Chris Beem

Is America on the verge of social collapse?

By - May 11th, 2010 03:19 am
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original photo by mjording via flickr.com. Illustration by Brian Jacobson.
Early in 2009, I presented a commentary for WUWM called “The Coming Moral Recovery.” I argued that the economic crisis would force us to reexamine our values. Because credit would be harder to get, and because it would be hard to escape the suffering of others, I predicted — or at least hoped out loud — that our society would grow less acquisitive and less individualistic, and perhaps more compassionate.

The latest evidence shows that, at least so far, this is not happening. Each year, the National Conference on Citizenship publishes a survey on America’s Civic Health. The 2009 survey asked people to describe their civic participation. The report said that the results were “unequivocal … Americans are reducing engagement and turning inward.”

Whether the subjects of this survey care about their neighbor or not, they have less to give to them — less money, less time, less energy. They also are aware that this is a what their neighbors are doing as well: 66 percent of Americans say they think others are looking out more for themselves.

Now, my prediction was not out in left field. Normally, recessions do lead people to think about others. Indicators for civic participation normally rise during rising periods of unemployment. But this survey is just one more indication that this is no normal recession. This crisis has affected everyone. Even those who kept their jobs have less confidence in the future. What’s more, people have less trust in social institutions: government, certainly, but also organized religion, big business and the press. People are beat up and scared and don‘t know whom to trust.

They (we) have hunkered down. It is not surprising that in that context, ethics is not our first priority.

So, it is quite possible that our society might end up more individualistic than it was. Feelings of distrust and uncertainty may make us more likely to look out for number one. We were not exactly paragons of virtue before the collapse. The idea that we might look back at 2008 as the moral ‘good old days’ is both astonishing and terrifying.

Of course, this report may be just a blip. Maybe as the green shoots of recovery continue, people’s attitudes will improve. Maybe we will all be able to put the crisis behind us and go back to the way things were.

But some are predicting that we’ll never go back to the way things were, and others even argue that we are on the cusp of a social collapse. In the March 2010 issue of The Atlantic, Don Peck argued that what we have entered a period of pervasive joblessness that “is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years.” Only last week, NPR’s Juan Williams argued that the recession is particularly worrisome for what it might mean to working-class white men (75 percent of the jobs lost in this recession have belonged to men).

The last time our society experienced this kind of long-term unemployment was in the 70s, among working-class black men. The sudden loss of manufacturing jobs led to the collapse of two-parent families and stable neighborhoods, and rising rates of out-of-wedlock births, crime and drug abuse. Williams says it’s possible that this time, too, long term unemployment will lead to a widespread collapse of the most elemental features of American civil society.

Again, it is too early to draw any conclusions. On one hand, crime rates have yet to go up. On the other, Peck says that the worst effects take a long time to “incubate.” We should not dismiss the idea that our society’s moral consensus is at risk, nor should we be so sure that things will just go back to the way they were.

Every society is sustained by millions of little interactions between strangers. Little acts of kindness and decency don’t sound like much of a bulwark against international economic forces. Maybe they aren’t. But they are really all we have. If it helps, think about your own daily interactions as an opportunity to stand courageously against the breach. The society you save may be your own.

Categories: Commentary, Economy

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