This is a question I’ve asked repeatedly, and have been prompted to re-ask this week (thank you James Nichol) as I explore what is and isn’t working for me. James pointed out in the blog comments that my understanding of community likely isn’t the same as anyone else’s.
So, what do I think community should be? For me, it’s not about a vague feeling of kinship through having some stuff in common. It’s not the ‘community’ of a few Druids in a field for a long weekend. It’s not the accident of living in the same place, having the same skin colour, economic background or religion. What lives in my head is what I understand or imagine pre-industrial cultures to have been like. It may be an entirely romantic, unfounded notion. I may be holding something that has never properly existed, but, I don’t feel that’s the size of it.
Community for me is based on sharing. Sharing the risk, struggles and problems. Sharing the triumphs and successes. Community means not leaving anyone hungry or homeless. It means taking care of your sick, coming together for big projects, and honouring each other’s life journeys.
I think for most of us this manifests only in blood family, and not always then. The nature of our large towns and cities mean that in practice we need the state to organise most of this for us, we cannot do it amongst ourselves. But even so, I crave that grass roots care and mutual investment. I crave the kinds of scenarios where people give what they can, and what you get depends on what you needed, and I know exactly how Marxist that sounds. I’m no fan of communism as a system to inflict on people – I’m no fan of top-down anything.
I’m conscious that systems depending on kindness, mutual care and good will are open to exploitation. I know you need ways of working collectively to deal with anyone who doesn’t play fairly, who doesn’t give their best and takes far more than they need. We don’t currently have any state-based way of dealing with this. There are no restraints on what you can take if you exploit from a place of power and wealth. It is the people in need who we police the most fiercely, and punish for taking more than they are ‘entitled’ to even when the state has decided that all they are entitled to do is freeze and starve.
Increasingly, the mechanics of community are being stripped out of our collective organisation and political schemes and this worries me greatly. It also makes me feel like the only reasonable response is to try and build from the bottom. If we help each other and take care of each other, so much the better. I see people doing this all the time, in all kinds of small ways and I note that the people who are giving the most and doing the most to take care of the people around them tend not to be that well off themselves.
I don’t know how we achieve community while people feel more entitled to hold private wealth than they feel obliged to take care of other people. I don’t know how we tackle systemic poverty when the people who benefit from the system keep telling each other it is a meritocracy. I do not want to live in a dog-eat-dog world, and I know also that eating other dogs is not a natural way for dogs to be, and that it describes a profoundly unhealthy situation.