Thursday, April 3, 2014

Social Power and the ‘State’ of Community Development

This essay explores the role of social capital in community development, and the current situation of the altruistic instinct. Altruism has recently seen the rise of some unexpected champions, and a great many people seem more eager than ever to make “places for people” in our cities. But our efforts fail to keep pace with the quiet desperation that recent decades have brought to working people around the world. Mobility and inequality have hollowed out the idea of community, often leaving behind little more than an aging ethnological conceit. The real tactical capability of ‘community’ seems to fall as its lip service rises. We find community development -- and altruism -- in an uncomfortably constrained position, embedded in an outdated positivist paradigm of social change, caught between the conflicting and conspiring directives of corporate capitalism and state power.
I want to start making a little room for other perspectives in a field -- community development -- that is usually dominated by utopian positivists, whether singing kumbaya or squawking in righteous indignation. Either mode betrays an accommodation, usually entirely unconscious, to a state-supportive bias in the professional consensus reality of our specialities -- planning, economics, political science, geography, sociology et al. Academia offers critiques of this bias from several points of view; the anarchist critique is of particular value, but seems not to have weathered post-structuralism in the way that related perspectives --feminist and post-colonial critiques --  have. A ‘statist bias’, if it can be found and generally agreed to, may not be, in fact, the most dire of the obstacles besetting community development, but I think that trying to root it out with the use of anarchist critiques could at least open some refreshing perspectives for practitioners.
I feel we should avoid jumping directly to the big questions that the anarchist perspective seems to invite -- “must we have a state?” Instead, we should start by more clearly addressing the ontological status of the state. Specifically, we must challenge the implicit and sometimes explicit assertion that the state is inherent and indigenous to the human condition, that it “naturally” arises out of the act of forming a society and living together. We can consider this question historically, viz., did a state emerge in most or all societies we have records of?; and we can consider the question sociologically, viz., do conditions in communities naturally lead to the formation of states? Or we can consider it practically, viz., if the state appears to be responsive to basic human needs, does that endow it with moral authority or ontological priority? But our first efforts should be purely philosophical: must we acknowledge an inherent and a priori identity for the state, or can we refute such claims, and persuasively define a more modest status for the phenomenon of the state? Of course, this only opens another problem, of where to stand while philosophising. Surely if the state is not inherent, then precious else is, at least little else of the usually claimed foundations for philosophic effort. And, finally, we must do this with the knowledge that the state, even deprived of ontological status, may well still be broadly inevitable in human societies, and thus that it may be unlikely that we will be able to offer truly contrasting alternatives to the present condition.
Let’s imagine that we have tasked another set of readers and writers, including several anarchists, with all that philosophic work. They are in the other room, and will be back shortly, armed with a thorough and compelling definition of the ‘downwardly revised’ status of the state. After all, this is just an essay, and can’t get bogged down in heavy academic exercises, however worthwhile or necessary. What we need to work out is this: how will we use their definition, once we get it? Are there ‘statists’ out there who need some wind taken out of their sails? Are there quiet champions emerging in our communities that we can give some breathing room to? And are there other, hidden opponents of self-sufficient communities to be fought, dreary feudal powers taking cover behind the emancipatory rhetoric of the state?
And here’s one more issue, fundamental to the political function of human societies: do we really understand where social power comes from and how it can be directed? This function has been preempted by the state (and for brief molting moments by its revolting young turks) for so long, and so absolutely, that its very language has become nearly inseparable from the state paradigm. I am betting that this question is the catalytic one, where we can get some practical momentum from philosophic inquiry. So I now turn to this question, wagering that it will prove to carry forward the too-large themes the essay opened with.
By social power, I mean to refer to all the varieties of human capital and agency that fuel the evolution of the individual and of those groups to which s/he may subordinate that power. Charles Buki is particularly clear (and forthright) about the need for these kinds of power in impoverished communities, and the feedback dynamics that cause their lack just when they are most needed. In his view, people and place have lost their organic relationship, depriving people of both a key source of social power -- in their legitimate nativity to place -- and of a key object of exercised power -- the improvement of place to the benefit of society. We are becalmed, and should be righteously indignant, but the causes are deeply embedded in our received and accepted model of the social dynamic.
Social power predates economic power. Social power derives from a mutually acknowledged confidence in one’s capacity for future performance. This is a deeply human quality, a bragging, monkey-like charm that is the essence of the social intelligence of a tribal species. We rely on expressed confidence at a deep biological level; and we love it, we play it, and we re-enact it even when it is not critical to the day’s decisions. Indeed, its famous academic shadow, Keynes’ “animal spirits”, is accorded pride of place as the motionless mover of the capitalist economic model. Social power grows where people can exercise and demonstrate it iteratively; in early modern societies this usually meant the iterative exercise and demonstration of labor skills --  in resource extraction, husbandry of land and animals, and in value-added craftsmanship of all kinds. In the economic dimension, the fruits of this labor, accruing to the worker, demonstrate the worker’s social power, and fuel the extension of that power out toward altruistic objectives.
So the picture is of social power and economic power in symbiosis, with social power ‘leading’ in motivating people toward deeper purposes. In healthy societies, there is a fine-grained power gradient, across which the accumulated strength of individual effort extends toward the benefit of the group, and extends from the satisfaction of basic needs to the making of meaning at a deeper cultural level. (fig. 1.) Carefully considered, through the lens of complex adaptive systems theory, social power seems to be more than an energy or a currency; it constitutes the channels, or perhaps the flow in the channels, in an entropic energy network that underlays human society.
We have seen, then, that social power derives from interpersonal exchange, as a dividend of labor. It lives by a metabolism that parallels the cash economy. Just like the cash economy, the cycle can be virtuous or vicious-- social capital accruing to the benefit of the worker and the local community, or constantly drawn off in talent drain, indenture, and conflict. It derives from work, and work relationships, and it accrues to itself if allowed to do so. Its nature as a currency is friable; it is a public good that can be exchanged and invested, but one that is most valuable in the location, social matrix, and timeframe of its minting.
Social power is naturally applied to a great many ordinary and practical things in the pursuit of individual self interest. But it is the turn to altruism that marks social power’s distinction from other powers of the individual. The altruistic impulse need not be fully isolated from self interest; it is richer for the interaction, even at the risk of some occasional moral ambiguity. Altruism marks social power as a unique force in human affairs, as it marks humans as a unique kind of social animal. Altruism is the raison d'etre of social power -- they are co-dependent evolutionary phenomena, or interdependently arising causes, if you prefer the Buddhist term.
Anyone working in community development will tell you that building more social power is an essential means, or perhaps even that is its the true goal of community development. Participation in the local economy builds economic strength, but more significantly, it gives people access to social power generating activities. The opportunity to build social power is distinct from and interrelated with the other fundamental rights of economic equality: the right to work, access to housing, access to healthy food, etc. Let’s not think of “access to experiences that build social power” as a boutique variant in the catalogue of human rights, but rather as a transect through a bundle of fundamental rights, a sectional view that highlights the specific catalytic role of social power in fueling community development.
Turning to the question of directing social power, we should first consider the context in which social power is exercised. Looking at pre-modern societies, we find most social exchanges occurred outside the cash economy and outside the limited influence of centralized political structures. This condition prevailed through most of human evolutionary history; without praising it unconditionally, we can agree that it is the formative context of our social capabilities. Today the context is almost completely reversed, at least in the ‘developed world’: social power as conventionally conceived is seen operating in the margins of the formal economy and political system; it is also at work inside the system, but has been distorted, overlooked, and misidentified.
Perhaps as early as Cromwell, and certainly in the Industrial Revolution, we learned that rational and instrumental policies cannot produce a healthy society on their own. After all, we don’t want a ‘company town’ society, where people passively wait for social goods to be delivered as services. Even the ‘company’ doesn’t want a company town -- no one wants to pay for something that an army of volunteers could have produced, and no one wants to be liable for maintaining your happiness. Social power is called upon, largely consentually, to flesh out the rationalist outline of a society for homo economicus. What the state wants, and has in large part obtained, is your active but unconscious complicity in producing social value within the bounds of its own economic and ideological objectives. In short, social power has been colonized and expropriated, and now mostly serves to support state power and corporate power.
Earlier I said that the function of directing social power has been preempted by the state. This is not uniformly true. Some states only manage this function partially or passively, but all states lay claim to the turning point, where a prosperous and stable self-interest turns to acts of altruism. They claim responsibility for the prosperity and stability altruism contributes; they claim the measure of the public goods altruism delivers; and they claim the grammar of its delivery, through deep semantic structures, like ‘national character’, ‘rule of law’, and ‘social contract’. The state frames the exercise of social power, and claims credit for its effects.
Across time and geography, the nominal status (the declared self-image) of the state varies from total control to technocratic wallflower. The state’s empirical power varies from Panopticon to Keystone Cops. And cultural responses to the state vary from slavish sycophancy to cynical workaround. The three spectra don’t align, creating many different hybrid conditions in different times and places. But in any condition that includes something like the modern state, there are some functions that seem to fall to its lot: collecting taxes, providing a social safety net of last resort, and building underlying infrastructures.
In building the normative paradigm of the state, we accept three sets of functions: a set of state functions, like those just listed; a set of “closely related” functions, typically held by quasi-governmental entities whose monopoly power is not questioned; and finally a set of private market functions, removed from the scope of government, but usually still regulated by it. Social power then fills in the remaining space in this schema; closely governed in the first set, ambiguously entrained in the second, and nominally given a lead role in the third. Every part of this normative paradigm should be deeply questioned.
Let’s set another few teams of readers and writers to that work, and just touch briefly on a few points. That second set of functions is the domain of the ‘rent-seekers’, those fearsome corrupt disruptors of the classical economist’s free markets. Western trained eyes miss most of the nuance in this realm. There are a lot of players here, exercising a lot of social power, and altruism is not entirely lacking. The mathematical definition of rent-seeking suggests that there is no public benefit, but some close observers say otherwise, while falling just short of praising the grafters and mafiosos. At best, rent-seeking builds a kind of symbiotic or parasitic patina on the body politic that increases its capacity for interaction with the community’s real needs. Within the focus of our little story arc, rent-seeking certainly keeps social power alive and well in a world that might otherwise tend toward a humorlessly streamlined technocracy, free of all transactional friction, free of all opportunities for personal intercession in the delivery of social goods.
And I can’t resist a short discussion of philanthropy, that most explicit of altruistic gestures, operating out in the private domain, often as a declared palliative to the failures or omissions of the state, but ultimately confirming, as foil or as sidekick, much of the state’s custodial claim over altruism. There is just too much money out there, too many opportunities for self-aggrandizement, and too many direct, structural alignments between the donors’ sources of profit and the root causes of societal ills, to be entirely sanguine about the role of philanthropy. The timely and measured return of capital from the financial ether to the real world economy is our most critical tool for combating the effects of poverty -- and most of it must return either through philanthropy or tax -- but we are achingly far from the cultural values required to effect it.
The human habitat, the locus of community development, is a contested space, claimed by the mechanisms of state control, by the mandates of the cash economy, and by the moral appeals of the social sector. The physical environment has use-value, as the site of human activities; it has economic value, as the site of profit-making; and it has social value, as the site of the production of social power. The state and the formal economy appear in full control, but both depend on the participation of the social sector to generate sufficient social power to sustain the habitat. As the state grants partial control to local citizens, and corporations franchise profit-making opportunities, a balance must be kept between satisfying local (social) interests and meeting the external objectives of the larger system. Locals -- and community development professionals -- are caught up somewhere in a spectrum of collaboration and resistance. Every increment of improvement to the urban environment should be  assessed on two levels: does it lessen impoverishment, and does it increase social agency? Usually we are presented with utilitarian programs, such as provision of housing, where the basic deliverable is not to be questioned, but the manner of delivery may be reshaped to support or deflate social capital. These are worthy fights, but the more difficult case is to advocate programs whose stated primary purpose is building social power, with any economic benefit or use-value taking second place. Establishing and equipping public space, and expanding the set of amenities and infrastructures considered to be commons or human rights, surely these are among the most worthy of community development objectives in the built environment.
Well, well. You can see the end of the essay from here, and you must be wondering when we will directly take up the anarchist critique. Can we imagine a life without the state? Would it be desirable or worth striving for? Sorry to dissappoint you, but for now, I think it might be enough to simply assert the distinction of social power from state power. To carefully and clearly mark the dimensions of the gaps between the state’s self-image, its delivered results, and the community’s cultural response. The French and the Chinese, under staggeringly different conditions, mind the gaps with real panache, not only marking them, but locating a wealth of cultural practices and economic tactics in the spaces that open up. Only in America have Pollyanna and Cassandra built such a close working relationship: across the community development field, a naive utopian positivism persists in its belief in the perfectibility of the state, while blustering, media-oriented dissent dissipates harmlessly into the society of the spectacle.
Pragmatism suggests that the state is likely to endure for quite some time. Anarchist critiques are “useful” then, in re-imagining the limits of state power, in pushing back current excesses to those limits, and perhaps most importantly, in formulating practices with which to occupy the reclaimed space. Practices that increase access to social power, and redirect social power to altruist aims. Bulwarks that keep the social sector from lapsing back into symbiotic protective positions around state power.  Community development professionals must sincerely examine our positions of complicity with state and capitalist objectives. Some complicity is inevitable or even favorable, but is there another place to stand that provides more creative contrast, more autonomy, better and deeper outcomes for the community? Let us each work at our chosen distance from the halls of power, committing ourselves to increasing social capital and directing it toward altruist ends.  And through it all, a central focus must be ensuring the empowerment of new voices to balance the gradual but inevitable establishment and entrenchment of the ‘old’ new voices.