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Portland State University, March 7, 1995
Robert N. Bellah
I want to frame my argument by contrasting what Lawrence Haworth, in a very interesting 1963 book called The Good City that the authors of The Good Society had the misfortune not to discover until after our book was published, calls the two essential ingredients of a good city (by which he also means a good society and a good world): opportunity and community. Opportunity and community are parallel terms to individualism and commitment, but they help us to see that things we take as opposites belong together at a deeper level. After I have spelled out my general argument I will consider how it plays out in America's cultural conversation today, a conversation that has changed even since I agreed to give this lecture. Opportunity and community are words we often hear in our public discourse, but they may be less clear than we think. We hear a great deal about opportunity in our political rhetoric: America is the land of opportunity; opportunity is what makes America great. Both our political parties speak a great deal about opportunity. We heard at the last Democratic convention about Bill Clinton's humble beginnings in Hope, Arkansas. At a previous Democratic convention we heard about Mario Cuomo's immigrant father running a small grocery story and barely making ends meet. Even George Bush has his version of the same story, however unhumble his beginnings: Bush went out to Texas and made it all on his own. I would not want to discount too readily such stories. They are the stories of millions of Americans of humble background who have made good from the beginnings of our history and they tell us something important about our society.
Opportunity is one of the highest goods a modern society can offer. It is almost always individual opportunity that is implied: we are the land of individual freedom, and I for one would not wish it otherwise. Opportunity is the possibility of making something of ourselves, of freely choosing our occupation, our mate, if we choose to have one, our place of residence and work, our church or synagogue and many other things. It is part of the richness of our culture and our national life. And if there are individuals or groups denied opportunity in any of these forms it is a sign of the failure of our society.
But, says Haworth, opportunity is only possible in a modern society if it is balanced by community. He gives to community a rather special meaning, one close to that of the authors of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society, that I want to spell out further in a minute. But first I think it may be helpful to discuss some of the things neither Haworth nor I mean by community, one of the most frequently used terms in our current socio-political vocabulary.
The authors of Habits of the Heart and The Good Society are often classified today as communitarians in the argument going on in social philosophy between communitarians and liberals. At the beginning of The Good Society we indicated rather strong reservations about some usages of the term community and said that we would most often use the word institution instead. Perhaps that is why The Good Society has turned out to be less popular than Habits! The word community makes people feel good; the word institution makes people's eyes glaze over.
The word community is a good word and I shall continue to use it, although it needs careful definition, something we attempted in Habits of the Heart, but which many people did not understand. My main problem with the word is that it is frequently used to mean small-scale, face-to-face groups like the family, the congregation and the small town, what the Germans call Gemeinschaft. There is a long tradition of extolling this kind of community in America but, when that is all that community means, it is basically sentimental and in the strict sense of the word nostalgic. I agree with Christopher Lasch in his analysis of nostalgia that it is a psychological placebo that allows the nostalgic person to accept regretfully but uncritically whatever is currently being served up in the name of progress. It inhibits serious social criticism rather than serves it.
I want to use the term community in a way that I hope avoids such nostalgic implications. Those philosophical liberals who tend to reject the term community altogether see society as based on a social contract establishing procedures of fairness but otherwise leaving individuals free to serve their own interests, that is to pursue their autonomous opportunities. They argue that, under modern conditions, if we think of community as based on shared values and shared goals, community can exist only in small groups and is not possible or desirable in large-scale societies or institutions.
But it is possible to see this contrast as a continuum or even as a necessary complementarity rather than an either/or choice. I certainly think that procedural norms of fairness are necessary in large-scale social institutions, but I also believe that any group of any size, if it has any breadth of involvement and lasts any length of time, must have some shared values and goals. In this sense I think societies and institutions can never be simply based on contract that maximizes the opportunities of individuals but must also be to some extent communities with shared values and goals.
But there is a problem about the meaning of shared values and goals. Those who think of community nostalgically, as a form of Gemeinschaft, as well as their liberal critics, tend to think consensus about values and goals must be complete or nearly complete, must be unarguable.
In my understanding of community shared values and goals do imply something more than procedural agreement, they do imply some agreements about substance, but they do not require anything like total or unarguable agreement. My idea of a good community is one in which there is argument, even conflict, about the meaning of the shared values and goals, and certainly about how they will be actualized in everyday life. Community as I see it is a form of intelligent, reflective life, in which there is indeed consensus, but where the consensus can be challenged and changes, often gradually, sometimes radically, over time.
Now what makes any kind of group a community and not just a contractual association for the maximization of the interests of the individuals involved, is a shared concern with the question what will make this group a good group. Any institution, such as a university, a city or a society, insofar as it is or seeks to be a community needs to ask what is a good university, city, society, etc. So far as it reaches agreement about the good it is supposed to realize (and that will always be contested and open to further debate), it becomes a community with some common values but also common goals. For no existing community is likely to be in any complete sense a good community and the effort to define a good one also entails the goal of trying to create a good one, or, more modestly and realistically, a better one than the one we have.
Let me illustrate my point by talking for a bit, as Haworth does, about the city as a community, a subject made vivid for me by Bill Moyers' two programs on The Good Society in the summer of 1992 where he and his team decided to choose two cities to illustrate the themes of our book: Atlanta and Los Angeles. Now Atlanta and Los Angeles could not at the moment be called communities. In the nostalgic meaning of the term they could never be communities--they are too big, too diverse, too fragmented. But in the sense that they could be good cities with shared values and goals, and now are not, they could indeed be communities.
I wish I could pull down a screen and show you a few clips from those programs. The Atlanta program begins with the euphoric moment when it was announced that Atlanta had been chosen for the 1996 Olympic Games. We then get booster shots of the gleaming skyscrapers, the busy shopping malls, the wealthy suburbs with their trees and lawns that define the capital of the New South, the "city too busy to hate."
But very quickly the camera pans, with the skyscrapers still in sight, to close-ups of housing projects, streets of misery and decay, ambulances screaming to pick up victims of shootings or drug overdose. We learn abruptly that there are two Atlantas, that there is not much community between them, and that for at least half of Atlanta, Atlanta is not a good city at all.
Yet even that is far from the whole story. We are introduced to a woman who has been elected president of the tenants association in the oldest public housing project in the United States, and we find in this black single-parent mother not only remarkable intelligence and energy but hope. Through the initiative of the parents' association a number of excellent programs for the children of the project have been started and have proved themselves effective. And, with the help of some of those close to the city's power structure, the tenants are ready to cooperate with a renewal program which will improve their project in ways that they have a say in, indeed largely because the project is so close to the site of the Olympics that the city would be embarrassed not to do otherwise.
In the closing segment Moyers interviews Jimmy Carter, whose Atlanta Project is an effort to bridge the two cities and bring the resources and skills needed to help those in greatest need to experience a fuller life, always with the proviso that it be those in need who define the terms of the partnerships. Jimmy Carter's profound hope that the two Atlantas can become one Atlanta, a good Atlanta, illustrates what I would mean by a city as a community. But the program leaves us in no doubt that the obstacles are enormous and that we can expect only incremental success for the time being.
The Los Angeles program is in a way more overwhelming, with the results of the riots of the previous spring very much in the foreground and their consequences for Koreans, African Americans and Hispanics all too painfully displayed. But here too in each ethnic community, and I use the term here as neutral description as it has come to be used in the press, there are displayed signs of real community, of people trying to help others to put their lives back together and lead a more fulfilling life, and also signs of reaching out to other communities, seeing the city as something that must serve all its inhabitants. Initiatives from the white power structure are less evident in this program and I suspect less evident in reality in Los Angeles than in Atlanta. Yet the problem, the need for community, its overwhelming absence, but the presence of some capacity to think about achieving it, is vivid in both cities.
American cities are excellent metaphors for our world as a whole. Within them we can see pockets of first world affluence, professional competence, institutions that work. But we can also see pockets of third world poverty, despair and institutional collapse. As with our cities so with our nation. We are no longer a city on a hill as John Winthrop put it, much less a shining city on a hill as Ronald Reagan put it. We illustrate the human condition of the whole globe in 1995. Do we have a national community? Yes and no. I believe we have some shared values and goals, though there is enormous conflict over what they are and what they mean. But a good society we are not. And just as we are not likely to have good cities without a good nation, on the other hand we are not likely to have a good nation except in a good world. The world as a community! Biologically, economically, politically, socially, culturally! We are not very near it, yet that is our project, and the price of failure will be very high, is already very high. Thinking about the biosphere as a community, something many people are doing and all of us had better begin to do, makes respectable again the value of thinking about wholes as organic entities in which everything is connected to everything else. Integration and coherence are on the agenda from the largest scale to the smallest.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me return to the question of opportunity, and the relation between opportunity and community. Those who imagine that we can focus on opportunity virtually alone, allowing individuals to make whatever arrangements they please to fulfill their choices, overlook much about social reality. They forget that institutions (that intimidating word again), which are the specific expressions of community, are necessary even to create the kind of person who can respond to real opportunity. This is most obvious in relation to education. As Haworth puts it:
In this case the educational institution is an instance of community, in that it has shared values and goals and the capacity to shape its members in terms of those values and goals. But, Haworth argues, the same logic that holds in education holds also in all the city's institutions:
Of course both Haworth and I presume that it is an open question whether any particular set of institutions is a good instantiation of community--that is always debatable and even good institutions can be made better. The point is that institutions (and therefore community) and opportunity go hand in hand. If we look at some of our cities today, including Atlanta and Los Angeles, we will have to say that the existing institutions are in sad repair, that therefore community is weak, more a hope than a reality, and, finally, except for the well-favored, opportunity is very problematic. Neither the discipline that good institutions would bring nor the opportunity that discipline makes possible are very evident.
I would like to situate our present difficulties in the context in which "it's the economy, stupid" seems to have a continuing validity. One of the more interesting features of this last quarter of the twentieth century is the return of classical economics as an almost messianic answer to all our difficulties. Well before the fall of European Communism, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and their imitators on the continent and in the third world held out a vision of market economics leading to a capitalist utopia, a vision only confirmed by the collapse of so-called real existing socialism. Yet in spite of the unleashing of the free market, both Europe and Japan have entered a period of protracted economic difficulty and the United States is only uncertainly beginning to emerge from one.
Anyone with a sense of history must see the reemergence of self-confident free market economics with a sense of deja vu. How many times in the last two hundred years have we heard that music? How many times have we seen the international economy collapse into itself, often producing wars, and requiring Herculean governmental intervention to get things started again. And after two hundred years we find the classic problems of capitalism as menacing as ever: widespread poverty amidst affluence; growing technological unemployment; more people working more hours than ever in spite of revolutionary "labor-saving" technological advance; and the threat of a crisis of overproduction as the competitive pressure to lower wages dries up the purchasing power of the working population. We must see a certain irony in the words of those who, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, spoke of the triumph of capitalism. Socialism is not the answer; a modern society requires a market economy. That much is clear. But the problems of capitalism that called forth the socialist critique in the first place are as urgent as ever.
The experience of the last two hundred years has taught us a few things, though we tend recurrently to forget them: that the market mechanism is marvelous at some things, terrible at others; that the market economy is enormously creative but enormously destructive; that the market economy generates a power that can be compared to atomic energy: without the proper safeguards it destroys everything it touches. Above all, we have learned, or ought to have learned, that the market economy must be surrounded by other institutions that do the things the market economy cannot do, or even the market economy itself will not function. The most obvious of those surrounding institutions is government. While classical economists tended to see government as antithetical to the market and such a view still permeates our common sense in America, the fact is that the market and the administrative state have grown in tandem everywhere that capitalism has gotten a foothold. In fact capitalism needs the state to provide the infrastructure of highways, water supply, electronic communication, without which business could not operate. It needs a legal system that will see that contracts are enforced. It needs police and military institutions that will provide internal and external security.
At the same time society needs the state to protect itself against the instabilities generated by capitalism, such things as unemployment insurance, social security, and, in most advanced societies, universal health care. Society has also required the state to intervene directly in the functioning of the economy as the complexities of economic life have grown too great for corporations or any combination of them to handle alone. International trade, for example, requires vigorous government supervision if it is not to destabilize whole industries and even whole societies. NAFTA and GATT are instances of agreements that only governments could make but that are vital to the economic health of modern societies.
But governments are not the only institutions required to provide a stable environment within which markets can function without creating social chaos. We have heard much of late about "civil society," an intellectually sophisticated term for what most people would call community. Even though the concept of civil society is used in a great many different ways it often refers to that part of society which is not directly involved in either the market or the state. On the one hand civil society includes the large sphere of private life: family, friends, recreational associations, and so forth. On the other it includes many institutions that are public but not governmental. I would include religious institutions here, although they are often thought of as private, because most religious institutions are not only open to all who choose to come but often act vigorously, and legitimately unless they become coercive, in the public sphere. But in view of the sponsors of this talk I want to stress particularly those institutions of civil society that we call nonprofits. They do many things that are socially necessary but that the market economy cannot do because they do not produce a profit. Most of the things nonprofits do could be done by government but we have learned that nonprofits can do them more effectively and at less expense than government. Nor are the boundaries watertight. Nonprofits are funded in part by corporate gifts, in part by government grants, and in part by private giving of both time and money. The University of California as a quasi-autonomous state institution could be seen as a kind of nonprofit. It is governed not by the legislature directly but by its own board of regents and funded only partly by the state of California: a larger part of our budget is supplied by federal grants and private giving than by the state. All universities are in this situation so that the distinction between public and private higher education is relative at best.
Nonprofits are not directly part of the market economy or the state but they are certainly affected by developments in those powerful sectors of society. A time of social stringency does not just affect economic institutions, it affects all institutions. Take for example what we now call downsizing, or if we prefer a more charming euphemism, rightsizing. In a time of social stringency one critically important way of making our economic institutions more competitive is by cutting labor costs. Cutting labor costs can be accomplished by eliminating jobs, reducing salaries, or both. Beginning in the later years of the eighties we saw an increasing mania for downsizing, one that shows no signs of abating. All one needs to do is look at the business section of any metropolitan newspaper to see what new companies have announced cuts in the number of employees. Last month as I was working on this talk I read that the airlines are cutting the commission of travel agents, which will likely cost the jobs of tens of thousands of people. Since the mid-eighties the Fortune 500 companies have cut three and a half million jobs. But it is not only the Fortune 500 that are eliminating jobs. In an atmosphere of social stringency so are nonprofits. I don't know the statistical prevalence of such downsizing among nonprofits but I know sufficient instances of it to make me feel it is widespread. In my university we had three rounds of early retirement offers, the latest one in 1994. Early retirement is a relatively benign way of downsizing, and the university indicates that the downsizing is only temporary. If the positions vacated now are not refilled they will be eventually. So we hope. In the meantime the students face larger classes and fewer professors to go with their sharply increased fees.
One feature of downsizing that the university shares with the private economy is that it affects older employees more than younger ones. A recent American Management Association study showed that 54.6 percent of jobs cut by some 400 companies in the year ending in June 1993 were in supervisory, middle management and professional/technical positions. Many of these are in the over fifty age category. Older employees are targeted because of their higher salaries: eliminating their jobs saves more money. And when we look at people over fifty seeking employment we find a disproportionate number of them in the category of "involuntary" part-time workers, that is they would have preferred full-time jobs, and also a disproportionate number of them in the "discouraged" category of those who have given up looking, and thus are not counted in unemployment statistics. You might discount my concern because I am obviously an advanced member of this age group, even though I am among the few of my age to resist the golden handshake, but I think the case can be made that a society that cashiers a significant percentage of it best educated and most skilled workers when they reach the older age bracket is undermining the morale of all age groups.
But the deeper penalties inflicted by a time of social stringency go beyond the pains of downsizing, harsh though those are. They force a change in the very atmosphere of the workplace. I think it is instructive to look at what has happened to the professions in the last decade or two. I want to take here as my examples the two classic professions--we once called them learned professions--law and medicine. Speedup is a term originally applied to workers on the factory floor; it now applies to doctors and lawyers. It was only a few years ago that Kaiser told its specialists that the time they were expected to spend with an individual patient was two minutes. At that point several Kaiser doctors that I had consulted over the years decided to take early retirement and I left the Kaiser Health Plan. I went to an HMO, and although I felt I was better treated I learned that the doctors were not. Quite recently HMOs have begun to use what is called capitation: the doctor is paid so much per patient head, regardless of how much time the patient takes. Capitation at around twelve dollars a head per month forces doctors to take a great many patients in order to make ends meet. The doctor can only hope that a large percentage of the patients are young and healthy. But the result is long hours at work, followed by long hours filling out forms.
Law firms, like HMOs, have adopted the lean and mean strategy of corporate America. In one large Los Angeles law firm forty clerical employees, some who had been with the firm for as long as thirty years, were told to leave by the end of the day. When one partner objected to the inhumane way in which the staff persons were fired he was told that business advisors had said that was how it had to be done. But it is not only clerical staff who are cut these days: associates have been laid off in large numbers (and fewer hired) and even partners have been dismissed (and fewer associates made partners). Since the work for many firms has not diminished what does this mean? We will not be surprised to hear that in the last 15 years the number of billable hours expected of lawyers has doubled to a new average of between 2000 and 2500 hours per year. Fifty percent of all lawyers in private practice now work 2400 hours a year or more.
Given these facts it is not surprising to learn that both doctors and lawyers are reporting more and more unhappiness with their work. The pressure of social stringency operates to deprive work of its intrinsic meaning and value and reduce it to a means to external ends, which increasingly become economic survival. Of course much human work has always been little more than a means to the end of economic survival, but it was traditionally one of the advantages of the learned professions that the work was a good in itself. If the pressures of social stringency are impinging more and more on the corporate economy and the professions, how can the nonprofits escape such pressures? The answer clearly is that they cannot.
One obvious focus of concern is the shibboleth of productivity. No one can in principle be opposed to improved productivity. But we have just seen in the cases of law and medicine that a single-minded focus on productivity can undermine the very purpose and quality of the work in question. For nonprofits there is an additional difficultly. How do you measure productivity? I am reminded of Brian O'Connell at the Independent Sector who once told me that business members of boards of nonprofits were often horrified by the chaotic bookkeeping of the organization and concerned that there was a great deal of wasted time and money. But, he said, when they actually went in to look at how the nonprofits operated they found, after the initial shock of apparent disorganization, that a relatively few people were accomplishing a very great deal, though much of it was very hard to measure.
Even though the problems I have been discussing have been with us for quite some time, the terms of the conversation seem to have grown progressively narrower. We have been told with increasing intensity since the elections of last fall that government is the cause of our manifest and multiple difficulties and that if government can be curtailed, limited and in significant part eliminated, the structure of economic opportunity will lead to the solution of all our problems. Regardless of party there is a belief that our goal should be strong economic growth, enabling everyone to have a middle class standard of living. If we attain that, the common good of society will take care of itself.
This line of thinking has two major problems. If we attained this goal worldwide then we would use up resources at the rate that the American middle class currently does and our time on this planet would be short indeed. But two hundred years of the project of making material affluence our primary goal has created so many profound difficulties that it seems we will destroy ourselves economically, ecologically, and militarily long before it is attained. These are not minor problems, yet no American politician and few foreign ones have the courage to tell the truth about them to their peoples. Here I would like to turn to one of those few, the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who wrote in his recent book Summer Meditations:
Central to what Havel means by coming to our senses involves the way we treat each other. The existential revolution of which he speaks requires in the first instance the capacity to trust, even when trust is very risky. One cannot treat others morally or create a good society without trust, and trust is something every citizen is called to model. Havel calls for:
Is that only the case in the Czech Republic or is that not the case everywhere, and especially in the United States?
What exactly Havel means by "coming to our senses" or undergoing an "existential revolution" would require an exegesis of all his writings, which, even though I have read everything translated in English, I am not prepared to undertake. But I want to pursue one of his constant themes just a bit further here. There is in Havel a concern for Being (with a capital B), as he sometimes puts it "something higher," and as he occasionally but very infrequently puts it God. He believes that without an ultimate value and purpose life doesn't make sense. If I may make the connection with my argument, for Havel the question of Being is always the question of the Good. There is a Platonist background that cannot be denied. The question of the Good in this tradition always leads to the question of the good society, to the question of community.
Such concerns, and my mention of Plato, might lead one to think of Havel as a utopian, yet Havel is aware that utopianism has led to the worst of human evils. In Summer Meditations he answers the charge explicitly:
It is clear that Havel is working not for a perfect world but for one a little better, a little less suicidal, than the one in which we live. There is an unabashed idealism in Havel that I find very refreshing, although some Americans find it naive, or even disturbing. The idea of a central European who has lived most of his life under a Communist regime and who spent years in a Communist prison as naive makes me wonder about the naivete of the Americans who have that opinion. My point this evening, however, is that Havel's idealism is not utopian or extravagant. He calls for human responsibility but his expectations are modest. By now he knows how little even the president of a country can do to realize his goals. It is in this respect that I think Havel can be a model for us in the nonprofit or quasi-nonprofit spheres. Government and the economy are preoccupied with quantifiable results. They often do not register how people in a society are treating each other until this shows up in statistics about absenteeism or crime. But those of us who operate primarily in civil society are closer to the social heartbeat. We are in a position to sense how well the social fabric is holding up and where it is beginning to tear, or, in some instances where it is already irreparably torn.
The issues I have discussed are not entirely a matter of individual choice. Though these issues work themselves out in individual lives, they are deeply shaped by the larger institutions of our society. If our society says, in effect, life is a race in which there are winners and losers and you'd better end up a winner, then it is natural for people to think of private opportunity alone.
But if we would have a society that emphasizes our obligations to each other, one in which non-recreational guns are illegal, one in which the scandal of homelessness and the virtual abandonment of large parts of our cities to anarchy are not allowed to occur, then we must create an atmosphere in which community responsibility is as highly regarded as individual opportunity, indeed one in which individual opportunity without community responsibility is seen for what it is: the road to the destruction of any coherent society at all. Certainly our future is in our hands as individuals, but it is only when we take responsibility for building more humane institutions that the choice of adult responsibility becomes socially effective. We need face-to-face community, but we also need community in our cities, in our nation and in the world.