Why do we get the urge to publicise our private emotions and relegate our family and friends to cameo roles while we worry over the ups and downs of reality show characters or celebrities to fill the void of emptiness and loneliness? Why do we try as much as we can to act out a role, convinced that what we consume defines how successful we are, how independent we are, how worthy we are of attention?
Because it’s what we respond to best. Because deep down, we prefer the conformism of running the rat race like a hamster on a spinning wheel and the standardised consumption of “keeping up with the Jones”. We prefer the quick fixes of consuming, because we fear freedom — the freedom to be what we want to be rather than what we think others want us to be — embracing our complexity and tolerating our contradictions, doing things for the pleasure of doing them without calculating how we appear to others.
What can help us recover through this crisis in a way that builds collective spirit and social solidarity?
And that social solidarity might itself be affected in very different ways. On the one hand, the middle classes who lose their jobs will be shocked at how little jobseeker’s allowance is and how unprepared jobcentres are to cope with the recession. And that may create greater empathy across class on how we as a society stand up for the most vulnerable.
But on the other hand, we’re overworked in the office and overpriced in the housing market. This may lead us to look for support or even offer help to those around us. And this could provide the “bridging” social capital that is so missing — we may spend more time talking to teenagers on the street corner or the old lady in the park. But it could swing the other way and we may retreat to our families and friends — what’s called “bonding” social capital.
If we try and typologise different kinds of citizens, we might get a better understanding of how this plays out in society:
Egocentric citizens can become so voluntarily or involuntarily. Voluntary egocentric citizens — otherwise known as “free riders” — have internalised and taken advantage of society’ weaknesses in a utilitarian and individualistic logic. They don’t actually exclude themselves from society, since they rely on the social crisis to be able to act the way they do. The Easyjet model of public service reform particularly targets this group, as a result missing the fact that people don’t behave in rational self-interest, but experience different feelings about how fairly public resources are distributed across their community.
Involuntary egocentric citizens feel a loss in their ability to relate to where they fit in society and need to have to rely on themselves, given the lack of opportunity society offers them. The difference between these two types of citizens is the degree of difficulty in which they can restructure their relationship with society. What is common to both is their loss of social identity which certain groups can take advantage of (like the extreme right). This shows why the consumerist and tabloid-friendly approach to the public is counter-intuitive and dangerous. Someone who may have been the breadwinner of a “hard-working family” and find themselves on the dole can quickly see themselves chastised as a “benefit scrounger”. Whether this builds their solidarity towards minorities traditionally vilified is yet to be evidence, but it certainly undermines any belief they may have had that the government is looking out for them.
Altruistic citizens also internalise their social problems but try to tackle them for the good of society and not for their own personal benefit, trusting more the power of community than institutional action. Transition Towns is a good example of channelling altruistic citizens and the Big Society very much targets and depends on this group of people activating their altruism when there are limited public services left around them.
Ideological citizens sacrifice their personal interest but less for the common good than for a specific “cause”. Party and single-issue activists fit this category. This group is underestimated by most parties, even if without them, parties wouldn’t exist. There is a sense that parties assume that this group of citizens are so stuck to ideological dogma that they are blinkered to reality.
Democratic citizens believe in civic virtue, particularly in how acting for the common good benefits them personally as well as the world around them. People involved in citizens’ panels, other representative groups or democracy campaigners tend to fit this mould. They are also underestimated by parties, although democratic citizens tend to have the greatest influence over how they exercise power.
These kinds of citizens — particularly the last three — aren’t autonomous but interdependent of each other, in the sense that an individual can belong to different types of citizen depending on the circumstance.
Apathetic citizens distinguish themselves from the previous types from their passivity. It translates to a lack of belief and expectation in society, not because they cannot relate to where they stand in society, but precisely because they know where they stand — right at the bottom — and feel powerless about their situation.
Alienated citizens also internalise this inferiority but don’t feel powerless as wanting to do something about their situation, either for their own or for the common good. These are the group of people that will be most affected by the recession but could also have the greatest impact.