How Communities Awaken


Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Peter Brock

Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc (2008)

Book Review – Part I

“How Communities Awaken” is the title of a master class I’m taking through a local Maori social services agency. Our main textbook is Peter Brock’s Community: The Structure of Belonging. We meet every two weeks to do small group work around six “conversations” Brock prescribes as essential to transforming fragmented communities.

Peter Brock is one of a growing number of community strategists dedicated to reducing alienation and apathy by getting people more involved in their communities. In Community: the Structure of Belonging, he maintains that 1) our collective loss of power in contemporary society is a direct result of the breakdown of our communities, 2) the only way to regain this power is to restore citizen engagement in community life and 3) most groups and agencies designed to relive “political suffering” (i.e. poverty, inequality, unemployment and the multiple crises involving housing, education transportation, drug abuse, binge drinking, family violence and at-risk youth) fail because they buy into the patriarchal consumer model imposed on us by wider society.

Brock asserts that the consumer society causes most people to see themselves as passive consumers rather than engaged citizens – that this causes them to see their political and community leaders as delivering a product, with their own role limited to critiquing the product. The purpose of this book is to lay out specific strategies to lift us out of our role as passive consumers of government.

While I partially agree with premises two and three, I totally disagree with premise one. I find to hard to ignore substantial evidence that Wall Street Banksters, the Koch brothers, the Walton family (who own WalMart) and other corporate players have colluded to deliberately strip us of this power. Brock makes absolutely no mention of this. In fact, he dismisses activists who complain about “external” causes of powerlessness as playing the “blame game,” which he describes as a “delightful escape from the unbearable burden of being accountable.”*

I‘m also concerned by his glaring omission of the role the corporate public relations industry plays in constantly bombarding us with fearful, competitive, individualistic and pro-consumption messaging (see The Science of Thought Control).

In my view, this constant barrage of propaganda and disinformation – and the pernicious passivity and apathy resulting from it – is the main obstacle we face to organizing against corporate fascism. That being said, I strongly agree with Brock’s view that the only way to overcome this passivity and apathy is by re-engaging in the community groups and activities – both political and non-political – that our parents and grandparents enjoyed.

I haven’t found New Zealand that much different than the US in this regard. Although there are huge advantages to not living in a military empire (see The Sacrifices of Empire), most New Zealanders seem to be trapped in the same cycle of consumption, debt and overwork. Like Americans, they are depressed, anxious, apathetic and disengaged from community life and the political process. Voluntarism has declined steeply, particularly among young people, and a growing number of Kiwis don’t vote.**

*Turnout remains much better here than in the US. In NZ 77% is considered a poor turnout. In the US 60% is considered a good turnout.
** Brock’s equally dismissive of organized protest and “speaking truth to power,” which he belittles as a “complaint session in evening clothes.” He adds, “Any time we act in reaction, even to evil, we are giving power to what we are in reaction to.” I can agree that it’s more effective to focus on building positive institutions than reacting to negative ones. However we are all trained, as part of our indoctrination, to blame ourselves if for our personal, social and financial failures. The only way I know to get people to quit blaming themselves for the misery they experience in corporate society is to demonstrate that their so-called “personal” problems have a social and political cause.
To be continued with a critique of the specific strategies Brock proposes.


12 thoughts on “How Communities Awaken

  1. “In my view, this constant barrage of propaganda and disinformation – and the pernicious passivity and apathy resulting from it – is the main obstacle we face to organizing against corporate fascism.”

    You make an excellent point, thannk you! There’s a huge difference between fatalism, just saying and thinking, “The system’s exploited me, it’s not my fault and there’s nothing I can do about it,’ and activism, saying ‘Yes, the system exploits all of us, now what shall we do about it?’ And (repeating the obvious) I say “we” most deliberately, as any response does need to be as a community — all those “rugged individuals” will just get ground to bits. – Linda


  2. Last night on ABC’s 4 corners program on obesity, the point was made by the take-away food industry and our PM Abbott that free choice is what ought to be maintained, no matter what. The plight of the parents against the might of the MacDonald’s KFC’s industry with their multi dollar advertising industry was totally ignored. The result, an obesity problem of pandemic proportions.
    The isolation is not just in keeping people fat, sluggish and passive through bad food but also our architecture. All designed to feed isolation, fenced off, dreary endless housing estates, locked down, peopless streets etc. People are then encouraged to get relief from the engolving ennui by spending money, consuming and eating.
    There is now endless TV and media attention on mental illness, depression etc but I have yet to see government representatives or experts stand up and question the materialistc values and spiritual dehydration of our societies.


    • When Abbott, MacDonald’s and KFC talk about free choice, they only mean freedom as regards buying and selling products. In all other respects, our freedoms (e.g. of speech, assembly, the press) have been greatly restricted.


  3. You say: “I strongly agree with Brock’s view that the only way to overcome this passivity and apathy is by re-engaging in the community groups and activities – both political and non-political – that our parents and grandparents enjoyed.”

    This statement makes me think about my parents and Grandparents in Germany and Poland. Both grandparents were already married and had children well before WW I. So this goes back a long time. But they did not live in villages. They lived in big cities. The paternal grandparents in Lodz were very family orientated with six children and very much into politics keeping in touch with the German community in Poland. The maternal grandfather in Leipzig died of influenza (I think in 1920). So grandmother became a rather poor widow for the rest of her life. I remember she had a good relationship with all the residents in the four story apartment building where she lived. Apart from looking after her four children and later some grandchildren, she did not have any other interests.
    My mother was never very community orientated, She did mostly stick to very close family only and off and on she had some close friends. She never showed any interest in the wider community. My father’s interests were close family as well as extended family. He was also very interested in politics but more in an academic kind of way, not so much on a grass roots level.
    What I mean to say is, that I never experienced from my parents this kind of community involvement you are talking about. And I was born well before World War Two!


    • Even though we lived in a big city, my own mother was very active in community life, as was her mother. She belonged to the Women’s Club and raised money for charity by making candles. One of my earliest memories is going to door with her with a petition to block the construction of a large waste incinerator. Later she became a precinct captain for the Republican Party and went door to door talking to people.

      My parents also received regular visits from a number of friends, who would stop by after work. If we were having dinner, we always set a place for them.


  4. This looks like an interesting read, Stuart. I agree with you that a local, community based approach to many of the problems faced at the societal level are needed. It’s sad to hear that the weight of global capitalism is felt in New Zealand as well.


  5. I agree with you Stuart. “The breakdown of communities,” at least in my lifetime, has more to do with a corporation (in my town of Pittsfield, MA it was the GE) picking up and leaving in order to make, not just adequate profits, but higher profits. It isn’t enough to be a billionaire; one must become a multi-billionaire. The point being that any community where the profit motive is considered a decent motive, will, in the end, be a community left high and dry by private corporations. The alternative is for ordinary people to get control of their work, their banks, their educational and medical facilities.


  6. I wonder if the facilitators of the class have drawn from the work of John Kretzmann and John McKnight, Community Asset-Development: I remember when Kretmann described “evil” as those experts who only saw the problems in communities like the South Bronx. He asserted that in every troubled community, there are “indigenous” people who are engaged in activities to transform their communities. When outside experts whose voice influences others and defines issues define communities only by what they lack, people in those communities are robbed of their dignity and their right to be part of transformational efforts at every stage of the process.


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