A Call to Fellowship: An Introduction to Gemeinschaft Politics

The quality of ordinary citizens’ relations with one another can make or break a country. Societies characterized by a strong sense of commu­nity, high levels of trust and mutual respect and understanding tend to be richer, less corrupt and more peaceful. Countries with weak communal bonds, widespread distrust and little sense of belonging often fall apart, sometimes violently. That’s why Gemeinschaft matters.

The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. In this post you will be introduced to the idea of Gemeinschaft politics, one of six new forms of politics proposed in Nordic Ideology.

Credit goes to the talented Berlin-based artist Sina Goge for the artwork used in the thumbnail picture.

If a country fails badly enough at Gemeinschaft you get Yugo­slavia or Iraq, if it succeeds, you get Denmark or Japan.

So what is meant by Gemeinschaft? The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies made the important distinction between Gesellschaft and Ge­mein­schaft. The former refers to the formal system of rules and regu­lations of a society, the latter to the more personal and informal bonds between people. Whereas Gesell­schaft can be roughly translated into “soc­iety”, Gemein­schaft does not have a satisfying equivalent in the English lang­uage. It is often translated into “community”, but that sounds more like we’re talk­ing about a local neigh­borhood or a soccer club. And since we further­more don’t want to imply it is the same as the political philo­sophy of “communitari­anism”, we will use the original German word which more­over has be­come accepted in social sci­ence among English speakers.

We could also use the Swedish word, gemenskap, which has the same origin and meaning as the German term, better fitting “the Nordic Ideo­logy”. Or the Danish word fællesskab or the Norwegian felles­skap, both of which have the same meaning as Gemeinschaft, but instead share origins with the English word “fellowship”. Over the cen­turies, however, “fellow­ship” has come to mean some­thing slightly diffe­rent than Gemeinschaft—but at least it gets us closer than “com­munity”.

So we’re getting at a “politics of fellowship”, if you will, a strand of pol­itics which actively and deliberately seeks to impro­ve the sense of fellow­ship among citizens and other aspects of our general relatedness to one an­other. A politics, perhaps even, of friendship. To cultivate a society ba­sed more upon friendship, camaraderie, collaboration. A call to an expan­sion of personal relationships as well as uni­versal, impersonal love.

A Call to Fellowship

Whereas Dem­o­­cratization Politics is the politics of developing our formal rela­tions, our govern­ance (corresponding to Tönnies’ Gesellschaft), Gem­ein­schaft Politics is the politics of developing our in­formal rela­tions; the many personal and civic relationships so vital to every aspect of a good and sustain­able soc­iety.

Gemeinschaft Politics is about human relationships, including: those between residents in local comm­unities, cultural and sports act­ivities and other forms of volunteering in civil society, how well community builders and local leaders are treated and supported, how class dist­inc­tions play out, relations between different ethnic groups, the inte­gration of immi­grants, relations at work, gen­der relations and sexual and rom­antic inter­plays, fam­ily relations, domestic conflict and violence, rela­tions in school, how much loneliness there is, how much bullying there is, how much peer press­ure there is, cross-generational relations, social safety nets for old age and disability, the qual­ity and prevalence of frie­nd­ships, acquain­tance net­work rela­tions, distributions of social capital and status, levels of inter­pers­onal trust, levels of average inter­personal care and solid­arity, the de­gree to which people are willing to help stran­gers, norms for treating one an­other in public spaces and in general, the level of kindness and under­stand­ing people show one another, how judg­mental or forgiving we are towards each other, how peo­ple reject one ano­ther and handle norm-break­ers and del­inquents, how many grudges and per­ceived “enemies” we have, what resources there are for conflict resol­ution, which taboos we can’t talk about, how good we are at social pers­pective taking.

Et cetera.

Relations. Relationships. Amen.

In a word: Gemeinschaft.

We need to apply scientific knowledge to im­prove the quality of hu­man rela­tions, long-term, at all levels of society. The value of social bonds and relation­ships is of course imm­eas­urable. Yet, besides this value-in-itself, the qua­lity of hu­m­an rela­tionships is a source of unimaginable wealth or poverty.

I have already under­scored that in today’s affluent welfare societies, such as the Scandinavian ones, there are almost no real material or economic problems left—pretty much none of the fundamental problems of late modern soc­iety are due to a de facto lack of economic resources. Once a postindustrial level of affluence has been achieved, with an annual per capita GDP above 25,000 US doll­ars, the rea­s­on people suffer is no longer because of an actual lack of material resour­ces. The main source of society’s ailments is that people’s behaviors, psycho­lo­gies and social relations don’t function properly. In late mod­ern soc­iety, suffer­ing is soc­ial rather than economic.

If you look at an issue like unemployment, the challenge isn’t really to feed and shelter the unemployed, but rather to provide them with social status, meaning, dignity, activities and a daily rhythm—to prevent social decay. When it comes to rising housing prices that can burst into market bubbles, the issue is greatly exacerbated by the growth of single house­holds, the need for people to protect their private spaces from intrusions by insen­sitive others who would disturb their peace. A society in which everyone is nicer to be around—where folks are more socially function­al—and where there is greater mutual trust, would be one where people need less distance from one another and thus one of greater living space efficiency, hence with lesser living space competition, and hence with lower housing prices and rents.

If you look at issues like overconsumption and ecological footprints, it is not difficult to see that a society in which people have less reason to feel insecure about their social status would also be one in which a more post-materialist culture could flourish and people could more easily make sust­ainable choices.

In a society where people communicate better and are less violent, there is less reason for inter-ethnic fear and resentment to grow, and hen­ce lesser reason for discrimination, and hence lesser reason for racism and ethnic populism. It also means security costs become lower across the board, meaning more resources can be pooled into pre­ventive social mea­sures, meaning society becomes less repress­ive.

When it comes to issues of mental health, psychological development, how personalities develop, the degree of prosocial behavior to be expected from a population, what per­sonal issues people have that steer their moti­vations, the prevalence of delinquency and crime—it must be obvious that each of them is shaped and defined by people’s relationships.

These are just a few examples of how the nature of people’s everyday relationships shapes society. Point being: it’s social, stupid.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.