My own definition is: “a group of people with something in common.” The dictionary, however, gives several different senses. These include a political state, a condition of owning goods jointly, and “society at large.” Even when the sense is similar to mine, it’s often qualified by extra conditions. Such as people living in a particular area, or a sub-group within a larger society.
For me, the word has two strands of etymology. First, from the same root as “common.” Thus, a community is a group of people bound together by common traits. And second, from the Latin com- (with) and munire, to fortify; so meaning sharing walls. Thus, I think of a community as defined by two aspects: binding forces, which hold the people of the community together, and walls, which separate them from those outside.
Levels of community
In a traditional view, community has three, or perhaps four, levels. First, marriage. Second, the family. Third – though not everyone counts this – the day-to-day world of work and friendships. And at the top, “society,” which many identify with the political nation or state. But I find this view over-simple. I see, not three or four levels, but six. From the bottom up:
- Civilization (convivial community).
The second level is partnership. The most obvious example is traditional marriage; but it’s not the only kind of partnership. And a partnership isn’t necessarily restricted to just two people. In a partnership, the primary binding force is usually love. But there are others; such as companionship, comfort when you’re down, and sexual pleasure. As to walls, a partnership is a contract between its members. So, the walls of partnership are walls of contract.
The third level of community is family or, much the same thing in the West today, household. The walls are the walls of a home, and the binding force is kinship.
The fourth level is the marketplace, the community of those with whom individuals interact in their daily lives. Your marketplace includes those with whom you deal regularly or occasionally. It contains your friends, workmates, business partners, clients and suppliers, those you serve and those who serve you. It often also includes extended family. Here, the binding force of your marketplace is you. And the marketplace as a whole is the aggregate of all individuals’ marketplaces.
The walls of your marketplace, however, are more subtle; they are walls of choice. Absent coercion, intimidation and fraud, you – like all others – have a free marketplace. You can choose whom you interact with. And where it’s practical, you can seek to avoid dealing with those you don’t like. However, a free marketplace needs at least a minimal framework of civilization – one that deters aggression, violence and fraud, at least – in order to keep it free.
The fifth level is societies (plural). A society is a group of people who choose to work together for a common aim; such as a musical ensemble, a football club, a business or a church. Each society has its own goals and purposes, and may in some sense be said to have a “will.” In almost every case, it will also have officers, some of whom are more powerful than others.
Here, the forces binding a society are shared desires, shared aims and objectives, and a shared sense of identity. In addition, the members of many societies are bound together by shared customs. The walls of a society, on the other hand, separate members from non-members.
One kind of society, which has physical walls as well as walls of membership, is the commune. The purpose of some communes is merely to make life easier for a group of people who live in close proximity to each other; for example, a gated community. Other communes allow people to live alongside others with similar attitudes. Thus those of a particular religious persuasion may choose to form a commune, such as a monastery. Socialists can live in socialist communes, if they wish. And libertarians can live in libertarian communes, and libertines in libertine ones.
In my earlier writings, I called the sixth and highest level Civilization. But I’m now coming to prefer convivial community or convivial order. The latter phrase was coined by Belgian philosopher Frank van Dun. He describes the convivial order as one in which “people live together regardless of their membership, status, position, role or function in any, let alone the same, society.” What binds convivial people together is a shared willingness to behave in a convivial manner. And our walls are the rules of convivial conduct. Which, as a friend opined in response to one of my earlier essays, can be summed up as “Don’t be an asshole.”
Thus, the convivial community is a framework for living together. And it supports a community of those who choose to behave up to the standards of convivial conduct. However, this community is not, and never can be, a society. It has no president or chairman. It has no officials, no goals as a group, and no politics. And it is (will be), by its very nature, world-wide.
Characteristics of each level of community
Each level has its own features. In some, individuals have to accept what is already there. In others, we have free choice. Broadly, at the odd numbered levels we have to play the hand we’re dealt, at least up to a point. Whereas at the even numbered levels, we have freedom to choose for ourselves.
As individuals, we have to accept what we’re born as. We have to make the best we can of our particular strengths and weaknesses. In contrast, we have (absent coercion) the right freely to choose a partner. Or partners, if that’s the way we’re inclined. Or to go through life as independent individuals, if that’s what suits us.
We have to accept the family we’re born into, at least for the first 20 or so years of our lives. And if we decide to have children of our own, we have to take the responsibility of supporting and educating them until they are independent. In the marketplace, on the other hand, we have (again, absent coercion) free choice of whom we will deal with.
As to societies, we have to accept the rules of any society we choose to join, provided they’re reasonable. And we should accept the people in power in a society we join, as long as they work honestly for the good of the society and of its members. But we always have the right to leave any society, and to join another, or many others. Or to form our own societies.
Finally, the convivial community is again a level of individual choice. It’s our own choice to decide to behave towards our fellows in a convivial manner. And we choose who we count as our fellows by judging how far their conduct is convivial. Thus, conviviality does not arise from any social group. Rather, community arises out of shared conviviality.
In the convivial community, the individual – and his or her conduct – is everything. Neither race, skin colour, gender, age, physical size or attractiveness, geographical location, cultural origin, sexual tastes, nor even disability, are bars to entry to that community. And as to religion, the only stipulation is that you don’t try to foist your religion others.
Political society and political community
Lastly for today, I’ll look at the ideas of political community and political society.
Many people, particularly those of a more conservative bent, seem to feel a strong attachment to something they call the community. When I probe as to what this may be, I find that what they have in mind is a political community. Further, it seems to be coterminous with, if not exactly the same as, a political state or nation. Others, when they talk about a political unit, prefer to call it society. The more collectivist among them go so far as to dignify it with a capital S, and to place it up on a pedestal, like some deity.
But both these groups share one view; their politics is top down. For them, the state, the nation, community or society is all important. It has the right to impose its agendas on people, and to tell them how to behave. And the individual human being, and his or her rights, are of little or no importance in comparison.
A political society, broadly defined, is a society that takes part in politics. And, per Webster’s, politics is “the art or science of government.” A political party, then, is an exemplar of a political society. Its purpose is to seek power, and when in power to impose its agendas. And it favours its own leaders and their cronies, and the party’s followers, at the expense of everyone else. Such parties lead towards political government, with its ruling class, taxes, moral privileges, bureaucracies, wars, bad laws and more or less corrupt “justice” system.
Myself, I want nothing to do with political parties, political governments or any other political society. I regard the parties, and those that take an active part in them, as disconvivial. That is, as far away from us convivials as criminals are from honest, peaceful people.
Moreover, I feel little if any sense of political community. Oh, the walls of a political “community” are clear enough; they’re its, more or less arbitrary, borders. But what binds such a community together? Who, precisely, belongs to it? Those who live in its territory? Those born inside its borders? Those of a particular nationality? Those who share particular customs, language or culture? Do they include, for example, short term visitors? Long term visitors? Resident aliens? Asylum seekers? Recent immigrants? “Illegal” immigrants?
Moreover, imposition of harmful policies at the behest of activist groups, which has become a major feature of politics in recent years, can only have the effect of dissolving what little fellow feeling is left between the victims and their supposed cohorts.
To sum up
I see six levels of community. In increasing size, these are: the individual, the partnership, the family, the marketplace, societies, and the convivial community.
At some of these levels – the individual, family, societies – we have to accept, to a greater or lesser extent, what is already there. In the others, we have free choice, within the limits of convivial conduct. And at the highest level, the convivial community forms a framework, in which people can live together peacefully and well. And in which there is no place for politics, or for arbitrary borders, ruling classes, bad laws, injustices, taxes, bureaucracies or wars.