There’s a localism movement afoot. People seem to sense, and perhaps even understand at some level, that it’s important to be a part of a thriving local community.
The Saturday after Black Friday is now recognized as “Small Business Saturday,” an effort to remind people that it’s important to support their local stores. There has been a corresponding harsh backlash against Amazon and its disturbing gains on the back of COVID.
The phrase “Bowling Alone” from Robert Putnam’s 2000 book about America’s alarming reduction in “social capital” has gained currency. I see it used with no explanation, since the writer just assumes everyone knows what it refers to.
More people seem to understand the importance of buying and eating locally-grown food.
The American Chesterton Society, that flagship organization for the oft-forgotten but persistent economic school of Distributism, recently declared that “Distributism” ought now to be called “Localism.”
The examples could go on and on.
If you’re interested in the localism movement, here are five things about the importance of your community that you should keep in mind.
1. Communities are organic
“[Man] combines with other men because isolation endangers him.” Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage.
The earliest communities came together for safety. The world has bad people who will beat and rob you, unless you have protection. If you belong to a group, you have a layer of protection, hence the rise of the earliest communities.
They are, in other words, organic. No one told the first peoples, “Go live in that village together, so the marauders can’t get you.” People did it naturally. The communities formed organically, from the bottom up, with no direction required or sought from the top.
When you get involved in your community, you are living organically.
2. Communities solve problems
“ . . . and because there are many things that can be done better together than alone.” Id.
After the community came together for safety, it then needed to figure out how to exist, which meant providing basic necessities, like food, clothing, and shelter. The communities had to figure it out for the good of everyone in the community or else people would leave, thereby decreasing the safety offered by numbers.
Communities to this day exist for the same purpose.
Humans tend to come together for the simple reason that we are social animals. Communities exist to do something together.
The stronger your community, the better it is at solving problems. The better it is at solving problems, the better community you live in.
Conversely, the worse your community is at solving problems, the worse community you live in. It’s one of the reasons Communism was so devastating in eastern Europe. By taking away all local control in favor of the central government, Communism killed the ability of communities to solve their own problems.
3. Communities allow the best to get on top
“Wherever two or more people associate, there is bound to be some form of hierarchy.” Robert Nisbet, Twilight of Authority
We need leaders. Use your imagination and think about one of those earliest groups coming together for safety. At some point, someone had to say, “How are we going to feed all of us? We need to grow food. In order to do that, we need to dig a well. Let’s go do it.”
That person is a leader.
Every community has leaders. They’re often the strongest, or smartest, or most energetic. Granted, many “leaders” are just self-congratulatory busybodies or a rich guy who throws his money around, but the true leader is a person that others want to work with.
The true leader, in other words, has authority. And it’s in a community that true authority rises to the top and guides the community through voluntary action of others.
Authority is the opposite of power, which is coerced action from others: forcing them to follow the “leader’s” plans or face unpleasant consequences.
In a community, good people tend to get on top because people recognize their authority and voluntarily work with them. In a culture without community, the worst people tend to get on top because they want the power and use the threat of violence to coerce people to work with them.
“Man is not willingly a political animal . . . If he asks for many laws it is only because he is sure that his neighbor needs them; privately he is an unphilosophical anarchist, and thinks laws in his own case superfluous.” Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage.
4. Communities are the first extension of the family
If the family is the building block of society, the community is its frame.
The family is the most crucial unit of society. In the family, the child learns that there are other people besides herself and that sometimes those other people’s needs or wants take priority over her needs or wants.
In the family, in other words, the child learns the first rule of cultured existence: you can’t live just for yourself.
The community expands the family’s role and teaches the child the second rule of cultured existence: the world is a big place.
Community yanks a person out of what Tolstoy called “family narcissism.” No matter how important family is, there’s a whole lot more beyond one’s family room and backyard. The community is the child’s introduction to what’s beyond her yard.
And just as it’s important for one’s family to be good, it’s important for the child’s community to be good so the child can develop properly.
“For the family to perform its vital functions, the church, the school, the local community, and voluntary associations must all be aligned in mutual support.” Brad Lowell Stone, Robert Nisbet.
5. Communities provide a grounding
Alienation has been a buzzword for quite awhile now. Modern man finds himself alienated by mass society. He is thrown into existence with nothing: no norms of behavior to embrace, no essential truths to hold onto. That is the truth that informs the modern philosophical school of existentialism.
Communities reduce that modern sense of alienation.
A person in community is no longer a person cut adrift. It’s not just him and the world wide web, or just him against a foe that exerts power over him in the form of regulation and taxation that he can’t see, or just him and a sea of humanity on the sidewalks.
A person in community has a place. A person in community has a function. A person in community has fixed reference points called “friends” or “co-workers” or “club members.”
A person in community, in short, isn’t alienated. He’s not adrift. He has reference points. They’re not perfect by any means, but they are reference points.
I think of it like monasteries. Traditionally, monks have gardened. The act of literally sticking one’s hands into the ground metaphorically grounds a person. It’s a reflection of the sacramental nature of reality. The monk is still a sinner and might do some terrible things, but the fundamental importance of grounding is there.
The same with community. A person in grounded community is grounded metaphysically . . . on the sidewalks of his New York neighborhood or the backyards of suburbia or the shopping districts of small towns.
Does the alienation, confusion, and unhappiness end because a person is involved in his community?
No. The modern world is a vacuous and confusing place. One’s community isn’t going to eliminate it or, if it does eliminate it for awhile, the person becomes aware of it again as soon as he gets on the Internet.
But if he belongs to a community, he at least knows he’s not alone.
That sometimes makes all the difference.