Ferdinand Tonnies’ tale of transition
Tonnies’ account of the shifts from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft is often read as shorthand for the fall from community. Where once the individual in his identity and interpersonal relations was organically bound to small-scale associations, in modern society he is impersonally governed by the logic of commercial exchange. As a tale of transition that anchors subsequent sociological assessments of the impact of mass production and consumption on the psychosocial formations of modernity, Tonnies is taken to posit as lost a ‘holistic organic bonding’ attributable to Gemeinschaft (17). He establishes the distinction between his title concepts in the following terms:
Community [Gemeinschaft] is old, Society [Gesellschaft] is new, both as an entity and as a term. [… ] Community means genuine, enduring life together, whereas Society is a transient and superficial thing. Thus Gemeinschaft must be understood as a living organism in its own right, while Gesellschaft is a mechanical aggregate and artefact. (19)
In Gemeinschaft [people] stay together in spite of everything that separates them; in Gesellschaft they remain separate in spite of everything that unites them. (52)
We are therefore looking at human relationships and connections either as living entities [Gemeinschaft], or conversely as artificially constructed ones [Gesellschaft]. (21)
The terms are set. Yet Tonnies is more cautious than many regarding the fixity of these forms of social organisation and the two modes of being that follow. Wesenwille and Kurwille which denote, respectively, the spontaneous natural will inherent in all organic forms of intelligence, and the will of calculation and self-interest, are not to be taken as mutually exclusive modes of negotiating the world. Tonnies would not expect the empirical reality of any social formation to be exclusively Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft; likewise, neither Wesenwille nor Kurwille is expected to occur in isolation. Neither, it should be noted, is Tonnies giving us an account of social transformation that limits itself to historical description when he tells us that Gemeinschaft is old and Gesellschaft is new. That the logic of Gemeinschaft is not necessarily locked into a bygone historical epoch is readily evidenced by contemporary concepts such as the ‘global village’ and ‘glocal’ politics (we will also see below how Richard Sennett’s critical rendering of twentieth – century Gemeinschaft keeps Tonnies’ concepts in the sociological frame). Nonetheless, on the understanding that our concern is with the influence of Tonnies’ work and its status as a referent for subsequent accounts of the weakening of social bonds, we can anticipate that the shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft narrates the loss of an originary state.
Concerning Gemeinschaft, Tonnies cites three major forms of community relationships, all of which are underpinned by the same principles but which are sustained by different ties and which manifest different modes of authority. These are: community by blood, community of place, and community of spirit. The first finds its exemplary form in family and kinship structures and operates in accordance with the ‘natural authority’ of the Father; the community bonds of the second are determined by neighbourhood and locale and are governed by local rule (e. g. by the Prince, Lord, Patron figure); finally, the community of spirit is formed through relations of friendship and comradeship which are oriented around the authority of the master-craftsman (27-29). In the latter case Tonnies notes that the forces that bind are neither ‘organic’ nor ‘necessary’, but nonetheless a ‘common outlook’ ensures that the social relation is rooted in communitarian praxis (36). Notwithstanding this variation, it is in fact the family and household unit that remain central to all forms of community (for example, in community of spirit where physical proximity is compromised, the language of sibling relations – brotherhood, sisterhood – still persists). The family crystallises the idea of a ‘common good’ and the various activities of domestic life are said to ‘revolve round the same centre’ (this is the centre that, infamously, will no longer hold in the transition to Gesellschaft) (39). Moreover, it is the intensity of the mother-child relationship that is taken as the embodiment of ‘mutual affirmation’ and ‘mutual understanding’ characteristic of the Gemeinschaft form: The mother-child union, viewed as a self-sufficient totality, provides the prototype for the ‘complete unity of human wills’ expressed by communitarian associations (22). As we have seen to be the case in previous chapters, the ideal of a primary harmonious union proves to be a compelling but problematic beginning for an account of psychosocial development.
In Gesellschaft the complete unity of wills gives way to the rationality of self-interest, for ‘nothing happens [in Gesellschaft] that is more important for the individual’s wider group than it is for himself’ (52). On the grounds that civil society is rooted in commercial exchange, much of Tonnies’ account of Gesellschaft ‘paints a picture of the merchant turning industrialist’ and details the principles of a ‘fully fledged market Society’ (75; 88). In due course we will see how the transition that Tonnies narrates is kept alive in the twentieth-century accounts of increasing specialisation of the world of work, the rise of the (therapeutic) expert, and the loss of an integral identity that accompanies the move to mass production, mass consumption, and mass society. For example, when Daniel Bell (1996 ) explains that ‘[w]ithin organisations, the creation of hierarchies, job specifications, minutely defined responsibilities, rating systems, escalator promotions, and the like give emphasis to this sense of the fragmentation of self’ he attests to Tonnies’ idea that work-relations and their attendant modes of personal and cultural authority are transformed (93). Within a Gesellschaft system of commerce, says Tonnies, the master-craftsman ‘has to withdraw from his personal involvement with labour in order to regard it as just an extraneous tool’ (Tonnies, 78). Because the reciprocal binding sentiments of Gemeinschaft cannot be artificially manufactured, the mass of individuals in Gesellschaft ‘remain independent of one another and lacking in deep intimacy’ (63). As Tonnies has it, the problem of sustaining, or recapturing, the intimacy of the organic relation is the problem of Gesellschaft.
Richard Sennett presents a critical take on Tonnies’ thesis in his article of 1977 ‘Destructive Gemeinschaft’ which offers a precis of the theoretical argument to be found in his The Fall of Public Man that we shall be considering in some detail in Chapter 4. Following Tonnies, Sennett reads Gemeinschaft as signifying ‘full and open emotional relations’ (171). Significantly, however, he also reads it as underlying a peculiar psychosocial dynamic of the late twentieth century. Picking up on the ethical implications of Tonnies’ thesis, Sennett argues that Gemeinschaft has evolved in the following direction:
[F]ull disclosure of one’s feelings to others has come to identify a moral condition – of authenticity and good faith, rather than a social condition dependent for its maintenance upon personalistic, hierarchic ties. […] When people are open with each other and expose their feelings to each other they create a moral-social group, a community. What has occurred with casting this twentieth-century use of gemeinschaft into technical psychological terminology is the celebration of inter-subjectivity as a moral condition. […] this celebration of inter-subjectivity is in fact inter-personally destructive: that is, gemeinschaft relations under the conditions of advanced industrial society are mutually destructive to those who want to be open to each other. (171-172)
Much of Sennett’s work focusses on the ways in which the organisation of capitalist relations in the world of work, and the increasing bureaucratisation of public and private life, transform what Tonnies frames as the psychological aspects of the human will. The obvious question to ask, then, is why Sennett disrupts and complicates the transitional narrative outlined by Tonnies by analysing contemporary cultural conditions under the rubric of destructive Gemeinschaft. In brief, he does so to demonstrate the cultural confusion around the function and value of intimacy. For Tonnies, impersonality is characteristic of Gesellschaft relations, but the contradiction that Sennett is committed to exploring concerns the elevation of personality as the hallmark of meaning in late modernity: he observes that ‘[m]eanings in the world become psychomorphic; the sense of meaningful and also impersonal life disappears’ (176).
As we shall see more fully in our reading of The Fall of Public Man, Sennett mobilises the terms of destructive Gemeinschaft through his assessment of the tyranny of intimacy whereby the principles of liberation of the self (as opposed to liberation from the self) further entrap the subject in psychologistic modes of reflection and interaction. We should note that the twentieth-century version of Gemeinschaft described by Sennett is a little flatter than the set of principles articulated by Tonnies. Sennett’s destructive Gemeinschaft is, in effect, pared down to the idea that what is significant in human experience is what is intimate (197). And crucially, intimacy here is to be understood as the demonstration of psychological interiority through, for example, confessional and revelatory modes of self-articulation. Tonnies expresses the most normative aspect of his thesis when he characterises the ‘true citizen of Gesellschaft’ as someone who ‘behaves towards others simply as a salesman, and sees himself as a hedonist; though he does not like to go around without wearing his mask’ (172). Sennett’s intervention is to emphasise how such debased Gesellschaft figures as the salesman and hedonist are nonetheless reliant upon myths of Gemeinschaft integration, fantasising their accomplishments of intimacy in the face of the estranging conditions of late modernity. In other words, Sennett psychopathologises Tonnies’ sociological script, turning the seductions of an idealised past into a ‘destructive’ current-day problem.
I believe that Sennett’s resituating of the principle of Gemeinschaft is largely successful, but will suggest in the following chapters that his concerns regarding the cultural frame of modern-day narcissism can be rethought – via psychoanalysis – to accommodate the value of impersonality in public and private life. For the time being, however, we shall explore the temporality inferred once Gemeinschaft is interpreted as a condition of the present whose reference is always the past. As we shall see, the intimation of nostalgia at the heart of the sociological script also invokes ‘a past that has never been present’ (Merleau-Ponty, 252).