Communitarianism

Ideas about the role of the individual vs. the community have been around for thousands of years. In hunter gatherer societies, groups of people stuck together to improve their chances of survival with each person having a role in the community. Ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle also talked about the importance of community in civil life. 

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    As society advanced through the Enlightenment and Industrial periods, ideas around individualism were on the forefront of everyone's minds, especially in countries like the US which were founded on the idea of individual rights. While many view individual rights as a positive thing, communitarianism provides an important critique of when individualism goes too far.

    Communitarianism Definition

    Communitarianism is a socio-political philosophy (meaning that it’s a philosophy that touches on both how we should exist as social creatures and how we should operate politically in the civil space). Communitarianism focuses on prioritizing the needs of the whole rather than the needs of the individual. It’s viewed as the opposite of individualism, which encourages each person to prioritize their own needs rather than the needs of the community.

    Communitarianism is a socio-political philosophy that prioritizes the needs of the community over the needs of the individual.

    There are many ways we can view the role of government and of citizens within a country. As a political philosophy, communitarianism views the role of government through the lens of the relationship between the individual and the community. That is, what role can each individual play in the broader context of the whole? How can each person contribute to the common good? How can government structures support the needs of the community?

    Political Ideologies Communitarianism Community Connections StudySmarterCommunitarianism views civil life through the lens of the community. Source: Pixabay

    Communitarianism in America

    Enlightenment ideas such as the social contract and natural rights are seen as a reaction to the absolute power and authoritarian regimes of the Medieval and Renaissance time periods. They were born out the need to impose checks on government power and protect citizens, and eventually grew into liberal and neoliberal mindsets. Communitarianism is a reaction to these ideas, especially concerns around excessive individualism and egotistical motives.

    While the term “communitarianism” was coined in the 1840s in response to a British leader of a communal utopian movement, the philosophy of communitarianism was mostly developed in the 1980s as a reaction to the rise of neoliberalism.

    Contrasts with Neoliberalism

    Neoliberalism is another socio-political framework. Instead of focusing on the relationship between the individual and the community, it focuses on the role of the economy in everyday life. It grew out of classical liberalism and became popularized in the 1970s as the United States experienced a period of stagflation, which people blamed on government overspending and overreach.

    Stagflation- Persistent high inflation combined with high unemployment and stagnant demand in a country's economy.

    Neoliberals argued that the government should take an anti-interventionist, laissez-faire approach and let the market correct itself. During Ronald Reagens presidency in the 1980's he applied neoliberal theory to the markets and drastically reshaped global finance in the process.

    Laissez-faire is French for "let do" and argues that to get the best results from the market it should be free from any intervention and opperate based on the natural forces that govern it.

    Communitarians criticized Regan's neoliberal economic policies, saying that they benefited the few people at the top of the food chain and increased wealth only at the expense of the whole.

    Political Ideologies Communitarianism Individualism Chart StudySmarterThis chart depicts communitarianism as the opposite of individualism. Source: Thane, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0

    Authoritarian Communitarianism

    While the communitarian philosophy was growing in the West in response to hyper-individualism, another branch of communitarianism arose in East Asian countries along with Communism. This branch was called Authoritarian Communitarianism, which took a step further by sacrificing individual rights for the needs of the community. This meant that individuals could be forced to subjugate their own needs if it benefited the larger group.

    Responsive Communitarianism

    Concerns around authoritarian communitarianism gave rise to a new school of thought called Responsive Communitarianism. Becoming popular in the 1990s, Responsive Communitarianism sought to balance the need for individual rights along with the needs of the whole. Thinkers in this space focused on how to achieve the common good while ensuring individual autonomy.

    Communitarianism Ethics

    While Communitarianism seeks to benefit the community as a whole, it has faced debates around several ethical issues.

    Community Rights vs. Individual Rights

    One of the biggest debates in communitarianism is the needs of the community vs. the needs of the individual. While communitarianism can be used to the benefit of all, critics point out that communities can be oppressive. If decisions are left up to the community, it could open the door to majority groups oppressing minority groups. However, communitarians also critique capitalism and neoliberalism, which fail to instill a sense of personal responsibility to the community.

    Mutuality vs. Charity

    Communitarianism believes that the well-being of the community should be the focus of civic life. However, many reject the idea of charity or aid that only comes from the hands of government or wealthy donors. Rather, they emphasize the personal responsibility of each individual in the community to help out the other members. Through strengthening communities, they believe that people's needs will be met much more effectively than relying on government programs or charities.

    Critiques of Authoritarian Communitarianism

    Another ethical problem can come when governments take communitarianism too far and start getting into the realm of authoritarian communitarianism. Policies under this philosophy can end up violating human rights.

    China came under fire during the COVID-19 pandemic for its harsh restrictions and lockdowns. People were forced to stay in their apartments for several weeks and depend on the government to deliver food, medication, and supplies. Due to extreme isolation and difficult living circumstances, people in China suffered severe mental and physical problems as a result of the measures.

    Political Ideologies Communitarianism China lockdown StudySmarterDuring the lockdowns in China, only authorized personnel were allowed to be out in public. Source: China News Service, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-3.0

    Another example of an ethical problem with communitarianism is National Security. After the 9/11 attacks, national security in the United States became paramount. The government created a new department called the Department of Homeland Security and began implementing measures that would allow them to essentially spy on citizens and monitor them for any potential terroristic activity. While many people criticized this as an invasion of privacy and a violation of human rights, communitarians could argue that the sacrifice of privacy rights is worth it if it protects the whole community from a terrorist attack.

    Economic Communitarianism

    As a philosophy, communitarianism focuses on social and community aspects of life moreso than the economy. This sharply contrasts with neoliberalism and capitalism, which view social and political life through the lens of the economy.

    Communitarianism rejects laissez-faire policies and favors government intervention to help distribute wealth through taxes (especially for the rich) to maintain a standard of living for each member of the community. As an economic philosophy, communitarianism is less focused on creating profits and wealth than on meeting the needs of the community.

    Taken to its extreme, authoritarian communitarianism can look like a completely government-regulated market. Under this economic system, the government decides what the community needs and decides who will provide it, how much they will provide, and for what cost.

    Communitarianism Examples

    Below are some examples of policies that come out of the Communitarianist philosophy:

    Environmental Protection

    When the government steps in to make policies to protect the planet, it impacts everyone. While some people argue from a capitalist perspective that environmental protections can increase costs or make it more difficult for businesses to produce products, the communitarian perspective says that it's more beneficial to protect the interests of the community by mitigating climate change.

    Universal Healthcare

    Some countries have universal healthcare, which means that the government provides healthcare rather than a person having to purchase their own plan or get it through their employer. It often means that the cost of the healthcare system is included in citizens' taxes so that everyone can take advantage of it, no matter their financial status. From an individualist perspective, one could argue that purchasing healthcare is up to each person and whether they want to spend their money on it or not. However, the communitarian perspective would argue that it's in the community's best interest to ensure that everyone has equal access to healthcare.

    Communitarianism - Key takeaways

    • Communitarianism is a socio-political philosophy that focuses on the role of the individual in the community.
    • Viewed as a response to individualism, communitarianism prioritizes the needs of the community above the needs of the individual.
    • Communitarianism says that each person has a responsibility to the community.
    • Taken to its extreme, authoritarian communitarianism has been criticized for subjugating individuals' needs and oppressing the minority.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Communitarianism

    What is communitarianism?

    Communitarianism is a socio-political philosophy that prioritizes the needs of the community above the needs of the individual.  

    How do the opinions of libertarians compare to communitarians?

    Libertarians reject government intervention, while communitarians may view government intervention as necessary to ensure the good of the whole.

    What do communitarians believe in?

    Communitarianists believe that everyone should operate as a participating member of the community they're in and that each person has a responsibility to the community. They view the needs of the community as more important than individual needs.

    Why is communitarianism important?

    Communitarianism is important as a reaction to the movement of hyper-individualism that came out of the Enlightenment and the growth of neoliberalism.

    What is communitarianism ethics?

    Communitarianism ethics say that policies should be viewed through the lens of the impact on the community. Unlike liberalism, communitarianism says that each person has a moral responsibility to ensure the good of the whole.

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