Enterprising Economy

The community is the natural nest for hatching new enterprise — it is the birthplace and home of small business, which provides the largest growth in employment. Friends and family often provide the capital and sweat equity to start a business.

The culture of a local community is a key factor in nurturing entrepreneurial spirit. A community where local people feel they are a center of enterprise creates the vision and support. The culture encourages people to initiate enterprises, members use their buying power to support local enterprises, and they put their savings to work in community credit unions and banks. Their dollars circulate, providing the economic support that parallels and strengthens local social support. Some communities even have a local currency to incentivize support of local economy. A related economic power of a connected community is access to jobs. One quarter of job seekers get information from relatives, friends, and neighbors.

Without strong community connections the economy becomes
co-opted by systems.

Strong community connections spawn new enterprises, sustain them, and provide primary access to employment. Without these functions, the economy becomes a land of large-scale institutions unable to sustain a local workforce (and so large they’re destined to fail to serve any interests but their own).

In the consumer ecology, care is co-opted by systems: businesses, agencies and governments. Insurance agencies send letters to tell us they care about us. Charities ask us to give money to pay for the care of people. Government pays hospitals and medical professionals for their service. In each case, they are providing a paid service — not care. Systems offer services for pay.

Genuine care can’t be paid for — it is given, free of charge. You can pay for services for your mother in a nursing home, but she may lose the care of family, friends, neighbors, faith, and service groups. They become visitors to a service system; she becomes a client.

The place to look for care is in the dense relationships of neighbors and community groups. We have a competent community if we care about each other, and about the neighborhood. Together, our care manifests a vision, culture, and commitment that can uniquely assure our sense of well-being and happiness. This source of satisfaction is complete in and of itself — not dependent on the next purchase.

No business, agency, or government can fulfill basic community functions. If we don’t know our neighbors, aren’t active in local community life, pay others to raise our children and service our elders, and try to buy our way into a good life, we pay a big price. We produce a weak family, a careless community and a nation that tries hopelessly to revive itself from the top down. Reversing this situation is difficult because of the power of systems to make consumers out of citizens.

By seeing the consumer ecology for what it is, we can shift our thinking and become producers of our own future.

By seeing the consumer ecology for what it is, we can become citizens again. We can shift our thinking and decide who we take ourselves to be: producers of our own future, or purchasers of what others have in mind for us. Consumer society begins when what was once the province or function of the family and community migrates to the marketplace. It begins with the decision to purchase what might have been homemade or produced locally. This is how citizens yield their power to the lure of consumption.

Consumption is like an addictive drug. The market promises what it knows won’t be fulfilling. This defines its counterfeit nature — trying to make something appear to be gratifying or satisfying when it is not. The fact that dissatisfaction persists after achieving the good life means the good life is not satisfying. Unfunctional families and incompetent communities signal that we’ve reached the limits of consumer satisfaction.

For example, we talk of the child as a product of the School System, starting early the migration of the child from citizen to consumer, from family and community life into system life. We count on the School System to perform many family functions—to feed them, discipline them, and provide custodial care.

The same dependency goes for other family functions — like health, entertainment, nutrition, employment, mental well-being, elder care, and environmental stewardship — all have been outsourced to professionals. All are organized in systems designed to deliver these functions in efficient, low-cost, consistent ways.

We made the leap from being citizens to being consumers in a culture that sells the idea that a satisfied life is determined first by defining and promoting needs and then figuring out how to fulfill them. We create a larger market by determining that families and communities are filled with needs that are best serviced by systems and professions.

Consumerism offers purchased solutions to being human, providing a substitute for what could come naturally to families and communities.

This is the more profound cost of the consumer promise, the denuding of community capacity. The institutional counterfeit of compassion and support is a two-part package: first, the spin of optimism backed up by a purchase; and, second, the denial when it does not happen.

For example, in advertising we are promised immortality, eternal youth and happiness. This promise is elegant, moving, entertaining. At the end, ways the product could hurt us are described in small print or spoken rapidly — accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative. We call this “spin.” Responses of spin and denial are designed to keep organizations on course. Systems can’t allow sorrow to become personal. When systems lift the veil of denial and spin to apologize or express sorrow, it is either because they’re forced to by law, or it is long after any consequences.

The effort to find a fix for our humanity only forces us into counterfeit promises and unsatisfying results. Often we believe that if we do more of what does not work, it will finally work. This is the dilemma of the consumer economy: it leads to a place where when we reach a limit and still are unsatisfied, we think, if only we had more we would be successful or satisfied — more police, physicians, teachers, services, stuff.

This is not a solution — it’s an addiction. Consumerism is not simply an economic system — it can be considered an ecology. It impacts how we relate to each other; it shapes our relationship with food, work, music, ritual, religion — all elements of culture.

And for this ecological system to work, we have to participate in the effort to purchase what matters and persist at it, despite the lack of results. This consumptive ecological system produces hollowness in our lives, even for those who are winning at the game.


This post appeared in the January 2011 issue of Leadership Excellence.

Home page photo: Natalie Maynor

About the Lead Author

John McKnight
John McKnight
John McKnight is emeritus professor of education and social policy and codirector of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. He is the coauthor of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development.

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