Contesting Community: Breaking Down the Chapters


  • Our interest in local community is tied to a broad social and economic critique of neoliberal forms of capitalism. We believe that there is a struggle for social change, shaped by the goals of social and economic justice and equality, is still critical.
  • We believe that the local community is an important, but not an exclusive, place to work for these goals.
  • We have witnessed the marginalization of the longer-term goals of economic and social justice as part of the agenda of community organizing. In its place, we see a narrower focus on much more limited practice. This limited practice is justified because it meets specific needs with a deliberate pragmatism. It is often shaped by the needs of the neoliberal context, and the related priorities of government and of the large private foundations that fund these organizations.
  • Community-based efforts are being promoted as the solution to a whole host of social, political, economic and cultural issues and problems. But this embrace has been of community initiatives that, in both theory and practice, are politically constrained and limited in their goals and aspirations. It is based on an understanding of community that is largely divorced from the goals of social, economic and political justice.
  • Community, in short, is being embraced by the state and capital precisely because it is being used in ways that are not only uncritical of the larger political economy but actually largely in line with the needs and interests of the political economy – and those who benefit most from it.
  • Community organizations must better understand the contemporary processes of neoliberalism and capitalist globalization.
    • The expansion of the market into the social sphere, including its use of community development and
    • The decentralization of the state, giving greater responsibility to the local.
    • Some core ideas that have been used to support the conservative direction in community development and organizing:
      • Concepts of Communitarianism:
        • Social capital
        • Asset-based community development
        • Consensus organizing
        • There are organizations that do not follow the dominant trends in ideas and practices that have been in place since 1980. These organizations
          • Go beyond the limits of community; they work on issues such as labor
          • Transcend the geographic scale of their community; working on citywide, nationwide or global levels
          • Community efforts can play a critical role in challenging contemporary neoliberalism, but it is essential not to romanticize the power and potential of local efforts.
            • Community is not a contradictory and contested concept, not simply an inherently good thing.
            • Basic social change implies at least the redistribution of wealth and income, and as a goal in and of itself, is the redistribution of power toward the working class, poor and groups that have faced forms of oppression in contemporary capitalism, such as racial minorities and women.

Community and its Discontents

  • Community organizations are structurally reliant on outside organizations – while this reliance does not mean that community organizations are powerless in their dealings with outside funders, it does render those relations structurally unequal.
  • Communities are places of organizing power. For this to happen, communities, through local organizations, need to see outside targets that should be challenged and not accept the inward-directed policies and practices that shape so much of contemporary local practice.
  • Community organizations, through their leadership (staff, board, or members) must have strong, explicit commitments to the struggle for social and economic justice. This is a starting point.
  • Social and economic justice is not going to be realized at the scale of the community, but it must remain the goal. It is not enough to call for economic justice; there needs to be critical analyses of the causes of the problems in communities.
  • Because of their political goals and analyses, efforts need to maintain conflict at the core of their activities.
  • Think and organize both locally and beyond the local as a precondition for communities to be part of a needed broad-based movement for economic and social justice.

History Matters

  • Social movements have always been central to effective community efforts.
  • Social movements provide opportunities, direction and support for such local efforts. Even more than community organization, they have the power to force claims, politics, strategies and tactics onto not only the local but also the state and national political stage, thereby legitimizing and catapulting them beyond traditional barriers. Community initiatives are usually the product of or tied to broader social movements.
  • Community organizing is premised on the assumption that building a relatively permanent structure with clear processes of delegation of power and roles facilitates longevity and democracy.
  • Social movements tend to be, by definition, much looser. Groups mobilize for specific campaigns or actions and then disband. It is impossible to impose a single structure on a movement.
  • The populist, labor or civil rights movement, or the feminist movements of the past century, all developed out of local organizing and became, as social movements, far greater than the sum of their local organizational parts.

The Market, the State, and Community in the Contemporary Political Economy

  • There are two principle forces of neoliberalism that pertain to community-based efforts
    • The primacy of the market
    • The decentralization of the state
    • Neoliberalism is in the first instance, a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such rights.
    • More and more community-based not-for-profits are expected to understand the world like for-profit business – and behave accordingly. Efficiency, accountability, the bottom line, cost-saving, worker productivity and entrepreneurialism are the watchwords in contemporary not-for-profit governance.
    • The focus of policy has moved from one based on rights to one that emphasizes individual responsibility.
    • The market does not do many of the things that community organizations want done- this is why the public sector of the not-for-profit sector does them.
    • More serious problems such as poverty and unemployment cannot be solved through limited business development at the community level.
    • Community itself is undermined by the market.
      • Communities are divided into a set of use and exchange values.
      • The market is interested in the co-modification of social life, and the conversion of what people need into profit.
      • Government policies have directly contributed to the growth of community organizations, as well as to the composition and programmatic activities of those organizations.
      • There are four components to the shift to community as decentralized social policy
        • The retrenchment of the state
        • The devolution of state functions, and the shrinking of the scale of state intervention
        • Policies that redirect and restructure activities to community-based non-profits; and
        • Community-based practices that adjust and respond to the state policies and market imperatives.
        • Relations between government and community-based nonprofits can be described as one of the relatively powerless communities confronting a state which by itself is under assault from the forces of global capitalism.
        • Local groups that buy into government and foundation programs are rewarded, and groups and organizations that do not, or are too small to do so, become marginalized.
        • Public contracting has pushed community organizations to become more professionalized – and thereby divorced from their communities – and more businesslike in how they operate and understand their roles.
        • The shifting character of community organizations has limited the ability of the organizations to demand social change as a core part of what they do.
          • The organizations are dependent upon government for their revenues; their capacity to challenge the government has become compromised.
          • Organizations put themselves in the position of arguing for services that they are already providing.
          • By being the provider of services, the capacity of community organizations to mobilize the community has become compromised because the members of the community too often interact with the organization from a position of dependence, rather than from a position of strength. Service provision need not entail disempowerment and client status, but too often it does.
          • By becoming the provider of services, community organizations contribute to make the state less responsible.
            • Democracy is doubly undermined, at the local and national level, and the market and community reign supreme.

It Takes a Village

  • Neoconservative ideas of the 1980s focused almost exclusively on the individual as the cause and solution to social problems. When those policies failed, policy makers turned to family as the cause and the solution to social problems. When that failed, the next step was to turn to community, picking up on the concept that “it takes a village to raise a child”.
  • These efforts promoted a form of community that is essentially depoliticized and inward-looking, essentially absent of tensions, let along deep differences.
  • Dominant forms of community-based efforts maintain the supremacy of the market as they promote decentralized forms of collectively distinct from the state.
  • The promotion of these contemporary ideas and practices of community building did not bring about any fundamental changes from the neoliberal economic and political agendas.
  • If neoliberal ideas were not eagerly embraced, social reform efforts reluctantly adopted some of the moderating and conservative strictures of neoliberalism in order to win modest goals in what was seen by theoreticians and practitioners as required adjustments in a very hostile context.
  • Communitarian theory focuses on social order, not social change.
  • The consolidating of communities and civil society as a whole are to overcome the social disintegration brought by the dominance of the marketplace.
  • Most communitarian forms of civic engagement build on a conception of social consensus.
  • Moderate/left communitarians privilege local community and interactions among family members, friends and neighbors in an almost Jeffersonian antipathy to national government and policies.
  • Social capital-relationships between individuals and organizations in local communities. Emerges from connections between entities, and is further developed through trust, mutual understanding and through reciprocal actions based on shared norms and values.
  • Intentionally or not, social capital and community building help to bring neoliberalism to the grassroots as organizations seek to survive by figuring out how to adapt to neoliberalism’s global hegemony.
  • It is rare that organizations look outward to build solidarity with politicized groups that engage in conflict.

What’s Left in the Community?

  • Our central argument: over the last 30 years, the shrinking of the political goals of these organizations has been accompanied by a narrowing of the frame of reference in community-based efforts to a focus on the community in and of itself.
  • Despite the larger tendencies of weakened political demands and shrinking perspectives, there are still significant efforts in Anglo-American communities that have not lost sight of the goals of social and economic justice for their communities. There are still community-based efforts that recognize that justice within communities can only come from changes in the larger political economy. They organize in ways that extend beyond the community in order to try to realize greater justice within the community. They help people build power through collective action in order to enlarge democracy through non-parliamentary means.
  • While organizations contribute to concrete improvements in the lives of their members and the wider community, at the same time they all work to extend/protect social and economic rights. They also believe that the power to do this is through organizing people either within their own group or through wider alliances, including social movements.
    • The organizations are outward looking, insofar as their efforts have a focus that includes and goes beyond the local. Integrated into their practice is an analysis of the broader context of their work. This includes an understanding of the changing political economy as establishing new barriers as well as providing opportunities to advance the causes of their organizations.
    • Their goals include increasing social and economic equality of their members or constituency. All see conflict as central to their practice.
    • They understand that organizing is fundamentally a means of addressing basic inequities of power. To that end, they all offer an example of practice grounded in a political analysis that guides their commitment to progressive social change through popular mobilization.

Radicalizing Community

  • Understand the importance of community – in order to realize the potential within communities, people working within them must first understand that potential – and its limits.
  • Communities and local organizations are not inherently Left or Right, progressive or reactionary.
  • Local work in community organizations or trade unions that looks beyond the traditional boundaries of these organizations creates a base from which larger movements and campaigns grow. Without the local work, the wider efforts cannot be sustained and will ultimately be a base of either members or place.
  • Social and economic problems cannot be addressed in any substantial way solely through local work. Therefore, community-based efforts must address and confront issues and problems within a community and create linkages beyond the local.
  • Community organizations need to understand their work in a three-fold manner:
    • Given that the conditions in communities are products of larger-scale social forces and processes, there are real and significant limitations to what can be achieved solely through a focus on internal community-scale issues.
    • In a politically hostile or reactionary context, internally focused social reform can seem like revolutionary work. Unless organizations are outward-looking, insofar as their efforts have a focus that includes and goes beyond the local, they are often just providing modest relief that legitimizes the larger system.
    • That is, by staying within the community, the larger system remains unchallenged. The cliché of “think globally, act locally” is an extremely disempowering one because it discourages action beyond the local.
    • Focusing on community-based work solely on the level of community enables- encourages, even – a blaming of the victim of larger-scale problems.
    • Conflict over power must be a key orientating direction of community organizing. With the struggle over power relations, conflict is expressed in several ways:
      • Conflict defines who the opposition is. It defines who benefits from the current set of power relations. There is a we/they dynamic in place, at least on the specific issues being contested.
      • Conflict is expressed through the analysis of social issues. Organizations must understand power relations and structurally-rooted interests are central, and problems emerge because of unequal power relations. Therefore, political education and analysis is a key part of their activities. Organizations need to be asking questions of who benefits and why, when issues are confronted. Organizing is a means of challenging structural power, whether it is based on class, gender, race or sexuality.
      • Conflict can be built into organizational practice not only through direct conflictual relations with those in positions of power but also through the creation of alternative practices that challenge dominant ones.
      • Building new relationships around current challenges should not be discounted. Hegemony is not permanent, and neither are people’s interests or politics. But dealings with prior enemies must come from a position of power and opposition to antidemocratic forces, not a desire for partners and a seat at their table.
      • Although community organizing efforts and social movements are almost always treated as a different species, both in the literature and by practitioners, a critical element in moving toward a new theory and practice of local work is recognizing their common origins and elements, as well as seeing them as parts of the same overall social struggle.
      • Outward-looking community efforts should consider movement-building practices as well as building connections with existing, broader social movements. And social movements, if they seek greater and more long-term success, must understand the need for an active base in local communities in order to contest power effectively and to bring demands for social justice forward with the possibility of victories.
      • The dominant traditions of community organizing and their related organizations tend to focus their work on winning short-term gains or finding limited ways to ameliorate social conditions. We propose that for community organizations to be a part of a wider, larger-scale and longer-term movement for social change, social analysis as well as its dissemination through political education is critical.
      • One of the barriers to long-term change, in addition to the basic power relations inherent in the system, is the pragmatic and adaptive strategy of community work, which, without naming a radical politics, undermines a longer-term and more fundamental social change.
      • People make history when they challenge the existing power and when times are right. But those times are few and far between, and they do not last long.

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