Social capital? January 2, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in European Politics, History, The Left.
There was a curious and thought provoking piece on Slate some time back on the issue of social capital. It argued that the contemporary concentration on civil society may be a little awry. Now, let’s start by noting that for some on the right this approach would be a boon.
The term social capital is generally used to describe the trust and cooperation in a community that is the result of formal social institutions—associations, clubs, and the like—as well as personal networks and relationships. On some level, economists think of it as another source of productivity in an economy, just like tractors or new technologies (physical capital) or a better-skilled workforce (human capital). Trust makes it easier to do business on a handshake (or indeed to do business at all). A trustworthy labor force will work diligently without supervisors peering over their shoulders or burdensome regulations, and a trustworthy boss will return the favor, ensuring employees are paid on time and in full, and generally treated fairly.
The same civic associations that build trust, cooperation, and community also serve as ready networks for the spread of new movements and ideas. It is in this sense that Voigtländer and his colleagues argue (following an idea put forth by Barnard political scientist Sheri Berman) that the richness of interwar Germany’s social capital was critical to the success of Hitler’s National Socialist party. They quote one member’s recollection of his conversion to Nazism to highlight the role of social networks in making party dogma palatable to a wide audience. The young recruit describes how he “became acquainted with a colleague of my own age with whom I had frequent conversations … whom I esteemed very highly. When I found out that he was one of the local leaders of the National Socialist party, my opinion of it as a group of criminals changed completely.”
Worse again, Weimar was notable for the range of such civic associations.
If the prevalence of civic associations is a measure of societal well-being, the Weimar Republic was in excellent health as Hitler began his march to power in the 1920s. Many of these organizations were built on an already rich history of associations from the 19th century, and while a few of these were explicitly nationalistic and even anti-Semitic in nature, the vast majority of membership groups were comprised of those united by rabbit breeding, stamp collecting, singing, gymnastics, and other decidedly apolitical interests.
But one thinks of the Rotary Club, which the Nazi’s used to spread their message. In a way one can see the benefits. Here were fairly innocuous effectively social organisations with a fairly markedly middle and upper middle class aspect to them. By engaging with them the Nazi’s were able to mask their agenda and to further it by drawing more towards them.
Of course one must point to caveats. Not all organisations are the same. Obviously more political groups weren’t open to the Nazi’s in quite this way. But their ability to use those that they could enter is striking.
Of course many of us are, if not quite sceptical of civil society or civic associations of one form or another, aware of the fact they can be diversionary and open to co-option. One thinks of how parts of sectors in this society were cooped by the state during the boom in such a way as to defang them. The unions obviously, part of the voluntary sector, and so on. So there’s no harm at all in recognising that the uncritical view of them as a near unalloyed good is perhaps a little wide of the mark, and a lot to think about here.