Friday 16 January 2009

What makes community?

The Future of Community (Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated), edited by Dave Clements, Alastair Donald, Martin Earnshaw and Austin Williams

This eclectic collection seeks to argue that officialdom’s current mania for intervening to ‘support’ (read: re-create) communities is actually destroying the basis for the spontaneous, organic human interactions that actually forge genuine communities, by reinforcing people’s fears and mutual suspicions and making them more dependent on the state to mediate their relationships. As such, the title is quite misleading: this is not, by and large, a study of actually-existing communities whose death has been ‘greatly exaggerated’, and nor does it predict ‘the future’; instead it is a libertarian critique of intervention in people’s daily lives.

This is nonetheless a very worthwhile task, and among the 14 short chapters there are some real gems. Many take issue with architects’ and planners’ attempts to redesign communities by fiat, and these are probably the strongest in the book. Penny Williams provides a rare and welcome bit of empirical evidence on the failure of planning towns around supposed community needs, citing the failure of Newcastle’s Byker development, which planners nonetheless identify as a model. Richard Williams criticises the notion that creating more public spaces in Britain can transplant the bustle of southern European squares into a country with a fundamentally different social system. Similarly, Karl Sharro fascinatingly argues that planners’ and architects’ tendency to seek to recreate the public ethos of great Renaissance cities is fundamentally misguided, failing to grapple with the historically unprecedented scale and form of the contemporary urban experience. Williams usefully adds that such retrograde schemes might not even be desirable, given that southern Europe’s public-social imaginary assigns a principal role to God and relegates women to the domestic sphere. Indeed, various contributors note the parochial nature of communities and the low ambitions inherent in a return to community-based politics.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is Andrew Calcutt’s on how, after the Second World War, the British working class was ‘confined to community’ by an elite that apprehended workers primarily in terms of their personal relations (families, communities) rather than their impersonal relations (their lives as producers and transporters of ‘an Empire of commodities’, builders of unions and the Labour party, as soldiers, as a class). The shrinking ambition and reach of British capital encouraged workers to focus on the former to the growing exclusion of the latter, and the elite-constructed ‘ideal became the reality’. Having ‘domesticated’ the working class, however, the elites now find themselves a ‘rabble army in search of a rallying point’ and, trying to hold the line against the disintegrating effects of globalisation, it is they who now seek to find and promote communities as a factor of cohesion. Calcutt also notes that many people spend a great deal of time trying to turn impersonal relations into personal ones (eg. work colleagues become a source of emotional sustenance) and that ‘when personal relations are asked to bear the load of aspirations previously located in the impersonal realm of politics, they are easily overloaded’. Austin Williams makes a similar observation about the collapse of this crucial distinction, noting that we are increasingly held to be publicly accountable for our private behaviour.

Despite points of real interest in the individual chapters, however, the basic argument running through the book as a whole is not entirely persuasive. It is difficult to disagree with the idea that government attempts to create more ‘participation’ are fake, top-down farces that often reach out to ‘communities’ on fear-laden issues like crime and environmental degradation, reinforcing people’s anxieties and mutual suspicions and even worsening problems like antisocial behaviour, or that state intervention is frequently therapeutic. However, such analysis does not exactly paint a rosy picture of communities or the individuals who constitute them. Contributors seem to accept that people suffer today from ‘fearful individuation’ which ‘has its origins in the collapse of the old politics of left and right, and the failing legitimacy of social institutions from the Church of England to the trade unions, that once bound us together… and helped us make sense of the world and our place in it’ (p21). This is certainly borne out by one major recent survey (1). The state is thus intervening into something of a vacuum in its efforts to ‘rebuild community’ and ‘revitalise civil society’.

Hence, while it is perfectly apt to question the state’s capacity to perform these functions on citizens’ behalf (and the propriety of the state fulfilling this role), it is far from obvious, as the book repeatedly asserts, that ‘left to their own devices’ citizens will spontaneously recreate communities. The only evidence offered for this assertion is Suzy Dean’s chapter exploring the response of the Irish community of Gort to large-scale Brazilian immigration. Dean contrasts the warm, positive interactions in Gort to an official approach which assumes state intervention is required to mediate between ‘natives’ and newcomers, arguing that the former proves the latter unnecessary. Gort is, however, a peculiar case, since mass immigration completely revitalised the town, yielding large and very obvious economic benefits. Had the immigrants been seen as a source of economic competition, the situation might have been completely different. As is well known, attitudes towards immigration vary considerably with economic growth. The only evidence for the book’s main ideological thrust is therefore rather dubious.

This does not mean that people are incapable of mediating their own social relations and that the state’s present intrusion into everyday life is in any sense legitimate or sensible. The book’s contributors are undoubtedly correct that a bureaucratic approach to community-building through predetermined modes of ‘participation’, based on little more than fear and a sense of elite estrangement, is doomed to fail. This is a rare and crucial intervention into a hitherto one-sided debate. They are also correct that, despite their increasingly ‘fearful individuation’, people retain a basic sociability. However, the question is really whether this sociability is really sufficient spontaneously to recreate communities. The book focuses on what community is not: it is not a particular physical space, nor a function of planning, design or elite diktat, nor is it necessarily desirable. But there is little focus on what community is, where, historically, it has come from, and what the chances are of recreating it today (2).

At its most basic and abstract, a community is a group of people who feel a common identity that generates a sense of belonging, mutual obligations and social purposes (in this sense, there is nothing necessarily ‘local’ about a community). This common identity could be based on location, occupation, social class, religion, or whatever. Yet it does not simply emerge spontaneously from any of these potential bases, since people have many potential identities and social conditions frequently militate against solidarity. Workers, for example, can view each other as individuated competitors in a marketplace, or as allies in a social class, and there is nothing special about being a worker that automatically generates the latter viewpoint.

The task of linking individuals together into a shared group conception is a fundamentally political act. It does not belong to a ‘private’ sphere or to ‘civil society’ understood as something separated from politics, but is an inherently public act. There is, as such, no obvious reason to rule out any role for the state in building communities; in fact, for better or worse the state has exercised a historically decisive role in constructing the national communities we still inhabit. Moreover, the state plays an irreplaceable role in creating the conditions necessary for so-called ‘civil society’ to exist. Today, the state seeks to reconstruct communal identity on the basis of shared fears.

Community construction – perhaps especially in today’s conditions of ‘fearful individuation’ – thus requires strong political leadership. The contributors to The Future of Community rightly argue that appropriate leadership will not come from a mindless, bureaucratic elite with little sense of purpose beyond the instrumentalist goal of combating social decay and disorder. But nor is it likely to emerge spontaneously from fearful, individuated citizens’ mundane, day-to-day interactions. What is missing from this volume is a developed sense of where community-building efforts are happening today, and how they are faring, or where they might, potentially, come from in the future.


(1) Danny Dorling et al., Changing UK: The Way We Live Now (2008); see Life in the UK ‘has become lonelier’, BBC News, 1 December 2008
(2) The following draws on the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, but especially Laclau’s On Populist Reason (Verso: London, 2005)


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