Dreams, Dreads, and the New Global Community

George Rupp ’67 B.D.

The late twentieth-century collapse of state-controlled totalitarianism as a credible ideology would seem to enhance the global appeal of Western secular individualism, with its insistence on personal liberties, economic opportunity, and human rights.

Appreciation for individualism has indeed risen, notably among educated strata of society and especially in nations where variants of totalitarianism endure. In the countries of the former Soviet Union, there has been a show of public (if also subverted) support for democratic protections of individual freedom of expression and action. Resistance to totalitarian control in other such countries today – China, Egypt, Iran, Myanmar, Tunisia, Zimbabwe – is marked by advocacy for greater openness to multiple positions.

Yet resistance to totalitarian ideologies does not translate simply or directly into support for secular Western individualism. This resistance might even include a forthright rejection of what are deemed the excesses of such individualism. The rejection is especially emphatic when Western individualism threatens to take priority over all other cultural traditions.

An Enduring Antagonism

The various forms of individualism found in the West are of course themselves social and cultural products of quite particular traditions. Such traditions may well aspire to be universally relevant or compelling, yet they are nonetheless rooted in specific spatial and temporal communities. A self-aware individualism must therefore acknowledge that its identity has been shaped by particular histories and communities and not simply assume that all individuals everywhere can be abstracted from their traditions and be expected to react in predictable ways that take no account of personal, social, and cultural differences.

The alternative advocated here is to affirm the world’s impulses for community while also remaining committed to the values of individualism, including civil liberties and human rights.

This imperative is urgent in a world where traditional communities view themselves as under assault from Western secular culture. These communities have their own patterns of authority, which typically depend on personal relationships established over generations. Members of such communities do not regard the forces they resist as culturally neutral but rather as ideologically antagonistic. From their perspective this secular individualistic alternative is embedded in its own set of historical patterns.

The resistance of traditional communities to secular Western individualism is not only conceptual but institutional. Though the secular West acknowledges the formative influence of personal relations, especially within the private space of the immediate family, it also focuses attention on relatively impersonal structures to enhance individual well-being: market mechanisms, bureaucracies, and media. In contrast, traditional communities look to many other public and well-established arrangements of personal interaction: extended families, informal alliances, small-scale cooperatives, village elders, religious authorities.

The Western style of connecting the individual to the larger society directly through markets, bureaucracies, or media too often ignores or circumvents the network of intermediate institutions that animates traditional communities. Institutional patterns of the modern secular West in effect call into question the authority and viability of traditional relationships. Here is a sampling of instances: large-scale markets may disrupt personal exchanges; broadly based elections may undermine hereditary authority; women who earn money through small businesses may upset established gender roles.

Not surprisingly, this undermining of long-established practices elicits resistance in traditional societies. Not only the beneficiaries of established patterns but also other members of the community refuse to relinquish the rich network of highly personal relationships that provides order and texture to daily lives. 

While particular communities are defined by boundaries of all kinds, impersonal mechanisms can in principle connect all individuals to each other across divides of background or family identity. Today’s challenge for communities everywhere is to nurture particular traditions and intimate relationships while at the same time affirming an inclusiveness that is open to all. This endeavor can be construed as an attempt to connect individuals universally to each other. But it can also be envisioned as an effort to incorporate particular communities into increasingly more inclusive ones, a process that preserves valued historical patterns even as it encourages openness to the affirmations of other traditions.

Testimony from Religious Traditions

Central to the deeply personal, social, and cultural grounding of many – perhaps all – traditional communities are religious faith and practice. In their beliefs, rituals, and ethical imperatives, members of such communities affirm their identity, which gives adherents a sense of distinction from other traditions. Religious affirmations therefore often reinforce boundaries that separate particular communities from each other.

Do such communities exist? In practice, communities that are both self-critical and inclusive are admittedly rare.

Yet religious traditions provide as well substantial resources not only for incorporating individuals into their immediate communities but also for preparing members to be incorporated into larger and more inclusive ones. Certainly some religious traditions appear highly individualistic, espousing direct connections between the individual person and the ultimate or the divine. But across traditions there are also strong affirmations of the communal basis for any such individual identity, a basis that frequently deploys religious beliefs and practices to point beyond every local or particular community and connect to larger human, natural, or divine realities.

Chinese and Jewish traditions have perhaps been most direct in focusing on human interconnection as the way to final truth. For the Confucian, there is no access to the ultimate except through social relationships. Similarly, though there are certainly significant and arresting exceptions, the dominant pattern of Jewish commitment has been to stress the communal character of relationship to the divine.

Hindu traditions offer a striking illustration of powerful individualism dependent on particular communities even as it aspires to universal inclusion. The vast diversity of Hindu traditions includes the central affirmation that atman is brahman, that the self is one with the ultimate. This affirmation is crucial not only in the history of Indian philosophy but also for modern Hindu humanism. In that sense it is highly individualistic. Yet despite this identification of the self with the ultimate, Indian traditions build on community solidarity as the foundation for any individual attainment and also construe the ultimate as all-inclusive.

The Hindu heresy of Buddhism exhibits the same pattern in its myriad forms. The earliest Buddhist traditions flatly deny that there is a self at all: the Hindu affirmation of atman is negated and becomes the insistence on anatman, not self. In later developments, this insistence becomes an acceptance of sunyata, the emptiness of all reality. Yet in and through their remarkable spectrum of critical appropriations of Hindu traditions, Buddhists embrace the communities through which individuals advance – beginning with the sangha, the order of monks that became the bearer of Buddhist traditions.

Across the range of Christian churches there is a similar pattern: Roman Catholics may be intentionally corporate, Orthodox Christians may nurture a sense of connection to the cosmos as a whole, and Protestants may focus on the individual self. Yet all Christians affirm the crucial role of faithful communities in mediating the relationship of the human to the divine.

Islam offers a final example, one especially apt, since so much of the most forceful resistance to Western secular individualism is anchored in Muslim conviction. Like other religious traditions, Islam incorporates enormous diversity – and is often quite public in its internal disagreements. In Islam as in other religious communities there are mystics who claim direct communion with the ultimate, with Allah. But for virtually all Muslims, the role of the community is indispensable to the faithful life. In repudiating Western secular liberalism, advocates of Islam are rejecting what they deem to be a corrosive individualism that undermines this indispensable role of the community.

Self-Critical Communities?          

In contrast to this testimony from religious traditions, the consumer society and mass culture of the West at least appear to extract the individual from particular communities. With the internet, this secular Western individualism takes on new intensity. Across the web, new definitions of personal relationships and self-promotion flourish. Yet even this secular reductionist web-enabled individualism is in the end dependent on particular communities, namely the new online communities that it creates. This dependence is sometimes recognized; there is much talk today of the connectivity of the net. It may signal a yearning for a sense of togetherness that has been lost in offline life.

The Western style of connecting the individual to the larger society directly through markets, bureaucracies, or media too often ignores the network of intermediate institutions that animates traditional communities.

The alternative advocated here is to affirm the world’s impulses for community while also remaining committed to the values of individualism, including civil liberties and human rights. This double affirmation entails significant ramifications for communities. A commitment to the values of individualism requires that a community be open to outsiders and also be prepared to see its own shortcomings. It calls, in short, for a community that allows both for self-criticism and in principle for acknowledging and incorporating members from other traditions.

Do such communities exist? In practice, communities that are both self-critical and inclusive are admittedly rare. Pressures against them come incessantly from two fronts – from uncritical and exclusionist traditionalists, and also from a dominant impulse of uncritical individualism, which views community itself with suspicion no matter how self-critical and inclusive.

It is therefore worth exploring instances in which this combination is, if not achieved, at least envisioned as a worthy goal on the part of significant portions of the population. The combination is not so exceptional or marginal as it might appear. I will offer four quite different examples from contemporary milieus that range from familiar to exotic:

  • In Western civil society, deeply rooted traditions of voluntary associations seek to integrate the activities of their individual members into larger social, economic, and political aims. Especially in the United States and Great Britain, such organizations endure even as they confront a prevailing culture of unqualified individualism.
  • The emerging European Community offers another instance of the tensions between the larger entity and more particular communities, especially at times of economic stress.
  • In societies as different from each other as the former Soviet Union, China, France, and Turkey, powerful secular states are contending with an already established or an emerging civil society as well as a host of traditional communities.
  • Finally, in myriad local conflicts across the developing world, tribal, ethnic, and religious loyalties counter attempts to establish security and social order.

Voluntary Association, American-style

Voluntary associations offer a rich tradition of communitarian impulses. The term itself implies individual volition: the freedom to choose to associate with one organization instead of others. The very conception of voluntary associations therefore already suggests a community-minded individualism that moves beyond unquestioned belonging to a tribe.

Examples of voluntary associations are evident especially in the U.S. Perhaps the most pervasive are religious bodies that place a premium on a decision to join; evangelical Christian churches are a prominent example. Civic associations of all kinds similarly illustrate voluntary membership: civic clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, et. al.), political parties, Boy and Girl Scouts, labor unions, National Rifle Association, AARP, American Automobile Association, and the like.

The explosion of interest in online social networking takes the voluntary association to new conceptual levels – to the point that virtual communities may paradoxically undermine physical ones. The correlations are complex and do not imply direct cause-and-effect. Many face-to-face voluntary associations have been in decline for decades. In this sense the internet is the latest phase in a series of technology-based innovations that over the decades have allowed individuals to relate to each other more and more through media rather than face to face. Yet even in their virtual form, voluntary associations may afford ways to shape communities that are self-critical and potentially inclusive of a diversity in membership – as is evident from the recent political activism and upheaval in, for example, Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt.

European Union: A Work in Progress

The crosscurrents between particular communities and the claims of larger, more inclusive associations are inescapable in the political project of forging a union among European states. Even within countries, there are of course tensions between local traditions and national goals – at times, as in the case of Belgium, tensions that extend to multiple languages. Such tensions become all the more pronounced when entire countries, with their different languages and national identities, seek to form an economic and at least partial political union with one another.

Current financial pressures reveal how precarious the project is. Though there is a single currency for most of the EU, there is no common fiscal policy, no shared financial regulation, no unified labor market, and no agreed-upon set of social benefits. Not surprisingly, the situation is ripe for acrimony and resentment that strain whatever social bonds have developed over the six decades since the formation of the precursor to the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community. Despite increased economic integration based on a common currency, centrifugal forces of language and tradition perennially resist homogenization into a single encompassing order.

Yet a sense of pan-European identity endures and perhaps even grows stronger. This larger sense of commonality testifies to the potential of a significantly inclusive community that is at the same time self-critical. Although criticism may in the first instance be directed at the larger union or at other members, it also represents a comparative awareness that any particular perspective is partial and limited. In the latest round of economic tensions, even Germany has had to recognize the untenability of insisting that all members conform to its prescriptions. Its resistance to acknowledging this fact and its delay in acting on it have cost the entire Eurozone dearly, but belated recognition is better than continued denial.

The challenge is to avoid conceiving and institutionalizing the larger union in ways that gratuitously undermine or denigrate more particular traditions. That is admittedly daunting if a single currency is retained, since the likely consequence is movement toward more integration in fiscal policy, financial regulation, and labor markets. It is, however, not only feasible but crucial to value the particular traditions of local and regional communities even as the larger union is embraced.

It is tempting to dismiss this valuing of particular traditions as little more than a nostalgic yearning for an irretrievable past. An analogue in the U.S. would be to mourn the attenuation of regional accents in a media age. But even if local particularity almost unavoidably becomes less pronounced, it need not be denigrated. Indeed, the good-faith effort to preserve what is of value in local traditions can contribute to a more wholehearted embrace of the larger community. Such a process is emphatically preferable to a simple presumption that some least common denominator is the best or the only way forward.

The Limits of Unlimited Secularism

In contrast to these endeavors of negotiation between individual and community stand assertions of total state control. The most potent modern instances are secular adaptations of Jewish and Christian thought in the form of Marxism. As exemplified in both the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a version of totalitarian secular ideology attempts to pre-empt any and all allegiances to less inclusive communities.

The challenge for communities everywhere is to nurture particular traditions and intimate relationships while at the same time affirmed an inclusiveness that is open to all.

The history of both the Soviet Union and Communist China demonstrates that this kind of totalitarian claim is difficult to sustain over the long term without catastrophic effects. In the case of the transition from the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation in the 1990s, ethnic and linguistic segments of the USSR became differentiated republics, albeit with major interdependence among the new republics and especially with Russia. Even within the Russian Federation, there remain massive tensions, in particular with areas that are predominantly Muslim. Similarly, within the PRC, there are persistent tensions between the dominant Mandarin-speaking Han and multiple other discrete ethnic, linguistic, and even religious communities.

In contemporary China and Russia, a resurgence of a restless civil society adds to the tensions. China faces the emergence of a labor rights movement and growing protests against corruption. In both countries, suppressed religious impulses are also reasserting themselves. The test for such nations is to move from an all-encompassing secular order dominated by a single ethnic and linguistic group to arrangements that allow space for diversity that cannot be suppressed indefinitely.

This challenge lies in wait elsewhere. Consider Turkey and France. France is perhaps the most insistent of any European country that it is a secular state – to the point that it often seems unaware of the asymmetries that result from its history as part of Western Christendom. It therefore misses the irony, not to say perversity, of attempting to ban the wearing of headscarves while allowing crucifixes in public school classrooms. Here too a greater sense of inclusiveness together with a capacity for self-awareness and self-criticism would be welcome.           

Like the USSR, the PRC, and the French Republic, the Turkey of Ataturk declared itself a resolutely secular state. The Caliphate was officially abolished in 1924. Islamic courts were closed in 1926 and replaced with a civil code modeled on Swiss judicial procedures. A unified educational system was established, designed to include girls as well as boys. And yet over several generations, sub-communities like the Kurds have resisted assimilation, and observant Muslims have over time reasserted the implications for public policy of their religiously inspired traditions. In short, Turkey too is struggling to achieve a sense of community that is inclusive without simply suppressing particular traditions in favor of an allegedly neutral secular unity. In this respect, Turkey is further down the path that Egypt and Tunisia – from less resolutely secular starting points – will also have to tread. In all these cases, as well as others across the Middle East, the imperative is to affirm a sense of inclusive community that allows both for the contribution of the values of individualism and also for the overall order that a non-totalitarian state affords.

Fragile States, Fragile Hopes

At the opposite extreme from the all-encompassing claims of the secular state are those all-too-frequent settings in which there is insufficient governmental authority to assure basic security for communities. Often defined as fragile states or even failed states, such settings pose their own challenges to the viability of communities that are intentionally inclusive. Yet in these instances as well, the most promising way forward is to build on the particular traditions that command respect rather than to attempt to suppress those traditions in favor of a comprehensive externally imposed order. Variations on this theme are almost endless. Congo and Afghanistan offer two illuminatingly different cases and also represent a spectrum in terms of history and geography.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) suffers from massive disadvantages in terms of governance: a very large country (roughly the size of all of Western Europe) with arbitrary borders determined by colonial powers; more than two hundred language groups; and egregiously bad rulers from King Leopold II of Belgium (who acquired property rights to Congo in 1885) through the corrupt and authoritarian regime of Mobutu Sese Seko (1971-1997) to the violent aftermath of his overthrow. The DRC has both the blessing and the curse of substantial natural resources. Its most critical challenge is to establish a process of governance that can provide a minimum of security and forge a sense of national identity that can hold together its remarkable ethnic and linguistic diversity.

Security, governance, and national identity are also crucial to the prospects for Afghanistan. For more than two millennia, Afghanistan has struggled with invading forces – Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and the Soviet Union, to name only three – and fractious relations among its linguistically and ethnically diverse regions and with its powerful neighbors. One salient lesson from this complex and contentious history is that Afghanistan does not long tolerate occupation by non-Afghan forces or government control from a central authority. Put positively, in order to have some chance of success, proposals for the governance of Afghanistan must incorporate particular traditions grounded in local communities and from there build coalitions, almost certainly including tacit alliances with neighboring countries, that may in turn support a limited central government. Any effective sense of national identity must embrace the ethnic, linguistic, and religious pluralism that this process of consultation, negotiation, and collaboration implies.

Communitarianism’s New Horizon

The tradition of voluntary associations, the struggles of the European Community, resistance to government control in thoroughly secular states, and conflicts in developing countries – all are variations on the theme of how particular communities relate to more inclusive ones. In the contemporary world, the values and rights of individualism are crucial, as is the necessity of the state or some other form of encompassing social order. But so, too, are traditional communities. Put more bluntly, claims that either individuals can be torn away from – or that the state should be allowed to obliterate – particular underlying traditions are unsustainable. Totalitarianism collapses as a defensible ideology; unqualified individualism is untenable as well.

This set of tensions is certainly not new, but it gathers special salience when traditional communities worldwide raise opposition to the individualism and secularism of the West. Under such circumstances, to affirm the value of particular communities is the right course of action for both principled and pragmatic reasons. This affirmation points to potential common ground between Western governments and multi-lateral international agencies on the one hand and traditional communities on the other.   

When it acknowledges the historical particularity of its own values and traditions, the West opens up the prospect of greater appreciation for the value of other longstanding traditions. Mutually respectful encounters among such historically discrete traditions may nurture more self-critical and inclusive communities that move not only beyond the stance of uncritical and exclusionist traditionalists but also beyond state totalitarianism and unqualified individualism. Indeed, such interactions point toward a new communitarianism, one that affirms interactions among communities in search of common ground.

A new communitarianism can and should affirm the crucial role of personal liberties, economic opportunity, and human rights – the attainments of individualism as it has been institutionalized in Western history. At the same time, this new communitarianism can and should embrace the contributions that traditional community life offers. This affirmation of the value of particular communities would address the fears and apprehensions of traditional societies that Western secular individualism is determined to supplant all other personal, social, and cultural traditions.

Western governments and international multi-lateral agencies can and should advocate this double affirmation of individualism and community. Civil society, including educational and religious institutions, must also press for this combination both globally and locally. The intention of this process may be framed as the hope to achieve a world of more self-critical and inclusive communities, even a world community.

But grand statements of ultimate goals of universal community should not be allowed to undermine actual particular communities. The aspiration for inclusive and self-critical communities must reach out from and build on the particular traditions of existing local communities – including those that are already part of global institutions, as in the world’s three major missionary religions, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Though it may be deemed utopian in the pejorative sense to insist that universal community must or will be achieved at a definite point in history, the aspiration for such an inclusive community is a worthy goal if pursuing this ideal is grounded in the experience of actual communities.

To pursue this new communitarianism will require sustained commitment over generations. But this aspiration will also come to be a pragmatic necessity in the crowded, tension-filled world of the twenty-first century. The result can be a promising move toward realizing the ideal of an inclusive and also self-critical global community.

George Rupp ’67 B.D. has been president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee since 2002. He was president of Columbia University from 1993-2002. He has also been president of Rice University and dean of the Harvard Divinity School. He is the author of five books, including Globalization Challenged: Commitment, Conflict, Community (Columbia University Press, 2006).