Community(ies): renewal or democratic bankruptcy?


Communities: this term refers to small entities, based on a common belief, common practices, common ideas, something in common. In its contemporary usage, it refers to minority groups. Minority groups are nonetheless structured within "society", which itself is a mixture of the diverse, the plural, and which allows individuals who share something to come together within it.

Community as a fallback or as a network

This is a very broad definition, since the community is signalling both a retreat into ancestral values, a regression to the identical, to the negation of individuality, and on the other hand, a sharing of minimal and democratic values, around the idea of solidarity, without loss of freedom.

If religions, at their birth, gave rise to the formation of communities (Christian communities, Muslim communities, etc.), it is as they are today again a minority that they generate this retreat. Apart from a few sects of enlightened Christians, there is no longer strictly speaking a Christian community in the sense that it would compete with the national society within which it is embedded. It can be parallel, but not in opposition.

On the other hand, what has been denounced as "communitarianism" is indeed the withdrawal into a common religion, through a strict religious practice, the excess of which indicates precisely the conflict with the society within which these communities are re-forming. As soon as there is conflict between community and society, the community drifts towards its natural inclination, communitarianism.



Today, however, new communities that are supposed to oppose all forms of communitarianism are swarming on the Web, open as much as the Web can be, that is to say, almost infinitely open! And it is significant that Internet users themselves refer to themselves as a community. The community of networked Internet users. Thus, it is the network that tends to merge with the community.

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We are thus witnessing two phenomena which at first sight seem to be opposed and which each take the generic name of community: community as a retreat, which leads to communitarianism, and community as a horizontal and open network. Is this double return to "community" in two forms apparently at the antipodes of each other accidental or does it mean something?

Community as siblings and as the identity of the same community.

The community brings back to the centre a value that has undoubtedly been lost in our Republic, which was supposed to be based on it: solidarity. And solidarity soon joined the fraternity, inscribed on our pediments. But when fraternity, in its turn, starts to drift from its symbolic meaning towards a more literal, even more religious meaning, it gives rise to an expression which from now on is a little frightening: the "brothers". Christian brothers, Muslim brothers: why should the bond between brothers be more enviable than bonds without consanguinity, without "filiation". History has taught us that the Fratries were the first places of massacre, vengeance and jealousy. But it would seem that siblings are now being revived.




Sisterhood reinstates a boundary between "others" and "us" that covers the distinction between the public and private spheres, but for the benefit of the private alone: brotherhood is a bond that must prevail over the bond to the nation, to institutions, to others who do not belong to the brotherhood. Sisterhood is the family, the private, which erases all possibility of society, as it designates the other of the family.

The lack of belonging generated by the exclusion of part of the French population in its relegation to ghettos and other forms of confinement, has recreated affiliations, often illusory, often fictional, since they are based on supposedly common "roots", languages that are nevertheless rarely mastered, except by religious leaders, who in turn often speak little French - this is the case of many Imams.

We know the structure and process of exclusion, what interests us here is the idea of a community, whose shared values are those of rejection, and within which it is the identity of the same person that prevails, not diversity. For if community as a model prevails over society, it is for radical religious, because it privileges identity. Not identity in the sense of a singularity rich in its opposites, but identity in the sense of the same - idem. De-singularizing in order to become identical is the model of the individual that society carries with it, whether through consumption, which standardizes, or its rejection, which standardizes just as much.

Web communities, contributing users

As far as communities of Internet users are concerned, it does not seem, at first glance, that we are dealing with the same logic. Admittedly, the same refusal of solitude, isolation and a certain form of politics brings them together. However, the stages of a virtual community follow a relatively similar terminology and the same logic as that which leads to a sectarian community; a definition can be found in the large virtual community that is Wikipedia: "A relationship between an individual and a virtual community evolves: he begins by being an onlooker (observer or lurker), then he becomes a novice (he begins to participate), then he becomes a regular, afterwards he may be a leader, he will end up being a senior (who gradually loses interest)".


3D social networking

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The community member is actually a user who not only consumes, but also contributes. The community then refers rather to a system of interactions, and if there is something common, it is, in addition to the shared content, the practice itself. It's because we publish on our Facebook page, share links sent by others, relay, likonsetc., that we are part of the community. Is this a communitarian or even communitarian practice?

Another typology can be found in the same Wikipedia article, deliberately used as a source: the community can be strict and relatively classic in the sense that it is Internet users who share values, we will then speak of "hard core":

Inside, we find the militants: the followers, the purists but above all the most committed, of all fights, using a sustained level of language (systematically correcting the faults of others).

It is again the terminology of the sect that is inviting itself. Beyond this circle, there are the "undecideds" who oppose, criticize, without changing "camp", then the "chameleons", nomads who move from one blog to another. At the bottom, we find the idea of a community around the same, and of exclusion: if there is sharing, it is within a circle and not beyond.

Web Communities, scheduled meetings

One of the consequences of the proliferation of communities on the Net, or of a large community like Facebook, within which small communities ("my" Facebook) nevertheless multiply, is finally the absence of "mixity" brought back to a space which one might have thought that it allows on the contrary the meeting of opposites, of distant, different people. Only those who already share "linguistic social criteria" can meet each other. In other words, the circles are superimposed without intersecting, the points of intersection are rare and contingent.

If the community model proliferates in the different strata of society, whether through the prism of religion or the prism of new technologies, one does not exclude the other, is this not a sign of democratic failure?

If one willingly associates solidarity, fraternity, and closeness to the community, values at half mast, and which everyone feels the lack of, the community as a "social" model only renews the separations, and seems very hermetic to any form of real diversity. Yet Western democracy operates on the model of the contract: there is no contract in a community, the sharing of values takes precedence, and individuals do not appear as "subjects", bearers of a voice. They manifest themselves as brothers. Brother vs. subject? Does this drift have something to do with the absence of a father?

From community to citizen platform

Still, one of the many political consequences of this shift is the questioning of citizens' platforms: their vocation is to transcend divisions, for the common good, to be "transparent" by breaking the hierarchical and undemocratic logic of parties, to rethink the democratic model. They should not become communities once again, thereby excluding real dialogue between othernesses. For if they give in to the "community" model in vogue on the Net, and in society in general, they are depriving themselves of their legitimacy. How then can we ensure that these platforms are truly citizen-based and not community-based? How can we ensure that the subject takes precedence over the community, without renouncing the community on condition that it is secondary, partial, and not excluding?


Mazarine Pingeot is Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis


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