Brian R Corbin's Reflections on Religion and Life

Living Your Faith as Citizens and Leaders in Politics, Culture, Society and Business

Reflections on Robert Putnam, et al. The Upswing (2020)

Putnam, R. D. (2020). The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. Simon & Schuster.

Putnam traces 125 years of how interestingly economics, politics, society, and culture come together to form an inverted U graph showing an “I-WE-I” curve from the late 19th century Gilded Age to the current revisited Gilded Age that emerges in the late 1960s. The shift from “I” to “We” in the early 20th century was not perfect nor a grand strategy but emerged from pragmatic, experimental practices in living democratic behaviors and creating institutions that engage and transform. The shift back to the “I” from the heights of the “WE” in the mid-1950s-1960s shows a change in our own understanding of the balance between individualism and communitarianism that may have led to renewed inequities. Putnam argues that the grand “WE” was far from perfect due to anti-racial and anti-women sentiments and that any new “upswing” requires more inclusive policy and practices.

Putnam leaves us with a call, after reviewing various individual actors during the Progressive Era that together, sometimes unwittingly or unintentionally experimenting locally with building communities and allowing such energies to forge national movements when the time was ripe, to change our society with a more inclusive “we” perspective. There is no one cause, Putnam clearly shows, on how economics, politics, society, and culture morphed from an “I-WE-I” curve, and thus there is no one remedy. We are left with actions and practices that each one of us is called to do to enrich our democracy and build a more just world.

He leaves his book with a message of hope that yes, it is possible to re-think our world for its betterment — reducing income inequity, alleviating poverty, and being more racially and gender-inclusive to name a few. But he reminds us: there is no one cause; no one solution, but with a multiplicity of local practices that celebrate a healthy integration of our communal lives and individual liberty “properly understood” (de Tocqueville) we too can rebuild our society.

Putnam’s message of hope based on local practices reminds me of Pope Francis’ call in Fratelli tutti (2020) that we must rethink our relationships and communal arrangements. One means that some of us could focus on might be to re-imagine our work and labor as we engage in new economics, politics, society, and culture. A relatively old story from the 1930s Spain as a priest created a network and system of worker-owned cooperatives, called Mondragon, based on Catholic social doctrine and philosophy, provides one means to be bold in our emergence from not only these COVID19 days but as we forge a new “upswing” for a more “WE” understanding. The very practices required for worker-owned cooperatives taught and led by many here in the USA, like from the Ohio Employee Ownership Center, can be local and national experiments in a rebalancing of communal life and individual liberties “properly understood.” The very fact that various young economists and business leaders are challenging our practices and assumptions, rooted in Pope Francis’ call for a new economy of Francesco, and a promise of many corporations to better the world through the Laudato Si Challenge, moves us forward in a new “upswing” that I think Putnam might relish.

As Pope Francis writes in FT (par 55): “Hope is bold.” So too we must be bold and engage locally and nationally to build a society based on human dignity, aimed at the common good lived through the practices of subsidiarity and solidarity.

January 1, 2021

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