The Good City of the Different and the Babel of the Closed Castes

Community - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/18

by Luigino Bruni 

published in Avvenire on January 26, 2014


Community, one of the richest fundamental and ambivalent words in our civil vocabulary is undergoing radical change. The community has always been a reality that is anything but romantic, linear or simple, because the strongest and deepest human passions are concentrated in it and it is a place of life and death. Jerusalem is called the 'Holy City', but the founder of the first city is Cain, and Rome (and many other cities) was founded following a fratricide (the murder of a brother).

The notion of community can only be grasped without dangerous ideological reductions if this inherent ambivalence is embraced, and not rejected. Already the Latin root of the word is suggestive of this: communitas, cum-munus, since munus means gift and obligation at the same time. It means what is given and what is to be given or returned, the gratuitous act but also the munera, that is, the tasks, duties and obligations, the gratuitousness that evolves in those who are dutiful, right and proper. It is the same semantic and social tension that we find in the common good and the common goods that stay alive and do not perish as long as the weft of obligation is interwoven with the warp of gratuitousness. However, if this vital tension is gone and there remain only the (alleged) gifts or only the obligations, relational disorders are always at the door (if not already inside the house): gift becomes irrelevant to social life and obligations are transformed into traps.

One of the deeper reasons for the generative duality of the community is its non - elective nature: we cannot select the people we are linked with and connected to in the community, or only to a minimal extent. The 'cum' is not created by us through our choices, but it precedes us, it's greater than us. Our fellows inside the community are beside us, some of them are not very likeable to us, many of them would not be chosen as our friends, and yet they are inevitably there, we depend on them and they depend on us. Its non-elective nature and interdependence are the essence of the community, they unite the members of a school class, workplace or local community among themselves. A classmate, colleague or neighbour affects my life for the sole reason of insisting on my own ground, even when I try to avoid them, and even if I do not love them, when I ignore them or fight them. So we can use the same expression of 'community' for family, school, business and our country as long as we feel the same cum and the same munera inside.

The non-elective feature of community has its origin in the primary community, the family. We do not get to choose either our parents, children or siblings. And although it is true that we choose our wife or husband, it is even more true that what we choose in the other person in the years of love co-exists with a whole part of the other that we did not choose, because it is unknown to both of us. A part un-chosen that grows over the years, and makes love blossom in agape, and lends an immense dignity to faithful conjugal love, because the more valuable and expensive loyalty is the one towards the part unknown and un-chosen in the other person (and in ourselves). In general, relationships that are elective at the moment of their formation (friendship, love... ) become capable of generating good communities if they open up to the non-elective dimension of friends and to the welcoming of non-friends. Otherwise they get stuck on the level of consumption which can also nourish but that does not generate anything.

The groups of people where we exercise the most significant dimensions of our humanity are non-elective, we do not choose them. It is in the shared daily life in non-elective circumstances that we learn the relational and spiritual key codes of life; this is where we can fight narcissism (which is now a social pandemic) and become adults. It is a lifelong learning which assumes a very high value when, because of a mysterious loyalty to yourself, you stay in the communities that do not recognize you anymore, and there comes a sort of 'awakening' and you have the strong impression of having made a mistake with that community and with almost everything. The ones who manage to stay even after such painful awakenings may soon find that from children they have become mothers and fathers of their community.
Diversity is the yeast of the community. Without it, community life does not rise, its daily bread stays unleavened.

Today there is a very strong tendency to create elective communities, that is, to leave the un-chosen communities and join in communities that are chosen. With a decisive role of the web, we are experiencing a proliferation of the so-called 'communities of interest', groups that are formed around common interests, from food to hobbies, from literary tastes to love for some species of animals, and many more, often very good things. New 'communities' of those who are similar, often without bodily presence, are replacing the full-bodied communities that are rapidly dissolving. People flee from the new and difficult diversities of the multi-ethnic neighbourhoods, and recover from that un-chosen diversity by creating other communities. This is an expression of the so-called 'communitarianism', a heterogeneous movement that is a typical establishment around the concept of 'communities of the similar'. Schools, apartment buildings, neighbourhoods, web-communities, places where people try to build communities without the 'wounds' of diversity at one's doorstep. But one of the important messages that comes to us from the age-old wisdom of our civilization is the inadequacy of the communities of the similar for the construction of a good life. If we continue to quit natural communities, and thus the political territories and bodies, we will soon be falling into a form of caste based neo-feudalism that was the condition of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. It is a scenario that is already taking shape in the many "Davos'" of financial capitalism, where new castes that are totally separate and immune of the communities are governing us, but without wanting to or being able to see or touch us. When business managers and financiers no longer touch the bodies of vivid and mixed communities, they produce immense damage that is sometimes fatal to the community of the new untouchables and outcasts. In the old feudalism, the few rich people lived in fortresses, surrounded by raids, decay and desert. The day may not be too far for these new feudal lords and the Brahmins when, should they come out of their strongholds they will not find any roads, security, public goods or even a helipad for landing any more.

A great story on the decline of the community of the different in the communitarianism of the similar is that of Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). Saved and reborn after the Flood, the community gathered in one place, they had the same language, and they had a high tower. After each 'flood' (epochal crisis) there is always a strong temptation in the communities to close themselves around the similar ones and expel those who are different in order not to be scattered on earth. Where there is no diversity, promiscuity and contamination, there is no fertility either: no children are born, communities become incestuous and soon disappear, too. The community without diversity soon turns into a form of fundamentalism, an idol of itself. It was the convivial and quarrelsome coexistence of our cities of the different to generate that architecture, art, culture and economy that, centuries later, continue to love us, feed us and save us. This post-feudal Europe of citizenship and diversities today is threatened by the new Babel of finance and annuities, closed in their citadels.

The righteous Noahhad built an ark (a basket-boat) to save the variety and diversity of species and of the living, a variety/diversity that the people gathered at Babel wanted, and still want to delete. The scattering of the communitarianism of Babel is the pre-condition for the building of a thousand communities populated by a number of languages, colours, variety, diversity and beauty: "'Glory be to God for dappled things" (Gerard M. Hopkins).


Translated by Eszter Kató


Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial

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