Off-the-self sociology

三月 24, 1995

Communitarianism has caught the imagination of politicians across the political spectrum. But can its founding father, Amitai Etzioni (above), be all things to all men - and, more importantly, women? Gerard Kelly met him.

Given the recent media attention surrounding "communitarianism" it is surprising not to hear it mentioned more often in public. Perhaps if it had fewer syllables, did not end in ism and could make the mouth move in pleasurable ways, like Grobbelaar, say, it would be. But if "communitarianism" is infrequently uttered by the many it is certainly exercising the minds of the political few. The progenitor of this new social philosophy is Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at Georgetown University, Washington DC. The aim is to reaffirm a sense of morality and shared duty in a society that Etzioni believes has been fatally undermined by excessive individual rights, by the pursuit of self.

According to Etzioni, our society is in crisis. The social freedoms unleashed in the 1960s combined with the economic liberalisation of the 1980s have undermined the institutions that shape our lives. The fight to outlaw sexual discrimination and open the market to working women, for instance, has badly damaged the family. Parents spend more time working and less time with each other and with their children. Children grow up lacking the necessary civic virtues that parents traditionally instilled. And everybody is encouraged to pursue atomised lives for material rewards. The results can be seen in record divorce rates, soaring crime figures, cultural artefacts that reflect only acquisition and individual gratification and, above all, in confused, dysfunctional children.

Etzioni gave a lecture last week in Britain, at Church House, Westminster. He argued that it is time to call "a moratorium on the minting of most, if not all, new rights". It is time to emphasise our duties, to restore "the golden middle", the balance between entitlement and responsibility. The vehicle for rebuilding a common morality is not the state, but the re-invigorated community, the neighbourhood: those "social webs of people who know one another . . . and have a moral voice, who can draw on interpersonal bonds to encourage members to abide by shared values".

It is tempting to dismiss communitarianism as a folksy, peculiarly American vision, the nostalgic yearnings of a nation desperate to reclaim the certainties of its small-town past. Hence its appeal to politicians across the American political spectrum, from Democrat president Bill Clinton to top Republican Jack Kemp. Etzioni refutes such criticism. Not only do his ideas borrow as much from the philosophies of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews as they do from those of the Land of the Free, but, he claims, they can be applied internationally. He points to the principles that Britain and the United States share: "Your commitment to free speech is at least as strong as ours. As is the belief in the due process of law and the notion that everybody has the right to vote. Just imagine that somebody should pass a law here denying that people of West Indian origin, or Scots, or women could not vote . . . it's inconceivable."

Judging by the reception he has received here he may have a point. Within the space of 24 hours the professor of sociology had spent an hour with Tony Blair, enjoyed dinner with nine Tory MPs and was looking forward to lunch with Paddy Ashdown. "We do not believe we are closer to either left or right. We really think we are in a third position. Take for example the family issue. The Left says basically anything goes - single parents, gay parents, it makes no difference. The right wing, in my country at least, says mothers should stay in the nursery or the kitchen while father goes out to work. Our position is that you need both parents ideally, but both have the same rights and responsibilities. We leapfrog this old dichotomy between the left and the right and we take a third position."

Etzioni believes passionately in the family and is alarmed at its precarious state. "Few who advocated equal rights for women favoured a society in which sexual equality would mean that all adults would act like men, who in the past were relatively inattentive to children. Yet this is what has happened." The main casualties as women have gone out to work are the children. They have been placed in the hands of the childcare industry, most of which, he believes, "provides a low-quality service". Children need to have values inculcated by parents who should be encouraged to spend more time at home with them. "Number one on our agenda is enabling parents to be parents. We must move to much longer paid leave." He denies that he is advocating a return to the status quo ante: each parent should contribute, and the roles can be worked out by them or any combination of an extended family. "I feel strongly on moral and social science grounds that fathers have exactly the same responsibilities as mothers and should be held to them."

But surely a call to return to the home will be heeded more by guilty working women than by enlightened working men? "Well let's assume I could spray society, (as I am trying to do) with moral commitment, the effect would be that more fathers would feel guilty. It's true more women would attend to this duty than men, and that is wrong. But to say we should tell both parents that it is OK to neglect the children because we're afraid that initially at least more responsibility will fall on mothers, that disregards the needs of the children and I feel very strongly that we should not do that."

The importance of a strong family has been crucial in Etzioni's own life. The family fled from the Nazis to Palestine in the 1930s when he was a boy. "They were very hard times. My parents were upper-middle class . . . we found ourselves on a rocky hill with Arabs firing at us and trying to be farmers without any preparation. My mother was used to playing the piano in white gloves and now we had to move around rocks and feed chickens. It was a very rough transition. But the family stayed together." He emigrated to the US in 1957.

To shore up the beleaguered institution of the family he advocates greater marital commitment. He would like prospective partners to think longer and harder before getting married and would like to make divorce more difficult if children are involved.

He himself has five sons whom he has raised as a single parent after his wife died in a car crash when the youngest was 11. "I have a wonderful relationship with them and they are by far the most important thing in my life. I think anybody who doesn't experience this is missing out on a tremendous joy."

In fact Etzioni does not rate the joys of the single life. "Most people deeply need one another. They need bonding."

But doesn't this elevation of the couple with offspring devalue the lives many childless couples or individuals lead? "I don't want to devalue anybody but I certainly want to give priority to those with children." And how can you prioritise some without devaluing others? "Well devalue is a very nasty notion. It suggests they are less human, not God's children, and I certainly don't mean that. Let's suppose there were three poor people who needed housing, one of whom was single and the other two had kids, it would be clear who should get priority."

Etzioni is eager to stress that which unites us, the ground we share despite differing political beliefs. In one of many picturesque analogies he enlists George Washington to show that what is often portrayed in the US as a battle between left and right could be recast as an example of communal ethics. "Whether we teach children the story of George and his admission of guilt in cutting down the cherry tree or portray him as a patriarch who lied his way through office isn't the issue. What is important is that we have shown children that lying, in most cases, is wrong." Similarly he argues that nobody would seriously condone sexual harassment or believe the community should allow people to starve. The debates centre on what constitutes harassment or how much welfare and what kinds we need.

Etzioni's championship of the local community has endeared him to some on the right, who infer a move to get government off the people's backs. It has angered social liberals who discern an attempt to snuff out hard-won civil liberties. But Etzioni denies individual rights will be threatened: "I'm opposed to unbounded localism precisely because it tends to violate nationwide constitutions . . What if they (community leaders) want to discriminate against somebody? What if they want to engage in female circumcision? Some society-wide issues are not up for grabs. Localism has to be bounded." His ideas are not, he insists, a plea to return to the values of the 1950s. Empowered communities should not be overpowering ones and to condemn the principle of community because there may be scope for oppression misses the point. "It's like opposing sweaters because one day summer may come." Those who violate the community's shared rules should be gently chastised, those who abide by them praised. Tomorrow belongs to the bottle-bank filler, the neighbourhood crime-watcher, the frequent mower of front lawns.

But codes of conduct should be spelt out only if there has been sufficient dialogue over time to allow a consensus to develop. To illustrate the right approach he contrasts America's experience of Prohibition between the wars with today's successful campaign against smoking. Instead of bootleggers shooting each other in the street there are groups of inhalers lingering ruefully outside office blocks. He is fond of comparing the course of a community to that of a bicycle teetering along between anarchic individualism and a collective tyranny - it can be upright only if it avoids either extreme.

Listening to Etzioni it becomes clear why this avuncular man has been referred to as a slippery Santa Claus and his ideas described as more difficult to pin down than custard. Conflicts of interest are referred out of the combat zone, extremisms are stamped on and common values sweetly intoned. His is very much a practical approach to living rather than a grand theory of life; the approach of the sociologist not the political philosopher. But at the end of a century blooded by grand competing ideologies perhaps we could do with the humble, reassuring values of communitarianism. In the meantime, maybe a lyrically minded community could come up with an alternative name.


"The targets of market individualism and neo-liberalism are the right ones. The idea of founding society on consumer choice is an absurdity. But I have two objections: it systematically neglects the economic cause of the decline of communities and it has social policy implications that can only be described as fundamentalist. Although Etzioni and Charles Murray are not the same, I see them as promising a very fundamentalist agenda of family life and importing an analysis which is dubiously valid in the US and completely inapplicable in the UK."

John Gray, political theorist and fellow of Jesus College, Oxford.

"He is undoubtedly an attractive speaker, and by talking about the community and the family he is talking about issues close to everybody's heart. But what he says has to be deconstructed. Whose interests is he representing? Much of what he says - the emphasis on community rather than self - is a perfectly viable moral reaction to Thatcherism, Reaganism, the property boom and so on. But where does that moral outrage come from? What's the hidden agenda?

I tend to think of him as standing in the mould of traditional male accounts of the community. In a sense, what he wants already exists. A lot of community work - the networking, the kinship - is carried out by women. The trouble is that this has very little political clout. In effect, it is unrepresented. He is right to debate the control of public and private space. This debate is long overdue. But when you turn to the question of who controls the formal public institutions of power, then you turn to the question of male-female power and the fact that men dominate the public space.

His ideas have to be seen as part of the moral panic in America, particularly over the collapse of the family. Here, I think of him as a conservative. He stresses marriage, but if you re-establish marriage, you have to ask whose interests you are going to prioritise: those of women or children? He seems to stress the traditional model while paying only lip-service to women.

His emphasis on the traditional suggests that he looks at the past nostalgically. That's understandable to some degree: if it has worked before, you shouldn't need to fix it. But there is a sense that he also looks at the past uncritically. Yet if it was so great, why did it fall apart?

One important question raised by the debate over communitarianism is how you reorganise democracy so as to represent other types of interests which have been suppressed in the past. Etzioni looks to the neighbourhood. That's a bit whacky. After all, how are neighbourhoods formed? They are formed out of material difference. So does he think that people from Brixton will have the same power and rights as people from Knightsbridge? He tends to gloss over material inequality."

Mary Evans is professor of women's studies, University of Kent at Canterbury.

"It is an attempt to deal with what is left of liberalism but it lends itself to the family values agenda and it doesn't address itself to the main problems, which are economic. Etzioni works at the level of generalities . . . it's the stuff of headlines and bumper stickers."

Terrell Carver, reader in politics, University of Bristol.

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