Is the death of community greatly exaggerated?
When picking up a newspaper or listening to the news, it often feels like our institutions and political systems are buckling. We constantly hear about political crisis, social unrest, lack of community cohesion. And from the selfie obsessed “Me Generation” to self-centred baby boomers, many fear that narrow-minded individualism poses an increasing threat to community and social solidarity.
Yet literally millions of people, day in day out, freely give their time and money to support their local community. From Scouts to Samaritans, church halls to homeless shelters, our social organisations and support networks are marked by the goodwill and altruistic commitment of those who help out. Without them, community centred events such as the Notting Hill Carnival would likely cease to exist, and many valued institutions such as the NHS would probably crumble under the strain. Indeed, in much of the country, fire brigades and services such as mountain rescue, ambulance and lifeboats are volunteer dependent.
We take much of this for granted and it largely goes unreported. But is there a case that such actions are central to the very existence of our communal life? After all while making a donation to a large, professionalised charity is laudable, many of the 168,000 registered charities in the UK are small, close knit organisations reliant on local helpers. Spending a few hours helping the local Scout group or foodbank not only helps the youngsters and those in need, but also creates a real sense of wellbeing and community amongst the volunteers. Given that 25 per cent of adults in the UK volunteer at least once a month – amounting to some 3 billion hours of volunteering – is this the glue that helps bind society?
What, then, is the relationship between volunteering and civic life? Ought we cherish the impact of voluntary organisations and the value of spontaneous community organisation – or are they simply picking up the slack for an absent government? Moreover, has the voluntary sector become so formalised, bureaucratised and dominated by large national or international bodies that it no longer resembles the spontaneous life of a community anyway? Is there a danger that these trends, and other new cultural and political norms, will undermine community organisations, and also the informal spaces that society requires for the development of non-political cultural bonds? Or does the voluntarist, civic spirit remain alive and the real glue that binds the country? What, at bottom, is the relationship between civic life, political life, and the state?