New Statesman & Society, 3 March 1995
Many on the left are getting excited by a new intellectual movement from the United States – communitarianism. Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey explain what the fuss is all about
It doesn’t happen often, but just occasionally a big idea from America has a massive influence on the thinking of a significant part of the British intellectual left. The last time was in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls’ monumental A Theory of Justice
provided British social democrats with an argument from first principles for a mildly redistributive welfare capitalism.
First published in 1972, Rawls’ tome had become compulsory reading on every university’s political theory course by the end of the decade – and its influence even percolated as far as the Labour leadership. By far the most coherent account of Labour’s underlying philosophy in the 1980s, Roy Hattersley’s Choose Freedom
, is essentially Rawls translated into popular idiom. Insofar as last year’s report of the Borrie Commission on Social Justice has a theoretical underpinning, it is Rawls’ conception of “justice as fairness”.
Now another big idea from America, communitarianism, is exciting many on the left here. It is a school of thought that believes, in the words of Amitai Etzioni, the sociology professor who is its foremost publicist (see interview), that we need to create “a new moral, social and public order based on restored communities, without allowing puritanism or oppression”.
As with A Theory of Justice
, its influence, although strangest on the left, has been felt across the political spectrum. If the rhetoric of communitarianism is most noticeable in the speeches of Tony Blair, it is also a feature of much Liberal Democrat polemic and even of the work of such maverick right-wingers as David Willetts and David Selbourne. Another echo of the reception of Rawls is that the Brits are catching on late: communitarianism has been around for the best part of a decade in the United States.
But there the similarities end. A Theory of Justice
is one, notoriously difficult and abstract, book; communitarianism is a current of ideas that informs a small but significant proselytising and populist movement in the United States. It has a journal, The Responsive Community
, and a political programme that it lobbies – in some cases successfully – to have implemented at various levels of government. Whereas A Theory of Justice
became influential in British left politics through the assimilation of its arguments in the universities, the communitarian message has been spread here by pamphleteers and newspaper polemicists – notably Geoff Mulgan and others associated with the think-tank Demos and Observer columnist Melanie Phillips. Most important of all, the whole thrust of communitarianism is radically at odds with the entire liberal tradition of which Rawls is still the outstanding contemporary representative.
Indeed, communitarianism at least partly owes its existence to political philosophers who, during the 1970s and 1980s, rejected the abstract individualism of A Theory of Justice
and other works of liberal political theory. Rawls’ book is essentially an updating of the classical liberal theory of the “social contract”. Simplified, his basic case is that, if individuals knew nothing about their position in society, their wealth, their abilities or their life-chances, they would agree with one another that they should live in a society in which everyone enjoyed the greatest measure of freedom compatible with that of others, with inequalities tolerable only insofar as the results benefited the least well-placed. Or as Hattersley put it in Choose Freedom
: “The true object of socialism is the creation of a genuinely free society in which the protection and extension of individual liberty is the primary duty of the state.”
Political philosophers who have since associated themselves with communitarianism (or who have at least been much quoted by communitarians) – among them Michael Sandel, Alastair Maclntyre and Charles Taylor – argue that this whole approach is wrong. In reality, they say, people cannot help but know about their position in society, their wealth, their abilities and so on: they are not atomised individuals but essentially social beings, rooted in families and communities. Political philosophy should recognise this rather than speculate on what individuals would want in an impossible hypothetical situation; and if it did so it would find that minimising the constraints on “freedom” is nobody’s number one priority.
It would be wrong, however, to see communitarianism simply as a position in an ongoing argument about our basic political principles. Its emergence as a current of ideas in the late 19805 had much more to do with a widespread sense among Americans – not just intellectuals – that the ideologies dominant in politics in the previous quarter century had failed in practice. Neither the welfare-state liberalism hegemonic in the ig6os and 19705, nor the free-market conservatism of the 1980s had been able to reverse the social fragmentation that many felt was likely to engulf America in crime, drug abuse and moral irresponsibility. Indeed, it seemed that both had made matters worse by failing to place the encouragement of social responsibility and the common good at the centre of their concerns.
On one hand, the argument went, 1980s-style liberals – dominant in US politics until the end of the Carter administration – attacked the family as repressive, pressed for a never-ending expansion of individual rights, and put their faith in ever-greater state provision to cope with the social fragmentation that their permissive ideology encouraged. But they failed to recognise that the welfare state actually reinforced fragmentation and irresponsibility, effectively legitimising family breakdown and creating an underclass of passive clients. On the other hand, 1980s-style free-market conservatives recognised some of the problems of welfarism. But their favoured solution – simply reducing the scope of the welfare state – did nothing to help matters, and their fetish of individual material wealth made a religion of selfishness and irresponsibility.
The first response to this American disillusionment with mainstream liberalism and conservatism – which has obvious parallels in Britain – was the ultra-conservatism of the Moral Majority, arguing for a straightforward reversal of liberal permissiveness, punitive sanctions against criminals and single mothers and a return of traditional Christian values to schools. Communitarianism was the response to the response, Amitai Etzioni explains: “I believe that although they raised the right questions, they provided the wrong, largely authoritarian and dogmatic, answers.”
The central communitarian argument, most concisely advanced in Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community
, is simple. A good society is one in which people live freely, take responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities, and solve most problems at the level of the neighbourhood or household. “Only if a solution cannot be found by the individual does responsibility devolve to the family,” writes Etzioni. “Only if the family cannot cope should the local community become involved. Only if the problem is too big for it should the state become involved.” Etzioni emphasises that we have not only political and economic rights to make demands on the state and our fellow citizens, but also duties to others. And in America, he says, the balance between rights and duties has swung too far in favour of rights. The prime task in American society is to redress the balance with measures that encourage people to recognise their duties and to act on them.
This, first of all, puts a premium on parenting – which, say the communitarians, means that parents should be actively discouraged from splitting up and that single women should be dissuaded from having children. In line with this, the state should provide generous maternity and paternity leave, better child allowances and improved child-care, while making divorce more difficult and introducing economic incentives to make it easier for one parent to stay at home rather than go out to work.
Encouraging responsibility does not, however, end with the family. The education system is crucially important – and communitarians argue for a wide range of measures to instill a sense of civic duty and to iron out anti-social behaviour. Neighbourhood self-regulation is also vital. Some communitarians argue for compulsory community service for teenagers; some back curfews on teenagers to prevent them roaming the streets at night; some argue for censorship of violent television, films and music.
All this is intensely controversial: the communitarians have been attacked by feminists for reasserting the norm of the heterosexual two-parent family, by civil libertarians for authoritarianism, and by a variety of critics for harbouring a nostalgic or territory-based view of community. It is possible, the critics argue, for new communities to be created, celebrating diversity and maximising individual liberty. And it is unlikely, they suggest, that the many residential, occupational, lifestyle and electronic communities of which we are members can be treated as if they nestle comfortably and without conflict in a community of communities.
None of this would matter very much if the communitarians were just a huddle of like-minded writers with no real influence – but in fact they have played significant roles at several levels of American politics. Bill Clinton’s speeches were punctuated with communitarian rhetoric in the run-up to the 1992 presidential election and he still has communitarian advisers in senior positions – most prominently William Galston, a co-founder with Etzioni of The Responsive Community
, and Mary Ann Glendon. It’s arguable how successful the communitarians have been in getting their agenda accepted following Clinton’s election: the only substantial piece of legislation since 1992 that has their imprint is the introduction of non-military national service. But the communitarians’ teach-ins at the White House have continued throughout the Clinton presidency, and there are signs that their stock has risen in the wake of the Republicans’ victory in lasty ear’s Congressional elections. Communitarianism strikes a chord with many Republicans in Congress – and Clinton is desperate for any new ideas that might staveoff defeat in 1996.
It is at local level that communitarian ideas have had most practical impact, however. Innovative education programmes now address drug abuse, sexual awareness, race relations, violence and absenteeism. Gang prevention programmes have replaced street associations with cultural networks. Drivers of trains and buses in many cities undergo random drug testing designed to reduce the risks for the public. Particularly controversially, homeless people in Philadelphia who refuse to comply with job-search requirements are denied entry to local authority emergency shelters and communitarians campaign for increased police powers to search for guns and drugs in urban areas.
Much of this is unlikely to be welcomed by the left in Britain – but it’s easy to understand the appeal of a rather softer communitarianism. For some intellectuals, it gives respectability to a local activism that has long existed but which was always compromised in the minds of those searching for big ideas by its parochialism and apparent ideological incoherence. More important, it also provides the Labour leadership with a convenient populist rhetoric that chimes well with Tony Blair’s austere ethical socialism.
Lacking a macroeconomic policy capable of making more than a small dent in mass unemployment, worried that the welfare state as we have known it is no longer sustainable, and desperate to distance itself both from its past and from the Tories, Labour needs to give the impression that it has new, credible solutions for Britain.
Communitarianism gives the party leadership precisely the package it wants. It is classless, in tune with some fundamental Labour values as well as attractive to conservatives, and is compatible with economic austerity. Look out for traces in the new Clause Four.
Three tactics of social democracy?
If communitarianism really does take hold of Labour’s thinking, is this the way future historians will understand the phases of Labour’s intellectual development in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s?
Up to mid-1980s: One-nation Keynesian corporatism
Ideological core: The state should spend to ensure that demand is sufficient to allow full employment. Import and exchange controls and nationalisation are useful tools in many circumstances. The keys to social peace are getting the unions to partake in beer and sandwiches at Number Ten and expanding expenditure on the welfare state.
Key areas of dispute: How far Labour should use public ownership as a tool of policy? How much should Labour increase taxes? How much should Labour devalue? Is an incomes policy necessary? Should Britain be a member of the European Community?
Crucial texts: Aneurin Bevan: In Place of Fear ( 1952); Anthony Crosland: The Future of Socialism (1956); Stuart Holland: The Socialist Challenge (1973); Tony Benn: Arguments for Socialism (1979); Peter Hain and Roger Berry: Labour and the Economy (1993)
Mid-1980s to mid-1990s: Euro-Keynesian liberalism
Ideological core: The medium sized nation-state can no longer be master of its own economic destiny: Europe-wide countercyclical policies are necessary to achieve full employment (if it is indeed achievable at all), backed by strong local and regional economic strategies. Nationalisation and exchange controls are no longer feasible tools of economic management. Old-style corporatism is dead, but continental-style union-management cooperation is a good thing. The main role of the nation-state in economics is redistribution through a reformed welfare state.
Key areas of dispute: Does Labour need to go for a fully federal Europe? Is full employment achievable? What extra powers should local government have? Should Labour increase taxes? Should benefits be targeted?
Crucial texts: John Rawls: A Theory of Justice (19 72);Tom Nairn: The Left and Europe (19 73); Alec Nove: The Economics of Feasible Socialism (1983); GLC: London Industrial Strategy (1985); Roy Hattersley: Choose Freedom (1987); Stuart Hall et al: New Times(1989); Ken Coates et al: A European Recovery Programme(1993); Gordon Borrie et al: Social Justice (1994)
Mid-1990s onwards?: Post-Keynesian communitarianism
Ideological core: Macroeconomics is dead: the nation state has very little role in economic management except as provider of training. Even Europe cannot operate a credible counter-cyclical economic policy. The welfare state is not sustainable in its familiar form, and many of its functions must be taken over by the voluntary sector or privatised. Unions have a role as friendly societies for their members but not in what remains of economic policy.
Key areas of dispute: Is there any future for political parties? Should local government powers be reduced? How can the cost of the welfare state be cut? Are there any benefits that should not be targeted? How should single mothers be punished? How can Labour cut taxes?
Crucial texts: Amitai Etzioni: The Spirit of Community(1993); Geoff Mulgan: Politics in a Post-Political Age (1993); Frank Field: A New Agenda for Britain (1993);David Selbourne: The Principle of Duty ( 1994); David Willetts: Civic Conservatism (1994)