In the past few years, many individuals in South African politics have come to start identifying themselves as communitarian. This has mostly come from a segment of pundits who would otherwise identify as conservatives or right-wing (if we are to use two terms which I have lambasted as intellectually useless).
This rise in communitarianism has come about as a response to the apparent failings and individualising of liberalism, especially in the wake of radical left-wing ideology dominating society. They believe globalism is a new form of imperialism, threatening their way of life. Communitarians claim that we need strong communities with masculine culture to oppose globalism, make up for the shortcomings of liberalism and to oppose the toxicity of the left. They identify as communitarians because of their support of such a community, and their belief that community itself is important.
But, as socialism doesn’t actually mean a love of socialising, communitarianism doesn’t actually merely mean a love of community. The ideology has a far more complex history and set of beliefs than merely identifying the importance of community. And, it is in these beliefs that many so-called communitarians may not actually identify with their purported ideology.
What is Communitarianism?
Like most ideologies, a communitarian can believe in varying levels of their own ideology. In its softest form, communitarianism is basically just a recognition of the importance of cultural groups and communities. The problem with this soft version is that isn’t a useful identifier. Almost every mainstream ideology, including the individualistic liberalism that communitarians oppose, believes in the importance of community and culture. The importance of culture is not a serious debate, even if some communitarians imagine it may be.
For this reason, I will be focusing on the essential beliefs of communitarianism in its hardest form, as the lesser brands are not that distinct from other ideologies.
The communitarian, in essence, believes that the right of a group supersedes the rights of the individuals within it.
A communitarian argues that, as communities form the individual’s world view and shape them as a person, the community should be focused upon as the most important variable in society. Individuals are cogs in a larger machine. And it is the machine itself that is important.
The community must set the morality, laws and customs for its members. In this way, a communitarian is a moral relativist, as they believe that whatever a community feels is right, is right for them. It doesn’t matter if it violates the rights of an individual within that community.
As private property is incompatible with communism, individual rights are thus incompatible with communitarianism. It is, in its essential form, a collectivist ideology that puts the needs of a group ahead of its members.
While the new adopters of the ideology would identify as right-wing, the ideology actually has a Marxist origin. Marxists believed that capitalism eroded true community, and thus its overthrow was needed to establish genuine community. New communitarians have changed from that, however, focusing on pre-existing cultures and communities and rather seeking to promote their autonomy and independence.
In practice, a communitarian desires the ability for its community to enforce its own customs and laws on its members. This has attracted many who are pro decentralisation for its own sake. A communitarian wants a group to be able to impose its religious and cultural values on an area as it sees fit, enforcing its taboos and customs as it wishes.
New communitarianism arose as a response to modern liberalism (especially that of Rawls). It accused liberalism of being overly individualistic and universalistic. It argues that liberalism and individualism abstract morality and justice, at the expense of the community. A communitarian will argue that liberalism doesn’t focus on community, and therefore rejects it. Rather, it seeks to individualise people away from the community and their culture.
While liberalism is individualistic, communitarianism sets itself up as a weird form of collectivism, as it believes all group rights matter more than the rights of its component individuals. But, besides the very dangerous question of who decides these group rights and norms, there are plenty of problems with communitarianism.
Individuals Form Communities
The inherent logical flaw in communitarianism is its insistence on the community as the essential core of its reality. It believes that communities must supersede individuals because communities are more important. But it has missed a very obvious problem with this.
Individuals form communities, not the other way round. The communitarian claims that the community shapes the individual, and that is true to an extent, but that does not change the fact that without individuals, a group cannot exist. Communities and groups aren’t external, divine entities that exist without its members, demanding tribute and obedience. They are associations, often formed spontaneously, of individuals seeking companionship, mutual aid and commerce.
Communities, simply, serve the individual, not the other way round.
A communitarian may argue that while individuals are the brick that forms the community house, a house is more important than a brick. But, without a brick, there is no house. In its stress of group rights over individual rights, the communitarian has brushed over the fact that groups are made up of individuals.
The communitarian cries for the freedom of a group to act as it will, but its will may violate its members. In a voluntary community and organisation, this cannot happen, as a member can opt in or out. But, a communitarian believes that group rights trump the individual. They cannot leave, as they are the cog of a machine. And the machine gets the final say.
Individual rights are deemed as universalistic and abstract notions that destroy the community, but the fact that some groups want to violate them to begin with is proof enough of the need for their existence.
There are many cultures, communities and groups that have members that aren’t allowed to leave. Many even force members to join. A communitarian believes, fundamentally, that a group determines its own laws and morality, thus, allowing slavery, cannibalism, ritual sacrifice…etc. A communitarian can’t actually condemn these if they are adopted as a part of a group identity. They are essentially moral relativists.
In practice, ISIS is a textbook example of a communitarian society. It is a group following its core beliefs and not caring about universal ethics or law. Its members don’t get any say in the matter, as it’s the amorphous rule of the group that matters. Practically, this means following the texts of ancient, dead people or the whims of a cultural elite.
Might Makes Right
But what if communities clash? If all communities are right, then who is right when they are in conflict? And no, a communitarian can’t say that communities just shouldn’t clash. Because they acknowledge that all communities can set their own morality, they must also acknowledge that if the culture and moral imperative of a group is to attack its neighbours, then that must be right.
The problem with moral relativism in all its forms is that it struggles to account for conflict. And, despite many new communitarians adopting the ideology because of their belief in the inability of liberalism to respond to cultural conflict, communitarianism itself is actually completely useless in responding to cultures clashing.
This is best highlighted in the case of Sati in British-controlled India. Charles James Napier, an officer of British imperialism, banned the practice of Sati, where a Hindu sect would burn a widow alive alongside her deceased husband, whether she agreed or not.
When some fanatics protested the ban, citing their culture and custom, he responded:
“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them…”
The problem, essentially, with letting cultures and communities dictate whatever relativistic principle they like is what happens when one group’s culture is to violate another group’s culture?
Imperialism can be a cultural principle. A communitarian can’t consistently argue against it, as they would have to admit that a particular group is wrong in its beliefs. And that would be a pretty universalistic assumption.
What about small communities?
Despite what some communitarians have tried to achieve in practice, you cannot truly separate communities and cultural groups from one another. And this isn’t a new phenomenon. Human civilisation and society have existed long enough and interacted with each other long enough that every stretch of this world has become a hodgepodge of overlapping communities with differing beliefs, outlooks, tolerances and intolerances.
Universal morality and liberalism formed as a way to reconcile the fact that humans live on top of one another, and this isn’t going to change. Resources are scarce and distribution is uneven. If we were to truly segregate every group to its own area, many would be left without the resources they need to function. And, all groups would suffer without the cultural and material exchange that we enjoy today.
But the communitarian has created another problem with its moral relativism. Even if a group achieves its independence and can do what it wants, what about the smaller groups inevitably living within it? Don’t those groups also have rights? But what if the larger group also has the right to follow its culture of crushing smaller groups?
As you may have started to realise, communitarianism cannot account for conflict between groups. The core of morality, politics and justice is about determining just resource distribution and mitigating conflict. The fact that communitarianism cannot do either is a testament to its flaws.
Communitarianism is Universalistic
A grand irony of the communitarian’s disgust with universal principles is that their belief system is universal. They believe that all groups are important. They believe that all groups supersede the individual. They believe that all groups are right in their relativistic notions.
Rather than being a humble ideology that seeks to critique the oppressive universality of liberalism, communitarianism wants to let a group impose itself on individuals within its borders, no matter what that individual believes or wants. It puts the collective before the individual.
A truly humble ideology, driven by its desire to serve contextual realities, would rather recognise the true minority – the individual – and its need for sovereignty and not the group oppressing said individual.
Communitarians Don’t Understand Culture
Communitarians often discuss culture as this holy, all powerful entity. Unchangeable. Static. Important and all-powerful. But this is wrong. Culture is an organic entity that changes and fluctuates in response to its adherents and its opponents. No culture remains the same moment to moment, and culture means something different to everyone who holds it dear.
An Afrikaner can see their culture as God, braais and family. Yet, another could see it as imposing the will of the volk on outsiders. Culture is not just relative from group to group. It’s relative from individual to individual. Which raises the question of which individuals determine what a culture and a community actually is.
Real culture is organic and natural. It isn’t constructed. It’s a term used to identify a collection of habits and behaviours among a group of people. Most often, a group of people who weren’t forced to form said culture.
Groups and cultures aren’t concrete entities that exist in a vacuum. They are the sum of its members, not the other way around. Intellectually, groups don’t exist. They are just a convenient term to label a collection of individuals with some things in common. Glorifying them as more than what they are defeats their value.
But, when culture and groups become political entities, they no longer reflect the real culture. They become tools of elites to enforce one person’s view on a group in the name of purity.
Someone who truly believes in the importance of culture should know to leave it alone.
But if I’m not a communitarian, what am I?
This article has explained what communitarianism actually is, as well as rebutting its core assumptions. If you thought you were a communitarian, but this article enlightened you to the reality of what it really is, or its arguments convinced you to give up a sincerely held communitarianism, then you may be wondering what you really are and what you should believe.
Just because communitarianism is illogical and opens up many dreadful possibilities, doesn’t mean that community is bad. On the contrary, communities are an important aspect of civilisation. No mainstream political ideology rejects this. Fascists, liberals, anarchists, communists, theocrats and many others all agree that community is important.
And, it is true that communities do shape its members. But, so does nature, so do our opponents, and so do many other variables in the world. That doesn’t mean they should become the primary focus of decision-making.
Rather, communities need to be voluntary. If a community is good, then people will want to be a part of it. But people need to be able to leave, signalling that the community is doing something wrong. Without this essential freedom to opt in or out, a community cannot be held accountable. Its members will suffer, and as members make up a community, it will suffer too.
Many communitarians today have adopted the label because they are frustrated with attacks on their culture by mainly left-wing activists. But, the solution isn’t to embrace moral relativism, as that actually allows said activists to justify their attacks through claiming their own group imperative.
Rather, be confident and open with your beliefs and ideology. Don’t hide behind relativistic labels. Own your views. Be honest. If you believe that Western or Judeo-Christian culture is important, then say so. Don’t hide behind the weak position of supporting all groups, no matter what atrocities they perform.
But also remember that while aesthetics, customs and cultural norms can be important, they can also be largely contextual. Many things aren’t governed by universal principles. But many other things should be treated as such. There are essential components of humanity that are universal and should be defended – such as preventing the burning of widows alive, the execution of people for their sexuality, and enslaving someone against their will.
Culture is not an excuse for evil.
You are probably not a communitarian. You likely have a particular set of beliefs that you use to govern your life. But, perhaps you believe that other people have the right to live as they want as long a they aren’t hurting anyone. That doesn’t actually make you a communitarian. That makes you a liberal. And perhaps you should start calling yourself by that title. It’d be more accurate, and not muddied with so much baggage.
Conclusion: You are not a communitarian
I hope that after reading this, you aren’t a communitarian. It’s a logically flawed ideology chockful of redundancy, at best, and atrocity-enabling principles at worst. It’s more universal than the universalistic ideologies it opposes, as it imposes itself on every individual in a very strict way. It doesn’t recognise the logical order of individuals and communities. And it cannot account for conflict between groups.
All mainstream political ideologies account for groups. The fact that Rawls and other liberals don’t discuss communities explicitly is because it doesn’t need discussing. It’s an assumption of politics that communities exist and are important. In the same vein as a communitarian, I could argue that no ideology puts enough stress on the importance of eating to survive (Marxism definitely does not).
Just because someone doesn’t focus on something doesn’t mean they’re rejecting it. Perhaps, they actually support it so much that they see trying to argue for it as a waste of time?
Many modern communitarians oppose what they call post-modernism. But, the grand irony is that communitarianism is a post-modernist philosophy. It rejects universal truth and morality, it opposes a modernist philosophy, and it was literally invented during the age of post-modernism.
If you are still a communitarian after reading all that, then I’m not sure what else can convince you. Just don’t complain when your group is swallowed by the group next door, as it’s their culture and you shouldn’t judge.
- Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction, Will Kymlicka.
- Communitarianism, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy
- Liberalism and Communitarianism in South Africa Today, Charles Simkins