Do-it-yourself ideology takes hold
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – New book examines the emerging concept of social resilience.
Jul 17 2013. By: Carol Goar
Long after politicians and pundits stop asking big, unsettling questions, the scholars at Toronto’sCanadian Institute for Advanced Research keep probing and pondering.
Every five years, the fellows of the institute’s “successful societies” program — historians, political scientists, economists, criminologists, urban planners, psychiatrists, epidemiologists and philosophers — collaborate on a book examining the trends that are changing the global landscape and reshaping people’s lives.
This year’s book, entitled Social Resilience in the Neoliberal Era, looks at the way communities react to successive shocks such as technological change, globalization, the triumph of market economics, privatization, deregulation, job insecurity, rising income equality and shrinking social programs.
Some communities struggle to survive. Others absorb the blows and come out stronger.
This book seeks to identify the factors that allow the adapters to move forward. It also aims to move the debate beyond buzzwords and half-baked theories.
Neoliberalism, for example, is a phrase commentators toss around freely. But they often seize on one aspect of it — fiscal austerity, market discipline, income polarization, job insecurity — thinking they’ve grasped the whole. Their prescriptions are partial at best, harmful at worst. This book pulls together all the pieces.
“It offers new ways of understanding the sweeping long-term effects of neoliberal policies,” says Dr. Alan Bernstein, president and CEO of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR).
Social resilience is an emerging concept, a do-it-yourself ideology taking hold at the community level. Political elites aren’t sure whether it is a threat or a godsend. Individuals and groups are organizing themselves to fill the gaps left by cost-cutting governments, solve their own problems, and create opportunities that didn’t exist before.
“Social resilience does not mean a society faces challenges and recovers unchanged,” says Jonathan Arac, founding director of the Humanities Centre at the University of Pittsburgh, who helped set up the successful societies program. “It makes it possible for people living in societies to lead good lives despite the challenges.
The book’s 21 contributors — 10 Canadian, 10 American and one British — share the conviction that social resilience is the flip-side of neoliberalism. But it consists of small experiments and scattered innovations and it raises new moral quandaries. Here are some of the issues they explore:
- Do tectonic shifts in the economy change people’s values, allegiances and identity?
- Is multiculturalism relevant in a borderless world of commerce, communication and competition?
- What makes a life worthy when a tiny fraction of the population controls a disproportionate share of the wealth?
- Does prejudice increase or recede when no one feels immune to job loss?
- What does leadership mean when governments play a dwindling role in people’s lives?
- Why do small homogeneous societies such as Quebec seem to do better at balancing market forces and social welfare policies than bigger, more pluralistic societies such as Canada?
Some chapters are more compelling than others, some insights more practical for people eager to push back against those who insist individuals and communities have no choice and no power. What all of the authors do, in various ways, is point out that there is room for ingenuity and there are ways societies can shape a better future.
New jobs are emerging. Economic-social hybrids that would have been unthinkable a generation ago are popping up. Art and culture have moved from the margins to the mainstream, creating employment opportunities and social structures that didn’t exist a decade ago. Young people, using social media, are organizing mass movements to topple repressive regimes. Older people are redefining retirement, carving out roles as active, involved citizens.
There is still much to learn, says senior fellow Peter Hall of Harvard University, co-director of the CIFAR’s successful societies program. “We want to open up this concept of social resilience and identify it as a phenomenon so others will go out and study it and help contribute new thinking.”
He is right; the 416-page book is more of a catalyst for brainstorming than a user’s guide to building strong, resilient communities. But its message is one of hope. People have the capacity to bounce back from trauma, to live meaningful lives in disruptive times.
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