Right to Community – Increasingly Alone

by Glen

When aspiring Republican U.S. presidential candidate Rick Santorum spoke at an economic club in Detroit last week he revealed just how hard it is for cities to get much attention in the modern economy. Trying to draw his hearers back to the days of yore when America had been in the process of actually reducing income disparity, he reflected to his audience:

“We should celebrate like we do in the small towns all across America — as you do here in Detroit. You celebrate success. You build statues and monuments. Buildings, you name after them. Why? Because in their greatness and innovation, yes, they created wealth, but they created wealth for everybody else. And that’s a good thing, not something to be condemned in America.”

Unless he was referring to the days of Henry Ford, it’s hard to imagine how out of tune Santorum is with the average city-dweller. Charles Blow of the New York Times noted that, had the politician taken the time to walk around Detroit that day he would have faced the impossible task of finding many statues that honoured people who simply invented something and got rich. Detroit presently has almost 100,000 abandoned homes and is struggling to survive like any other community. But what else could we expect from someone whose closing remarks that day included, “There is income inequality in America. There always has been and, hopefully, and I do say that, there always will be.” Wonder how the people of Detroit felt about that?

Santorum’s “they created wealth for everybody else,” is no longer a reality in our communities – “trickle-down” economics was a sham – and we now know it. Our small towns, larger communities and big cities are watching wealth fly along at 65,000 feet and experience great difficulty in getting any of it. Groups like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities have been reminding successive governments for decades that our real innovation, sweat, and equity are to be found in our communities and yet they remain the distant cousins of senior levels of government who seem preoccupied with looking elsewhere for prosperity.

Starting today we begin a new series of blog posts on the “Right to Community.” We live in an age of human rights, where certain protections have been extended in numerous dimensions to the marginalized worldwide but where cities in the West lie increasingly vulnerable to a market ethic that uses them when times are good and abandons them when bad. Our communities were once places where the realities of opportunity and a burgeoning middle-class made them delightful places to live, love, learn and to eventually leave our legacies to our children.

No more. We threw our collective lot in with our communities but now feel abandoned as the global financial world wreaks havoc on our local life. A free trade era that lacked a “communities” foresight, and the debacle of the elite moneylenders virtually laying waste to the international financial system while being bailed out by public funds, have left our towns and cities teetering on the edge. The mega-lending institutions just moved their capital around, wrote off their losses, and picked up public funds, while our communities were stuck where they were – sedentary places that were once the darlings of agriculture and capitalism that now watch their former suitors forgetting learned history and abandoning historical relationships. It looks to only get worse as the impending Canada-Europe Free Trade Agreement (CETA) effectively strips away the rights of communities to secure local labour and resources. Some folks are going to get awfully rich with that deal, but it won’t be us, or average Europeans.

And so we inevitably arrive at the conclusion urban sociologist Robert Park wrote about a few years ago: “But, if the city is the world which man created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without any clear sense of the nature of his task, in making the city man has remade himself.” That’s us – residents and contributors to community who now don’t know what to make of the transitions swirling around us.

We can’t go back to a largely agrarian lifestyle, and we are increasingly left without resources  – financial, political, and, yes, constitutional – to move ahead. We are a species that, increasingly around the world, has chosen to live in communities as a way of existing and of rounding off the rough edges of living. But now the rapacious open market is bringing the corporate jungle to us and we’re left ill-equipped to face the onslaught.

It is time to reimagine community as not only the place in which we live but as a bona fide partner in a new form of confederation that grants us certain rights.  Those rights include the ability to attain the necessary resources to form and formalize the communities we want for our children. It shouldn’t have to happen, but with the deterioration of a responsible and magnanimous political order that once bestowed a more centralized Canada with the resources necessary to forge a collective identity (everything now is just politics, not effective wealth-sharing and diplomacy), we have to fight for ourselves. The political order increasingly comes into our communities to get our votes and then leaves to pursue it own agenda – a practice that is becoming incompatible.

So it’s time to revisit a bit of history. If we desire fundamental change without chaos, then we need look no farther than the American Revolution.