Commuting and Community

George Monbiot (Out of the Wreckage) points out that both our travel to work and our work itself undermines community: “The activities that once brought us together now drive us apart” (60).

People used to travel to work on buses and trains, but as public transport has declined and highway systems have expanded, “many have little choice but to travel by car.” Commuters aren’t merely physically separated from others who are heading to work; “when we drive, society becomes an obstacle” (60).

The individualizing act of commuting by car becomes self-reinforcing: “Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more we drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic we become” (60).

New patterns in organizing work leave many working alone. Flex schedules, the use of independent contractors, and other devices have been a solvent of the community of the office: “People who would until recently have been enrolled in a company’s workforce are now classified as independent contractors, doing the same jobs but without security, from one day to the next” (61).

Monbiot cites Byung-Chul Han: “Neoliberalism turns the oppressed worker into a free contractor, an entrepreneur of the self. Today, everyone is a self-employed worked in their own enterprise. Every individual is master and slave in one. This also means that class struggle has become an internal struggle with oneself. Today, anyone who fails to succeed blames themselves and feels ashamed. People see themselves, not society, as the problem” (61).

Even when we discount for the Hegelian-Marxist rhetoric, he has a point: Work has ceased to be a community with a common aim with built-in patterns of support (insurance benefits, pension). It’s every entrepreneur for himself. That’s very very good for some people, not so good for many. Monbiot cites evidence that real wages for British workers have declined over the past 20 years. The promise that making each worker his own entrepreneur would increase his standard of living hasn’t come true.

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  • Brian

    Chalk this up to another casualty of globalization. Most of the employment related changes mentioned above have been driven by the need for competition from machines (replacing) and foreign workers (offshoring). There is no question that cheap foreign labor has boosted our standard of living enormously, but it is not cost free. It’s not just lost manufacturing jobs — most of those folks do find other work. It’s also the post-WalMart breakdown of small towns, the growing sense of alienation in America, and the hopelessness of blue collar workers throughout the nation (read “Coming Apart” if you doubt these trends.) Since those social costs are not easily quantifiable, economists refuse to acknowledge them. There’s no variable for social cohesion in an econometric model.