy of Stanford University describes Putnam's latest book, "The Upswing" (2020):

In the most ambitious and compelling of his several exemplary books, Robert Putnam masterfully recasts the history of our country from the Gilded Age to the present. Marshalling data from across such disparate dimensions as residential choices, congressional voting patterns, film and song titles, and even baby-naming and pronoun usage, Putnam builds a phenomenally data-rich portrait of America. He robustly and convincingly demonstrates a startling congruence of trends in the economic, political, social, and cultural realms as they all moved in benign synchronicity toward greater inclusion, equality, engagement, and comity from the Progressive Era until the 1960s, but thereafter morphed in malign unison into today's toxic world of 'metastasizing self-centeredness,' division, distrust, and dysfunction.

Putnam concludes his new book by reiterating the importance of community cohesion:

Therefore, the question we face today is not whether we can or should turn back the tide of history, but whether we can resurrect the earlier communitarian virtues in a way that does not reverse the progress we've made in terms of individual liberties. Both values are American, and we require a balance and integration of both. This task will not be an easy one, and nothing less than the success of the American experiment is at stake. But as we look to an uncertain future we must keep in mind what is perhaps the greatest lesson of America's I-we-I century: As Theodore Roosevelt put it, "the fundamental rule of our national life—the rule which underlies all others—is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together."

This cautious statement is characteristic of Putnam's later work, in which the ebullient optimism of Bowling Alone seems to have been worn down to a nub of faint if persistent hope. As The Guardian review of "The Upswing" writes:

A Biden presidency brings into focus the difficult job of healing and reconciliation. But here Putnam and Garrett run into trouble, for it is impossible to identify a single decisive factor that caused the downswing. Rather the authors identify a range of “entwined” trends “braided together by reciprocal causality”. Just as diagnosis of ultimate causes is treacherous, so too is finding a compelling plan for throwing the Great Downswing into reverse. The authors look for the green shoots of a new Progressive movement in various forms of grassroots activism, but are worried that they have yet to see this take a “truly nonpartisan” form. They try to be upbeat, but the dominant note is wistful.

The irony is that it took a political scientist to explain that restoring community cohesion is the answer to social and ecological issues, but the means of doing so is unlikely to be politics, at least in its current form. With the media manipulating votes of the public and corporate lobbying determining the votes of elected representatives, trust in politics is at an historically low ebb. Research shows that in 1958, more than 75 percent of Americans said that they trusted the government most or all of the time. By 1985 the figure had dropped to about 45 percent. In 2015, it was close to 20 percent and in 2019 down to only 17 percent. More than 3 in 4 US citizens used to trust their government. Now, only about 1 in 6 does so. How could such a system possibly stand a chance of uniting communities drawn towards populism by economic insecurity and resentment of inequality? And as always, left-wing politicians seem to prefer in-fighting to developing consensus on a set of restorative policies acceptable to the general public.

The alternative route towards re-creating communities capable of determining their own future is to create a new politics at local level by fusing emerging ideas from across the social sciences: economics, sociology, psychology, and so on. This is what I attempt to do in my forthcoming book Supercommunities. The book draws together important ideas on community wealth building, positive psychology, inequality, debt, sustainability and more into a practical handbook, filling in key gaps relating to collaboration between organisations, support for the most vulnerable people, and funding for small-scale projects.

Since the 1970s, financial inequality has led to widespread quality of life crises and a consequent rise in extremist politics. Cyber terrorism is becoming an existential threat to our social structures, and climate change a similar threat to life on earth per se. We need to stitch society back together, by reinventing communities (geographical and other) as Supercommunities that take ownership of their future.

And, hey, it's going to be fun. One thing that jumps out from the examples of social trading from across the world that I collect is the infectious joy felt by people who truly commit to connecting with their community (or communities). Supercommunities are a win-win, and their time is now.

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©2020 Keith Harrison-Broninski