ur political leaders pander to the black community, the Christian community, the gay community, the transgender community, and the farming community with alarming rapidity — and all in the same speech. It’s a world of community — but what do we mean by the word?
Nothing etymological: The Latin communitatem means “fellowship.” One need not be a “fellow” to a single businessman to be referred to as a part of the “business community.” Nothing geographical: The “transgender community” are not each other’s neighbors. The “Christian community” have never met. The “Korean community” have attended no mutual potluck.
Back when critical theory was cool, we may have said that these groups were unified into communities by their common experience of oppression. It doesn’t work anymore. Now white nationalists play that same game, describing “the white community” (complete with its experience of “white genocide”) as one more identity group demanding its “safe space.” And even if no unoppressed flies were settling into the ointment of oppressed minorities, it’s an odd claim to begin with — that “oppression makes community.” Surely, two people can be oppressed for the same reason thereby becoming a community. Surely, a community can exist without being oppressed.
By the logic of identity-politics, people exist in “community” without living, liking, knowing or suffering each other. The only “unity” of their communities is the unity of the “trait” — they are all “black,” all “on Facebook,” all “pet-owners.”
This is a polar opposite of the definition given by the radical environmentalist Wendell Berry: “Community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy and local nature.” His vision is explicit in the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas: a community is a real group of people, embedded in a real place, ordered towards common goods that serve the flourishing of each and every member of that self-same community.
Identity-groups are notoriously bad at asserting some “good” or “end” or “goal” of their so-called communities. To know what goods everyone in a community needs, one needs to know its members. Without this “local knowledge” one ends up asserting goods that aren’t universal. Not everyone in the “gay community” wanted the validation of State marriage. Not everyone in the “Christian community” opposed it. Not every lesbian wanted the abolition of bodily-based sexual difference advocated by many (but not all) transgender persons — but we still speak of the aims of the “queer” or “LGBT community” without batting an eye. Identity-politics has trained us to ignore the differences.
Identity-politics values “who’s in” and “who’s out” over the attainment of some definite, common good. In-fighting and intellectual masturbation are its fruits. It grows obsessed with the meaning of membership and belonging, nitpicking or glorifying the identifying trait that makes the “feminist,” the “anarchist” or even the “lower class.” Such infighting would be absurd in an actual meeting of, say, bricklayers or neighbors (“what makes a real bricklayer? How do we define the people who live on Oregon Avenue?”) but it is the standard fare of identity-group discourse. In the absence of a real community united by the vision of some definite common good, we ferociously define and defend the only thing holding us together — our identity. Our discussion turns ontological; we move from goals to self-descriptions, from discussing what we need to discussing who we are. Indeed, this fact has been taken up and manipulated by white nationalists — Richard Spencer uses the language of identity-politics to glower over the ontological question of “who we [Europeans] are,” neatly avoiding his less-than savory suggestions for “what we ought to do.”
Since we cannot state the positive good which unifies an identity-community liked we end up turning some evil into its unifying principle. Catholics feel the unity of the “Catholic community” when a politician is anti-Catholic. America felt the unity of American identity during the events of 9/11 — neither before nor after. The alt-right will always delight in perceived attacks against the “white race,” just as self-proclaimed European natives will be happily energized by reports of rape or abuse perpetrated by an immigrant.
This is not simply because “attacks” give a particular political group ammo for their ideological ends. We feel a perverse delight that “we were attacked” because it brings together a feeling of “community” where before there was only strain, feigned togetherness and political usefulness. Identity groups need the trauma of an attack because it is all that unites an otherwise disparate, unreal population that is nevertheless spoken of as a neighborhood. The neighbor one could not love in person is made lovely by being shot. Kendrick Lamar riffed on this horrible gap between his theoretical unity with an identity-group and his lack of unity with his actual living, breathing neighbors:
So don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers
Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”
Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day
Or eat watermelon, chicken and Kool-Aid on weekdays
Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements
Or watch BET cause urban support is important
So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
Our open desire for a zombie apocalypse — which turns every “survivor” into a comrade — reveals this yearning for the violence that turns nebulous “groups” into actual communities. We watch movies of our national monuments being destroyed and feel, for the first time in a while, American. We nurse a secret love for hurricanes and earthquakes because only a common evil can unite a “community” deprived of any genuine common goods.
Needless to say, this secret love of oppression strengthens oppressors and makes a mockery of genuine communities who mourn the acts of violence inflicted on their members. True solidarity is not a feeling sparked by disaster, but a mode of living and suffering with your neighbor that exists on the basis of a commonly sought good. True solidarity does not mourn in order to love; it mourns with political efficacy because it already loves. The unity it effects does not fade whenever oppression decreases or becomes covert — it remains as long there remains as a people united by the pursuit of a common good.
The political State must fear this genuine community, because the genuine community does not need the State. A community can live, love, and thrive without centralized government. A community can sustain itself, feed itself, heal itself, teach itself, and reproduce itself — quite without the Department of Education. By encouraging identity-politics, the State encourages us to think of community as an abstract, ideological “belonging.” We are encouraged to claim our identities, to be represented by a community — so long as the “community” we establish has no power. The “faith community” is encouraged by the State because the “faith community” has no meeting-house. The “black community” is encouraged because the “black community” owns no farmable land. The State encourages the “gay community” because the “gay community” will start no guild. They are unities of thought alone.
Within the logic of identity politics, one enjoys all the feelings of membership while giving up any of the actual, self-sustaining power that would come with a genuine, working membership — like a farming community. It is no accident that the fundamental mode of every identity community is that of the victim petitioning a centralized State for protection. The identity-community reinforces the dogma of liberalism, in which the State exists to protect mankind from a natural state of violence. When this victim-position becomes the surest means of establishing an identity (such that we find in ourselves an undeniable desire for oppression) it seems clear that the State is empowered by identity politics. It profits from the explosion of the populace into manageable, simplified, and powerless “communities” that are born demanding protection from their government. Government becomes easier. Revolution becomes harder. By joining these invisible “communities,” we forget our capacity to form local unities, live self-sufficiently, and otherwise weaken the centralized State. We waste the energy we need for practical, local action on the infantile attempt to establish belonging.
It is high time that we discarded that the illusion that the State trembles for fear of identity groups. The State deploys identity politics as as a means of managing the population and suppressing the advent of genuinely self-governing collectives that threaten its power. In an age of identity, the truly radical act is to stop caring about who you are and to start caring about your neighbor; to sidestep the passive and paralyzing discourse about “who belongs” to and to work with the people who already belong to you, and you to them. Community is the source of all genuine revolution — actual people working in daily, sweaty concert to achieve a good common to them all.