The costs and rewards of island-sized village life



My column from The Irish Times, Saturday, July 20th

We tend to tell ourselves a lot of myths about Ireland and being Irish – it’s the best little country in the world, we basically invented having the craic, if only our weather was like this all the time our problems would be solved, if it wasn’t for our politicians and priests we’d be mighty altogether, that sort of thing.

There are varying levels of truth to all those myths, of course, but there’s one area of Irish life where the myth and the reality are fairly well aligned – the strong and enduring social cohesion that characterises our communities and gives rise to a genuine sense of belonging. It’s something that we can, and do, take real pride in.

That such pride is justified was confirmed once more in a survey by Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation, which rated Ireland 11th out of 35 countries for social cohesion, described as “the level of solidarity exhibited by people living and working in a geographical community”. Only those peskily perfect Scandinavian countries and the likes of the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand came ahead of us, which means we’re keeping pretty good company.

Survey after survey determining levels of national happiness and quality of life have pinpointed the abundance of social capital here as a key ingredient in what makes Ireland such a relatively content country. All those GAA cumainn and golf clubs, all those choral societies and amateur dramatic companies, all those history societies and reading groups, all those Mass-goers and volunteers, and yes, all those conversation-filled pubs – they all contribute to a sense of belonging to a place and having strong bonds with the people who live there.

Part of that, of course, is down to our size – it’s easier to maintain a sense of community and belonging when most people are within only a few degrees of separation from one another. Even Dublin, which is big enough to feel bustling, is barely big enough to get lost in, figuratively or literally.

Social capital, then, is one of the benefits that we all enjoy from living here, but it’s a precious sort of capital that has to be nurtured. Not so long ago, it was all the fashion in policy circles to be anxious about increasing alienation, and Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam seemed to capture the zeitgeist in his seminal book Bowling Alone, published in 1995 – it identified the problem of all those Americans seemingly becoming increasingly disconnected from one another and the social structures around them. Putnam was a firm favourite of that generation of leaders who liked to project a sort of wise paternalism – the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and, who else, Bertie Ahern.

Indeed, Ahern even invited Putnam over to talk to a Fianna Fáil think-in at the height of the Celtic Tiger – our erstwhile taoiseach apparently feared that all the money floating around would prove corrosive to the roots of Irish society, and how right he was, though in the event the corrosion came from the top down rather than the bottom up. In any event, according to the Bertelsmann survey, the recession hasn’t impacted Ireland’s social cohesion too drastically, though there has been a marked decline in levels of trust in Irish institutions, funnily enough.

But social capital is not always a necessarily positive thing. A new paper by a trio of academics, Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtlaender, and Hans-Joachim Voth, takes Putnam’s notion of social capital and maps it to a different context, Germany between the wars. The paper’s title summarises their findings – Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33, and the contents are more than a tad alarming, convincingly demonstrating “that the rise of the Nazi Party in interwar Germany was more rapid where a dense network of civic associations facilitated the spread of its message”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that our abundant social capital is likely to facilitate extremism, but it is worth considering how exactly it is affecting our response to this protracted economic crisis, and more to the point, whether there’s a risk it’s having a negative impact.

In recent years we have been spectacularly supine in the face of lots of egregious behaviour from many of our institutions – does that docility derive in part from our deep sense of social cohesion, which both encourages and depends on consensus-strengthening behaviour? What if those strong community bonds have acted not merely as a bulwark against the worst effects of the downturn, but also as a barrier to necessary reform? Could it be that that our abundant social capital, which manifests in all sorts of communal activities, actually prevents more urgent forms of civic engagement?

We live in an island-sized village, in a lot of ways, with all the benefits and drawbacks that implies, but it’s also true small communities can be resistant to change, even when it’s plainly necessary. Perhaps the time has come to figure out ways to make some long-term returns from our social capital, rather than just enjoying its daily dividends.

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