Now the good news for America

Suddenly, people want to bowl together again. Trust and community spirit are back. And, reports John

Before 11 September, both society and the economy in the west were getting worse. Now, they are getting better. This may seem very odd, but it appears to be true.

The US economy is now growing quite strongly, after a recession much shorter than even the most optimistic observers thought possible. Most Federal Reserve districts reported a strong upturn in economic activity earlier this month. The service sector rose, last month, to its highest level since the end of 2000. As the economist Robert Samuelson has pointed out, the discount store chain Target increased its profits by 19 per cent in the last quarter of 2001, while Tiffany, the jeweller, saw them drop 2 per cent. In other words, ordinary people's spending and the "old" economy are the engines of growth.

The best news of all is that manufacturing, which had been performing badly since the latter half of 2000, has surged back: February's 9.2 per cent rise in the manufacturing index was the biggest in 18 years, and General Motors sold more cars that month than it did in February 2001. This is exceptionally good news because, although manufacturing accounts for only 16 per cent of the US economy, a slump in that sector produces large and hard-to-reduce unemployment.

If these trends were to continue, the US would be on course for growth of between 4 and 5 per cent in 2002 - very high for an advanced economy. The upturn coming to Europe is less dramatic, but strong enough to cause the Bank of England's Sir Eddie George to talk of "spring coming a little bit early this year".

Thus, at the very least, we can conclude that 11 September delivered a far milder shock to the European and US economies than anyone expected. It is even possible that the event actually helped the advanced economies to recover, because it led to such a release of civic energy. The strongest indications of this come from the very man who recently wrote at length about social unravelling and civic anomie.

In Bowling Alone, Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University wrote that, "without at first noticing it, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities in the last third of the century". In October and November 2001, he went back to part of the huge survey base that he had used to support this thesis. He and his team found that 11 September had "dramatically interrupted the trend". US attitudes, which had been overwhelmingly individualised, distrustful and uninterested in public life, have turned.

Professor Putnam now finds:

1. levels of political consciousness and engagement "substantially higher than they were a year ago";

2. trust in government, trust in the police, and interest in politics are all up;

3. Americans are more likely to have attended a political meeting or participated in a community project;

4. people are less likely to agree that "the people running my community don't really care what I think";

5. "a dramatic and probably unprecedented burst of enthusiasm for the federal government";

6. more Americans trust each other than in 2000; and more Americans of one ethnic group trust those of another than two years ago;

7. intermarriage across racial and ethnic lines is more popular.

When Putnam did his first survey, young people had been more alienated than older people; now the trends towards more trust and political engagement are particularly marked among the young.

There were a few minor negatives: Putnam found a slightly more suspicious attitude to immigrants and Arab Americans. But overall, Putnam says, he found "Americans more united, readier for collective sacrifice and more attuned to public purpose than we have been for decades. Indeed, we have a more capacious sense of 'we' than we have had in the adult experience of most Americans now alive. The images of shared suffering that followed the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington suggested a powerful idea of cross-class, cross-ethnic solidarity."

In Europe, the shock of 11 September was less and has worn off more quickly, leaving people slightly querulous about the "fuss" America still seems to be making, six months on. However, Europe is undergoing a social upturn of a different kind, seemingly driven more by personal confidence than by patriotic or civic solidarity.

The evidence comes from Robert Tyrrell, who runs a consultancy that tracks changes in social attitudes and popular culture. Using data from Eurobarometer and ICM, he has found a strong recovery in consumer confidence after the dip in September. He has also found that most Europeans, while having only slightly more confidence and trust in their governments, are happier than they were last year. "Most citizens," says Tyrrell, "seem as content, in control and optimistic in their individual lives as ever - indeed, more so."

This is part of a longer trend. In France, from the second half of the 1990s, says Tyrrell, "there was a strong movement upwards, with demands for empowerment and improving scores on optimism, vitality and self-improvement". There were similar mood movements in the US - except that, there, the mood darkened in the latter part of the Nineties, whereas in France it just kept getting better.

Britain has also been getting "more optimistic" on a personal level - at the same time recognising, more than in the past, that social responsibility matters.

"In Europe," says Tyrrell, "there's a greater sense that we are living in society, but there's not been as pronounced a swing towards support for the government. The state and corporate power are still seen with some scepticism. There seems to be - I hesitate to use the term - a desire for a third way, recognising that individualism has its limits but not willing to put too much trust in government. There's a very strong self-empowerment trend going on. For example, it means that the brand movement is now no longer as powerful as it was. People feel constrained by brand loyalty: there's now a declining correlation between loyalty and satisfaction."

Tyrrell's research in Britain shows a society where confidence and belief in self seem to be rising strongly still. He quotes a continuous study of British college students which shows that, today, they are 50 per cent more extrovert than their counterparts in the 1960s. "The standard indicators of extroversion," he says, "are impatience, creativity, flexibility, less respect for authority and, crucially, being more relaxed about dropping in and out of relationships. Understand this research and I think you understand an awful lot about contemporary society."

Amid this welter of trends, there is an odd irony. In America, with high levels of civic engagement - and an evident desire to ask, in John F Kennedy's words, what you can do for your country and not what your country can do for you - the government has confined its response to a call to gather round the flag. "So far," writes Putnam, "America's new mood has expressed itself largely through images - of the attacks themselves, for instance, or the Ad Council's 'I am an American' campaign, which depicts our multicultural society."

In Europe, by contrast, where trust in government is now lower and individualism is running strongly, the centre-left governments appeal to people, especially the young, to become more involved. This is what Putnam would like to see in the US: he wants George Bush to encourage community and educational initiatives, such as more active civic education in schools, and more volunteering at home and abroad.

We in the developed nations appear, for various reasons, to have recovered optimism and hope. More mass terrorism could destroy that; but the one occurrence half a year ago appears to have assisted it.

Oh, what lovely, happy wars!

The notion that war and conflict can make us happier and more community-minded is a familiar one to sociologists, psychologists and historians. The camaraderie of Britain during the Blitz is well documented, and there is some evidence that Slobodan Milosevic created a similar spirit in Belgrade during the bombings of the Kosovo war.

It was Emile Durkheim, in his ground-breaking work Suicide, published in 1897, who first argued that war permits the use of outward aggression which, in times of peace, is turned inward. Another sociologist, Nils Retterstol, in Suicide: a European perspective, reported that the suicide rate in his native Norway dropped dramatically during both the First and Second World Wars.

A survey carried out in 1972 found that depression rates in Northern Ireland were lower at times when the Troubles were at their height, and that levels of happiness were higher in Belfast, where the conflict was at its most fierce, than in the more peaceful rural areas.

But all these studies concerned conflicts that involved people intensely over several years. Whether the (so far) one-off atrocities of 11 September, plus the very remote war in Afghanistan, will have similar long-term effects remains to be seen.

Dougal Stenson

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