Community Collapse in the West

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If the absolute number of persons in the family has decreased, and one whole category disappeared altogether, so has the parallel notion of allegiance to ‘one head’ suffered considerable change. In the modern nuclear family the string of dependent relatives for whom the head of the household accepts responsibility has been drastically shortened, partly by the increased longevity of householders themselves, and partly also through the growth of social services designed to protect their independence to the grave. Grandparents, aunts, uncles and other peripheral figures no longer populate the family home — or indeed provide continuity between generations. On the contrary, their disappearance to cottage, sunset home or institution has simply foreshadowed the increasingly eager departure of the children themselves, not on the occasion of their marriage, as was formerly the case, but as soon after leaving school as possible. Even the wife, whose personalized service makes possible the pattern of male employment found in most affluent societies, shows signs of refusing to accept her lot for very much longer.

The high proportion of wives who work, as well as the growth of the responsibilities allowed to fall to the hands of extra-familial organizations such as schools and law enforce¬ment agencies, threaten the status of the head of the household. Marriage itself, the key union in the formation of the household, is undercut by rising divorce statistics which, depending on the relative ages of husband and wife, can force from a quarter to a half of all conjugalities into separation.

Even the physical cradle of the family, the ancestral home, has largely retreated to the status of an image. On average every mortgage in Britain lasts seven years — which is to say that the average owner occupier moves house at the end of that time. In the United States the interval is shorter at five years, and a quarter of the American population moves house every year. In Washington, DC, of 885,000 subscribers listed in the phone book in 1969, over half were new entries. The moves themselves are not generally over short distances. At a time when the pressure of evolving commercial and industrial technique can make whole ranges of jobs obsolete in less than a decade, the exigencies of employment can require a man to crisscross the country, even move to other countries, in search of career opportunities. In European countries foreign workers admitted on contract provide services without which whole industries would collapse; in Switzerland they amount to one-fifth of the population, in tiny Luxembourg one-third.

Behind the massively publicized image of its desirability the family is beset by disintegrating trends. The status of the head and the duration of his rule are sharply circumscribed in practice, if not in theory. The precise location of his empire is subject to rapid and frequent changes. Even the social utility of the nucleus of parents and children is in doubt with an increasing number of studies and hypotheses showing the close relationship between mental illness, homicide and family relationships.  The groaning economic base of the nuclear unit can no longer be supported by the earning capacity of the head; he must be subsidized by tax concessions on his mortgage, allowances for his children, contributory income from the labour of his wife. The basic range of consumer goods to be found in most family homes has its own fragmenting and isolating effect, within the family as well as outside it. Two cars become common (so that conflicts over simultaneous use can be avoided); central heating means that all parts of the house are warm and usable (so that the family no longer congregates together in one room); deep freezers begin to penetrate the mass market (so that daily shopping and its inherent social contact becomes obsolete). One by one the familiar consumer durables of the twentieth century — led by the dwelling itself— have stopped off what were once enor¬mous and necessary areas of social contact between members of the family and between families. The image of family life remains strong, reinforced by consumer advertising which it continues to dominate, but its reality is crumbling out of all recognition. The productive forces upon which it now leans are contributing overwhelmingly to its ultimate collapse. It is in any case already far removed from the organism described in the historic definition.

The community
The term community, ‘a body of people organized into a political, municipal or social unity’, betrays a similar dis¬sonance with tradition when its contemporary form is analysed. Endowed historically with a strong geographical base, communities are now subject to the rapid population turnover described above. The process of urban renewal which steadily erases old neighbourhoods and patterns of intermarriage by demolition and dispersion, has facilitated the growth of large suburbs within which nuclear families lacking any blood relationship with each other pursue their isolated economic fortunes. Between 1940 and 1960 the rural communities of the United States, which were interrelated in this way, lost over half their population to metropolitan areas with a minimum population of 50,000 persons. By 1970 sixty-five per cent of the American population was urbanized, not in the sense that it lived in the centre of cities, but that it lived in ur¬ban areas—the suburbs surrounding the decaying monsters which are the reality of the big city image. The same pattern of increasing settlement size and decreasing indigenous population is to be found in the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Japan, Scandinavia, everywhere that consumer society has subsumed and vitiated the old ‘municipal or social unity’ to replace it with an economy of land and employment values capable of overturning the purpose even of those parts of the old provincial structure that remain. Small businesses in historic towns and cities subtly shift their servicing function to cater for visitors rather than natives. Antique shops replace bakeries, restaurants and hotels replace houses, chain boutiques and stores replace the autonomous enterprises of former times. The mediaeval town of Arles, in Provence, like many others preserves its shell with its economy reoriented towards the needs of visitors from as far away as the other side of the world. A bitter notice at the entrance to the market reads ‘Tourist, you are in famous Provence, a country now colonized, polluted and despoiled: its language forgotten, its ancient traditions betrayed, its soul extinguished . . .’ 

The centres of the larger cities are simultaneously gutted by long-term highway and renewal plans and abandoned by many of the major commercial and industrial employers whose presence alone makes the cost of maintaining urban services possible. Taking their jobs with them, the employers retreat to the suburbs where a new private life-style slowly starves the city of its cultural and entertainment facilities: one by one the cinemas, restaurants, night clubs and theatres dis¬appear for lack of patrons. The remaining inhabitants, too poor to buy their way in to the suburbs (which are in any case defended against them by their middle-class occupants), exchange slum dwellings for subsidized apartment housing in ghettoes where crime, unemployment and family breakdownhaunt successive generations. Eventually the remaining private property-owners in bankrupt downtown areas aban¬don buildings that can no longer command rents commen¬surate with the cost of maintaining services in wealthless but expensive neighbourhoods.

Page 2 of 6 pages « First < 1 2 3 4 > Last » - Full Article

This is a test

Posted by Bruce  on  12/30  at  06:19 PM

This is another test. It looks like comments work fine, after I fixed an error in the system.

Posted by Bruce  on  12/30  at  06:26 PM

interesting article!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  01/02  at  10:13 PM

Well, NY isn’t a much better alternative…just a bunch of people who don’t care about one another living on top of each other. That’s the beauty of an online community. You can get to know people that you would otherwise never talk to.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  02/22  at  06:06 AM
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