15 Oct 2019

The word “community” is at risk of losing all meaning

Over the years, it has become a staple in corporate-speak, and there seems to me a sad correlation between the rise of the word in marketing and the slow demise of community itself. Everyone now “cares about the community,” especially its biggest wreckers. When Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, published a mission-statement in 2017, he used the word 107 times. His social media monolith boasts 2 billion users, and is blamed for sucking up so much advertising revenue that hundreds of local newspapers have gone bust. What kind of “community” is that – and who’s it really for? Zuckerberg, “our community” king-pin, has a net-worth of 69 billion dollars.

The co-option – and corruption – of the concept of community by corporations is a particularly cruel act of appropriation because, in many ways, they are opposites. Where one prizes profit, competition and efficiency, the other should – ideally – foster solidarity and care, making possible a form of human fulfilment which goes beyond consumerism. Community is tied to a place – it requires a site of congregation, even if it is only virtual and online. A sense of locality, particularity, identity and belonging grows from this connection between people and place, giving emotional depth – a sense of home – to our lives. The plans hatched by corporations, by contrast, are placeless: the right shop, restaurant, and business model can notionally exist anywhere there are customers.

As long ago as 1939, George Orwell lamented a chain of “162 teashops” as showing "the sinister strand in English catering, the relentless industrialisation that was overtaking it.” Since then, this “industrialisation” has become a global phenomenon and, in the battle between corporations and community, there has been one winner. In 2018, there were over 300 SportsDirects stores in the UK, almost 1000 Starbucks, and some 3,500 Tescos, with all the profits from each place being syphoned back to boardrooms elsewhere. Many town centres now look more like sponsored outposts, sapped of local life, with the same dreary set of chains along high-streets – if they’re lucky – and more and more boarded up shops separating them, if they’re not.

However much the word “community” is invoked in marketing, capitalism – with its promise of the sovereign individual – is indifferent to its consequences on any actual community. Almost overnight new forms of work, travel and communication can be born, while others become obsolete; new shops and services open, while others shutter up; the foundations of society shift, old and cherished traditions dissolve, and soon any notion of community starts to feel like sand in an hour-glass, draining away, grain by grain. Suddenly it is the present, not the past, that feels like a foreign country.

Community requires a sense of continuity and local control – of moving forward, collectively, from strong foundations, rather than the “move fast and break things” motto that defines so much “innovation.” Its values are outside efficiency and speed – even if the thing itself, like the feeling of home, is hard to pin down. This is one of the reasons why the Brexit slogan – “Take Back Control” – proved so resonant.

For me, any work to strengthen community must be, at least in part, conservative, with a small ‘c’. But this neither means the idea belongs to the right nor that communities should be, can be, closed off from the wider world. In a moment when the political and economic consensus is such a destabilising, destructive force – on all levels of human life – to conserve ‘the ties that bind’ community requires all kinds of radicalism.

Samuel Earle, Writer
@swajcmanearle