Against community

All this talk of "community" distracts us from the task of actually living together
November 19, 2006

Late on a sunny autumn afternoon in October, I and about 100 fellow residents of the Holly Street estate in east London were gathered in a public garden listening to the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin's sermon. "What is happening in our community?" she asked. "If you are going to be a community together, then we are going to need to work together to improve that community." It was the memorial service for Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, the 40-year-old Congolese man who was murdered this month in an unprovoked attack in the stairwell to his flat. On this of all occasions, it was impossible not to ask oneself the simple question: what community?

The Holly Street estate should be a success story. Built in the late 1990s, its design—social housing, with wide open streets and a mixture of public and private ownership—is an exemplary reaction against many of the architectural disasters of the 1960s. After a period last year of public drug-dealing and regular disturbances, an uneasy peace now just about persists. But "community"? Would murders such as this one happen in a real community—one based on continuity, reciprocity and shared endeavour? The more distant this sort of community becomes, the more frequently it is invoked and the more confused we all become.

Consider the following expressions: "the international community," "building stronger communities," "giving communities what they want," and "police are seeking support from the community." In the space of four familiar catchphrases, the emptiness of the term is laid bare. The first strips it of anything specifically local, the second suggests that it is the product of policy, only to be contradicted by the third which implies it is a sentient being. In its use of the definite article, the fourth removes any specificity from the concept and mystifies it. Yet these mantras reverberate through the studios of the Today programme and Newsnight, offering politicians and public commentators the constant fallback option of saying nothing whatsoever.

This is a case of political jargon becoming "performative." To use language in this fashion is to see it not as a way of revealing truths or referring to facts, but as a way of projecting a persona and shaping a situation. When someone says "congratulations," they are not referring to anything, but performing congratulations through the act of saying "congratulations." When business leaders discuss "corporate social responsibility," it is rarely clear whether they are talking about something which does exist or something which should exist, but the distinction is insignificant in comparison to the fact that they are talking about it at all.

And so when a faltering politician reaches for "community," it is not in the hope of revealing or referring to anything, only of performing an act which they hope is beyond reproach. This "warmly persuasive word," as Raymond Williams put it, summons diffuse feelings of ethical and cultural simplicity, not as an illumination of social reality but as a distraction from it. That it appears in the title of the recently rebranded office of the deputy prime minister—now department for communities and local government—may indicate something about the ebbing confidence of the Labour government nine years in.

Perhaps the real tragedy of this lies in its debasement of profound and unsettling political questions. How indeed are we to live alongside each other? What is to be the basis of any future collectivism, and how is it related to place and culture? For those with a sincere concern for what was formerly understood by "community," it might now be better to relinquish the word and get on with the practicalities. If we are serious, say, about reducing antisocial behaviour in neighbourhoods, better to describe the project as such without injecting community's implicit moralism as a distraction. Those working in "community development" often do effective and under-recognised work in enabling greater local co-operation where it is most needed, but perhaps they may need to accept that their language has been stolen. And residents of estates such as Holly Street have little choice but to persist with the complicated task of living in densely populated, highly diverse urban neighbourhoods.