Communities, when I think about it, are mysterious entities—and present only in shattered fragments in modern life. My image of a real community is of people working together, but in such a way that the commonality of the effort is reflected in the horizontal as well as in the vertical dimensions, thus that they are working together in the same space, more or less, and that the labor has the same inner and outer purpose, a purpose that all those who support it spontaneously understand. The manner in which individual efforts are meaningfully linked ought also to be quite visible: the people to whom I sell groceries teach my children, sell me clothes, repair my plumbing, attend my church... The activities we undertake together should have a purpose we actually share.
In modern life the closest thing we actually encounter is the spatial unity we share with others who work in the same enterprise. But the vertical and inner dimension may both already be quite vague. The aims of large corporations are up there in the sky and abstract—profit and growth. And my relation even to this partial community may be rather tentative. I’m easily replaceable; and my income is a necessary cost for the collective (but a benefit for my community). But the community’s is not the hammer hand; my employer may reduce me (cost that I am) and gladly if at all possible. My employer may itself also be (at least thinkably) altogether unnecessary—thus throwing my work identity up into the air as well. This is especially true if it competes—and doubly so if it must compete fiercely with others; the more embattled it is, the less necessary it appears. But then—what about me? That’s the thought I would be thinking if I worked for General Motors, an entity recently resurrected from the dead by the artificial interventions of Big Brother; to be sure, that resurrection was motivated by communitarian considerations, but it was not that of any genuine or local community but that of an abstract and vast beast, itself up in the sky.
My thought next turns to hospitals. When we arrived here in 1989, virtually none advertised. Now they all do. Our own St. John, founded by a handful of nuns because a hospital was needed here, now maintains a mere block from where it sits a vast billboard on the corner of Mack and Moross touting its services to the physically troubled in heart. I’d feel oddly marginalized if I worked for pushy Beaumont expanding by acquisitions yet. What has happened to that most honorable of all institutions, the hospital, that, these days, it must scramble like mad for its so-called “customers”? Has it been invaded by machines? Is it the clamor of the machines for return on investment that I hear shouted from the billboards?
Looking for the right word, the word “organic” comes to mind. Why? Because the alien atmosphere of modern life tells me that our institutions are no longer really anchored in organic social reality. They have detached from the soil. They’ve begun to levitate. Most communities, in fact, are communities in name alone. They’ve devolved. They have become transformed into bedroom communities or vast, layered, sleeping slabs. Their inhabitants shower and then travel all over the vast Detroit metroplex to work, to study, to worship (if they do so at all), to shop, to seek health services—everywhere. Virtually all communities today have become virtual; they’re communities of interest. People no longer share anything at all with those who live close by them—except incidentally. Annual block parties trumpet this fact in small talk. The neighbors are strangers unless, by happenstance, small children are present and the still local elementary school binds their mothers (rarely their fathers) into a common purpose they genuinely share. The vast majority—not least some of those mothers—work for institutions the purposes of which are expressible in numbers; and what they actually do is only incidentally related to the corporate objectives that their labor serves.
Real communities, of course, tend to restrict, constrain the individual. The young dream of escaping for the lights of the great city, the excitements and adventures of freedom in the distance. Little do they know… There is an ideal point of equilibrium somewhere, but the laws of this dimension are such that we rarely and only briefly experience genuine community life (if we are lucky to do so at all); memories of that time, to be sure, remain in the heart as a kind a memory of paradise, even when, in detail, it wasn’t—and we remember that perfectly well too. Very odd, indeed, but that’s the way things are.