Noticed by Stanley Dundee:

2021-01-04: Asabiyah in Utah, by Natalie Gochnour

Economist and dean Natalie Gochnour presents a fascinating case study of the benefits of solidarity in the relative successes of the state of Utah, where shared religious practice dating from its origins continues to play a major role in its modern culture.

Gouchnour relies on the concept of social capital to explain Utah's exceptional economic performance:

. . . an initial assessment makes clear that Utah's [Covid-19] economic response outperforms most, if not all, states. . . . Utah frequently finds itself in a favorable position across a variety of economic indicators—most notably for this article, income equality and social mobility. . . . The evidence makes a strong case for the value of social capital not only in fighting a pandemic, but in creating and supporting an economy that creates greater opportunity for all.

Consider income equality, as measured by the Gini coefficient:

For the 2019 period, Utah's income measures tell a consistent story of nation-leading income equality at all levels: Utah, with a Gini coefficient of 0.4268, ranked first for income equality among states and the District of Columbia. The Salt Lake City metropolitan area, with a Gini coefficient of 0.4257, ranked first for income equality among metropolitan areas over one million in population. West Jordan city and West Valley City in Utah ranked first and sixth, respectively, for income equality among cities over one hundred thousand in population. Finally, a census tract in Salt Lake County (tract 1135.26) in the 2005–9 period ranked third highest for income equality among 61,358 neighborhoods surveyed in the entire country. Although few might expect a consistently Republican, low-tax state like Utah to lead the way in this category, clearly these results show that Utah and the Greater Salt Lake Area offer something important to people who value income equality.

Likewise social mobility:

Harvard economist Raj Chetty and a team of researchers in their 2014 study Where Is the Land of Opportunity?: The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States identified Salt Lake City (along with San Jose, California) as having the highest rate of absolute mobility in the nation.

Gochnour attributes these achievements in part to the practice of Christian values in Mormonism, the spirit of which reaches into secular organizations as well:

Latter-day Saints . . . are taught from a young age that service to others is a service to God. The Book of Mormon also warns about the problems arising from inequality in society . . . Utah's service-based culture [exemplified by the Church of Jesus Christ's culture of care for one another] is a cherished state asset that residents continuously strive to perfect. This service-based ethos extends well beyond the Church of Jesus Christ. Utah possesses a strong interfaith community and nonprofit sector.

Kudos to the LDS church for its willingness to embrace secular elements for whom religious practice may be alien. That's a tactic that every church should embrace. And may we aspire to someday merit the designation as a culture of care.

Social capital gets the credit in Gochnour's presentation, but students of post-capitalism might prefer the classical term asabiya as originated by Ibn Khaldun and popularized in modern times by Peter Turchin:

The concept of collective solidarity, or asabiya in Arabic, was Ibn Khaldun's most important contribution to our understanding of human history. The theory is described in his monumental The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. Asabiya of a group is the ability of its members to stick together, to cooperate; it allows a group to protect itself against enemies, and to impose its will on others. A group with high asabiya will generally win when pitched against a group of lesser asabiya. Moreover, royal authority and general dynastic power are attained only through a group and asabiya. This is because aggressive and defensive strength is obtained only through . . . mutual affection and willingness to fight and die for each other. [p. 91]

Turchin emphasizes the competitive, indeed warlike aspects of asabiya, which befits his focus on imperial history. Gochnour looks towards the cooperative spirit of asabiya. However, in the face of adversity, the competitive aspect gains relevance. Consider, e.g., the famous Shia expression Every day is Ashura. Every land is Karbala. The centrality of willing martyrship by its generalization to all times and places is a wellspring of asabiya.

Gochnour identifies some unique features of Mormon practice that lend themselves to asabiya. Using lay clergy erases the boundary between priests and congregants (and precludes the formation of a priestly class):

First, the Church practices a lay clergy—that is to say that local congregational leaders are unpaid. They serve as volunteers in callings, including the demanding and time-consuming role as local pastor (or bishop). This creates a much more egalitarian experience for congregants. One year you are a leader and another year you are a follower, experiencing the full range of assignments (pastor, chorister, youth leader, facilities manager, janitor, and more).

Geographical organization of congregations helps ensure that congregants can't self-segregate along class lines:

Second, the Church organizes congregations geographically rather than by personal choice. This means that congregants engage in fellowship and worship with people not by choosing a congregation that fits their preferences, but are assigned one based on geography. Certainly, because of housing choices this still creates a neighborly and common experience, but I can attest from experience that every congregation I've participated in includes a diverse mix of people, often sharing little in common.

So how do those of us who don't get to live in Utah gin up some asabiya around the neighborhood, and can we get some for the whole nation? Everyone? The Utah example rewards careful examination. But is social capital truly the active ingredient? More like a byproduct than the origin. Gochnour is tiptoing around the centrality of religious practice. Is there any better basis for asabiya than shared religion? Religious agreement is a tough pill for most of the nation.

Pity she doesn't put Christian love and service right at the center. Social capital seen as a bank account with deposits and withdrawals is sad and ugly alongside love and service. Is that the best we can do in the waning days of neoliberalism? Hey, the results are solid and it's authorized by our masters so let's embrace it. But social capital comes up empty for spirit.

Conversely, willing martyrdom in a struggle against tyranny blazes with spirit but looks downright perilous, and in any case is unlikely to be accessible for most of us in the West. It does behoove us to understand it if we purport to contest it! Again the power of religious solidarity confronts us. Can we hope to lay capitalism to rest without the power of religion? I doubt it.