Social media is currently rife with examples of people explicitly or implicitly defending strongly communitarian conceptions of politics and society. The following paragraphs offer some reflections on human unity, politics and systematic prejudice.
The contemporary democratic ideal rests on the principle of a community of equals. Humans of the same nature, with the same rights, being part of a single system of self-government. In some structures, such as juries, it goes as far as positing that people are interchangeable. The jury member is a citizen who is supposed to speak as the voice for all citizens. And juries are interesting examples as this equality and interchangeability do not suppose similarities of opinions. People can disagree, even ferociously so, without their disagreements impacting the ontological postulate that humans are all of the same nature and part of one single society. It is this postulate that makes democracy and freedom possible. Without such a conviction, no freedom can exist as Hannah Arendt expresses very well.
That all men are created equal is not self-evident nor can it be proved. We hold this opinion because freedom is possible only among equals, and we believe that the joys and gratifications of free company are to be preferred to the doubtful pleasures of holding dominion. Such preferences are politically of the greatest importance, and there are few things by which men are so profoundly distinguished from each other as by these. Their human quality, one is tempted to say, and certainly the quality of every kind of intercourse with them, depends upon such choices. Still, these are matters of opinion and not of truth […]. p.560
It is worthy to stress how very recent this view of democracy is. In most countries many groups – women, non-whites, non-landowners, etc. – have only recently gained access to being recognized as part of this human community of equals. And there remains many places and many groups that still aren’t. But to get back to the core argument, it remains that the contemporary democratic ideal rests on this postulate of a single human community of equals.
As soon as one rejects the principle of human unicity, most democratic processes and ideals fall apart and the perspective shifts to either supremacist or communitarian. Supremacist perspectives rest on the idea that a given group is to be granted superior rights. A position that is, even at first sight, abhorrent enough to dispense me of further discussion.
On the other hand, communitarian perspectives don’t presuppose superiority but ontological difference. Humans are to be conceived as belonging to ontologically different groups. Women and men, black and white, indigenous and settlers, straights and gays, Jews, Christians and Muslims, there are countless options to choose from in order to split humanity into different groups.
Once one holds such a view, the only way not to fall into a supremacist perspective is to think from a representativeness and quota perspective. Women should decide for women, Indigenous should decide for indigenous, etc. But, as the categories into which humans are then divided, are potentially infinite (sex, skin colour, culture, religion, sexual preferences, ideology, etc.) there won’t ever be any fully satisfying representativeness. What to do with that one odd trans-women of indigenous descent who converted to Islam? Therefore, from a purely theoretical standpoint, it might appear easy to dismiss communitarian perspectives as logically flawed and ethically undesirable.
But the social reality of communitarian perspectives is much more complicated. The challenge lies in those situations where society is built around entrenched systematic prejudices. One easily described example is the situation of black people in the USA. One can bring forward, over and again, the scientific fact that skin colour is a biologically irrelevant genetic glitch, this truth changes exactly nothing to the social fact that skin colour shapes people’s lives. The exact same argument can be made for Indigenous people in most America. In 1970 James Baldwin summarizes this situation stating:
For a radical example, I agree with the Black Panthers’ position about black prisoners. I think that one can make the absolute blanket statement that no black man has ever been tried by a jury of his peers in America. And if that is so, and I know that is so, no black man has ever received a fair trial in this country. pp.67-68
Such a statement isn’t built on the prejudiced idea that humans ought to be considered differently according to skin colour. This statement is built on the understanding that systematic prejudices have been built into socially objective realities. This is a difference of a tremendous ethical importance. But it remains that the logical conclusion is to reframe the democratic ideal in a communitarian one. Black people are to judge black people, women are to judge women, etc.
This brings the focus to the two real questions. The first is about gains and losses. Rejecting the postulate that a society is made up of a single community of equals comes with a huge cost. As Arendt phrased it, “such preferences are politically of the greatest importance”they are the mainstay upon which most of our political institutions and processes rest upon. This may sound unnecessarily apocalyptic but there is a real risk for the whole building in weakening this mainstay. This is what can be lost. What can be gained has to do with the wearying of entrenched prejudices and privileges. There could be situations where the postulate of a single community of equals has the practical effect to maintain unfair institutions. As one example, but many could be found, law courts composed almost exclusively of old men deciding on issues such as access to abortion hurt common sense.
This brings the second question which is about inevitability. In 1970, when Baldwin made his statement on race and juries, racial prejudice had such deep roots in American institutions, culture and social practices that indeed, it was hard to see any way forward that did not start by acknowledging that it did not make any practical sense to pretend there was a single community of human equals. Many would argue that, to a large extent, this remains true today. True or not, it is easy to find situations where it is urgent to dismantle entrenched social prejudice and where strong communitarian perspectives can be seen by some as one way forward.
I believe that there is much more to lose than to gain by abandoning the postulate all humans belong to a single community of equals. In my view, communitarian politics are the wrong way forward and, though one can understand what its proponents try to achieve, the result might be a Pyrrhic victory.
But those are complex questions where self-doubt is preferable than self-rightfulness. The current prevalence of strong opinions based on simplistic conceptions on those questions might be the most troubling element for me and the main impetus for putting this in writing.
Hannah Arendt (1967) Truth and Politics. Originally published in The New Yorker, February 25, 1967. Reprinted in Portable Hannah Arendt (Penguin, 2000)
Margaret Mead & James Baldwin (1971) A Rap on Race. Lippincott, Philadelphia.