What is a Community?

Nobody doubts that there are many individual rights which supersede many communal moral codes. But the ultimate question, whose rights are supreme in the absolute, is easy to answer.

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My last few essays have been increasingly focused on the state of the nation and its future. So why am I now responding to an abstract, philosophical essay about the nature of community and the individual? I truly hope that I may be able to shake Nicholas Woode-Smith (“You Are Not A Communitarian”) and his readers into taking our predicament seriously.

As I write this essay, half of the country is on fire. From the safety of my old Cape Dutch house in the winelands, I can but distantly admire the courage of the neighbourhood watches pinching bullets to push back the mob in Durban and Johannesburg. The warzone that mushrooms along the length of the Durban-Johannesburg economic corridor has brought out the best and worst in the men and women of this nation, and not an unremarkable amount of our eccentricities too.

But it is in this spectacular catastrophe, witnessing the death rattles of civilisation, that we may see what it was that once animated this ailing body politic. We cling to the porous skeleton of a Western constitution, the product of three millennia of European civilisation, forged in the fires of slaughter and slavery, rape and toil all those millennia ago in the mosquito-infested fens of the Mediterranean, gifted righteousness by the Christian evangel, a Germanic taste for representative councils, and a Faustian ambition by the Enlightenment and its vainglorious explorers, a sinister taint by the financiers of global empire.

In all of these great leaps, though we point to the individuals, the heroes who wrought society in their image, threw its forms beyond the horizon, tore great new stretches of canvas to paint new futures upon, we witness the strictures of iron against which their muscles strained, which gave form to their fiery ambitions. When society strained against the brutal forces of nature in everyday life, when the threat of outsiders was an existential peril, the moral restraints and demands of ancient communities formed a great chain of obligations that held society together and forged or broke the means of our very existence.

Seeing these ordinary family men wielding rifles to defend their local petrol station, women sporting bandoliers of shotgun rounds, we observe that there are some aspects of society that are not voluntary. Some things are a matter of obligation. It was obligation that gave us the freedoms we eventually inherited. And it will be freedom from obligation that will finally enslave us all.


This debate is framed as between individualists, who believe that the individual is more important than the community, and communitarians, who believe that the community is more important than the individual. Nobody doubts that there are many individual rights which supersede many communal moral codes. But the ultimate question, whose rights are supreme in the absolute, is easy to answer: The community.

Have you seen Seven Samurai? In this story, seven ronin are collected by a couple of peasants to help them defeat a team of bandits. They train the village up in basic military tactics and equip them with dug-in defences, drilled routines and pointy sticks. When the moment of truth comes, some try to desert the group. The head samurai draws his sword and orders the group after them, threatening to kill them if they flee – they cannot afford to lose one man before the fight begins.

In this moment, the essence of our predicament is revealed. In order to survive the harsh conditions of premodernity, our ancestors used the vast structure of norms to bind society. Every single practice, from feast days to trade practices to law and marriage custom served to maintain trust and stability, to bind the people together. But today, we may be tempted to think differently.

Between the individual and the community, an ordinary person, not burdened with the ideological baggage inherited from any Western university, will readily accept that neither term is totalising, and merely recognises an aspect of reality pertinent to the level of conversation. I am an individual, but I am also tied to a community of some kind, bound by its rules – I cannot survive without it. But neither can the community survive if its rules do not adjust to the needs of its members – these rules are tested against the reactions of its individual components. Both aspects are real, and necessary for a functioning society.

Woode-Smith appears not to think so. For him, the individual is the only real thing, and anything above it is an illusion. The shape of society is not a continuous ineffable negotiation between compulsory demands created by human nature and the material environment, but a fantasy world of simple transactions between human beings who differ only in superficial ways, and no duty or obligation arises from being born into society, for that would be a tyranny.

Fair enough, let’s see where this takes us.

Common Morality

Woode-Smith has used some extremely cheap tricks to argue his point, which are disappointing. His best examples of the essential nature of the community are slavery, ISIS and widow-burning. According to Woode-Smith, his universal individualists only do good, and all the evils of society lie with “communitarians”, which naturally include slavers and Nazis and ISIS. This is not only a cartoonish misrepresentation of his opposition (which is in fact, every society in history), it opens him up to the same.

The bigfellas in charge of the Atlantic slave trade did no more than participate in the trade and profit – they did not order the capture of the slaves. What communitarian ethic compelled them, and what communitarian ethic did they impose? None, in fact. No more than you do for purchasing a chocolate bar made by modern-day slaves (in the Netherlands, the Tony’s Chocolonely brand promotes itself – accurately – as the only slavery-free chocolate in the world).

All of this was done in the name of free, individual self-interest. And the abolition of slavery was done in the name of firm Christian common morality, and used a global campaign of violence to destroy the slave trade of the Arabs and Africans who persisted in their commercial enterprise. The same for widow-burning: It was not banned because it violated “individual rights”, but because it violated the fundamental moral instincts of the Christian civilisation imposing its will on the peoples of the Indian subcontinent.

Woode-Smith attempts to argue that “communitarians” have no answer to multicultural moral dilemmas and are by some convoluted logical inference “moral relativists”. This is not a sensible claim. Establishing practical boundaries between communities and agreeing to stay out of each other’s affairs is merely time-tested sound judgement born out of centuries of experience. In reality, we are moral absolutists with a practical limit to our powers. Because the morality which underpins liberalism, libertarianism, and individualism is the same single principle, and that principle permits (with enough time to propagate through society) anything.

Liberal Morality

For someone raised in the leisurely upper classes of a prosperous nation (by historical standards), the notion that one ought to conform to any externally imposed moral obligation is an affront – they are used to doing as they please. Even those in the middle classes have enough autonomy to shirk a great deal of community obligations and taboos and operate independently. But only a tiny minority can possibly entertain the possibility of libertarianism, which is why it is always an ultra-minority viewpoint.

To such a person, any unchosen moral obligations are in fact some sort of prison, because those social pressures which induce us to conform to any form of externally directed moral code are oppressive in their very nature. They want a society in which they are allowed to choose all their associations, all their actions, with no relation to the chain of consequences which lead down the economic food chain to the interface of human flesh and raw mineral resource, except where it touches the returns on their financial investments.

This class of people has existed for hundreds of years. They have held sway over the institutions of the West. They have criticised and rebelled against traditional Christian morality, until we arrive at a world in which those notions are but faintly remembered ghosts in the corridors of power, and only the benighted peasants still believe. Everything has been rendered rational. And for the rational man, there is nothing higher than his freedom, because he is so imminently reasonable, he should be allowed every freedom – he could only use it reasonably.

So society must be based on a reasonable and free exchange between reasonable men. So all principles and all norms which structure politics and society must be based on reason. So every norm and practice must be tested. Why should I do this? Why shouldn’t I do that? Until all that is left is that original impulse, arising from the idle desires of the leisurely classes, to do as one pleases – the demand for autonomy.

Once it becomes the basis for society at large, the demand for autonomy reduces all actions to the axiom of choice – if I choose to do it, it is permissible. This is the logic of the market, and everything becomes a commodity. Who are we to object to prostitution? Drug abuse? Cannibalism? Public sex acts? Child pornography? What is the “age of consent” anyway? The slippery slope that the old Christians saw in the liberal world was real.

But worse than what it does to morality, is what it does to the harder tissues of the body politic. If people are told they must be autonomous, but they are not as wealthy as the leisurely classes, they will begin to demand to be. And if democracy is universal, as reason demands, they will demand this wealth in the ballot box. However reasonable we may expect people to be, however more liberty we give people, the more they demand the material to realise what they wish to do with that liberty. Socialism is an inevitable product of liberal democracy.

As Theodore Dalrymple argued so eloquently in his essay In Praise of Prejudice, once the family and the obligations of material subsistence are eroded by the why-should-Is? of liberal moral scepticism and material dependence on the state, the absence of structure leads to promiscuity and jealousy, substance abuse and nihilism. This begets both the proliferation of intimate partner violence and child abuse, and the degradation of people’s health and psychological wellbeing at an extraordinary level.

And as the strain created by redistribution, command economics, and egalitarianism tears at the economy, and laissez-faire liberalism tears at the moral structure of society, socialism is increasingly replaced by national-socialism, and the absolute demands of race and tribe. Such is the journey of South Africa.

The Individualist Community

But society is highly varied, and people cannot be made to desire the same meaningless, self-centred lifestyle as the liberal archetype. What is more, society evolves. It changes according to established principles, incentives, norms, institutional arrangements. And in every organised society, there exists a higher principle that gives direction and shape to that process of evolution and change, exchanged for another as each system collapses under the weight of millions of tiny exploitations of its established rules and principles.

The simple reason is that a liberal democracy rests on the unfulfillable promise that all participants have equal power over the direction of their society. This creates a requirement for two contradictory demands – liberty, and equality. Both of these are impossible to achieve in any unqualified sense. Any form of liberty will be constrained by dependence on the conditions of material subsistence, which will place one at the mercy of the demands of the society around one. And equality among any number cannot be achieved without the granting of extraordinary plenary power to some higher authority which enforces the distribution or goods and rights.

And both of these contradictory follies are founded in a fundamentally corrupt moral doctrine – that of the autonomous individual. Autonomy demands a fulfilment of one’s will, independent of the demands of the rest of society. For an infinitesimal minority, the material means of subsistence are enjoyable and free enough of pain, humiliation, and frustration that they can see their lives as being of their own making. They have enough to achieve their desires and sustain their lifestyles as far as their ambition demands (or so they may say).

But this is not enough. The notion that they may be judged negatively for what they do irks them – they realise that the pressure of human judgment is sufficient to make them feel a certain psychological resistance. They should have the freedom to do whatever they like, any old time, they just choose not to because they are more sensible and virtuous than those who indulge in prostitution, drug abuse, self-mutilation, predatory and destructive capital practices (or so they tell themselves).

The existence of social constraints creates room for the illusion that others are good, but corrupted by the tyranny imposed by social institutions – if only society wouldn’t judge so much, “if only they would leave people to be free, then they would all be as considerate, peaceful, well-off and self-actualised as me”. Liberals and libertarians must believe this, because they wish to have the confidence of judging others for using imperfect solutions to imperfect conditions, all of which require judgment and the enforcement of norms, which can often be highly disagreeable and contentious.

But these norms are the substance of any society, and are inherited without complaint by generation after generation in traditional societies without much rancour or discontent. Ask a primitive goatherd from rural Afghanistan what he thinks of Islam’s strictures, and he will not hesitate to screw his face up in earnest consternation and declare his love and devotion for God and His holy Prophet. He is free, because he lives in a society in which there is solid ground to walk on – the word of the Quran – he can go in any direction upon that solid turf.

In a liberal society, we walk on the creaky, termite-ridden floorboards of “rational” institutions which, because they are rational, can be dissolved by the application of reason. A gentle shove against any institution in a modern liberal democracy will crush it. Why should we have one assembly? Why not constituency votes over representative democracy? Why these borders and not those? Why these rights and not those? Why should I do any of these things?

Because they are not voluntary. They are sustained by violence and coercion. The norms can change any time, subject to whatever the elites decide is in the best interests of the majority, a reality they must negotiate with powerful economic interests and the structural incentives of mass democracy, which demands bread and circuses. This creates a system, justified by means of liberty and equality, but which can provide neither, choking everything in dense bureaucratic intrusions as they attempt to replace local, community morality and the compulsory bonds of family and community with laws and regulations designed by faceless bureaucrats who have little knowledge of the ineffable complexities of such grand societies, to make us safe, free and equal.

Woode-Smith may very well interject here and say that as a libertarian, he wishes to slash all this red tape and let us run free in the great global free market, no borders, no regulations, no duties or obligations – no kings, no gods, only man. But to the extent that his vision is being realised, it is being usurped by the very organisations it is setting loose – massive global corporations, NGOs, and elite global plutocratic dynasties shape the international order far more than any nation state does.

Bank for International Settlements, Basel, Switzerland, is an international bank owned by various national central banks.

And what they want is total control – the International Bank of Settlements is no state-owned enterprise. Yet it has in its sights a single global financial system in which it has the power to control every single financial transaction and withdraw the power of ordinary people to buy and sell as it sees fit. People like Alex Jones, Edward Snowden, Curtis Yarvin and others are shut out of the entire global financial system if they are seen to be troublemakers, unable to open a bank account. Where is the freedom in this? What state is imposing their tyranny here?

The Choice: Community, or Community?

Woode-Smith believes he is arguing against community. What he is in fact arguing for is the greatest “community” the world has ever seen, with powers of coercion beyond the wildest imagination of any state in world history. A global state with means of representation, against which the powers of nations and local communities are the only obstacle. He believes that by clearing these local obstacles, he is setting us free.

After a hundred years of aggressive erosion of the substance of traditional morality, after the erosion of even the most abstract of real communities, the nation state, we can see the outcome – men of no morality or common values beyond material interest, predating upon the last remaining elements of virtuous and productive community.

What is this future we are lurching toward? What is to prevent anybody from fleeing this situation? What holds any community together? Each educated citizen who left South Africa has left everyone poorer and less capable of sustaining the whole. Each one who leaves the suburbs of our eastern cities now leaves a neighbourhood less capable of defending itself from deadly violence. What would keep them? As we huddle for warmth against the cold winds of change, we may well weep for our past, when our lives were held together by something more than temporary material expediency, which melts like hoar frost in the Drakensburg sun.

No moral code which gives the individual primacy over the cohesion of the community and the submission to morality can stand up to scrutiny, because in every way, it leads to the downfall of man. Subjecting every human desire to the logic of the market leads to the dominance of the market, and the dominance of finance, and if the global cartel which runs the financial system is to be taken by their own word, their intent is the enslavement of the entire human race.

A mass of starving peasants chased by private security as they eke out subsistence between the secured corridors of the crass, selfish, uncultured liberal middle-class boors dependent on degraded institutions to offer second-rate rubber-stamp qualifications to succeed in a stagnant and decrepit society with no common feeling or neighbourly love; all watched over by double-chinned accountants in unknown locations far away, who police our every expenditure with an algorithmic monitoring procedure, shut undesirables out of the entire economy with the switch of a button, cleft from the herd and left to die in the wilderness.

In this horrifying place we call South Africa, we have a narrow opportunity to create new communities in the ashes of the old monstrosity, but it will require the exercise of dedication, loyalty, and sacrificing our freedoms for a moral order that may shield us against the winds of chaos. There is no choice between the individual and the community. There is only the choice an individual makes between one community and another, or between community and the wilderness. We have a choice, but we cannot choose not to choose.

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  1. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply

    “Woode-Smith appears not to think so. For him, the individual is the only real thing, and anything above it is an illusion.”

    From this sentence alone, the response is irrelevant. I never made this claim. Never made anything like it.

    I believe the community is a tool. Like a firearm. Like a hammer. It has a purpose. But it’s purpose is for the betterment of the user, not the other way round.

  2. Rory Short Reply

    Quakers create communities where every member has the same power as every other member. Consequently a community decision is only reached when none of the members object to it. The individual remains supreme within a Quaker community.

    1. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply

      I ain’t religious, by Quakers sound like a belief system I’d respect.

  3. Helgard Muller Reply

    This is pretty good stuff! You are also much better to read than to listen to…judging from the few podcasts I have seen with Morning Shot. (Roman has no theoretical background or even a little bit versed in anything politics and social science to be honest – a lot of social media stuff / rhetoric – yes – so he lets you drift…whilst you actually need to be constrained / pushed back a bit to order you thoughts)

    Any way – some good arguments here including against the type of rationalism often employed by liberals and libertarians. Let me create a separate post on this below…

  4. Helgard Muller Reply

    Rob if interested take a look here:

    This is a more classic conservative take on “reason” and “rationalism” – using Burke – a particular bugbear for me in some of our libertarian and liberal circles. (Similar to my Oakeshott reference in MvS’s article).

    Some of the better riffs:

    “In politics, it manifested in what would come to be thought of as his conservatism—a belief that the moral order of the universe is primarily discerned through real, established institutions and traditions, rather than through speculative philosophy to which such institutions must answer.”

    Pretty much how I view conservatism and the classic liberalism that attracted me has always been along similiar lines through someone like Hayek (although ultimately Hayek as John Gray points out cannot escape his own attempts to avoid “rationalism” or “constructive rationalism”).

    “Our reason—and especially our sense of justice—can present to our minds pleasing images of what man could be (and of what God could be), and then proceed to assault man’s actual state (or the God of revealed religion) for its failure to meet our expectations of purity, consistency, or philosophic coherence. Dangerously, such arguments, even when not fully convincing, are pleasing, in that they draw us along by the pleasure we take from debunking (or at least seeming to debunk) what once was revered. “This,” he says, “is a Fairy Land of Philosophy” that—by building new worlds in our minds—distracts us from the moral obligation to preserve and improve the world in which we live”

    I think a lot of our liberal politics struggle with this move from ideal politics to working with what we got…Globally you see a lot of this in progressive liberalism but also the sort of worldview that libertarians hold. A good current example in South Africa is the whole “enclave theory” – which I am sorry to say sounds like a “fairy land” compared to what it would actually look like. Build on some libertarian reverence of “failed / collapsed” state and pleasing images of extending current private sphere bubbles out of their political context and social roots…

    “He observes that man appears to have an incurable drive to constantly seek more, inventing new desires through the “Rovings of our Minds.” As he surveys this tendency, he remarks that “I have sometimes been in a good deal more than Doubt, whether the Creator did ever really intend Man for a State of Happiness. He has mixed in his Cup a Number of natural Evils.” (So though the letter’s subtitle promises to demonstrate the “Evils” of “Artificial Society,” the first use of the word evil actually describes nature!) Burke is presenting to the reader a picture of a mind that does not believe in the Fall puzzling over the results of the Fall. The deist inevitably spends his life asking incredulously, “Why has thou made me thus?”

    Big fan of John Gray – which explores similiar themes in liberal humanism, modern liberalism but also the human condition in general. (He holds a much more ancient / pre-enlightenment view of liberalism – modus vivendi)

    “The ultimate irony, then, is that the “natural” man and “natural” society that the Noble Writer describes are, even by his own account, not fully natural at all, but a contrivance of the author’s “roving mind”: the kind of creature he has determined we should be and could be if only we would suppress a certain element of our nature and embrace another one.”

    “Burke saw that, far from being capable of grounding politics, reason itself needed to be grounded in the experience of mankind. Abstract musing about the ultimate good of man and the laws that would seem best to attain it substitutes the reason of individuals for “the collected reason of ages” (Burke’s description of jurisprudence in Reflections)—or for the often unfathomable reason of the Almighty. In this sense, the Enlightenment promise to make the world Reasonable was actually a narrowing of reason—one that lowered the world to meet our mind’s fallen capabilities.”

    1. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply

      I thought you weren’t going to give RS another chance. 😛

      1. Helgard Muller Reply

        LOL – fair enough!

        BtW: I do appreciate you guys also publishing some harsh comments and attacks form my side.

        That said, I find this debate constructive (by replying and giving it another chance) in so far it is a great way to tee up at least some of the reasons I left the libertarian fold and are so critical of libertarian and some classic liberal arguments these days…Specifically in the South African context. I will not persuade libertarians, but maybe it will make some of our classic liberals and especially liberal political institutions think a bit harder about their war of ideas / political strategies…

        I will not overstay my welcome… 😉

        1. Nicholas Woode-Smith Reply

          Nah. Stay awhile. Keep commenting. I’d be interested to read your comments on other pieces. Especially some older pieces.

          Like this one I wrote years ago: https://rationalstandard.com/challenging-rawls-right/

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