The value of community
hether the policies of the Thatcher and Reagan years brought any overall
economic benefits is doubtful; that they have had high social costs is now quite
evident. The unfettered pursuit of self-interest has weakened social bonds and led
to social decay and disintegration on a scale which is causing alarm right across the political
spectrum. Until recently such concerns were voiced only from the Left, but now the Right is
also waking up to them: witness, for example, the Conservatives’ recent and mercifully inept
‘Back to Basics’ campaign. Communitarians like Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, Charles
Taylor and Michael Sandel have attempted to articulate these ideas in philosophical terms and
develop a critique of ‘liberal’ individualist social theory on this basis. Against this background,
their view that community is a reality and a value has great intuitive appeal. However, the more
one goes into it, the more problematic it seems to become.
Contemporary communitarianism does not constitute a united school. Nevertheless, its
main proponents are agreed in rejecting the liberal account of the individual and society and
the attempt to found a universal conception of justice or the good upon it. The communitarian
critique focuses particularly on the ‘autonomous’ individual of liberal social theory, who is
supposed to exist prior to, and independent of, social relations. We are essentially social
beings. Our needs and desires, our ability to reason and choose, our very being and identity as
moral selves, are formed only in and through our social relations and roles. Pace the likes of
Lady Thatcher, there is such a thing as society, and it is prior to and constitutive of the
individual. What Sandel calls the ‘unencumbered’ self of liberal theory is a myth.
Two versions of communitarianism
These ideas provide a compelling critique of the philosophical foundations of liberalism.
However, when it comes to trying to derive practical – moral and political- implications from
them, communitarian thinkers are drawn in two apparently contradictory directions.
Neither is to be found in pure form in the writers I have mentioned. With that qualification,
however, one of them may be illustrated with reference to the work of MacIntyre (After Virtue,
Duckworth, 1981). He argues that in modern society we have lost the coherent social order
which gave a sense of value and identity in traditional societies. The ties and bonds of
traditional community have been shattered. Modern society has been dissolved into a mass of
atomic individuals each pursuing their own arbitrary desires and preferences. The picture of the
individual and society given in liberal social theory is thus, according to MacIntyre, in some
important respects true: not as an account of universal human nature, but as an account of the
way people have actually become in modern society. Though he acknowledges that there can
be no return to the past, MacIntyre looks back to the Aristotelian tradition of the ‘virtues’ as a
model for communitarian values with which to criticise liberal modernity.
This is an appealing story; but, as has often been pointed out, it does not sit easily with the
social ontology of communitarianism. If we are necessarily and essentially social beings, then
modern society cannot be understood as the mere negation – fragmentation, destruction, loss –
Radical Philosophy 69 (JanlFeb
of community. If the idea of the unencumbered self is a mythical creation of false theory, it
cannot give a true picture of the self in contemporary society.
These points are made by writers like Walzer and Taylor. Liberal policies, they argue, are
not really leading to the dissolution of community – they cannot possibly do that. ‘The deep
structure even of liberal society is … communitarian,’ writes Walzer: ‘we are in fact persons
and … we are in fact bound together. The liberal ideology of separatism cannot take
personhood and bondedness away from us. What it does is take away the sense of personhood
and bondedness’ (,The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism’, Political Theory, vol. 18, 1990,
p. 10). To restore this sense, to overcome the alienation of modern liberal society, we must
recognise and recover our sense of the understandings and bonds we do in fact share as
members of a common community.
MacIntyre is indeed open to this criticism; but the alternative proposed by writers like
Walzer and Taylor is not a satisfactory substitute. In the first place, the notion of ‘shared
understandings’ cannot do the work that these philosophers require of it. No doubt, as members
of a common society, we do share certain understandings; but these are not of the kind that can
ground a satisfactory identity or generate any determinate ‘communitarian’ values. For
example, we in this country are members of the British (or should that be English?) nation. As
such we share certain understandings. But these provide a framework within which there exist
radically different values and conflicting ideas about what direction this society should take. In
response to a philosophy like Walzer’s, one must therefore ask: who are ‘we’? Whose ‘shared
values’ are we talking about? (Even within the Conservative Party, divisions about ‘basic
values’ reduced their ‘Back to Basics’ campaign to the level of farce.)
Second, the appeal to the notion of ‘shared understandings’ robs the communitarian
philosophy of its critical force. By portraying the idea of loss or lack of community as illusory,
the suggestion is that nothing more is needed to overcome it than a change in our
understanding. Everything is all right as it is. The fault is in our minds, not in reality. Neither
Walzer nor Taylor wish to endorse this conclusion, but their theories imply it nevertheless.
Taylor, for example, blames the ideology of liberal individualism for the increasing rate of
family breakdown. In response, he in effect urges rejection of this ideology and an attempt to
‘retrieve’ the values of family life. However, separation and divorce are normal phenomena in
modern society. Literally millions of people find the structures of the traditional family
incompatible with fundamental aspects of their identities. To suggest that all these people are
simply mistaken about their situation is absurd and untenable. The slogan of the sixties had it
right: ‘do not adjust your mind, the fault is in reality.’
It seems that MacIntyre is nearer the truth when he maintains that modern liberal society is
characterised by radical and irreconcilable disagreements about values and ends. Indeed, it may
be argued that the only agreement about values that exists in liberal society is the agreement to
differ. This is essentially the view taken by Rorty, who defends what he calls ‘postmodernist
bourgeois liberalism’ in these terms, and by Rawls in his ‘political not metaphysical’ account
of justice. Modern liberal society, they argue, is already a ‘community’ of autonomous
There is something in this, as I shall argue in a moment. However, like the notion of
‘shared understandings’, it denies, if not the reality of the fragmentation of liberal society, at
least its critical significance. For it suggests that liberal society is the best possible form of
community, and we must simply live with any dissatisfactions it engenders.
Although the contrast MacIntyre draws between traditional community and modern
fragmentation is too crude and simple, there is an important element of truth to it. The effect of
modern society – more specifically of social relations based on private property and market
exchange – is fragmenting and destructive: not of community or society as such, but rather of a
particular form of society, namely traditional society. The result is not the mere dissolution of
community, but the replacement of traditional community by a new and different form of
Similarly, the ‘unencumbered’ self of liberal social theory is not mere illusion and error. As
MacIntyre rightly sees, the concept contains an important measure of truth. To be sure,
individuals in liberal society are not unencumbered absolutely, of all social relations. They are,
nevertheless, unencumbered relatively: freed from many of the particular ties that bind the
individual in traditional society. However, this process occurs only by ‘encumbering’ the
modern individual with new and different social bonds and relations, of the kind which obtain
between relatively autonomous individuals. Such relative autonomy is a real feature of the
modern self. It is not a universal human trait, but nor is it a mere illusion of liberal theory. The
relatively autonomous, relatively unencumbered self is the result of a real social and historical
development which neither version of communitarianism can satisfactorily comprehend.
This historical picture of the modern self helps to clarify what is true and what is false in these
communitarian pictures of modern society. What are its evaluative implications? In the first place,
it calls in question the moral outlooks of these two forms of communitarianism. Both portray the
impact of modernity as negative. They lament the destruction or the danger of destruction of
traditional forms of community, and oppose the value of community to that of individual
autonomy as if these were exclusive of each other. However, if contemporary society is not
simply the negation of community but rather a different form of it, then it cannot validly be
criticised by appeal to the abstract notion of community as such.
In order to justify the communitarian critique we need a specific and determinate concept of
community as a value. There is no reason to identify this with the traditional community we
have lost; nor can it be derived from present ‘shared values’. Does this mean that the idea of
community as a critical value should be abandoned altogether? At first sight, the historical
picture I have just sketched appears to suggest this. It seems to lead to a form of relativism
which implies only that traditional and modern forms of society are successive and different,
but nothing about their relative values.
However, there is another way in which these changes may be viewed. The transition to
modernity has not been an entirely negative process. The destruction of traditional social
relations has occurred through their replacement by new and different ones. What
communitarianism portrays as a process of mere loss can also be seen as the creation of the
autonomy of the self and an individual identity relatively independent of family and social
There are no transhistorical standards by which one can demonstrate that these changes
should be valued positively, as ‘gains’ (as liberalism attempts to do). Nevertheless, they are in
fact very widely regarded and valued as such. Though one may, in many ways, regret its
passing, few would wish to return to life in a traditional community and to the restraints this
would entail for the individual. That is the truth of Rorty’s and Rawls’s form of liberalism.
However, they are wrong to suggest that modernity is a pure gain and generally valued as such.
The problems of community and identity are real ones in the modern world. This is the
implication of the communitarian approach properly thought through.
Neither version of this philosophy does this; neither provides a tenable account of the value
of community. For it is a misinterpretation of this value to believe that it could be satisfied
either by a return to the past, or by preserving the vestiges of presently threatened ‘community’
and curbing the individual autonomy which seems to threaten it: for example, by making
divorce more difficult in order to protect the family. What the historical view that I have
outlined points to, rather, is the need to create new forms of common life which accept
individual autonomy and differences of values as real features of the modern world, and which
seek ways to satisfy current aspirations for identity and community on that basis.
Such a community did not exist in the past, and it does not exist in the present. It must be
constructed in the future out of the wreckage left by the Conservatives. If it is hard to give any
more specific content to this goal, perhaps this is due not so much to a defect of theory, as to
the fact that it is at present only a vague yearning, which has yet to achieve a more specific
form in the real world itself. But it is a valid one nonetheless.