I have an article in this month's Prospect, attacking the prevalance of the word 'community' in contemporary political discourse. For subscribers, the link is here. The core of the argument is this:
When a faltering politician reaches for “community,” it is not in the hope of revealing or referring to anything, only of performing an act which they hope is beyond reproach. This “warmly persuasive word,” as Raymond Williams put it, summons diffuse feelings of ethical and cultural simplicity, not as an illumination of social reality but as a distraction from it. That it appears in the title of the recently rebranded office of the deputy prime minister, now department for communities and local government, may indicate something about the ebbing confidence of the Labour government nine years in.
It's a term I've never been comfortable with for various reasons. At least social capital is - by intellectual design - a measurable empirical entity. But with the Communities Minister on the rampage, there is no longer enough time or space to critically dissect all the various political sleights of hands that this word currently performs. My critique is actually inspired by reading Bruno Latour for the first time over the summer, and his diagnosis of what was wrong with the concept of 'society'. The original draft of the Prospect article included an admission of debt in the form of this quote from Reassembling the Social: "in a time of so many crises in what it means to belong, the task of cohabitation should no longer be simplified too much".
As far as Latour's critique is concerned, I would simply say that I am far more comfortable with the erroneous simplification that is 'society' (the myth that we are all connected into an integrated political-economic system) than that of 'community' (the myth that we are defined by our different histories, ethnicities and religions, to the point where we can barely communicate reasonably across the boundaries that separate them). For instance, in a political culture animated by the vision or myth of 'society', it is not only acceptable to ask another human being to remove their veil, it is a mark of shared humanity and reason (just as it is acceptable and reasonable for them to decline this request). But in a political culture obsessing over 'communities', the foreign qualities of a muslim woman become so magnified that the most basic of requests come to be deemed insulting and dangerous. I know which lie I would rather subscribe to.