The Promise of Communitarianism: An Attractive Social and Political Philosophy
In recent years, communitarianism has been increasingly put forward as an attractive social and political philosophy. The communitarian approach to community formation emphasizes the importance of community in our lives, and the need for individuals to take responsibility for the welfare of their community. This is in contrast to the individualism that is characteristic of liberalism.
The communitarian approach has its roots in traditional values, and its proponents argue that the decline of community in modern society has led to a range of social ills. They argue that the solution is to rebuilding communities, and that this can best be done by reviving traditional values such as mutual aid and cooperation.
The communitarian approach has been criticized by some who argue that it is unrealistic to expect people to take responsibility for their community, and that it runs counter to the individualistic values that are prevalent in modern society. However, the recent increase in interest in communitarianism suggests that there is a growing appetite for a more community-oriented approach to social and political life.
What is communitarianism?
The term “communitarianism” was first coined by the English philosopher, Edward Spencer, in the 1830s (Commons, 2002). However, the ideas that underpin communitarianism have a long history, and can be traced back to the ancient Greek city-state and the biblical idea of the “commonwealth”. The commonwealth is a political community in which all members have an equal stake and share equally in the benefits and burdens of membership (Levine, 1992).
The modern communitarian movement emerged in the 1980s, in response to what its proponents saw as the excesses of individualism and liberalism (Sandel, 1998). Liberalism is built on the individualist assumption that each of us is primarily responsible for our own welfare, and that the role of government is to protect our rights to life, liberty and property. Communitarians argue that this individualistic approach ignores the importance of community in our lives, and fails to take into account our responsibility to others.
The communitarian approach has been elaborated by a number of thinkers, including Amitai Etzioni, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Alastair MacIntyre. Etzioni’s work is particularly influential, and his book The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and Communitarianism (1993) sets out the main principles of communitarian thought.
The key ideas of communitarianism can be summarized as follows:
– Communities are an essential source of meaning and identity in our lives.
– We have a responsibility to care for our communities and to help them thrive.
– Communities should be based on shared values and traditions.
– The state should promote the interests of communities, rather than protecting individuals’ rights.
Why is communitarianism attractive?
The appeal of communitarianism lies in its emphasis on community and its call for individuals to take responsibility for the welfare of their community. In an age when many people feel isolated and disconnected from those around them, the idea of rebuilding communities based on shared values and traditions is a powerful one. It resonates with our longing for connection and belonging, and for a sense of purpose in our lives.
In addition, the communitarian approach has a number of practical advantages over liberalism. For instance, it has been argued that communitarianism provides a more effective way of tackling poverty than liberalism (Etzioni, 1993). This is because communitarianism emphasizes the importance of community support systems, such as mutual aid societies, which can help people to escape poverty. In contrast, liberalism relies on individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, which can be difficult if they lack resources or social support.
What are the criticisms of communitarianism?
Despite its attractive features, communitarianism has been criticized by some who argue that it is unrealistic to expect people to take responsibility for their community. They argue that most people are too busy trying to make ends meet to worry about their community, and thatcommunities are not natural units but are artificial constructs created by political boundaries. In addition, they argue thatcommunities can be exclusive and divisive, rather than inclusive and welcoming.
Another criticism of communitarianism is that it runs counter to the individualistic values that are prevalent in modern society. Some argue that communitarianism is incompatible with the individual rights and freedoms that are central to liberalism, and that it represents a return to the “dark ages” of collectivism and conformity.
Finally, communitarianism has been criticized for its lack of clarity about the role of government. Some communitarians argue that the state should promote the interests of communities, while others argue that the state should be neutral with respect to communities. This lack of clarity has led some to conclude that communitarianism is an incoherent philosophy (MacIntyre, 1988).
Despite its criticisms, communitarianism represents a significant challenge to liberalism, and its popularity is growing. This is because it offers a compelling vision of social and political life, based on community and responsibility, that resonates with our deepest longings and aspirations. In a world that often feels atomized and impersonal, the communitarian approach provides a much-needed antidote.