The Useful Common

Maintaining Status as a Modern Person

By John Veitch - (Written in 1997, life moves on.)

AtomWhat are the characteristics of the modern world? The key word in many conversations is "globalisation." That is the impact of the global free market, the effect of satellite television, the reduced cost of telecommunication and world wide travel, the impact of computer technology, and even more recently the spread of the Internet. These external forces create social, political and economic change. It must affect your life. The evidence of that is seen in local discontinuity. For instance; a large secure company suddenly goes bankrupt. Policies and procedures that were designed to help people or businesses are seen to be ineffective. A well trained and active person finds that the job market dries up. Everyone is being forced to rethink their place in society and to find a way to be productive in the globalised world. The forces driving these changes are external. There is no way any of us can avoid the winds of change. How those winds blow over your personal life is not in your control. If the economic tornado is in your district, it takes all in it's path. The most local discontinuity is the one that gets you, be it unemployment, an accident or the loss of personal assets. Perhaps the loss that is most destructive is loss of status as a modern person. If those about you recognise you as a modern person your chances of re-establishing yourself are excellent. If you are recognised as a modern person by your peers, you are not isolated, you are still a member, and you can still be "in the game". No personal disaster is finally life defeating so long as you can sustain your membership of the community.

The "useful common" is what I call the real safety net a community provides for it's citizens. I suspect that the "useful common" has severely contracted in the past 12 years. That may be no bad thing in the long run. The idea that government can provide the useful common is misguided, it takes a whole community. The payment of weekly social welfare benefits is a necessary but inadequate safety net to protect the community membership of individuals. The debate about the welfare system is misguided because the ability to sustain one's membership is not considered as an issue. Food, clothing, housing and health care are debated as issues, but membership is neglected. Yet the most important "need" identified by Abraham Maslow after survival needs were met, was the need to belong; connection with significant others. Beyond social welfare payments the community needs to offer a "useful common" to the disadvantaged, to all those who's "membership" of the community of modern people is threatened. People need not only the means to live, but if they are to be successful members they need to live the life of a modern person.

When your life plans are falling apart, when one is uncertain about personal relationships or future employment, or how your sickness or injury will affect your life, what can you rely on? The first thing to rely on is your own skill and ability, but when you begin to doubt yourself, your value and your skills, you are likely to need support from other sources. Family and friends are the next line of defence, but often this support group is itself dysfunctional and under pressure. A solo parent, unemployed person, someone suffering illness or addiction is likely to lead a life that is excessively isolated. This isolation has nothing to do with social welfare itself, it's a problem of how people choose to live their lives, and the life opportunities offered within the community. A defence against isolation may be excessive smoking, drinking, spending sprees, partying, lying in bed or depression. Many of the observed  "irrational or neglectful behaviours" that are said to be characteristic of the beneficiary are likely in my view to be signals pointing to excessive isolation. So it may be true that to be on a social welfare benefit is for many people a process of entrapment, or at least of reinforcing a pre-existing entrapment. First they are trapped by previous life history, and the current crisis, by the time they qualify for welfare assistance they may be more or less alone. If the process of being on welfare contributes to isolation that encourages a cycle where previous connections with the wider community slowly expire. It will become less and less possible to have a real life. Life such as it is becomes the drudgery of just getting from week to week.

This is not an argument against the payment of benefits. It's an argument for more than just a benefit, for recognition of the need for membership. I've been reading comment on the social changes occurring in Europe. I see they are very concerned about "processes that exclude people" from the workforce or from education and training opportunities. I understand that concern. Anyone who loses connection with what it means to be a modern person loses the ability to function as a full citizen in the community. They lose the ability to communicate, they are not heard because of their low status, they are not seen as prospective employees, or as valuable members in a local club. Viewed in this way, many children, many elderly people, many of the people we label as criminals, also need the resources that a useful common should contain. Membership demands that the individual understands the importance of membership and is willing to qualify as a member. To be a member the individual needs to meet the expectation of the group. The rights of membership are always dependant on one's ability to meet the criteria for membership. I'm not suggesting that "membership" should be free, but I am advocating that the tools necessary to sustain membership should be readily available.

The useful common needs to provide person to person support that can be depended upon, when the future is uncertain. People who need Social Welfare help also have a strong need to establish strong personal contacts with other people in the same situation. Yet in a world where personal information is protected, it's difficult to make contact with other people in a similar situation in an environment where useful information can be communicated. We all need to meet our peers and to interact with them. Those who have more experience of the situation can be enormously helpful to newcomers. Knowing that you are not alone stops you blaming yourself and can be a defence against depression. Meeting places that allow one to share interests and experiences are important. Preferably not after dark in a school playground with a few tinnies and a joint to share. There are social, financial and legal barriers that often effectively prevent contact in more socially desirable ways. For people with a short history of disadvantage meeting others may be simple if the individual maintains membership of a sports club or a community club. If the individual is unemployed, depressed, addicted or feeling powerless taking on an active and demanding role as a member of a club may be a part of the critical path to a better life. If a person is too disconnected to join in this way, access to support groups sponsored by helping agencies may be valuable. Talking to a gatekeeper is not a substitute for meeting the group. Person to person interaction within a large group of peers provides quite a different opportunity.

A modern person requires quality information. Access to libraries is useful and in most NZ towns available free. In the modern world, access to the internet will more and more separate those who are members and those who are not. Email access is very low cost, and it could be argued that many of the information needs of the disadvantaged could be met by easy access to email. The useful common needs to provide the capital resources which make the provision of information at low cost possible. It takes time to learn new skills and to develop new understandings. You can't change a life in three weeks, it may well take three years, probably longer. Information is the vital stuff that makes life-time learning possible. If lifetime learning is desirable, then the idea that access to information can stop at some future time is faulty. A useful common will therefore help people remain connected to quality information flows.

My chief claim is that membership is critical to the ability of individuals to live useful and satisfying lives. Each person will understand that for him or her membership of certain groups is very important, while membership of alternative groups is unimportant. I have labeled the sort of membership I see as desirable. I call it membership of the community of "modern people." In my essay on "The Importance of Membership" I try to define what that might mean. If I am a member of groups that are significant to me, and I am involved in a cycle of group activity, I am likely to be gathering new information and perhaps learning new skills. In addition my network of friends and associates is likely to be increasing. All of the preceding factors will reduce my isolation and improve my options. What else would a really useful common include? That is a question we all need to consider. Peter M Senge says "Choice is different from desire...."I want" is passive. "I choose" is active....Choosing is a state of sufficiency - electing to have what we truly want." The useful common I've advocated would be truly useful if it can maintain and build self esteem, and if it can put people in a position where their key choices are between desirable and valuable options. There is more to creating a useful common than providing financial support. There needs to be a plan that offers a genuine prospect for a developing and desirable future. Survival is not enough, people want to flourish. The wider community is enhanced if more individuals find ways to flourish. The most damaging effect of loss of membership is isolation from other people who can help give you a more realistic perspective on the world. The quality of the options I may choose from improves as the person I am becoming develops, and as my peer group becomes better developed. A useful common will provide tools with which people can take up the challenge of creating their lives. A cash hand out may ensure you survive, but a useful common would give you a chance to live. end

Copyright John Veitch, 1997 - Your personal response is appreciated