There has been a recent resurgence among a select few South Africans to embrace the idea of separate, politically, and legally autonomous cultural groups. This ideology is called communitarianism, a collectivist ideology that believes that the individual is formed by cultural communities and thus the latter should be considered logically more important than the individual (even going so far as violating individual rights when “a culture” deems it proper).
This ideology has been growing in popularity, with pundits citing the need to recognise cultural diversity and customs, and therefore allow them to govern themselves. But this belief may come to be incoherent with modern civilisation.
The desire to embrace a communitarian, pre-global world of separate, autonomous cultures has arisen alongside a romanticised view of human history. By the rhetoric of quite a few communitarians, there seems to be this idea that until recently, cultural communities existed separately, enjoying their cultures fruitfully and without conflict. Then globalisation happened and this apparently destroyed culture and led to violence and suffering.
The truth is far from that. Cultures and communities have been moving around, integrating, breaking apart, merging, and blending for as long as human civilisation has had the stamina to walk a few kilometres. Not only is communitarianism incoherent with modern civilisation, as I will show, it is incoherent with human civilisation throughout history.
This article does not oppose communities and cultural groups forming their own communities voluntarily. Communities, even private and constructed communities, are natural and fine. The problem is when they are forced on people. Communitarianism on a scale larger than a neighbourhood or small town would necessitate force and should not be confused with the notion of merely valuing community and culture.
The Utopian Cultural Community
In practice, communitarians want to establish self-governing enclaves dominated by singular cultural communities each. Recognising the importance of culture and tradition, these cultural communities can set their own laws and policies. An imperial, liberal, or global power above them cannot intervene.
A communitarian world would be one where all cultural communities exists separately from one another, not intervening in each other’s affairs.
Immediately, one can see ethical problems from arising with this. What if a culture has tenets which are morally abhorrent? Must we respect a culture’s right to engage in ritualistic pedophilia? What about if an individual wants to opt out? A community may not allow people to leave. Some entities that certain communitarians might object to being communities in the first place – say, the “South African nation” – might also prohibit “sub-communities” from opting out. According to communitarianism’s own logic, nobody may impose on the South African community the requirement that it allow a part of itself to breakaway.
There are many ethical problems arising from communitarianism, discussed in detail in my article “You Are Not A Communitarian”.
But there are also practical problems.
Even if we are to embrace the relativistic communitarian notion that any and every culture is worthy of respect and won’t do anything too heinous, separating cultural communities into enclaves, especially in our modern civilisation of cities and commerce, is utopian and impossible.
For the communitarian cultural enclave to be implemented in practice, there would have to be a massive shift in population. Territories would need to be determined for each community (and who decides who gets what?), countless people would need to be evicted from their homes.
Such a project would not be new. It was attempted during Apartheid, when countless families were evicted from their legitimately acquired homes and moved to cultural enclaves called Bantustans where cultural heads were appointed to govern the enclaves. This massive upheaval in population groups resulted in the destruction of genuine multiracial communities in places like Claremont and District 6 and destroyed the roots of new developing cultures. This was a profoundly anti-community endeavour.
Apartheid was a disaster. And let us not lie to ourselves: It was communitarian, at least in the beginning. Because communitarianism is utopian and truly unimplementable, Apartheid had to shift to allow for migratory work. And the socialist, security obsessed laager syndrome of the government did result in a white cultural elite becoming overlords over the Bantustans. The communitarian sentiment of the Apartheid regime (necessarily) undermined and defeated itself. As I discuss in my other article, cultures dominating other cultures would be an inevitability in a communitarian world.
Human history is a process of conquest and migration. As such, humans live on top of each other. We’re integrated. Multicultural and multiracial. This isn’t a phenomenon of globalised modern civilisation. It goes back as far as history is recorded. Medieval England was a mishmash of Anglo-Saxons, Norse, Celts, Normans, Welsh, Scots, and all the smaller cultural groups that made up those larger groups.
Today, the homogenous society is the exception, not the rule. And if you look close enough, even the homogenous societies are far more diverse than at first realised, containing far more internal cultural divisions than our foreign eyes can recognise. Diversity is natural, and must of course be distinguished from any kind of artificial, enforced “diversity” today widely implemented by statists and authoritarians.
It is natural that cultures and communities live close together and eventually integrate in some if not most aspects. The world has resource scarcity. Not all resources are distributed equally. To survive, civilisations spring up in centralised locations around arable land, minerals, water and coastal access. Cities and the urbanised society developed because centralising utilities and enterprise around these resources was more efficient.
If separated, not all cultural communities will have access to the resources they will need to survive. And many communities are also not simply large enough to build the utilities and enterprises needed to self-govern.
The fact of the matter is that civilisation, modern civilisation especially, is naturally integrated and diverse. In my neighbourhood alone, we have Indians, Zimbabweans, Xhosa, English, Afrikaners, and more. It’s a peaceful community. We don’t fight. We help each other. Because we are all united by a new culture. A multicultural cosmopolitanism, where we embrace the virtues of our individual cultures, enjoy others and allow them to blend into something new. This is just as much a community as any other, but many contemporary communitarians reject its legitimacy and viability outright.
Communitarians accuse multiculturalism of creating a bland, cultureless morass. But it doesn’t. Rather, it allows us all to enjoy many cultures, observing them for their virtues and comparing them to our own. Freely chosen, unenforced multiculturalism allows us to trade, not just goods, but principles and practices. It allows us to discover and marry individuals from across the cultural divide, forging loving bonds. And it contributes to the natural evolution of cultures.
Culture Isn’t Static
Culture is dynamic. Cultures aren’t unchangeable species written in stone and unchangeable after birth. Our culture and our relationship to our culture changes as we grow up. We learn more. We evolve as people. And it is natural for teenagers to kick against authority and question their culture. This is all a part of the evolution of cultures as its members change, the world changes, and it comes into contact with different cultures.
It is a fact of life that culture changes. And that is why relegating them into enclaves will soon devolve into either unnatural social engineering, or internal conflict as the culture breaks up from within.
As discussed earlier, a cultural community granted legal and political autonomy will have a cultural elite rise to the top. These elites will then be able to enforce cultural norms and policies, rather than allowing those norms to arise organically, through Hayek’s spontaneous order.
For the communitarian to reach their dream of state-spanning, self-governing cultural communities, culture would need be centrally planned. Socially engineered, in the same way contemporary South African communitarians lambaste the South African government’s cultural social engineering. Perhaps, in the same manner as the Chinese Communist Party and its Cultural Revolution, where it destroyed swathes of Chinese traditions, artefacts and history in an attempt to determine what Chinese culture actually is.
It is dangerous for any authority to try to determine what culture is and what it should do. Like a Protestant’s faith in Christ, culture is a deeply personal thing. We all see it differently as we are all individuals. It is in our commonality that we form communities and cultures. But commonality exists far past cultural groups. Humans have far more in common than not.
The fact of the matter is that modern civilisation and human existence is that of integration, commerce, intermarriage, and living alongside one another in a vibrant cultural exchange where we learn from one another and evolve as such. This is how communities formed in the first place, and how they continue to form and to thrive.
Multiracial Communities in South Africa
Some communitarians condemn the multiracial nature of South Africa. And it is true that South Africa has a lot of problems, among them being unresolved cultural conflict. But it takes profound ignorance or deceit to think this is the fundamental problem with South Africa and that multiculturalism hasn’t brought benefits as well.
South Africa’s problem is an authoritarian government with a socialist ideology, something that has existed in relatively homogenous societies as well. On top of that, there is tribalism and a general culture of entitlement and violence. But that isn’t the fault of multiculturalism. As an ideological feature, multiculturalism abhors conflict. The tribal conflicts in South Africa are not the fault of multiculturalism, but more the government’s failure to embrace the idea properly, through such institutions as federalism and a legal order dedicated to those universal rules of just conduct shared by all South Africa’s legal traditions.
In the Cape, which has been multicultural for centuries, tribalism is almost non-existent. Rather, cultures which are violent and intolerant elsewhere have evolved due to its proximity to other cultures to become peaceful. Compare the intolerant Sunnism practiced in many parts of the Middle East, where culture is much more homogenous, to the tolerant, charitable Sunnism practiced by Cape Muslims.
Multicultural modern civilisations allow cultures to introspect, compare themselves to others, evolve and grow. This benefits the culture as it adopts new practices, and its members as they get to enjoy a more vibrant culture.
As businesses improve in competition and in contact with others, the cultural marketplace allows cultures to improve. South Africa’s failings have been in its inability or refusal to embrace these tenets, rather encouraging xenophobia and racial hatred.
But multiculturalism still rises when it’s needed, even in South Africa. During the July 2021 riots, communities rose up to defend themselves from thugs, as the government failed to do its duty of defending the people. These communities weren’t isolated, cultural enclaves. They were racially and culturally diverse neighbourhoods, civic organisations, and friends. Malls and communities weren’t guarded by singular cultural groups. They were guarded by individuals of diverse cultures and backgrounds, working together to guard their common interests.
Could an isolated, homogenous cultural community have stood against the tide of chaos? I’m not so sure. Because it is a fact that we are stronger when we live and work together, without being forced to do so by an authoritarian state or a cultural elite..
The Modern Civilisation
The world is globalised. That is a fact. And it isn’t going to change no matter how much one might dislike it. Globalisation is also not new. Global trade has existed for centuries. And even before the world was completely connected, the likes of Julius Caesar were forging connections across the known world, while Alexander the Great sought to expand his dominion past the borders he knew. The difference between them and us is scale, not principle. We don’t live in bubbles. We live in a diverse, dynamic world, with diverse and dynamic communities.
Human history has left us with countless people of many different cultures and communities living on top of each other due to resource distribution and scarcity. But also, just because they want to. We want to trade. We want to love each other. We want to engage in a vibrant, cultural exchange, and develop new cultures and norms by doing so.
This has led to some conflict. But so has separation. Life was far more violent in the days of tribal warfare, ethnic division, and homogenous ethnic civilisations. It is when we live with each other, trade and talk that we find peace. Liberal capitalism has been unique in human history for bringing all of this together into a workable, sustainable way of life.
Trade of goods is important, but so is trade of cultural norms and practices. Can a Christian deny that the spread of their faith has not benefited the converted community? Can the diseased deny the importance of medical culture spreading to their community?
Culture is fluid. It is organic and natural. It is beautiful but can also be dangerous. But we must not let is rule over us. We are the creators of culture. We are the ones who practice it, develop it, integrate it, and allow it to evolve freely. And we must not allow a central planner – whether a Marxist socialist, or a conservative communitarian – to determine what a culture is and what it should do. The people who practice (or decide not to practice) the culture are qualified enough to make these decisions for themselves.
And most fundamentally of all: cultures are stronger when they are together, testing each other, growing together and allowing humanity to enjoy all the fruits of creation.
- 6 Myths About Liberalism Debunked (and 3 Inconvenient Truths Conceded)
- Liberalism: An Antidote for South Africa’s Collectivist Ills
- You Are Not a Communitarian
Looking for some South African Urban Fantasy? Try out the Kat Drummond Series, an epic modern fantasy set in a magical Cape Town.