The case for Communitarianism

Ernst van Zyl says lines of culture, language and religion stand in way of liberal individualist utopia

The case for Communitarianism

10 June 2020

It was Edmund Burke who said, “You will smile here at the consistency of those democratists who, when they are not on their guard, treat the humbler part of the community with the greatest contempt, whilst, at the same time they pretend to make them the depositories of all power.”

As things stand, South Africa once again appears to be confronted with the succinct and challenging question, “So, what now?” In the milieu created by this sentiment many new ideas have germinated in the minds of those most concerned with questions of this nature.

The last time the collective subconscious of South Africans was asking a similar question, was at the end of the previous century. Today, with the growing feeling of an approaching turning point, the dread of repeating the same mistakes of the past is palpable. If I had to identify one key word that epitomises this budding paradigm shift in the current zeitgeist, it would be “alternative”.

One such alternative school of thought that has begun to organically sprout from the fertile soil of necessity, is an idea older than statism, namely communitarianism. Communitarian thought champions a much larger focus on bottom-up communal autonomy, with much less emphasis on top-down, state-led interference and social engineering.

Wendell Berry notes how a community is built on a rich collection of personal relationships that draw from a reservoir of common cultural memory, values and traditions. It should be noted that communitarianism is based on the notion that not only do you want your own culture respected, but that you grant the same respect to other cultures.

It is a school of thought built on a foundation of mutual recognition and respect, with an anti-imperialist DNA. Communitarianism entails striving for a mutual agreement among communities to stop meddling in one another’s affairs, and to rather tend to their own duties and responsibilities. Communitarianism is not an ideology, but rather a plea for the recognition of reality. A plea to see the world as it is, warts and all, rather than how we so desperately want it to be.

A society of cooperating communities managing themselves provides a more free and stable political environment than a society comprising only individuals managed by one “enlightened” central government acting as the babysitter, judge, jury and executioner.

Self-determining groups effectively secure individual rights in practice through their cultural arrangements that constitute non-state-power, and not through the state. When communities are allowed more power to take their destiny, safety and governance into their own hands, it creates an organic bottom-up mechanism for releasing societal pressures – something that is of particular importance in multicultural societies.

There is significantly more potential for friction and conflict in a society where communities are forcefully integrated or simply pooled together under the rule of one majority government, which tries to micro-manage all of their affairs. In such a system people are viewed more as a mere collection of individuals, than in a society of largely self-managing communities.

Under the former scenario, communities have no alternative but party politics to attempt to determine their cultural destiny and their safety. This has created a serious conundrum for minority groups, as we have seen ample examples of in South Africa. The past 26 years have demonstrated how individual rights are insufficient to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

The notion of group rights mandates a constitution which gives recognition to communities, and a constitutional order that is set up in such a way that communities have more freedom to establish and manage their own institutions such as schools, neighbourhood watches, churches and universities.

Individualists argue that a holistic state, with institutions such as the courts, the constitution, the South African Human Rights Commission, the Public Protector et cetera, will all serve as the great equalisers of individuals from different communities and cultures. However, history has shown us that all it takes is one corrupt or ideologically possessed administration, to capture these liberal institutions and to then use them to oppress minority groups as well as individuals.

Since communities under such a dispensation have been made reliant on the state to manage their cultural destinies and their safety, they are now powerless to fight an administration which diverges from the liberal ideals that created it.

The draconian South African lockdown has been an excellent example of communities that have been forced to primarily rely on the state to secure their safety, in the form of the police and the SANDF. The consequences of this manifested recently in the form of the government prohibiting neighbourhood watches from operating, and in the past when the Mbeki administration disbanded the Commando system, which exacerbated a farm attack and farm murder scourge which still persists today.

In the pursuit of state-managed inter-group harmony, the inevitable practical endgame of the liberal state, based on individualist ideals, was always going to be an increasingly detailed, authoritarian and explicit state bureaucracy and legislation, aimed at managing all the different communities in society as a collection of individuals under one holistic state.

The main obstacles standing in the way of this liberal individualist utopia are the pesky, persistent but very real cleavages and dividing lines of culture, language and religion. The only way to overcome these, it seems, is to slowly chip away at these community barriers whereby you gradually move towards a holistic society of unconnected individuals, rather than tightly knit communities.

In this fairytale the benevolent, technocratic state comes to the rescue of the individual as a leviathan knight in shining armour. At the core of liberalism is the concern that the state could oppress the individual. Ironically however, in order to protect the individual, the liberal state increasingly has to autocratically impose an increasingly atomistic lifestyle on communities and cultures.

The previous century showed us the evils of forced separation of communities through state coercion, but I contend that the post-Berlin Wall era could easily show us the evils of forced integration of communities into an atomised, formless whole. Where the classical liberalism of the enlightenment was a reaction to authoritarian state oppression of the individual, I see the resurgence of communitarian and conservative thinking in our time, as a reaction to an excessive and increasingly imperialist individualist paradigm.

People want politics to be about greater things, about morality, duty and civil society. When liberalism, with its technocratic and sterile approach to politics, failed to satiate these longings, populists, who gladly rush in where liberals fear to tread, opportunistically filled that void. In many cases, once in power, these populists then incrementally started perverting liberal institutions and interpreted liberal constitutions as they wished, ushering in an era of tyranny of the majority, using the same tools and power that liberalism so liberally provided. It has sadly become clear that it does not matter much how beautiful or noble your theories and intentions are, if the Chief Justice does not believe in them.

For most of human history, culture and tradition have successfully managed and maintained everything the current holistic liberal state, which manages society as a whole, instead of recognizing its various parts, attempts to control. “Tradition is a set of solutions for which we have forgotten the problems,” as Donald Kingsbury said. Should you dare to discard these age-old solutions in the name of a brand-new “enlightened” and individualist way of thinking, do not be surprised if some of the problems return – like weeds always do – and are as powerful as ever.

Ernst van Zyl is a Strategy and Campaign Officer at AfriForum. He co-presents on the Podlitiek podcast, hosts the Afrikaans “In alle Ernst” podcast, and has a South African news and politics commentary channel on YouTube. Ernst usually posts on Twitter and YouTube under his pseudonym Conscious Caracal (follow him at https://twitter.com/ConCaracal).