Communitarianism

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Communitarianism emphasises the need to balance the interests and rights of the individual with those of the community as a whole. Modern-day Communitarianism originated in the form of a critical reaction to John Rawl's seminal Contractarian work A Theory of Justice. The leading thinkers of the movement – notably Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer – are not concerned with creating a formal political or philosophical system, but instead seek to deflate the universal pretensions of liberal theory. An understanding of the world as relational, along with an emphasis on the regional and particular in countering universalist perspectives, provides much common ground between Communitarianism and the environmentalist movement.

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Universalism vs regionalism

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls proposes the social contract as made by individuals in the original position, described as an “Archimedean point” that allows us to regard the human condition “from the perspective of eternity”. Communitarians counter this concept of universal justice, arguing instead that ethical and social codes originate in particular cultures and traditions, and thus vary from context to context.

Environmentalists have argued that the social and political structure of a given society should be informed not only by its particular culture, but also by its natural surroundings. While thinking on regionalism has influenced many branches of environmentalism, the Bioregionalist movement takes this position to one extreme in proposing that environmental features provide the defining conditions for communities. Bioregionalism advocates the redrawing of political boundaries on environmental lines to create ecoregions that would take into account natural features such as watershed boundaries and soil characteristics. A community within a given ecoregion would then be free to develop its potential within ecological limits, drawing on local knowledge and practice within the community.

The rejection of individualism

Rawlsian theory maintains that the supreme interest of an individual is to shape and pursue his or her own life-plans. Communitarians, in contrast, understand the self as defined or constituted by various communal attachments, such as to family or national traditions, which can only be set aside at great cost, if at all.

Environmentalists have broadened this emphasis on inter-personal relationships to accommodate other forms of life. One of the most influential of these thinkers, Arne Naess, proposed that the world be understood in terms of the relations between both sentient and non-sentient beings. Deep ecology, developed by Naess, rejects the idea that individual people each have a separate essence, seeing humans instead as “knots” in the biospherical net. Community is of vital importance to deep ecology, as the identity of a living thing is constituted essentially by its relationship with all other organisms.

Political implications

The philosophical insights of Communitarianism feed into the political argument that the state should not only be concerned with the freedom of the individual to pursue their own goals, but should protect and promote the social attachments crucial to our sense of well-being and respect. While the modern-day philosophical tradition originated in the 1970s, a second wave of Communitarians in the 1990s focused on the political application of the philosophy. Thinkers such as Amitai Etzioni and William Galston criticize traditional liberalist institutions and practices as contributing to a range of contemporary social ills such as greed, loneliness, and alienation from civil society and the political process.

From an environmentalist perspective, excessive individualism and competitiveness can be understood as the root cause of our environmental problems, as well as our social ills. Social ecology, developed by Murray Bookchin, argues that humankind’s deep-seated social problems have led to our exploitative relationship with the environment. Dominion over man, manifest in our hierarchical political and social systems, has caused us to attempt a similar dominion over nature. Bookchin went on to propose a political system intended to precipitate a radical shift away from the competitive mentality. The proposed system, Communalism, is based on a stateless and classless society established on anti-hierarchical principles of mutual respect. Society would be divided into a network of communities, each with its own directly democratic citizens’ assembly, with the state acting solely as a confederation of these communities.

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Author: Niki Seth-Smith