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Communitarism versus Neoliberalism

Cristina Pop, West University of Timisoara

Assignment on “Ethics and Social Justice”
“Social Inclusion in Europe” Master Programme 2005-2007
Communitarism versus Neoliberalism

Two of the most widely supported ideologies of today’s Western world, communitarism
and neoliberalism set their focus on different (rather opposite) concepts, thus leading to
different (even conflicting) discourses and policies.

This paper will first show a brief presentation of each of the two concepts, mentioning
also their main critiques and responses to the latter. The separate presentations will be
followed by a comparison between the two ideologies, using a table that displays their
main differences. I will then conclude by stating my personal position on the topic,
addressing especially the aspect of social justice.


Although not an entirely new concept, the term of communitarism has only recently
(during the mid-nineteenth century) started to be used with the meaning shown below.
Its advocates emphasize on the role of communities in the society, supporting the idea
that the definition of what is “good” should be transmitted and enforced by the society
through its units like the family, school or voluntary associations. This binds
communtarism to previous ideas, like the ones of Catholic theology (seeing church as a
community) or the socialist doctrine (workers’ solidarity).

These are the key concepts on which communitarism is based:

1.civil society: the totality of voluntary organisations and institutions which, differing
from the family, state and market, are the basis of a functioning society. Although some
communitarians (like the early theorists or the Asians) emphasize more on the role of the
state and the necessity of authority, the “responsive communitarians” (an influential
movement started in the USA by Amitai Etzioni and William A. Galston), set focus on the
principle of responsibility, promoting the idea of an involved and active citizen. Both
political and non-political organisations in civil society contribute to moving towards this
ideal, by raising social awareness and therefore increasing participation in community life. capital: “the collective value of all social networks and the inclinations that
arise from these networks to do things for each other”, as defined by Robert Putnam in his
study “Bowling Alone”. The core of communitarism relies on the idea of shared values
recognized inside of a community. Putnam mentions two complementary components of
this concept:
- “bonding social capital” – networks between socially homogenous groups of
- “bridging social capital” – networks of socially heterogeneous groups.

3.positive rights: communitarians are concerned with rights like free education, a safe
and clean environment, universal health care, affordable housing or even the rights to a
job. Programs motivated by these goals are sometimes criticized because their
implementation can interfere with the negative rights of the citizens (the most common
example being that of paying more taxes for supporting these programs). This criticism is
countered by the concept of responsibility towards society, mentioned above.

One of the main issues when speaking of communitarism is the very notion of
“community”. The ideology itself has been contested many times as being based on an
undefined, vague term, and therefore with no possibility of practical results. As a

Communitarism versus Neoliberalism

response, Etzioni brought a definition for a community by these two characteristics: “first,
a web of affect-laden relationships among a group of individuals, relationships that often
crisscross and reinforce one another (as opposed to one-on-one or chain-like individual
relationship); and second, a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, norms,
and meanings, and a shared history and identity – in short, a particular culture”.

Another concern of communitarism’s opponents is related to the standardization implied

by the commonly shared values in a community. This brings two risks: one is the loss of
individuality, the other is having standards that are not shared by all the members, but
imposed by only part of them. While this view can well apply to the traditional view of a
community, communitarians of today promote the idea of a community where consensus
is not silent, it is constantly challenged and reshaped.


Regarded by many as an economic ideology, neoliberalism is a political-economic

philosophy that focuses on the idea of free market. Supporting the lack of state
intervention in the processes of the market, neoliberals see the laws of free market
applying from the national level to the individual one – countries are similar to virtual
corporations, “selling” themselves as investment locations, regions and cities are
businesses inside these fictive corporations, while every person becomes an
entrepreneur, managing his/her own life in order to maximize their advantages on the
labour market.

The main points of neoliberalism include the following:

1. the rule of the market: no bonds imposed by the government to private enterprises,
no labour unions, no price control – total freedom of movement for capital, goods and
services. The neoliberal theory implies that "an unregulated market is the best way to
increase economic growth, which will ultimately benefit everyone".

2. deregulation and cutting public expenditure for social services: this is meant
also for reducing state control and for maximizing profits.

3. privatization: in order to achieve greater efficiency, all enterprises, goods and

services should be owned by private investors. Criticism of this concept points to the
fact that, in practice, this process has only led to concentrating more wealth in the
hands of a few people.

4. individual responsibility: each individual is held completely responsible for his/her

success in managing the small-scale enterprise represented by himself/herself.

The main idea behind neoliberalism is competition – only the best ones will survive on
the market, they will prove maximum efficiency, they will achieve profit. Not only what is
traditionally considered “business” is to be regulated by the market, all aspects of society
are subject to the same mechanism: education, culture, health care, even the private life
of a person is conducted by a marketing strategy aimed at getting (even out of personal
relationships or free time) a better status in regard to employability. An example of this
effect on the individual level is the demand for plastic surgery from people (mostly
women) who, this way, aim to keep their jobs or get access to better ones (this applies to

Communitarism versus Neoliberalism

work fields like television or show-biz).

One important point raised by critics of neoliberalism refers to this very topic – the effect
of this globalised business orientation on the individual. First, there are the people who
are not fully market-compatible – many neoliberals acknowledge their existence and the
need to create special services for them, which leads to questioning the ideal of
universal applicability of market principles.

Second, there are many effects regarding work conditions, like continuous assessment,
increasing flexibility (hiring on fixed-term contracts or on a temporary basis, repeated
corporate restructurings), individualisation of the wage relationship – all these are seen
by opponents of neoliberalism as causes for over-involvement in work, work under
emergency or high-stress conditions and weakening of collective standards or

Though a goal of neoliberalism is increasing efficiency, criticism points out that the
intensification and multiplication of transactions (an aim itself of the ideology), by leading
to a large and rapid growth of the financial services sector, contradicts the idea of “less
bureaucracy, more efficiency”.

Main differences between communitarism and neoliberalism

Communitarism Neoliberalism
Central idea
- community: a cohesive group of people, - market: the traditional meaning of this
sharing a web of relationships, a common term has been outrun, the principles now
culture and a high level of responsiveness tend to apply in every aspect of social life
to the members’ true needs
Main concepts
- sharing: members of a community share - competition: individuals/business
the same values and culture organisations/nations compete on an
extending market
- rights and responsibilities: all members of - employability: the criteria for belonging to
a community are guaranteed the same the society is the ability to use one self’s
rights and share equal responsibilities labour potential to the maximum
towards society
- participation and dialogue: members of - profit and flexibility: the aim is for each
the community get involved in constantly individual/private organisation to maximize
challenging and changing the shared profit, the only regulation being the
values, so that these represent the real “natural” flow of the market
values of all the community members
- social orientation: communitarians are - economic orientation: society is seen as a
highly concerned with ethics and social market where every exchange is actually a
processes like those of forming, (more or less explicit) business exchange
transferring, challenging the common
- values: the shared values of the - transactions: any form of action is
community are the basis of all policies regarded as a transaction
Nation state
- civil society: it is seen as the basis of a - international trade: multinational
functioning democracy, complementary to corporations put global profits before

Communitarism versus Neoliberalism

the state organisations community interests

The individual
- member of the community: sharing the - entrepreneur: is expected to develop a
same rights and responsibilities with the strategy of personal marketing in order to
other members become successful on the labour market
- active citizen - resource used in economic processes
- conformity? – critics address the risk of - autonomy? – neoliberal theory supports
standardizing the individual in order to fit the idea of freedom, stating the free market
the community; the response is that in an leads to best results for everyone; yet,
authentic community it is the individuals practice shows that the increase of
that together shape what is common competition on all levels is actually
imposing both individuals and
organisations a set of informal laws that
one has to follow in order to survive
- sense of security: it is a result of - sense of freedom: the focus is on the
belonging to the community and having individual and his/her success, without
particular rights guaranteed being tied to the community
Issues related to social justice
- common values: the authentic community - survival of the fittest: the demand on the
allows its members to define this common market is the one saying who is “in” and
set of values and strives to address their who is “out”, therefore leaving a wide
real needs, thus setting premises for an space for exclusion of those who are not fit
inclusive society for the labour market
- free public education: access to - privatization of education: neoliberals
education not only assures the consider that all services, including
transmission of the community’s values, education, should be subject to the rule of
but also provides the individual with a the market and should be owned by private
starting point in life, partially addressing investors
the concept of “equal chances”
- labour unions: part of the civil society, - individualisation of contract: encourages
they are an important actor on the scene of competition between individuals and brings
public-private interaction the employee to the status of an
independent contractor, setting a high
degree of responsibility on various matters
- the right to a job: the state and civil - obligation to maximize one’s
society do, by specific means, regulate the employability: competitiveness of labour
frame for employment contracts market produces effects like contracts
getting shorter and shorter, insecurity of
job tenure and menace of layoff
- social services supported by the state: - no intervention from the state: neoliberals
rights as that to free education, affordable see the wealth distribution produced by the
housing and a job are supported by free market as the only “fair” distribution
- the right to a clean and healthy - maximum efficiency in using resources of
environment: communitarians support laws any kind: neoliberals see nature (even
for fighting and preventing pollution humans) solely as resources in the

Communitarism versus Neoliberalism

economic process
Genetic engineering
- well being of the community: some critics - social Darwinism: being close to the idea
mention the risk of accepting gene of competition between members of
selection in order to maximize the benefits society shared by neoliberalism, this
of the community, by having more fit concept presents a high risk of accepting
members; however, this seems hardly genetic engineering in order to produce
probable in the lights of the inclusive spirit individuals that are most likely to succeed
of communitarism


From the table presented above, it is obvious that the communitarian approach is close
related to concepts of social justice, while the neoliberal one has no concern for this
matter and is even, in some points, going against them.

What the communitarians need to develop more are the practical measures for the
implementation of what they stand for. Yet, given the general business-oriented culture
the Western world has been developing, it is not easy to prove in practice that a
communitarian program is truly reliable. For example, Maccobi speaks of Boimondeau, a
cooperative watch factory in France, based on an organisational culture that combined
work with learning, collective and individual development; it was seen by Fromm as an
ideal organisation and was one of his main arguments for supporting the principles of
communitarism. Maccobi mentions that the factory did not survive “in the competitive
marketplace”, proving by this that “the communitarian ideal remains theoretical. It is not a
convincing solution.” I believe his argument can be countered with his words exactly:
“the competitive marketplace” is, from the start, a neoliberal characteristic of the society
in which this factory existed. So the failure of Boimondeau can only be considered as
proof for the failure of communitarism as long as we accept the principles of
neoliberalism as valid – which is not an objective evaluation.

While I believe that communitarism still has a long way to go until proving its
applicability, I see it as highly necessary to promote its principles. Its concepts cast the
light on the value of humanity – not only man as a social being, but also the human
being with its intrinsic value. This last statement may be countered by those who fear
that setting a high importance on the concept of community will lead to a standardization
of the community’s members (which is a risk to produce exclusion of those who do not
“go with the majority”). For preventing this from happening, there are some points to be

- first, as mentioned by Bloemers, the definition of community must include the

characteristic of responsiveness towards the members’ real needs; this
prevents the situations when a community is oppressive towards part of its
- the traditional view of community is obsolete nowadays; mobility has increased
rapidly especially in the last century, leaving the opportunity for many people to
choose the community they want to be a part of; besides, there is an
overlapping of communities – one individual belongs to more communities at the
same time (family, work place, sport club etc.), so there is space for one
community compensating for what the person misses in the others;

Communitarism versus Neoliberalism

- by setting great importance to education, communitarism incidentally gives the

solution for its survival – values of the community are constantly transmitted,
challenged and enforced; this means that the communitarian principles, once
shared by the community, will be carried on and developed by the further

I cannot deny the validity of the main idea behind neoliberalism, competition. Indeed, in
order to improve we need to evaluate our results and our selves, but leaving this
evaluation totally up to the “free market” has proven to bring side effects like the
spreading of commercial over educational, isolation of the individual (through minimizing
the role of the community, even to the level of the family) and a sense of insecurity on
the personal level (not only because of the mentioned isolation, but also due to reasons
like the maximized flexibility of the labour market or the relativity of values – one has to
always adapt to the current demand of the market in order to survive).

And, most of all, the principle of “survival of the fittest” is a major cause for exclusion; of
course, it is easy to praise competition when you are winning or setting the rules; but it
looks so different when you look at it from the side of those who are not fit to compete.
For this, we need the sense of community, of being responsible not only for our selves
but also for the others. Society needs to balance the principles of the free market with
the ones of responsibility towards the community.

Communitarism versus Neoliberalism

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