The idea of social unity has had an important influence on much political thinking – such social cohesion lies at the heart of calls for unity and political legitimacy but fear of its absence has often lain behind anxieties of social difference and dissent, growing unmonitored in communities and cities. Such fears can be identified in the stories of segregated towns, insulated minorities, radical schools and political polarisation that fill recent headlines. Certainly, a diagnosis of social breakdown has been a repeated refrain in politics. This raises the question of whether things really have become worse or whether they are simply different today. A quick response to such a complex question isn’t easy but it is not hard to see how talk of a broken Britain, and of an underclass before that, indicate that the idea of societal breakdown is by no means new. However, as the contributions to this series of reflections on fracturing societies suggest, our current situation today appears to offer worrying social conditions and divides that speak of rising social inequality, cuts to core public services and poverty. The impact of these changes can be seen in the changing social geography of cities, but also in the hollowing-out of many institutions that are needed for community life to function and flourish.
In asking how ‘together’ we are and what such cohesion does to help I want to cast an eye up the class spectrum and think about what the lives of social elites, notably the wealthy. What does an insight into the lives of the wealthy do to help our understanding of our wider social condition and the contradictions and deceits of much political discourse on inequality in the UK today? Since the austerity measures (cuts to publicly funded institutions, services and payments to those in need) kicked-in nearly a decade ago questions of community vitality have been focused on by those who were simultaneously kicking-out the support systems that many communities rely on. Cuts to local authority services, to welfare supports, public housing provision and the public realm more broadly (it is also important to remember the changing or wholly private funding of institutions like universities, the postal service and some train services) have generated profound impacts on localities (see Tracy Shildrick’s piece in this issue). In these places the bright lights and frantic trading of high finance and the economy in real estate have not provided the jobs or trickle-down benefits that many suggest are the benefits of these industries. The response to the social devastation endured by millions under austerity has often been to look at social cohesion as one answer to such problems.
It seems quite possible that ‘community’ is something that the rich have the luxury of avoiding. There are of course many different kinds of community and the role of place in shaping or necessitating social networks has long been made more complex by the increasing use of communication technologies and by changing patterns of sociability. The social bonds that tied together many occupational communities and offered an important source of support have, if not evaporated, been replaced in many instances by attachments to social networks that span much larger geographies than the neighbourhood. Social cohesion, the relative strength and interconnectedness of social relationships, remains an important concept that captures an interest in the sustainability and functions of social connections and their importance in lifting up those who might fall into some kind of need.
How much do the rich rely on those around them and their networks? What do the sometime residents of One Hyde Park do when they run-out of everyday essentials? Could we imagine the comfortably wealthy of central London popping round to ask their billionaire neighbour for a cup of sugar? Might it be possible to imagine a Russian oligarch shamefacedly asking for their local landlord for a sub to last until the proceeds of their latest corporate deal came through? Where would the rich of Mayfair or Kensington place that much needed community centre that they had been organising a whip round for over the past couple of years? Of course, this is a ridiculous caricature of such communities precisely because we understand very well that the affluent do not need ‘community’ in the same way that those without jobs, social prospects and cash do. Their relationships come laden with resource and access to further enabling opportunities.
The response of many politicians to the question of social harmony and unity has rarely been to consider the wealthy to be part of the problem. The sense of rising inequality and social need has been met instead with a push for big or sharing societies in which self-build, self-managed, community-owned and other self-help schemes have been proposed. Austerity has not fallen equally on all members of society and the rather obvious burden has been firmly placed on those required to self-organise or wither. Such designs appear as a big mask behind which the project of civic dismantling, cuts to public services and others to higher rate tax payers continues with little sign of letting up or the unfairness of these choices.
This is the point at which attention to geography becomes critical in understanding the unequal outcomes in wealth and income that criss-cross our land. It is also the point at which we need to locate and better understand how these inequalities are reinforced and explained away as the natural or necessary workings of an economy that relies on the City and finance as its mainstay and which continues to defer support to those working in industry. Geography is also important because it begins to explain how insulated and divorced political power, and the powerful more broadly, are from the deepening social crisis outside their leafy districts, gated communities and fortress homes. Without sight of those whose health, education and dignity is eroded by the closure of steel plants, cuts to welfare payments, training and health services it is possible to remain rooted in cliques and networks that suggest the world to be a place of open possibilities and excitement. The cry from communities locked-in to poorly performing economies and hopeless mood that captures many communities across UK is muffled by the lush hedges and high walls of those who continue to do very well.
One might argue that it doesn’t matter much whether more affluent groups have strong social bonds: they are not part of the problem or indeed people with problems. Yet of course it is this very form of disconnection from the problems of others and the breakdown in connections to and empathy with others in their society that is fuelling rising anger and resentment at gross inequalities today. Where the wealthy and the powerful are able to escape and to feel little sense of obligation or an ethic of care for others in their wider community, the result is a worrisome form of social retreat and bordering, of the estates and neighbourhoods of the wealthy, as they seek to block out sight and sound of the reality of social despair. For the rich their bonds and connections are indeed a kind of resource, across nations and cities, but they do little to connect them to the poor and the desperate. While these conditions persist it seems possible to diagnose our society as indeed being broken, but not for the kinds of reasons offered by politicians. In this situation it seems important to understand how the disconnection and disinterest of the wealthy and powerful enables more callous forms of social policy design that have hit those with least hardest. If these casualties of austerity were the friends and neighbours of those who continue to flourish we might imagine the response to their plight would be quite different.
Rowland Atkinson is Chair in Inclusive Societies at the University of Sheffield, UK.