The Revival of the Polis

Russell Arben has a nice piece on Front Porch Republic on the city as the proper locus of communitarian concerns. A key passage:
In his wonderful and too-little read second book, The Good City and The Good Life, Daniel Kemmis hardly made any explicit reference at all to communitarianism or republicanism or any other type of philosophical orientation–and perhaps, exactly because he didn’t, going back to that book provides an insight to civic developments which those of us often too enamored of theory miss. His discussion of citizenship and the “civic wholeness” that a proper relationship to one’s local natural and social environment–one’s polis, in other words–effectively closes off any of the grand cultural narratives which came to warp much communitarian thinking, instead grounding the pressing need to belong in one’s locality: “states and nation-states are abstractions to which we cannot easily apply any of the key concepts discussed here: not wholeness, not presence, not grace, and therefore not…citizenship” (pg. 25). Kemmis’s arguments in favor of relocating our sense of attachment to the active, participatory city seem to anticipate the political dysfunction that, over the past decade, has come to seem normal for large, overburdened democratic states. For him, art and governance and a sustainable economy were most authentically realized in a city (preferably a small to mid-sized one), wherein “the web of culture comes down to earth in countless ways, situating people in a dynamic balance between their innermost aspirations and struggles and the world they find themselves inhabiting” (pg. 69). He was, in other words, years ahead of many others in looking back at Jane Jacobs to find his own particular kind of communitarian inspiration, predicting “the postnational renaissance of the city” (pg. 139)
Yes, I think Aristotle was correct: a polis with an extensive division of labor but in which one knows most people by sight is about the right size for true political participation on the part of the whole citizen body. Above that level, the ideal is federations of poleis.


  1. I really don't mind the nation-state paradigm. I lean towards multilateralism and intergovernmentalism, so I don't really object to large states (not "big government", which isn't a thing). Citizenship in large states seems to work.

    1. "Citizenship in large states seems to work."

      This is the funniest thing you have ever said here!

    2. Considering, say, that Donald Trump is the leading GOP presidential candidate, and the Dems are likely to nominate the real life Frank Underwood, Hillary.

    3. I think you are being too pessimistic. We've managed quite well duing our 200+ years as a Westphalian nation-state (barring the Civil War). One of my reasons for preferring large polities and political unions is uniformity and harmonization of law.

  2. But, people these days are too rootless and cosmopolitan to make any kind of polis work. I barely know the people who live in my building and I know 0% of the people who l live nearby. And I've been living here for years and I grew up not far from where I live now, which is a lot more rootedness than most of my cohorts could claim. It just feels unnatural to me to focus much of my attention on the neighborhood. For one thing, I'd really rather not stay here a lot longer. A federation of poleis would be nice, but how can there be a federation of poleis if the citizenry is too disconnected to form poleis?

    1. "It just feels unnatural to me to focus much of my attention on the neighborhood."

      You can get over that feeling. You can also realize that it is deliberately being fostered because the international elite thrives on a rootless proletariat.

      "but how can there be a federation of poleis if the citizenry is too disconnected to form poleis?"

      There can't: that is why our politics is so broken! I am just sugesting the cure. I am not saying the patient will listen. (Although eventually he will!)

    2. By the way, my friend, who is a Jamaican immigrant to Connecticut, upon moving into a new house, immediately introduced himself to all of his (mostly white American) neighbors. He told them, "You need anything, I'm right over there. Just let me know. We're neighbors: if we don't support each other, who will support us?"

      They all love him.


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