Last year I was listening to a podcast about Middle Ages England, and the teacher said the most insightful thing I’ve ever downloaded for free:
The very word “community” carries a great deal of warmth. […] Community always seems to be just out of reach, something that belongs to a generation or two ago; just over the hill; in decline or under threat. It’s sort of the before of which we are the after; tantalizing, warm, the attractive feature of a world we have lost.
We don’t notice it, but this false nostalgia, this utopian elsewhere, is baked into the very word ‘community’. Even now, ‘community’ is always something we talk about in the past tense, something that exists in other countries and cities. Like the old Oscar Levant quote, it’s not something we experience, it’s something we remember.
I remembered this excerpt because this week I’m reading Sudhir Venkatesh’s ‘Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor‘.
Venkatesh spent more than five years living in South Chicago studying the income and expenditure of the people who live there. He interviews business owners, prostitutes, bums, gang members, hairstylists, cops, drug dealers, everyone who’s trying to earn a buck–or cheat, steal or scam one.
Here’s three moms he met:
Bird earns her living as a prostitute, plying her trade along Maquis Park’s main thoroughfare as well as on busy downtown streets. Eunice works in the formal economy, cleaning offices at minimum wage, and supplements her income by selling homemade soul food to the local lunchtime crowd. Marlene has various off-the-books jobs in the service sector; she earns most of her underground money as a $9 per hour nanny for a white family in the neighboring upper-class university district.
Each of these women works 50-70 hours a week. Their formal or semi-formal employment is supplemented by using their cars as ad hoc taxicabs, renting space in their homes to family and friends, helping out at church or school functions, whatever they can find. Like most residents Venkatesh profiles, they straddle the formal and informal sectors, and rely almost exclusively on personal ties (the local pastor, cousins, neighbors) to find work.
This is obviously fascinating for like 200 reasons, but one of the main ones is how much the ghetto economy of early-2000s urban America resembles that of small-town medieval England. Hear me out.
First, it’s profoundly informal. No one is reporting their income, and even people who are formally employed have major and minor off-the-books supplements. The local store owners, for example, rent out their shops after hours to gambling parties, and pay local homeless people a few bucks to stand watch for robberies or clean up at closing time.
Second, the government and public services are a no-show. Just like the centuries before state consolidation, Ventakesh’s residents can’t rely on transportation, law enforcement, garbage collection or, in some cases, clean drinking water and reliable electricity. Into this vacuum rush drug dealers, neighborhood associations and entrepreneurs, selling services that modern middle-class people get for free.
Third, everyone is all up in each other’s business. Like a small town, the every resident of this South Chicago neighborhood knows all others by name, including how they’re getting paid (fixing cars, cleaning houses, robbing drug dealers), what resources they have (house, car, skills), and how they are connected to other residents (sleeping with, working for, shooting at).
Fourth, problems get solved through personal relations, not impartial laws or outside mediation. Here’s a remarkable section about how residents negotiated with a drug dealer over access to the local park:
Marlene and her neighbors would no longer publicly chastise the prostitutes and scare away their customers, and they ended their phone calls to the police. For the summer, Big Cat [the drug dealer] agreed to limit his drug trafficking to late-night hours, and the pimp would move his sex workers into the abandoned buildings farthest away from the park. Big Cat also agreed to residents in Marlene’s block selling their own underground goods in the park; they would have priority over any other trader, and they would receive protection from the gang for the same price that others paid.
What I can’t help noticing is that the characteristics above are what people talk about when they lament the ‘communities’ we’ve lost: Everyone knows their neighbors! They work together to solve common problems! They engage in local issues!
To which I say: Communities fucking suck. I’m glad I don’t live in one. If I hear my neighbors playing music through the walls, I report it to the landlord (or, if they’re playing Conor Oberst, the European Court of Human Rights) and the problem is addressed without affecting my income, my safety or any of my personal relationships. If I want a job, I apply for one. I don’t have to do a favor for a family member, or give a cut to the preacher down the street.
The ‘communities’ we’ve lost were only close-knit and personal because there was no other option. You couldn’t rely on impartial administrators to purify your water or drive your buses or punish your mugger, so you did it all informally. This is understandable, and admirable, and maybe even worth missing. But it’s not an effective way to run a country. Just because you know your neighbors doesn’t mean you like them.
In ‘The Origins of Political Order’, Francis Fukuyama argues that the most successful societies are those that reject cronyism and apply objective standards to leaders and civil servants. One of the reasons China rose so quickly 1,000 years ago was that it systematized its bureaucracy. One of the reasons India stagnated was that it didn’t.
It’s hard not to romanticize small towns and close-knit communities. People working, living and relating to each other so closely is rare in modern life, and perhaps we’ve lost something for it. But on a society-wide scale, progress doesn’t happen because of communities, but in spite of them.