April 17, 2024

Dissolving The I In The We – Love And The Problem of Community, Part 1 (Daniel Tutt)

The following is the first installment of Dr. Tutt’s St. Thomas More Lecture delivered on March 18, 2018 at St. John Fisher University.  The second installment will follow upon this one.

Part I Posing the Problem: The Dialectic of Communitas and Immunitas

I want to talk tonight about the philosophy of community. We have to first define what we mean by community. I’d like to begin with an understanding of community based in the Latin derivation of community and isolate two elements of the word which form a pair – the munus, which is defined curiously as “gift” and co, which is a prefix that refers to “together.”

Community thus ties together the gift of togetherness, or the gift of being-together. But what is the gift of the munus? It is a gift of wealth, or perhaps of duty? Philosophers have different theories of the gift that we must explore. The very concept of gift implies that community is founded on a sense of obligation or debt that requires some sacrifice. We know this intuitively from the popular maxim that ‘one cannot give without some risk of loss.’

But what is the loss that one risks in entering community? I will argue tonight that community is not what invents the self; it is what exposes the self to a form of self-loss, to dissolution of its former state. Community exposes the self to a form of loss that is constitutive of the social as such. In order for the social to have a sphere of enlightened exchange, community is a necessary function of any society as it opens a space for a mode of exchange that suspends identity and particular commitments of the participants. Entering or forming community withdraws us from ourselves, from our particular identities.

But why enter community, or why does community entail this obligation and form of exchange? The call to enter into this space of self-loss, to exchange the gift of an obligation or debt that cannot be repaid, is not something unique to our own hyper modern society. As the anthropologist Victor Turner discusses in The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure – community is an expression and activity found in every culture. But not everything in a culture is community.

Community is an exception to the norm. Turner argues that in every culture there emerges a form of community, what he names “communitas” that is brought about by members of the culture as a liminal or transitional experience. Communitas, for Turner, fulfills an urge in the society that is affective and desire-based experience present in every culture he analyzes. This urge to enter into communitas conflicts with what Turner calls ‘structure.’

Structure, in Turner’s account, is another word for hierarchy, order, or authority, and it manifests in different cognitive forms of organizing human society. Anti-structure is thus communitas; a liminal and existential revolt against structure that seeks catharsis and release for a different form of freedom from the different forms of constrictions placed on living in groups.

Communitas is understood by Turner as a regenerative process to rid the self of the rigidity on life imposed by structure. In this sense, the dialectic between communitas and structure is similar to the dialectic between Apollonian, or conceptual, reason-based forms of communal order and Dionysian forms that emphasize liminality, freedom and expression. Turner’s account of structure and anti-structure is similar to Freud’s notion of the death drive and life drive – eros and thantaos – or two libidinal forces that are mediated by what Freud calls the reality principle, a normalizing force. We will return to psychoanalysis and its unique and important contribution to thinking community later.

In the history of western philosophy, we find a similar pairing, or dialectic, of community. I want to take a little time to track this dialectic of communitas in western philosophy up to our present. Although Turner identifies communitas as an experiential revolt, a Dionysian upsurge, however, I’m not convinced that communitas is necessarily or always an experiential phenomena. Although we can trace a rich dialogue on theories of community back to Plato and Aristotle, I’d like to chart a trajectory beginning with Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan where Hobbes introduces a model of social contract determined by the sovereign king and which pushes this more liberatory version of community to the periphery.

For Hobbes, the state becomes a form of structure (as Turner uses the term), which every community must introject, thus taming the power of the gift-giving form of community. Communitas is thus met with a negative double that immunizes its potency. For Hobbes, community is a threat to the stability of the wider social contract that composes the state’s order. Hobbes re-defines Aristotle’s idea that man is a social being by placing man’s relation to the community as formed around the affect of fear.

Fear contains a potentiality—in the Aristotelian sense—as it is able to establish a communal covenant that protects the people. Fear serves as the affective glue of the social bond, a bond that paradoxically eradicates fear itself. For Hobbes, it is not that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”, rather, it is that we have fear to fear in order to remain within the commonwealth, so by embracing this fear, we eliminate or immunize fear in relation to the social sphere of life. This Hobbesian tautology of fear privileges the state over the community and makes individual hostility the constitutive social bond.

Hobbes is the first antagonist of communitas, replacing the state with community; whereas Rousseau is the first real philosopher of communitas in the western tradition. For Rousseau it was the will of the people that escapes or eludes the power of the state. Rousseau develops a theory of community that is grounded in sense and existence. Rousseau’s ‘general will’ is the most important concept he develops in the Social Contract and his idea is that community should no longer be identified with transcendent figures such as the nation, God, or the leader; but rather the subjects of the community possess an interior freedom, a space by which their wills can gain autonomy from the state.

Man cannot be thought as an isolated thinking being in separation from others in the community because egotistical exchanges between subjects always result in the closure of community, thus in order to realize community for Rousseau, subjects must lose their egos in others in order to get out of what he calls the state of nature. Getting outside of one’s ego is one way of escaping Hobbes’ war of all against all. The idea of self-loss in Rousseau’s concept of community is clear in his statement, “I never meditate, I never dream better than when I forget myself.” But is Rousseau’s idea of community ultimately sufficient to achieving communitas?

From Kant to Hegel’s Idea of Community as the Space of Freedom

Immanuel Kant moves the formation of community from the will of the people, or any conception of the essence of the community found in the identity of a national, religious, or religious sense, to a different concept of community formed around the categorical imperative and what he names the Moral Law. Kant’s categorical imperative both individualizes the Law, and makes the formation of community contingent on an internalized sense of duty. The transition from Rousseau’s ‘general will’ to Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’ is an important transition in the history of philosophy as Kant’s categorical imperative is an interiorization of Rousseau’s general will. For Kant, the origin of community (according to Roberto Esposito) cannot be defined except by the otherness that separates it from itself. Rousseau’s state of nature is what deludes efforts in willing the moral law and must be opposed by identifying an internal principle to reasoning itself.(17)

For Kant, we can say the munus or gift of community is a lack produced by the state of nature. Humans do not fully understand the Moral Law, but they nonetheless submit to it based on an internalized process of command and obedience to it.(74)  The Kantian subject must correspond his singular will to a universal set of wills in what Kant calls the “Kingdom of Ends.”

Liberal philosophy will adopt Kant’s ideas and after the French revolution, the reason-based potential of the enlightened public sphere is capable of forming and advancing community.(160) The Kantian idea of community is significant in that it recognizes that the gradual enlightenment and perfection of the moral law amongst cosmopolitan citizens holds the power to create institutions that conform to this moral law. But Kant did not go far enough in this regard, at least according to Hegel.

Hegel developed an ethical theory of community in The System of Ethical Life and the Philosophy of Right where community is understood as the creation of a space where social relations achieve a form of interaction based in freedom, realized actually in the world. Where Kant kept community to a regulative idea that can only be known through an interior Moral Law, Hegel argues that this idea has to be understood as an actual realization in the world. Hegel’s idea of community is one that stipulates one cannot be free alone as an individual, but only as a participant in actually realized and just social institutions.

A debate remains within Hegel commentators whether Hegel meant that the ethical life can only be free in the state or whether the ethical life – i.e. the munus can also be realized beyond the state.(96-7) What Hegel does claim is that community as ethical life can only be realized once the original state of unfreedom, or the state of nature, which for Hegel is the master and slave relation—is abolished. The subject of ethical life, Hegel writes, must able to “intuit himself as himself in every other individual” – only then can subjects “reach supreme subject-objectivity.”(133)

Yet Hegel takes this identity of the all and consciousness within the sphere of ethical life not simply as Kant would, as abstract reason, but he places it as a different form of equality of citizenship that displays itself in empirical consciousness, in the consciousness of particular social relations.

Capitalism and Community – Marx

Where Hegel locates community as an actualized or realized idea in the world, Marx would argue, especially in his later work the Grundrisse, that community is an impossible demand in a capitalist society. In the Grundrisse and the Urtext, as well as different parts of Capital, the question of community, or what Marx calls the Gemeinwesen, is presented as the core of man’s social existence or “common being.” Community is thus a deeply philosophical category in Marxist thought. Capitalism can only develop on condition that it frees man and makes him into a commodity, but to do so, it has to destroy the various communities which encompassed him, which were governed, in a more or less debased way, by an economy in which man was the aim of production.

What capitalism thus offers is a replacement community, what Marx calls the ‘material community’, which is required to overcome the human fragmentation that comes with the reduction of individuals to a set of exchanges. Capital thus presents an alternative community to the pre-capitalist ‘natural community’.

In general, Marx’s argument goes like this: capital constantly expands to produce more value, and in this expansion, capital destroys social links and bonds amongst people. Almost paradoxically, this destructive drive of capitalism makes the desire for experiencing community within a capitalist society even more pronounced. But it is not only alienation and atomization that makes the call of community abound within a capitalist society.

Marx’s thesis of community can be summed up in one statement: capital erodes social bonds [or the more well-known statement that “all that is solid melts into air!”]. The value-form is jettisoned by a pulsion or drive that constantly pushes capital into circulation and accumulation cycles. Thus, the product of capitalist production is not value per se, but surplus-value: a product that is produced by the extraction of socially necessary labor time and then put into the cycle of capitalist valuation (the market, investment, etc.).

The problem community faces within capitalism revolves around two issues: the reduction of each member to a commodified relation to the production of the surplus object, a process that leads to atomization and alienation and thus the demand for community. Then secondly, capitalism produces zones or sites of surplus that fail to sustain the munus of the common because they are subject to the capitalist valuation process—they enter and reenter circulation—these sites are temporary, and always in flux.

Can the surplus object produced by capitalism be shared in-common? Can the surplus object that creates a site of community, let’s say the private sphere, function as the site for gift exchange? Marx would say no because the surplus object that forms community is the result of exploitative labor, i.e. the labor time of the worker and more fundamentally, the munus is not a shared, common site of potential unity of the community.

The individual has not produced as a member of a “natural community”, and yet through exchange and the division of labour, his product becomes social. He owes the possibility of appropriating a product not to participation in a community, but rather to the fact that he himself has produced one too. This is the beginning of the material community created by means of production, or, more exactly, by means of its products. A community like this can no longer result from the uniting or reuniting of men, but from that of things, while at the same time it must also stabilize bonds between them.

Man’s only hope for a return to the natural community comes in the form of class struggle, proleterianization or revolution. Once capital reaches a stage of what Marx calls real subsumption.  Real subsumption is a phenomenon where capital has entered a position of total domination over all social relations beyond merely the sphere of labor.

Capital, and not exchange-value or money becomes the dominating social relation that dictates the arrangement of the community of man. The disappearance of the natural community means that capital has successfully immunized and closed down the possibility available to form sustainable communities outside of the operation of the process of capital valuation.

Here we can see the evolution of Burning Man as one example of the take over of capitalist valuation in its attempt to form a community and form of exchange based on reciprocity and the gift. The name given to this seemingly final and total foreclosure of community under fixed capital and circulating capital is “capitalist realism,” a concept coined by the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher that refers to the collapse of social imagination outside of capitalism. This form of collapse began with the policies of neoliberalism that began in the last 1970s. One of the chief architects of neoliberalism, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher summed the philosophy up nicely when she stated:

“…they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first… There is no such thing as society..”

For Thatcher, society must be replaced by relations of individuals held together by self-interest, each taking responsibility for their own sphere of property, profit, and value. Thatcher’s sentiment is ironic from a Marxist perspective because she is embracing the very alienating tendency of capital itself. Instead of seeking the means to counteract this alienating and fragmentary operation of capital on social relations, Thatcher calls for capital to serve a role that it cannot fulfill, i.e. Thatcher calls for the eradication of community. This notion of an eradication of community under late capitalism or neoliberalism has an important consequence that I want to turn to now.

Forming Community – The Fused Group

The famous French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argues in his work Critique of Dialectical Reason that under capitalism community is passive, forming in a space he names intermundane. Because there is no common object that community holds in common—there is no gift or munus of community, this creates a condition of social life that Sartre refers to as seriality of social being, or a passive form of social being. In many ways, this is Sartre’s theory of immunitas.

In a capitalist society, Sartre argues that community forms based on a recurrence of inert objects that are produced by different groups (self-help groups, community associations, religious congregations, etc.) – each object [of community] presents what Sartre calls a totalization that is never achieved – i.e. community cannot escape the horizon of its own atomized social existence.” Capital is, according to Sartre,  “[a] concrete materiality that supports and manifests a flight that eats [the community] away.”(78) The individual forms bonds of interiority with the social world around them but these bonds are completely passive, leaving social being in a position of alienation or what he calls ‘inert being’.

Man exists in this inert social being and can only regain his humanity through acts of negation or revolt against it. The social facts of man’s existence (poverty, exploitation) are forces of material significance that objectify and alienate man but they are also what make man. Man only realizes himself by way of a complete transcendence of his material conditions, realized collectively in revolt. To quote Sartre:

One has the feeling that man only exists in flashes, in a savage discontinuity that is, ultimately, always absorbed into inertia and the law of separation. Collective action is the pure moment of revolt. Everything else is an expression of man’s inevitable inhumanity, which is passivity.(136)

There is thus an alternative to this more static serial formation of the community and that comes in what Sartre refers to as the ‘fused group’. Through acts of negation and revolt, the fused group develops a new interior, or ‘untranscedable’ position. The fused group is another name for a group in revolt, for which the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks or other revolutionary communities might apply. The revolt of the fused group manages to dissolve the inert being of each member and each member of the fused group inhabits the role of what Sartre calls the ‘third party’; i.e. they manage to escape the institutional inertia and transcend ordinary social being.

While man finds meaning from these moments of transcendence (or revolt) from the social world — the fused group does not last and the bond it forms falls back into conflict. The fused group’s fraternity is thus only a temporary bond based on an oath or new social contrast each member makes with one another so as to avoid violence. But Sartre fails to theorize the fidelity needed for a community to sustain the long-term cohesion of the fused group. Sartre’s theory of community leaves us with the question of what communal fraternity requires for its long-term existence? Marx argues the munus is not attainable within capitalism and Sartre discovers the fused group cannot make it last.

Daniel Tutt is a philosopher, interfaith activist and documentary film producer. Daniel is a Lecturer in philosophy at George Washington University and Marymount University, and he received a Ph.D. from the European Graduate School, where he studied under the supervision of the French philosopher Alain Badiou; one of today’s most important living philosophers. He is the co-editor of a new book, Theologies and Ethics of Justice: New Directions in 21st Century Islamic Thought, and his writing has been published in Philosophy Now, The Islamic Monthly, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and he has essays in three different books of philosophy.

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