None of us is an individual fully independent of other people. Once our basic needs for food, clothing and shelter are met, the main thrust of human desire is towards membership of a significant social group. When we are young, membership of the family is all that's critical to us, but as we go to school and later to work the membership of peer groups and many organisations becomes critical to our ability to provide food clothing and shelter for ourselves, and to sustain our self esteem. We depend on the feedback we get from other people to maintain our self image. If we become isolated it's more likely that our self view and our understanding of the community will drift more and more towards paranoid and unrealistic thinking. Self image is likely to become more unstable. Depression and anomie may be the result.
People can lose vital social memberships for many reasons. The businessman who is working 100 hours a week has no time for family and community effort. Little wonder then that a marriage may fail, that children may rebel, and that one's opinion about what's important may be misguided. Or a young wife with children living in a new suburban home may be isolated from her mother, from other young women of her own age, and she may feel trapped with the children and neglected by her "hard working" husband. Loss of effective membership can lead to loss of hope, to the inability to set goals and objectives, to the collapse of self esteem and the confidence that people need to begin and complete important tasks. Any of us can become depressed and unable to effectively contribute to family, business or community if our "membership" lapses. It's difficult to be effective when your financial, social and emotional bases are unstable.
The first step towards a real life for someone in danger of losing membership is to stop the downward spiral. It's said of alcoholics and other addicted people that there is no recovery until the individual hits rock bottom. That's not strictly true. The individual needs to understand what is happening, to see it as undesirable and want to do something about it. A person hell-bent on self destruction is not ready. The process of self maintenance involves knowing how to choose and prepare food, how to maintain personal hygiene, how to maintain clothing and possessions, how to maintain a living space, how to keep physically fit, and how to reduce the money cost of daily living. That's a long and yet incomplete list of essential life skills. If doing things of this nature are a problem then the individual cannot train for employment, be an effective club member or a valued employee. To survive disaffiliation as a person you need to put time and effort into your own self development, to put time into personal relationships, to put some space between yourself and that string of unrewarded efforts. Colin Rose quoted in "The Learning Revolution" says "Of all the things thrown up by our research, probably the most vital is this: our self image is the most important thing in determining whether we are good learners - or, frankly whether we are good at anything else" (page 281). We can see then that building and developing self esteem is going to be both difficult and important if your affiliation links are weak. It would be helpful to do work, even as a volunteer, within a club or community group, to do something that is useful and appreciated by others. The drive to sustain membership must come initially from the individual. No form of welfare can supply the incentive to live that each person must bring to the situation. The useful common should provide intensive care for those who no longer see any point in being a member of the community.
With unemployment people who lack the social contacts that going to work might give one, are also deprived of cash income, and lose the ability to sustain the membership affiliations that most people assume are given to each of us. Affiliation can be lost because other people no longer recognise your "membership" but you can also lose your affiliation because your own self esteem has fallen so low that you suffer from self disqualification. Your membership of significant groups can lapse because you can no longer sustain the effort of keeping in contact. It may merely be that your "successful" family members keep asking "where are your working now?" If your unemployment has lasted a long time, you may withdraw from group activity just to avoid the pain of such questions.
The loss of work causes increased tension and difficulty in personal and family relationships; there is less money, but you have to do more. Jobs are often won by those who have better personal networks, but it's difficult to maintain your networks if you are out of circulation. People who lose jobs need to join more, to be more active in the community, to give more time in clubs and organisations. If cash income is cut to the bone that is not possible. The longer people are unemployed the weaker their social networks become and the less chance they have of knowing people in employment who might be close to the new jobs that are available. Personal contact with other people is important for the unemployed. In NZ the Employment Service and the Department of Social Welfare do not seem to recognise or encouraged the need for social contact with others. Rather, isolation is enforced, partly by the short sighted application of a rule that guarantees customer confidentiality. It becomes difficult for some unemployed to provide mutual help for other unemployed people because the government departments that are "helping" refuse to identify their clients. One's unemployment can be kept a secret.
I call the "Useful Common" the ready availability of facilities to help those in danger of losing their effective membership, those who are struggling to maintain their self esteem and their social links in the community. This term raises the image of the medieval common land that was used by the peasants to grow crops and to run a few animals so that they could feed and support themselves. What might be available as a useful common to people in todays world is the topic discussed in "The Development of a Useful Common".
In Europe they are talking about each person taking responsibility for developing their own inventory of skills and knowledge. This may begin as simple as access to training, but in most cases the need for quality information goes far beyond what any training provider can offer. There may be a need for assistance in choosing new skills and directions. The sort of quality information that I need may be complex and detailed medical knowledge, so that I can learn how to heal myself, or just so I can understand what the problem is. Or I may need to build a network of contacts to people with a particular skill or interest. That network may provide a base for some future productive activity. I may need to learn a skill someone else can teach me; like learning to read. Or I may need to learn a new skill on the leading edge of technical and social development where there are few teachers and nothing in the way of planned training.
The inability of politicians and businessmen to appreciate the needs of the disaffiliated makes people angry. "When is the dominant society going to hear what the displaced people in our society are saying?" asked a social worker at a consultative meeting with the Prime Ministerial Task Force on Employment (NZ during 1993-1994). "How do the people I know get a chance to stand tall to be a proud part of the community?" She went on about going through the exercise of making reports and talking to officials on previous occasions, but not being heard. Worst than that, of being politely listened to and then completely ignored. Many of the unemployed and under employed are very angry. This anger is repressed. People blame themselves, what they want more than anything else is to become again part of the mainstream. If you are seen as angry and disenchanted your prospects of joining the mainstream are minimized. People are angry but they hide it. From nowhere that anger can erupt into acting out that is very destructive. Does it take a riot in the streets with thousands of dollars worth of damage, fires, people injured or killed to make the point? History tells us that communication between social classes is always problematic. The elite group that has permanent work and status, live in a different world from those who are only offered part time work and casual jobs, low pay and no status, or no work at all. The elite group have choices, but the others are denied effective options. If people are shut out of the mainstream they seek peers elsewhere. So people dispossessed but not yet fully defeated join with like-minded others in self help groups. The dominant society labels these groups as gangs, drug rings, criminal conspiracies, protest groups, activists, communists, environmentalists, fundamentalist, or militants. If the group is quiet and ineffective it can be safely ignored, it doesn't need to be labelled.
There was never a time when everyone could feel connected to the dominant society. What is different today is that the middle class is shrinking, that people with good education and high aspiration and the ability to contribute are being excluded from the mainstream. The reaction of the government as spokesman for the mainstream is to blame the individuals who's affiliation is lapsing. If your service club was losing membership you wouldn't threaten the existing members with expulsion, you'd look to see why the club wasn't meeting the needs of it's members. Imagine the government are the executive of the community club and too many people are resigning their membership. Blaming the members is not good leadership response. Unfortunately such narrow thinking is typical of the poor quality leadership displayed in NZ politics and in much business management. Those who have firm roots in the community can't imagine loss of membership. For them membership is a birthright, it's something that can't be denied. But is it? You can lose your community membership in an instant. Any one of us could be in a car accident and be left with a head injury. Or you be so ill that essential business of personal survival demands all your attention. To cope with that you are forced to withdraw from the mainstream. When you feel you have no value and other people seem to confirm your self view, what is your membership status?
Economists have assumed that everything can be contracted out, produced by a firms in a competitive environment, and that cash flows measure real value. You can't buy membership. You may pay the membership fee, but to be a member you need to be recognised as a peer by others. Most often the real cost of membership is measured by what you do with your time as a volunteer. If you have a football club with volunteer coaches, and a decision is made to employ professional coaches, what is likely to happen? There's no way to tell if the coaching will be better or worse. But one can be reasonably sure that commitment to the club will decline, that over time the means to employ the coaches will shrink, and the club will need to revisit the decision. There is a social dimension to successful clubs that can not be supplied by professional staff, and cannot be purchased at any price.
Many of the problems faced by families are caused by the simple fact that people are so busy working, or playing or doing "things" that there is no effort being invested in maintaining stability and strong relationships within the family. We can point to marriage breakdowns as evidence. Look also at children who misbehave in school and at home, at teenage suicide and at juvenile crime. To what extent are these problems intensified by the insecurity of membership within the family? There are some things that you can't buy. A secure place in a family that loves and nurtures you and provides for your needs is one of those things. If too many of the things people do in a family are "contracted out" the relationships between members change in fundamental ways. The family will break down. Don't we see the evidence of that almost everywhere? The strength of the family depends on how much time people spend together, and on the things they willingly to do for each other. The effect of both parents working, of buying more meals, and child care, and cleaning services, may be taking too much voluntary effort out of the home may be causing an erosion of the essential key to family life, time spent doing things for each other.
The unemployed tend to lose membership of not only their work group, but also of social and community groups. They lose the ability even to do the voluntary work. Membership is critical to self esteem and to the ability to play an active role in the world. I suggest that the general membership class that everyone might aspire to, is to be recognised as a "modern person". What might that mean? Let me develop a short list of knowledge and skills.
Of course such a list invites debate, and that may cause us to lose sight of the objective. If a person is recognised by other New Zealander's as "a modern person" he or she will be more able to find employment, to play a valuable role in clubs and organisations, and is more likely to be heard when expressing an opinion. A "modern person" is able to contribute. Those who lose status as "modern people" are likely to be excluded. It should also be said that being a "modern person" is not a single standard, the expectation will change according to age, educational status, responsibilities and locality.
Copyright - John Veitch, 1996 - Your personal response is appreciated