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The 1995 Boyer Lectures


By Eva Cox

Lecture 2:
(Broadcast: Tuesday, 14th November 1995, 8.30am (Rpt. 8.00pm) on Radio National.)


Diana Gribble:

Welcome to the 1995 Boyer Lectures. I'm Diana Gribble.

As Deputy Chair of the ABC Board, it's my pleasure to introduce this year's Boyer lecturer, well known social policy commentator and activist, Eva Cox.

In the series, which she has named A TRULY CIVIL SOCIETY, Eva Cox argues for a radical re-thinking of our definition of citizenship. She argues that the citizenship debate is too narrow because it's dominated by the notion that citizens are competitive individuals when in fact, people are fundamentally social beings.

Last week in her first lecture 'Broadening the Views', Eva Cox described how the social had disappeared from debates on public policy. She made a passionate argument for broadening our views beyond the economic frameworks that dominate political debate.

In today's lecture called 'Raising Social Capital', Eva Cox outlines her ideas for increasing our stores of social capital, which she suggests may well be the pre-requisite for economic growth.

Raising Social Capital

Eva Cox:

We invented money and, from the coins of precious metal, we created a convenient fiction called finance. This fiction has unfortunately become the ultimate public record of human connections - what we now call transactions.

Journalists, treasurers and business lobbies use financial data as pressure points to influence public decisions. We worry constantly whether our ill defined Gross Domestic Product is growing too fast or not fast enough, even though it measures only part of our production and wealth.

Finance capital movements determine exchange and interest rates and usurp the roles of the sovereign state. Electronic pulses are invested with so much meaning that they have the power to destroy governments and increase the private affluence of a privileged few.

What is meant by wealth? Wealth has become a very disputed term, particularly with the recent World Bank claims that Australia is the wealthiest country in the world. Marilyn Waring, a New Zealand writer, described the faults in measures of national production in her ground breaking book 'Counting for Nothing'. Crime is counted, traffic accidents because of potholes are not but car repairs are. Plantation trees are counted, self sown saplings are not. If we sell sex, cooking and child care they are counted, but unpaid housework is not. Growth in GDP, the Gross Domestic Product may come from oil spills, bushfires, wars, epidemics or the destruction of wilderness. GDP is actually reduced by lowering the road accident rate and by fewer heart attacks.

The public finance system does not debit financial capital with the destruction of physical capital such as the uncounted wealth of clean air, water resources, trees and the rest of the natural world. So aspects of daily living, such as unpaid production and gifts of time are not even counted as part of the wealth of nations.

There are four major capital measures, one of which takes up far too much policy time and space at present. This is Financial capital. Physical capital makes it onto the agenda because of the environmental movement. So there are fierce debates on trees, water, coal and what constitutes sustainable development. Some types of physical capital and financial capital deplete with overuse, or become scarce or too expensive. We occasionally mention human capital - the total of our skills and knowledge - but rarely count its loss in unemployment.

There has been too little attention paid to social capital - the last of the four horseriders of another apocalypse. Social capital refers to the processes between people which establish networks, norms, social trust and facilitate co-ordination and co-operation for mutual benefit. These processes are also known as social fabric or glue, but I am deliberately using the term'capital' because it invests the concept with the reflected status from other forms of capital. Social capital is also appropriate because it can be measured and quantified so we can distribute its benefits and avoid its losses.

We increase social capital by working together voluntarily in egalitarian organisations. Learning some of the rough and tumble of group processes also has the advantages of connecting us with others. We gossip, relate and create the warmth that comes from trusting. Accumulated social trust allows groups and organisations, and even nations, to develop the tolerance sometimes needed to deal with conflicts and differing interests.

Therefore we must put a high priority on growing social capital by offering opportunities for trust and co-operation. The social institutions which govern and influence us must operate in ways which value diversity and belonging. They must also be able to withstand debate and questioning.

If the social system isolates people, discourages informal and formal contact, or just fails to offer the time and space needed for social contact, then social capital is under threat. Lack of time is an increasing problem as time becomes commodified through ever longer hours of paid work. We spend time in cars in isolation and there are increasing options for individual working and leisure which intrude upon our once informal meeting times.

We rarely have time to walk, we often avoid public transport because it takes too long, we shop hurriedly and use technology to provide home based entertainment and work. We need to make time for social interactions and the development of trust relationships. What once happened by accident needs to be recognised and encouraged. We need to examine how we can use technology to enhance social capital, and we must look at lifestyles and life cycles to make sure there is space and time .

Social capital should be the pre-eminent and most valued form of any capital as it provides the basis on which we build a truly civil society. Without our social bases we cannot be fully human. Social capital is as vital as language for human society. We become vulnerable to social bankruptcy when our social connections fail. If most of our experiences enhance our sense of trust and mutuality, allowing us to feel valued and to value others, then social capital increases. That is why I want to use the concept of social capital as a major thread in these lectures.

In a recent article called Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital, American political scientist, Robert Putnam, describes the need for a strong active civil society to make democracy work. He quotes many studies that show a correlation between high levels of civic culture, comfortable lifestyles and positive economic outcomes.

Putnam claims that the interactions which create social capital are most likely to occur in egalitarian communities where people voluntarily contribute time and effort and receive positive reinforcement. Experiences which engender trust and a recognition of common ground, allow people to move comfortably from the defensive 'I' to the mutual 'we'. A sense of reciprocity, he claims, is more than just a utilitarian trading relationship. It creates complex social relationships.

So spending time together, working co-operatively and enjoying each others company create social capital. This seems to be heresy indeed. In an age where competition is the only solution on offer , social capital theory suggests another option: that humans achieve more by co-operating. Indeed much of what we have, as a society, achieved has been by co-operation. If co-operation works so well, we should be very, very wary of accepting competition policies.

Putnam's work in regional Italy offers statistical evidence that co-operation pays off socially, bureaucratically and economically. High levels of social capital bring co-operation and the norms which may be called civic virtues. These virtues in turn are the basis of truly civil societies where the law rests lightly. If we trust others as we trust ourselves, prosperity and economic growth tend to follow.

Social capital is the social glue, the weft and warp of the social fabric which comprises a myriad of interactions that make up our public and private lives - our vita activa. Distrust, loss of social cohesion and short term self interest breed conflict and social isolation, demands for law and order and a contempt for power and authority.

So how do we develop social capital? Putnam suggests it is the trust we develop through active relationships with each other. Accumulated trust is based, at least in part, on working together in 'civic' groups. These are the familiar community groups: non-profit organisations such as P&Cs, local environment groups, Rotary, craft groups, neighbourhood centres, local sporting groups, ethnic and religious groups, reading groups, fund raising organisations, playgroups and others which have an egalitarian voluntaristic structure. Such groups are generally run democratically: people participate because they want to and their processes involve members working together on tasks, developing trust and mutually rewarding relationships.

Trust should be defined as inexhaustible because it is increased, rather than depleted by positive use. The more we work together with others in environments which encourage co-operation the more likely we are to trust others, and the occasional failures of trust will be less damaging. Social capital is therefore increased by use. It can be depleted by widespread lack of trust or by our own failure to trust others. Without trust we avoid contact with others because we fear betrayal. This is the core component of social connections.

When people meet to clean up a city, a suburb or a local park, they are amassing social capital. Indeed we amass social capital when we work on the school fete, talk to our neighbours about the street plants, drop off some soup to a sick friend, meet a regular group at tennis or bowls, join a local choir, commit ourselves to making uniforms for the junior sports group, arrange theatre parties, or whatever we do with friends and sometimes strangers.

Even in paid work we may often want to give more than the minimum. There is pleasure in providing a better service. It is a small gift to help, to smile and to satisfy another. We do this not just for commercial reasons but because as the shop assistant, nurse or car detailer we like the customer and want to give them something extra.

Competing against each other leaves little space for reciprocity and the growth of social capital. Running against another in a race may benefit our speed, but jointly organising the sports day produces co-operation and trust. There are many more situations where co-operation and reciprocity are more effective than competition. Civic virtues come from building on what we have in common rather than by using our differences to create in-groups, out-groups and fear driven competition.

The value of belonging to voluntary organisations is often misinterpreted by those on the political right who use Putnam's work to claim that we should replace governments with voluntary organisations. This ignores Putnam's point that it is not the auspice of the organisation that counts, but the way it operates. Many of these groups on the Right are authoritarian in structure and their organisations want to impose their norms on others.

As Putnam says, and I quote:'On the demand side, citizens in civic communities expect and get better government... they are prepared to act collectively to achieve shared goals. ...Most fundamental to the civic community is the social ability to collaborate for shared interests. Generalised reciprocity... generates high social capital. ...A conception of one's role and obligations as a citizen, coupled with a commitment to political equality, is the cultural cement of the civic community.

Without norms of social reciprocity and networks of social engagement, the Hobbesian outcome of the Mezzogiorno (southern Italy) - amoral familism, clientelism, lawlessness, ineffective Government and economic stagnation - seems likelier than successful democratisation and economic development. Palermo may represent the future of Moscow.'

Putnam's work shows that community groups, workplaces or other organisations which are authoritarian and paternalistic do not create trust and civic virtue. They distribute favours to the chosen and compliant, or demand blind loyalty. The consequences are competitive and suspicious interactions. Unity is created by identifying an outside enemy and closing ranks. Mafia style patronage breeds competition - not cohesion.

What Putnam's data suggests is that the removal of Government - destroying the legitimancy of its laws - may create gangs and militias as is occurring in the USA. We need to remember that there is nothing naturally virtuous in communal organisations nor anything inherently wrong with government.

I was excited when I found Putnam's work because it offered a framework for pulling together many of my diverse concerns. The idea of social capital as a measure of the social health or otherwise of communities, societies or nations has a certain unifying elegance.

However, I think his viewpoints are still too narrow. He focuses on definable organisations which work formally in the public arena but he does not include many informal groups. His limits view reflects the usual masculinist assumptions about the separation of the public and private spheres.

I want to extend the social capital concept to include the household and informal sectors which can also create social trust relationships and forms of civic wellbeing. I would include certain extended household operations, neighbourliness and community support, all of which informally link people. These informal help and support measures are functional as well as creating recognition and identity.

Social capital accumulators work best as open systems which allow entry for newcomers who may be different. Informal networks may cluster around a formal institution such as a school or community centre, or less visible locations like the house where people gather, a local shopping centre, coffee shop, or places in parks.

These informal networks fit Putnam's model of democratic, egalitarian web-like structures which offer shared positive experiences through collaboration. These experiences provide a comfort zone for recognising our communalities and choosing to look for collective rather than individual benefits.

There is another related area of possible accumulation of social capital which struck me on reading Putnam. What he describes as civic culture is very similar to what is increasingly being recognised as workplace culture. Again, the rules and formal structures of workplaces may be similar, but the actual cultures of staff relationships within workplaces may affect the way the organisation works as well as how productive it is.

Some workplace cultures model open and relatively egalitarian relationships. Others are closed and authoritarian, immune to change or to the entry of outsiders. A level of collegiality and trust between workers creates workplaces where authority is worn lightly but responsibly and productivity is high. Where the workplace is redolent with distrust and suspicion, the rule book grows in size because everything has to be documented. Disputes are always bubbling, and there are likely to be complaints of harassment and discrimination.

It is interesting to note that at the same time as there is a Government policy of imposing competition between firms, there is a recognition that the best working teams are based on co-operation..

Indeed competition would seem to militate against the levels of trust and co-operation that are emerging in studies of best practice. We need consider whether the loss of social capital through workplace competition may also prove in the not-so-long-run to reduce productivity and profits.

What are the elements of social systems which increase social capital? They are mainly based on interactions. They involve space, time, opportunities, precedent and the valuing of process.

We need the opportunities to interact with a reasonably broad spread of people, and to build up a level of trust through positive rather than negative experiences. We need the time to engage in satisfactory processes of discussion, to acknowledge the input of others, and to develop outcomes which reflect their inputs.

Public life and activities take time, and time is an ever decreasing 'commodity' for many people. Full time work often extends well past the eight hour day, yet time is available in excess to those who have no paid work. This is one of the dis-eases of our present community. There is a constant trade off between time and money.

If we decide to value all aspects of the vita activa, we should be able to spend time in paid work earning money, using our skills and contributing to the workplace community.

We should also be able to spend time on interpersonal relationships and the daily tasks of care for self and others, including the rearing of children.

And we should also be able to spend time in the public sphere producing ideas, running small communal groups or large institutions and involving ourselves in making decisions that affect the way we live, and even involved in our own government or the big institutions.

We must validate the social, and re-member that humans were never disconnected individuals. We have always been social. Our human ability to reason has never removed us from our interdependence. In fact, it is through our ability to co-operate, as well as compete, that we have developed what passes for civilisation.

I want to reclaim the concept of civic virtue as a collective rather than an individual manifestation of a truly civil society. The types of civic structures which develop social capital are not created by removing the underpinnings of the state, but by giving people time, skills, encouragement and resources.

What happens when we run down our social capital? This raises the issue of whether we live in communities or nations which offer sufficient possibilities for experiencing social trust. Are there societies with an adequate level of social capital? Is there a social plimsoll line, a marker which once passed, reduces the levels of civic virtue to the point of no return?

If our communities are already low in social capital, or maybe even in deficit, their re-construction will be slow. Putnam talks of the problems of countries where communism wiped out much of the civic culture or the others where centuries of top down feudalism was never been replaced by any form of democratic structure.The process of replenishing or developing social capital takes a long time. The Italian examples Putnam quotes are the results of centuries of civic cultures. Losing social capital should therefore be identified as a serious problem. The question Putnam asks of the USA, and that I am raising here, is: are we running our social capital down and even out?We have a different political culture from the United States of America. The American colonies had a much stronger emphasis on free enterprose and individualism than on Government. Our colonies were started by Government fiat and we continue to have a closer relationship to the public sector than our American peers. Trust in government I suspect, is one of our social capital indicators.

In Australia, opinion polls over time suggest there is increasing cynicism about Government and politicians. There are diminished levels of trust in public utilities, particularly when they corporatise and treat us as customers not citizens. These days, our utilities delivering phones, gas, water and electricity behave just like any other big business. Yet when they are sold, the public feels a loss of common property.

I have a strong sense that we are unravelling and tearing the social fabric, replacing it with a safety net that catches some of the poor and leaves the rest of us to flounder. We are losing some of the sense of belonging, of the common wealth that is part of our public selves. We are left to retreat into the presumed safety of the private world.

We need to recognise that a loss of social capital may cost us dearly. For instance, an increased fear of crime, when the crime rate is not rising, is a more significant measure of social distrust than an actual increase in crime. The unreasoned fear of other people's criminal intent signals a major decline in social capital.

It is this unwarranted fear that leads to the demand for more Government spending on crime prevention measures, gaols and other forms of social control. The last New South Wales state election was a case in point, when the then Government and Opposition tried to out do each other in their promises to punish criminals. Yet there was no real evidence that crime was on the increase, nor that the proposed measures would curb it.

Expenditure in this area was seen as politically necessary but was unlikely to be effective because it failed to address the real problem. In fact more law and order measures would probably exacerbate the problem because they would lift the levels of anxiety but do nothing to reduce the level of crime.

It is an interesting contradiction that increased rates of imprisonment and policing under conservative governments leads to the higher spending they claim to be against. And expenditure on social control often exceeds the cost of those government services which increase social capital - for instance more jobs in the community services sector. It is obviously a waste of money in more ways than one.

We are left with the contradiction that a government's failure to spend on enhancing social capital, will actually reduce the level of financial capital. Indeed, high social capital may well be the prerequisite for economic growth, not the other way round.This week, I've looked at community and social capital, but next week I want to look at the other side, the dark side of community and family - the tribalism that can break down social capital.

© Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1995