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Communitarianism: A Critical Appraisal — by Insha bint Bashir

Feb 1, 2019

In this academic paper, Insha bint Bashir summarizes the evolution of ideas and relevant scholarship around the concept of communitarianism, reviewing a wide variety of literature and multiple debates around the topic.Abstract: Communitarianism has emerged as an alternative framework for dealing with the moral conflicts and social tensions emanating from homogeneous nation-states and rising cultural intolerance around us. The contemporary scholarship on communitarianism has put much of its focus on the social individual, community, political society, the processes of social construction, and the communal realization of social and individual values. This paper attempts to look at the basis of communitarianism that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century. While maintaining its focus on the critical appraisal of communitarianism, the paper concludes with the analysis of how communitarianism can emerge as an alternative in the discourses on political theory.

Abstract

Communitarianism has emerged as an alternative framework for dealing with the moral conflicts and social tensions emanating from homogenous nation-states and rising cultural intolerance around us. The contemporary scholarship on communitarianism has put much of its focus on the social individual, community, political society, the processes of social construction, and the communal realization of social and individual values. This paper attempts to look at the basis of communitarianism that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century. While maintaining its focus on the critical appraisal of communitarianism, the paper concludes with the analysis of how communitarianism can emerge as an alternative in the discourses on political theory.

Keywords: community, social, liberalism, culture, harmony

Introduction

The moral conflicts emanating from the social fabric of liberal-democratic states in the post-globalization era have made political and social theorists and cultural critics ponder over the inconsistencies and shortcomings inherent in such a model of governance. The main concern has been to deal with the social differences in order to harmonize society towards a peaceful direction. However, the failure to channelize such crises has landed humankind in a situation where the unmitigated worsening of such crises with respect to the deteriorating rights of refugees and minorities in different parts of the world have become a new normal. Under such a situation, there is an urgent need to check the existing intolerance and step towards conforming a harmonious society.

The communitarian philosophy emphasizesthe importance of community in the functioning of political life, in the analysis and evaluation of political institutions, and in understanding human identity and well-being.[1] Communitarian theorists tend to emphasize the communal construction of social individuals and social formations, and of values and practices (Frazer, 1999).

The term 'Communitarianism' was coined in the mid-nineteenth century in the backdrop of the rise of mass societies and declining communal bonds and traditional values. The early attempts made by many sociologists such as Ferdinand Tonnies and Emile Durkheim and the starting comparisons between the ‘Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft’[2] at an initial stage problematized the liberal construction of an atomized society and the dangers of ‘anomie’. Robert Putnam, in the start of this century, documented the decline of ‘social capital’[3] and stressed the importance of ‘bridging social capital’ to accommodate diverse social groups in a society (Putnam, 2000).

The basis of 'communitarian ideas' were laid mainly by philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer who problematized John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, where the role of the state was confined to the allocation of resources in such a way so as to promote individual freedoms (Rawls, 1971). Rawls’ over-emphasis on individual liberties and his neglect towards identities that form an important part of the social fabric was criticized by these scholars.

While searching for a substantive definition of community in the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Robert Bellah, etc., Darek Philips distills the following definition, or conditions, of community: “A community is a group of people who live in a common territory, have a common history and shared values, participate together in various activities, and have a high degree of solidarity.[4]

The main focus of the aforementioned scholars studied by Philips was a critique on the overly individualistic conceptions of the self and the universality of Rawlsian claims. They also highlighted the time and space differences of the original position[5] with respect to the multicultural societies and multinational states where there are multiple identities characterizing society.

The different variants of criticism towards the prominent ideologies such as Liberalism and Libertarianism by these philosophers are what came to be referred as “Communitarianism”.

Early Contributions to Communitarianism

The major contribution to the communitarian thought in the 1980’s came from Alasdair MacIntyre’s work, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology. The attempt was made to expose the vicious virtues of modern liberal societies that are characterized by the overemphasis on individualism and neglect of what can be referred to as communal. These societies, he argues, are bereft of moral unity and thus have become “a collection of strangers, each pursuing his or her own interests under minimal constraints”. The absence of any moral collectivism has made these societies to strive for ‘bureaucratized unity’ with a profound institutional arrangement. He further argues that in lacking a sense of collective goals, there are always hazy and blurred notions of justice in such societies (Sweeden, 2018).[6]

Another attempt in the same direction towards a concrete definition was made by Michael J. Sandel as a penetrating critique of the 1980’s liberalism. This work started a philosophical dialogue between the liberals and the ones later referred to as communitarians. While offering a communitarian critique of liberalism, he criticized scholars like Rawls and Dworkin. He argues that individuals are rooted in their communities where they cannot be detached from their ascriptive identities and communal obligations (Sandel, 2018)[7].

Another remarkable contribution to the communitarian thought came from Charles Taylor’s book Sources of the Self. Taylor’s adventurous endeavour to write the history of modern identity makes him believe that modern subjectivity has its roots in the “ideas of human good”. Taylor further visualizes mankind’s inward modernist turn as not something problematic but the result of continuous philosophical efforts to define and reach “the good”.[8]

Finally, an attempt was made by Michael Walzer in 1983 where he was seen grappling with the problems of cultural clashes originating from the social sphere with the technological advancement and the advent of globalization. In his The Spheres of Justice: A Défense of Pluralism and Equality, Walzer argues against Rawls and Nozick in his defence of equality and freedom that there can be no unified principle applicable to varied cultures. As such, he posits that attempts should be made to contextualize these moral and ethical values of varied cultures in relation to the conditions they originate in. While arguing against the liberal notions of strict equality Walzer then proposes his own notion of complex equality.[9]

A Critical Appraisal

The communitarian theorists while dealing effectively with the ‘social individual’ and the importance of social values and the communitarian tradition succeeded to decry the liberal-individualistic-tradition. However, there has been a varied criticism from different shades leveled against communitarianism.  For instance, Elizabeth Frazer argues that the communitarian thought in dealing with the process of constructions failed to recognize the fact that the processes of social construction are characterized by the power relations in society (Frazer, 1999).

The Feminist Critique

The advocacy of class inclusivity, suggested by communitarian writings, although successful in drawing our attention towards class interests and implications of an anomie, however, did not do enough to hold gender issues under the communitarian umbrella. The radical political feminist scholars have charged these scholars for being political conservatives.

Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey, while being skeptical of the conception of “human nature” demonstrated by the communitarian scholars argue that, “Its emphasis on social situatedness and embodiment rapidly converts into uncritical acceptance of existing political arrangements, and that cannot sit easily with the kind of political radicalism usually associated with feminism(Hempstead, 1994). They further warn the feminist scholars, whose central aim should have been to critique the “existing social and cultural practices, of this communitarian acknowledgment of the social situatedness” which they consider as precluding “the possibility of arguing against any such social situation.” As such, the line of criticism has been stretched further to press for the centrality of gender issues in political theory.

Liberal Critique

The liberal democratic setup guarantees the moral autonomy to its citizens. However, commitment to such freedom has considerably impacted the social spheres or public spaces in multicultural societies. Communitarians while highlighting such advocacies of liberalism suggested that such moral freedoms have led to the moral-conflicts between different societies worldwide.

Guarantee of such moral autonomy and limited liberal tolerance to diversity was condemned by the communitarians and those advocating the politics of difference (liberalism is inhospitable to difference). The communitarians while pressing for balancing the universal human values and preservation of cultural differences had considerably failed to take into account the tyrannies of the group. These, in turn, had not left any scope for ameliorating the oppressed individual from the enclosed collective.

The communitarian scholars like MacIntyre have been criticized by the liberals for their skepticism towards the market. They argue against the communitarian dichotomy of market and morality and suggest that this dichotomy is itself flawed. The attempt here is to conceptualize the market as a morally embedded institution (Staveren, 2008).

Conceptual Confusions

Robert C. Schehr argues that the “defenders of communitarianism have framed their critique of liberalism, particularly welfare-state liberalism, within the narrow conceptualization of utilitarian economic and political theory (Schehr, 1996)[10]. Such a narrow conceptualization did not lead to an effective transformation in the liberal doctrines with respect to the economic formulations.

Schehr in the same essay argues that there have considerably been very few attempts within the communitarian tradition to explain the term community. This conceptual confusion, he argues, leads to ambiguities over “what a community would and should look like”.

The communitarian thought can be further criticized for its neglect of cultural richness and the manifold expressions of group actions operating in the social domain. Instead, there is a reduction that freezes actors, issues, institutions, and events within an artificial spatiotemporal conceptual frame.

The communitarian ideals and their advocacy of political theory have found a valid and generic criticism from Derek L. Phillips in his book Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought. While undertaking a historically and sociologically informed critique of communitarian advocacy of reverting back for better times through their historical examples, he argues that:

… the theorists like Sandel, MacIntyre, and Bellah and his co-authors draw the strength of their arguments from telling a story about societies in which ’community’ did exist: the Greek polis, the social order of medieval Europe, and American society at the end of the eighteenth century. In taking a careful look at these three societies, Phillips succeeds in showing that they were far from realizing the communitarian ideal of a culturally integrated society. (Reviews: Looking Backward. A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought. By Derek L., 1995)[11]

Finally, in discussing the relevance of community and communitarian thinking for the moral and political life of the individual, Philips wants to argue that while taking up a series of philosophical arguments to show that in terms of a theory of the self, and in terms of an ethical theory, liberal theory is superior to communitarian theory in protecting human beings from abuses of power (Sheinberg, 2018).

Conclusion

The communitarian critical response to the libertarian ideals like the constant neglect of the significance of community in the discourses on political theory and the extreme individualism demonstrated by John Rawls as ‘Unencumbered Self’ was quite vibrant in the last decades of the twentieth century. These communitarians not only protested against the excessive individualism but also attempted to revert back the attention of political theorists to some historical communities. The efforts were such that a new and alternate standpoint was created against the liberal framework whose modalities were put in the direction of fostering communal cohesion that was thought to be very necessary for the effective and successful functioning of democracy.

However, during this whole phase, the emerging scholarship on political theory did not find these communitarian ideals very appealing. As such, these scholars became engaged in the debates of “Liberalism vs Communitarianism”. The resulting content not only reflected the theoretical ambiguities within communitarianism but also its facetious character towards the gender question was fully demonstrated by feminist scholars like Elizabeth Frazer. Although communitarianism could not hold the position from where it could launch a severe ideological assault on liberal notions, it certainly provided a bedrock and alternate framework for political theory. However, the need for future communitarians would be to deal with the communitarian

Endnotes

[1] Contrary to the individualistic values of libertarianism.

[2] The two terms used by German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies to refer to a society characterized by social interactions and a society where such values are not present respectively.

[3] Putnam mainly focused upon the reduction of interpersonal relation and social intercourse in the American Society since 1550.

[4] Philips’s analysis has been found in his book Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of communitarian thought By DEREK L. PHILLIPS reviewed by Steven C. Sheinberg. See more at: https://philpapers.org/rec/SHELBA

[5] A hypothetical position behind the veil of ignorance where the universal social principles would be made.

[6] http://www.bu.edu/cpt/resources/book-reviews/after-virtue-by-alasdair-macintyre/

[7] https://scholar.harvard.edu/sandel/publications/liberalism-and-limits-justice

[8] https://www.bookdepository.com/Sources-Self-Charles-Taylor/9780674824263

[9] This means that there shouldn’t be any invasion of one social inequality against the other. "In formal terms, complex equality means that no citizen's standing in one sphere or with regard to one social good can be undercut by his standing in some other sphere, with regard to some other good."[

[10] This prepared the ground for them to lead a frontal attack on liberal-individualism and the pursuit of rights-based representation in law.

[11] Philips while analysing these three historical communities argues that these all three are marked with conflict, heterogeneousness, elitism, classism, and patriarchy. 

 

Bibliography

  • ETZIONI, A. (2014). Communitarianism revisited*. Journal of Political Ideologies, 241–260.
  • Frazer, E. (1999). Problems of Communitarian Politics: Unity and Conflict. Oxford University Press.
  • Hempstead, H. (1994). Book Reviews: Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey, The Politics of Community: A Feminist Critique of the Liberal-Communitarian Debate, 1993, Harvester. social and legal studies, Sage.
  • (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster.
  • Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Belknap.
  • Reviews: Looking Backward. A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought. By Derek L. (1995). European Journal of Philosophy, 97-114.
  • Schehr, R. C. (1996). A Preliminary Critique of Communitarianism. Sage Publications, 52-69.
  • Sheinberg, S. C. (2018, November 25). Book Review Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought by Derek Phillips. Retrieved from PhilPapers.org: https://philpapers.org/rec/SHELBA
  • Staveren, I. v. (2008). Communitarianism and the market: a paradox. NiCE Working Paper 08-106.
  • Sweeden, N. B. (2018). Book Review , After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. School of Theology, Center for Practical theology. Retrieved from http://www.bu.edu/cpt/: http://www.bu.edu/cpt/resources/book-reviews/after-virtue-by-alasdair-macintyre

 

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About the Contributor

Insha bint Bashir is currently concluding her MA thesis in Political Science at AMU. She has been published in Kashmir Life and Wande Magazine. Her interests include photography and literature.

“Remember, remember
13th of July,
Martyrs of Kashmir
and their sacrifice
who bore witness
with the crimson skies
Heroes of Kashmir
who paid the price.
Remember, remember
13th of July
Remember, remember
13th of July.”

—from: 13th of July, MC Kash

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