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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Neoliberalism and Community

Updated: Jun 20, 2019

If there is one thing neoliberalism cannot abide it is community. What is it about community that so threatens this aberrant ideology?

The modern word ‘community’ derives from the Greek word Koinonia--meaning simply that as human beings we share things in common. In a linguistic sense we can 'communicate' because we share a language. We can build communities because we can share goods, knowledge and goals that allow us to flourish as a community. Plato tells us that what makes a city a community is that people gather together as sharers and helpers. For Aristotle the deviant constitution would be one where the tyrant or autocrat ruled for their own individual interest rather than the 'common' good.

Indeed, it is community that makes language and reasoned speech (logos) possible. The notion of 'common law' based on the principle of 'stare decisis' is an expression that arises out of the notion of a human community--as the philosopher Kant might say, a community of persons who willingly abide by the law they give to themselves--the law that they have collectively thought through and agree upon. In this sense the 'universality' of legal or ethical standards is simply what is held in common by human beings insofar as they are human beings. Thus, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is an expression of our common notion of justice regarding who we are and what we have in common as human beings. Our politics is an expression of how human beings order cities and states for the common benefit of all.

Community is also the place where culture flourishes, and in a very real sense culture is a storehouse of stories, meaning and possibility that we can draw on to resist the way things are. Within communities’ diverse cultures can come together in solidarity, reach out to each other, tell stories and teach each other how to respect and embrace their differences.  A parallel point can be made about history. Human communities have histories: histories that can be revisited in terms of unexperienced or unexplored potentials and possibilities. We look to the historical rise of union movements, the civil rights movement, the women's movement for inspiration--in order that we might give the future a 'past'. Neoliberal ideology would prefer that we have divisive and competitive culture wars, and that we live in an eternal present where the only thing that matters is the satiation of immediate selfish desires.

In a more distinctly religious sense to receive communion presupposes that all Christians share a common bond through Christ. 

In all of these above senses the notion of community is a way of saying 'we're in this together' as opposed to saying 'you're on your own'. 

The neoliberal mindset wants us see the world in terms of the latter rather than the former. Its purpose, from the very beginning, has been to destroy communities, culture and the commons in favour of solitary, selfish, disconnected consumers. It is threatened by community because community is empowering--it can bring people together in common cause and inspire them to take collective action in order to challenge the way things are. 

And that kind of collective resistance simply cannot be tolerated by a political ideology that wants to deregulate, financialize and privatize the world; that holds that we should not cooperate but compete in a 'survival of the fittest' game of 'winners and losers'; that we are not citizens who have something in common but consumers interested solely in themselves; that we should blame the poor for their 'failures', and let the sick and troubled fend for themselves; that encourages us to exploit and profit from those around us without regard to the common good.

And what is the result when such an ideology displaces community and gains the upper hand?

A world of austerity for the 99%, luxury and extravagance for the 1%; a world of isolating loneliness and increasing suicide; a world of refugees, massive suffering and inequality in wealth and power; a world that embraces autocracy rather than democracy; a world where education is collapsed into training and conformity. Most devastating of all, a world where the relentless pursuit of profit comes at the expense of the health and welfare of the entire planet.

If ever there were a time to counter the neoliberal agenda by taking back the commons and retrieving community it is now--not just for the good of human beings, but for the sake of all life on our unique, beautiful and irreplaceable earth.

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