“We have perhaps a general principle: to make something saleable, in a human economy, one needs to first rip it from its context.”
David Graeber, Debt: the First 5,000 Years
IN 2000, the economist Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which explores why Americans are increasingly socially isolated. Putnam observes that we have fewer friends, join fewer clubs, don’t vote as often or run for office, don’t know our neighbors or our co-workers, don’t go to church, and don’t often involve ourselves in charities. Instead of volunteering, we donate (and even then, less than we used to). For those of us who do build social bonds through parties, socials, and sports, we’re also participating in those activities far less frequently than ever before. Putnam is especially interested in the economic consequences of these changes. Social connections are essential for our material well-being, reproduction and survival. Friends and contacts help one another find jobs and spouses, feed one another when they are hungry, and watch one another’s kids. The fragmenting of our communal bonds is not just a social problem, it also presents a profound economic challenge.
As a Christian who is also a Marxist, I think it’s important to attend to the fraying bonds studied by Putnam. For Christians, a lack of community is an ethical problem, because in order to love our neighbors as Jesus commanded, we must have some neighbors to love. How do we love our neighbors when we literally don’t know each other? Marxists have a simliar problem. Their goal is to overcome the economic alienation that separates us from our neighbors. But the precondition of working-class solidarity is constantly undercut by an economic system that seeks to atomize us.
I think these problems should be analyzed and addressed together. Any member of a church recognizes that being in community offers both spiritual and social value. Churches are among the last remaining “social clubs” regularly attended by Americans. It takes specific skills to maintain those communities and relationships and to quickly mobilize them for specific community goals. Churchgoers also recognize the pitfalls of being in community. Marxists, whether religious or not, should make rebuilding “social capital” a primary goal of our organizing, and perhaps learning from churches—their successes and shortcomings—can help us in our efforts to rebuild.
FOR Putnam, the dissolution of robust civil life is related to the loss of “social capital.” He defines social capital as the “connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” Perhaps more cynically, it’s the ability to get people who know you (or who know people you know) to do things they would otherwise not do on your behalf. Examples include getting a group of friends (and friends of friends) to help you move in exchange for a token payment of pizza, or getting a personal reference from a boss. Putnam’s definition of social capital is very susceptible to critique from the left. It would, for instance, be easy to dismiss Putnam’s analysis entirely as propping up bourgeois economics, a means of reducing even interpersonal relationships to their productive capacity.
There are other problems. While Bowling Alone lays out a compelling case for the steady decline of social capital in America and its disastrous effects, it fizzles when explaining the cause of this decline. A full 15% is attributed to television watching. We are apparently too glued to the TV to wave “hello” at neighbors when getting the mail. Another whack of time is lost because women work outside of the home. But this doesn’t explain why work relationships have deteriorated, or answer the more fundamental question of why, if all sexes now work, that hasn’t freed up any time for people who traditionally worked before. Putnam fails, for instance, to mention falling wages as a core driver of the change. Last, he attributes the change to the memetic generational attitudes of the Baby Boomers (which he treats as impossible to explain or change).
Putnam’s analysis has also aged considerably. We’ve found new ways to connect since Bowling Alone was written. The internet has emerged as an incredible resource for potential social connection—one the author acknowledged hadn’t been around long enough for him to study. Twenty-five percent of Americans now have a Twitter account. About two-thirds of adults use Facebook. Surely, now that we’ve replaced some television time with special interest subreddits and Twitter friends, we’ve managed to overcome some of that isolation?
Jenny Odell’s Recent book How To Do Nothing help explains why this probably isn’t the case. Her book is not explicitly about social bonds, but nevertheless does an admirable job describing the internet’s effect on our relationships and work, as well as its ability to abstract us from our social context. The title refers to the ways our digital lives push us to be constantly productive — especially in our social media interactions. For instance, the ubiquity of the internet allows our bosses to reach us over email after work hours and outside of the physical office. On social media, nothing is private. Our dirty jokes aren’t just limited to a small number of friends at a private party (we’re having very few of those anyway), but can be read by children, your priest, your boss, and your sainted grandmother. If a right-wing troll or a TERF wants you fired, that stranger can look you up, email you death threats, and then screenshot your most unkind responses and email them to your boss.
There are also a number of communication styles — exaggeration, sarcasm, irony, survivor’s guilt, the reclaiming of slurs for your own minority groups — that require a high degree of context to be understood. Presented outside their context, they can be used against you. In the end, Odell observes, the people with the largest platforms — in other words, the most online connections — are those who minimize their reliance on context as much as possible. If you want to be internet famous in a good way, it’s best to never share vulnerability, guilt, or anger, and to never have a thought too knotty to unravel in one post. Expressing yourself authentically is just not what it’s designed for; rather, we’re pushed to ever-greater levels of performativity.
The concern that Facebook and Twitter push us toward performativity may seem frivolous, but social media is profoundly frivolous. That’s the problem. This is what people are doing instead of more nourishing activities like volunteering or throwing a party. Worse, it’s mostly what’s available. You can resolve to join a softball team, but your participation is going to be limited if there aren’t enough people who also want to join. Joining, by its nature, is dependent on specific people. Posting, which is purely expressive, doesn’t require any specific audience members at all.
Expression is important, of course, but without building relationships and social infrastructure, it ultimately goes nowhere. Queer and disabled people often use social media in effective ways precisely because their offline communities have traditionally been threatened by violence, bigotry, and lack of accessibility. Trans people and people with rare illnesses may resort to online communities because there are so few of them. In-person connection is not always an option. But I would discourage members of those communities from minimizing the importance of context. We have been robbed of the ability to organize in-person by violent means or by chance, but that does not make us exempt from social media’s drawbacks or immune from the benefits of environments more conducive to stable relationships.
THE stripping of context from online communication is a central, necessary condition of commodification. On social media, you are the product and advertisers are the consumers. It is very hard to sell your pair of eyeballs for ads if you aren’t quantified in ways that make you interchangeable with anyone else. Companies categorize you by sex, age, politics, and their guesses at your disposable income. All of these demographics are carefully correlated with how valuable it is to show you an ad. The result of all that algorithmic quantification is a pure monetary figure. That is precisely the function of money in a capitalist system — it smooths over your humanity, making you equivalent to anyone else in terms of your utility as a producer and consumer.
People aren’t becoming alienated from one another because they are choosing to sit alone in front of their computers, nor are they increasingly alienated because new generations (boomers onward) find loneliness cool. This isolation is by design and useful to capital. As boomers entered their early twenties, productivity and wages suddenly and sharply diverged. Consumer purchasing power has fallen steadily since 1950, roughly when the boomers were born. Meanwhile, corporate profits and CEO salaries soared. (Marxists will tell you that gains come from human labor and the capital — like automation infrastructure — accumulated through that labor.) While the decline in income is seen by Putnam as correlated to the decline in social capital (unions were a great builder of social capital, which was then leveraged to demand higher wages), it’s also causal. Unions didn’t disappear because of a lack of interest; they were intentionally destroyed.
Perhaps the question should not be, “why do we have far less social capital?” but instead, “what has replaced social capital?” I would propose a straightforward answer: our relationships have become increasingly commodified, and as a result we have withdrawn from them to protect ourselves. Commodifying in order to destroy our social bonds serves corporate interests, after all. Any time we don’t spend organizing is time we can be productive. Any time we spend face-to-face is time we spend away from socializing in monetizable ways. Any political decision we could make to build our communities will be opposed by corporations that stand to monetize our separation. And so, by the accretion of a thousand policy decisions—from the placement of highways to the defunding of libraries to the gentrification of neighborhoods—our bonds have eroded. The portions of our social lives that are rewarding precisely because they fill our needs as irreplaceable human beings, loved by God and in relationship with one another, are dismantled because they aren’t productive and can’t be sold.
What does all this have to do with churches? Even if you’re a Marxist who would never dream of joining a church (though I won’t discourage you from joining one, either) it’s worth paying attention to the models that churches provide for political organizers. Churches are repositories of institutional knowledge on how to be in community with a wide variety of people — for productive and non-productive ends — at a time when that skill set is in decline. Christian churches have also navigated questions that have posed historical challenges to the left: how to be in the world without being corrupted by it, how to recruit and build lasting communities. Perhaps most importantly, radical social movements, like the Civil Rights movement, were organized partly in the back rooms and basements of American — specifically black American — churches. The left has experienced both crushing losses and victories, and some of the most important victories were planned in churches.
VIVIAN Gonack’s oral history of the Communist Party USA, The Romance of American Communism, covers a period between the 1920s and 1950s, when the twin blows of the execution of the Rosenbergs and Kruschev’s “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin caused the American Communist Party to hemorrhage members. The Soviet Union dictated how the party was run — how open it was about its goals, how it coordinated with labor unions, and how it handled dissent and misconduct. So when Kruschev denounced Stalin’s handling of conflict and dissent as paranoid and violent, it struck a nerve. Gornick suggests that the party adopted its mores from a Russian party preparing for an imminent war, and failed to adapt to American culture and material circumstances. Ultimately, she depicts a paranoid party that was corrosive of its members’ social ties outside and inside the party, treated misconduct and dissent as unforgivable, and finally fell apart from a total lack of social cohesion.
However, the misconduct for which members were most often expelled was racism. Gornick emphasizes that most of these charges were frivolous and focuses on the social costs of show trials. But I find it implausible that a political party with significant white membership, operating between the 1920s and 1950s, didn’t have a racism problem. Perhaps their methods of accountability (spying on members, show trials, expulsion, and total social shunning ) were ineffective for the community in the long term and ultimately eroded social cohesion within the group. But letting racism go with no system of accountability would have also, ultimately, split the group along racial lines. That is the central tension of movement building — the tradeoff between the utility of social cohesion and its cost. Not in “purity,” as it is often framed, but in who must give up their dignity for the sake of group cohesion, and the loss of integrity and direction once we have sacrificed our most vulnerable members for the sake of good feelings. Who is this communism thing for if not for them? We have to find a method of accountability in our communities that doesn’t come at the cost of our most vulnerable members, but also strives to hold wrongdoers accountable with the goal of bringing them back into the fold. Assuming, of course, they’re willing to make amends.
SINCE the publication of Bowling Alone, the number of those who identify as “evangelical” has held steady, defying recent demographic trends. And while this group likes to claim they are growing, only 42% of evangelical churches report actual growth in membership. Identifying as an evangelical may now have more to do with conservative identity than interest in attending a church. All other Christian churches have suffered steeply declining membership and participation; moderate, mainline Protestant churches have experienced some of the sharpest drop-offs. The reason for the slower decline of evangelicals is that they remain socially engaged relative to other groups, but with one quirk: evangelicals don’t know non-evangelicals. The kind of social capital they build is what Putnam calls bonding capital — the kind of bonds that exist between people similar to us, like our family.
By contrast, mainline Protestant church members have historically succeeded at building both members’ bonds and their bridging capital — relationships with people unlike us. The distinction Putnam makes between bonding and bridging capital makes a great deal of sense in this context. In my experience, mainline Protestants tolerate a wider variety of people and are willing to reach out to other Christian and secular groups with whom they share a common cause. Most evangelical interaction with outsiders (including mainline Protestants and Catholics) is evangelism work. Evangelical outreach to non-evangelicals isn’t an attempt to build a bridge to a person unlike themselves, it’s an attempt to create a new evangelical.
Notably, evangelicals are also extremely conservative, and a significant number are outrightly “christofascist.” This is part of the wider societal trend: as fewer people participate, the people who do participate are more brittle and extreme. As any queer child in an evangelical home can attest, those close bonds are incredibly conditional on fulfilling the strict mores of reactionary Christianity. Failing to meet those standards can leave one suddenly and literally homeless. That is the dark side of social bonds in general. To have an in-group, there must necessarily be an out-group. As a queer person, I have had to fight a revulsion at the idea I might join any organization because I find myself so often on the outside of this dynamic. Sexual abuse scandals in churches, which use those tight bonds to protect abusers, also make me panicky. Tight group dynamics easily go hand in hand with a culture of silence.
But there is an undeniable power in having close-knit comrades. Odell uses the metaphor of “rooms” to talk about social context in How to Do Nothing. What is appropriate in this room is not always appropriate in another, nor is it necessarily appropriate in public. Both Putnam and Odell use the room metaphor to talk about the Civil Rights movement. Church leaders formulated strategies in private, then presented them to activists in closed groups for tweaking and strategizing, who then implemented the strategy in public. Mistakes in messaging happened in private. Their political enemies did not have access to their strategy before it was fully mature and ready to roll out.
Let me not get too far in praising the vital work of black Christian socialists in movement building — which I believe was central to their successes — without cautioning that the ugly side of social bonds was a problem even here. Bayard Rustin, an advisor to Martin Luther King and organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, was sidelined in the movement he helped build for being gay. Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat was planned, and her stature as a blameless old woman was crucial to the success of the Montgomery boycotts. But Claudette Colvin, who refused to give up her seat months before Rosa Parks, didn’t get the recognition Parks did because she was a pregnant teen. In a very real way, the movement failed them for being the “wrong kind of person”— abandoned them for their vulnerability within a culture that hated them.
We also shouldn’t downplay the role of religious mores in the violent exclusion of minorities. Christianity has played an active role in this country’s white supremacist history, and many of Christianity’s branches — though not all — have defined our queer comrades as being unworthy of family, healthcare, and basic safety. Nevertheless, I do think Christianity has a vital perspective that Marxists can learn from, which is that we’re all sinners. In her series of Earl Lectures, “Beyond Mere Dialogue,” the Christian socialist Dorothy Sölle draws an explicit connection between alienation and sin. She says “My confession I am a sinner doesn’t make too much sense to me in terms of my sexual life or my disobedience towards my mother. It makes more sense to look on a world hunger map.”
We all participate in a capitalist system that turns living people into dead objects who are useful only to capital, while reifying dead capital into something that grows and reproduces as if it were alive. I have a moral duty, as a Christian and a socialist, to fight that system. And I often fail to do just that. Churches, for all their faults, start with the framework that their individual members aren’t there because they are right, but because we are all wrong. We aren’t merely imperfect; we are damned but for literal divine intervention.
I find this framing both useful and compatible with my Marxism: I am not coming to communism because I am a perfect communist, but because the world (and I with it) is damned without communism. I think believing that I am a sinner who is alienated from God and my neighbor and that I have a moral duty to make amends fits well with Marx and his discussion of how capitalism has alienated me from my neighbors. Seen this way, my political activism isn’t “evangelical,” where I am oh-so-right and I need to convert others to my rightness. Instead, it’s a project of reconciliation with people from whom I am estranged. This, in turn, gives me a lot more room and grace for people who are unlike me. Reconciliation is a process, so I can give people a lot of time to be imperfect — because I am also imperfect — and still work with them.
We must do the difficult work of reaching out to and reconciling with people who aren’t like us — the slow, painful work of reconciling within the brutality of capitalist alienation. On the left, there’s a common, facile framing that treats people “unlike us” as committed and socially engaged conservatives; the truth is that people unlike us are the vast sea of people so alienated they have no connections and no activist sentiments whatsoever. These are the people we need to reach, and we can’t do that until we wrap our heads around how profoundly capitalism has destroyed our communities’ social bonds in order to monetize the wreckage. Knowing and loving our neighbors isn’t ancillary to communism. It may actually be the whole point.