Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fixing a 'broken society'

“Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For 30 years we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest: indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose”. Tony Judt; Ill fares the Land

Salvador Minuchin, the originator of structural family therapy, considered that, in order to function healthily, a family needs structures, boundaries and rules.

Within the wider family system, sub-systems work together, and complement each others roles.  The boundaries of a subsystem are the rules defining who participates, and how. For example, the boundary of a parental subsystem is defined when a parent tells an older child, “You are not your brother’s parent. If he is watching something on TV he shouldn’t, tell me and I will take care of it”.

For proper family functioning, the boundaries of subsystems must be clear and defined well enough to allow subsystem members to carry out their functions without undue interference, but they must allow contact between the members of the subsystem and others.

In addition to clarity of boundaries, most families can be conceived of as falling somewhere along a continuum of whose poles are the two extremes of diffuse boundaries and overly rigid boundaries. These two extremes of boundary functioning are typically called enmeshment and disengagement.

Members of enmeshed subsystems or families may be handicapped in that the heightened sense of belonging requires a major yielding of autonomy.  In contrast, members of disengaged subsystems or families may function autonomously but have a skewed sense of independence and lack feelings of loyalty and belonging and the capacity for interdependence and for requesting support when needed.

The clarity and range of boundaries within a family are useful parameters for the evaluation of family functioning, but is this the case in a broader society?

Where does a society begin and end?  What sort of boundaries delineate any given society and its sub-systems and are they permeable or rigid?

If our society was a family, my sense is that we have an extremely small subsystem that is very much disengaged from the remaining subsystems. The extreme level of disengagement, along with the disparity in size and wealth between this subsystem and the remaining societal sub-systems is toxic.

This toxicity leads to what David Cameron described as a 'broken society'; lack of social cohesion, poor health, increased dependency on drugs and alcohol and crime. In contrast, societies that have more equality seem to do better.Richard Wilkinson   a researcher in social inequalities in health and the social determinants of health in a 1997 paper published in the British Medical Journal suggested that “one reason why greater income equality is associated with better health seems to be that it tends to improve social cohesion and reduce the social divisions”.

He later went on to suggest that “the psychosocial effects of relative deprivation are unlikely to be confined to health… where death rates from accidents, violence, and alcohol related causes seem to be particularly closely related to wider income inequalities, the predominance of behavioural causes may reflect changes in social cohesion”.

From a structural therapy point of view, a family that has serious problems needs to be restructured. If we think at a societal level, this would involve changing the structure of the society, making it more functional by altering the existing hierarchy and interaction patterns.In a recent TED lecture, Wilkinson argues for a fairer, progressive tax system to address inequalities.

However, a more comprehensive solution to the problem of restructuring our society has been addressed by Tony Judt, who argued that the whittled-down Left squandered a huge opportunity to show the mainstream that new ways of seeing and thinking are desirable. In the aftermath of recent financial crises, it’s pretty much impossible to argue that financial markets properly regulate themselves.

Judt advocates a revival of the central values of American liberalism or European social democracy. He calls for the beneficent authority of a welfare state (in one form or another) to redress the excesses of unregulated market forces; a course that emphatically rejects both dogmatic socialism and unrestrained capitalism.

His version of social democracy (or, for Americans, liberalism) envisages a society less materialistic, less individualistic and more community-minded than the present one, based on an economy in which capitalism, while by no means abolished, is on the other hand firmly tamed and regulated.

In light of these great upward shifts of wealth, Judt (who died in 2010) felt that, at that time, no civic movement had gained mainstream influence. Perhaps the #occupy protests are the beginning of this very movement?

Judt. T. (2010). Ill fares the land. London; Penguin.

Minuchin, S. & Fishman, H. C. (2004). Family Therapy Techniques. Harvard: Harvard University Press

Wilkinson, R. G. (1997). Socioeconomic determinants of health: Health inequalities: relative or absolute material standards? BMJ 314: 591

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