Communitarian is a political philosophy that is party of the poltical personality quiz.

Key Statements:

Communitarians take issue with the idea that the individual stands and should stand in direct unmediated relationship with the state and with society.

Communitarians dispute the place of a free unregulated market as the key social institution, and the idea that free market exchanges are a particular right and even natural pattern of human relationships.

Communitarians promote a distinctive set of values. They value community itself, and tradition.

Originating from the essay by Daniel Bell

Whatever the soundness of liberal principles, communitarians seem worried by a perception that traditional liberal institutions and practices have contributed to, or at least do not seem up to the task of dealing with, such modern phenomena as alienation from the political process, unbridled greed, loneliness, urban crime, and high divorce rates. And given the seriousness of these problems in the United States, it was perhaps inevitable that a second wave of 1990s communitarians such as Amitai Etzioni and William Galston would turn to the more practical political terrain of emphasizing social responsibility and promoting policies meant to stem the erosion of communal life in an increasingly fragmented society.11 Much of this thinking has been carried out in the flagship communitarian periodical, The Responsive Community, which is edited by Amitai Etzioni and includes contributions by an eclectic group of philosophers, social scientists, and public policy makers this periodical, regrettably, folded in summer 2004 due to financial constraints. Etzioni is also the director of a think-tank, Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies, that produces working papers and advises government officials in Washington.12

Such political communitarians blame both the left and the right for our current malaise (Bell 1997). The political left is chastised not just for supporting welfare rights economically unsustainable in an era of slow growth and aging populations, but also for shifting power away from local communities and democratic institutions and towards centralized bureaucratic structures better equipped to administer the fair and equal distribution of benefits, thus leading to a growing sense of powerlessness and alienation from the political process. Moreover, the modern welfare state with its universalizing logic of rights and entitlements has undermined family and social ties in civil society by rendering superfluous obligations to communities, by actively discouraging private efforts to help others (e.g., union rules and strict regulations in Sweden prevent parents from participating voluntarily in the governance of some day care centers to which they send their children), and even by providing incentives that discourage the formation of families (e.g., welfare payments are cut off in many American states if a recipient marries a working person) and encourage the break-up of families (e.g., no-fault divorce in the US is often financially rewarding for the non custodial parent, usually the father).

Libertarian solutions favored by the political right have contributed even more directly to the erosion of social responsibilities and valued forms of communal life, particularly in the UK and the US. Far from producing beneficial communal consequences, the invisible hand of unregulated free-market capitalism undermines the family (e.g., few corporations provide enough leave to parents of newborn children), disrupts local communities (e.g., following plant closings or the shifting of corporate headquarters), and corrupts the political process (e.g., US politicians are often dependent on economic interest groups for their political survival, with the consequence that they no longer represent the community at large). Moreover, the valorization of greed in the Thatcher/Reagan era justified the extension of instrumental considerations governing relationships in the marketplace into spheres previously informed by a sense of uncalculated reciprocity and civil obligation. This trend has been reinforced by increasing globalization, which pressures states into conforming to the dictates of the international marketplace.

More specifically in the American context, communitarian thinkers such as Mary Ann Glendon indict a new version of rights discourse that has achieved dominance of late (Glendon 1991). Whereas the assertion of rights was once confined to matters of essential human interest, a strident rights rhetoric has colonized contemporary political discourse, thus leaving little room for reasoned discussion and compromise, justifying the neglect of social responsibilities without which a society could not function, and ultimately weakening all appeals to rights by devaluing the really important ones.

To remedy this imbalance between rights and responsibilities in the US, political communitarians propose a moratorium on the manufacture of new rights and changes to our ‘habits of the heart’ away from exclusive focus on personal fulfillment and towards concern with bolstering families, schools, neighborhoods, and national political life, changes to be supported by certain public policies. Notice that this proposal takes for granted basic civil and political liberties already in place, thus alleviating the concern that communitarians are embarking on a slippery slope to authoritarianism. Still, there may be a concern that marginalized groups demanding new rights, e.g., homosexual couples seeking the right to legally sanctioned marriage, will be paying the price for the excesses of others if the communitarian proposal to declare a moratorium on the minting of new rights is put into effect.

More serious from the standpoint of those generally sympathetic to communitarian aspirations, however, is the question of what exactly this has to do with community. For one thing, Etzioni himself seeks to justify his policies with reference to need to maintain a balance between social order and freedom, (Etzioni 1996) as opposed to appealing to the importance of community. But there is nothing distinctively communitarian about the preoccupation with social order; both liberals such as John Stuart Mill and Burkean conservatives affirm the need for order. And when the term community is employed by political communitarians, it seems to mean anything they want it to mean. Worse, as Elizabeth Frazer has argued, it has often been used to justify hierarchical arrangements and delegitimize areas of conflict and contestation in modern societies (Frazer 1999).

Still, it is possible to make sense of the term community as a normative ideal.13 Communitarians begin by positing a need to experience our lives as bound up with the good of the communities out of which our identity has been constituted. This excludes contingent attachments such as golf-club memberships, that do not usually bear on ones sense of identity and well-being (the co-authors of Habits of the Heart (Bellah et al. 1985) employ the term ‘lifestyle enclaves’ to describe these attachments). Unlike pre-modern defenders of Gemeinshaft, however, it is assumed that there are many valued forms of communal life in the modern world. So the distinctive communitarian political project is to identify valued forms of community and to devise policies designed to protect and promote them, without sacrificing too much freedom. Typically, communitarians would invoke the following types of communities:

1. Communities of place, or communities based on geographical location. This is perhaps the most common meaning associated with the word community. In this sense, community is linked to locality, in the physical, geographical sense of a community that is located somewhere. It can refer to a small village or a big city. A community of place also has an affective component — it refers to the place one calls ‘home’, often the place where one is born and bred and the place where one would like to end one's days even if home is left as an adult. At the very least, communitarians posit an interest in identifying with familiar surroundings.

In terms of political implications, it means that, for example, political authorities ought to consider the existent character of the local community when considering plans for development (Jane Jacobs famously documented the negative effects of razing, instead of renovating, run-down tenements that are replaced by functionally adequate but characterless low-income housing blocs (Jacobs 1965). Other suggestions to protect communities of place include: granting community councils veto power over building projects that fail to respect existent architectural styles; implementing laws regulating plant closures so as to protect local communities from the effects of rapid capital mobility and sudden industrial change; promoting local-ownership of corporations; (Shuman 1999) and imposing restrictions on large-scale discount outlets such as Wal-Mart that threaten to displace small, fragmented, and diverse family and locally owned stores (Ehrenhalt 1999).
2. Communities of memory, or groups of strangers who share a morally-significant history. This term — first employed by the co-authors of Habits of the Heart — refers to imagined communities that have a shared history going back several generations. Besides tying us to the past, such communities turn us towards the future — members strive to realize the ideals and aspirations embedded in past experiences of those communities, seeing their efforts as being, in part, contributions to a common good. They provide a source of meaning and hope in peoples lives. Typical examples include the nation and language-based ethnocultural groups.

In Western liberal democracies, this typically translates into various nation-building exercises meant to nourish the bonds of commonality that tie people to their nations, such as national service and national history lessons in school textbooks. Self-described republicans such as Michael Sandel place special emphasis upon the national political community and argue for measures that increase civic engagement and public-spiritedness (Sandel 1996). However, there is increased recognition of the multi-national nature of contemporary states, and modern Western states must also try to make room for the political rights of minority groups. These political measures have been widely discussed in the recent literature on nationalism, citizenship, and multiculturalism (Kymlicka 1995, Macedo 2000, Tamir 1993).
3. Psychological communities, or communities of face-to-face personal interaction governed by sentiments of trust, co-operation, and altruism. This refers to a group of persons who participate in common activity and experience a psychological sense of togetherness as shared ends are sought. Such communities, based on face-to-face interaction, are governed by sentiments of trust, cooperation, and altruism in the sense that constituent members have the good of the community in mind and act on behalf of the communitys interest. They differ from communities of place by not being necessarily defined by locality and proximity. The differ from communities of memory in the sense that they are more ‘real’, they are typically based on face to face social interaction at one point in time and consequently tend to be restricted in size.14 The family is the prototypical example. Other examples include small-scale work or school settings founded on trust and social cooperation.

Communitarians tend to favor policies designed to protect and promote ties to the family and family-like groups. This would include such measures as encouraging marriage and increasing the difficulty of legal marriage dissolution. These policies are supported by empirical evidence that points to the psychological and social benefits of marriage (Waite 1996). Communitarians also favor political legislation that can help to restructure education in such a way that peoples deepest needs in membership and participation in psychological communities are tapped at a young age. The primary school system in Japan, where students learn about group cooperation and benefits and rewards are assigned to the classroom as a whole rather than to individual students, could be a useful model (Reid 1999).

What makes the political project of communitarianism distinctive is that it involves the promotion all three forms of valued communal life. This leads, however, to the worry that seeking the goods of various communities may conflict in practice. Etzioni, for example, argues for a whole host of pro-family measures: mothers and fathers should devote more time and energy to parenting (in view of the fact that most childcare centers do a poor job of caring for children), labor unions and employers ought to make it easier for parents to work at home, and the government should force corporations to provide six months of paid leave and another year of unpaid leave (Etzioni 1993, ch.2 and Etzioni 1996, ch.6). The combined effect of these changes of the heart and public policies in all likelihood would be to make citizens into largely private, family-centered persons.

Yet Etzioni also argues that the American political system is corrupt to the core, concluding that only extensive involvement in public affairs by virtuous citizens can remedy the situation: ‘once citizens are informed, they must make it their civic duty to organize others locally, regionally, and nationally to act on their understanding of what it takes to clean up public life in America’ (Etzioni 1993, 244) But few can afford sufficient time and energy to devote themselves fully to both family life and public affairs, and favoring one ideal is most likely to erode the other. Surely it is no coincidence that republican America in Jeffersons day relied on active, public-spirited male citizens largely freed from family responsibilities. Conversely, societies composed of persons leading rich and fulfilling family lives (such as contemporary Singapore) tend to be ruled by paternalistic despots who can rely on a compliant, politically apathetic populace.

Communitarians who advocate both increased commitment to public affairs and strengthened ties to the workplace (to the point that it becomes a psychological community) also face the problem of conflicting commitments. Michael Sandel, for example, speaks favorable of ‘proud craftsmen’ in the Jacksonian era and of Louis Brandeis's idea of ‘industrial democracy, in which workers participated in management and shared responsibilities for running the business’ (Sandel 1996, 170, 213; Bell 1997b) Identification with the workplace and industrial democracy are said to improve workers civic capacities, but that may not be the case. In the same way that extensive involvement in family life can conflict with commitments to public life, few persons will have sufficient time and energy for extensive participation in both workplace and public affairs. Recall that the republican society of ancient Athens relied on active, public-spirited males freed from the need to work (slaves did most of the drudge labor).

It is also worth noting that devotion to the workplace can undermine family life. As Tatsuo Inoue of Tokyo University argues, Japanese-style communitarianism — strong communal identity based on the workplace — sometimes leads to karoshi (death from overwork) and frequently deprives workers of ‘the right to sit down at the dinner table with their families’ (Inoue 1993). Just as liberals (pace Ronald Dworkin) sometimes have to choose between ideals (e.g., freedom and equality) that come into conflict with one another if a serious effort is made to realize any one of them fully, so communitarians may have to make some hard choices between valued forms of communal life.

Still, there may be some actual or potential win-win scenarios cases where promoting a particular form of communal life can promote, rather than undermine, other forms — and political communitarians will of course favor change of this sort. For example, critics have objected to residential community associations, or ‘walled communities', on the grounds that they undermine attachment to the polity at large and erode the social cohesion and trust needed to promote social justice and sustain the democratic process (McKenzie 1994, Bell 1995).15 Might it then be possible to reform urban planning so that people can nurture strong local communities without undermining attachment to the national community, perhaps even strengthening broader forms of public-spiritedness? Many practical suggestions along these lines have been raised. Architects and urban planners in the US known as the New Urbanists, for example, have proposed various measures to strengthen community building — affordable housing, public transport, pedestrian focused environments, and public space as an integral part of neighborhoods — that would not have the ‘privatizing’ consequences of gated communities. The problem, as Gerald Frug points out, is that ‘virtually everything they want to do is now illegal. To promote the new urbanist version of urban design, cities would have revise municipal zoning laws and development policy from top to bottom.’16 This points to the need for public policy recommendations explicitly designed to favor complementing forms of communal attachments.

Just as it would be wrong to assume that communitarian goals always conflict, so one should allow for the possibility that individual rights and communitarian goals can co-exist and complement each other.17 In Singapore, for example, it can be argued that more secure democratic rights would have the effect of strengthening commitment to the common national good.18 The Singapore government does not hide the fact that it makes life difficult for many who aim to enter the political arena on the side of opposition parties: Between 1971 and 1993, according to Attorney General Chan Sek Keong, eleven opposition politicians were made bankrupt (and hence ineligible to run in elections).19 Whether intended or not, such actions send an unpatriotic message to the community at large: Politics is a dangerous game for those who haven't been specially anointed by the top leadership of the ruling party, so you should stick to your own private affairs. As Singaporean journalist Cherian George puts it, one can hardly blame people for ignoring their social and political obligations ‘when they hear so many cautionary tales: Of Singaporeans whose careers came to a premature end after they voiced dissent; of critics who found themselves under investigation; of individuals who were detained without trial even though they seemed not to pose any real threat; of tapped phones and opened letters’. The moral of these stories: In Singapore, better to mind your own business, make money, and leave politics to the politicians.’20 Put positively, if the aim is to secure attachment to the community at large, then implementing genuinely competitive elections, including the freedom to run for the opposition without fear of retaliation,21 is an important first step.

The Singapore case, however, points to another dimension of the politics of community that brings us back to the communitarian defense of cultural particularism. Democratic reformers in Singapore typically think of democracy in terms of free and fair competitive elections what Western analysts often label ‘minimal democracy’. In Hong Kong, the situation is similar — the aspiration to ‘full’ democracy put forward by social critics turns out to mean (nothing more than) an elected legislature and Chief Executive. Put differently, it is quite striking that the republican tradition in communitarian thought with its vision of strong democracy supported by active, public-spirited citizens who participate in political decision-making and held shape the future direction of their society though political debate seems largely absent from political discourse in Singapore and Hong Kong, and perhaps East Asia more generally. Many East Asians are clamoring for secure democratic rights, but this rarely translates into the demand that all citizens should be committed to politics on an ongoing basis or the view that, as David Miller puts it, ‘politics is indeed a necessary part of the good life’ (Miller 2000). At one level, the relative absence of republican ideals can be explained by the fact that there are no equivalents of Aristotle and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in East Asian philosophy. It can also be argued that republicanism fails to resonate because East Asians typically place more emphasis on other forms of communal life — the family in particular has been important theme in Confucian ethical theory and practice (relative to Western philosophy). To the extent that different forms of communal life do conflict in practice, in short, it may the case that different cultures will draw the line in different places — and they may have a strong moral case in doing so, if these lines conform to the views shared by both defenders and critics of the political status quo."

sources and resources

communitarianism @ the informal education homepage
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy essay by David Bell.