Social capital yields big dividends
We live in an island-sized village, in a lot of ways, with all the benefits and drawbacks that implies
Indeed, Ahern even invited Putnam over to talk to a Fianna Fáil think-in at the height of the Celtic Tiger. Our former taoiseach apparently feared that all the money floating around would prove corrosive to the roots of Irish society. How right he was, although the corrosion came from the top down rather than from the bottom up. In any case, according to the Bertelsmann survey, the recession hasn’t impacted our social cohesion too drastically.
But social capital is not always a necessarily positive thing. A new paper by a trio of academics, Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, takes Putnam’s notion of social capital and maps it to a different context, Germany between the wars. The paper’s title summarises their findings, Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33, and the contents are alarming, convincingly demonstrating “that the rise of the Nazi Party in interwar Germany was more rapid where a dense network of civic associations facilitated the spread of its message”.
Of course, this is not to suggest that our abundant social capital is likely to facilitate extremism, but it is worth considering how exactly it is affecting our response to this protracted economic crisis and, more to the point, whether there’s a risk it’s having a negative impact.
In recent years we have been spectacularly supine in the face of lots of egregious behaviour from many of our institutions. Does that docility derive in part from our deep sense of social cohesion, which both encourages and depends on consensus-strengthening behaviour? What if those strong community bonds have acted not merely as a bulwark against the worst effects of the downturn but also as a barrier to necessary reform? Could it be that that our social capital, which manifests in all sorts of communal activities, actually prevents more urgent forms of civic engagement?
We live in an island-sized village, in a lot of ways, with all the benefits and drawbacks that implies. But it’s also true small communities can be resistant to change, even when it’s plainly necessary. Perhaps the time has come to figure out ways to make some long-term returns from our social capital, rather than just enjoying its daily dividends.
Shane Hegarty is on leave