Alone together? Cultivating social solidarity in the year ahead

Battle of Ideas festival 2011, Sunday 30 October, Royal College of Art, London


One thing the riots this summer revealed is that in recent years there has been an implosion of community life in much of Britain. Many urban youth seem to have so little commitment to the neighbourhoods they live in that they are prepared to trash them. While the riots may be an extreme example, the broader dearth of solidarity is not confined to British teenagers. Throughout the Western world, policy-makers and social critics are increasingly concerned about social fragmentation, individuation, and a ‘look the other way’ culture. While commentators variously blame government cuts and neoliberal greed or street gangs and poor parenting for destroying social bonds, there seems to be a deeper problem that is barely addressed. The erosion of basic ties of solidarity between parents and other adults, between the generations, and across cultural groups, suggests a diminished sense of society per se, and a loss of agreement about where authority lies. Explanations focusing on individual behaviour and those pointing to impersonal economic forces seem equally inadequate in accounting for what amounts to a crisis of meaning. Arguably this trend has been accelerated by decades of misguided government interventions meant to alleviate or compensate for social fragmentation, from divisive multicultural policies and short-termist welfare programmes to over-zealous child protection schemes that institutionalise distrust.

The historic context is surely the demise of more organic social bonds, from churches to trades unions, and the associated political ideals. Indeed, collective political action seems a distant memory. While some talk up relatively feeble examples of political activity, from sporadic student gatherings to marches against the cuts, critics contend that in the absence of a much more coherent and persuasive vision for social change, this is little more than wishful thinking. There is little evidence of an upsurge of people coming together seriously to confront the economic and social problems we face, and candidly debate the barriers to social solidarity.

Even calls for us to come together for the sake of the greater good (such as David Cameron’s Big Society) implicitly assume we must put aside self-interest in favour of abstract community cohesion (‘we’re all in it together’), rather than making genuinely common cause on the basis of shared interests that might involve changing society. Artificial schemes for community service, compulsory volunteering, even supervised networking can make matters worse. What could be more corrosive to spontaneous social bonds than collective schemes supervised from on high by the state and its agencies? So how do we distinguish between sham solidarity and the real thing? Can we develop a real stake in our own communities, and look to each other – rather than the state – to solve the problems we face? How can we cultivate a more powerful sense of solidarity?

Professor Frank Furedi

sociologist and social commentator; author, What’s Happened to the University?, Power of Reading: from Socrates to Twitter, On Tolerance and Authority: a sociological history

Claire Fox

director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive