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Community and Camaraderie

December 14, 2014

In chess, whenever you make a move, a piece is attacking different squares and gainging more control over them, but it also always leaves a space behind.

Sometimes there are moments that make you reflect on the roads you have not taken, and the things that might have been lost. Things that might have been. Things that have changed.

——.

There is an event that happens every once in a while in my street – a Christmas street party. It doesn’t happen every year – it depends on who organises it. Tonight there was a party, the first in many years.

It was a joyous evening. To meet so many good people, catch up with those long forgotten. To get to know neighbours who I scarcely knew. We laughed, we cooked, some younger kids played games, we watched a fire burn as we ate, the lovely smoky scent wafting through the air. From those across our street’s culdesac and other houses, strangers largely, came a gathering of joy and goodwill in the warmest spirit of camaraderie. A true Christmas tiding.

What an evening, yet also what a reminder of the value of community. I wish to briefly discuss the history of local ties, then the benefits of community over networks, and then some other miscellaneous insights. Lets get to it, friends.

Changing Forms of Ties

For thousands of years we all lived in tribes. The ‘lone ranger’ did not exist. It was in numbers that security existed for us, and that we passed on genes as a species. It was in the bonds of community that we developed. Slowly, small towns developed in parts. Yet we were still communities. Most of society worked in agriculture, or stayed for their entire lives in their hometown, with their family. In short, people were relatively immobile, and connected with their neighbours. Every day they would pass them, see them. Every year, they would depend upon each other to survive. Every year they would share common toil – farmers both facing the weather, tradesman seeing each other grit it out. People saw each other as a fact of life.

All this has changed.

If we think back even a few centuries we see people identifying themselves by city or town. To give an example, the famous D’Artagnan in The Three Muskeeteers is not a Frenchman first, but a Gascon, for he hails from Gascony. If we look at the Middle Ages we shall see titles like the ‘Duke of York’ (eg. James II). Both the elites and others identified based on local titles. York, Gascony.

Yet starting with the French Revolution and moving into the 19th century came the development of nation-states. Then came nationalism. That disparate peoples were all of one identity. The English, the French, Americans, Australians etc. This nationalism strengthened into the early 20th century as the ability to spread propaganda increased through improvements in communications technology – eg. The radio. Mass movements developed. A standing army could be defeated by a nationalist army. Strength came from the mobilisation of the whole economy.

Along with these trends towards nationhood rather than local ties were other technological developments. The car increased mobility, as did the expansion of rail. With increased transportation came the possibility of looking further afield for jobs. Furthermore, economic development saw jobs transition away from agriculture towards manufacturing and then towards services. In this process, the population moved from rural areas to urban areas. So developed countries became dominated by cities. You can see this by comparing a developed country like the US with a country like China following this path. In China 34% of the population is employed in manufacturing; in the US 1.4% of the populace is employed in manufacturing. 10% of China’s GDP comes from agriculture; only 1% GDP comes from agriculture for the US. Its simply economic development along the export led development path, and it sees a move from primary to secondary to tertiary industries. And with tertiary industries, its about reaching large customer bases, and also, as much research has shown recently, intense groupings of people. The ‘agglomeration’ of knowledge workers like lawyers, doctors, financial advisers etc. relies upon face to face networks to spread information and foster innovation. And so you get massive metropolises like cities in developed countries. China, as a developing country, has been moving hundreds of millions from rural regions to new urban areas, as proof of this.

So we get these massive metropolises of millions called cities, where people from all walks of life come together. Millions of people. From different areas. Furthermore, when they get to the city, they meet up with specialists of their profession, in these centres of agglomeration, in networks. These networks make us ‘connected’, and are good for business.

To this picture lets add social media, email, mobile communications, and transport improvements. The world has become vastly more mobile than ever before, and receptive to long distance communication.

Yet for all the different places people come from to meet, they divide themselves from their community. They disappear from their area. When people search out a better job because they can travel further they disappear from their area. When social media surrounds us distant friends are contacted online, and we get socially rusty. Suddenly, our neighbours are ignored.

Community is ignored in our modern world.

Communities and Networks – Their Differences and Advantages

Many of you reading the above paragraphs are probably thinking that, yes, community is a good thing, but if we need to get rid of modern communications and technology and go back to agricultural subsistence to get it, then its a stupid notion. Besides, we’re more connected than every before, so this is just some sentimental, rose tinted propaganda I’m peddling.

I’ll deal with the first point later, but I want to discuss our ‘connections’ today. Today, we are primarily connected to networks – groups of generally like minded people. Your Bar Association, an economics society etc. And networks are greatly different from communities. I borrow on Brett McKay’s excellent article “Communities vs. Networks: To which do you belong?” :

  1. Networks are large and anonymous; communities are small and intimate

Facebook is a network. Its massive. Networks often work on models of profit, so bigger is better. Not so with communities. Communities need interaction, and utilise shame and honour to get people to contribute. Also, communities are small because if they keep growing they die. Dunbar’s Number – 150 in anthropological circles – posits that 150 is the largest group people can have before they start splitting off into different groups by necessity. That’s why military companies often have about 150 as their group number.

  1. Networks are artificial and top-down; communities are organic and bottom-up

Read the linked article for more on this!

  1. Networks encourage passivity and consumption; communities encourage action and contribution.

Imagine you want to join a gym network like Fitness First. You pay some money, and you join their network. You ‘consume by using exercise machines. You’re passive in that you don’t have to do anything to get your workout, besides follow pre-set layouts. Use that bar, that dumbbell etc.

Communities by contrast, require collective action. When a group is so small that people see each other, you can’t hold back without facing a sense of shame. You are encouraged to pull your own weight. To be a contributing member of the group.

As a massive proponent of self-reliance, duty and altruism, communities fit these values well.

  1. Networkers are location independent; communities are attached to a place.

Your business network of contacts exists if you’re in Thailand or Australia. Your town’s local community ceases to exist if people scatter to the wind.

Why does this matter? I don’t have time to digress here, but a sense of belonging and identity is in part fostered by a connection to place. Communities foster this, and counter the existential malaise plaguing many today.

  1. Networks divide a person into parts; communities nurture the whole person

Go to a gym and you talk exercise. Be at an economics society and you better know economics. Go online to Facebook and you’ll generally only show a sliver of yourself. Networks promote efficiency in their slivers, but in doing so they break a person into parts. Join too many networks and you strike a Faustian bargain where you disintegrate into shards.

In a community, however, what you work as is but a part of who you are. If you pass by each other enough other topics come up. You’re a husband, father, son etc. You’re a magnanimous man… oh, and you do X for a living. When you suffer a crisis people come.

An old lady in my street died recently. Sadly, I knew little, so divorced from my local community as I was. However, I know a couple in my street who helped the deceased’s family. I don’t know of any networks coming to help, simply because they couldn’t. Imagine, a fitness buddy of yours gets sick. You’d love to help… but wouldn’t it be awkward? You know nothing about him…

So, yes, I think communities are a good thing. But I also want to be clear – networks aren’t bad. They create connections, build business ties, and develop relationships that can deepend. They’re great. They’re just not a substitute for community, family and friends.

Building community

I put forth the hypothetical earlier that we’d have to undo hundreds of years of progress to get back to ‘community’. That’ll never happen, nor should it. But that doesn’t mean we need to give up on community,

The key with community, as with everything else is to get involved. Spend time. Make face-to-face connections. Keep the group small and intimate. Meet physically, speak of experiences from all your walks of life. And if there’s nothing happening, be the instigator of community!

I can’t stress how important this last point is.

As we were walking back from our street’s Christmas Party, my father and I heartily thanked the two organisers of the party. My father remarked that if reminded him of the last party. He distinctly remembered having a good time and suggesting it should be done again… and then years passed. When the organisers weren’t around to organise, things didn’t happen. My father was very busy, and didn’t think twice about it.

But as we both said to each other, we really have to do our bit. Think about it. If we wait for somebody to do something, and everybody does that, then nothing ever comes about. Community evaporates.

I have a similar situation post-HSC with my groups of friends. Everybody is shooting off in a thousand different directions. New jobs, family meet-ups, busy schedules. Sometimes you’ll get invited somewhere. Sometimes nothing ever seems to happen. I’ve made it my policy to accept every social invitation I can. But, more importantly, I’ve also made it my policy to organise events. I’ve made many events, and with some friends, the only times I’ve seen them is because I took the initiative. I know that its only just that I contribute to the social cohesion of my friends. If you want something done, then you should do it yourself, and set a good example to others.

So it is with community. In olden times circumstances pressed community upon us. Today, we must intentionally create it, and be involved. We cannot wait for others to act. We must do so ourselves.

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