"Community": beware, it might be counterfeit or just another commodity

Submitted by BruceDWatson on May 5, 2011 - 9:04am

The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by the things that seem than by those that are. (Machiavelli 1950)

We are in danger of losing the plot on "community". A successful housing developer who uses the concept of community extensively in his marketing was asked what the word “community" meant to him and he responded, “It doesn’t mean anything more than a marketing term.”

On a weekly basis in the course of my work, I see the commodification of community - and the rise and rise of counterfeit community. It's happening due to the never ending proliferation of out-moded managerialism techniques together with a type of propaganda that hypnotises people into lofty ideas, political actions, naive reasoning and sometimes the plain ridiculous. It does a huge disservice to, .... well,... the community.

Community has regrettably become a product to be advertised, marketed and sold. It makes no difference whether genuine community exists or not. As long as it appears to exist. Consequently, we are subjected to planned communities that are advertised as “truly a special place”, “we’ve made the dream a reality” and “the tasteful community you deserve” with a “neighbourhood bar and grill” (in the multi-story shopping centre complex).

Definitions usually identify what the definer thinks is worthy and necessary – what is thought to be irrelevant can be ignored. That said it is well known that there is little agreement on what “community” is. Its true nature has become clouded and easily manipulated for commodification and marketing.

While recognising the difficulty in defining “community”, John Freie says it is, “organic, not contractual or artificial. In a sense it is a living organism that is continually changing and adapting to challenges in the environment”…. “it is not possible to impose communal structures upon people and expect them to become a community” … “Community is not formed by people who get together and agree to sign their names to a document to form a community; rather, it is created over time as people form connections with each other, develop trust and respect for each other, and create a sense of common purpose.”

Too often we are made to see a spirit of community without accepting the complex interactions that must occur for it to be realised. We would be better placed to think about community as:

"… an interlocking pattern of just human relationships in which people have at least a minimal sense of consensus within a definable territory. People in a community actively participate and cooperate with others to create their own self-worth, a sense of caring about others, and a feeling for the spirit of connectedness." (Freie, 1998).

Counterfeit or commoditised community has a serious hollowness about it. It separates us all from reality. All instances of counterfeit community are intentional and ignore the interconnected relationships that link us to each other and the environment. Without the relationships we are left only with a yearning and attraction to anything that appears to suggest a feeling of being connected.

Counterfeit community is inherently exploitive. “It has mutated like a cancer, extending into virtually all sectors of … life, subtly undermining the possibility of genuine community while masquerading as the very thing it prevents.” (Freie, 1998).

Counterfeit community superficially and symbolically links us to others but can never be fully satisfying. It never requires an act of responsibility to understand and maintain relationships necessary for genuine community. Counterfeit community extends the power and expands the wealth of those who create it.

While I have seen attempts at community engagement with multicultural and minority groups that often do not fare well outside of their own communities, the processes are far too bureaucratic and led by managerial techniques outcomes. The relationship aspect is largely ignored but the managerial technique scorecard is usually achieved.

Bureaucrats enthusiastically describe their numerous funded projects and multicultural community “town meetings” or "focus groups" for example, without having done the homework or deep research required beforehand. The community development I describe here is the development of counterfeit community – thoughtless, commoditised and predominantly a performance or glitzy spectacle for society at large. The format and approach is so compelling in our managerialistic hypnotised society that positive, lasting community results are actually thought to be possible. They are not.

“Mistaking counterfeit community for the “real” thing has significant implications … we will use resources to distance ourselves from social concerns, from our psychological needs, and even from reality. Such a “communal” experience leaves us feeling alone, empty and bewildered as to what has gone wrong.” (Freie, 1998).

Community is not a place or a thing: it is a calling, a struggle a journey. (Robert Booth Fowler, 1991)

Neighbourhood vs Community

"human relationships in which people have at least a minimal sense of consensus within a definable territory".(Freie, 1998)

If our discussion of "community" becomes unteathered from place or definable territory we are prone to many of the perils discussed. I have found that when I substitute the word neighbourhood for community things become less abstract.

I think that it is helpful to speak of "building community within a neighbourhood". This points to the quality of life within a definable territory, in much the same way that when we speak of home we are pointing to the quality of relationships within a house.