Decivilization: On regressive tendencies in Western societies

» Traditional social relationships, families, local communities, neighbourhoods – these have all reduced in significance. The paradox, however, is that the individual has in the last analysis become more socially dependent than ever. «
Oliver Nachtwey

Individualization was originally an element of the civilizing process. The fact that its members can act as autonomous subjects belongs to the basic self-description of a modern society. The process of individualization is based on emancipation from traditional restrictive social forms: traditional social relationships, families, local communities, neighbourhoods – these have all reduced in significance.

The paradox, however, is that in having shaken off such traditional social ties, the individual has in the last analysis become more socially dependent than ever. For example, as more and more people develop mobile lifestyles, they frequently no longer live close to their parents and so need a nursery where their children can be looked after. But because of the de-collectivization of the welfare state and the dismantling of its reserves of solidarity, the individual is increasingly becoming individualized in a negative way. The risk of decline that has become the hallmark of Western capitalisms is no longer counteracted.

In this context it is easy to overlook the role of communities and intermediary associations. However static and stuffy the traditional lifeworlds and (class) backgrounds may have been, they were spaces for counter-interpretations that provided relief. One example is unemployment, where social risks were viewed not as the result of individual failure but as a shared destiny. Associations and clubs, places that we would regard today as part of civil society, not only provided refuge and relief from social pressures but were places in which society – even a counter-culture – might be organized, albeit on a small scale. This applied both to the working class and to the more middle-class strata. People had a sense of agency and a place where their own voices counted. They could articulate grievances but also discover a form of socialization, collective identity, social integration and hence also social control. In this sense communities and intermediary associations are always also schools of democracy and civility. The waning importance of community and intermediary associations means that the individual, faced with social pressures and change, is frequently forced to rely entirely on his own resources.