How Individualism Ruins Democracy

New book from Robert D. Putnam called “The Upswing” attempts to explain why American democracy won’t work if individualism is over-emphasized like southern Italy versus northern Italy:

The Upswing builds on the author’s celebrated concept of “social capital”: the web of non-contractual associational relationships that constitutes a community.

The idea acquires normative force through that word capital – the claim that social relationships are in aggregate not merely enjoyable but productive. In particular, they are able to generate and enforce common purposes.

Putnam initially used the concept to explain the divergence between a now- prosperous northern Italy and a now-dysfunctional southern one. With originality and courage, he traced northern success back to the eleventh century, when the north’s cities began fostering webs of mutually trustworthy relationships.

These developed through citizens’ participation in devolved associations, both political and social – emblematically, in choirs. In contrast, the South was invaded by Norman gangs who imposed feudalism, their hierarchical suppression of independent association helping to establish an autocratic state juxtaposed against suspicious individuals.

Putnam then made a radical inference: since the political institutions of Italy’s regions had been common for over a century, yet had led to wide differences in outcomes, institutions were not enough: democracy only succeeded if preceded by social capacity. He had the chutzpah to entitle his study Making Democracy Work (1993).

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