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17 January 2005updated 24 Sep 2015 11:46am

Hidden solidarities that span the globe

As the past few weeks have shown, we are not the selfish, atomised individuals of modern media myth.

By Ray Pahl

At first sight, the upsurge of public generosity in Britain in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami seems surprising. It is commonly asserted that we live in an individualised society. Politicians pander to an individualised ethos and often encourage it – arguing for more choice in health and education or more personal responsibility to save for our old age – while also lamenting the weakening of the solidarities of family, community and society. On the one hand, they advocate more social capital and greater social cohesion; on the other, they argue for more competition and offer goodies to individual consumers with all the enthusiasm of a car salesman.

There is, these politicians seem to say, no alternative. The Third Way is presented as a kind of managerial strategy, a means not an end, with no clear vision of the society to which it leads. The idea that there should be any form of collective action in pursuit of legitimate ends is seen almost as treason.

Even sociologists have succumbed to the fashionable view that we live in the age of the individual and that, no matter how damaging we think it is, we just have to accept it. While their professional forefathers were concerned with the negative effects of industrialisation on producers (leading to alienation, according to Marx, and too much bureaucracy, according to Max Weber), today’s sociologists are preoccupied with the negative effects of modernity on consumers. Modernity, they argue, leads to impermanence in social relationships – an idea encapsulated in “liquid love”, the brilliant phrase coined by Zygmunt Bauman.

Yet I believe that swathes of social experience are being overlooked, and that the response to the tsunami appeals has allowed us to glimpse something which, in public debate at least, we deny. Most commentators discuss only a limited range of relationships. They focus on parents and children, different forms of part- nership, siblings or whatever. They rarely consider the gamut of relationships and they tend to ignore the crucial importance of friendship and friend-like relations – partly because the term “friends” is used loosely, to cover everything from a tennis partner to a lifelong soulmate.

Hence there is little firm knowledge about the actual set of enduring relationships within which people live out their lives. These “hidden solidarities”, as I call them, seem to have become invisible. One is reminded of the Monty Python sketch where a demagogue addresses a crowd. “You are all individuals,” he says, at which a voice at the back cries out: “I’m not!”

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Herbert Gans’s book Middle American Individualism emphasised the importance of people’s microsocial worlds – the “little circles” of which Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the first half of the 19th century. The implication is that these personal communities encourage people to withdraw from wider social concerns and commitments to the immediate circles of those most important to them. This is not so. I recently carried out research (with my colleague Kaye Chambers) in two electoral divisions in the West Midlands, looking at involvement in the voluntary sector. When I had gathered information on all voluntary organisations with a budget of at least £1,000 a year and the names of all their committee members, the degree of social involvement astonished me. As many as one in three of all adults in the area was a member of at least one committee. When we added up the total budget managed by these bodies, it was greater than the annual budget of the local district council, even though the council covered a wider area than just those two divisions.

One may object that these are parochial solidarities, of little significance in the global context. We may relate to our best friends or to the local parent-teacher association, but there our social solidarities end. Not so. There are now forms of compassion and social solidarity that stretch across the world.

People stand in the rain collecting for a huge range of charitable activities; sponsored runs or swims are everywhere. Globalisation has increased our solidarities of compassion. Research by Iain Wilkinson at the University of Kent reports that, on average, 2.3 per cent of the workforce in European societies now work for some kind of charity.

The number of UK-registered charities has soared from 76,000 in 1970 to 187,000 in 2002. Their total annual income is roughly £30bn and the incomes of the top 500 are currently increasing by roughly 7 per cent a year in real terms, with about 55 per cent of this money coming from voluntary (rather than government) sources. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of households that give to charity has grown to roughly 30 per cent; Oxfam, the British Red Cross and Save the Children UK all have incomes in excess of £100m. The number of international NGOs has increased more than fourfold over the past decade. As Wilkinson remarks: “Never before in human history have such large-scale co-ordinated international efforts been made to combat poverty, provide peace, fight famine and eradicate epidemic disease.”

That we are able to treat people anywhere in the world as our neighbours-in-need is surely grounds for hope. In the 19th century business people did much to improve their own towns and cities by providing parks, libraries, town halls and other public goods. The multiple chain stores do not have the same commitment to specific places, but firms such as Tesco will select a specific charity to focus on and support each year. Last year was the turn of Help the Hospices. There is surely overwhelming evidence to show that charity has moved far from home to succour those afflicted with flood, famine, genocide and the ambitions of the powerful.

It may be objected that my stance is Panglossian, even simple-minded. The world is surely a much nastier place than I am implying. And certainly we are encouraged daily to view the world in a fearful and pessimistic way. Bogeymen are everywhere, from terrorists in aeroplanes to paedophiles in the park. The government has distributed a pamphlet to every home telling us to “go in, stay in, tune in”. The assumption is that the home is the safest place in an emergency, despite all the evidence that it is also the main locus of rape, murder and child abuse.

But I would argue that, in the same way that we misjudge risk (driving to work is in fact the most dangerous activity outside the home), so we misjudge our hidden social solidarities. There is perhaps too much vested interest in highlighting problems, dangers and fears. Could it be easier to govern a fearful society encouraged to think of itself as made up of threatened individuals whose only hope is a powerful, protective and controlling state, than a society in which invisible solidarities can take unexpected directions? And do the media not contribute to this with their celebrity obsession and their focus on human-interest stories that show us always acting as individuals? Perhaps by making our solidarities more visible – as they have become in the past two or three weeks – we have gained a better vision of where the Third Way could lead.

Ray Pahl is visiting professor at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex

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