239. "The Attack on Community: The Grooved Debate," Society,
Volume 32, No. 5, (July/August 1995), pp. 12-17.
When an intellectual debate is stuck like a phonograph's needle in a overplayed record
groove, a sociologist turns to the sociology of knowledge for explanations. For decades now
communitarians have been pointing out to libertarians that individuals are not free standing
agents but members of communities. (The terms "liberal," "classical liberal," and "libertarian"
have all been used to characterize the critics of communitarians. These labels are confusing; for
instance, many readers do not realize that the labels are not confined to or even necessarily
inclusive of those who are called liberals in typical daily parlance. Most importantly, because the
defining element of the position is the championing of the individual, "libertarian" seems both
the less obfuscating term and the one that is substantively most appropriate.) While people
survive without communities, the thinner their community bonds, the more alienated and
unreasoning they tend to be. Moreover, because for communities to flourish they require that
their members not be completely self-oriented, the common good has a normative standing in the
same sense that life and health do: they all are essential for our physical and spiritual well-being.
Libertarians in turn have either simply ignored these arguments, spinning ever more tales
about the choices individual consumers, voters, or others make on their own, or come to depict
communities as social contracts, something free standing individuals construct because it suits
their individual purposes. Libertarians seem to fear that the recognition of the common good as a
value that is co-equal with personal freedom will endanger the standing of that liberty. Among
the recent books that cover this debate extensively and well are Philip Selznick's The Moral
Commonwealth and Daniel Bell's Communitarianism and its Critics. The is also Derek Phillips'
Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought. The topic dominates
collections of essays by Markate Daly (Communitarianism: A New Public Ethics) and Seyla
Benhabib (Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics).
These collections suffer from a tendency strong in public debates, the tendency to polarize.
Social theorists, philosophers, and writers are readily labeled as liberal or conservative; there
simply seems no room, or at least no patience, to recognize other, more nuanced positions. (Often
when I speak for communitarian ideas on campuses, the first question I am asked seeks directly
or implicitly to establish whether the position I am advancing is conservative or liberal, as if the
audience is saying, "If we label your thinking, we achieve a great amount of economy of
intellectual labor; once we know in what category to place you we know a priori what we think
about the arguments you are about to put in front of us.")
Last, but not least, as Talcott Parsons pointed out in his discussion of the pattern
variables, while value systems can maximize one dimension or theme, societies -- which must
attend to a variety of conflicting requirements -- are inevitably organized by several principles.
They must concern themselves both with order and with the freedom needed to search for new
adaptive patterns of social order; concern themselves with the justice of allocations and with
productivity, and so on. In short, ideologies and ideologues can afford to be, in fact even benefit
from being, one dimensional; students of society should know better.
THE RESPONSIVE COMMUNITY
From here on, we shall build on a composite concept that has built into it the assumption
of the irreducible, partially productive, tensed relation between the centripetal forces of
community and the centrifugal forces of autonomy. To remind that reference is a composite
concept, the sociological equivalent of ordered liberties (rather than a free for all), I use the term
responsive communitarians. First, the term refers to the position that takes it for granted that
individuals are members of one another, that people are ontologically embedded in a social
existence. Second, that because all that members of a society value, liberty included, is dependent
on sustaining the social realm, a measure of commitment to the commons has a moral standing.
Third, that it is not possible, desirable, nor morally justifiable to absorb fully members' identities,
energies, and commitments into the social realm. Providing for individual liberties limits the
costs of maintaining social order, allows members of society to express the idiosyncratic aspects
of their selves, and enables the development of new social patterns that are more adaptive to the
ever changing environment and internal balances than the traditional patterns.
The term responsive communitarians serves not only to distinguish this position from the
libertarian one (that builds on free individuals as its conceptual and normative cornerstone), but
also to distinguish it from those communitarians who build on the empirical and ethical
significance of the community without attention (or with insufficient attention) to individual
rights. One example of the latter is Alister MacIntyre, who dismisses rights as "fictions" (After
Virtue, p.70). The term responsive denotes that the society is not merely setting and fostering
norms for its members but also is responding to the expressions of their values, viewpoints and
communications in refashioning its culture and structure.
Taken together these three assumptions suggest that the starting point -- the primary
concept of responsive communitarian thinking and one that should be able to advance the
communitarian-libertarian debate beyond its current groove -- is the concept of a permanently
tensed relation between individuals and the society of which they are members. Centrifugal
forces will tend to lead individuals to break out, dangerously reducing the social realm, in their
quest for ever more attention to their particular individual or bond-breaking sub-group agendas;
centripetal forces will tend to collectivize members' energies ever more in the service of shared
goals, and curb their degrees of freedom. A society functions best when both forces are well
balanced. However, as both forces continually tug, the society and its members are constantly
pulled in one direction or another. It is the role of social observers and commentators, of
intellectuals, to establish in which direction society is leaning and throw their weight on the other
side of history. Thus, in contemporary China, Albania and the former Soviet Union, the
intellectual case is for better anchoring of individual liberties; in the contemporary United States
the case is for more commitments to the common good.
Thus, while responsive communitarians within any one given societal context or
historical period may argue for more community (in the present day United States) or more
individual rights (in present day China), they actually seek to maintain the elementary balance
that is at the foundation of all good societies.
We are now ready to face several important subsidiary issues that arise once this basic
position is accepted. Those who attack community argue that the term community is ill-defined;
that communitarians are nostalgic and overlook the darker sides of community or that they wish
to retrieve those less appealing features too; that communities, as communitarians define them,
never existed or are not sustainable in a modern society; that communities are inherently
majoritarian; and that communities oppress their members. Thorough discussion of each of these
issues could fill a volume; here we provide only the essence of the challenges made by critics and
Robert Booth Fowler wrote a whole book, The Dance With Community, dedicated to the
confusion that arises from the concept from which communitarians derive their name, namely
"community." As he sees it the term is not well-defined; indeed it harbors a large variety of
meanings (He analyzes six.). "The picture is thus confused and complicated. The meaning of
community is elusive, a word without an essence or a text without meaning"(p.3).
Some who are less friendly to the idea of community make the same point as Fowler. In
The Anatomy of Antiliberalism Stephen Holmes asks "But what is community? What does it
look like?"(p.177). He finds the answers of communitarians to these questions to be inadequate.
Jack Crittenden says that communitarians avoid difficult questions concerning community by
"remaining vague about the nature of community"(p.136 in Beyond Individualism:
Reconstituting the Liberal Self).
Actually the term community can be defined with reasonable precision. Community
refers to a group of people who share affective bonds and a culture. It is defined by two
characteristics: Communities require a web of affect laden relations among a group of individuals
(rather than merely one-on-one or a chain of individual relations), relations that often criss-cross
and reinforce one another. And being a community entails having a measure of commitment to a
set of shared values, norms, and meanings.
THE DARKER SIDE OF COMMUNITY?
Some who object to the call for returning to community accuse communitarians of being
nostalgic and/or conservative. The nostalgia accusation is that communitarians have a rosy-eyed
view of the past. Those who long for community, this argument goes, conveniently ignore the
darker side of traditional communities. "In the new communitarian appeal to tradition,
communities of mutual aid and memory,' and the Founders," writes Linda McClain in "Rights
and Irresponsibility" in the Duke Law Journal, "there is a problematic inattention to the less
attractive, unjust features of tradition"(p.1029).
The charge of conservatism accuses communitarians of not merely overlooking the less
attractive features of traditional communities, but of willfully longing to retrieve those features.
According to Michael Taves (in a "Roundtable on Communitarianism" in the Summer, 1988
issue of Telos, p.8.) the communitarian vision of community rejects modernism, concerning itself
mostly with "reclaiming a reliance on traditional values and all that entails with regard to the
family, sexual relations, religion and the rejection of secularism." Katha Pollitt, after discussing
the communities that communitarians wish to retrieve, concludes that communitarianism is a
conservative movement masquerading as something else. "Communitarianism [is] Reaganism
with a human face" (from "Subject to Debate" in The Nation, July 25/August 1, 1994.). As
Fowler puts it, these critics "see talk of community as interfering with the necessary breaking
down of dominant forces and cultures." Community is viewed as inherently traditional and
These criticisms are sound but misdirected. Early communitarians might be charged with
being in effect social conservatives if not authoritarians. However, the new school of responsive
communitarians, including scholars such as Charles Taylor, Philip Selznick, Robert Bellah,
Thomas Spragens, William Galston and, less directly involved, Michael Walzer and Michael
Sandel, fully realize and often stress that they do not seek to return to traditional communities,
with their discriminatory practices against minorities and women and authoritarian power
structure and rigid stratification. Responsive communitarians seek to build communities on open
participation, dialogue and truly shared values. (To be fair to McClain, she recognizes this
feature of the responsive communitarians, writing that some communitarians do "recognize the
need for careful evaluation of what was good and bad about [any specific] tradition and the
possibility of severing certain... features from other [features]" (p.1030).) And political scientist
R. Bruce Douglass writes "Unlike conservatives, communitarians are aware that the days when
the issues we face as a society could be settled on the basis of the beliefs of a privileged segment
of the population have long since passed" (RC, vol.4, iss.3, p.55).
NEVER EXISTED, INCOMPATIBLE WITH MODERNITY?
Fair enough, argues another group of community critics, but we can't lose nor reform
what we never had, and anyhow community is not sustainable under conditions of modern life.
"Communitarians have been mistaken in their claims about the prominence of community in
times gone by," (p.175) says Derek Phillips in Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of
Communitarian Thought. He adds, lest he be misunderstood, "If the sort of community depicted
by communitarian thinkers did not exist in the past, then it obviously cannot be said to have
given way to the forces of modernization"(p.149). And in what is known in legal circles as the
kitchen sink defense ("If the first line does not work, I will try this one.) Phillips adds to his
attack: "Even if community was once widespread, that does not mean that it is a viable option
The high rate of geographic mobility of modern society is the obstacle most often cited by
those who question the current feasibility of community. Ken Anderson maintains, ("Roundtable
on Communitarianism" in the Summer, 1988 issue of Telos, p.22) "[W]hen push comes to shove,
most people are not so enamored of community as they are of mobility." David Seeley believes
that the communitarian vision "smacks of a Norman Rockwell America that no longer exists and,
perhaps, never did. More Americans live in faceless apartment buildings, condos and housing
tracts than in towns where rustic but decent folk gather regularly to speak their minds"(Seeley, a
Prof. of Religion, letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, Nov. 1, 1991).
The fact is that communities are not relics of a pre-modern era. While it is true that
modern economies entail a highly mobile society, people have learned to develop community
bonds relatively quickly. Moreover, many communities are not residential and hence provide a
measure of adaption to mobility. A member of the gay community who moves to a different city
is likely to know personally some individuals in the new city or at least to meet some who know
people he knows personally. He will be able to find the core institutions in which his community
aggregates, and know the basic elements of its culture, norms, and meanings. He will be
relatively quickly integrated into the local embodiment of his community. The same holds for a
Jew (who is likely to be a member of a sub-community of orthodox, conservative, or secular
Jews), for Korean-Americans, for Cuban-Americans and for many others.
Communities are said to be majoritarian because the majority determines the course that
is followed to the extent that the community has shared public policies. This argument comes in
numerous forms. Nadine Strossen, a professor of law at New York University and the president
of the ACLU (reported The Press-Enterprise, January 30, 1993), sees communities as threats to
minorities, claiming that communitarians are "majoritarians" who are willing to tinker with the
rights of minorities. Tibor Machan sees in the communitarian conception of community a threat
to the individual. "Communitarians wish to place community and individual on a collision
course, saying there is some kind of balance that is needed between the rights of individuals and
the rights of community," writes Machan, "But if we consider that community means simply a lot
of people other than oneself, this simply makes for majority rule" ("The Communitarian
Manifesto" in Orange County Register, May 12, 1991). And according to Charles Derber
("Coming Glued: Communitarianism to the Rescue" in July/August 1993 Tikkun, p.29), the
consensual values that are a crucial aspect of community are also potentially majoritarian, as
these values are simply "the voice of one part of the community -- usually the majority or an elite
minority -- against the others."
Michael Sandel offers a response to these charges. "The answer to that majoritarian threat
is to try to appeal to a richer conception of democracy than just adding up votes" (In The World
of Ideas, by Bill Moyers, p.155). American society has both constitutional and moral safeguards
against majoritarianism that communitarians very much respect. These safeguards basically work
through differentiation, by defining some areas in which the majority does not and ought not
have a say and those in which it does and should. The United States is not simply a vote-counting majoritarian democracy, but a constitutional democracy. That is, some choices, defined
by the constitution, are beyond the realm of the majority.
Clearest among these is the Bill of Rights, which singles out matters that are exempt from
majority rule and from typical democratic rule-making. The First Amendment, which protects
the right of free speech, is a prime example of an area in which minority and individual rights
take precedence. Similarly, the majority may not deny any opposition group the right to vote;
even Communists were not banned in the days when they were most hated and feared.
The Constitution and our legal traditions and institutions indicate clearly, however, that
other matters are subject to majority rule. Thus majorities decide how much tax Americans must
pay, which side of the road to drive on, and at what age young adults can vote. There is neither
moral nor legal support for the notion, indeed it is inconceivable to believe, that individuals
could decide for themselves whether or not to pay social security taxes, which side of the road to
drive on, and so on.
In a criticism that combines the allegations of conservatism with that of traditionalism,
critics have argued that communities -- even when they do not use coercion -- may strongly
pressure their members to abide by a culture the members do not truly share. According to Will
Kymlicka (in a response to Daniel Bell's Communitarianism and its Critics that is included in
Bell's book) this oppression can entail the community prescribing roles of subordination, roles
that limit people's individual potential and threaten their psychological well-being. Similarly,
according to Michael D'Antonio, writing in the Los Angeles Times Magazine, (March 22, 1992,
p.50.), communitarians ignore the "stifling pressure to conform that is usually present in... close-knit settlements." Amy Gutmann pointedly proclaims that communitarians "want us to live in
Salem" ("Communitarian Critics of Liberalism" in Philosophy and Public Affairs, p.319).
From a contemporary responsive communitarian view, the combination of a concern with
traditionalism and cultural oppression is not accidental: traditional communities often were both.
(Hence the well-know line that "the air of the cities frees," which is what the farmers of
traditional villages must have felt when they first moved into cities at the onset of
industrialization.) And there is no need or reason to deny that totalitarian communities exist in
our time, one example being China. However contemporary communities are typically not
exclusive even when they are territorial, which they often are not. A person may be a member of
a suburban community and a work community, a residential community and an ethnic one, and
so on. The result is that each community has less of a strong hold on the person. Also the relative
ease of mobility indicates that people choose which community to join and -- to continue. In
short, the problem of most contemporary communities in pluralistic, democratic societies is that
they are rather anemic, not overpowering.
A much more challenging issue is hidden here, though. It is sometimes touched upon
under the charge of conformism promoted by communities, even of the weaker kind. The
question is what is the normative/moral standing of whatever values the community promotes,
however gently it is that it promotes them? (Note that all communities share some values by
definition, and tend to promote these shared values to sustain themselves). Should members
abide by them? On what grounds? Under all conditions?
Some liberal communitarians solve this problem by arguing that communities should not
have one shared characterization of the common good but rather should maintain a plurality of
conceptions. In this way, each person could chose to which values to subscribe. However, this
assumption flies in the face of sociological fact; numerous communities have a shared set of core
values, and these values are necessary for a community to be able to build consensus on specific
norms and policies, in short to function as a community.
It follows that both members of communities and outside observers need to evaluate the
moral standing of the values of any given community rather than merely endorse them because
they are shared, in place or some other such utilitarian ground. One criteria for evaluation might
be whether or not the vision of a community and future these values underwrite is fully
responsive to all the authentic needs of all the members of the community. This criteria is based
on the notion that values that do not meet this demand, sanction a community and future in which
only some parts of the members are responded to (say, the elites, or white members , or old
timers) which is not morally justifiable on the ground that values should be generalizable and
universal rather than serve as justifications for the privileges of one group against others.
Reference is made to all the needs of the members, because even if the values cover well say the
economic needs of all the members, they may leave them without attention to say their spiritual
requirements. Responsive cultures are encompassing, attending not merely to all the members
but to all their basic human needs.
Finally, the term "authentic" calls attention to the possibility that extensive propaganda
may make members of a community support values to which they are not truly committed. It
further recognizes that a community need not be responsive to surface demands but only to true
ones. The ways to distinguish authentic from false preferences cannot be discussed here in any
detail, but suffice it to say that when people are falsely committed this is evidenced by their
behavior, above all by strong tendencies to return to their authentic values whenever the
propaganda and state controls slacken, and by extensive maneuvers by members of the
community to seek to circumvent the behavior sanctioned by false values. (For further discussion
see Robert E. Goodin's "Permissible Paternalism: In Defense of the Nanny State" in The
Responsive Community, Summer 1991; Daniel Bell's Communitarianism and its Critics, pp.73-78; and the author's The Active Society)
Many may find this position difficult to accept on the grounds that it raises empirical
difficulties (for instance, how to assess authenticity) and normative ones (especially for those
who seek to challenge the shared values of the community in the name of one sub-group or
another). But the issue cannot be avoided. Communitarians must be able to account not merely
for the fact that the communities share values but to respond to the question: is it morally
appropriate to be guided by the particular values that are shared? On what criteria is one to draw
in evaluating values?
In short, while responsive communitarians seem to have reasonably sound responses to
many of the criticisms raised against them recently, the standing of community values is the one
that needs the most attention and so far has received the least. More broadly speaking,
communitarians and their critics must break out of the grooved debate about the social embedded
self and turn to deal with numerous subsequent issues that have been raised. As I see it, none
challenges the basic communitarian thesis, that communities, properly constructed, are of great
SUGGESTED FURTHER READING
Daniel Bell. Communitarianism and Its Crtiques.
Jack Crittenden. Beyond Individualism: Reconstituting the Liberal
Markate Daly. Communitarians: A New Public Ethics.
Amitai Etzioni. The Active Society.
Amitai Etzioni. A Responsive Society.
Robert Booth Fowler. The Dance with Community.
Stephen Holmes. The Anatomy of Antiliberalism.
Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue.
Dereck Phillips. Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian
Philip Selznick. Moral Commonwealth.