Another big idea

Bowling Alone

Robert Putnam <em>Simon and Schuster, 541pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0684832836

Bowling Alone has quite a different interest from any other of the "Big Idea" books emerging from US intellectuals. Robert Putnam is an academic who has served time in government, and his book is much more grounded than is common on poll data of various kinds across quite long time periods. More radically, it has about it the air and the explicit intent of being a do-it-yourself manual. What we are enjoined to do ourselves, though, is no less than to save America - and, by extension, all advanced societies - from the contemporary form of anomie. From, that is, a desperate shortage of social capital.

"Let us," writes Putnam in his last chapter, "find ways to ensure that by 2010 many more Americans will participate in the public life of our communities - running for office, attending public meetings, serving on committees, campaigning in elections and even voting." He looks to the next generation for this renaissance of civic virtue, because he finds that his own - in his late fifties, he is of the "boomer" generation - has consumed the social capital of their parents' generation and created little of their own. This is urgent, essential and demanding.

Putnam spent five years mapping out what he considers to be a sickness in contemporary society. Using a range of surveys done by institutes, commercial polling companies and government agencies, he discovered that social capital - created by citizens coming together voluntarily in clubs, unions, churches, political parties, neighbourhood groups, discussion and reading circles, and bowling leagues - has been draining away since the early 1960s. From a little before the 20th century's beginning, clubs and societies had been created by those struggling to cope with the great disruption caused by urbanisation, mass industrialisation and loss of small-town communitarianism. With the exception of a downturn during the Depression in the Thirties, member- ship in these associations climbed steadily, making the US population the most avid race of joiners ever seen. But the joining ceased; groups from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People to the Ku Klux Klan and the Salvation Army all lost members.

The culprits were many. No one single cause was wholly to blame. Women went to work and didn't network in the neighbourhood. The suburbs sprawled out and made it more difficult to meet. Commutes became longer. Entertainment television, which Putnam considers to be the largest culprit of all, took over increasingly vast swathes of leisure time, with a set in most children's bedrooms. The most civic generation in US history - that which emerged as young men and women from the Second World War - was replaced by boomers who didn't care about, or actively didn't like, the associations their parents had supported.

So what? Well, writes Putnam, in low social-capital areas, kids do badly at school, crime rises, violence increases, unemployment is high, wages are low, people die younger and the political system is scorned or disregarded. Yes, new freedoms were found: old discriminations were confronted and some were overcome. The unthinking dominance of the white man was broken. None of these should be minimised, and certainly not reversed. But beside these liberties and tolerances has grown up an indifference. The joiners are now at the extremes of single issues - or they "join" organisations such as Greenpeace, which demands nothing more than financial support.

As he moves towards his plea for recognition of the sickness and for its cure, Putnam finds some hope in history. The late 19th-century Americans, preceded by the British, had experienced the same social malaise. Benjamin Disraeli, in Sybil, wrote that Christianity "teaches us to love our neighbour as ourself; modern society acknowledges no neighbour". The British, followed by the Americans, had indulged in social philanthropy and co-operative association on a scale never seen before. And now it is time to do it again.

The argument is hugely persuasive. The sheer industry of Putnam and his team of researchers is allied to a care and sobriety of presentation that, because of his flowing, slightly faux-naIf style, never bores. At the end, it cannot be doubted that a three- to four-decade shift has been going on, slowly, slice by slice, ignored or even rejoiced in by the now middle-aged generations who run politics, the economy and society, and who find their leisure in individual pursuits.

Putnam has worked as thoroughly as he has because he had himself to convince. Having done so, he has left all of our societies with an important dilemma: how are the gains of the liberals to be preserved in a 21st century in which we are free to rend our societies, with our addiction to television, our lack of kindly curiosity for neighbours and our absolute indifference?

John Lloyd is a former editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men