By Kenn Taylor
The idea of community, or the lack of it, has become a modern-day obsession. Something that was taken for granted for so long, and frequently resisted, many people now seem desperate to get back.
This is perhaps the inevitable legacy of the second half of the 20th century. An era dominated by the individual. An era, largely in the West at least, of rising wealth and opportunity, and of freedom as an ideological counter point to the enforced community of Communism.
For many people now though, in particular since the turbo-individualism that flourished from the 1980s onwards, it seems that we have gone too far, that we have lost something. A view perhaps most often applied in the UK to urban, former industrial communities.
Now a few years in to the 21st century, if we look at any such community and the things within its fabric that defined it, we may find much loss. Churches, local shops, Pubs and social clubs so often have closed as areas declined and ways of life changed. Local industries too, not only a source of wealth but frequently of pride and identity, have also largely succumbed. To be replaced, if at all, by the anonymous sheds of supermarkets, distribution warehouses and call centres, or perhaps the odd foreign-owned assembly plant.
Even the home, the basis of community, has not been spared. In many urban areas outside London, there are often whole streets of abandoned houses were the population has dispersed in the face of lack of work, failed urban policies and social and cultural decline.
The deterioration of such communities is often painted simply as a picture of 1980s Thatcherite policies destroying industries and, by proxy, the communities and cultures that were largely defined by them. This is indeed a huge part of it. In this period, the enforced unemployment and fracturing of traditional peer structures, based on trade unions, apprenticeships and the like, helped to break the patterns of life that had united people for centuries. However, the fact is that increasing post-war wealth and opportunity also played its part in eroding such communities.
As people became wealthier, wages doubled between the start and end of the 1950s, coupled with the support given by the welfare state, people began to need each other less. This combined with relative peace, technological advance and a young, expanding population, also helped lead to increased liberalisation in the 1960s in everything from censorship to religion to sexual morality. As the often oppressive structures that bound people’s behaviours loosened, this created more opportunity to act as an individual against control, be that from your parents, employers, the church, or the state.
In this era, with many people for the first time being able to maybe afford a house with a garden, a car, a washing machine, a foreign holiday, perhaps even sending their children to newly expanding universities, many became convinced that, if allowed more freedom and relieved from the burdens of tax and regulation, their life could be even better. This increase in individual wealth and freedom saw many people who would have previously voted Labour turning to the Conservatives at the end of the 1970s. Labour politician Tony Benn even commented in 1971, “The individual escape from class into prosperity is the cancer which is eating into Western European Social Democratic parties.”
Of course, that was all based on rising and spreading wealth and opportunity. Even though the Conservative administration devastated many communities and industries in the 1980s, across the UK in general, incomes actually rose. North Sea oil and the money generated from privatisation allowed for tax breaks and new opportunities for many who were not trapped in declining industrial towns and cities. Such places were written off by many, the government included, as having ‘failed to adapt’ and thus responsible for their own decline.
Now of course, there’s nothing left to sell, the oil is running out, and places that escaped the worst ravages of Thatcherism in the 1980s now also find themselves staring into the abyss now their industries and communities have also declined. Wealth and opportunity is shrinking and many of those who had done well in these times are now seeing their children and grandchildren denied the opportunities they had, and face a society that seems darker and harsher than they could have imagined a few years ago.
As family, work, class, cultural and religious structures that held people together declined, this lessened the ability of society to influence people to behave in way that wasn’t wholly selfish. This was further pushed by the ‘Bling’ culture which has prevailed since the Thatcher era. Initially this was the preserve of the Yuppies and entrepreneurs who prospered in the new economic liberalism of the 1980s. Eventually though, this culture trickled down to ordinary people and fame, status, money, power and the pleasure and will of the individual were elevated to all that mattered.
Thatcher removed the enemy of her ideology by destroying the unions and industrial communities, but this has come back to haunt those who believed this would see the return to a more stable and acquiescent society. Firstly such destruction created despair, which saw many industrial communities overwhelmed by Heroin addiction, and then later, almost its counterpoint, Ecstasy, and the raves that occupied the abandoned industrial spaces and represented new hedonistic communities for those deserted by the decline in old ways. Both these phenomena led to the ugly expansion of criminal gangs, now capable of making much higher profits through drugs, who now offer a seemingly easy route to money, power, status and belonging for those with few other opportunities, filling the vacuum in many communities left by the decline of previous power structures.
Today, we seem to have reached a turning point. Perhaps not a conscious one, but just like the changes brought about by rising wealth, an inevitable one. The money has run out, the opportunities for the individual have declined and many people are perhaps waking up to what has gone, and just how much we really rely on each other. Yet, in wishing for old ideas of community to return, we must also be careful not to look down those terraced streets with rose-tinted spectacles.
It is ironic that 150 years ago, so much art and literature was created at the Victorian height of the Industrial Revolution about how horrible urbanisation and industrialisation was, and how it had uprooted and destroyed rural life and created dysfunctional communities in dirty towns and cities.
From Romantic poet William Wordsworth to anti-industrial proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris, and Pre-Raphaelite painters like John Everett Millais, many artists, despite frequently finding their patronage from those who had made their money in expanding industry, lusted after a rural, anti-modern idealism.
But for all its aestheticised harmony and idyll, the reality of life on the land was hard and brutal. Life expectancy was short, it doubled in the UK during the Industrial Revolution, and the idealism of the village masked the serfdom and ignorance that often defined such life. The newly developing industrial settlements eventually formed their own new culture and sense of community which, in time, became as normal as that which it replaced in the countryside.
Now we find that, as they are declining too, many people romanticise industrial communities in a similar way. But for all the Silver Jubilee street parties that were held in now empty roads, there was also often domestic violence, alcoholism, vicious bullying and repression that went on behind the net curtains. The uncomfortable fact is that feelings of community are to an extent always based on the adoption of a form of collective identity and the exclusion of that which is different.
From the Rock and Rollers of the 1950s to the Ravers of the 90s, we should not forget all the brilliant art and human potential that has been unleashed by rebels butting against oppressive ways that rigidly bound people into narrow patterns of behaviour, alienating and often destroying anyone that differed from an oppressive norm. Individualism may have damaged community, but it allowed the potential of people to be who they wanted to be, and we should not forget that. Such liberty was hard-won.
We cannot go back to the way things were. Just as the new ideas of community were formed after the upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, communities in our Post-Industrial age will have new shapes defined by the circumstances of their own time. The ever-expanding rise of the online community alone means that things will never be the same again and, in time, this too may become as normal as the previous ideas of community it replaced.
Community is a two-way thing. We all to an extent feel the need to belong, yet we are all individuals. Too much community can be oppressive, too little leaves us isolated, vulnerable. When a way if life is broken, it is always painful, but it is part of the inevitable shifts of humanity, things go on, new structures are formed, and new ways of living become accepted. Rather than look back and wonder at once was or might have been, today in our ever more connected world, we should see what new communities we can form and perhaps how we can use them to look after each other that little bit more.
This piece appeared in Article magazine’s ‘Broken’ issue in April 2012.