Who are the 'Communitarian' thinkers? How have their ideas developed over time? And what are the core elements of the cooperative gestalt they advocate as vital to the development of inclusive communities?.
The term ‘communitarian’ first came into usage in the 1840s to describe the approach to community building through cooperative education and organisation that was promoted by Robert Owen and his followers in Britain and America [Note 1].
Owenites maintained that people’s lives could be substantially improved if they interacted with one another in mutually supportive communities, rather than carrying on with exploitative arrangements, which benefited a powerful few at the expense of the majority. They pressed for experimental alternatives to be developed to test out how social arrangements could be reformed irrespective of what traditional beliefs might be invoked to defend the status quo. And they believed education held the key to giving people the skills, confidence and will to bring about new socio-economic structures and power relations.
By late 19th/early 20th century, Owenite communitarian ideas of egalitarian cooperation and democratic solidarity were emerging as key elements in the converging political visions of the New Liberals in Britain, progressives like Dewey and Croly in America, Durkheim in France, and social democrats in Germany and Scandinavia.
This communitarian ethos infused the New Deal, the founding of the NHS, and the political consensus for safeguarding the common good in the post-War years. But it was to come under severe attack from market individualists in the 1980s. The rise of the ‘New Right’ ideology of Thatcher and Reagan privileged the elite who were able to manipulate the market to help them accumulate ever-greater wealth and power at the expense of other people’s security and wellbeing.
Against this corrosive trend, in the 1990s a group of social and political theorists in Britain and America adopted ‘communitarian’ as the name for their shared philosophical outlook. In their writings [Note 2], both the relativist notion of supposing individuals should be left alone to act as they wish, and the authoritarian demand to impose the rigid order of hierarchical communities, are equally rejected. Instead arguments are put forward for enabling ordinary citizens and those in leadership positions to find ways to build and sustain a more inclusive form of community life, with the help of shared learning, deliberative dialogues and participatory forms of collective decision-making.
Reviving the cooperative-communitarian tradition, these writers exposed the threats of relentless marketisation and plutocratic politics, which were turning people into disempowered beings unable to overcome marginalisation and oppression. Their yardstick for assessing reform is whether it will help people relate to each other in mutually supportive and democratically cooperative ways in shaping their political governance, the enterprise in which they work, their living conditions and environment, and any organisation that may impact on their lives. The development of the cooperative gestalt they promoted is to be guided by three principles:
The three key communitarian principles
First, the principle of cooperative enquiry requires anyone making an assertion to be judged with reference to the extent to which informed participants deliberating under conditions of thoughtful and uncoerced exchanges would concur. Any provisional consensus reached by one group of individuals must in turn be open to possible revisions. The ultimate strength of any truth claim rests with the likelihood of that claim surviving the critical deliberations of ever expanding communities of enquirers.
Secondly, the principle of mutual responsibility requires all members of any community to take responsibility for enabling each other to pursue those values that stand up to the test of reciprocity. What an individual may value cannot expect to command the respect from others if its pursuit is incompatible with the realisation of goals valued by others. The range of mutual responsibilities may cover the provision of protection and support for all who would otherwise be vulnerable.
Thirdly, the principle of citizen participation requires that all those affected by any given power structure are able to participate as equal citizens in determining how the power in question is to be exercised. All those subject to potentially binding commands should be entitled to learn about, review, and determine how to reform decision-making processes. This applies to not only government institutions, but also businesses, schools and community organisations.
The communitarian reform agenda
The form of community life favoured by communitarians is that which progressively evolves in the direction recommended by these principles. It follows that modern corporations as much as traditional communities must change to enable people to interact in far more cooperative and mutually respectful ways. It means that social cohesion is not to be secured from rigid homogeneity, but from the cultivation of common values that thrive on moral sensitivity and cultural diversity. It will challenge those who seek to construct a distorted sense of identity out of the ‘superiority’ they imagine they possess over those who are traditionally discriminated against. And far from focusing on just one’s own nation, or one’s neighbourhood community, it supports the authentic quest for a richer sense of belonging to a multiplicity of communities, and to the building of mutual support and cooperative relations across borders when that is essential in the age of globalisation.
Although some writers have combined praise for their idealised form of ‘community’ with reactionary defence of outmoded traditions and hierarchies, none of them has used the term ‘communitarian’ to describe themselves, for the understandable reason that the term is actually associated with the progressive philosophy espoused by a long line of thinkers. The term has been regarded in some quarters as having ‘anti-liberal’ connotation solely because in the 1980s, it was used by academic commentators as a generic label for an otherwise diverse group of thinkers (Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, and Michael Walzer) who had one thing in common: they all penned criticisms of John Rawls’ liberal philosophy because it treated people as unencumbered selves without reference to their relationships to their communities. All these writers rejected the categorisation of them as ‘communitarians’, and apart from MacIntyre, their wider writings showed that they were not against liberal ideas in general, only particular formulations of them.
Bellah, R., et al. (1991). The Good Society. Vintage Books.
Bellah, R. (1996). ‘Community Properly Understood’, in Responsive Community, Vol.6, issue 1, Winter 1995/96, pp.49-54.
Bellah, R. & Sullivan, W. (2001), ‘Cultural Resources for a Progressive Alternative’ in Tam (2001).
Boswell, J. (1990). Community and the Economy: the Theory of Public Co-operation. Routledge, London.
Cladis, M.S. (1992). A Communitarian Defense of Liberalism: Emile Durkheim and contemporary social theory. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
Etzioni, A. (Ed.), (1998). The Essential Communitarian Reader. Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield.
Selznick, P. (1992). The Moral Commonwealth. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Selznick, P. (2002). The Communitarian Persuasion. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Washington.
Tam, H. (1998). Communitarianism: a new agenda for politics and citizenship. Macmillan, Basingstoke.
Tam, H. (Ed.) (2001). Progressive Politics in the Global Age. Polity Press, Cambridge.
Tam, H. (2011). ‘Rejuvenating Democracy: lessons from a communitarian experiment’, in Forum for promoting 3-19 comprehensive education, Volume 53, Number 3, 2011.
For more information, see the guide to Henry Tam’s Communitarianism.