As always, I want to finish the year on a positive note – but it’s not been the easiest year from which to draw positive conclusions. Thankfully in asking myself ‘politics, economics and geopolitics are all dreadful, what is getting me through?’, I found an answer. At the bottom of 25 tonnes of gravel.
It’s an answer we can all reach for, which can help us all. But it is an answer we still need to fight for because the answer itself is strangely unhelpful for big corporations. They don’t like the answer even as they claim to. It is a simple answer and it always has been. It is community.
Before any of you shout ‘wait a minute, I was expecting something bigger than that’, let me tell you my story. A month and a half ago I wrote about how I was struggling with the death of a close friend (on top of everything else). It has been a difficult one, both personally and because he leaves behind a young family who will no longer be able to pay the mortgage and so will need to seek social housing.
In that piece I explained my impotent anger at the forces which killed him (particularly our food system) and at the housing and financial systems which leave his family with no home. It happens and you want to, well, do something. But there is nothing to do really, is there?
That is what lifted me, what has restored me somewhat for a festive season ahead. Because there is always something to do. Spontaneously my friend’s friends formed a WhatsApp group to get people together to get his house and garden fixed up to the very best standard we could manage, just to get the family more money from the sale of their home.
My friend was a joiner and there are many tradesmen among our group. The work the 30-odd of us have got through in a few weekends and evenings is impressive. I wanted to help so much, but first I was out of the country on work (and missed the funeral) and then, when I got back, I was exhausted and had my own mini-crises at home.
I’d only had three days off work in the preceding five weeks and in the weeks before I had a bug which left me just alive enough to work but not to do the heavy DIY in our house that we’d started. It is a monster job and we’re six weeks late now. That I needed to sacrifice time to go and do my late friend’s house up added to the stress. How was I going to get this all done?
So I head down first thing in my working clothes, worried about how I was going to manage everything. The first day I painted a garden wall (as people with actual skills built another wall) and helped move many tonnes of bricks and blocks. The next weekend the gravel arrived for the driveway and back garden. Like I say, 25 tonnes of it.
I’d been working on our DIY every night and I’d done my back in. I was sore and basically useless. But I managed to find an angle at which I could shovel gravel (though not shift the wheelbarrow). Here’s the thing; with every shovel I just started to feel better and better. Actually my back felt slightly better, but it wasn’t that.
And the bacon rolls and tea in the freezing cold were amazing (it’s the little things…), but it wasn’t that. I don’t think I had a single conversation during my two days of labour (everyone else did so much more) that was of any real consequence.
Just stuff – someone is applying for a new job, another is just back from a winter break abroad, we talked about price rises and getting screwed over all the time, to my surprise there was a strong feeling that Biden is an embarrassment (I never raise politics with my friends unless someone else does – that was them, I was just listening).
Late capitalism has tried to isolate us from each other, tried to supplant some of our relationships with each other with a direct relationship between us and them
And I came away better than I have felt in many weeks. I slept better, I got home in time to do an hour or two of DIY, get the pizzas made (Saturday night is pizza night) and sit down with the rest of the family to watch, well, Spiderman. Who cares? I was… good. For the first time in a wee while I was good.
Why? How? What’s going on? I can answer that in lots of ways. Anthropologically, the nature of human physiology makes us entirely reliant on community. We are born at a very early stage of development and cannot fend for ourselves for a long time. From that point onwards, our entire existence is orientated around relationships.
I can answer it sociologically. As soon as you build systems of support that are based on other people, this becomes what you value. In a group you are judged by the other members of the group and, as social animals, a phenomenal proportion of our many driving urges is for those judgements to be positive, for us to be respected in our group.
I can answer it psychologically. Humans respond differently to other humans than any other situation we find ourselves in. Let me tell you about a simple psychological experiment (probably best not to try this one these days); if someone in the service sector makes even the very slightest physical contact with a customer, even so slight the customer doesn’t notice, that customers is very substantially more likely to leave a tip.
We get a surge of wellbeing we may not even notice, even if it is just if the finger of a person putting change in our hands brushing slightly against our skin. People make us feel better (or worse), and we make them feel better (or worse), much more than anything else in our lives.
Now let me answer it economically; because in that field this is a disaster. Our sociability means we buy drinks together and our need for social status means that corporations can shame and guilt us into buying the latest fashion. But fundamentally, happy people spending time with their friends do not spend money. Isolated, sad people spend money.
Late capitalism has tried to isolate us from each other. It has tried to supplant some of our relationships with each other with a direct relationship between us and them. Elite politics likes a fragmented society, because then we can’t get together, organise and change things.
Does the idea of a 15-minute city seem like a giant threat to you? As in, you can get the basic services you need (from health services to a supermarket) within 15 minutes from where you are. How is that a threat to liberty?
Except it isn’t. It’s a threat that we might spontaneously break out into community again. It is the worry that our loss of sense of what really matters to us that takes place alone in the car between our real lives and the retail park is gone. If we bump into someone we know in the supermarket, we ‘waste’ valuable shopping time to pointless blether, taking up supermarket real estate.
There was no material reason why shovelling gravel lifted me up so much. It was 100 per cent down to the power of community to help us feel both together in our grief and also, well, not useless, not powerless.
Sometimes you learn a big lesson even when you already know the lesson. For me I’ve been trying to spread that lesson for years – local works, community saves people, change isn’t just from the top, ordinary people can be trusted to run their own communities, human relationships improve health and mental health.
We want to be together – we’re driven to it, it’s fundamental to our existence
And then it happened to me. It was wonderful. I needed it a lot. I think we all did. One of the women on the group told me over a cup of tea that she felt a touch guilty because she couldn’t do the heavy lifting the boys were doing. I said ‘oh, don’t worry, this is group therapy, you’re doing what you need to by being here’.
I don’t want 15 minute cities, I want five-minute cities. Everything the late 20th century did to engineer-out our communities, I want to see reversed. I want an end to commuter dormitories in favour of real local economies. I want an end to out-of-town retail in a big battle to reduce consumerism and increase sociability. I want people to have the power to shape their own place.
I want all of this not because me and my friends are better than you and your friends but because we’re not, in any way whatsoever. We’re exactly the same. We’re all exactly the same. We want the same world. We want to be together – we’re driven to it, it’s fundamental to our existence. Yet it seems that either a politician, a big-business person or a social media mogul is constantly standing in our way, preventing us from getting there.
That’s what I want to fight. More than anything I want to get them out the way and to replace this fragmented society in which we have replaced human relationships with medication to deal with loneliness and depression for one in which it is so much easier for us to be together than to just, well, shop alone.
My house is still upside down. The DIY is making good progress, but it still keeps me awake. But I’ll get done, partly because I have now got more energy and more determination than I started with. I’ll make sure and visit my late friend’s family and take them mince pies or a ham or something for Christmas Day (it was my friend who did the cooking). Just something.
And then I’m going to indulge shamelessly not in booze and food (well, perhaps a bit) but in enjoying my community. I’ll see people and go for Christmas drinks. All my late friend’s friends are getting together on the 29th and that rules out the 30th. But I’ll be on my feet for Hogmanay where I will stand by (what’s left of) Biggar Bonfire where I will shake hands with a hundred people I care about and wish them the best year ahead.
And then I’m going to spend next year fighting like fuck to build a society which puts community at the heart of everything we do. Have a great one. I hope you spend it with your community too.
First published by Common Weal