Communitarianism as a philosophy began in the late 20th century, opposing aspects of liberalism and capitalism while advocating phenomena such as civil society. Not necessarily hostile to liberalism in the contemporary American sense of the word, communitarianism rather has a different emphasis, shifting the focus of interest toward communities and societies and away from the individual. Communitarians believe that the value of community is not sufficiently recognized in liberal theories of justice. The question of priority (individual or community) often has the largest impact in the most pressing ethical questions: health care, abortion, multiculturalism, hate speech, and so on. The term is primarily used in two senses:
1) Philosophical communitarianism considers classical liberalism to be ontologically and epistemologically incoherent, and opposes it on those grounds. Unlike classical liberalism, which construes communities as originating from the voluntary acts of pre-community individuals, it emphasizes the role of the community in defining and shaping individuals.
2) Ideological communitarianism is an ideology that emphasises the rights of the majority to make decisions affecting the minority. Generally marked by leftism on economic issues and conservatism on social issues, it is the direct opposite of libertarianism.
A possible third use is the term Responsive Communitarianism as practiced by Amitai Etzioni of the Israeli kibbutz movement, which sometimes positions itself as the radical middle between traditional Right and Left by simultaneously affirming communal rights and individual responsibilities, although opponents argue that this ultimately results in the loss of individual rights and the relinquishment of control to the most powerful financial institutions.
Though the term communitarianism is of 20th-century origin, many communitarians trace their philosophy to earlier thinkers.
Communitarian philosophers are primarily concerned with ontological and epistemological issues, which must be separated from policy issues. The communitarian response to A Theory of Justice reflects dissatisfaction with the image Rawls presents of humans as atomistic individuals. Although Rawls allows some space for benevolence, for example, he views it merely as one of many values that exist within a single person's head.
Communitarians claim values and beliefs to exist in public space, in which debate takes place. They argue that to become an individual is to take a stance on the issues that circulate in the public space. For example, within the U.S. debate on gun control, there are a number of stances to be taken, but all of these stances are parasitic upon the existence of a gun-control debate in the first place; this is the sense in which the community (at least the linguistic community -- see Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) predates individualism. This does not of course mean that we should each always give into the majority; it is merely a point about how language and self-definition operate. In contrast to the liberal constellation of philosophers (Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hume, Rawls and the analytic trend generally), communitarians tend to draw on a set of philosophers that undermines these traditions, for example, Kant (as a hinge figure), Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty: a mix of analytic and continental philosophers, with the analytics tending toward natural language philosophy.
On the US-American political spectrum, communitarians of the first sort tend to be far to the left on social and economic issues. They reject liberalism, which they see as being too conservative, as well as Marxism, which they believe makes some of the same individualistic assumptions as liberalism. Issues of specific interest are the responsibilities that complement rights and the active creation of norms in everyday life
Communitarians and liberals have no persistent differences on matters of democracy, although communitarians are less likely to view democracy as an institution set up to achieve individual desires through collective means. Where the two differ on policy issues, communitarians tend to be further to the left than classical liberals (although this is less true of liberals in the contemporary U.S. sense of the word). For example, whereas liberalism traditionally sees issues such as crime and homelessness as individual problems, communitarians view them as social issues and back welfare programs and prison reform. Also, whereas liberals from Kant to even Rawls show a tendency to rank "primitive" and more advanced societies, communitarians see this as a form of cultural imperialism and urge a better understanding of other life practices. This is not the same as cultural relativism; it is the belief that any universal moral principles must have the support of all peoples.
The following authors have communitarian tendencies in the first sense listed, but have all taken pains to distance themselves from the second, majoritarian interpretation:
Democracy and community
The communitarian vs. libertarian dichotomy can be viewed as a balance of the rights of the majority of people in a democracy to make collective decisions versus the rights of individuals who may find themselves in the minority. At the communitarian extreme, one could have a majoritarian totalitarian state, where a 51% majority could impose anything on the minority. (See also, in this respect, Totalitarian Democracy.) At the libertarian extreme, a government could create no laws to govern anyone who disagreed.
Majoritarian communitarians tend to side with the rights of the people, through a democratic government, to act collectively for the perceived good of society, whereas libertarians tend to support the rights of individuals. A classic example is the discussion in the U.S. about gun control: communitarians generally support it on the grounds that it would reduce gun-related violence. They believe that the people as a whole have the rights to pass such laws. Libertarians, however would be concerned for the rights of individual gun owners, and would oppose such measures.
Central to many communitarians' philosophy is the concept of positive rights; that is, rights or guarantees to certain things. These may include free education, affordable housing, a safe and clean environment, universal health care, a social safety net, or even the right to a job. To this end they generally support social safety programs, free public education, public works programs, and laws limiting such things as pollution and gun violence.
A common objection is that by providing such rights, they are violating the negative rights of the citizens; that is, rights to have something not done to you. For example, taking money in the form of taxes to pay for such programs as described above deprives individuals of property. Proponents of positive rights respond that without society, individuals would not have any rights, so it is natural that they should give something back to society. They further argue that without positive rights, negative rights are made irrelevant. For example, what does the right to a free press mean in a society with a 15% literacy rate? In addition, with regard to taxation, communitarians "experience this less as a case of being used for others' ends and more as a way of contributing to the purposes of a community I regard as my own" (Sandel, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 143).
What is or is not a "natural right" is a source of contention in modern politics; for example, whether or not universal health care can be considered a birthright, or how far the government can go to protect the environment.
Communitarianism versus authoritarianism
Because communitarianism endorses a similar level of government power as authoritarianism, it has often been eclipsed by or associated with the latter. The two philosophies differ, however, on source and proper uses of that power. Communitarianism is majoritarian; authoritarianism is not. In contrast to authoritarians, communitarians advocate democracy and decentralization of power to the community; authoritarians prefer a strong, central government, and feel no inherent reason to consult the views of the people.
Communitarians and authoritarians both believe in strong government action, but under different circumstances. For example, both would generally be more supportive of war than would more socially liberal philosophies, but each would support it under different cicumstances and for different reasons. Communitarians would go to war under a doctrine of just war, claiming humanitarian reasons or to spread democracy, whereas for authoritarians would tend to go to war for imperialistic or nationalistic reasons, or in an effort to enforce their ideology.
Communitarianism on the political spectrum
Nolan Chart representing political viewpoints on a 2-D spectrum
Communitarianism has no obvious position on the traditional Left-Right political spectrum, but it can be more readily positioned on a multi-axis political spectrum, such as that proposed by David Nolan. On the Nolan chart, one axis represents social issues such as abortion, religion, and gay rights. The other represents economic issues, including social programs, intervention in the economy, and government spending. Communitarians -- who favor an active government role in both economy and society -- stand at the opposite corner from the libertarians, who are opposed to both. Liberals in the American sense or social democrats in the European sense generally share the communitarian position on economic issues, but not on social issues. Conservatives generally share the communitarian position on social issues, but not on economic issues.
As seen here, communitarians (and authoritarians) are grouped together under the term 'populist'. Other models propose distinguishing the two, such as the Friesian Institute.
Communitarianism in the United States
In the United States, there are currently no specifically communitarian parties. Communitarians there tend to fall either into the Democratic or Republican parties, depending on which scale of issues they value most, or even in third parties such as the Greens.
As the two major parties in the United States are dominated by liberal/conservative lines, pure communitarians, like pure libertarians, are not commonly found in elected office. However, there are political leaders who lean towards communitarianism. Senator John McCain, who is socially conservative but economically moderate, could be called a conservative communitarian. Former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, economically liberal (in the U.S. sense of the word) but socially moderate, could be likewise considered a liberal communitarian.
The term communitarian itself was coined during the 20th century, although it is not commonly used outside the United States. David Nolan, when he first proposed the two-axis chart, used the label "populist" for the fourth quadrant, which includes both communitarians and authoritarians. Aside from its inclusion of both ideologies, the term populist generally means one who reaches out to the people, and is more commonly associated with leftists. Since then, some, particularly in libertarian circles, have labeled them as "authoritarians". As mentioned before, this is misleading characterization of majoritarian communitarians.
Some potentially useful references, transported from the Disinfopedia, which also links additional articles of relevance to this topic:
GW Bush, a Communitarian?
"Communitarianism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
"Communitarianism", Infed Encyclopedia.
Fareed Zakaria, The ABCs of Communitarianism. A devil's dictionary, Slate, July 26, 1996.
- Robert Putnam, Communitarianism, National Public Radio, February 5, 2001: "The term 'Third Way' was used to describe President Clinton's form of liberalism. Now 'Communitarianism' is being used in the same way to describe President Bush's form of conservatism. They're both an attempt to create a middle ground...an alternative to the liberal-conservative paradigm."
"Civil Practices Network"
The Responsive Communitarian Platform
References using alternate senses of the term communitarianism:
Last updated: 08-13-2005 22:51:10
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13