Commodification and Community

Commodification and Community September 27, 2018

Commodification is a three step dance, according to John McKnight and Peter Block (Abundant Community). It begins by identifying a human condition; it redescribes the condition as a problem that can be fixed; and then it sells the fix (39).

The fix gets reduced to elements and then “curricularized” so that any schmo can do it, and through curricularization comes professionalization.

This process ends up “mystifying” the solution, sequestering it off into private space where the pros can handle it.

McKnight and Block write, “When we have troubles, we take them to the professional. The professional therapist or counselor husbands the personal and cloaks it in confidentiality in the name of care. The personal no longer resides in community but in the professional’s office. This makes private and mysterious what is most personal” (39-40).

In a healthy community, secrets are shared: “Secrets are the raw materials for a good community” (40). You confide personal problems to an uncle or aunt, seek help for an unruly child from old family friends, look to neighbors to get you through a patch of unemployment.

Once personal problems are privatized, communities weaken: “Privacy is the enemy of community because it takes our personal secrets from our neighbors and each other” (40).

The very process of shunting off secrets to professionals erodes a community’s confidence in its ability to help: “If people come to me and they want to talk about a problem, I listen with total sympathy. When they are done, what I think and almost say is, ‘God, that is awful.’ Because I have come to believe I don’t know what to do about it” (40).

Someone suffers a tragedy; they head to the therapist. What does the therapist do? “All the professional does in the face of tragedy is listen with compassion. If you listened to your daughter, or brother-in-law, or neighbor speak of a secret sorrow and said, ‘That is tragic,’ it would be enough. That is all you can do with tragedy.” Commodification and professionalization make us think that there’s got to be more: “we think it is the pro who says it best” (40).

What the authors call “abundant community,” which includes functioning families, knows how to handle deviance, sorrow, addictions, and so on. Professionalization is self-fulfilling: A community convinced of its incompetence will transfer the tasks to schools or psychiatrists, and ask “professionals to do what we as family and community are now unable to do” (41).

This is powerful stuff, but too rosy. Secrets shared in a community can percolate as gossip and undermine community cohesion.

Plus, the authors bundle all sorts of communities into one category of “community” or “abundant community.” But there is a difference between a community held together by place or blood, and one held together by the Spirit of Jesus. Not that the church is an ideal community by any means, but it has sources of cohesion, resources of repair and forgiveness, that are not generally available.

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