Almost no pundit, politician or purveyor of good causes can today make their case without extolling its benefits for ‘the community’ or miscellaneous ‘communities’. The importance of community has become a touchstone of contemporary thinking, on both the political left and the right. It might be thought that what socialists and conservatives mean by community is fundamentally different, whereas they are united by a wooliness of definition. I have often made reference to community myself in writing on social issues without either explaining clearly what was meant or understanding sufficiently what was being discussed. I felt it time to attempt to remedy that lack and explore the issue.
The first question that should be posed then is why it has become so commonplace to refer to community. It could well be that, as with many things that we feel we have lost or are losing, we are externalising that sense through excessive referencing. In the last century have appeared innumerable opportunities for humans to live more independent lives, including technologies, such as TV and gaming, which have tempted us to be more insular as families and as individuals. However, the more independent we become, unsurprisingly, the less dependent we feel. But humans are social animals; we depend on others for many things and, conversely, come to feel our value when we experience that we are needed. Growing independence is, therefore, a two-edged sword: eminently desirable, but leaving us, at the same time with a gnawing sense of loss. It has taken a generation or two for our collectively alienated society to discover the lodestone for the resolution of that loss – the need for community. Our frequent usage of the term, then, in addition to naming something that was once taken for granted – and therefore largely invisible – has taken on an elegiac tone.
There is, though, as is so often the case, a darker reading of this question which points to a social pathology: the exploitation of our vulnerability to the desire for community by those who wish to inveigle their way into positions of influence. It invariably involves a pitch to some form of identity – national or local, political, occupational or cultural, racial or ethnic, religious or sexual, and so on. Like identity politics itself, it is a game played across the political spectrum, but particularly on the wilder reaches of the left and the right, where it is the most cynically manipulative. It becomes the function of the ideologue there to fashion an imagined community by simplifying and orienting the complex identities of real people along the lines of their own prejudices and grievances, defining in the process a similarly caricatured ‘other’ who is the object of their resentment. Thus is society polarised by those who identify transient communities of partisan complexion and appoint themselves their leaders and voice. Such ‘community leaders’ under the pretence of solidarity empower themselves while placing those that look to them in hock to a drastically reduced view of their own possibility.
What then is community? We clearly distinguish it from family, those to whom we owe an immediate obligation to support and comfort, those in whom, as evolutionists would say, we have a genetic investment. But we imagine it to be similarly tangible, a social entity near enough that we are part of it, but whose shape is fuzzy and social conventions and requirements less obvious. Its linguistic root suggests that it is those who commune and communicate, actions which should be distinguished even if they are frequently, if not invariably, coterminous.
The sense of community as the place where people commune comes from an older stratum of meaning derived from the archaic French comuner, meaning to share. Here the roots in the Christian religion, in which the congregation took communion together – the sharing of the bread and wine symbolising Jesus’ flesh and blood – are obvious. The Christian religion has been a dominant force in Western culture for two thousand years and shaped the growth of cities. In Britain the parish system defines a specific geographical region around a local church. In times when church-going was near-universal it would have had an important role in shaping people’s social experience, that of meeting neighbours, friends, acquaintances, rivals, potential mates, possibly even enemies on common territory, holding similar beliefs and participating in shared rituals. Although this is an experience of a decreasing number today, it is reasonable to assume that this cultural memory shapes many of our ideas about community as a tangible social entity.
The case of the religious community is archetypal for those social groupings defined as an authoritative institution or one having a ‘sacred’ task binding it together, though this can be entirely secular, such as a school, a hospital, a prison or a charity. These can be communities as bounded entities if managed well by enlightened leadership. A community defined solely by communication, on the other hand, is essentially leaderless, non-hierarchical and unbounded, an emergent order of spontaneous human interaction. Rather than being a distinct social entity, it is the warp and weft of social being as such. At its most basic it is the daily round of acknowledging our neighbours and colleagues, keeping up with friends, the small services and kindnesses we do for each other, the politeness to strangers and the help we can sometimes provide.
We should not underestimate the residual power of community in this open, unbounded sense. I know of someone whose life was saved by a work colleague. A recent news article recounted how in the floods this month individuals and businesses, churches and local clubs rallied to support those who were rendered temporarily homeless, where national and local government were paralysed or indifferent and the home insurers washed their hands of the matter. Among Americans, that most individualistic of peoples, the spontaneous helpfulness of neighbours and even strangers is almost a national characteristic. I once read of an Englishwoman whose husband died suddenly after they moved to a suburb of Washington, whose neighbors set up a roster to shop and cook for the family until they could settle their affairs. While I lived there I experienced personally the unsolicited kindnesses of people willing to put themselves out. I once witnessed a traffic accident where perfect strangers stopped to comfort a woman who was trapped and injured in her car until the emergency services arrived. By contrast, I have also lived in cultures where the suffering of others elicits indifference, shame or opportunism.
Is there, though, the danger of stepping too far in the direction of the unbounded in what we are prepared to call community? I am thinking here of the development over the past twenty years or so of so-called ‘online communities’. This is not a question of whether such social media forums are/do good or bad, for clearly there are examples which are well run and constructive and those which are not, but of whether they can properly be called communities and, more importantly, whether we accept that remote relationships of this sort are likely to increasingly predominate in our social experience over the local. Surely, such means of communication can be an extension of community, but they cannot be a replacement for it. Humans are creatures of flesh and blood as well as of the mind and, as such, need to replenish the bonds of contact that we have inherited from our mammalian ancestry. In this sense community is like family; we may live at distance from one another, but the sense of being family is only real when we live in the expectation of being reunited. Likewise, community is only substantiated when there is the ongoing possibility for encounter in a shared physical space.
There is little doubt that the ‘sense of community’ is stronger when there is an experience of shared hardship. The war generation often speak about this, when everyone’s life was difficult and they faced a common enemy. Civil war, by contrast, can tear families apart and make an enemy of a neighbour, as it did in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, to name just two examples. Sometimes the shared enemy is the government itself. Many older Russians lament the passing of the Soviet era in which, despite its deprivations, they felt they had a place. I speak to Poles who say they are disappointed by how selfish people have become since the end of communist rule, even though life is better in almost all respects. There is undoubtedly an element of nostalgia to this. Altruism is an intrinsic part of human nature; it may be less obvious when life is more comfortable, but it is latent in all of us as we adapt to different social circumstances.
While the meanings which people ascribe to terms cannot be undone, it is helpful to have a positive social concept of community that can be distinguished from merely figurative or subsidiary uses. While our sense of community as a bounded spatial entity has been shaped by a history of authoritative institutions, in our contemporary pluralistic societies we experience it mostly as an extension of our private locus, through the multiple encounters and fleeting intimacies and occasional crises of daily life, in which we attempt to meet our moral obligations to others.