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The Big Answer

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Looking Backward

a book by Derek L. Phillips

(our site's book review)

This book shows that communities with hundreds of close people are unlikely and nonviable. (One may choose to conclude from this that when MCs with twelve to thirty people [perhaps relating to one or more other MCs] have close encounters of the second kind (i.e., outside their MC) and from thirty to ninety people are socially networked, then this defines the upper practical limit of close-knit connectedness. So communities with lots of close people in MCs will not happen accidently, but with serious intentionality and people willing to register in the MC database. See Why Register for an MC?.)

Registering in the MC database
Registering in the MC database

People are embarrassed by their lack of social connectedness and tend to report much higher levels of friendship and closeness with others than is actually real. But in this book, this truth—lack of community—is purported to be the case during our country’s founding period as well, contrary to the nostalgic writings of communitarians. A common history, shared values, widespread political participation, and bonds of social solidarity in late 18th century America were conspicuous by their absence, according to Phillips. He also finds community unity was absent in medieval times, in Athens, and in other eras about which communitarians wax poetic. Such ideas as effective community in our past don’t come from extensive historical study, says Phillips, but from nostalgia, blind faith in authors like Weber, rose-colored glasses, and ignoring of the newest historical research.

Rose-colored glasses
Rose-colored glasses

Additionally, the pursuit of community has usually had very negative consequences for those excluded, says the author. Win-lose, we-them perspectives have dominated the mindsets and worldviews of all known eras, according to him. And with the dominance of the authoritarian mindset throughout the last 5,000 years, there is little doubt that wonderful communities as a common reality would have been very unlikely.

However, in spite of this latter point (ours)—and numerous points against the effectiveness of past communities by Phillips, it doesn’t necessarily follow that effective community has always been an illusion. Putting aside issues of exclusionary policies, there are plenty of historical accounts of what appears to be effective community functioning. And communitarians as a whole don’t subscribe to the idea that Athens, medieval Europe or the late 18th century were times when greatly effective communities were the norm. Rather they are citing specific historically documented attitudes, ideals, community contexts and reported events as representing a type of effective community model. And even if they were overgeneralizing about the prevalence of effective communities, that’s really not the point. The point is that—even if rare—the community characteristics that the communitarians hold high were in existence in human history, and the communitarians are holding these up as models to emulate. And many of these respected characteristics deserve such respect.

Phillips makes the controversial point that we can forget about “restoring” community since it wasn’t there in the first place. (See The Culture Of Renewal, Part 1: Characteristics of the community renewal movement and The Culture Of Renewal, Part 2: Characteristics of the community renewal movement and Creating Community Anywhere.) And he says that communitarian values value the collective over the individual. In truth, the best communitarian writings advocate a balance of the collective and individual contexts as a cure for the (modern American) unbalanced, “all rights and no responsibilities” mindset of individual first, community last. Perhaps Phillips should clean his glasses before his next read of Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community, because it exemplifies such a balanced perspective. When Phillips states that communitarian thinking “. . . obliterates individual autonomy entirely and dissolves the self into whatever roles are imposed by one’s position in society,” he exposes his penchant for hyperbole and false generalization which we can then use to judge his historical analysis.

Phillips is more than willing to say that the vast majority of sociologists have been wrong for quite some time about the strong communities of the past. Yet his proofs are far from convincing. If he would read Richard Louv’s books (e.g., Childhood’s Future), he would discover Louv’s account of going around the country talking to countless real live people and hearing the difference between theirs and their parents’ lives, and the accounts from older Americans about the society now and the society in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and he would hopefully realize that the most empirically convincing and humanly real learning about changes in community is more than theoretical speculation and historical record research.

What Louv has revealed is as real as it gets. The changes in community are indeed real. Leontine Young’s The Fractured Family, William Knoke’s Bold New World, Frances Moore Lappé’s and Paul Du Bois’s The Quickening of America, the Tofflers’ Future Shock and The Third Wave are other places to learn this fact. There are thousands more.

Some communitarians place community conformity on too high a pedestal
Some communitarians place community conformity on too high a pedestal

Phillips has a good point that relationships based on voluntary choices have a deeper significance than those based on the conformity and unthinking acquiescence intrinsic to community roles; he disagrees with those communitarians (some of them) that place community conformity on too high a pedestal. Riesman would agree with Phillips about this idea that voluntary choice relationships have a deeper significance than those based on the conformity—see The Lonely Crowd.

He also makes the point that communitarian ideology champions group and collective relatedness over one’s personally chosen friends, but he prefers the latter, because he sees the destructive we-them exclusivity potentials, domination-submission realities, exploitation, suffering and mass-man potentials of collectives. We concur but wonder why there has to be an either-or choice here. Why not have both, since both effective community and close friendships are vital for the functioning of a democracy?