David Brooks on the Social Fabric

David Brooks on the Social Fabric
By Wade Lee Hudson

Backed by the Aspen Institute, David Brooks launched Weave: The Social Fabric Project to nurture what he considers to be a growing social movement. In his New York Times column, “A Nation of Weavers,” Brooks argues that this grassroots movement addresses “our lack of healthy connection to each other, our inability to see the full dignity of each other, and the resulting culture of fear, distrust, tribalism, shaming and strife.” He believes this movement will “usher in a social transformation by reweaving the fabric of reciprocity and trust.” Through these Weavers, he says, “renewal is building, relationship by relationship, community by community. It will spread and spread as the sparks fly upward.”

Brooks moves in the right direction, but stops short. He aims to go below the surface, but neglects root causes. He wants to address the “whole person,” but fragments the individual.

Brooks rightly argues that “America’s social fabric is being ripped to shreds.” And he’s right to lament the recent emergence of “hyperindividualism” and affirm “radical mutuality” -- that is, the belief “we are all completely equal, regardless of where society ranks us,” which leads us to “love across boundaries, listen patiently, see deeply and make someone feel known.”

But Brooks is wrong to affirm “an ethos that puts relationship over self.” That separation violates holism. Rather, an integrated balance is possible, as when Christians say: Love yourself as you love others. And Buddhists say: Neither selfishness nor self-sacrifice.

He’s also too absolutist when he claims that his “weavers” are not motivated at all by “money, power and status.” In moderation, those motives can be beneficial.

Brooks also speaks too loosely when he advocates “relationism” and gives it his own definition, which is confusing. The word refers to the doctrine that relations exist as real entities. True enough. But so what? The question is: What kind of relationships need promotion? “Relationism” suggests no particular answer. I prefer to speak of “partnership.”

His essay envisions that “hubs where these decentralized networks can come together for solidarity and support could be beneficial. These hubs could be places where people could explore together the implications of their concerns and how to connect the dots.” That’s appealing. But he exaggerates how much those alternative local communities can achieve so long as national policies remain unchanged.

In “The Relationalist Manifesto,” Brooks “tried to mirror back a written creed that is implicit in who [the Weavers] are.” With this effort, he hopes to build a foundation of principles for the “movement” that will help crystallize its identity. Based on visits and interviews with local social activists, he says they want to “ease suffering, live good lives and help create a world in which love is plentiful,...[and] serve the whole person.”

He describes the Weavers as “a coherent movement of people trying to knit [the social fabric] back together…. Our work is a part of a large, common work, our efforts are pointed to a common effort. We are one.” According to Brooks, “social movements are not organized top-down anymore. These days they are radically decentralized.” So he envisions the Weavers spreading organically.

But the activities he describes are not “a movement.” They are merely noble examples of scattered loving kindness. Humans have always reached out to help neighbors. That’s nothing new. Movements consist of organized activities working toward an objective. They include formal organizations to coordinate and carry out common activities whose goals are shared by all members of the movement. The diverse individuals who are engaged in the wide range of service activities he describes do not see themselves as members of the same movement.

In today’s digital environment, movements are indeed more decentralized and bottom-up, as Brooks points out. But some centralized leadership is still required. As Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms discuss in New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World -- and How to Make It Work for You, a dialectic between leaders and members remains essential.

In his manifesto, Brooks at times takes a balanced approach. He says:

The relationalist life is an evolving conversation between self and society. It’s always balancing tensions and trying to live life in graceful balance…. She walks in that world, with all its pleasures and achievements, but with a different spirit…. Relationalism is a middle way between hyper-individualism and collectivism. … She seeks to build a neighborhood, nation and world of diverse and creative people who have made commitments in a flowering of different ways, who are nonetheless bound together by sacred chords.

But overall his language is often yes/no absolutism. He “puts relation, not the individual, at the center” when it’s both/and. He discounts other factors when he writes, “Each person’s personality and character is formed by the dance of interactions between herself and a loving adult.” He’s reductionistic when he says, “As adults, we measure our lives by the quality of our relationships and the quality of our service to those relationships…, surpassing the desires of the ego.” Absolute predictions are another weakness: “People eventually rebel against the isolation and meaninglessness of hyper-individualism by joining a partisan tribe.”

Other yes/no propositions, some introduced by “but,” include:

Society tells her to want independence, but she has declared her interdependence. Society says we live in a materialist reality, but she says we live in an enchanted reality. Society tells her to keep her options open, but she says, No, I will commit. I will root myself down. Society says, Try to rise above and be better than; she says, No, I will walk with, serve, and come in under. Society says, Cultivate the self-interested side of your life; she says, No, I will cultivate the whole of myself…. When a person finds his high calling in life, it doesn’t feel like he has taken control; it feels like he has surrendered control…. Hyper-individualism says “I belong to myself and no one else.”

Systemic analysis considers how many factors interrelate, but too often Brooks relies on simple cause-and-effect formulations, such as:

  • We have swung too far in the direction of individualism. The result is a loss of connection—a crisis of solidarity.

  • The central problems of our day flow from this erosion….

  • The core flaw of hyper-individualism is that it leads to...the self-interested drives—the desire to excel; to make a mark in the world; to rise in wealth, power, and status; to win victories and be better than others.

  • Distrust comes about because of our own failings of relationship.

His critique of hyper-individualism is valuable. The assertion that the purpose of life is individual happiness, authenticity, self-actualization, and self-sufficiency” is indeed mistaken. The claim that “the self stands on its own two feet, determines its own destiny, [and]secures its own individual” is false. And alas, our public culture does normalize selfishness. These dynamics undermine “the longings of the heart and soul: the desire to live in loving interdependence with others, the yearning to live in service of some ideal, the yearning to surrender to a greater good.”

But, most critically, Brook’s manifesto disregards the political and economic elements that are key elements in our social system. He does acknowledge, “Towns, neighborhoods and even families cannot be healthy if they are being torn to shreds by national and global forces.” But he fails to follow through on the implications of that insight. He discusses the government only briefly, with statements such as “The state has an important but incomplete role to play in this process. … It can create the material platforms on which relationships can be built.”

He does not address the urgent need to change public policy, and how if we don’t, local efforts to aid others will continue to be swamped by human misery created by those policies. Anyone who wants to relieve suffering must be concerned about politics, if they think logically.

At times, Brooks takes a broader perspective:

Consumerism amputates what is central to the person for the sake of material acquisition. The meritocracy amputates what is deepest for individual “success.” Unbalanced capitalism turns people into utility-maximizing, speeding workaholics that no permanent attachment can penetrate…. There is some injustice, some societal wrong, that needs to be fixed. A person assumes responsibility—makes a promise to fight that fight and right that wrong.

But he fails to explicitly argue that massive numbers of people need to unite to change national political and economic structures. Rather, he primarily relies on local voluntarism and isolated instances of political activism.

He does say, “Hyper-individualism thrives within the systems of the surface.” But it’s more than that. Hyper-individualism is interwoven with those systems.

He wrongly asserts:

Democracy and the economy rest upon a foundation, which is society. A society is a system of relationships…. Society and culture are prior to and more important than politics or the market…. Our primary problems are at the level of the foundations. They are at the level of the system of relationships.

But the economy and government are not separate from and prior to society and culture. They overlap and interact. Always have.

He says, “Practically, the nation is woven through national service programs.” That formulation discounts the importance of government. What about civic engagement? Voting? Discussing political issues? Many elements weave a nation.

His apolitical stance is revealed in this poetic affirmation:

When relationships are tender, when commitments are strong, when communication is pure, when the wounds of life have been absorbed and the wrongs forgiven, people bend toward each other, intertwine with one another and some mystical combustion happens. Love emerges between people out of nothing, as a pure flame.

But what if my wounds have not been absorbed? What if those whose hands are on the levers of power have not repented, and I do not forgive their wrongs? In that case, massive, united political action may be necessary to restructure society.

Human beings are also political and economic animals, a reality he neglects. Brooks’ apolitical perspective is reflected in his description of his movement:

They are often organizations in which people say, “We are enough.” We don’t need outsiders from above. We have the assets right here…. Some Weaving is done at the regional level….  These institutions span generations and perform large tasks. When they are healthy, they embody systems of values, communicate standards of excellence, pass down codes of conduct.

His conclusion that “social isolation is the problem underlying a lot of our other problems” is incorrect. It is not the problem. His too-narrow focus on cultural, psychological, and spiritual issues leads to inadequate proposed solutions. His belief that “people around the country, at the local level … who are building community and weaving the social fabric” can solve social isolation nationally by scaling up a cultural revolution is an illusion. Local efforts and a new national culture are not sufficient. His assertion that these efforts are “the most important social force in America right now” exaggerates reality.

His analysis discounts underlying forces that have contributed to hyper-individualism and social isolation. Our entire social system has produced many inter-locking phenomena that shape behavior.

To transform that System, we need to reform our political and economic institutions as well as our culture and ourselves as individuals. Brooks says, “Personal transformation and social transformation happen simultaneously.” If that transformation also includes political and economic transformation, it will be deeper and longer lasting.