Meritorious fudge

The Spirit of Community
January 5, 1996

Please do not just read this book," says Amitai Etzioni. "Please try to respond. We in the Communitarian movement are keen to hear from you, and we hope you will tell others about the Communitarian framework." Many have responded and told others. This book is a call to people to rouse themselves and to mind other people's business as well as their own.

The plea is most trenchant when directed at parents, and so Etzioni's most powerful chapter is about the family. Too many children receive a "morally careless education". It is all very well saying that education (like charity) should begin at home, but what if there is no home?

Etzioni's agenda is mostly rather familiar. More parents should work at home, or on different shifts, or on flexitime. Pregnancy leave should be extended. Employers should provide six months of paid leave and another year and a half (18 months) of unpaid leave, with the costs of the paid leave being borne by the employers of the father and the mother.

There are two less familiar twists as well. The first is that each parent of a child at a day centre should as a matter of course spend some time there, say four hours a week, helping with the work and establishing some continuity. While staff come and go, parents stay.

The second (taken from a book, The Equality Trap, by Mary Ann Mason) is that there should be two kinds of marriage, one much more binding for those with children, and another for those without. It is certainly an oddity under modern conditions that in the standard marriage service there is hardly any mention of children. If a first marriage service without children were followed when a child is born by a second, much more solemn and with much more in it about obligations to children, it could make at least some difference.

In the same chapter Etzioni touches, lightly, on a topic of much greater importance. When he testified before a United States senate committee, he was asked whether he thought that single parents can bring up a child properly. He replied that it would be preferable to have three parents per child. If he had elaborated on that he would, perhaps, have brought out the fact that in most poor countries, and in parts of many not so poor ones where the extended family still exists, children do have more than two parents, and the eldest child can have a parental role too. He would then have been on the track of a more searching approach to the modern family than he has adopted here.

The lament for the family is followed by a lament for the school. He sees the answer in the moral education which is so lacking in the schools of the US, as also in Britain where the national curriculum is not strong on ethics. But he recognises that morality can only to a limited extent be taught. To be effective, it has to be experienced. This means attending to behaviour in the parking lots where the "children's" cars are, in school cafeterias, in the corridors. In all these places: "Does vandalism go unpunished, are drugs sold openly, and are pupils rewarded or punished according to criteria other than achievement?"

Wherever the answer is no, people will not acquire "the psychological muscle that moral conduct requires", and it will not happen at all if there is much faster rotation between classes than between parents. Students are reshuffled every 45 minutes or so; as a consequence students, especially in larger schools, rarely develop bonds as members of a class group. This is a criticism which can equally well be made of British secondary schools but not of primary schools where children do stay together.

Etzioni accepts, without stressing it, that all he says applies more to big cities and their suburbs than it does to smaller towns and rural areas. Some American states are relatively exempt from the breakdown which he chronicles. "In those parts of the country (and the world) where families are strong, schools teach moral values, communities are well intact, and values command respect". In Utah, for example, families, schools and communities work together, and, as a result, crime is lower than elsewhere.

Other powerful chapters are about "Communitarian politics", and especially about the corruption which has largely taken over Washington and state capitals. Etzioni never makes it clear why cleaning up Washington is so essential to his case for reinvigorating local communities, but, with the time-honoured target of Capitol Hill in his sights, he lets go with more fire than in the rest of the book. He is damning about the 80,000 lobbyists who surround Congress, of whom only about 6,000 were in 1991 registered as the law requires.

The lobbyists are in charge of the "campaign sewers". They work in part through the ubiquitous political action committees set up by every vested interest. PACs contributed more than $159 million in the 1989/90 election cycle, and the amounts have been rising as the expenses of elections in a teledemocracy have rocketed. No-one has a chance of being elected without sizeable contributions from PACs.

Etzioni hopes that one day the US will follow Britain in limiting campaign spending. It will not happen without a new political movement, a neoprogressive communitarian movement as he calls it. This will emulate the Progressives who in the early years of the century had such a striking influence - in Wisconsin and California where Progressive governors and mayors were elected, and, well beyond these states - on the course of national politics. The great muckraking reports of those years were followed by action and by the election as presidents of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.

About all this Etzioni may well be right, and it is therefore all the sadder that the first beneficiaries of the "get the rascals out" mood have been the new Republican freshmen led by Gingrich who are more akin to the fundamentalist right than to the more tolerant, more liberal model presented by Etzioni.

Etzioni is not so fluent an author as other academics with a political influence who at earlier periods of American history have touched the country's conscience in a country which has always had a characteristic responsiveness to such appeals. He does not write as stylishly as a Bellah or a Riesman, let alone as a Bell, a Galbraith, a Dewey or a Steffens. He is too earnest, without a saving sense of humour. But his message is important enough, and recognised as such, to raise the question how far it is applicable to Britain.

In my view Communitarianism will have only a baneful effect here unless a crucial issue which Etzioni fudges is faced fairly and squarely. He wants most of the great issues of public policy to be dealt with at the level of the community, and for him this usually means the local community. "Duties of attending to the sick, troubled, delinquent, homeless and new immigrants; and for public safety, public health and protection of the environment" are for the community. "What can be done at the local level should not be passed on to the state or federal level." This stand, which runs through most of the book, enables Etzioni to advance his proposals while simultaneously appealing to all those who are opposed to governments and taxes on themselves. He can have it both ways - a more moral country, with better public services, without paying for them.

When it comes to detail, even in this book, the approach does not pass muster. He recognises that positive economic incentives are needed for parents to dedicate themselves to their children. This means family allowances (or child benefits) for each child, as is common in Europe. It can mean other services for families, from health care to counselling. He recognises too that single-parent families often suffer from poverty which is as injurious to the children as it is to the parents.

When there is a divorce there is much to be said for dividing the family's assets not between fathers and mothers but three ways, with the third part going by governmental law to whoever is the custodial parent. His 18-months extra maternity leave which I have already mentioned would be paid for in part by whom? - out of public funds since there is nowhere else it could come from. Perhaps wisely from his point of view, he hardly mentions the health care which has so dogged the Clintons; but if he had, he would needs accept that, whether reformed or not, health care will absorb large public funds well beyond what local communities can find.

The fudge does, however, have one great merit. As soon as it is recognised for what it is, it points to the way in which Communitarianism (but perhaps not with that name) could flourish in Britain. Instead of seeking to avoid entanglement with the state, a home-grown version could regard the state as the essential partner of the community. I am not only referring to the inner cities which certainly cannot pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, but to poorer people everywhere, and above all to the nation's children. The saddest thing would be if Blairite and other reformers were now to buy the USversion of Communitarianism, and go on talking about the value of "the community", without combining it with the longer term political traditions of the left in Britain.

It will mean sticking to our own views of social justice, and not following Etzioni's. He says: "At the heart of the Communitarian understanding of social justice is the idea of reciprocity." But where can the reciprocity be between a surgeon and his patient, or between the directors of one of the privatised utilities and their poorest customers? What can Single Parent of South Shields do for Cedric Brown?

That is one of my criticisms of Etzioni. Another, linked with it, is that he advances no explanation of how it is that industrial societies have got themselves into such a mess. Without some explanation, without some theory, this brand of community mindedness cannot have lasting quality.

To achieve that, Etzioni would need to look more closely at the greed for material possessions which has swept the world as productivity has increased. No longer are there the diminishing returns and the satiation which Alfred Marshall, the great British economist of the last century, prophesied would set in as the standard of living rose. Keynes hoped for something similar. The order of the day is, instead, that the more people have, the more they want, even though they get steadily unhappier as a result. But without acknowledging the power of the greed which is characteristic of a technological society, there will be no proper understanding of the havoc the "cash nexus" and "me" have wreaked on families, schools and neighbourhoods.

The power of greed is such that it generates a spiralling downwards of moral standards. Moral education is played down in schools. Families, especially extended families, are disrupted by geographical mobility. Inequality of income and wealth (as long as it is tolerated on the present scale) sets fire to envy and envy feeds the dominant acquisitive drive.

Of course, neighbourhoods should be fostered. Of course, the abiding importance of local roots needs to be enshrined in voluntary action and in a powerful local government. Of course, parents should do more, more consistently and more continuously, for their children. But in the longer run such pleas will only have a major impact if informed by a grasp of the major social changes which are shaking our world to its moral foundations. It will never be enough to appeal only to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.

Lord Young of Dartington is director, Institute of Community Studies.

The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda

Author - Amitai Etzioni
ISBN - 0 00 686359 0
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £7.99
Pages - 352

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments