Social Capital

Social capital is the totality of human relationships that sustain life and make it rich. On the physical level social capital comprises the life-sustaining relationships whereby we provide each other food, shelter, and clothing, as well as care for the young, old, and infirm. Less tangibly, it includes such wealth as community, friendships, fun, teaching, and a sense of belonging. Together these constitute a cultural inheritance, a treasure passed on from generation to generation in the form of learned skills, customs, and human connections. Among them are the “ties” discussed in the previous section.

There are many ways by which to convert social capital into money. Let’s start with the most primal, ancient, and ubiquitous example: food, or more precisely, the relationships by which we feed each other, including food production, processing, and preparation.

Starting even before the industrial revolution, the proportion of the population engaged in primary food production has steadily dropped, reaching 1-2% in present-day America. The standard interpretation of this statistic is that technology, economy of scale, and so forth have freed us from the drudgery of food production, so that most of us can now “choose not to be farmers.”A side-effect has been that not only do we choose not to produce our own food, but we have forgotten how. What was once a ubiquitous skill rarely involving money is now something we pay distant specialists to do for us.

The same thing has happened to food processing, as huge factories and global distribution have taken over what was once done at the household or local level. Completing the transformation from social capital to financial capital, today even the final stage of food production—food preparation and cooking—is disappearing from our generalized repertoire of skills and passing into the hands of distant specialists.[3] From half to two-thirds of all meals in America are now prepared outside the home, either in the form of restaurant meals or as ready-to-eat takeout from supermarket delis.[4] Even meals cooked at home are often prepared from ingredients that are already highly processed; when we do cook, we perform only the final stages of cookery, taking advantage of pre-made mixes, sauces, canned soups, and so forth. How many people make their own pie crusts any more, or fry their own french fries, or bake their own bread, or can their own vegetables, or make their own soup stock? These skills have gradually become industrialized and therefore lost to the average household. We have essentially sold away the ability to cook food, converting this form of social capital into financial capital—money.

What has been lost? More important than the skills and know-how are the relationships that once revolved around food. To give food to another is an intimate act, a primal expression of nurture that creates a powerful bond. The oldest way to befriend an animal or a stranger is to offer them a meal. Do you see something monstrous, something obscene, about the routine purchase and sale of an intimate act? Converted into a mere service, the act of feeding another being loses its potency, and a primary generator of relationships is shut down.

Many of the other primitive, physical means of caring for another human and building intimate bonds have suffered the same fate. The skills and relationships that once revolved around clothing, shelter, and medicine have been dismantled, converted into an array of services to be carried out by remote machines and their anonymous functionaries. Removed from the domain of self-sufficiency or personal reciprocity, these functions become the objects of purchase and sale—generic commodities rather than personal relationships. As they are converted into money, money dynamics increasingly rule our lives and we lose the substantive basis of our relationships. The cost of living rises, our dependency on money grows, our connections to local people and local ecosystems wither away, and we live increasingly in a monetized realm.

It is hard to imagine, but there was a time when food was rarely purchased for money, when the typical peasant was not part of the money economy at all. In some parts of the world this was true up through the latter part of the 20th century; in some remote corners it may still hold true today: to have no money, yet to enjoy a sufficiency of food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and entertainment. Such a society represents a tremendous business opportunity, because social capital can be mined and exported just as mineral wealth can. Here’s how it works: Any region in which the non-monetary social relationships still predominate will have a very low cost of living. Prevailing wages will be low, as will the cost of food, shelter, and clothing. In a process called “development”, we destroy existing networks of non-monetary reciprocity by introducing consumer products that are unavailable locally and can only be purchased with money. Meanwhile, we establish factories or other facilities to remove people from the non-monetary economy to earn a wage. The former is known as “opening the market” and the latter as “investment”; resistance to this project is called “protectionism”, which the developed countries (those whose social capital is nearly depleted) seek to overcome by fair means or foul. The process is quite similar to what is necessary to make people “hungry for the right sneaker”. It happened in the West a long time ago, for as Kirkpatrick Sale explains, it is a prerequisite as well as a consequence of industrialization:

It was the task of industrial society to destroy all of that [reciprocity]. All that “community” implies—self-sufficiency, mutual aid, morality in the marketplace, stubborn tradition, regulation by custom, organic knowledge instead of mechanistic science—had to be steadily and systematically disrupted and displaced. All of the practices that kept the individual from being a consumer had to be done away with so that the cogs and wheels of an unfettered machine called “the economy” could operate without interference, influenced merely by invisible hands and inevitable balances . . .[5]

Want a good business idea? Simply find something—anything—that people still do for themselves or each other. Then convince them that it is too difficult, tedious, demeaning, or dangerous to do themselves. (If necessary, make it inconvenient or illegal.) Finally, sell it to them instead. In other words, take something away and sell it back again. Many of the hottest growth niches in the economy fall into this category: after-school child care, lawn care, housecleaning, takeout food. There are even companies that will put up your Christmas decorations for you. There are even—are you sitting down?—professional gift-buyers who, for a fee, will go out and purchase the Christmas gifts that you are too busy to buy. When these sectors are saturated, when their associated social capital has been fully converted into money, what will come next? What else do people still do for themselves?

Usually, of course, there is no conscious plot to make the tasks of life inconvenient or illegal. The accelerating pace of modern life alone is enough to drive us to pursue the convenience and efficiency that purveyors of services and technology have to offer. They are merely taking advantage of opportunities that our system makes available.

From this perspective, technology is a mechanism for the transfer of functions and skills away from the general population into the hands of paid specialists. Technology in the form of the “labor-saving device” represents not only (and not necessarily) the reduction of labor but rather its transfer, from ourselves and people we know, to the anonymous functionaries of the Machine. A vacuum cleaner embodies the combined efforts of innumerable engineers, miners, petroleum workers, assembly line workers, truck drivers, and so on, all helping you clean your floor. They are all strangers to you, of course, but they are also far more efficient. All the objects of technology we use similarly embody vast economies of scale and exquisitely fine division of labor. Rather than a community, millions of strangers help us live. Our relationship with them is that we are consumers of their products, and they of ours.

Anonymity, technology, and specialization are closely interlinked. Technology, starting with agriculture, provided the food surpluses that enabled division of labor to occur in the first place, and its transfer of functions away from the average individual did not stop with food production. The same dynamics that initiated the ascent of humanity are still in place; therefore the transfer of functions to paid specialists—the conversion of social capital into financial capital—has little likelihood of slowing down until all social capital has been consumed—a point we are nearing today.

As she is stripped of her traditions, self-sufficiency, customs and relationships, the individual becomes less a human being and more a pure consumer. Remember, contrary to Descartes, it is our relationships that create our identity. The sell-off of social capital thus represents a sell-off of our very being. Surely, to be a consumer is to be less than human. But the sell-off of social capital leaves us nothing but that, consumers, except within the specialized niche of our vocations.

In the discourse of the business world, and often in politics too, that is what you are called, a consumer. One who consumes. The very ubiquity of the word inures us to its full significance, so repeat it to yourself a few times. I am a consumer. I am a consumer. I consume. When all other relationships are gone, that is what is left.

The word “consume” brings us back to the origins of separation in fire, a metaphor for our civilization’s consumptive linearity. Indeed, the conversion of human bonds into money resembles an oxidative reaction in chemistry, which replaces existing internal chemical bonds with new, lower-energy bonds to something from the outside, an oxygen atom. Money is like the thermal energy liberated thereby, no longer bound to any individual and thus free to perform work. Incinerating relationships and converting them into services, the original bonds among individuals are severed. A purchased “service” is as generic as the money that buys it.

Any social relationship embodies a kind of wealth in the form of bonds or ties, which can in principle be liquidated, turned into a commodity, and sold back as a service. Almost no relationship is exempt from this colonization of the social space: not parenting, not sex, not friendship, not trust.

Let’s start with an example of this colonization that also exemplifies the inauthenticity of commoditized relationships: the “hospitality industry”. This is the name by which the hotel industry calls itself, but what a perversion of the original meaning of the word hospitality! Hospitality bespeaks a generous, welcoming attitude of sharing one’s home. How would you feel if you shared the home of a friend for a few days and were then presented with a bill, with 500% markups for each telephone call, bottle of water, and item of food you consumed? Consider also the perversion of the word “guest” in this context. In a saner context we hear words like, “I wouldn’t dream of asking you to pay for dinner; you are my guest.” Of course, such relationships depend on community, custom, and other (non-monetary) ties. The hotel industry represents an aspect of the conversion of these ties to money, the liquidation of this form of social capital. Now, when we want someone to treat us as a guest, we must pay them.

Nor has friendship itself escaped the ravages of professionalization. While it is a truism that money cannot buy friends, it can buy many of the functions that friendship once served. One of the most insidious transformations of our social capital is the commercialization, in the form of celebrity news, TV dramas and the like, of intimate involvement in other people’s lives and stories. As described earlier in this chapter, these replace the caring relationships and intimate knowledge of people around us with voyeuristic glimpses into the lives of distant or fictitious personages, temporarily assuaging the hunger for intimacy and community. Of course, this feeling of involvement is an illusion; it is a one-way involvement that can therefore never be truly nourishing. It leaves the real need unmet, and ultimately even stronger—a perfect recipe for addiction.

A further example of the professionalization of friendship is to be found in the proliferating professions of life coach, grief counselor, psychologist, spiritual adviser, and so forth. Wise advice and a steadying hand, a person to turn to and a shoulder to cry on—these too are now for sale. The rapid growth of these “services” can mean only one thing: again, that something people once did for themselves and each other has been taken away from them and sold back. Cut off from community and alienated from our own intuitive wisdom, we find ourselves increasingly dependent on professional advice.

Another thread in the mosaic of the monetized society is the replacement of such social functions as reputation, word-of-mouth, credibility, and trust with their standardized, objective counterparts. Since the professionals we pay are unknown to us and outside our shrunken social networks, we rely on various kinds of certification and licensing to assure us that these professionals are competent and responsible, protection we need in the absence of personal connections. We don’t know anything about these people, except for that tiny sliver of their lives that remains public. We know much less about the people around us than ever before. We are likely to know more about the “private lives”—matters of sex, family, and health—of our celebrities than of our next-door neighbors. And while word-of-mouth retains some power to enforce responsible professional behavior, especially in small towns, in the huge anonymous cities and suburbs, where much of the population is new to the area, we know nothing about our architects, doctors, contractors, and other professionals except what expert opinion, embodied in licensing exams and the system that confers credentials, tells us. In essence, exams and credentials represent the conversion of a social function—reputation—into money. A similar dynamic is at work in the laws to enforce contracts—a replacement for trust—and the penal code to enforce responsible behavior—a replacement for community-based social pressure. These are only necessary in a mass-scale, anonymous, monetized society.

One thing people have done for themselves for millions of years is to take care of their own children, a sacred responsibility that would only be entrusted to the most intimate friends and relatives. According to my “good business idea”, parenting is thus a great business opportunity. Why do it yourself when specialists wielding economies of scale can do it so much more efficiently? Indeed, child care has been another huge growth industry in recent decades; once a matter of the greatest intimacy, it is now within the realm of professional services. Someone is paid to have a relationship with your child. One student of mine described her job in a day care center like this: “Some of the parents would drop them off at eight in the morning and pick them up at eight o’clock at night. We feed them lunch and dinner, change their diapers, read them stories, comfort their little hurts, potty-train them . . . we’re the ones raising these kids, not the parents.” Admittedly, this is an extreme example, but the widespread trend is toward parenting—many aspects of it at least—becoming a paid function. It is after all more economically efficient for specialists to care for many toddlers all at once in a dedicated facility than for each set of parents to do it themselves.

Before I move on, please understand that we must not blame the parents. They aren’t lazy or uncaring, but merely victims of a monetization of life that has spread the need for efficiency into life’s every corner. The monetization of life leaves life dependent on money, as the old networks of reciprocity evaporate. Many mothers have little choice but to join the (paid) workforce. Add to this the physical and social isolation of suburbia, especially the fragmentation of the extended family, and the day-to-day life of the stay-at-home mom can become lonely and exhausting. I know because I was a stay-at-home dad for several years.

The later stages of child-rearing are also the province of strangers. We pay the schools, schoolteachers, and a whole educational apparatus to do it. As with the production of food, entertainment, and so on, a capacity unused will eventually atrophy. Increasingly unsure of our own parenting abilities, we turn to experts and professionals; indeed if we refuse to, all manner of legal and bureaucratic mechanisms conspire to coerce us. For example, what is the proper balance between freedom and limits for my child? Should he wander the greenbelt by my house unsupervised? Wisdom in such matters has been transferred from its original matrix of family, community, custom and tradition into the hands of professionals. A huge array of books, counselors, social workers, psychologists, pediatricians, teachers, and legal regulations provides that guidance today. They comprise our professional child-rearers.

At the other end of life, care for the elderly, as well as for invalids, has also changed from an unpaid function of the extended family and community into a professional service. Don’t blame the families though, because this phenomenon interrelates with so many other trends in modern society: the geographical scattering that has followed the dissolution of community, the monetization of life that pressures both parents in a household to work, the medicalization of old age and the professionalization of medicine, as well as the general decline in health among old people that renders them dependent for decades.

One day my six-year-old son Matthew asked me, “Which would you choose, fame, money, or love?” I told him money of course. . . just kidding. I explained that love is never for sale, and how sometimes rich people are worried that people only like them for their money and not for themselves. Then a chill passed over me, when I thought about what love is in action. One aspect of love enacted is simply to take care of someone, to help them on a nurturing physical level—the way, for example, my massage therapist and herbalist help me. They soothe my aches and heal my hurts. And I pay them for it. Don’t get me wrong—neither of them are especially mercenary people, but the society in which we live gives us no choice, or makes it look as though we have no choice, but to charge money for healing, loving, caring, nurturing. As I have already mentioned, other primal expressions of love, to feed, clothe, and shelter another being, have also become professional services. Yes my friend, love itself is for sale, if not the actual emotion at least many aspects of its expression.

When you choose a preschool for your child, will you consider whether it provides a “loving atmosphere”? Would you pay more for one that does? Should love be part of the job description? What about companies who advertise that they “care about the customer”? Their employees answer the phone full of enthusiasm to talk to you. The cashier at the supermarket wishes you a nice day. We recognize all these expressions of caring as phony, because we know that someone cannot be paid to care. At most we can muster the semblance of caring. Similarly, commodified services are never as authentic or as nourishing as the personal relationships they replace.

The result is a near-universal loneliness and a phoniness so pervasive we hardly notice it. What can we expect when the people who perform crucial life-giving functions only do it because they are paid to? In many cultures, to prepare food for another was considered an intimate act. To take care of someone on a physical level is intimate; it has been the basis of family, friendship, and community from time immemorial. Now that these functions have been sold off, the relationships they once fostered are left hollow. No wonder that divorce has risen wherever the modern economy has replaced traditional “home economics”, leaving the family with a domain reduced, in Emile Durkheim’s words, to “emotional release and the sharing of affections.”[6]

We live in a world that literally does not care. Your telephone company, despite their recorded messages, does not actually care about you, the customer. The clerk at the supermarket does not actually care whether you “have a nice day.” How could he, not even knowing you? The programmer of the automatic checkout machine does not actually harbor feelings of gratitude toward you, whatever the message on screen. Your waiter is not actually interested in how you folks are doing today. These are all part of the ubiquitous matrix of lies I mentioned in Chapter Two, and they reveal so clearly what exactly it is that we have converted into money. We have sold off authentic human relationship.

No discussion of the monetization of human relationship would be complete without mentioning sex, whose commodification is so widely condemned as to be almost a cliché. Prostitution is only the tip of the iceberg; equally significant is the use of sexual associations to sell product, as if sex itself were for sale. Pornography, too, is a reduction of that most sacred of human interactions into a commodity. Reduction is the operative word, because sexual feelings and sexual relationships are potentially a key to transcending the prison of the discrete and separate self, as well as the means to create new life. I can’t think of anything more sacred than that! Yet, the images of advertising and pornography suggest that no, sex is but a matter of tits-and-ass, getting hard, getting laid, getting off.

The metaphors of “having” and “getting” so commonly applied to sex bespeak the degree to which it has been commodified. Why do we usually not speak of “giving sex” or “sharing sex”? Even in the absence of any outright financial transaction, quasi-economic concepts of loss and gain infuse our culture’s thinking about sex. It is unavoidable, written into our self-definition as separate, discrete beings. Yet precisely because its deepest spiritual function is to melt the boundaries that enforce this separation, sexual love, more than any other relationship, is diminished and debased by its commoditization. For the same reason, sex has an enormous subversive potential. The sharing of self it involves explodes the very basis for the world of separation in which we live, and its associated pleasure hints at the ecstasy awaiting us when we throw off separation’s shackles. Perhaps that is why repressive political regimes typically exhibit great hostility toward sexual licentiousness—a form of repression that George Orwell identified as a key feature of totalitarianism. Our own society takes a different, more insidious approach to defusing sex’s explosive revolutionary potential, attempting to excise its transcendental core. The husk that remains is, depending on the context, an inconsequential pleasure, a biological function, rank animality, obscene temptation, or a frightening taboo. None of these honors the sacred dimension of sex, which ancient Taoist and Tantric practice saw as nothing less than a gateway to the transcendence of cosmic polarities. Potentially a touchstone for reconnecting with the true unity behind our all-consuming play of individuation, potentially a secret window through the veil of our illusory separateness, sacred sexuality has been reduced to a fuck.

Of course, whatever we pretend to make of it, sex is far more than this. Its soul-shattering and life-creating potential remain despite the cultural pretense that it is a casual commodity. The result of this delusion? Heartbreak, emotional wounding, guilt, rape, abortion, and a feeling of betrayal stemming from the inner knowledge that we have “bought in” to something infinitely inferior to what life can offer. Hence the near-universal acknowledgment of casual sex as spiritually vacuous and emotionally unsatisfying. The same could be said, though, of any relationship that has been depersonalized.

Thankfully, our culture’s attempts to tame sexuality have never been completely successful, and sex remains a potent force capable of smashing apart the most secure fortress of self, the most ordered life, the most tightly controlled personality. In college my male teammates and I spoke of sex in the coarsest imaginable language of having and getting, but this was mostly a pretense. Our youthful forays into sexual love were no less shattering. Alone with our girlfriends it was a different matter entirely. Our outward casualness could not insulate us from the wrenching, liberating, shattering power of sexual love to open a door to the soul. I wonder if any of my girlfriends from that time will read this? If so, I want you to know that even if I then seemed a hopeless cad, your love turned deep invisible keys in my soul. Your heartbreak was not in vain. What you gave me, I needed for my future opening.

Typically, it is we men who explore the farthest reaches of separation. Like Theseus in the Labyrinth, we would probably wander in it forever were it not for the lifeline Woman provides. Of course these male and female principles exist in all of us; in each man and woman there is both the yin and the yang. The feminine principle in all of us—intuitive rather than logical, organic rather than analytic—brings us back from our journey of separation toward wholeness.

Accordingly, the present extreme of separation to which our society has “ascended” is a yin-yang imbalance, reflected in patriarchal religion and patriarchal society. As the ancient Chinese understood, the extreme of yang is also the birth of yin. Only in the convergence of crises to which separation has brought us will the Age of Reunion begin. On a less cheerful note, in Chinese medicine there is also a condition called “the collapse of yang”, which happens when maintaining a prolonged imbalance so depletes the body’s resources that nothing is left to sustain the process of rebalancing. Then all intervention is useless. It is too late. The patient dies.

For civilization, the collapse of yang would mean that when we finally see the source of our crises, we will be too weak to do anything about it. Today we have not yet reached that point. Sufficient social and natural resources still exist to create a beautiful world for all of us. Yet we continue to deplete social, natural, cultural, and spiritual capital at an accelerating rate. How long until we so exhaust it that, when we wake up to the urgency of our condition, we find we lack the strength to create the beautiful world we can see clearly at last?

 

[3] By “specialist” I mean someone paid to perform a specific function, in this case preparing food. It does not imply that the work requires a high level of training or technical expertise.

 

[4] The figure was 50% in 1998 as reported by the USDA President’s Council on Food Safety, August 4, 1999; recently on NPR I heard a figure of two-thirds but I cannot find a citation for it. Other sources state a figure of 50% for meals eaten outside the home, so I suspect the addition of ready-to-eat takeout meals would bring that figure even higher.

 

[5] Sale, Kirkpatrick, Rebels Against the Future, Perseus Books, 1995. p. ***

 

[6] Cited by Charles Siegel, The End of Economic Growth, The Preservation Institute, 1998.