Thursday, 23 December 2010

Harvest, neighbourliness and altruism I generally treat narratives of the decline of neighbouring with cautious respect. Here's a comment responding to a post on the global Irish Central site, raising a valid point about the impact of technology on local social relations, which I don't recall having heard before: 'When I visited Ireland as a child, saving the hay was a community event. The neighbors would pitch in and help each other. The mechanization of farming has removed that shared sense of community gained from helping one's neighbors.' There's no doubt that community involvement in the economically-critical harvest applied in many countries over centuries. We think of Levin over-exerting himself with the serfs, in Anna Karenina. Excluding imaginative aristocrats, most of the participants in such scenes would have experienced intermittent mutual dependence which defined community for them. The basis was necessity neighbouring: individuals had self-interested motivation for co-operating with their neighbour (and coercive religious practices often did the rest). Failure to maximise the harvest, perhaps with too few hands available to bring it in before the weather changed, seriously threatened the chances of the whole village getting through the winter. We might also ask about some of the oppressive social structures under which this sometimes tortuous labour was unavoidable (no apols for sounding momentarily marxist) - who was benefitting most from this skilled, physical, coordinated effort? - and therefore the conditions under which the mutual commitment that we call 'community' arose. By all means we should reflect on the contrasts (and similarities) between local social relations in other societies and those that prevail today. But let's at least recognise that versions of 'community' which may have become scarce and and are now regretted, had their basis in motivations that were not necessarily altruistic, and in economics that were not necessarily inclusive. The contemporary challenge might be expressed thus: how does neighbourliness and sense of community emerge in societies that lack identifiable, manifold mutual dependence?

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