Community in the Age of Austerity

Shana Cohen

In an interview on National Public Radio in the US, one of the leaders of the ‘alt right’ movement, Richard Spencer, called for the cultural affirmation of White European identity and a halt to what he perceived as the divisive and destructive effects of migration. Challenging him, the interviewer Kelly McEvers argued that residents of cities like New York demonstrate on a daily basis the ability of individuals from different backgrounds to live together. Citing a subway car full of people going to work, she states, “Everyone’s going about their life, going to work, you know? You don’t see that as, like, a way where people are getting along?” In response, Spencer asked, “Do we really like each other? Do we really love each other? Do we really have a sense of community in that subway car?”

Spencer politicizes the notion of community, asserting its value as a social objective in his contention that common ethnic and religious identity inherently produces social solidarity. Though perhaps opposed to his views, scholars as well often conflate religion, ethnicity, and community. More generally, they accept that communities are constituted by boundaries, by markers that differentiate members from others. As the prominent theorist of community Anthony Cohen writes, “people become aware of their culture when they stand at its boundaries: when they encounter other cultures, or when they become aware of other ways of doing things, or merely of contradictions to their own culture.” (1985: 69)

However, the assumption that communities depend on differentiation, or, inversely, internal methods of reinforcing borders, potentially overlooks the impact of specific economic, political, and social pressures on the experience of social belonging and the meaning and purpose of community as a concept and practice. As a vicar in London once said to me, ‘[the Church needs] more community organizing, more Church engagement in community organizing to influence wider society – that is the model that is going to bring about change and that is very much an interfaith model as well, working with people of all faiths and none.’

I suggest that the rise of far right, anti-migrant political figures like Spencer, Nigel Farage, and Marine Le Pen parallels a contemporary trend in community formation that is occurring across diverse religious, ethnic, and socio-economic groups, especially in urban areas characterized by deprivation and declining public services. These communities are open, rather than exclusive, with boundaries dependent on shared principles and faith in progress more than particular markers of identity. Faced with the punitive and often destructive effects of austerity measures and inequality, local residents form communities through shared practical aims and, importantly, belief in the moral imperative of social justice and individual dignity.

More specifically, the new communities form through two mechanisms – mobilization of resources in order to address local social problems and sustain local quality of life; and negation of social categories often driven by policies, like sanctions on unemployment benefits, which reinforce inequality and subjugation. Based on qualitative research with local initiatives in England from 2014-2016, I suggest that in an era of scarce public resources and little political will to address economic insecurity, these communities form explicitly to provide security in areas on the social and economic margins. To exist in security at the margins evokes Giorgio Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’ (1998), or the site of political exclusion and subjugation to violence and violation, and Jean-Luc Nancy’s identification of death, or the finitude of existence, as the basis of being-in-common (1992: 374). Community here serves to ensure the security of existing, particularly among those targeted by mechanisms of economic, legal, and social exclusion.

Open Communities

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘community’ as ‘the people living in one particular area or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group, or nationality.’ Students of community like Robert Putnam (2000) have emphasized the importance of structured interaction, through social networks or associations, and social exchange. Other theorists like Cohen have associated community with symbolic meaning, where symbols indicate the boundaries of the community and are reinforced through rituals and other practices. (Cohen 1985) Though Frazer stresses the theoretical ‘indeterminacy’ of the concept (1999: 61), she contends, 'A community is a corporate, rather than a merely interactive, entity’ (78) There is always within communities an ‘orientation to the whole and to its boundary.’ (Ibid)

In contrast, the concept of community evolving under austerity is implicitly political, where expansion is an objective and indicators of difference relate to policy, government agencies, and exploitative market practices, like zero hour contracts, rather than another ‘community’. Discussing local social action, an Anglican priest told me how growing mobilization to combat poverty offered an alternative narrative to the punitive policy discourse of austerity measures:

"We are grappling with unmet need that we see visibly on a day-to-day basis. I think there is an opportunity for a very practical response at a local level. We have a physical presence on a practical level. And we can feed that information through various channels to people in various positions who have influence."

Many of the individuals mobilizing resources and leading on the development of a narrative of community are clergy and lay leaders. This priest explained to me that ‘what is really required is a theology of social engagement that is…. about what we are about as Christians.’ For him, social engagement ‘is one of the positive things about this austerity period, churches have gotten their hands dirty … people have not been doing stuff but have started to think this feels like real Christianity. This gives me the opportunity to make connections, what society is like, how do I relate to it, how do I share love.’

The mobilization of financial, human, and in-kind resources can provide support to initiatives addressing basic needs like food banks and homeless shelters or to those helping to overcome insecurity, such as providing job search assistance, financial management courses, and debt relief. Resource mobilization can also concern maintaining local parks and libraries, engaging school parents in community activities, arranging classes, or setting up local sports matches. These communities benefit politically and practically from diverse membership. Participation across religious, ethnic, and cultural differences increases access to resources, widens the scope for commitment, and demonstrates for policymakers shared concern for security and dignity. The security community provides, however, is not just from access to material resources but also the experience of social belonging and the reliability of social relations. The desire for security confirms the functional importance of communities but more importantly, it makes defending community a political necessity.

The openness of these communities also relies on social interaction based not as much on reciprocity, as in Putnam’s thesis, as on the rejection of social categories or labels that imply inequality and exclusion, like ‘shirkers’ or ‘skivers’. Instead, community activists and leaders focus on communication and developing relationships, or as Emmanuel Levinas writes, ‘To hear his [the Other] destitution which cries out for justice is not to represent an image to oneself, but to posit oneself as responsible’ (1979: 215). For instance, the director of an East London food bank, a former public sector worker who switched careers after cuts to Sure Start, explained how he had received a phone call from a woman desperate for help. She and her husband had recently lost their severely disabled son, and soon after, faced a bedroom tax on the vacated room. According to the director, ‘The loss of benefits meant that he [the husband] hadn’t eaten for five days to make sure his wife with diabetes could eat.’ He added that they ‘both have mental health issues, so triple whammy – lost son, sanctioned, and struggling themselves.’ The wife had called in tears, saying, ‘I have eaten but my husband hasn’t.’ The director remarked, ‘you wouldn’t believe it unless you saw it, seeing more and more tragic situations, situations shouldn’t be happening in a first world country in the twenty-first century.’ The director viewed their actions in terms of survival, of fighting to exist, rather than dependency and relative weakness, and his responsibility as helping them to stabilize.

Community and Democracy

The public intellectual Tony Judt commented in his last book that ‘unequal access to resources of every sort – from rights to water – is the starting point of any truly progressive critique of the world.’ He adds, ‘But inequality is not just a technical problem . . . The inculcation of a sense of common purpose and mutual dependence has long been regarded as the linchpin of any community.’ (2010: 185) He calls inequality ‘inefficient’ because it undermines the capacity to form a community and the emotional satisfaction and practical benefits belonging to a community provides. The emerging communities actively engage in their own forms of redistribution and representation of collectivity that both includes and transcends diverse populations. The pressure on policymakers is to recognize these efforts and in doing so, prioritize social solidarity as a method and an aim while respecting difference. Criticizing cuts to housing benefits and caps on benefits for working families, the director of an organization serving the Orthodox Jewish community in North London commented, ‘in policy, the language is that you have too many kids so you are a drain. They want to remove the child benefit after two kids. But that is an intrusion into private life. Who are they to say how many kids you should have? It’s the idea of a drain. What about our contribution? There is no weighing up.’ Acknowledging this contribution would mean promoting the value of civic engagement and sustaining solidarity rather than judging and sanctioning individual behavior and beliefs.

This article was made possible by NPRP grant 7586020 from the Qatar National Research Fund (a member of the Qatar Foundation). The statements made herein are solely the responsibility of the author.

Shana Cohen has a PhD in Sociology from UC Berkeley and is an Associate Researcher with the Sociology Department. Her research interests include community activism and social action, inequality, unemployment and job creation, and social development. She has conducted research in North Africa, Europe and the US and is committed to finding ways to connect academic research to social change.


Agamben, Giorgio. (1998). Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Cohen, Anthony. (1985). The Symbolic Construction of Community. London: Routledge.

Judt, Tony. (2010). Ill Fares the Land. London: Allen Lane.

Levinas, Emmanuel (1979). Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. New York: Springer Science and Business Media.

Nancy, J.-L. (1991). The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota University Press.