The Meaning of Community

A perspective on the meaning of "community," its condition today, and what it will look like in the future

It was Aristotle who first defined the word "community" as a group established by men having shared values. That initial definition has been refined and expanded through the years. We have come, for example, to recognize that people can belong to a number of different "communities" simultaneously--communities of place; cultural communities; communities of memory, in which people who may be strangers share "a morally significant history"; and psychological communities "of face-to-face personal interaction governed by sentiments of trust, co-operation, and altruism."


The world, we are repeatedly reminded, has contracted into a "global village." One effect of this contraction is the bringing together of hitherto isolated peoples, allowing for the development of new patterns of civilization--but also creating new tensions. Thus, challenges now confront communities at local, national, and global levels. For example, new information technologies have created "networks" and "cybercommunities" in the world of the Internet that link individuals and organizations around the globe without regard for national boundaries; small communities around the planet are affected by urban migration or by degradation of the natural and built environment; the existence of national communities--nation states--is under threat from assaults by ethnic or tribal enclaves. Ironically, while the emergence of a global community wielding effective power is seen by many as a necessity in order to combat the ill effects of unfettered market economics, the whole idea that a real global community can ever come into existence is met with deep misgivings or complete skepticism by others. How, then, can we understand "community" at the end of the twentieth century--and what will its future be in the next millennium?


A number of significant challenges to community have arisen from developments in global information technologies. While pundits ponder whether or not Internet users form any kind of viable community as they sit at their computers in farflung corners of the world, a deeper and more serious issue is the manner in which the entire structure of computer networks undermines more traditional kinds of community organization.


As Jessica Mathews points out in her essay "Power Shift," which appeared in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, these new information technologies have challenged established societal hierarchies. They have empowered civil society, which in turn has allowed the world's peoples generally to be more involved than previously in issues that were once the sole province of states and to forge new links between democracy, human rights, and international security. Yet, the technologies themselves are not always used to achieve constructive ends. They have, for example, also promoted the spread of global organized crime, and they have enabled individuals to cross borders easily to subvert governments and, at times, create new societal divisions.


The future of the state, in her view, is therefore uncertain. Information technologies, she points out "disrupt hierarchies, spreading power among more people and groups." She continues,

In drastically lowering the costs of communication, consultation, and coordination, they favor decentralized networks over other modes of organization. In a network, individuals or groups link for joint action without building a physical or formal institutional presence. Networks have no person at the top and no center. Instead, they have multiple nodes where collections of individuals or groups interact for different purposes. Businesses, citizens organizations, ethnic groups, and crime cartels have all readily adopted the network model. Governments, on the other hand, are quintessential hierarchies, wedded to an organizational form incompatible with all that the new technologies make possible.

The technologies, she concludes, weaken community by empowering individuals, and her article contains this dire prediction:

The prophets of an internetted world in which national identities gradually fade, proclaim its revolutionary nature and yet believe the changes will be wholly benign. They won't be. The shift from national to some other political allegiance, if it comes, will be an emotional, cultural, and political earthquake.

Mathews raises important questions: What kind of community can be forged in an internetted world, where the structure of the technology promotes anarchy, with its emphasis on complete freedom of expression and lack of regard for authority? Does this spell the end of the nation-state and, if so, what other kind of political entity might arise in its stead? The challenges posed by the new information technologies may generate significant crises felt throughout the world, but such a development looms on the horizon.


There are, however, a number of current crises facing community. Loss of the sense of community based on "place" is a worldwide phenomenon. Millions of people all over the planet are being displaced from their homes. Some are refugees fleeing escalating political strife. Others are forced from their homes by economic necessity, such as farmers from rural China who are migrating to cities in vast numbers, searching for factory work. Such movement destroys families, undermines the traditional sense of trust found in community, increases feelings of isolation and dislocation, and creates a host of social problems.


Even where people still maintain their homes, there are challenges to the sense of place. A case in point is America, where planners are in revolt against the manner in which the built environment of communities has been shaped in the latter part of the twentieth century. A movement widely known by the name "new urbanism" protests against the "fantastic, awesome, stupefying ugliness" of "the gruesome, tragic suburban boulevards of commerce" so common in American towns and cities, contending that "this ugliness is the surface expression of deeper problems" and contributes substantially to the widely expressed sense of "loss of community" felt throughout the society.


The new urbanists posit that going back to the planning and design principles that shaped the traditional neighborhoods of America is a way of recapturing this lost sense of place and community, of reversing a pattern of development they see as "economically catastrophic, an environmental calamity, socially devastating, and spiritually degrading." Discarding the zoning laws that segregate various activities, they seek to create neighborhoods (or hamlets or villages) of manageable size which, when clustered together, become towns and cities. Each neighborhood is constructed on a "human scale"; it contains both residential and commercial property and provides housing for people of different levels of income. The proposal is not fantastic. Many traditional European towns, for example, have preserved this element of "human design." But to make such a change, citizens everywhere must take an active role in decisions regarding the environment in which they live:

Human settlements are like living organisms. They must grow, and they will change. But we can decide on the nature of that growth--on the quality and the character of it--and where it ought to go. We don't have to scatter the building blocks of our civic life all over the countryside, destroying our towns and ruining farmland.... It is within our power to create places that are worthy of our affection.

Such loss of "community of place" can also bring loss of communities of memory and communities governed by trust. In the late nineteenth century Ferdinand Tönnies theorized that in the development of systems of culture, communities invariably move from a period of Gemeinschaft, where shared experience and likeness are most important, toward a period of Gesellschaft, where individuals exist in isolation from each other, there is a strong sense of competition, relationships are contractual, and monetary values prevail. Such a progression has been noted by others as well. In this century, Pitirim A. Sorokin, for example, saw societies moving through ideational, idealistic, and sensate stages, away from spiritual truth and values towards self-indulgence and material values. But is such a progression inevitable?


If we again take the case of America and look at it in Tönnies' terms, we see that the society is in a period of Gesellschaft. William Leach, in his insightful 1993 volume Land of Desire, analyses the forces that have shaped modern America as "a distinct culture, unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy.... The cardinal features of this culture were acquisition and consumption as the means of achieving happiness; the cult of the new; the democratization of desire; and money value as the predominant measure of all value in society." As this culture grew, Leach writes, "Increasingly, the worth of everything--even beauty, friendship, religion, the moral life--was being determined by what it could bring in the market."


Leach characterizes the dominant mode of interaction in twentieth century life as an amoral "brokering style," the features of which are "repressing one's own convictions and withholding judgment in the interest of forging profitable relationships." Contending that it "occupies a preeminence in today's political and moral economy," he writes, "Brokers are now busy in nearly every sphere of activity, and they have helped inject into American culture a new amoralism essentially indifferent to virtue and hospitable to the ongoing inflation of desire."


Because America, with the collapse of communism, is now the world's undisputed single superpower, its role as the leading exponent of Western capitalist values--which have been exported throughout the entire world--is crucial.


Indeed, some writers have gone so far as to characterize the current devotion to those values as a worldwide "religious" phenomenon. David Loy writes:

...our present economic system should also be understood as our religion, because it has come to fulfill a religious function for us. The discipline of economics is less a science than the theology of that religion, and its god, the Market, has become a vicious circle of ever-increasing production and consumption by pretending to offer a secular salvation. The collapse of communism--best understood as a capitalist "heresy"--makes it more apparent that the market is becoming the first truly world religion, binding all corners of the globe more and more tightly into a worldview and set of values whose religious role we overlook only because we insist on seeing them as "secular."

George Soros shares this view, stating, "What used to be a medium of exchange has usurped the place of fundamental values.... The cult of success has replaced a belief in principles. Society has lost its anchor." Concluding that "there is something wrong with making the survival of the fittest a guiding principle of civilized society," he proposes an "open society" as the antidote to the havoc that laissez-faire capitalism and market values are wreaking in democratic society, where the guiding principles of "nonmarket values" are eclipsed by the influence of market values. Current confidence that "the unhampered pursuit of self-interest will bring about an eventual international equilibrium" is, in his view, "misplaced." An "open society" would promote institutions that allow people to live together in peace, in spite of their different views, interests, and beliefs concerning what is true. He concludes, however, that there is currently no willingness to establish the means to preserve a global open society.

Another commentator, William Greider, in his book One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism, also contends that the widespread adoption of market economics does not and will not bring social and political stability, which have often been touted as long-term benefits. In fact, he says, the spread of market economics destroys the fabric of traditional societies and provides ideal conditions for contending political forces to fight each other for control.


In a response to Greider's book in The Atlantic Monthly, Lester Thurow concurs, saying, "Capitalism is myopic and cannot make the long-term social investments in education, infrastructure, and research and development that it needs for its own future survival. It needs government help to make those investments, but its own ideology won't allow it either to recognize the need for those investments or to request government help. That is the ideological paradox of our time."


According to Greider, we stand at a watershed in history: "A revolutionary principle is embedded in the global economic system, awaiting broader recognition: Human dignity is indivisible. Across the distances of culture and nations, across vast gulfs of wealth and poverty, even the least among us are entitled to dignity, and no justification exists for brutalizing them in the pursuit of commerce." He continues, "any prospect of developing a common global social consciousness will inevitably force people to reexamine themselves first and come to terms with their own national contradictions and hypocrisies. And just as Americans cannot claim a higher morality while benefiting from inhumane exploitation, neither can developing countries pretend to become modern `one world' producers and expect exemption from the world's social values."


While there is, as yet, no set of social values generally accepted by the world, attempts have recently been made to introduce an internationally accepted "Charter of Human Responsibilities." This document would "provide a broader ethical context to the principles inherent within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights" to "accentuate those positive obligations each individual should assume in the service to humanity and the rest of creation." The charter has not yet gained wide acceptance, but its formulation is a hopeful sign.


Values are also a main concern of Philip Selznick, a communitarian philosopher who contends not only that social justice must be the foundation of community but that it is the responsibility of both individuals and the collective. Thus, the communitarian concept of community is a "unity of unities"--a sort of "federal" unity that preserves the integrity of the parts by emphasizing individual moral autonomy as well as the moral bonds of civility, which are seen to be interdependence and reciprocity. The concept of "stewardship" in governance further binds social power to moral ideals. It is a concept that looks outward rather than inward--or, as Selznick puts it, moves towards "the `we' of humanity." In this concept of community the balance of particularism and universalism is regarded as crucial, respecting diversity "without allowing its claims to override those of basic humanity and justice."


It is not surprising that movements such as the communitarians have arisen to revisit the roots of Western society and to reexamine the values underpinning its culture. Their response to "the weakening of institutions, the blurred line between liberty and license, the widespread preference for short-run gains," is to prescribe "more extensive responsibility in every aspect of personal experience and social life" as the antidote.


Two other communitarians have offered some valuable insights into a community-friendly, sustainable system of economics. In their book For the Common Good, Herman E. Daly and John B. Cobb, Jr., make a distinction between two different paradigms of economic behavior: chrematistics and oikonomia. Chrematistics, they say, "can be defined as the branch of political economy relating to the manipulation of property and wealth so as to maximize short-term monetary exchange value to the owner"--a model that conforms to Leach's, Soros' and Greider's view of capitalism, as epitomized by the American system. In contrast, oikonomia "is the management of the household so as to increase its use value to all members of the household over the long run." They continue, "If we expand the scope of household to include the larger community of the land, of shared values, resources, biomes, institutions, language, and history, then we have a good definition of `economics for community.'"


The concept of oikonomia seems quite close to Selznick's "stewardship." Cobb and Daly's assertion that "True economics concerns itself with the long-term welfare of the whole community" posits a conception of humans as something quite different from mere consumers--and of community as something much different from a mere marketplace. They argue that seeing people only as beings "bent on optimizing utility or satisfaction through procuring unlimited commodities," which is the view underlying current economic theory, leads to "policies that weaken existing patterns of social relationships." They advocate, instead, that "economics should be refounded on the basis of a new concept of Homo economicus as person-in-community," recognizing that

the well-being of a community as a whole is constitutive of each person's welfare...because each human being is constituted by relationships to others, and this pattern of relationships is at least as important as the possession of commodities. These relationships cannot be exchanged in a market. They can, nevertheless, be affected by the market, and when the market grows out of the control of a community, the effects are almost always destructive. Hence this model of person-in-community calls not only for provision of goods and services to individuals, but also for an economic order that supports the pattern of personal relationships that make up the community.

Daly and Cobb argue strongly for a conscious movement towards the adoption of social behavior and values that will enhance "the common good" and build the foundations of a community that will protect the environment and promote ways of living that provide for a sustainable future. Such an approach addresses some of the key challenges facing community.


At the broadest level of discussion, many contemporary thinkers, such as Daly and Cobb, see the global nature of environmental crises and the interconnectedness of national economies, for example, as leading inexorably towards the establishment of a global community of some sort. Others, however, see the whole idea as an utter impossibility. Some of the most provocative pieces to appear in print on this topic during the past several years have been authored by Samuel P. Huntington, whose essay "The Clash of Civilizations?" in Foreign Affairs sparked a firestorm of debate on his thesis that the emergence of a global civilization is a utopian fantasy. Huntington later expanded his position to a full-length book, notably dropping the question mark at the end of the title to read The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.


The phrase "world community" "has become the euphemistic collective noun (replacing `the Free World') to give global legitimacy to actions reflecting the interests of the United States and other Western powers," he contends. The West, whose system of liberal democracy has recently been touted as the pinnacle of social evolution and achievement, is not, in his view, a universal civilization. "What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest," he states.


While Huntington focuses on "civilization," which he defines as "the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species," the elements he sees as shaping civilizations are quite similar to those generally accepted as characteristics of community: "common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions" and "the subjective self-identification of people."


He is extremely skeptical that any kind of unified global civilization can ever develop. At the individual level, he asserts that there must always be "the civilizational `us' and the extracivilizational `them'" because we fear and distrust people who are different; we experience difficulty in communicating with them; and we are unfamiliar with what motivates them, how they conduct social relationships, and so on. In opposition to Daly and Cobb, he states that "it is human to hate"; "for self-definition and motivation people need enemies: competition in business, rivals in achievement, opponents in politics. They naturally distrust and see as threats those who are different and have the capability to harm them." This rivalry extends to the sphere of religion. As Huntington says, "Whatever universalist goals they may have, religions give people identity by positing a basic distinction between believers and nonbelievers, between a superior in-group and a different and inferior out-group." Further, "if a universal civilization is emerging," he asserts, "there should be signs of a universal language and a universal religion developing." He concludes, "Nothing of the sort is occurring."


Andrew Bard Schmookler, while also identifying "intersocietal anarchy" as "the overarching context of civilized life," is somewhat more optimistic than Huntington about the development of a united global civilization. "As long as the human cultural system was fragmented into a multiplicity of separate units," he asserts, "the problem of power remained insoluble." He contends that now "an escape from this fragmented system is beginning to emerge," although dangers still remain:

For the first time, the world is becoming a single interdependent system in which all the world's peoples are in contact. Meanwhile, the age-old struggle for power goes on and may annihilate us before we can create an order that controls power. But the centuries ahead give us the opportunity to place all human action within a structure that for the first time makes truly free human choice possible. Even so, it is far from clear how to get from here to there, or even what kind of world order "there" should be.

Malaysia's deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim advances one possible path for humanity to tread. In his forthcoming book The Asian Renaissance, he criticizes Huntington's approach as "nothing more than Orientalism in a new garb," a view he characterizes as "false and dangerous":

It is false because it implies an inherent impermeability of cultures, an inability to absorb each other's characteristics, and presupposes the existence of a "Great Wall" separating the civilizations of the world. It is dangerous because it generates paranoia and breeds animosity and suspicion and may, therefore, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, the question is not whether civilizations will clash, but whether civilizations ought to clash.

To avoid such conflict, he asserts that if we reflect on "higher ideals,"

we will discover that there is less difference between East and West than is often made out to be....The challenge at hand is to conceive a common vision of the future which goes beyond our current concerns and preoccupations, advancing toward the creation of a global community, dominated neither by the East nor the West, but dedicated to the ideals of both.

He advocates a "civilizational dialogue," undertaken with the goal of achieving a "global convivencia--a harmonious and enriching experience of living together among people of diverse religions and cultures."


The uncertain hope expressed by Schmookler, the pessimism of Huntington, the fundamental structural changes described by Mathews, the ills outlined by Leach, Greider, Soros, and others, and the prescriptions advanced by Daly, Cobb, Selznick, and Ibrahim all provide differing perspectives on the strenuous debate currently taking place around the subject of community. Where the world will go from here remains uncertain. Various individuals and organizations have attempted to address the ills of society, which are generally perceived to be worldwide in scope, but, as Soros comments rather bitterly, no will exists to establish institutions and mechanisms that would effectively govern a global community. And certainly there is no wide agreement about what exactly the fundamental values of such a community should be.


READ > The Meaning of Community - a Baha'i Perspective


Ann Boyles offers a perspective on the meaning of "community," its condition today, and what it will look like in the future. This article appeared in the 1996-97 edition of The Bahá'í World,pp. 197-219.

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