Between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

The first set of classical insights I would like to apply to the question of the social and the conditions of possibility for agonal democracy are drawn from the work of Ferdinand Tonnies. A German social thinker of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Tonnies is an interesting figure in classical sociology who occupies a somewhat ambiguous position in the contemporary sociological imagination, generally represented at the periphery of what one might call the ‘second tier’ of the pantheon of classics. Even granting the contingent, often historically revisionist, and deeply contestable character of the so-called canonical designation (Baehr 2002), Tonnies is—with a few notable exceptions (Deflem 1999; Wilding 2005; Inglis 2009)—surprisingly under-explored in Englishspeaking scholarship, given the relative consensus about his status within the canon.

A socialist and somewhat nostalgic champion of rural life, Tonnies offers an interesting and nuanced consideration of society and social solidarity under early German industrialization. Specifically, Tonnies posits a range of conceptualizations of the social that focus on the juxtaposition of real and artificial forms of social cohesion. Also of interest is Tonnies’s connection to Schmitt. Though Schmitt’s and Tonnies’s primary works were separated by a few decades, with Schmitt’s career starting to take off as Tonnies’s began to wind down, the two did interact professionally. Quite disparate both analytically and politically, Tonnies openly challenged Schmitt’s work, criticizing him at length in a 1922 publication, Kritik der offentlichen Meinung (On Public Opinion), to which Schmitt is said to have responded in public lectures (Tonnies et al. 2000).

That said, I am by no means suggesting a wholesale adoption of Tonnies’s view of society of social life. Indeed, while Tonnies offers many fascinating insights into social organization and the relationships that underpin social solidarity, his privileging of smaller rural communities as the sights of genuine social solidarity are neither accepted nor relevant in the present context. Instead, drawing on Tonnies to begin to re-think the social as articulated in contemporary agonal democratic theory, I propose to adapt ideas from three central themes in his analysis of the social: sociation, conflict, and solidarity.

Critical of the ways in which industrialization, urbanization, and advancing capitalism were transforming rural German communities, Tonnies studied social organization and the preconditions for different forms of social solidarity. As the title of his seminal work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society) suggests, Tonnies explored human association in terms of a contrast between its real or organic forms (Gemeinschaft, or community) and its imaginary and mechanical counterparts (Gesellschaft, or society) (Tonnies 2002: 33). While Tonnies also considered a vast array of particulars within each form of association not relevant to the analysis at hand, a summary of the essential differences between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft is a necessary starting point.

Gemeinschaft, according to Tonnies, is characterized by a genuine sympathy and understanding, which binds together human beings as members of a totality (Tonnies 2002: 47). It is characteristic of smaller rural lifestyles, and to some degree is predicated on these smaller collectivities organized around kinship ties. As he notes:

The real foundation of unity, and consequently the possibility of Gemeinschaft, in first place is closeness of blood relationships and mixture of blood; secondly, physical proximity; and, finally, for human beings, intellectual proximity. In this gradation, therefore, are to be found the sources of all kinds of understanding. (Tonnies 2002: 48)

To this notion of understanding and genuine sympathy, Tonnies adds a particular orientation to and understanding of property. According to Tonnies, ‘[l]ife of the Gemeinschaft is mutual possession and enjoyment and possession of enjoyment of common goods’ (Tonnies 2002: 50). Here the rules of barter and exchange are foundational, and life is organized around necessary, as opposed to dispensable, goods. Gemeinschaft is thus characterized as the natural and ideal form of sociation, one founded on a unity of members through true bonds of social solidarity.

In contradistinction to the natural, genuine, and implicitly socialist association of Gemeinschaft, Tonnies posits the association of Gesellschaft. While these two forms of association may superficially appear similar, Tonnies suggests that they are different to the point of being nearly antithetical. Specifically, he contends that Gesellschaft ‘[...]superficially resembles the Gemeinschaft in so far as the individuals live and dwell together peacefully. However, in the Gemeinschaft they remain essentially united in spite of all separating factors, whereas in the Gesellschaft they are essentially separated in spite of all uniting factors’ (Tonnies 2002: 65).

Whereas the totality of the Gemeinschaft is built on understanding, genuine sympathy, and the mutual enjoyment of properties, Gesellschaft is focused on what Tonnies describes as the fiction of objective value. Tonnies argues that one of the greatest challenges that faces the Gesellschaft is how to create the objective quality of ‘value’ in the infinite diversity of property. Worth, as the measure of property in Gemeinschaft, is a ‘quality which is perceived by the real individual’ (Tonnies 2002: 67). Worth is therefore subjective and thus cannot be generalized into an objective standard. Instead, Tonnies argues, the collectivity of the Gesellschaft creates a fictional being, a generalized individual, whose task it becomes to represent a generalizable and objective worth. As worth cannot be objective, Tonnies describes this generalized quality as value.

In order for the concept of a generalized objective value to function, the hypothetical being’s analysis of worth must be accepted by all in the collectivity. This, for Tonnies, is the acceptance of a single artificial will by the totality of the Gesellschaft. As he describes it:

In order that the judgment may even with this qualification become objective and universally valid, it must appear as a judgment passed by ‘each and every one.’ Hence, each and every one must have this single will; in other words, the will of exchange becomes universal, i.e., each and every one becomes a participant in the single act and he confirms it; thus it becomes an absolute public act. (Tonnies 2002: 67)

It is in this way that the individuals who make up the membership of the Gesellschaft subjugate themselves to the latter’s artificial will, initially to affirm a conception of objective value necessary for an exchange economy, then later to recognize it as the originator of a postulated set of natural laws and conventions. According to Tonnies, the more individuals accept this will of the Gesellschaft, the more the famous contention of Adam

Smith, that every man becomes in some measure a merchant, becomes a reality (Tonnies 2002: 76). As Tonnies notes:

In Gesellschaft every person strives for that which is to his advantage and he affirms the actions of others only in so far as and as long as they can further his interest. Before and outside of convention and also before and outside of each special contract, the relation of all to all may therefore be conceived as potential hostility or latent war. (Tonnies 2002: 77)

Thus, with the generalized ‘will of exchange,’ each individual in the Gesellschaft becomes more and more instrumental and self-interested and therefore fundamentally disconnected from and adversarial towards those around them.

What is most relevant here from Tonnies’s discussion of community and society are the important ways in which underlying social structure and core organization shape and precondition the forms of sociation and ultimately social solidarity possible within them. For Tonnies, it is not merely that relations degrade under Gesellschaft but rather that the conditions of possibility presented by Gesellschaft only allow for certain types of sociation to flourish. Just as life under Gemeinschaft necessitates close bonds, trust, and genuine sympathy, Gesellschaft necessitates social relations predicated on a degree distancing and competition. The possible forms social relations can take are inherently tied to broader questions of social organization and the types of solidarity under which they are formed.

While Tonnies’s insights on the relationship between social solidarity and forms of sociation are clearly relevant to our contemporary question with regard to the social conditions of possibility for an agonal democratic order, so too are his thoughts on contest and conflict within the social body. For Tonnies, social conflict is by and large a negative, destructive, force; he explicitly rejects the idea that there could be any room for true conflict within a healthy social body. Indeed, he conceives of social conflict as the antithesis of association and therefore of successful human society; conflict within the social is understood as an ‘unnatural and diseased state’ (Tonnies 2002: 48). All conflict, however, is not created as equal. Tonnies distinguishes between social conflict based on ‘hostile passions,’ which spring from the loosening or rupture of natural ties, and social conflict ‘[...]which is based upon strangeness, misunderstanding, and distrust’ (Tonnies 2002: 48). The former, argues Tonnies, tends to be intense but brief, while the latter is typically chronic. For Tonnies, a healthy social body must be organized in a way that mitigates, and ideally completely avoids, acute conflict—notably of the chronic kind.

Taken together, these two concepts enable us to adapt from Tonnies a core conception of the social in which the range of possible social relations and types of solidarity are predicated, to some degree, on its core organization. Without fully embracing Tonnies’s description of urban life under early capitalism, we can concede that contemporary Western society is organized in a manner more akin to Gesellschaft than Gemeinschaft, and that, as such, predisposes itself to certain patterns of social solidarity, conflict, and, most importantly, core social relations. In the final section of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, Tonnies considers what he suggests is a key distinction ‘dealing with one’s relation to one’s fellow beings’ (Tonnies 2002: 237). Tonnies contends that modern human sociation is premised in an important way on relations of familiarity and strangeness, a point implied throughout his comparison of community and association. While the distinction between we and they might be relatively stable under the tight-knit conditions of Gemeinschaft, the lines between ally, competitor, and opponent are not always as clear under those of Gesellschaft. Though Tonnies makes no move to define the social through an opposition between the familiar and the strange, the implied spectrum between strangeness and familiarity represents an interesting perspective through which to consider the core distinction rendered within the social. Given the importance that the distinctions between friend, enemy, and adversary play in Mouffe’s account of an agonal democratic order, the social distinction between familiar and strange, and the spectrum of social relations which might flow from such, seem worthy of further consideration.

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