Community is one of those words used to conjure up not just an idea but an ideal. Tom Clark, Editor of current affairs magazine Prospect, questions what community really means and its underlying value.
What is community? An overused word denoting nothing or a central tenet of our society? A ragbag of individuals thrown together by happenstance or the lynchpin that holds civilisation in check?
Arguments rage between philosophers who regard rational economic man as their model of humanity and social psychologists, who denounce the idea of people as islands, insisting instead that human beings are pack animals, whose tastes, habits and customs depend upon the collective. In academia, community is a vibrant concept – and highly contested terrain.
But come down out of the ivory tower and turn to the political podium, and claims about ‘community’ become bland to the point of banality. Yes, community is a great campaign word, especially for politicians in opposition, but in government it is an idea that leads nowhere at all.
Long gone are the days when Margaret Thatcher would take the robustly individualistic line and controversially suggest that there was no such thing as society beyond the ‘individual men… women and families’ that made it up. For a quarter of a century, politicians of all stripes have – while on their way up – rhapsodised about the fraying of the bonds that, apparently, used to bind us all together.
The young Bill Clinton ‘still believed in a place called Hope,’ the town where he’d grown up. He’d talk about how his grandfather would look after the hungry and penniless customers who would visit his store, and imply that he could take America back to that lovely, lost world where neighbours cared for one another.
Tony Blair’s original 1990s pitch was ‘communitarian,’ a warm third way between the clunking fist of the top-down state and ‘you’re on your own’ Thatcherism. David Cameron elevated similar rhetoric into ‘the Big Society.’ Out would go unfeeling bureaucrats, heartless businessmen and irresponsible litter-throwers, and in their place would rise up networks of responsible citizens, spontaneously clearing ice off dangerous roads, ferrying old ladies to their appointments and opening community playgroups. All these noble citizens were simply waiting to be empowered by a new Whitehall regime that dared to trust them. They would cheerfully embrace so many civic duties that costly state services could be cut back without being missed.
Well, that was the theory. But it didn’t really survive contact with the realities of power. By the time Cameron was re-elected in 2015, the Big Society slogans of his opposition manifesto were all gone. ‘Community’ no longer ranked as a buzzword at all: money, in the guise of the ‘long-term economic plan,’ took its place. After so much hype, suspicious minds may begin to regard community as a fraudulent concept – a means for ambitious politicians to promise the earth without actually committing themselves to doing anything.
Community is an organic thing, which waxes and wanes with deep social tides, well beyond the ability of any single government or stakeholder to control.
The routine labelling of diffuse sexual and ethnic minorities as ‘the Trans community’ or ‘the Afro-Carribbean community’ fuels the sense that it could be an empty term. A community defined simply by gender, race or creed is, in effect, more of a lazy collective phrase than a genuine ‘community’. And if a Trans-gender woman eats, meets and hangs out with friends and family who are not Trans at all, then aren’t they the people who constitute her community?
Yes but… just because politicians make artful play with an idea, it doesn’t follow that the idea is bunk. ‘Community’ really is important. Why? Most obviously, because human beings need to belong. Just reflect on how good you feel when you return to your hometown after a spell away. In contrast, consider the alienation or homesickness that almost everyone feels in an environment where they don’t know or understand anyone.
Social scientists, such as Harvard’s Robert Putnam, have trawled through statistics and studies and found plentiful evidence on self-reported happiness – and even health. ‘As a rule of thumb,’ Putnam states in his book Bowling Alone, ‘If you belong to no [social] groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.’
And it is not only the physical health of the individual, but the figurative health of a society as a whole that is dependent on the strength of community connections. The ‘boarded-up window’ theory of crime suggests that as streets empty out, crime becomes rife; conversely, in another example favoured by Putnam, suburbs which stage more neighbourhood barbecues will tend to have a lower crime rate. Even individuals who don’t attend the barbecues get extra protection when neighbours talk to each other, and whole streets lend each other their ears and eyes. So, if isolation leaves people miserable, prone to crime, and dying sooner, the flipside, surely, is that community really does matter.
Defined by type
The routine labelling of diffuse minorities such as “the Trans community” or “the Afro-Carribbean community” fuels the sense that it could be an empty term.
But what, if anything, can we practically do to promote it? Community is an organic thing, which waxes and wanes with deep social tides, well beyond the ability of any single government or stakeholder to control.
The Industrial Revolution, for example, brushed away the trade guilds that traditionally created loyal and tightly-bound communities. But in time, industrialisation bequeathed not only factories, but also works’ social and sporting clubs, as well as trades unions.
‘We are far more united and have more in common than that which divides us.’
Today, a different revolution is challenging the very meaning of the word community. The surge in digital technology has spurred the creation of online connections that both complement and, at times, replace face-to-face community links. People who want to talk politics, for instance, or even relationships, very often do so via ‘online communities’, rather than being restricted, as their parents were, to seeking out lovers and interlocutors in their immediate neighbourhood. Communities have always been multi-layered, but the internet gives opportunity like never before for individuals to mix and match membership – a development that carries with it both enormous benefits and myriad dangers.
For it is worth remembering that communities can be divisive as well as supportive, both online and in reality. By some measures, the corner of the UK with the tightest-knit communities is Northern Ireland: kith and kin are bound together in ghettoised environments, with Protestants and Catholics living, learning, and sometimes working apart from one another. Warm and welcoming for some, cloying and exclusive for others.
The concentration of minorities on the mainland is not as intense, but, even so, there is sometimes a sense of parallel lives: America’s ghettoised environments provide a warning of where this could lead if it’s not checked. Nobody is immune to the grim effects of living in a society that is seared by division.
So the aim must be not only to promote community, but the right sort of community. Criticising technology or rhapsodising about the past can be counter-productive. And most fair-minded people would agree that the links most worth fostering are those that offer an invitation for all-comers to connect, not those that tie ever-tighter binds around exclusive groups. To encourage, in other words, people of all ages, faiths and none to mix, swap favours, and appreciate – as murdered MP Jo Cox said in her maiden speech in Westminster – that ‘we are far more united and have more in common than that which divides us.’