Book Review – The Careless Society: Community and Its Counterfeits by John McKnight

by Mark Votava


This is a wonderfully written book of deep insight and revolutionary ideas.  John McKnight emphasizes how social service systems have co-opted genuine care in society and have left us with almost no community in everyday life in our neighborhoods.  People are put into a forest of services where they are segregated from the everyday life of communities.  Clustered together and dependent on service systems leaves others “clients” rather than “citizens” in the place they live.

We need to move toward a more interdependent society where dependency is not masked by service.  John McKnight emphasizes how professionalism and service providers have taken away a vital component of inclusivity, diversity and human dignity within our world.  Community has become a forgotten value as a result.  This is sad and needs to be reevaluated in our time.

Many people think that services are good.  But what we don’t understand is they leave others dependent.  And this is the kindest way to destroy someone.  Services can become a trap of dependency leaving others as stigmatized, segregated and pushed to the forgotten edges of society.

A Careless Society talks about several different systems we have created in our world that do not show hospitality: professionalism, medicine, human service systems and the criminal justice system.  John McKnight goes on to show how these systems break down the possibility of creating interdependent associations that create community.  It is the breakdown of community in our society that has led to all kinds of loneliness, misery and violence.

This book has influenced me a lot.  I love the work of John McKnight!  He is a true revolutionary voice in our twenty-first century world where community is a strange way of life for many North Americans.  Highly recommended reading for anyone who cares about our future as a society!

  • People who are defined as the problem

“Revolutions begin when people who are defined as problems achieve the power to redefine the problem.”

  • There is a clear need for public servants

“There is a clear need for public servants – not public servicers – and to engage in a new struggle to reinvent America.  The incrementalism that we have depended upon just isn’t working anymore.  We cannot delude ourselves.  We must be true to ourselves and those we represent.”

  • Dependency masked by service

“The enemy is a set of interests that need dependency masked by service.”

  • To create, invent, produce, and care

“We are in a struggle against clienthood, against servicing the poor.  We must reallocate the power, authority, and legitimacy that have been stolen by the great institutions of our society.  We must oppose those interests of governmental, corporate, professional, and managerial America that thrive on the dependency of the American people.  We must commit ourselves to reallocation of power to the people we serve so that we no longer will need to serve.  Only then will we have a chance to realize the American dream: the right to be a citizen and to create, invent, produce, and care.”

  • Deficiency-orientated service systems

“For those whose ‘emptiness’ cannot be filled by human services, the most obvious ‘need’ is the opportunity to express and share their gifts, skills, capacities, and abilities with friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens in the community.  As deficiency-orientated service systems obscure this fact, they inevitably harm their clients and the community by preempting the relationship between them.”

  • Tools of citizenship, association, and community rust

“As the power of profession and service system ascends, the legitimacy, authority, and capacity of citizens and community descend.  The citizen retreats.  The client advances.  The power of community actions weakens.  The authority of the service system strengthens.  And as human service tools prevail, the tools of citizenship, association, and community rust.  Their uses are even forgotten.  Many local people come to believe that the service tool is the only tool, and that their task as good citizens is to support taxes and charities for more services.”

  • Disabled citizenry and impotent community associations

“The result of this professional pedagogy is a disabled citizenry and impotent community associations, unable to remember or understand how labeled people were or can be included in community life.”

  • Living in a forest of services

“By way of analogy, each individual service program is like a tree.  But when enough service programs surround people, they come to live in a forest of services.  The environment is different from the neighborhood or community.  And people who have to live in the service forest will act differently than those people whose lives are principally defined by neighborhood relationships.”

  • Residents are “clients” rather than “citizens”

“There are also low-income neighborhoods where so many people live lives surrounded by services that the neighborhood itself becomes a forest.  People who live in this neighborhood forest are now called the ‘underclass.’  This is an obvious misnomer.  Instead, we should say that the neighborhood is a place where citizens act as anyone else would if their lives were similarly surrounded and controlled by paid service professionals.  A more accurate label than ‘underclass’ would be ‘dependent on human service systems.’  A more accurate differentiation of status would be to say the residents are ‘clients’ rather than ‘citizens.’”

  • The result of a noncommunity environment

“When services grow dense enough around people’s lives, a circular process develops.  A different environment is created for these individuals.  The result of a noncommunity environment is that those who experience it necessarily act in unusual and deviant ways.  These new ways, called inappropriate behavior, are then cited by service professionals as proof of the need for separation in a forest of services and for more services.”

  • Disabled by segregation from community life

“…many vulnerable people are primarily disabled by their segregation from community life in institutions, ‘special’ programs, or service ghettos.  Paradoxically, their lives often improve significantly when they leave service systems and become effectively incorporated in community life…”

  • Working together on a face-to-face basis

“A community is more than just a place.  It comprises various groups of people who work together on a face-to-face basis in public life, not just in private.”

  • Community is about the common life

“Community is about the common life that is lived in such a way that the unique creativity of each person is a contribution to the other.  The crisis we have created in the lives of the excluded people is that they are disassociated from their fellow citizens.  We cannot undo that terrible exclusion by a thoughtless attempt to create illusory independence.  Nor can we undo it by creating a friendship with a person who lives in exclusion.”

  • Joining in association to create an inclusive world

“Our goal should be clear.  We are seeking nothing less than a life surrounded by the richness and diversity of community.  A collective life.  An everyday life.  A powerful life that gains its joy from the creativity and connectedness that comes when we join in association to create an inclusive world.”

  • The economic and community stepping-stones to a viable society

“We cannot invest in growing human services and correctional systems while increasing investments in economy and community.  Indeed, should we invest ever more in failed service and correctional systems, the economic and community stepping-stones to a viable society will vanish under the rising tide of the waters of hopelessness.”

  • The associations in community are interdependent

“The associations in community are interdependent.  To weaken one is to weaken all…  The interdependence of associations and the dependency of community upon their work is the vital center of an effective society.”

  • Vehicles that give voice to diversity

“…community structures tend to proliferate until they create a place for everyone, no matter how fallible.  They provide vehicles that give voice to diversity and assume that consensual contribution is the primary value.”

  • Shared responsibility that requires many talents

“It is obvious that the essence of community is people working together.  One of the characteristics of this community work is shared responsibility that requires many talents.  Thus, a person who has been labeled deficient can find a ‘hammock’ of support in the collective capacities of a community that can shape itself to the unique character of each person.  This collective process contrasts with the individualistic approach of the therapeutic professional and the rigidity of institutions that demand that people shape themselves to the needs of the system.”

  • It is only in community that we can find care

“We all know that community must be the center of our lives because it is only in community that we can be citizens.  It is only in community that we can find care…”

Do the words community and care resonate with you?