Community is the currency

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Comment by Peter Challen

There can be no peace without the unity of humankind and specific structures of inclusive social justice. That thought reflects the mature form of every major religion. Yet institutional drag across the years, usually draws most adherents of each faith tradition towards the preservation of the institution, rather than to a dynamic response to specific faithfulness in an always-changing world.

In light of that trend, the signs of the times are not propitious for the building of the peace on the foundations of justice and freedom. All modern wars, as Reinhold Niebuhr observed in his Moral Man in an Immoral Society, have used the moral argument of human togetherness, of a utopian war to end all wars, of a new noble sense and practice of politics, in order to boost the morale of the ordinary public. But this idealism was largely rhetorical, spurious, and closely linked with the immediate threat of death and destruction at the hands of the enemy so as to cut off for the retreat from the ideal and high purpose that animated us as a nation, and animated our enemies equally as a nation. Which is why the churches in every country bless every army, every navy and every airforce, and provided the soldier-martyrs with chaplains, a halo, a cenotaph and a memorial tablet

Is there hope?

The more serious-minded among the public, the conscientious objectors, the founders and supporters of peace movements, and the builders of various types of new worlds, tried to deepen and consolidate the new aims and requirements implied in the hypocritical exploitation of the vague and noble emotions that live like amoeba in the subconscious plasma of every human being.

Oh yes, there is hope in the multiplicity of peace movements, of new world movements, of internationally minded charities, and above all of the heroic protest movements. But the arrival of a call-up card always sets in motion a searing dilemma at the level of personal commitment. If one joins the army it is difficult to live with oneself; if the card is burnt, one's family, neighbours, even your church, may reject you and there will be tensions among your professional colleagues. It is easier to sneer at protesters than to imitate their heroism with its excruciating demands.

But, for the general public, peace, charity, racial integration, economic justice, political justice and genuine internationalism are fashions, short-lived emotional spurts, easily replaced or argued out of a human conscience. Today, not only in Britain but all over the world, we are reverting to the primitive homo homini lupus (“man is a wolf to every other man”) of Thomas Hobbes.

I suggest that the very speed and spread of modern communication reduces the lifespan of any ideal and any noble purpose in the mind of the public to no more than two or three years. They go the way of pop singers, soap operas, European Cups and solutions for our balance of payments.

Thus we live in a brittle and volatile civilisation where no major vision can take root. If we had a powerful critical philosophy we might yet restore the religious sense of a God of all creation and the life of mutuality, co-operation and sustainability that implies. But in spite of some individual counter efforts the atomisation of thought has had a profound effect among young intellectuals from which we show little sign of recovery.

Human imagination has shrunk, our mental insight has become myopic, and our judgement is impaired by the brittle glamour of actuality, which has alienated us from prophecy, vision and commitment. The faiths have reduced the societal visions to individual salvation and spirituality, in a polarity with material responsibility at a level of the international human community.

The consequences of this societal alienation are truly catastrophic when it affects our human view of ourselves, of our fellow humans, of humankind.

The others

If we understand a human as essentially an autonomous individual we shall see ourselves as autonomous individuals and everybody else as autonomous individuals. Consequently we see our primary responsibility in the acquisition of the good life for ourselves: we are basically self-centred. This self-centredness as the main spring of the human condition and human interrelationships can only weaken whatever bonds we may still accept as linking us with others. Society then becomes composed of each one's individual self and what is loosely described as “the others”. It is not far from this view to see, as Jean-Paul Sartre did, other people as our hell: “l'enfer, c'est les autres”. With self-interest as the dominant subconscious and conscious force we shall find it necessary to hedge ourselves round with the security of a family, of a social group, of business associates or union members, of a nation, and of a race. All these structures can be seen in our concrete and immediate experience as protecting our individual interests, our individual security, our safety.

Since nobody is so impractical as to dream of the whole of humankind serving our individual interests, any thinking about humankind as a whole is written off as unrealistic, idealistic, not worthy of consideration. So we go on trying the impossible, that is, to build peace, justice, freedom and human dignity on an expansionist individualism, which dominates all our economic, social and national thinking.

And the most pernicious undertone to this whole process of an individualistic tendency towards societal alienation is the part played by a debt-based, compound interest bearing money-issuing system. To justify usury and to label it euphemistically, “interest”, as the majority of all people of faith or of no faith now do, is the canker at the core of our distorted civilisation. It is the greatest collusion the great faiths allow all too readily. They do so because the imperative of institutional preservation leads them astray from their generous and inclusive visions of structured justice, which alone will extend peace to all humanity. To restore the idea that the “community is the currency” and that trading should be interest free is our greatest contemporary imperative.

Economic interests

As was famously said “We must hang together; or we will hang separately.” Yet for many, the primary purpose of foreign policy is national security: Since we cannot ensure our safety alone we need alliances. The need for security demands that there should be a threat. For them peace has to be made by one or two, or more, and peace is not within the control of the individual government.

Our security must therefore work with alliances and particularly military alliances and the presence of military forces. For without these our economic interests, our trade routes, our wealth is threatened. Thus it becomes possible to see the rest of the world only in terms of the need of a market. Such an outlook rules out peace, not because it is out of date, not because it looks forward to some prosperity for ourselves, not even because its basic argument necessarily is the stupid argument of military violence called defence, but because it takes for granted that our primary interest is individualistic self-interest, and in this view one country is more important, more immediately our concern than humankind as a whole. For, as soon as we being to think of humankind as a whole, take the notion of community as the norm for our political, economic, social and national activity, we begin with a unit which has no competitor, no threat from outside, and our security will be the security of all, a shared security. Yet this, I suggest, is the only possible realistic approach to thinking about peace. But this demands a totally different view of humankind.

Communal, not collective!

As long as people see themselves in practice as autonomous individuals, we cannot build a better world, because this requires a basic common purpose, mutual co-operation, tolerance, and, here we come to the basic point again, peace. Accumulating autonomous individuals in space and time does not amount to building a community. It can only lead to an impersonal and unarticulated society. And there lies the rub. A community is essentially a basic togetherness, a basic and inescapable interrelationship, a communal and cohesive consciousness. For this reason words like “society” and “collective” are essentially different from “community” and “communal”, and should never be confused.

But if people are not autonomous individuals whatever their actual behaviour - what are they? I suggest that we are essentially communal people. The basic fact we must recover about the human, and it lies in all the religious me, is that humanity is a species. Would that there was space to develop this definition.

Two ogres

Suffice it to say that this basic tenet implies two factors of overriding importance. The first is that members of species work together, necessarily together, definitely proving that no isolated and autonomous individual of the species could make any progress without the rest of the species. In other words, any species is essentially a community. It is a community and not a society because the community is the overriding evolutionary force that guides them, stimulates them, enables them, and leads them to an overriding communal result. In the process the functions are distributed for the sake of co-operation and mutual support.

The second being that all this activity is leading to the highest possible level of existence that the species can reach, given its innate potential! In other words whether we reject the term of purpose, as some modern philosophers (eg Wittgenstein) do, or not, there is a communal purpose. It is no good calling this a collective purpose, which would mean that individuals, all supremely autonomous, agree to reach a certain level of existence, because the individual members of the species have no choice. It is as an overriding unit, as a community, that they have to - and in fact do - proceed.

If, then, humankind is a species, both these points are fundamental to the understanding of humanity: and we all have a communal purpose, whether we like it or not. But this cannot be realised while two great ogres hold sway, individualism and usury.