We care most about things that happen to us and affect our interests directly. Try as we might, it’s harder to care about things that happen to others, at a distance, and which have little impact on our interests (which, of course, include the state of our emotional lives).
Similarly, the ‘effects’ of an earthquake decay from its epicentre in more ways than one. Our modern, market-based social world speeds the rate of a decay in empathy as interconnections between people are reduced and thinned to market connections.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith famously mused on these matters:
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the pre- cariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would, too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep tonight; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him than this paltry misfortune of his own.
In reflecting upon the 22 February, 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand it is interesting to see the different reactions people have had to it depending on their relative ‘location’ to it – both spatial and otherwise.
There are also things to note about the opposite implication from Smith’s account: If personal connections are what determines our reactions, what are the form of those connections that encourage and channel real concern and real support between people in the same country, city, neighbourhood and street? Bluntly, what social form undermines disconnected self-interest? The answer is simple: A social form that intimately interweaves individuals’ self-interests. Market societies don’t do that. They do the opposite.
There’s been a clear layering of responses to the earthquake. At the global periphery, the international media spent a day or two headlining the news and images. Unlike Smith’s China, however, New Zealand is an insignificant player in the global economy so there was no speculation about the impact of the earthquake on trade or other economic processes. It was pure spectacle, perhaps amplified by the fact that it happened in a developed country and, in some cases such as Japan and China, by the fatalities including foreign nationals.
At the national level there have been many genuine expressions of sorrow for the “unhappy people” of Christchurch. There has also been offers of practical aid and assistance. Some people from other parts of New Zealand travelled, unbidden, to Christchurch to help out. Of course, the vast majority of people in New Zealand have experienced this earthquake and its consequences vicariously, through the media. They have gone to their workplaces and schools, no doubt continued with their social occasions and generally continued in their lives – and slept soundly. That is completely understandable and to be expected.
At a finer grain, however, there is also disconnection within Christchurch and its regions. Part of it is down to the localised effects of the earthquake, hitting hill suburbs violently, destroying infrastructure through liquefaction in the east and bringing down buildings and facades in the CBD – and leaving much of the west of Christchurch and surrounding regions relatively untouched.
Many of the people I’ve spoken to in the west, for example, say they feel like they are experiencing the aftermath of the earthquake through the television, just like people in other parts of New Zealand. Like Smith’s “man of humanity in Europe”, many of them may also sleep soundly despite the human conditions present in their own city.
Modern cities are primarily aggregations of strangers that result from the economic opportunities provided by aggregated living. In cities, each of our individual social and emotional needs are met by a remarkably small sub-set of the population of the city. The rest of the population – when we encounter them outside of economic contexts – provide ‘busyness’, variety and a general backdrop. In other words, we are not connected to them or aware of them in any personal dimension.
More significantly, however, is that we are increasingly unconnected to those ‘strangers’ who inhabit our immediate environs – the streets we live in, the places we work. One reason for this is that we don’t need to be connected to them. Technical infrastruture (physical, organisational and technical) means that we do not need those next door or in the next office building. A private residence is sublimely isolated, principally, from the other private residences that surround it. The person in the private car is also sublimely isolated – once again, principally from the other persons in the private cars that move around him or her.
Life trajectories are also individualised. ‘What will you do?’ – when asked of young people – is the expression of this implicit assumption about the independence of your life course. It could be anything – or nothing. Either way it has little necessary connection to what anyone else may do or may have done (e.g., your parents). It’s your choice and you bear the consequences of its twists and turns. It may take you anywhere and away from anyone and everyone.
The unaffected “man of humanity in Europe” is now the unaffected “man of humanity in the house next door, the car in front of you, the office below you in the office block”. The unconcern is nurtured not by distances that cross the planet but now by ‘distances’ generated by our lack of connection.
The irony of Smith’s model of a modern economy is that it exacerbates the operation of that lack of concern that Smith saw as associated with distance. But physical distance is not what Smith was really talking about, even then. It was the shallowness of the connection and, consequently, the lack of impact on one’s self-interest.
When we lose someone close we lose not just someone to buy something from. We lose an emotional connection, a practical help, a social bond, a daily life that has entwined that person’s life into our own. That deep interweaving means that our interests and theirs can become almost indiscernible. The loss of a person connected with me in that way therefore damages my self-interest even more than the loss of my little finger.
The more we live around strangers who matter to us, at most, in terms of the solitary and impersonal bond of a single market need and exchange, the more their fortunes matter to us little more than the hundred million Chinese mattered to Smith’s man of humanity in Europe.
Yet, here in Christchurch, after the earthquake didn’t we prove my point to be wrong? Didn’t person after person come to the aid of others? Didn’t we respond with more humanity than I suggest is generated in a market-based modern world?
Yes, we did respond in those ways – but that proves rather than disproves my point. What happened was that that market-based society fell apart and collapsed in an instant. The Student Volunteer Army was just that – a volunteer army. We came to the aid of each other because the market wasn’t there to do it. We provided the food, the water the shelter that the market no longer could.
We didn’t, however, respond in that way because of some hitherto hidden natural, altruism – at least not the kind that many a liberal believes inhabits each individual’s soul. Our altruism came out of a fundamentally natural and obvious insight that our long-forgotten ancestors (tens of millenia prior to any market system) experienced as reality every day: We are all in this together and, if we don’t ‘hang together’ we will hang separately.
In the aftermath of the earthquakes one thing was grasped immediately and completely by thousands of ordinary people – ‘my’ interests are your interests. The ancient, evolved emotions of compassion, gratitude and camaraderie – those inherent calculators of interests deep in our design – flowed like a river suddenly undammed.
Without markets and their technical and bureaucratic prosthetics, we are one. By contrast, markets and the modern world they have generated pull us apart from each other.
Finally, like all the kings horses and all the kings men, no amount of ‘attitude change’ or ‘value shift’ will put our interests together again – when they do not, in fact, coincide. The claim by the conservative right that the solution to our disconnection is to reclaim ‘values’ ignores the fact that values follow the structuring of interests and a moral society flows not from individual acts of will but from the multiple, interweaving strands of interest that come from some social arrangements but not from others.
The market separates out our interests as effectively as physical distance separated the man of humanity in Europe from the fate of a hundred million Chinese.