A Relational Revolution: Rebuilding the Good Society


We live in an age of relational deficits: from an epidemic of loneliness in Western Europe, so-called “deaths of despair” in the United States, forced and voluntary migration that breaks up families and relationships in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, it is clear that we lack the types of strong, healthy, and flourishing relationships the world needs. It is time for a relational revolution.

The political scientist and sociologist Lester Milbrath, writing in the late 1980s, demonstrated that we live in a “dominator society” in which capitalist dogma proclaims a competitive society to be the best. A competitive society is one in which relationships are systematically undermined or destroyed, and money, power, or prestige — ultimate values in today’s culture — elevated in their place (Lester Milbrath, “Adapting to the Coming Downshift” in The Localization Reader, 2012).

The quest for money, power, and prestige without limit has destroyed our relationships with the natural systems that sustain life, but by analogy we can also see that they have destroyed our relationships with each other. It is impossible to undertake a full genealogy of this, but it is evident in everything from the capitalistic quest for profit-above-all which commodified black labor in the system of chattel slavery to the opioid crisis of our own day, which has destroyed countless lives and families because of the greed of Purdue Pharmaceuticals.

The question before us now is how do we redesign the system to privilege relational well-being, fraternity, flourishing, and communion rather than competition, money, power, or prestige? The answer to this question will provide a framework for possibly preventing the total collapse of the ecological systems sustaining life, while also ensuring the flourishing of future generations in meaningful, reciprocal, and responsive relationships. Here are four things we must consider if we are to make a start.

First, we must begin early. The science of early childhood development has clearly established the priority of responsive, reciprocal relationships early in life. Early experiences — both positive and negative — affect the developing brain’s architecture. A sound relational foundation in the first months and years of a person’s life is critical for sustaining relational health — the ability to form and nurture relationships throughout one’s lifetime — throughout the lifespan and beyond to future generations. A good society is built from the foundation up.

Secondly, we must redefine freedom. We must turn freedom from an absence of limits to an affirmation of our embeddedness in relationships. We may not have chosen our relationships and yet they still require our investments of time, energy, and love. Liberalism — our dominant political philosophy that seeks to maximize liberty by freeing us from limits, duties, and obligations to anything we do not deliberately choose — has firmly established negative liberty (freedom from) as best. This approach to freedom serves marketers, the boosters of “self-care”, and celebrities selling Instagrammable lifestyles, but it degrades families and introduces children to a world in which relationships are not valued and sustained only by free choice. We can take steps through programmatic intervention and public policy to ameliorate these effects, but without challenging core notions of freedom inherent to liberalism, we will not be able to promote the relational health of children, families, and communities.

Thirdly, we must attend to economics. The culture of consumption driven by our capitalist system is “one of the most powerful systems of formation in the contemporary world” (William Cavanaugh, Being Consumed, Eerdmans 2008) We are taught from our very earliest days to see the world through the lens of what we want to have and buy, our desires and emotions manipulated by the powerful forces of advertising, and we are habituated to be dissatisfied when we don’t have the newest or most popular clothes, technology, and experiences. This formation now happens increasingly in digital environments where it is often unclear that something is actually paid advertising. The formation for restlessness runs counter to the bonds of relationship that hold us closely to family, place, and the limits of particular neighborhoods and cultures. Think, for example, about the formative language of upward — and outward — mobility we use: “she’s meant for bigger and better things” or “he came from the middle of nowhere” or “she’s going someplace.” This type of language subtly forms us to believe that the only way to “make it” is to break the bonds of relationship that have nurtured our early years and leave to participate in the global extractive economy far away from anyone who knows you or any place where you are known.

Fourthly, we must understand the limits of our tools. One way in which the market forms us is by convincing us to put our faith in well-designed tools. The market is one such tool and we are taught by the ambient culture of capitalism to let the market go and it will invisibly achieve the best possible outcomes for the most people. Consequently, we are formed to believe that for any problem our society faces we can design a tool to overcome it. This temptation is particularly acute when the problems we face are in the social sphere. Youth unemployment? Inner city criminality? Rural poverty? High blood pressure? Let’s design a program (or an app!) for that! After we’ve designed the tool, we move quickly to evaluating it, conducting a cost-benefit analysis, scaling it, and advocating large-scale government funding for it. The sequence is well-established and well-known. And, yet we do not make steady headway against many of our social problems. The tools simply do not address the root cultural causes of our relational deficits. As Eric Freyfogle has shown, tools are not substitutes for cultures of respect. No tool, regardless of how well-designed it may be, is a substitute for a culture that respects relational health, privileges the well-being of families over profit, acts in solidarity with both past and future generations, and esteems embeddedness in places and communities that sustain relationship over lifestyle.

A revolution begins with prophets. These prophets not only preach a message of resistance to injustice or a return to a higher ideal, but they witness by the example of their own lives the message they proclaim. Our crisis — a crisis of relationship and connection — is a crisis of prophets. Who will rise up to lead us? And will those who do live in such a way that they are not merely thought leaders but also witnesses? Will they be people for whom a commitment to the common good illuminates the choices they make each day to live in relationship to people, places, cultures, and land that have sustained them and to which they are now making a return?

I am especially indebted to Eric T. Freyfogle’s Agrarianism and the Good Society: Land, Culture, Conflict, and Hope (Lexington, KY: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2007. pp. 70–74, 80–81) for the insights on freedom and tools.

Photo by Perry Grone on Unsplash.