In the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century United States, the term “community” is used so pervasively that it would appear to be nearly meaningless. The term is often deployed more for its performative effect of being “warmly persuasive” than for any descriptive work it accomplishes (Raymond Williams  1983, 76). Carrying only positive connotations—a sense of belonging, understanding, caring, cooperation, equality—“community” is deployed to mobilize support not only for a huge variety of causes but also for the speaker using the term. It functions this way for companies such as Starbucks and Target, which have programs and pamphlets in their stores proclaiming their commitment to community, as well as for the feminist scholar who seeks to legitimize her research by saying she works “in the community.” It is deployed across the political spectrum to promote everything from identity-based movements (on behalf of women, gays and lesbians, African Americans, and others), to liberal and neoliberal visions of “civil society,” to movements seeking to restore or reaffirm so-called traditional social values and hierarchies.
The relentless invocation of “community” is all the more remarkable given the persistent critique to which it has been subjected. In the late twentieth century, scholars examined its use in the contexts of identity politics, liberalism, and nationalism, in each case pointing to its disciplinary, exclusionary, racist, sexist, and often violent implications (Joseph 2002). Feminist activists and scholars have argued that the desire for communion, unity, and identity among women tend in practice to make the women’s movement white, bourgeois, and US-centric (Martin and Mohanty 1986). Feminist critics of liberalism have pointed out that the supposedly abstract political community constituted through the liberal state actually universalizes exclusionary gendered and racial norms (Wendy Brown 1995). Critics of European and postcolonial nationalisms have historicized the communal origin stories used to legitimate those nationalisms and emphasized the hierarchies and exclusions likewise legitimated by those narratives. Poststructuralist theories have underwritten many of these critiques, enabling scholars to argue that the presence, identity, purity, and communion connoted by “community” are impossible and even dystopic fantasies (I. Young 1990). In light of these critiques, many scholars have tried to reinvent “community,” to reconceptualize it as a space of difference and exposure to alterity (Mouffe 1992; Agamben 1993). Such stubborn efforts to build a better theory and practice of community only emphasize that the crucial question to pose about “community” as a keyword is this: Why is it so persistent and pervasive?
One answer to this question lies in the realization that many deployments of the term can be understood as instances of a larger discourse that positions “community” as the defining other of capitalist “modernity.” As Raymond Williams ( 1983) notes, “community” has been used since the nineteenth century to contrast immediate, direct, local relationships among individuals with something in common to the more abstract relations connoted by capitalist or modern “society.” While community is often presumed to involve face-to-face relations, capital is taken to be global and faceless. Community concerns boundaries between us and them that are naturalized through reference to place, race, culture, or identity; capital, on the other hand, would seem to denature, crossing all borders and making everything and everyone equivalent. The discourse of community includes a Romantic narrative that places it prior to “society,” locating community in a long-lost past for which we yearn nostalgically from our current fallen state of alienation, bureaucratization, and rationalization. This discourse also contrasts community with modern capitalist society structurally; the foundation of community is supposed to be social values, while capitalist society is based only on economic value. At the same time, community is often understood to be a problematic remnant of the past, standing in the way of modernization and progress.
This narrative of community as destroyed by capitalism and modernity, as supplanted by society, can be found across a wide range of popular and academic texts; one might say that it is one of the structuring narratives of the field of sociology (Bender 1978). And it took on a fresh life in the works of late twentieth-century communitarians such as Robert Bellah (Bellah et al. 1985), Robert Putnam (1993), Amitai Etzioni (1993), E. J. Dionne (1998), and others, all of which are aimed at least in part at nonacademic audiences. These works inevitably misread Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America ( 2004) as describing a now-lost form of local community that they believe would, if revived, promote democracy and economic prosperity and solve many contemporary problems, including drug use, crime, and poverty.
The discursive opposition of community and society provides a crucial clue to the former’s pervasiveness in contemporary discourse; community is a creature of modernity and capitalism. Williams optimistically suggests that modernity positively constitutes communities of collective action. In The Country and the City (1973, 102, 104), he argues against the nostalgic idealization of pre-enclosure communities that he finds in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British literature, pointing out that pre-enclosure villages supported “inequalities of condition” and that “community only became a reality when economic and political rights were fought for and partially gained.” More pessimistically, Nikolas Rose (1999, 172, 174) reads the invocation of community as a central technology of state power, arguing that “community” is used to invoke “emotional relationships” that can then be instrumentalized. He suggests that the communities so invoked are required to take on responsibilities for “order, security, health and productivity” that were formerly carried by the state. And certainly there is substantial evidence for his argument in the proliferation of public-private partnerships, neighborhood watch programs, restorative justice initiatives, and the like, all of which mobilize familial and communal relations to promote subjection to law and order rather than to fight for economic or political rights (Lacey and Zedner 1995; N. Lacey 1996; Joseph 2006).
Community thus can be understood as a necessary supplement to the circulation of state power and capital; as such, it not only enables capital and power to flow, but it also has the potential to displace those flows. Because the circulation of abstract capital depends on the embodiment of capital in particular subjects, the expansion and accumulation of capital requires that capitalists engage in an ongoing process of disrupting, transforming, galvanizing, and constituting new social formations, including communities. Community is performatively constituted in capitalism through processes of production and consumption; through discourses of pluralism, multiculturalism, and diversity; and through niche marketing, niche production, and divisions of labor by race, gender, and nation.
This complex relation of community to capitalism is particularly evident in the promotion of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations (NPOs and NGOs)—“civil society”—in the context of “development” in the United States and internationally. In the United States, nonprofit organizations are said to express community and often stand in for community metonymically. They are the institutional sites where people contribute labor or money to “the community.” And they are posited as the form through which community might be reinvigorated as a complement to capitalism, providing those goods and services that capitalism does not. In the context of “development,” NGOs have been explicitly promoted as a means for developing human and social capital and involving the poor in development projects—as, in other words, sites for constituting liberal capitalist subjects and subjectivities. At the same time, the necessity for such organizations suggests that subjects are not always already capitalist. And in fact, the promotion of NPOs and NGOs has often been explicitly intended to stave off socialism or communism; for example, in the post-Soviet era, “community,” in the guise of NGOs, featured prominently in the promotion of “civil society” in both former communist countries and “developing” countries of the “Third World” (Joseph 2002). The incorporation of subjects as community members at the site of the NGO can be understood as hegemonizing, wedding potentially resistant subjects (potentially or actually communist subjects) to capitalism.
The centrality of community to capitalism becomes more explicit in the context of globalization. Politically diverse iterations of globalization discourse, both popular and academic, argue that capitalism depends on communities, localities, cultures, and kinship to provide the social norms and trust that enable businesses to function and that globalized capitalism is and should be more attuned to particular communities, localities, and cultures (Piore and Sabel 1984; Fukuyama 1995). While a number of scholars have portrayed the localization and culturalization of capitalism as a positive development, creating opportunities for local or communal resistance (Lipietz 1994; Mayer 1994), others have emphasized the weakness, dependence, and vulnerability of the local (Peck and Tickell 1995). The claim that capitalism only recently discovered community is, however, problematic. It suggests that communities, and the economic inequalities among them, have not themselves been constituted by capitalism. On the contrary, the explicit deployment of community within globalization discourse tends to legitimate economic inequalities and exploitation as the expression of authentic cultural difference even as it articulates all communities and cultures as analogous sites for production and consumption (Melissa Wright 1999).
The project of examining what one observer calls “the seductions of community” remains crucial (Creed 2006). Exploring the ways in which community is constituted by or complicit with capital and power can reshape our understandings of the dimensions of our communities and the connections among them. Such exploration might enable us to recuperate and rearticulate the needs and desires for social change that are so often co-opted by the uncritical deployment of the term.