Community, Privatization, Efficiency

Thanks to a recommendation from Danica Savonick, I’ve been reading Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community. Danica pointed me toward it as a corrective for some of the ways my gestures toward community flirted with the romanticized notions Joseph seeks to question, and hard as it is for me (an optimist, for better or for worse) to open some of the ideals I hold to harder questioning, that questioning is proving fruitful.

Joseph explores the extent to which discourses about community suggest an antidote to or escape from capitalism’s depredations, while distracting us from the supplementary role that community actually serves with respect to capital, filling its gaps and smoothing over its rifts in ways that permit it to function untrammeled. The alternative presented by community allows the specter of socialism, or genuine state support for the needs of the public, to be dismissed. This relationship becomes particularly clear in Joseph’s discussion of the role of non-profit organizations — entities highly likely to participate in and benefit from the idealized discourse of community — which often fill needs left behind by a retreating state, allowing that retreat to go unchallenged.

As Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier explore in Austerity Blues, the state’s ongoing disclaimer of its responsibilities for the public welfare, from the Reagan era forward, makes itself felt across the social sphere — in housing policy, in environmental policy, and, of course, in education. Throughout Generous Thinking, one of my interests lies in the effects of, and the need to reverse, the shift in our cultural understanding of education (and especially higher education); where in the mid-twentieth century, the value of education was largely understood to be social, it has in recent decades come to be described as providing primarily private, individual benefits. And this, inevitably, has accompanied a shift from education being treated as a public service to being treated as a private responsibility.

As Fabricant and Brier note, this transition is just one manifestation of the state gradually displacing its responsibilities for the public welfare onto private citizens and, as Joseph’s reading suggests, onto a range of socially-oriented nonprofits supported largely through private philanthropy. This displacement is of course operative in the de-funding of public universities, effectively transforming them into non-profits rather than state institutions. The effects of this program of neoliberal1 reform run deep, not least that the dominant motivator behind these privatized institutions becomes sustainability rather than service, leaving universities, like non-profits, in an endless cycle of fundraising and budget cuts.

The argument in favor of this privatization, one largely accepted on both sides of the aisle, is in significant part based on the inefficiency of government bureaucracies and the far more streamlined and therefore ostensibly effective practices made possible in the private sector. Reversing the trend toward privatization will thus require not just massive public mobilization and demand of elected officials, but also a hard turn away from efficiency as a primary value, a recognition that the building of relationships and the cultivation of care is slow and difficult and of necessity inefficient. In fact, that its value lies in its inefficiency — but making the case for such inefficiency as a necessary value requires a lot of effort, and a lot of caution.

All of which is surfacing a bunch of related thoughts that I’m still working through, and about which I hope to write more in the coming days, including strategic uses of the notion of community, potential forms that collectivity might take other than “community,” and — and I swear this is connected — the relationship between obligation and voluntarism. More on which soon.

  1. Yes, I know. I’ve come around to believe that the term does in fact have a specific meaning, and that used judiciously, it’s absolutely correct.

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