VOLUME 7 (2005) - ISSUE 12 (YEARLY)

Referring Governments to the Community: Henry David Thoreau Revisited


Patrick HUNOUT is the President and Founder of The International Scope Review and The Social Capital Foundation.

Maya DAVID is Professor of Linguistics at University of Malaya, Malaysia.

Jean DEWITT is a Professor of Communication Studies and Director of Community Engagement at the University of Houston-Downtown.


Dear readers,

The Social Capital Foundation’s approach to social reality does not owe anything to the conventional political doctrines, either be they from the “left” or from the “right”, “moderate” or “extreme”. Our approach is original and cannot be reduced to any existing stream or movement unless our own.

Skepticism and disaffection with politics is a reality in most of our countries. The reason for this, beyond a broad and vague trend to the weakening of civic engagement, is associated with the fact that intrinsically the political system does not address the issues that people consider as the real ones. In the eyes of many, peanut politics disguises and misplaces the real stakes, and substitutes the goals of the political class itself to those of the citizens. Hence, the political alternatives proposed to citizens at polls are aberrant, as they generally consist in packages none of which really allows change to the previous policymaking, for there is a consensus among politicians to not change anything nor even raise the real issues at stake. This view, in our opinion, is somewhat grounded, and the work we do at TSCF pursues the objective to reformulate the basic issues and alternatives in a more relevant way. In most economically advanced countries of the world, the political alternatives tend to reduce themselves to two large streams - the “liberal” one (in the European sense of the word, associated with the free enterprise and the reduction of the role of the state) on the one hand, and the “socialist” or “social democrat” one (associated with a stronger role of the state in the economy and a redistribution of the available wealth through social welfare and support) on the other hand.  Observation shows that these two streams diverge on the means they use, more than on the final aims they pursue.

In most countries where they alternated to the power, they carried forward very similar policies through different methods. While “neo-liberalism” may appear as an ideology favoring, behind the mask of mathematical economics and the exaltation of the “free” individual, the interests of a given social category (mainly the business), in practice “social democracy” supports exactly the same goals, but insists more on softening through regulations, social support and welfare the consequences of profit maximization for the social environment – in the last resort, in the long-term interest of this maximization itself.

Whatever political orientation they refer to, governments tend to strengthen governmental power everywhere. In a neo-liberal system such as the US, the authoritarian shift, from the practice of torture to large-scale telephone tapping practices, is quite visible. While economic freedom is all the time more enlarged, civil liberties are restricted in a blatant or surreptitious manner, and police or military means of control are used, both inside and outside the country.

The EU itself is nothing but an attempt to construct a huge supranational state that the Europeans do not need. Since the 1990s, the cost of this attempt has been enormous in terms of economic growth, employment and inflation. From this point of view, the rejection in May 2005 of the European Constitution project by the Dutch and the French voters may be bad news for the European Union, but it may be very good news for the Europeans – a Constitution project that was nothing but the completion of a state integration process begun years ago in Maastricht (1992). People realize that they are being led down the wrong path, and they react in an instinctive manner by rejecting the orientation imposed upon them when they have the possibility to express themselves. Interestingly, renown former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky expressed in a speech given in February 2006 in Brussels his fears that the European Union be on its way to becoming a new instrument of dictatorship not without similarities to the former Soviet Union, referring “to structures, to certain ideologies being instilled, to the plans, the direction, the inevitable expansion, the obliteration of nations, which was the purpose of the Soviet Union”. He underlined also the deficit of democratic consultation in the process of European integration and the extensive powers of the new state structures such as Europol, a body expected to police the citizens on 32 kinds of crimes - including the two new crimes of “racism” and “xenophobia”, inevitably likely to be applied to those who object to immigration from the Third World.

The deepest reason for the reinforcement of the governmental power is that the strategies carried forward by the ruling class intensify everywhere the problems, weakening the community link and deepening the social crisis. This is the case notably with the spreading of individualism and market values, the promotion of multiethnicity and the development of economic precariousness. In this context, it becomes all the more necessary to recourse to governmental control to try to alleviate the consequences of what these strategies contributed to put in place.

Governments tend everywhere to substitute themselves to the community instead of serving it. Some sustain that they simply identify with the community, while others expect the governmental power to “restructure” or even “produce” society. As a matter of fact, if the existence of political elections would suffice to identify the state power with the community, the problem of democracy would be wonderfully solved, and everything would be fine as it is. Things are unfortunately somewhat more complicated. There is a considerable need, even in the so-called democracies, to democratize further not only the political system, but also the legal order, the public administration and the tax system. In the face of this resistance of the political class to address the real issues with which the population is confronted and to dominate society through intimidating or oppressing means, several orientations are possible. One of Henry David Thoreau’s most important works, the essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849), grew out of an overnight stay in prison as a result of his conscientious refusal to pay a poll tax that supported the Mexican War, which to Thoreau represented an effort to extend slavery. Thoreau’s advocacy of civil disobedience as a means for an individual to protest those actions of his government that he considers unjust has had a wide-ranging impact - on the British Labor movement, the passive resistance independence movement led by Gandhi in India, and the non-violent civil-rights movement led by Martin Luther King in the US.

It may be difficult in today’s society to gather the social support that leaders like Gandhi gained in India, but a peaceful lack of cooperation may still be a very efficient tool. This is the case with people’s apathy in Europe, with tax evasion in countries like Belgium, where the spirit is critical; it is also the case with private behaviors each time these behaviors tend to consolidate family links, trust, friendship, direct agreements between people, and to protect people’s own cultural identity. In today’s society, however, the most efficient and positive way to face the extension and failure of the new imperialism is to empower society through the creation of social capital. Social capital includes such social virtues as cooperation, trust, solidarity, responsiveness and cohesiveness, which are a most powerful cement for a community, and the most powerful factor for its emancipation. Whenever such virtues allow society to regulate itself easily and spontaneously, it frees itself more easily from bureaucratic parasitism and authoritarianism. It is of course all the more difficult because the New Leviathan’s policy has spread selfishness and social deviance and has promoted values that favor them, often with the help of public funds. This is why the Second International Conference of TSCF, held in Malta on 20-23 September 2005, focused on Social Capital, its Definition, Measurement, and Applications. We present in this 12th issue of The International Scope® Review articles mainly drawn from a first subset of the findings of this conference.

Massimo Pendenza’s bibliographical article explores the varieties of approaches of the concept of social capital in Italy - a country where the blatant differences of economic development between the North and the South have been explained by Putnam, Leonardi and Nanetti (1993) through the lack of civil culture (in other words: of social capital) in Southern Italy.

The article by Medhat Endrawes and Kennan Matawie investigates the relationship between professional commitment and the cultural dimension of individualism/collectivism in two countries i.e. Australia and Egypt. It extends prior research and supports the results of Hofstede’s (1980) cultural theory. Their analysis shows that collectivism is higher in Egypt than in Australia, while individualism is lower. Professional commitment is higher in a collectivist society such as Egypt and lower in an individualist society such as Australia.

The article by José Atilano Pena-Lopez and José Manuel Sanchez-Santos seeks to define the boundaries of the notion of social capital and to analyse its apparent identity with the existence of associative networks. As a starting point, the authors remind us of the moral and consensus dimension of social capital, directly translatable to the generation of trust. In a second stage, they discuss the role of the associative activity in the generation of social confidence, and they verify the existence of a bond between the extension of horizontal associative networks and the generation of this form of capital.

Przemyslaw Gadomsky and Anna Gabryjelska show that the emancipation of national societies from dictatorships and authoritarian structures does not result in a decrease in social capital. Their article presents results of an analysis of social capital dynamics in Poland in terms of horizontal association, social integration, civil and political liberty, legal and governance aspects. Their research shows that social capital has not been eroded during the Polish democratic transition process. In fact, between 1992 and 2002, all-but one social capital indicators were slowly, albeit consistently increasing.

Finally, Loren Demerath’s article raises the important issue of impact of social capital on the quality of life, which includes the pleasure we have in living together. He presents an analysis of in-depth interviews of Americans and Ecuadorians, which show strong, consistent patterns where both Americans and Ecuadorians enjoy the order, and ease of life in America, but prefer the social life and emphasis on relationships in Ecuador. The irony noted by some researchers that individuals tend to have poorer social lives in richer societies is explained by the author as follows: as some societies are able to develop institutions that facilitate individual achievement such as public education, democracy, open market regulation, and transparent judiciary systems, there is less of a need for individuals to develop and maintain their own “private social capital” in the form of informal, personal relationships, as they rely instead on their formal relationships within those institutions. Furthermore, as a result of the lower importance of personal relationships in such societies, individuals in such societies spend less time and energy interacting with each other. They are therefore often deprived of a major source of fulfillment, that which is gained through the individual-level pursuit of non-institutionalized social capital.

Later publications drawn from the Malta conference will enhance the role of social capital in social democratization through the restoration of the community link. It appears that raising the level of social capital improves social cohesion and coordination, consolidates collective mental health and facilitates public decision-making. In the long run, the development of social capital may thus powerfully contribute to achieving the old objective of socialism: reabsorbing the state within society.

In addition, we publish two articles drawn from other sources, which discuss various aspects of social cohesion and stratification that may be of interest for social capital as well. Ken Roberts investigates three different ex-communist countries, Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine, and argues that in the younger generation of these countries, who were formerly expected to be classless, a new social stratification has developed and an increasing middle-class group has formed which is inclined towards Western ideologies and politics.

In contrast, in a highly stratified society such as rural India, Kirk Johnson and Mike Karlberg show that the system of social stratification has been challenged by contemporary culture. This is because migration, education, mass media, and consumerism among others, have created an environment where the lower caste is able to compete with the higher caste. Johnson and Karlberg posit that education has played an important role in the shift of power and roles. As a result, exogamous marriages have become more common and spouses gravitate towards each other’s social status. These articles and the ones to follow illustrate  how TSCF encourages enlightened discourse on reformulating conventional doctrines to serve the community, thus empowering society through a framework of social capital.