The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits



New York: Basic Books (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.). 1995. Hardcover. 194 pp. ISBN: 0-465-09125-3.

Reviewed by Ellen E. Wasserman, Consultant
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A communitarian by conviction and contrarian by nature, John McKnight uses both probe lights in this collection of essays to examine how America has become “so dispirited.” His conclusion? People are right to point to the burgeoning professional class. We know we are in trouble when we seek the approval of those who have commodified and packaged the emotions of normal human passages, such as grief, and referred them for specialized “treatment” by “experts.” In so doing, we become less and less able to form the mutual commitments that are the roots of community. The professionalization of our relationships gnaws away at the emotional ligatures that bind communities together and, as community is disabled at the local level, so is the hope for a nation of spirited people.

How, according to McKnight, does this happen? Services to assist the poor transform citizens into professional “clients” and engender impotence– psychological and social. The worst emasculators are those that pose as community counterfeits: the human service, criminal justice, and medical systems. These are especially pernicious, in his view, because they undermine a community’s confidence in its ability to address its own problems, all the while masquerading as its more knowledgeable substitutes. They spawn a “serviced society” whose culture feeds on management in lieu of community, commodities in lieu of care, and curricula where the oral wisdom of stories once nurtured the next generation’s survival.

The worst “institutional invader” of community life, as far as McKnight is concerned, is the medicalized health “care industry,” whose very name reveals it as a social oxymoron. Furthermore, the mystification of the medical field has given it so much power that its language and ideology– labeling a person’s “needs” and offering specialized “therapy”– have been adopted throughout the service sector, which is a service-producing economy, yet he seems as dispirited as most when it comes to how individuals and communities can address that. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the globalization of the economy and its increasing social and economic stratification. Yet one finds oneself hoping that so lucid a critic would have some guiding insights. Maybe this is too much to ask. Perhaps it is a symptom of the very malady he is talking about. After all, it is not just the poor who are anesthetized by professionalism. The service sector’s growth (to 90 percent of the workforce by the year 2000) means that, until we retire, we all participate– as servers and as the clients who serve to keep the servers in business– in an alienating game of musical chairs.

For those who would like to know how to engage in community building at home, McKnight suggested in an interview that we look into the Movement for a Living Wage and some of the trade unions (such as AFSCME and the SEIU) that are taking the lead in the struggle to obtain adequate incomes. Income is income, he notes, and cannot be siphoned off or tailored according to race and location, as are many services.

How might McKnight’s book apply to “development” work? We developers don the “expert” label and are foreign experts to boot. Our macro “clients” tend to be entire nations or regions of nations. Even those of us who flinch at many of the notions underlying such roles know that we must maintain our voices of authority– even as we espouse the sanctity of local community– or what? Is the only authentic alternative to quit and go live among those whose lot we are paid to think we are improving?

It may be the kind of revisionism McKnight abhors, but it seems that at a minimum we could design our projects and analyze policies to strengthen rather than obstruct local community. At first glance, that may make sense; we will be considering strengthening NGOs, for instance, and since that emphasis has been in vogue since the Reagan years, cannot we sit back and breathe more easily?

But are NGOs necessarily more authentic representatives of the communities in which they work? Do they promote a shared and consistent charter of human rights, income distribution, and local participatory democracy? Do the communities from which they spring? Policies that enhance civil society, democratization, and the improvement of the quality of life should be furthered; those that do not should be scuttled. Nothing novel here. But how often do we review our projects explicitly with this in mind? And even if we do, does that make us truer to local communities? Or are we crashing against long-held “community” values as we select and strengthen some of its players?

It could all boil down to what we mean by community. Existing “community” may throttle the creativity, health, and human rights– as we see them– of women, indigenous populations, vast numbers of children, most of the poorer classes. In that sense, development work deliberately subverts some community authority, the way campaigns against domestic violence and discrimination against immigrants do that at home. Do the language and concerns about sustainability and local participation cover these contingencies? Where does sustainability of a health project intersect with the sustainability of the community it serves? And how does that community’s sustainability intersect with the sustainability of the larger community or culture? When we espouse family planning and the empowerment of women, for one, aren’t we knowingly and exuberantly hoping to alter those very things? And when we invoke “community participation” is that not a tad paternalistic, when “origination” might be more democratic?

There is no such thing as “technical” development work. It is all value-laden. So let’s accept that and take it from there. If we believe that the disruption we cause is ethical, we must believe that we are offering an ethical alternative and do so wholeheartedly, without the pretense of “technical neutrality.”

Are we inherently disrespecting the integrity of the communities whose problems and needs we take it upon ourselves to identify and set out to repair? The mere fact that we do so implies we know something more or better. Do we ultimately benefit from the existence of those we are supposed to be benefiting? Yes. That’s how we earn our livings. And there is no doubt that our language, like that against which McKnight rails, is often laden with turgid bureaucratic prose that would set us apart from and implicitly disqualify those who don’t use it.

What does this mean we should do? When we evaluate our work with open eyes at the end of the day, do we still feel that, on balance, the good outweighs whatever community disruption it unleashes? Have we kept our promises and commitments? Have we done our work in such a way that we have strengthened rather than weakened local capacity, autonomy, well-being, whatever our values are? Have we deliberately considered “their” values in the process? Have we made any difference at all? That, I think, is up to each of us to determine.

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