How does a society become resilient?

Contributor: Jeremy Bugler

In recent years, two of the world’s most advanced countries have faced major traumatic shocks. One of the societies, despite losing much of its power generation, remained a model of quiet and purposeful cohesion. It suffered no riots or indignities to its citizens. The other, despite even greater resources and even more forewarning, became in one region a vast and shocking chaos, with its better-off escaping and its poorest being trapped and for a long time abandoned. I am writing of course about Japan and its 2011 tsunami and about the US and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Both of these disasters were failures of robustness. In both cases, catastrophic destruction happened as physical protection measures were tried, tested – and found woefully inadequate. In the aftermath of these events, as the floodwaters subsided, it’s possible to make out the ultimate quality needed for resilience: social resilience, the resilience of a people. For resilience is as much about recovery and transformation as it is about preventing collapse.

So what factors make for a resilient social-fabric? One can make a fist of listing what the make-up of a resilient society, might look like.

  • It must have a deal of cohesion and co-operation. Perhaps it is a society that stays together because it prays together. Or because it plays together. Or because its motto is one-for-all and all-for-one. Whatever, its members instinctively see themselves as joined at the hip. When some of them are needy, the others help them. Its motto is the reverse of ‘devil takes the hindmost.’ For instance, in the Japanese tsunami aftermath, there were numerous cases not only of people refraining to loot their local supermarket but handing in written out lists of what they had bought and then distributing the food among neighbours who couldn’t get to the shops.
  • There is relatively little difference in wealth and access to services between the better-off members of its society and the less well-off.
  • In this society, the citizens have respect for authority – both vertical (the leaders) and horizontal (the decisions of the community, the council, and the voluntary groups).  It’s a society where deference still holds sway.
  • It’s a society of self-restraint. Its citizens can accept that life has turned for the worse, that many of their hopes of yesterday must be dashed. They can accept these things without their morale collapsing and the society descending into despair.

One can also have a fair shot at delineating what an un-resilient citizenry might look like.  Many of these characteristics are the obverse of the `resilient society’.

• Its people are highly unequal in their wealth, income and prospects.  In Britain today, for instance, the top third of society own 75 percent of its wealth while the bottom third own three percent. In the United States, the top two percent own half its wealth. The citizens who have poor incomes and prospects feel they have little or no stake in their society. They feel excluded. Much more crippling to its resilience than this society’s absolute wealth is its lack of common wealth.

• It is a citizenry in which its members are obsessed with their right to one thing or another, and equally pre-occupied with complaining when they don’t get them.   Entitlement and complaint are its watchwords. Its television programmes are punctuated by advertisements by personal injury lawyers.

• It is a citizenry which has little or no respect for authority. In this un-resilient society, deference died out decades ago, being replaced by a keen sense of self-interest.

• It is a highly consumerist citizenry, giving great value to attaching certain objects to the person, or wearing certain fashions. Those in this society that do not possess these objects or have not been able to afford these fashions may take advantage of a crisis or threat to acquire them, causing social disorder.

• It has as its motto “There is no such thing as society, just individuals and families.”   This celebrated or notorious statement by Margaret Thatcher has been subjected to a revisionist analysis recently, almost pointing to Mrs Thatcher being a secret Fabian Society member. But whether one accepts such analysis or not, one can take it that a citizenry which celebrates the individual above the collective achievement may be in trouble when its resilience is tested.

Of course, there are many paradoxes in history when it comes to resilience. Many doubted that the sons of Russian kulaks, who Stalin murdered and deported in their millions, would have rushed to fight for the USSR when it was invaded by Germany in 1941. But rush they did – the call of the Motherland was stronger than their outrage at what had been done to their families. In the same off way, Stalin’s generals continued to give fine service despite successive purges among their numbers.

In an opposite example, a strike by police officers in Montreal in 1969 lead, within hours, to widespread looting and disorder. Within hours of the start of the strike, the downtown area was attacked by looters. Shop-owners, some of them armed, struggled to fight off looters.   After only 16 hours, the police strike was called off, under duress from the local government. One police officer was shot dead and 108 people arrested during the disturbance. Before the strike, Montreal appeared to be in a much like any other city in North America.

Which of these examples might accord with the UK today?  A Britain that is rent by riots and anger at the disproportionate wealth of City traders might have acquired Montreal genes in its DNA.

Overall, the outlines of a resilient citizenry are clear.  In the contemporary world, Japan and the Scandinavian countries come closest among the developed nations to the resilient ideal.

How did Japan’s people acquire their resiliency (though at the same time developing a highly efficient and centralised industrial structure that is a model of fragility)?

Gavin Rees, director of Dart Central Europe, has written about Japanese attitudes having deep underpinnings in language and religion. “The expression shoganai … is one of the first phrases that foreigners in Japanese.” It means “It can’t be helped; we will just have to put up with it” and expresses a Japanese stoicism in the face of disaster.

Rees also cites the expression, sou iu mon da yo, broadly meaning “it’s just that kind of thing.” This expression comforted the Japanese people in the aftermath of the tsunami.  “I was told that it was one of the first things that a friend’s grandmother said after being evacuated from a village that was largely destroyed by the tsunami in Miyagi”. The grandmother, plainly, was not about to ring her personal injury lawyer and request that he file suit.

Japan, of course, has sharp experience of overcoming disasters, most notably the rebuilding of Japan after the catastrophic defeat and nuclear attacks in 1945. But this was the working of deep-seated attitudes, not the cause of them. Rees cites Buddhism and its doctrine that life is suffering – the First Noble Truth – “and that attachment to the way things appear to be is illusory, as everything is subject to change.” He also cites the Japanese attitude to death, seeing the newly dead as never far from the living, having a guiding influence over them.

Robust personal attitudes towards disasters make for strong, individual people. A respect for others and authority makes allows a society to develop strong connections to the local community (bonding capital) and more equal societies engender co-operation more widely with people we don’t even know (bridging capital). Building up stocks of these types of social capital are the building blocks of a resilient society.

Converting Western societies to a Japanese model will hardly be a cake-walk – requiring perhaps 2000 years of Buddhism as a beginning. And of course, I don’t suggest a literal “Japanification” of all Western societies. That would be both impossible and in many respects undesirable. But there are attitudes and examples in existing Western societies that point to hopeful paths. One can reflect that only 65 years ago in the UK, society was extremely resilient. British people readily accepted great privations and the instances of social unrest, even under the provocation of heavy bombing, were rare.

So the challenges may be: to create a society with minimal economic inequality. To foster voluntary groups that care for the less fortunate among us. To encourage stoicism as a social attitude to develop economies built on durable possessions rather than short-life consumerist products. To re-create respect for authority but also its concomitant: authorities that merit respect.

We have, obviously, a long way to go.

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