The Transition: towards a psycho-social history

“The facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours.”

Photo: Bill Couch on Flickr

by Jake Stanning


Chapter 2

The Neighbour (Excerpt)

[…] The neighbour then is a lens through which to view this strange and doubly petrified society. As reported by Wei Chen in his magisterial social history of the Channel Earthquake, many victims of the disaster spoke to their neighbours for the first time on that fateful day. The mental ill-health, the impossibility of freedom, the denial of self-management encoded in this chosen isolation is so clear to us now, seems so literally insane, that we must remind ourselves to reach for a position of empathy. This was a world struggling with institutions entirely unsuited to large, complex societies. The damage from these poorly-adapted institutions reached into the human mind itself. Mental ill-health was the norm, and extended well beyond the high rate of diagnosis.

The subject of this chapter is truly difficult to grasp for the student of this period, but the facts revealed in the historical record are clear: most people were terrified of their neighbours. This must be qualified, for it is also true that many people might chat with their neighbour over the garden fence (examples of such boundary demarcation artefacts can be found in historical theme parks around the Western European Isles, and are still in use in parts of East Anglia afflicted by wind and conservatism). However, such informal contact rarely went further. Not one in a hundred engaged in any sort of joint project with their neighbour. Precisely what people were terrified of was working with their neighbour, being with their neighbour in any sustained way. What is more, we must reach further into the alien historical consciousness and admit that this fear was not entirely unfounded

Such a bold statement requires justification, for in our era we see it as common sense that control over our environment requires the ability to work with our neighbour. Yet the entire notion and practice of liberation as bound up with a convivial working-together had not yet been born, stymied as it was by the economic structures of society and by the corresponding culture of isolation. The status quo was such that  the fear of working with others could be justified by the lack of experience in working with others. Thus we must approach at the same time both the absurdity of the fear in which people lived, and the unavoidable logic underlying the frightened state of the early twenty-first century mind.

Firstly we must understand this state of mind as self-reinforcing: the en-cultured isolation created the fear, the fear created the isolation. ‘Common sense’ prior to the Transition stated that one’s neighbours were selfish, grasping and controlling, that their win would be your loss. Without getting to know one’s neighbour, it was difficult to challenge this ‘common sense’. It would take a disaster greater than the Channel Earthquake to escape this simple yet steely trap. 

It is also important to understand that if one did accidentally get to know one’s neighbour, it was likely that one’s misanthropic view of them would merely be confirmed. Accounts of meetings of the time are full of tales of how the rare attempts at neighbourly working-together would break down in outbursts of anger, irresolvable feuds, how one or two people would dominate the debates, while others would say nothing, how frequently they were abandoned in frustration. The curious thing about the domination by particular individuals—one of the most common complaints—is that it could only happen because people allowed it. The dominance/subservience complex of the time will be the subject of several chapters in its own right, its undoing being of vital importance in the Transition. Here we will simply note that, being created both by forced education and the workplace, this complex was almost ubiquitous, and as a result it was almost impossible for any person to view another as truly an equal. This was the insoluble labyrinth within which the trap of fearing the neighbour lay. 

This hints at another self-reinforcing problem the culture had created: isolation from the neighbour was actually debilitating to the ability to work together. Understanding this is key if the contemporary mind is to grasp why the only means of gaining control of one’s life—to meet and work together with others—was so consistently rejected prior to the Transition. It is true that the general fear of the neighbour was very much strengthened by specific prejudices: racism, sexism, phobia of the poor and so on. Yet these factors are often exaggerated in popular histories, in part because they strike us as so foolish. In reality, even given an entirely homogeneous neighbourhood, most people still understood neither the value of escaping the isolation-fear trap, nor the paths out of it that appear so clear to ourselves. 

In one sense, the reason people could not work together is transparently obvious: they had not been trained in how to work together. It would take many decades to understand that meeting together required training, that it should start when young and never stop. Over time schooling came to be understood as it is today: as preparation for working together and making decisions together. The key to the puzzlingly long evasion of this—to us—self-evidently reasonable path lies partly in the fact that it was never overtly rejected: the average mind of the era simply shied away from the very thought of working with the neighbour. Its entire training and sense of self pointed in the opposite direction. ’Freedom’ consisted of doing as one wished, and the contradictions inherent in billions of individuals doing as they wished were glossed over using the trite notion of ‘rights’, and never mind that people would commonly give a hundred different versions of what they considered their rights to be.

To understand why it was not clear to the pre-Transition mind that freedom also required other people, we must delve further into the fears that haunted it. Chats over the garden fence notwithstanding, the fear of the neighbour imbued the very culture in which people lived. As already mentioned, one aspect of the terror concerned the lived practicalities of working together with others. The meeting itself was regarded with horror. It consumed time better spent on one’s own pursuits. It spoke of boredom, of poorly managed debates between battling egos. Above all one would have tolerate the people one had constructed one’s atomised life specifically in order to avoid. Difference, often lauded in word, was usually felt as an onerous burden.

And it is in discussing meetings of the time that we can finally understand why some of this fear was justified. In the absence of training, meetings truly could be an odious experience. One must imagine a meeting as a convergence of loneliness, fear, competitiveness, dominance/subservience, mental ill-health, and ignorance. To create a sense of the very genuine tedium and dysfunctionality this could create, we can try to imagine a group of deeply traumatised people entering a room with relative strangers and attempting to get all their emotional needs met in that space, within a few hours.

We have not yet touched upon another aspect of the everyday terror: the fear of being subsumed into a mass. This was a learned fear, in part deliberately taught, in part inculcated in the institutions of forced education, where it was a very real danger. To examine the extent of this fear, I put it to you that a reader from the early twenty-first century, learning that we no longer have fences between houses, would immediately leap to the conclusion that we instead have between our homes a sort of undifferentiated parkland without boundaries. To the damaged mind of the time, the simple expedient of separately controlled plots, each with an individual character, yet open on all sides to allow entry by agreement, simply would not have occurred. As a result neighbours could not even walk directly between homes when visiting neighbours on streets backing onto theirs. To remove the fence would be to court the total loss of one’s personality.

The true depths of the deleterious effects of the terror of the neighbour can only be understood through a psychological lens. Lack of self-respect is a corollary of seeing others as unequal, for one cannot help but become obsessed with the inequalities and hierarchies within one’s own self. It is this failure of valuing of the self—and the twisted conception of the self as fully autonomous—that did so much to inhibit the Transition. Consider: if two members of a household had such different visions for their garden that they struggled to work together, at no point would either of them (or their neighbours) have considered that one of them might instead work on a neighbour’s plot, with someone whose vision they did share. It’s not that this would have been considered and rejected. The historical record shows that it could not be conceptualised. The constant measurement of one’s neighbour and oneself within a framework of competition and inequality ensured that people could not reach out to each other. The fences were strongest in the mind.


Jake Stanning is a public sector worker, occasional journalist and constant blogger. His interests are trees and radical politics, which sometimes converge in thinking about commons. He is currently helping to launch London Renters Union.