As communities are facing high unemployment, economic hardship and deteriorating infrastructure, they will be left even more vulnerable when fossil fuel once again rises in price. In the early stages of distress, appeals to the “common good” or “cooperative engagement” may be met warmly and enthusiastically by townspeople.

However, there are predictable changes as hardship, deprivation and even violence escalates, which impacts on this spirit of altruism. One size does not fit all when working within a community setting. It is a skill to recognize the level of community functioning, or at what stage of collapse the system is functioning, and to work within these circumstances skillfully. Is an important skill for concerned citizens and community activists alike.

In this first of a multi-part series, I will outline the ways in which researchers have dissected the elements of community deterioration, and outlined the ways in which this cooperative effort between external forces, leadership, and individuals, contributes to its escalating violence trajectory. In later writings, I’ll look at the way researchers have actually worked with communities experiencing high levels of violence and social deterioration, both in the US and in other countries.


Community deterioration is a cooperative endeavor between the larger “mega-forces,” individuals living in that community and the leadership they elect. In a fascinating article that looks at altruism, Stuart W. Twemlow, M.D. of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry, Baylor College of Medicine, in Houston, Texas (Twemlow, 2001) and his colleagues outlines the systemic spiraling cycle of deterioration within a community that contributes to its further demise. These cycles can be seen, for example, in economic job loss, which intensifies the demand for chemical distractions, which promotes drug trafficking, which increases the incidents of violent crime. Crime increases fear, which increases isolation and detachment, out of concerns that one will be victimized. Trauma and stress shrinks the mindset to our most immediate concerns, and broader perspectives such as community cohesion and compassion, become viewed as too distant to contemplate. Self-concerns and those of one’s own immediate family become sole priority.

As the community becomes less cohesive, pride in living on that “patch of ground” sinks, and we see more defacing, pollution, litter, careless home maintenance, broken windows and the like. Residents begin badmouthing their community, and morale continues to deteriorate. As community pride drops, civic and charitable organizations also cease to function as effectively, “with an envious and greedy spoiling of the cultural context of the community’s knowledge, traditions, and attitudes,” according to the researchers. Money remains the only ruling value.

As deterioration continues, community tradition and pride are eroded deliberately and senselessly, and new rules are enforced that benefit few people, or the ruling elite. Ruthless businesspeople flourish, and all demonstrate less courtesy, and more thoughtlessness in day-to-day interactions.

Flagships of Community Deterioration

In the home, it is the “pair of socks on the living room floor” that begins to communicate to the residents, however unconsciously, that “no order need reign here.” In the community, we might see broken street lights, potholes that aren’t repaired, or litter blight. In the early stages, symbols or celebrations that were once symbolically significant are stopped. The yearly town cookout is canceled for “lack of funds.” As deterioration escalates, we see politicians calling for the abandonment or bulldozing of entire neighborhoods, as a cost-savings measure.

Religious attendance and political involvement drops off. Drinking and domestic violence begin to increase. Local police are more aggressive during traffic stop violations, and the drivers are more arrogant. More and more, people don’t see a “point” in working together for a common good or community socializing as the cultural context of the group gets lost.

Twemlow and his colleague, Frank Sacco observed stages and key elements of collapse in their research, and these attributes contribute to violent communities where a “tough-minded, unforgiving violent mindset of its leaders and members has severely damaged the cohesiveness of the community.”

Here are the key elements:

Artistic pursuits, music as a worthy goal, community discussion and other “genteel traditions” are rejected in favor of the hard sciences or “mindless entertainment.” (Rome’s fall can be seen in the busts of the Emperors over time: As the collapse continued, the artwork became crude and generic.) Anything requiring introspection or careful planning is scorned. Damaged communities increasingly reject the value of carefully thought out future plans. Town meetings spend less time on reflection and discussion, in favor of an action-oriented, stop-gap or short-term focus. Energy is wasted on solving minor problems, and “much to do about nothing” results in extreme measures involving the use of force, the purchase of new weaponry, or restrictive new measures of control.

Personal Power Comes from Violence

Altruism is seen as a “weakness,” to be ridiculed and avoided. Competition becomes a way of separating out the “winners” from the “losers.” The scorn felt by the losers produces resentment, anger, and retaliation. (Mr. Wong, the “Binghamton Shooter,” felt “disrespected” and killed 13 innocent people, after being harassed and belittled.) Caring about one’s fellow citizens becomes a vaguely religious virtue, not a cornerstone of civic responsibility. Citizens increasingly protect themselves from each other, put up gates, hire security or organized crime. Those representing law and order often become corrupted by the situation, and begin to pick and choose who they will “protect and serve.”

Immediate versus Delayed Gratification
Violent communities aren’t pretty. Repairs are shoddy, and new buildings are cheap and ugly. When a business closes, the windows are boarded up carelessly and graffiti results. There is extreme pressure to solve problems quickly, without attention paid to the consequences. These communities become a less desirable place to live, so real estate prices drop off and investment in new business evaporates.

Lack of Stable Political and Family Systems

Leaders may be feared, but not respected. People believe, in general, that “all leaders are corrupt” and “the situation is hopeless.” Family systems deteriorate, feelings of security, stability and belonging, falter, and the demands to “exist in this rat race” intensify exhaustion, burnout, rattle nerves, and test patience. Children are left without the reassuring structures that support them, and they bring this fear, anxiety, hostility or violence into the school setting with them. Their is increases in school violence, bullying and harassment.

Powerlessness, Despair, and Anomie

As violence and deterioration increase, feelings of powerlessness, apathy, and lack of purpose intensify. There is less time, money and interest in community centers, civic duties, boys and girls clubs, charitable organizations, community service groups, and religious attendance. Those volunteering for leadership positions are seen as “saps” to be dumped on or blamed. “Whatever!” replaces a genuine sentiment of investment and concern.

Escapism as a Response to Helplessness

As healthier forms of creative escape, such as sports teams, drama clubs and other recreational activities drop away, they are replaced with more destructive substitutes. Vice and drug/alcohol abuse increase. Parents and teenagers alike appear to show lack of interest in other forms of entertainment or healthier forms of stress management.

The Bully-Victim-Bystander Relationship Dominates

Bullying, sexual harassment, or weapons found in schools and in the work place escalate as the quality of community deteriorates. Bullies, whether they are children, coworkers or bosses, provoke, insult or assault while bystanders either applaud, or remain in fear or are cowered into silence. As the culture worsens, both children and adults fear ‘causing waves,’ or ‘being next’ should they object to what they see happening in front of them.

Denial of Violence

Denial and projection is often a feature of the coercive power dynamic. One particular group, neighborhood or “the other” is accused of causing the problem and scapegoated for it. Denial may take the form of oversimplification, such as promoting “mandatory jail sentencing” or “stricter gun control,” as a universal solution. When force doesn’t work to control crime, more force is recommended. Stereotyped and over-generalized responses to problems are promoted, and military solutions are instituted to resolve civilian unrest.

Disconnection and Corruption of the Police

“The police in violent communities are very often under fire and become more and more alienated from those whom they are suppose to protect. Community policing efforts become trivialized or nominal, and thus, unsuccessful. Police corruption increases with the populace calling police derogatory names like “pig” (USA) or “animal” (Jamaica)”(Twemlow, 2001). Police consider the citizenship ignorant, selfish, and unresponsive. Crime increases as community/police cooperation plummets.

Population Increase and Redistribution

Shantytowns emerge, squatters take up residence, tent cities pop up and the homeless are more visible on every city street.

In the USA, we see older cities, some of whom have lost half of their population over the past decades, now being essentially “re-designed,” mostly by demolishing hundreds of abandoned homes. While the focus is on the “problem” of empty neighborhoods, few wonder where these long-time residents have gone, and how many more will be driven out of these small cities because of increasing unemployment.

As these empty lots are turning into parks, recreational facilities and gardens, those returning are not the working-class residents who left. News reports tell of upscale architects, and high-tech worker who are only too happy to gut large buildings and turn them into comfortable upscale work/dwellings.

Lack of Social Welfare Programs

The weak and poor become viewed as “lazy freeloaders.” Assistance is cut, or co-payments are raised. Issues such as minimum wage or workers rights are ignored. The ’social contract’ is broken. Those advocating for the needy are seen as “bleeding hearts” and “unrealistic.”

Criminal Enterprises

Organized crime increases. Governmental authority is vague or non-existent in any meaningful sense.

Abuse and Rejection of the Vulnerable

Socialized care of the young, the old, and the disabled becomes less tolerated, and those who can’t work to earn money are rejected or devalued. The lowest status jobs involve caring for the vulnerable, and a wider sense of social and cooperative responsibility is rejected.

Gender, Ethnic, and Religious Insensitivities

Violent communities are intolerant of difference, and power is a mediating arbiter. Rape increases. Hate groups emerge and are tolerated.


Many of us can see these elements in our own communities, today. However, researchers suggests that four systems: public safety, education, health and social services, and spirituality can be strengthened to catalyze dramatic change. They have successfully instituted such change in their community consulting work. I will review these systems in my next blog entry.


Twemlow, S. (2001, October). Modifying violent communities by enhancing altruism: A vision of possibilities. Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 3(4), p. 431-462.

Twemlow, S. & Sacco, F. (1999). A Multi-level conceptual framework for understanding the violent community. In H.V. Hall & L.C. Whitaker (Eds). Collective Violence: Effective strategies for assessing and intervening in fatal group and institutional aggression. Chapter 19 (p.566-599). New York: CRC Press.

About the Author:

Kathy McMahon, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist in Massachusetts, university professor, lecturer and chicken farmer who writes about emotional reactions to social issues of the day. Her blog,, is celebrating its third year responding to letters from her readers on the emotional side of issues including Peak Oil, Climate Change, and Economic Collapse. She is starting a series of teleseminars in Spring 2009.