Below is Adolph Reed Jr.’s assessment of Obama shortly after the latter won his first Illinois state senate race—written in Reed’s now (in)famous article, “The Curse of Community,” Village Voice, January 16, 1996 (reprinted in Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene):
In Chicago… we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program—the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.
In Reading Obama, James Kloppenberg links Obama’s political thought to three American intellectual traditions (traditions that Kloppenberg claims are interrelated): pragmatism, civic republicanism, and communitarianism. In his review of Reading Obama, John Summers takes Kloppenberg to task for, among other things, too rosy a view of the relationship between philosophical pragmatism and democratic politics—a debate that goes at least as far back as Randolph Bourne’s classic 1917 “Twilight of Idols,” where Bourne lashed out at John Dewey for supporting Woodrow Wilson’s entry into the Great War (albeit, on the grounds that Dewey had betrayed the pragmatism of William James, not out of a rejection of pragmatism per se).
As opposed to pragmatism, I’d like to focus on community, the subject of Reed’s irate 1996 article, and communitarianism, one of the philosophical traditions Kloppenberg thinks has influenced Obama. Kloppenberg rather obviously comes to different conclusions about community than Reed. Whereas Reed sees community as a cover for repressive neoliberal policies, Kloppenberg thinks communitarianism can serve the ends of justice—when he (tepidly) criticizes Obama, he does so for not living up to the ideals of communitarianism (and pragmatism and civic republicanism). Although Kloppenberg is careful to note that communitarianism can operate as a means to diverse ends, including ends that Kloppenberg—a self-described progressive—does not support, on the whole he seems rather favorable to communitarianism as a political philosophy. He writes that “the work of radical reformers has been informed by, and has been driven forward through the work of, communities—frequently religious communities… (78)
In a compelling bit of recent intellectual history, Kloppenberg examines the trajectory of John Rawls’s thought in light of communitarianism. At first, Rawls was predisposed to favor community as a political principle, made evident in his 1942 undergraduate thesis—“A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith” (which I blogged about here)—in which Rawls related the search for justice to religious traditions. But later, in A Theory of Justice, his 1971 tome that proved his most influential work, Rawls grounded justice in a more individualistic social contract theory. Behind a veil of ignorance, so Rawls theorized, people would opt for a reasonably just society on the grounds that they would not want to be on the lowest social rung if such a position were intolerable. Extending this line of thought, Rawls supposed that a just society would operate along the lines of the difference principle: degrees of inequality would be tolerated so long as inequality brought greater freedom and justice to all members of society, including those on the proverbial bottom rung. But then the late Rawls—he of Political Liberalism, his 1996 book that was, in effect, a response to his communitarian and feminist critics—partially came around to his earlier views about community. This he made clear in his elaboration on what he called “overlapping consensus,” where people enmeshed in communities could find political common ground with people enmeshed in other communities so long as the focus was indeed on common interests.
Kloppenberg maintains that the most “widely read version” of the communitarian critique of A Theory of Justice was written by one of Charles Taylor’s students, Michael Sandel, namely, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). Kloppenberg writes: “From [Sandel’s communitarian] perspective, Rawls not only ignored, he ruled out of bounds, the most precious of all human commitments, the basic commitments that make us who we are” (99) Other communitarians influential to late-twentieth century American social thought include Robert Bellah, co-author of Habits of the Heart, and Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone. Putnam organized the communitarian Saguaro Seminar at Harvard, dedicated to “civic engagement in America,” which Obama attended in the late 1990s. This is one kernel of evidence that Kloppenberg applies to his thesis that Obama’s worldview is saturated with the lessons learned from the recent intellectual history of communitarianism. Another is that Obama learned from his community organizing days on the Chicago south side that people were more inclined to political activism if such activism was within the constraints of communities, usually religious. None of this convinces me that Obama is particularly familiar with the debates over Rawls that dominated one variant of social thought, but insofar as Obama does adhere to the principles of communitarianism, which both Reed and Kloppenberg maintain, from very different positions, how is this of consequence? Is communitarianism a viable political philosophy towards the ends of justice?
Count me a skeptic. I’ve always thought communitarianism a vacuous political philosophy. No, I don’t think it always operates as a cover for repression, though it often does, sometimes unwittingly. But I do think it works better in the descriptive than in the prescriptive. Of course critics were right to point out to Rawls that people are motivated by things other than individually-defined interests, as ever, and that such motivations should not be deemed irrational. But what does this mean going forward as a political philosophy?
Historical example is the best way I know how to demonstrate the problems of community as a political philosophy. In the late 1960s, blacks in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, with political support from liberal Republican Mayor John Lindsay and with Ford Foundation largesse, undertook a controversial experiment in community control of their schools. Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists, influenced by Black Nationalist thinkers such as Malcolm X and Harold Cruse, believed that their schools were failing largely because of racism built into the city’s educational institutions. Community control activists sought to hire black teachers to replace predominantly white teachers, on the grounds that black teachers would not only better relate to black students, but also because, unlike their white counterparts, black teachers would not be beholden to “culture of poverty” presumptions that lowered expectations.
The Ocean Hill-Brownsville experiment in community control had powerful opponents, especially the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the teacher’s union that represented the vast majority of New York City teachers, led by the outspoken Albert Shanker. Thanks to a flourishing public sector unionism in the 1960s, the UFT was powerful enough to help the centralized New York City Board of Education govern the largest school system in the nation. And as part of its collectively bargained contract, teachers were hired and promoted in accordance with a set of standardized tests that they took at several points along their career. This system, which the UFT described as objective and, thus, meritocratic, served whites well—especially Jews, who comprised a majority of the union—but left black teachers behind. Thus, as part of its community control prerogatives, Ocean Hill-Brownsville activists violated the terms of the UFT contract and fired several of the white teachers in their neighborhood, replacing them with black teachers or non-unionized whites more committed to the principles of community control, but less qualified by UFT standards. This, predictably, brought the wrath of the powerful and savvy Shanker. In a battle that included three citywide teacher’s strikes in the fall of 1968, the UFT decisively defeated Ocean Hill-Brownsville community controllers.
Although raw power defeated the Ocean Hill-Brownsville experiment in community control, power was not the only principle guiding it. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville communitarians believed that their values were more consistent with justice than the values of the white teachers. They contrasted their belief in mutuality with the individualistic materialism of the white middle-class world inhabited by the teachers. They theorized that they were better equipped to make education relevant to black children.
The problem, as explained by Gerald Podair in his excellent book, The Strike that Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis, is that community meant different things to different people. Whereas Ocean Hill-Brownsville blacks could plausibly claim that their communitarianism served the ends of justice, if only because it was a response to institutionalized racism, community looked very different when whites in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn organized to bar blacks from being bussed into their schools. Jonathan Rieder, author of Canarsie: The Jews and Italians of Brooklyn Against Liberalism, calls the protest the result of “deferred white vengeance for the New York school crisis of 1968.” As one Canarsie resident addressed the media: “You and the God-damned liberals, you screamed along with the blacks in 1968 for community control… now whites want what the blacks have, and you say we can’t have it.”
So to return to Rawls: how could blacks and whites in Brooklyn have found an overlapping consensus? Didn’t “community” prevent such a consensus from prevailing? As both Podair and Rieder argue, a new consensus was formed, that between formerly antagonistic outer-borough Jews and the city’s mostly Catholic Italians. Blacks were left in the lurch, especially when the city responded to its fiscal crisis of the 1970s by cutting social services that blacks were most dependent upon. Blacks were powerless to stop these cuts because they no longer had many white allies in the city. The Jews whom blacks previously relied upon as a sort of cosmopolitan buffer between themselves and the rest of the white population could no longer be counted on as such, in part because of the anti-Semitic-baiting that accompanied the 1968 controversy.
To conclude: to me, the history of Ocean Hill-Brownsville serves as a warning against community as a political principle. Am I missing something?