By Gary Berg-Cross
In the 1990s, the Clinton years, I used to read Amitai Etzioni, a professor of American studies at George Washington University, on Communitarian thinking. It’s been a while since his The Spirit of Community (1993), but I’m hearing a bit more of this now as a way out of simple left-right thinking. What seems a communitarian perspective again is one that recognizes and tries to balance both individual human dignity and a larger social dimension of human existence. It offers something to each side.
This is not exactly a new idea in the last 20 years. Robert N. Bellah, professor of sociology at UC, Berkeley, 1995-96, A Defense documented some history of this in "Democratic Communitarianism" The Responsive Community. As he notes there have been aspects of it earlier especially in the 19th century utopian communities. There was some call a “Wave” of these in the 1840s. They were mixtures of Secular: Anarchist Socialist, Associationist, Mutualist Cooperative, Owenite, and Perfectionist.
Some were religious and relitigion is still a strong force in some communities and practical ideas from these are often distilled out.
50 years after this wave we had another one with the longer enduring Hutterite, Mennonite, and the Amish. In the 1930s the Great Depression brought on New Deal and Green-Belt towns, but also Catholic Worker, Emissary, and School of Living.
By the1990s manifestations include Cohousing and eco-villages – a popular topic in the DC area - there is a DC Area CoHousing group with a meeting in July 15 at the Tysons-Pimmitt Regional Library.I find myself attracted to several parts of Communitarianism. For one it mixes some utopian ideas with practical effort. But mostly many expressions of it commit to humanist and democratic values. True it derives many things from Religious communities but also humanist traditions. Amy Gutmann, a liberal philosopher at Princeton University, once critiqued communitarians saying that they " seek Salem( a nice place to live) without witches" which we can understand as believing we can have communities that uphold a moral sense without hunts the others.
Here are 4 values I find in that vein edited slightly from Communitarianism Explained to remove the religious references that don’t work for me.
1. Democratic communitarianism is based on the special value of the individual, which is common to most of the great religions and philosophies of the world. Anything that would oppress individuals or operate to stunt individual development would be contrary to the principles of democratic communitarianism. However, unlike its ideological rivals, democratic communitarianism does not think of individuals as existing in a vacuum or as existing in a world composed only of markets and states. Rather it believes that individuals are realized ONLY in and through communities, and that strong, healthy, morally vigorous communities are the prerequisite for strong, healthy, morally vigorous individuals.
2. Democratic communitarianism, therefore, affirms the central value of solidarity. Solidarity points to the fact that we become who we are through our relationships; that reciprocity, loyalty, and shared commitment to the good are defining features of a fully human life.
3. Democratic communitarianism believes in what Boswell has called "complementary association." By this he means a commitment to "varied social groupings: the family, the local community, the cultural group, the economic enterprise, the trade union or profession, the nation-state." Through this principle it is clear that community does not mean small-scale, all-inclusive, total groups. In our kind of society an individual will belong to many communities and ultimately the world itself can be seen as a community. Democratic communitarianism views such a multiplicity of belonging as a positive good, as potentially and in principle complementary.
4. Finally, democratic communitarianism is committed to the idea of participation as both a right and a duty. Communities become positive goods only when they provide the opportunity and support to participate in them. A corollary of this principle is the principle of subsidiarity which idea asserts that the groups closest to a problem should attend to it, receiving support from higher level groups only if necessary.
Applying this perspective to current events, at a moment when powerful political forces in the United States are attempting to dismantle a weak welfare state, democratic communitarians will defend vigorous and responsible state action.