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Community Collapse in the Westby Martin Pawley
A third of a century ago world-renowned architecture critic Martin Pawley described the high toll our suburban, single-family way of life exacts upon upon social cohesion and community happiness.
‘It’s no good Sir, they won’t answer.’
‘Never mind, keep trying.’
‘Community . . . Family . . . Society . . .’
Mr Leonard Kavanagh, described by neighbours as introverted, lay dead for between 12 and 18 months in his London flat before being found by the police yesterday ... ‘The people round here are not very friendly and the community tends to consist of people who have either been here donkey’s years and don’t want to know the neighbours and those who are workmen just passing through and using the area as digs. They don’t want to know the neighbours either,’ a woman in the newspaper shop opposite Mr Kavanagh’s flat said.
Report in The Times
10 February 1972
According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary the word ‘community’ has two basic meanings: the first is ‘the quality appertaining to all in common’, and the second is ‘a body of people organized into a political, municipal or social unity’. The fourth subsidiary meaning in the common quality line is given as ‘society, the social state’, and the example of usage, Steele’s ‘Marriage is the foundation of community’, which dates from 1712 and neatly links the already related terms ‘community’ and ‘society’ with the concept of the family. The word family itself derives from the two Latin words familia (household), and famulus (servant). As a definition the same dictionary offers ‘members of a household, parents, children and servants’, thereby embodying another central notion, the idea of inequality in rank. The word ‘society, notwithstanding its emergence under the heading of community, is itself defined as ‘a system or mode of life adopted by a body of individuals for the purpose of harmonious coexistence’. It derives from the Latin socius, meaning companion or ally, and in concise dictionaries is often fused with the meaning of community in such definitions as ‘society: any social community’. The generic term ‘social’ yields definitions which encompass all three terms, for example: ‘Living in companies, gregarious, interdependent,, existing only as a member of a compound organism’. Here the central ideas of community, family and society achieve their clearest expression and reveal their conventional relationship: ‘society’ is an organism consisting of ‘communities’ which are interdependent and made up in turn of ‘families’ which are the smallest accountable units of mutual obligation.
This then is the generally accepted meaning of terms whose interchangeability is seldom if ever scrutinized. The use of the term community, in particular, is almost a reflex amongst politicians and public figures of all kinds; priests, newspaper editorializers, columnists, popular moralists and law enforce¬ment agencies, all find it a useful word. The community is the majority, it is legitimate public opinion — even when its most pronounced characteristic is silence. That this organization of concentric rings of obligation and responsibility extends back into history is evident from the ancient terms used to define it. There is nothing new about community, it originates in those very conditions of scarcity, poverty and interdependence that obtained for the majority of the people of all nations until the very recent past. What is new is the bankruptcy of meaning that the term now possesses. The conditions of life have changed dramatically over the last thirty years for that very majority whose status as ‘the community’ remains largely un¬questioned today. So much so that to compare the definitions listed above with the reality of their late twentieth-century presence is simply to reveal glaring discrepancies. Let us begin with the smallest unit.
The family, defined in 1545 as ‘the body of persons who live in one house or under one head, including parents, children and servants’, has shown a numerical decline ever since the gathering of reliable statistical information on the subject began over one hundred years ago. In 1861 the average number of persons per dwelling in England and Wales was over five, by 1966 it had sunk to under three, and this despite a doubling of the population during the same period. Parallelling this drop in household size, room occupancy itself has decreased in inverse proportion to over-all dwelling size, which is to say that the smallest households now provide the largest amount of space per person. Increases in dwelling size, such as that recorded in Germany between 1952 and 1970, when the average area rose from 55 square metres to 75 square metres, are almost all accounted for by the space demands of increasing numbers of consumer durables which diminishing households require. Thus the disappearance of domestic servants, in 1861 present in over twenty per cent of the households in England and Wales, has been more than compensated for by the rapid incorporation of increasing numbers of inanimate energy slaves doing the same jobs.
To restore the classic definition of the family to full consonance with these realities means to incorporate into it fewer people and more machines: to leave the machines out, as is customary, is to present the family as a small group of survivors from the populous Victorian household seen against a backdrop of dumb commodities which have nonetheless steadily increased their dominance of the available space. This trend towards a lower rate of occupancy is generally interpreted as an indication of improved living standards, which in some senses it is. But in an altogether more fundamental way it reflects the fact that people today spend much more time at home than they used to. Increased space standards are as much a response to the increased demands which people make upon their homes, as they are to a notional demand for better standards of comfort and hygiene. The passing of the old pattern of community life, the decline of small-scale public entertainments, the closure of the bars, cafes, restaurants and clubs of small towns and villages, all reflect an unprecedented emphasis on the home as a place to live as opposed to a place to stay. Part of the depopulation of the crowded nineteenth-century dwelling is a response to the more exacting demands of persons who increasingly regard their homes as their total environment. The demand for private gardens reflects the same change.
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 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.
Within the suburban enclaves themselves community expression finds its form in a variety of patterns of negative solidarity. The inhabitants of a suburb will band together to fight the invasion of their seamless web of private houses by bars, restaurants, laundromats; any kind of communal or public structure capable of generating ‘noise’, ‘disturbance’ or interference with steadily rising property values. The presence or threatened arrival of subsidized housing in the area demonstrates the community spirit of the suburbs in its clearest form. In Britain the juxtaposition of local-authority estates with areas of privately owned houses frequently produces conflicts only resolved by the construction of physical barriers between the two. The most celebrated case (though by no means the only one of its kind) involved walls seven feet high surmounted with rotating cast-iron spikes which were repeatedly built and demolished across such a divide between 1934 and 1959 at Cutteslowe in Oxford. In the United States, where suburban areas tend to be unfenced and landscaped, the enclave must be protected at its perimeter owing to the absence of internal barriers. The poor, blacks and other ethnic minorities are effectively barred from these white ‘spread cities’ by illegal cartels of real-estate agents and local vigilante groups more than prepared to fire-bomb any family that makes it through the outer defences. Attempts to force the integration of schools by transporting children from the suburbs to the ghettoes and vice versa are fought to a stalemate by legal delaying tactics and ambiguous political attitudes on the part of local representatives who know where their real voting support comes from.
The evasion of any area of public encounter even the everyday confrontations and showdowns of city life (pushing for trains, competing for the waiters’ or salesgirls’ attention, fighting for taxis) is a dominant characteristic of suburban life. It underlies the collapse of public transport in favour of the private car, and in modern suburban developments such as the British New Towns, it can be seen incorporated into the very infrastructure of decentralization. At Milton Keynes, a new city designated in 1967 and currently under construction, the pattern of development will be based on eighty-one kilometre-square neighbourhoods, each with its own shops and schools in addition to low-density housing. The area of the city will be 22,000 acres and its population on completion 250,000. At traditional urban densities such an area could accommodate at least two million persons. The ‘centre’ of Milton Keynes will be a massive 86-acre space planted with 7,500 trees and crossed by geometrical ‘boulevards’ between which will be located parking spaces for 25,000 cars.
Whatever notion of community underlies such planning there can be little doubt today that the ‘political, municipal or social unity’ central to the historic definition of the word has been totally reinterpreted. The dangerous dissonance between local politics — the issues that really engage the suburban citizen — and politics as presented at a national level, which was so ably exploited by George Wallace in the early stages of the 1972 American presidential election (and which is equally exploited by Enoch Powell in Britain and the major right-wing parties in West Germany and Italy), shows itself clearly at precisely those times when the community spirit is deliberately invoked. School bussing in the United States and immigration in Britain present clear indications of the depths of xenophobia and social fragmentation which underlie the silence of the majority. With their endless acres of arcadian development devoid of traditional urban interdependence yet bulging with the technology of private affluence, the high-turnover suburbs demonstrate a unique schizophrenia over political loyalties.
On issues such as foreign policy the personality of the candidate as revealed by television encounters establishes his popularity, and fed by media exposure and public-opinion polls his career can expand and contract in a blaze of publicity without his ever coming within striking distance of real political power. At this level the ‘political unity’ of the suburb becomes a fantasy identification acted out over ‘issues’ forgotten within months of a major election.’ On local issues the position changes dramatically. In Britain, organizations of parents in London suburbs demonstrated and lobbied frenziedly during the spring of 1971 for security guards to be placed outside every primary school to prevent attacks upon children, which had not in fact increased in frequency prior to the furor. In the USA, 15,000 citizens of Berkeley, California, besieged the Mayor’s office in 1970 with similar demands for ‘block wardens’ to defend their homes against ‘the dangerous revolutionary minority that has been doing its thing for six years’. Violence breaks out over school integration, subsidized housing, and in Britain particularly over immigration. During the immigration scare of the summer of 1972, when expulsion of British passport holding Asians from Uganda threatened to create an influx of ‘up to a quarter of a million’ immigrants at a time when unemployment stood at just under one million (the highest figure for a quarter of a century), the British government minister charged with organizing the distribution of the incoming Asians disputed with local councillors on television. ‘We are all in this together,’ he began, only to be interrupted by cries from representatives of areas already holding large immigrant minorities asking him how he was in it.
The social unity of the suburbs is an infinitely graduated and eminently exploitable disunity based upon private criteria such as differences in the size of the mortgage, the hire-purchase debt, the age or charisma of the automobile and a hundred other distinctions visible only within the sign language of consumer commodities. The community unit is not the city, the suburb, the neighbourhood, the block or the drive, it is the private connection with a worldwide credit and supply service, the freemasonry of the private owner. As such it is nothing to do with location in the sense of belonging, but everything to do with it in the sense of receiving that which is distributed throughout the land but more densely in some places than in others. The suburban community is a body of well-placed receivers on line to a massive delivery system. The stresses of city life impede the enjoyment of consumption; truly rural life with its remoteness, scarcities and absence of definitive peer groups checks ambition; only in the suburbs is the organization of what economists call ‘the intention to purchase’ optimized, clarified and purified. In so far as the exercise of consumption involves the adoption of similar states of mind and similar postures it is a communal experience, and suburban solidarity often takes the form of a group defence of postures and states of mind; but in so far as such solidarity only exists in relation to the supply of commodities, it is vulnerable to their scarcity. Even where the reality of affluence is less evident than its image, in the poorer pockets of the nations of the West such as Northern Ireland or Southern Italy, still the possibility of private wealth represents the sole real guarantee of social harmony under present conditions. In Northern Ireland, where the prospect of affluence for the Catholic minority was finally eclipsed by systematic discrimination in matters of housing and employment, the consequent disintegration of all the communities in the province proved more rapid and alarming than any observer had felt possible. The progressive subdivision of areas by means of bombings and demolitions, the erection of barricades and the construction of large numbers of miniature Berlin walls, all proceeded directly from the breakdown of the supply of commodities, including dreams. The physical juxtaposition of Catholic and Protestant families in Belfast, in some cases cemented by upwards of twenty years’ peaceful coexistence, collapsed in an orgy of fire-bombing and evacua¬tion within hours of the first major riots in 1969, and the process of community fragmentation did not end there. The creation of ‘No Go’ areas (barricaded against security forces) in parts of Belfast and Londonderry in turn led to conflict between rival community groups, each claiming to represent the people of the area. Ultimately the formation of com¬mittees, movements, clubs and gangs split the effective ad¬ministrative areas down from towns and parts of cities to streets, estates of houses, blocks of flats, even individual buildings and public spaces.
The efforts of the British administration to pacify the province without being able to first restore a belief in imminent prosperity have involved it — despite massive transfu¬sions of investment for ailing industry — in merely contributing to this process of social dismemberment. The Protes¬tant community, deprived of its government in March 1972, rapidly fell prey to the same proliferation of competing political organizations, each more extreme than its predecessor in the narrowness of its views of the whole crisis, and each consequently less likely to perceive the general lowering of horizon from province to city to town to street to individual family. In a tragic but utterly characteristic statement of the vacuum which lies beneath the dissolving social structure of Northern Ireland the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl tarred and feathered by the IRA for ‘espionage’ told a television interviewer eager for evidence of sectarian bitterness that she took no interest in the outside world any longer, she knew nothing about it and thus could tell no lies. All she cared about was her own home.
The disappearance of the traditional concept of community is evidenced by its failure to re-emerge under conditions of stress. The basic interdependence is gone because the whole technology of consumer supply, as well as the matrix of obligations and supports which constrained consumer ambitions, has changed from interlocking concentric circles to radiating lines. The linear structure of supply is monolithic and vulnerable; the seamless web of consumption, when starved of either its product or its product’s image, does not so much fragment as dissolve. Community is gone, only wealth conceals atomization.
Society in its contemporary Western form is thus held together by a pattern of aspirations somehow marketed alongside products and services whose social effects are demonstrably fragmenting. This paradox — which is nowhere implied in the Latin derivation socius ( meaning ‘ally’ ) nor in the 1553 definition ‘the system or mode of life adopted by a body of individuals for the purpose of harmonious coexistence’ — can only be unravelled by some consideration of the overwhelming importance of economic factors in social organization today.
Since the Industrial Revolution and its attendant demographic changes the ‘system or mode of life’ in the developed nations has been recognized as dominated by the principle of the division of labour; a fragmentation of the processes of production in the interest of increased efficiency which over two centuries and more has led to a complexity and differentiation in patterns of employment closely reflected in the modern system of labour mobility which underlies suburban living. The migrant suburban family, of the kind described above, survives in what C. B. Macpherson has called ‘a possessive market society’ entirely because it has willingly extended the fragmentary pattern of relationships which emerges from the conditions of employment out into all its social relationships — this is why Macpherson uses the term market society instead of market economy. Uncomplainingly it moves from suburb to suburb, even from country to country; friends are left behind, relatives unseen for many years, schools changed frequently. In all this it merely reflects the demands of the forces of production with minimal inertia and maximum compliance. The system of alliances (in the Latin sense of socius) that such a family builds up is filtered through the primary imperative of employment and this in turn derives from fluctuations in demand, investment and other factors influencing the market for the product or service with which the employed member of the family is involved.
Curiously, this slavish adaptation to market conditions has not brought about a balance between population distribution and the distribution of employment possibilities. On the contrary, despite increased labour mobility and increasing use of government money to finance the relocation of industry and commerce, there remains an irreducible conflict of interest between business prosperity and the perfect articulation of the worker’s life-style to conform to it. There can be no one-to-one relationship; if there were, the competitive advantage — which together with tax incentives, government loans and other penalties and incentives makes the whole operation worth while — would evaporate overnight.
Looked at in this light it is difficult to claim that social cohesion can result from such an arrangement, where even the final achievement of a unified pattern of mobility is unthinkable. Such cohesion as consumer societies at present evince must derive from other sources, or else amount to a form of resistance against the dominant social pattern of fragmentation. For if the social impact of the possessive market is conditioned by its demonstrable tendency to isolate and fragment, and yet a relatively harmonious pattern of social behaviour still exists, then that ‘system or mode of life’ must represent something other than the endlessly slicing effect of the productive machine.
Yet the trade-union movement, the obvious example of a reaction against the divide-and-rule methods of mercantile capitalism in the nineteenth century, stands in an ambiguous position with regard to the forces of production. The doctrine of syndicalism, a theory for the total annexation of the forces of production by trade unions which once dominated the thinking of the French Confederation Generale du Travail (trade-union council), is so far forgotten that its leaders, men whose predecessors published a scenario for revolution based on the presence of 100,000 striking workers in the streets of Paris, themselves prevented such a revolution in May 1968 when already ten million French workers were on strike. An alliance exists not merely between trade unionists but between the trade unions and their traditional enemies the employers. The same alliance extends as far as the government — whether it be socialist or capitalist. In Britain the autumn of 1972 saw lengthy and serious negotiations between government, unions and employees over measures to contain inflation, increase wages and ensure economic growth. All three parties have the same overwhelming interest in common, the preservation of wealth and the dream of affluence.
The advent of consumer societies, in which the worker not only produced goods and services but provided part of the market for them, occurred perhaps half a century after the integration of syndicalist theory and has rendered much of it obsolete. The worker under these new conditions improved his status as mobile victim of the industrial cycle of boom and slump by becoming also a powerful consumer whose purchasing capability is now vital to the continuation of the process of production itself. Workers who had once dwelt in close-packed city tenements and terraces began to find their class solidarity threatened by the accumulation of wealth of their own. Not wealth in the sense of the annexation of the labour of others, but embourgeoisement, the achievement of a status as individuals comparable to that of their middle-class counterparts. Living in their own houses, driving their own cars, their conditions of life conflicted with the role cast for them by such nineteenth-century thinkers as Marx, Engels and Sorel. Once they had been gripped by the vision of prosperity, the lure of revolutionary politics for the working classes in the West faded into a comparative insignificance from which it has not yet emerged.
The premature birth of a consumer economy in the United States during the decade preceding the Depression gave the American working class a taste of private wealth, with over 23,000,000 private cars (75 per cent of the world’s total) owned by Americans in the year 1929. The 40 per cent drop in gross national product which followed the Wall Street crash of that year threw over ten million out of work, and the employment situation only really recovered with the rearmament programmes of the nineteen-forties. Nonetheless, revolutionary politics signally failed to draw the dispossessed away from the images of affluence glimpsed before the deluge. Sustained by the newly invented talkies (the most successful of which during the Depression years dealt with the random access to power and influence in high society of ‘ordinary people’ ), spectator sports, real-life gangster dramas, historical romances and radio programmes, the American working class endured the Depression and more or less patiently awaited the return of prosperity. During the Second World War their liquid assets rose under the influence of high wages and compulsory savings schemes from 45 to 145 billion dollars. Boosted again by the production demands of the Korean War, these assets fuelled the return of prosperity. In 1952 private house construction in the USA reached the record figure of 1,400,000 units; by the end of the decade the percentage of dwellings owned by their occupiers topped sixty-five: government-subsidized low-cost housing, initiated as a ‘socialist’ measure in 1934 during the New Deal, still only accounted for one per cent of the total. By 1955 Detroit was selling to Americans every year as many cars as existed in Britain, France and West Germany combined. By 1970, figures indicated that this outburst of consumer prosperity had resulted in the population of the United States (just over six per cent of the population of the world) consuming forty per cent of the world’s resources.
Such a process of material exploitation is Faustian in its irreversibility. There can be no halt, and, as we have seen, reversal merely lays bare the collapse of social cohesion of the traditional type brought about by prosperity itself. The social inequality which is guaranteed by industrial and commercial enterprise forever rules out any static configuration. Under the conditions described, only growth can act as a social pacifier. Increased production, increased wealth, increased distribution: all three mean that everyone is advancing, and the slower advancement of the majority is not greatly noticed. Besides, affluence involves the inclusion in the process of consumption of a wider and wider segment of society; even those who are moving most slowly become important in the context of the whole economy, no longer so much as producers, but as consumers of products. The recent growth of the Volkswagenwerk in West Germany clearly illustrates this process. In 1948 the company produced 80 cars a day with a work force of 8,000. In 1968, largely as a result of a powerful penetration of the United States market, production had expanded to the point where 5,000 cars a day could be produced by a work force of 43,000. Thus both production and employment increased, but the former at a faster rate than the latter. In 1968 five times as many workers were able to produce sixty times as many cars. At the same time the global expansion of Volkswagen sales had increased the total number of jobs created by car production to nearly a quarter of a million, with perhaps another million dependants supported by the activities of the company. Under these conditions continued expansion is the only viable policy since any attempt to arrest it must decrease the efficiency of production itself by making more people effectively responsible for fewer cars.
Inevitably therefore even those forces in society dedicated to reducing its inequalities are obliged to advocate further growth; and those who oppose them to defend existing in-equalities by pursuing policies which can only exacerbate them. Ironically economic growth does not reduce inequalities but merely masks them by further extending the already broad basis of consumption. The dynamism of the solution is precisely what prevents it from ever being finalized, but in the event ‘perpetual motion’ proves a better tranquillizer than any attempt to arrest the whole process. Clearly, therefore, any impediment to growth such as the economic retrenchment ad¬vocated by ecologists in recent years cannot have a socially stabilizing effect — quite the reverse. Like trying to stand still on a bicycle, the trick is harder than continuing to ride. What will emerge under conditions of arrested growth (wars of course are periods of accelerated growth, like freewheeling downhill) is not an access of patriotism, community spirit and family loyalty, but a social fragmentation so complete that the political forces representing the relatively prosperous are obliged to fight it at all costs — a defence which, in the context of a consumer society, involves the protection of the mass of consumers as well, perhaps fifty per cent of the population. Whatever protests governments may make about refusing to ‘yield to blackmail’ in industrial relations when militant action leads to confrontations on this ground are simply bluff. Organized workers, who are key producers and key con¬sumers, are enormously powerful in consumer societies, simply because they can upset the process of distribution of goods and services and thereby endanger the social cohesion which has become utterly dependent on these supplies. The tiny flutterings of unreliability which resolute industrial action causes to vibrate through the machinery of consumer supply, the days without newspapers, the blackouts and brownouts, the extended delivery times, the delayed correspondence; all these are harbingers of a collapse so total that they deserve to be greeted with the caught breath that accompanies a faltering engine on a lonely road at night. Consumer societies are like cars in that they have one complicated and vulnerable engine upon which all their functions ultimately depend.
The triumph and homogenization of consumer society has of course relied to some extent on the adoption of methods of economic management previously thought proper only to socialist regimes — an example of dialectic materialism which is unpopular with orthodox Marxists. But far more important than the mixed parentage of the Western economic system is the global success of its image of a consumer life-style. Facilitated by the enormous growth of communications media this global public-relations programme followed rapid¬ly on the heels of affluence.
Within a quarter of a century of the defeat of the Axis powers the development of communications technology and marketing has carried the message of ‘The American Way’ to the farthest corners of the earth. Even where it scarcely exists the Good Life is avidly observed. Today Indian peasants gather round Japanese television sets to watch Yankee astronauts cavort on the moon. Vietnamese refugees, fleeing the advancing Northern army or indiscriminate aerial bom¬bardment, struggle to balance stereo systems on the cross bars of bicycles. Weaponless African rebels carve imitations of sophisticated Western firearms, lavishing more care on the provision of visually important accessories such as butt plates and sling swivels than on ballistic performance.
The dreams of the underdeveloped countries are dominated by images of an affluent, suburban life culled from advertisements, tourists, movies and television series purchased and dubbed into more familiar languages. In Latin America, where a phenomenal rate of urbanization has left every major city with an outer ring of shanty towns, efforts to mobilize housing demand for revolutionary political purposes have achieved equivocal results. The Pobladore movement in Chile, dominated by the left-wing Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionario (MIR), has in recent years seen its strong political organization of the squatter movement in Santiago dissipate with the achievement of security of tenure under the government of Unidad Popular. The Pobladores themselves already evince tendencies towards embourgeoisement altogether at odds with the ideals of their political leaders. At the MIR encampment of Nueva Habana Western delegates to the Chilean International Housing Conference of 1972 were shown a model of a house designed by the people of the camp. Complete with carport, porch, garden fence and private garden, the pitched-roofed, single-storey, semi-detached house displayed a profound grasp of the imagery of suburban living on the part of people living five to a room in mud-floored huts. As in Cuba, the revolutionary government has abandoned self-build housing for this reason, adopting instead a method of labour conscription using ideologically sound microbrigadas of specially trained house-builders in an effort to head off dangerously bourgeois tendencies. In Cuba itself these microbrigadas construct small apartment blocks according to standard United States real-estate developers’ plans which offer only two or three bedrooms per apartment, an arrangement totally at variance with the normal size of a Cuban family but consonant with the ideal presented in the context of international consumer advertising.
Throughout the world the image of future prosperity fostered by governments of widely differing ideologies differs hardly at all from the existence at present enjoyed by the consumers of the West. In a book published in the USSR in 1959 the Soviet transport planner V. V. Zvonkov began a prediction of the pattern of Socialist automobile use at the turn of the century with the following:
‘You want to go to Ensk?’ asked the engineer Dolmatovski. ‘Let me take you by car. I have the latest 2007 model.’ We approached a silver machine with very small wheels parked outside in the street. The tapered back resembled the tail unit of an aircraft .. .
Another part of the book describes the interior of a Moscow apartment in the year 2000 with the same breathless enthusiasm. More recent Soviet publications chronicle the achievement of Zvonkov’s dream. The March 1969 issue of Sputnik for example describes the construction of an automobile factory:
The Volzhsky assembly plant at Togliatti on the Volga will be completed just 1000 days from the day when the first survey pegs were driven in to the steppe. According to chief designer Vladimir Solovyev, the first model produced will be the VAZ-2101, a slightly modified version of the Fiat 124. Solovyev said the plant will produce a car each 22 seconds – 660 000 per annum . . . The prospective VAZ-2101 owner is likely to be a family man who wants to take his wife and children for a weekend in the country.
The development of commercial contacts between capitalist and socialist countries as well as the adoption of extensive economic planning in the West has served only to clarify the dominance of the consumer ideal in both camps) The universal truths of our time are not ideological but acquisitive: people do not want to live according to principles but according to desires.
The social cohesion of Western consumer societies derives from the satisfaction of individual needs rather than from the conditions of life in a possessive market society, or indeed from the power of some atavistic folk memory of the past economy of scarcity. Affluence is not an accidental characteristic of the decentralized and transient patterns of settlement which dominate today, it is the one absolute essential for their continued harmonious existence. The romantic notions of the meaning of community which are repeatedly served up as evidence of the rebirth of an ‘alliance’ amongst the economically and physically stratified citizens of the suburbs of the West are futile attempts to evade an irreversible historical process. Affluence has permitted social disintegration, or more accurately rendered it of small importance by substituting for it something else altogether, a new kind of social adhesive that works by dreams instead of realities. And if that means the social balance we possess is simply a product of affluence, and not the residue of something that affluence assails, then we must accept this and reconcile ourselves to its implications. There can be no turning back, for our anti-social society of non-community is a social form whose nature derives from the mechanisms and structures it employs to maintain the isolation of its citizens. The idea which is gaining ground in intellectual circles that under ecological and political pressure the process of growth and exploitation inherent in the nature of consumer society can somehow be reversed, betrays an appalling ignorance of the power of the simple idea of wealth.
Just as ‘Japanese capitalists can efficiently organize in six months an industrial political restoration that China’s revolutionaries and Mao’s best thoughts could not achieve in six years’, so can a few years of VAZ-2101 production at the rate of one every 22 seconds make mincemeat out of whatever community structure might presently exist in the USSR. Consumer society fragments, and universal consumer society fragments universally. The machines and the images do the trick unaided, not by inventing needs and persuading gullible citizens to work towards their fulfilment, but by providing the technology for those citizens to move out of the compound organism of ‘society’ altogether. Which in the end, moralist and prophet of doom notwithstanding, is what they really want to do.
1. Statistics indicate that a significant increase in the murder rate occurs at Christ¬mas — a notable time for family reunions.
2. Lawrence Durrell, International Herald Tribune, 19 July 1972. The often remarked reluctance of small-town traders to support traffic by-pass routes proceeds from their understanding that the economic basis of their community lies outside not inside it. Many small American townships derive up to half their revenue from skilfully sited speed traps designed to catch the unwary drivers.
3. Thames Television production The immigration question in `This Week’, 31 August 1972.
4. C. B. Macpherson, The political theory of possessive individualism (Clarendon Press, 1962). Macpherson argues that the key factor in what he calls a `possessive market society’ is the existence of labour as a commodity apart from personality, a possession which the worker is free to hand over for a price.
5. E. Pataud and E. Pouget, Comment nous ferons la révolution (Paris, 1902).
6. George Katona, in The Powerful Consumer (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1960), argued that the restrained economic behaviour of this new class of consumers prevented a slump in the United States after 1945, and that the largely untutored market intuitions of consumers as a whole exercises a powerful and beneficial damping effect on the American economy.
7. Life in the twenty-first century, edited by M. Vassiliev and S. Gouschev. Published in translation by Penguin Books, 1961.
8. Sputnik closely resembles Reader’s Digest in format, just as Soviet Weekly resembles the old Life magazine. The resemblance is not accidental.
9. Since 1965 American Express International has negotiated agreements over the use of its credit cards in Romania, Bulgaria, the USSR, Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia. Pepsi-Cola now produces in the USSR.
10. James P. Sterba. Japan tightens grip on Asiasn economy. International Herald Tribute, 15 August 1972.
This is another test. It looks like comments work fine, after I fixed an error in the system.
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.