Column just above the tabloids: society exists only with others

Is our society disintegrating into a multitude of communities? What is important for all individuals is dealing with differences.

What is important for a society is dealing with differences and solidarity Photo: dpa

In the age of a divided, even disintegrating society, a call emerges more and more often: Let’s not leave concepts like home or belonging to the right! I would like to register skepticism here. For what does it actually mean that society is disintegrating?

Since Ferdinand Tonnies, sociology has distinguished between society and community. Communities are groupings with their own bond – through emotion, through tradition – that is experienced as "natural," organic. A society, on the other hand, is a much looser connection in which individuals exchange with each other, interact, cooperate – but still remain separate. For the individual, this means the difference between being part of and participating in: In a community, one is part of the whole – in a society, one participates.

What a division of society means, one can immediately imagine. But what does the disintegration of society mean? It is the regression into a multitude of communities. Of course, such communities existed earlier, when society was not questioned. There were political, religious, cultural subgroups. Today, however, what unites all these groups is eroding – which reinforces their respective community character all the more.

Populism is the most eminent – but not the only – force of this moment that promotes community. Thus, his nationalism is the attempt to transform a whole people into a community. But what do the open, tolerant, left-wing forces hold against this?

Invoking democracy and Europe

Where they try to make society strong, the commitment to concepts prevails. It’s like magical thinking: The very invocation of these concepts is supposed to ward off danger. Democracy, for example. Or Europe. All this is wanted as it is – only a little differently: democracy – only more democratic. EU – only more European, more social. Capitalism – only a little less of it, a little more regulated. All that is right, all that is fair. But let’s be honest with ourselves – it is not brilliant.

Now there is the new track: you turn the tables, make your own community appeals. So it happens that progressives also talk about belonging, look for the sense of "we", search for home. All of this is defined in a new, integrative way – as a formula for not leaving these concepts to the right.

The problem with this is that you yourself fall into the trap of the community. And that is no way out. It is rather a matter of detaching what one is looking for from the language of the community – of translating it into the language of society. To strengthen a society, we don’t need a new sense of "we," but rather a way of dealing with differences – with different communities, with different ideas of the good life.

Solidarity instead of a sense of belonging

What is needed is no longer a sense of belonging, but ideas about how to promote solidarity in a society in which individuals are no longer all alike. What is needed is not a new home, but rather increased social mixing.

What is needed is not the reinforcement of the community text, but the development of social categories. It is the same with the new narrative that everyone calls for and no one finds. It doesn’t take a new narrative to promote society. Rather, it needs something quite different: shared practice, shared experience. The members of society who are so different need to share experiences again.

This requires places of mixing, areas of cooperation – instead of ghettoization and social disconnection. It needs "dangerous encounters," as Heinz Bude called it. And that is something different than "talking to right-wingers"! Without this, the open, tolerant forces themselves threaten to become a community – the community of progressives. Because society cannot be made alone. You can only do it with others.