On COVID and Social Capital
Robert Nisbet’s The Quest for Community makes no mention of infectious disease, yet there may be no better lens for viewing American culture one year into the pandemic.
In the early 1950s, Nisbet catalogued the myriad ways mid-century Americans groped for meaning as bonds that traditionally structured daily life began to dissolve. To us today, Nisbet’s concerns may seem premature. With the war won and countercultural disillusionment still a decade away, was not the Age of Eisenhower when America reached its social apex? To Nisbet, things did not look so rosy.
Consider his elegy to our associations:
”Historically, our problem must be seen in terms of the decline in functional and psychological significance of such groups as the family, the small local community, and the various other traditional relationships that have immemorially mediated between the individual and his society. These are the groups that have been morally decisive in the concrete lives of individuals. Other and more powerful forms of association have existed, but the major moral and psychological influences on the individual’s life have emanated from the family and local community and the church.”
American modernity emerged in full in the 1950s, as families exchanged the local and the intimate for national and distant mass culture. Nisbet fulminated against American life’s new anonymity and lamented the disintegrating mores that anchored human relationships—relationships that arise in the home, the neighborhood, and the parish.
His worries have been borne out. By just about any measure of social health (think: informal interactions, feelings of trust, or volunteering), American communities are worse off now than they were at the time of Nisbet’s writing, despite our relative wealth. Almost seventy years later, the icons of the 1950s—the suburb, the supermarket, the television—stand as enduring markers of our anonymized culture and as hindrances to developing our social capital, a term not used by Nisbet, but one that is of a piece with The Quest for Community.
Social capital—networks of people and the norms of reciprocity associated with them—is what breathes life into communities and, as famously documented by Robert Putnam in his 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, it has gone missing. Putnam highlights as signifiers of social capital decline the dwindling numbers of participants in once-hallowed civil society hallmarks like the Knights of Columbus, the Kiwanis Club, and, of most symbolic potency, the bowling leagues. Associations of the utmost moral significance—families and religious communities—have, quite obviously, withered as well.
Bowling Alone brought much attention to our social capital deficit and spawned a commentary cottage industry that has even reached the halls of Congress, in the form of Senator Mike Lee’s Social Capital Project. With new focus on the value of associational life, one can detect hints of social renaissance. New urbanism, the popularity of farmers markets, and the resurgent appeal of walkability, for example, attest to a renewed appreciation for place and an eschewal of suburban anomie, prerequisites to the rebuilding of durable social networks.
But a new flowering of social capital now looks impossible.
The epidemiological crisis that began in Hubei Province doubles as a cultural crisis on our side of the Pacific. The pandemic has decimated what social capital remained and has pushed America deeper into its Nisbetian nightmare.
From Bowling Alone to Scrolling Alone
The deeply human rites that define our lives are now foreclosed. The very forms of association on which trust and interdependence are established are now unwise, unlawful, or both. The shaking of hands, the Mass, the town meeting: interactions which have forged our bonds for millennia do so no more. It is not only our close interactions which have perished, but those peripheral as well, interactions which provide the background benevolence that defined Tocquevillian America.
Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting on the young country in the 1830s, observed that a relative egalitarianism meant it was groups of sovereign citizens acting together, rather than the government (as in his native France) or the gentry (as in England), that effected social change. What Tocqueville saw as uniquely American was widespread personal buy-in to the community—the phenomenon that more than a century later would be deemed social capital.
Nisbet, unsurprisingly, cites Tocqueville extensively. The Nisbet-Tocqueville synthesis is that early America, through its unique bottom-up political culture, facilitated an engaged, enterprising, and helpful citizenry. This culture, and the federal government, depended upon familiar interactions at the level of the township for legitimacy. COVID has closed the literal town square and re-directed our attention to the dizzying, impersonal, and oftentimes venomous Twitter feed. From behind our carefully chosen avatars we spar and we joke with others from across the country in ignorance of what is happening next door. Though the encumbrances of the new normal annoy us all, the magnitude of its deleterious effects on our polity has yet to be reckoned with.
A City Asunder
At a San Francisco Progress Studies meet-up I attended in February 2020—during what was perhaps the last week such a gathering would not have elicited horror—a number of participants suggested that the pandemic might catalyze a renewal of social trust, a certain all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit. Optimistically, if macabrely, a comparison to war was made, invoking the Nisbetian insight:
“Society attains its maximum sense of organization and community and its most exalted sense of moral purpose during the period of war.”
The opposite has proven true. Whereas war activates the psychology of tribal togetherness, COVID has scuppered it. Two months hence my wife and I were verbally accosted from an upper floor apartment window for daring to stroll the abandoned Nob Hill sidewalks mask-free. Instead of forging solidarity, COVID has injected our cities with new, though sometimes well-intentioned, hostilities, as displayed on Taylor Street.
Indeed, San Francisco epitomizes the wider social capital downward spiral. Its general transience and class tensions made its social cohesion especially vulnerable to pandemic fraying. Indications thereof were quick to appear; by the summer of 2020 San Francisco was hemorrhaging its most capable builders in an exodus that calls to mind a rather differently themed 1950s book from Nisbet’s: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.
Though Nisbet’s disciples point to Rand’s brand of individualism as a social cancer (See: Douthat, Ross), her work parallels Nisbet’s on the importance of earned social esteem. San Francisco has a habit of maligning potential social pillars—people who a century and a half ago would have been the Stanfords, Huntingtons, and Hopkinses. In turn, those individuals have kept the community at arms’ length. With Silicon Valley’s network effects unplugged by COVID last spring and other bonds already scant, they decamped with their laptops by the thousands.
It is a sequence that would make Tocqueville weep.
The pandemic has accelerated social shifts that are both caused by and hasten the evaporation of social capital. Two of these shifts are geographic sorting and online shopping.
The departure of people of means from America’s priciest zip codes in 2020 does not indicate that America’s struggling regions will soon be replenished, that social capital will be restored. San Francisco’s tech millionaires aren’t heading to places like Salinas; they’re transposing their cultural bubbles to enclaves similar to their own but that offer more square-feet per dollar. Where is one more likely to encounter a cross-section of America, commuting each day up Market Street or trundling through Carmel-by-the-Sea to the coffee shop?
Similarly, despite warnings of supply chain doom, the pandemic has not dented e-commerce one bit. Wary of brick-and-mortar’s close confines, Americans are buying more online than ever. Amazon, in a break from historic patterns, set a new total quarterly sales record in Q2 of 2020. It then beat that mark in Q3. And in Q4 it shattered prior expectations, bringing in 44 percent more revenue than a year earlier. Amazon also expanded its logistics footprint by 50 percent in 2020, positioning itself for maintained dominance even once the virus recedes. Meanwhile, nearly half of small businesses across the country have or might soon close for good.
The pandemic has accelerated trends, the groundwork for which already had been laid. The shifts have in many ways made life more amenable for those riding the wave of the digital economy. They have made it immeasurably worse for those who serve as the social glue for neighborhoods—the barbers, the barkeeps, and so forth. You haven’t seen your local dry cleaner in over a year; you’ve seen five different Amazon delivery drivers this week.
For the laptop class, the biggest COVID sacrifice has been suffering through an endless stream of virtual happy hours. For people who earn a living in person and serve as our neighborhood touchstones, the past year has been a cataclysm. Some Americans are watching their brokerage accounts swell; others are desperately refreshing bank apps for their next direct deposit from the IRS.
Nisbet’s contribution to the social capital literature augurs the problems that we now face. A new aristocracy, already on its ascent, has been spurred by COVID to an unprecedented detachment from the dire straits of the rest of the country. Healthy, local loyalties have been severed. Millions of Americans—young and old—are lonely, isolated, economically vulnerable, and drowning unseen.
Should it come as any surprise that people, barred from commonplace, trust-building interactions, fixate on disputes in Washington?
All politics, once presumed to be local, now appears national. Instances of this social scrambling abounded in January, such as when a Florida Congressman assailed a Wyoming colleague from the statehouse steps in Cheyenne; when Michigan’s governor tweeted a photo of a quasi-beatified Georgia political leader; and when thousands descended on the National Mall to wreak havoc at a demagogue’s clarion call.
Devotion, Nisbet informs us, is directed to the bodies that have the greatest perceived significance in our lives. A year into the pandemic, those bodies are for many people national political parties. The parties have become primary personal identifiers and simulacra of moral communities, suffused with the emotional intensity and redemptive purposes Nisbet warned would yield totalitarianism. COVID has brought us to the Nisbetian crucible:
“The most fundamental problem has to do with the organized associations of men. It has to do with the role of the primary social group in an economy and political order whose principal ends have come to be structured in such a way that primary social relationships are increasingly functionless, almost irrelevant, with respect to those ends. What is involved most deeply in our problem is the diminishing capacity of organized, traditional relationships for holding a position of moral and psychological centrality in the individual’s life.”
To emerge from this cultural crisis (no, I won’t say “Build Back Better”), we must sow seeds of reciprocity from our own actions. This is not a call for a grand national project, of which we are today awash: it is a call to eschew the national in favor of the local. Take responsibility for the well-being of your family and neighbors. Offer a wave. Shovel a sidewalk. Send a kind note and a tray of cookies. Overcome the inclination to turn inward and instead invest—within epidemiologically appropriate bounds—in the human-scale associations that engender affection, recognition, and trust. Mundane though these acts may seem, they are more substantive than any vote you cast in November and any thinkpiece you have written for an online magazine. Daily behaviors within communities are the sustenance of a free and flourishing society.
To pull this country back from the brink, we must restore our Tocquevillian heritage so winsomely conveyed by Robert Nisbet; we must re-establish what is, or was, perhaps America’s truest claim to exceptionalism, our social capital.
Jordan McGillis is a graduate of Seton Hall, the oldest diocesan university in the United States. He and his wife decamped San Francisco with their laptops in the summer of 2020 and celebrated the birth of their first child elsewhere later in the year. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.
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