The Populist Moment, Chapter 10, Part 1
Alain de Benoist
The Ambiguity of “Communitarianism”
Translated by F. Roger Devlin
Communities, whether ancient or recent, and whether of a historical, ethnocultural, linguistic, religious, sexual, or other nature, are natural dimensions of belonging. They accompany and underlie chosen forms of identity. No individual can exist without belonging, if only to distance himself from it. The self is always situated; in other words, incorporated into a story — which can never be reduced to a status quo, still less to a past.
Community is a social form prior to society, just as it is prior to man considered in isolation. It is present before the birth of the State, before any institution. It unites neighbors and similars within families collected into tribes before being collected into cities. Language itself is a communal fact — which implies a community of speakers able to understand one another. In the same way, the we, the “our-ness,” proceeds any I. Community is prior to putting things in common and to common experience. Francis Cousin writes:
Man is a community-being not by virtue of exterior and later contingencies, but by virtue of an intimate and prerequisite dialectic of historical necessity. The human is genetically the being of my conscious community. In other words, as soon as man emerges, the community of the “us” and the reality of the “I” appear indissolubly unified in a single synthetic totality.[i]
From political philosophy’s point of view, the concept of community goes back at least to Aristotle: man, whom he describes as a “political animal,” could just as well be described as a “communal animal.” Traditionally, the adversaries of liberal individualism have always adhered to a conception of social reality tending in the direction of community rather than that of society. The community/society dichotomy has been studied by numerous authors, starting with Ferdinand Tönnies, who in his famous work of 1887 presents community and society as “two fundamental categories of pure sociology” and interprets human history as a gradual replacement of the communal model by the social model.[ii] Heralding the work of Louis Dumont on holism and individualism, Tönnies demonstrates that the individual is not an immediate datum found in every form of social organization, but a concept tied to a particular social form, that of Gesellschaft (society), opposed in all points by Gemeinschaft (community).
Community defines an organic form of sociality; society defines a mechanical type of relation based upon the individual’s preponderance. Gemeinschaft constitutes a whole whose scope exceeds that of its parts: Solidarity and mutual aid develop there from the concept of the common good, which is not a good equally distributed among all, but rather a good the enjoyment of which is situated upstream from any division. On the contrary, in the Gesellschaft model, the idea of which is already contained in germ in the theory of the social contract, men live together without really being in solidarity and united. Society is there defined as a mere sum of individuals. It was this conception which the Abbé Sieyès appealed to at the time of the French Revolution when he declared: “One will never understand the social mechanism if one does not make up one’s mind to analyze society as an ordinary machine, considering each of its parts separately, and then joining them mentally, one after the other, in order to grasp the chord and hear the overall harmony which must result from it.”[iii]
Rather than resulting from the consensual effect of an “organic will” (Wesenwille), the modern age’s social bond proceeds from the “rational will” (Kürwille): the members of society decide to live together not because they share the same values, but because they find it in their mutual interest. Concretely, “social” relations go back to a legal contract or to commercial exchange. Tönnies writes of society:
Each person is for himself and in a state of hostility towards others. The various fields of activity and power are strongly determined in relation to one another so that each forbids all contact and mixture to the others. . . . No one will do anything for others unless it is in exchange for a similar service or for a consideration he considers equal to what he has given. . . . Only the possibility of profit can lead him to give up a good he possesses. . . . Whereas in community men remain bound to one another despite all separation, in society they are separated in spite of all which binds them.
“The big city and society in general,” he adds, “represent the corruption and death of the people.”
Tönnies’ theses have been criticized for their “romanticism,” but it must be understood that the concepts he opposes point by point are ideal types in Max Weber’s sense. There is no “pure community,” nor any “pure society.” All collectivities possess communal and “social” traits, but in different proportions. What must be remembered about the concept of community is its more organic character than that of society, such organicism not being understood in a strictly biological sense but in a metaphorical one: within a body, the organs are not identical, but are both different and complementary.[iv]
As an organic phenomenon, community involves the application of a principle of finality at all levels — the common good — which cannot be reduced to efficient causality, and also the principle of subsidiarity as defined in the sixteenth century by Johannes Althusius. By way of opposition to State sovereignty as understood by Jean Bodin (La République, 1576), who calls for the dissociation of political society from civil society, as well as for the elimination of intermediate bodies, Althusius defines the Res Publica as a stacking of “simple and private communities” (families, colleges, and corporations) and “mixed and public communities” (cities and provinces) crowned by a “superior political community,” with each level being left as free as possible to decide matters of concern to it. Described as “symbiotic,” politics is then nothing more than the art of getting men to live in community, with sovereignty (majestas) being distributed at all levels of the social body.[v]
This is why the communitarian model is so compatible with integral federalism, which allows considerable space for intermediary bodies and the principle of subsidiarity. The concept of “intermediate body” does not merely refer back to the corporations of the Ancien Régime, of course, whose suppression by the Revolution left individuals alone to face the State at the same time that it justified the prohibition of workers’ coalitions and unions. “No federation is possible between communes, people, or productive activities,” write Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, “except on the basis of cooperation. In other words, the federative principle rightly understood implies a negation of the bases of capitalism.”[vi]
Federalism itself derives from the model of empire, which was historically the great form of political organization in competition with the nation-state. The characteristic of empire, whose oldest theoreticians were Marsilius of Padua, Dante, and Nicolas of Cusa, is to aim above all at the articulation of differences. Sovereignty is divided; ethnic, cultural, religious, and customary particularities are legally recognized insofar as they do not contradict the common law; the application of the principle of subsidiarity is the rule. Since nationality is not synonymous with citizenship, the political people (demos) is not the same as the ethnic people (ethnos), but neither is an obstacle to the other. We notice today that “republicans” reduce nationality to citizenship, while those who hold to an ethnic conception of the nation reduce citizenship to nationality — both sides agreeing in wanting to fuse the two concepts.
Historically, Enlightenment philosophy were the first to attack organic communities, whose way of life was denounced as marked by irrational “superstitions” and “prejudices,” in order to substitute for them a society of individuals. The central idea was that the individual exists not on the basis of his belongings [appurtenances], but independently of them — an abstract vision of an unencumbered self prior to its ends, which also constitutes the ideological basis of the rights of man. Born by a secular vision of the ideology of Sameness, this is how the modern theory formed which defines humanity as deracination or uprooting from all tradition.
Liberalism considers men interchangeable because it only conceives of them in a generic, abstract manner as beings extracted from all community and detached from all belonging, this break being in its eyes the first condition of their “emancipation.” Similarly, it only concerns itself with a “freedom of choice,” not the empirical consequences of these choices (even a bad choice is always justified if it has been freely taken). For liberals, the concept of the common good has no meaning, because there is no being capable of benefitting from it: In a society composed entirely of individuals, there is no “good” that can be common to those individuals. The “social good,” in other words, can only be understood as a mere aggregate of individual goods, the result of individual choices.[vii] It was in this sense that Margaret Thatcher was able to say, “There is no such thing as society.”[viii]
In a more general sense, all of modernity has been constructed on a theory based on individuals who can only be called “free and equal in right” because they have been considered as unbound from, or cut off from, all communal belonging. Enlightenment philosophy continues to repeat this when it opposes reason to tradition, civilization to nature, and universalism to particular cultures while assuring us that freedom and the capacity of the individual depend on his uprootedness from all familial, cultural, or religious roots. Recently, this was precisely the program of Vincent Peillon, the Minister of National Education, when he declared that the school’s role is to “uproot the student from all determinisms: familial, ethnic, social, intellectual.”
Marx, on the other hand, is in agreement with Aristotle in laying down that man is first of all a political, social, and communal animal (zōon politikon). He thus agrees with the opinion of all those opposed to the liberal conception according to which man is merely an isolated atom only bound to others by the play of his interests. As François Flahaut writes, “The social interdependence of individuals is not utilitarian; it is ontological.”[ix] Legal and commercial relations are not enough of a basis for a good society.
Within this framework, which has been broadly sketched here, must be situated the appearance and development of the communitarian current in Anglo-Saxon countries beginning in the early 1980s. Its principal representatives were Alasdair MacIntyre, Charles Taylor, and Michael Sandel. The aim of this school of thought was to enunciate a new theory closely combining moral and political philosophy, at first elaborated with reference to the United States’ particular situation, marked as it is by a real inflation of the “politics of rights,” and on the other as a reaction to liberal political theory reformulated in recent decades by authors such as Ronald Dworkin, Bruce Ackerman, and especially John Rawls.[x]
It is by building upon the work of Tönnies especially, but also by carrying out a salutary return to Aristotle’s thought, that the communitarian school has set about demonstrating the fictive character of liberal anthropology, founded on a theory of subjective rights (the “rights of man”) and on the idea of an individual always prior to his ends; i.e., rationally declaring his choices outside any socio-historical context and defining himself as a consumer of utilities with unlimited needs.
The communitarians’ principal criticism of liberal individualism is precisely that it causes the disappearance of communities, which are a fundamental and irreplaceable element of human existence. Liberalism devalues political life by considering political association a mere instrumental good, without seeing that citizens’ participation in the political community is an intrinsic good constitutive of the “good life.” Because of this, it is unable to give a satisfactory account of a certain number of obligations and commitments, such as those which do not result from a voluntary choice or contractual obligation: e.g., family obligations, the need to serve one’s country, or to give the common interest precedence over personal interest. It propagates an erroneous conception of the self by refusing to admit that it is always “framed” within a socio-historical context and, at least in part, constituted by values and commitments which are neither objects of choice nor revocable at will. It results in an inflation of the politics of rights which has little to do with right itself, along with a new type of institutional system: the “procedural republic.” Finally, because of its legal formalism, it fails to grasp the central role played by language, culture, mores, and shared practices and values as the bases of a real “politics of recognition” of collective identities and rights.
For communitarians, a pre-social idea of the self is quite simply unimaginable: The individual always finds society already there — and it is this society which orders his preferences, constitutes his manner of being in the world, and shapes his aims. The basic idea is that the self is discovered much more than it is chosen, for by definition one cannot choose what is already given. Consequently, self-understanding amounts to gradually discovering what our nature and identity consist in. It follows from this that one’s socio-historical way of life is inseparable from identity, just as belonging to a community is inseparable from self-knowledge. Belonging is part of individual identity. This means not only that it is from a given way of life that individuals can make choices (including choices opposed to that way of life), but also that it is this way of life which constitutes as values or non-values the things which individuals may have to pass judgment upon.
An authentic community is thus not a mere collection or sum of individuals. Its members have common ends as members, bound up with shared values or experiences, and not merely more or less congruent private interests. These ends are ends proper to the community as such, and not particular aims which happen to be the same for all or most of its members. In a mere association, individuals regard their interests as independent and potentially divergent from each other. Relations existing between these interests thus do not constitute an intrinsic good, but only a means of obtaining the particular goods sought by each. The community, on the contrary, constitutes an intrinsic good for all who are part of it.
Liberal ideology generally interprets the decline of communal reality as closely bound up with modernity’s emergence: the more the modern world imposes itself, the more communal bonds are supposed to relax in favor of more voluntary and contractual forms of association, and more individualistic and rational forms of behavior. From this point of view, communities appear as a residual phenomenon which institutional bureaucracies and global markets are called upon to eradicate or dissolve. In the end, this is the prospect of an emerging unified world — after the image of that celestial city which St. Augustine said would “attract citizens of all nations and assemble around itself a composite society of people of all languages without concerning itself with the diversity of their mores, laws, and institutions.”[xi]
But this is not what has happened. As Christopher Lasch writes, “Uprootedness destroys everything except the need for roots.” The dissolution of ancient communities was accelerated by the birth of the nation-state, an eminently societal phenomenon — society as the loss or disintegration of communal intimacy — which has not incorrectly been connected to the emergence of the individual as a value. Significantly, the crisis of the nation-state model today goes hand-in-hand with the reappearance of political forms going beyond this model, both upwards (the formation of continental blocs called upon to play a key role in a multipolar world) and downwards (localist demands, the multiplication of “communities” and “tribes,” and a renaissance of regional and transnational forms of rootedness).
Establishing itself as one of the possible forms for transcending modernity, community ipso facto loses the archaic status long ascribed to it by sociology. It appears less as a stage of history that modern times have abolished than as a permanent form of human association which gains or loses importance according to the age. It also takes on new forms. In our day, communities no longer merely associate persons on the basis of common origin. In a world where currents and networks are multiplying, they appear in very diverse forms. But it is always communities which allow the individual to no longer find himself facing the State alone.
The Maffesolian theory of postmodern “tribes” is well-known. Postmodernity, according to Michel Maffesoli, marks the end of the age of pure individualism and expresses a “Dionysian” renaissance of the need for neighborly proximity and communal forms of belonging, both sensible and emotional; such communities can also be chosen, “elective and plural,” which are not thereby less active, even if they rarely last a long time. For Maffesoli, “the anti-communtarian incantation only ends by deepening still further the break between the people and the elites. . . . Beyond the narcissism or egoism proper to a postulated individualism, it is indeed an us, that of the community, that of common vibrations, which is surreptitiously tending to spread.”[xii]
More clearly rejecting Tönnies’ approach, Costanzo Preve thinks that it is society as a whole which must be transformed into a community. He writes:
Capitalist society, especially when it is globalized, is in no way a community. . . . A community in fact is a particular or universal human society which defines itself less by the physical proximity of its members than by a custom (ethos) or, if you prefer, mores (Sitten); i.e., a social ethic which prevails over the blind movements of the economy ruled by nihilism and relativism.[xiii]
Costanzo Preve appeals at once to Aristotle, Rousseau, Fichte, Hegel, and Marx in affirming that in the latter’s writings, the class struggle is itself merely a tactical means of reaching the strategic goal of community (Gemeinwesen) where man can recover his generic nature (Gattungswesen).[xiv] Preve is also at pains to distinguish communities that allow men to construct themselves from those which enclose them within obsolete hierarchies. Denis Collin is of the same opinion when he says that “communities which enclose individuals in obedience to patriarchal or despotic hierarchies” must be distinguished from “the community of free men.”[xv]
Recalling the “absolutely central philosophical role which the first socialists accorded to the concepts of mutual assistance and community,” Jean-Claude Michéa similarly preaches
criticism of the republican mythology of the “Universal” of which the State is supposedly the agent, at least if by “universal” one understands the abstract universal conceived as separate from and opposed to the particular: In sum, the idea that communities should renounce everything that particularizes them in order to enter into the great uniform family of the nation or the human race. As a good Hegelian, I think that, on the contrary, the concrete universal is always a result — provisional by definition — and that it integrates particularity as an essential moment; i.e., not as a “lesser evil,” but as a condition sine qua non of its real efficacy.[xvi]
This is the eternal dialectic of the one and the many, the universal and the particular.
Stéphane Vibert, Professor at the University of Ottawa, remarks:
The Left’s diversitarian progressive is a perfect match for the individualist liberalism demanded by the Right, since both deny the historical and substantial framework which gives concrete meaning to the rights and duties of each citizen. To think that society is based on a contract between rational, free, and moral individuals, or that it is constructed from automatic regulation by means of the market, are two versions of the same liberal myth. This double fiction produces an ersatz political community incapable of grasping its history and cultural underpinnings. . . . The neo-republicans should be aware that a political community is not based entirely on rules of coexistence, but also and above all on a historical tradition understood as a permanent reinterpretation of what binds us.[xvii]
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[i] Francis Cousin, L’etre contre l’avoir. Pour une critique radicale du faux omniprésent . . . (Le Retour aux sources, 2012), 82. On “community of habitus” or dispositions, cf. also Olivier Ducharme, Michel Henry et le problème de la communauté (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2013).
[ii] Ferdinand Tönnies, Communauté et société, translated and with an Introduction by S. Mesure & N. Bond (Paris: PUF, 2010).
[iii] Emmanuel-Joseph Siéyès, Qu’est-ce que le Tiers État ? (Paris: Société de l’histoire de la Révolution française, 1888), 65.
[iv] “The organic has an institutive sense insofar as it rests on a structuring vision of the social body. In that case, it serves to characterize a society whose members are bound to one another in a living fashion, as are the organs in the human body, in order to cooperate with a view to the common good, that of the entire body,” writes Marie-Pauline Deswarte in a work whose only fault is to excessively idealize the Ancien Régime (La République organique en France. Un patrimoine constitutionnel à restaurer [Versailles: Via Romana, 2014], 15-16). Cf. also, by the same author, « Retrouver la dynamique organique de la France », in Valeurs actuelles, January 8, 2015, 79.
[v] Cf. Alain de Benoist, “Johannes Althusius, 1557-1638,” in Krisis, no. 22, March 1999, 2-34. Cf. also Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, “Johannes Althusius et l’Europe subsidiaire,” website Fenêtre sur l’Europe, June 2, 2009.
[vi] Pierre Dardot & Christian Laval, Commun. Essai sur la révolution du XXIe siècle (Paris: La Découverte, 2014), 461.
[vii] The very libertarian Ayn Rand thus writes: “The tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal [New York: Penguin, 1986], 20).
[viii] When there was a referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014, Géraldine Vaughan, Lecturer in British history and civilization at the University of Rouen, explained the demands of the partisans of independence in terms of their hostility to liberal individualism: “Thatcherite ideology came up against Scottish values deeply anchored in the idea of community. The exaltation of individualism was not understood or accepted. Thatcher’s neo-liberal policy pulverized the welfare state and that was experienced as an attack on the communitarian idea. An ideological and moral abyss was dug with the Scots at that time.”
[ix] François Flahaut, Pourquoi limiter l’expansion du capitalisme ? (Paris: Descartes & Cie, 2003), 92.
[x] The English word “communitarianism” was first used in 1841 by John Goodwyn Barmby, founder of the Universal Communitarian Association. We note that the communitarian movement has greatly evolved since its origins. Some of its representatives, such as Michael Sandal, have abandoned the label. Others have partly modified their positions under the influence of liberal criticism. For a recent statement, cf. Amitai Etzioni, “Communitarianism Revisited,” in the Journal of Political Ideologies, October 2014, 241-260. Cf. also Shlomo Avineri and Avner de-Shalit (eds.) Communitarianism and Individualism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Elizabeth Frazier, The Problem of Communitarian Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); and Paul van Setters, Communitarianism in Law and Society (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
[xi] St. Augustine, The City of God, book XIX, ch. 17.
[xii] Michel Maffesoli & Hélène Strohl, Les Nouveaux Bien-pensants (Paris: éditions du Moment, 2013), 13.
[xiii] Costanzo Preve, Éloge du communautarisme, translated from the Italian and with an Introduction by Yves Branca and a Preface by Michel Maffesoli (Paris: Krisis, 2012), 213.
[xiv] Ibid., 32.
[xv] Denis Collin, “La forme achevée de la République est la République sociale,” website Le Comptoir, November 3, 2014, 4.
[xvii] Stéphane Vibert, “L’égalité dans la différence est un slogan creux,” in Causeur, October 2013, 48.
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