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.
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.