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Alex Callinicos

Community without care

(May 1995)

From Socialist Review, No. 186, May 1995, pp. 30–31.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Blaming the poor for their problems is the message behind the ideas of ‘communitarianism’. Alex Callinicos examines the ideological background to the new buzzword.

‘Community’ is a word constantly on the lips of Tony Blair and his collaborators in their efforts to give some badly needed intellectual content to their ‘New Labour’ project. In his recent Spectator/Allied Dunbar lecture (the sponsors’ names are an indication of the nature of ‘New Labour’) Blair sought to make ‘a strong community’ an alternative to, on the one hand, ‘a crude form of individualism’ – free market Toryism – and, on the other hand, ‘an overbearing state’ – his caricature of ‘Old Labour’.

Blair laid great emphasis on the idea of duty, which he described as ‘an essential Labour concept.’ This praise for duty and community is easily traced back to the writing of the American sociologist Amitai Etzioni. Etzioni is one of the founders of the communitarian movement, which has been consulted by Clinton’s administration and endorsed by Republican right wingers. His recent book, The Spirit of Community, has been taken up by Blairite intellectuals like Geoff Mulgan of Demos.

The book’s main theme is summed up by the title of one part: Too Many Rights, Too Few Responsibilities. Etzioni says that the problem with American society is unbridled individualism – in particular the claim that individuals have the right to various goods.

‘When asked whether certain things are a “privilege that a person should have to earn, or a right to which he is entitled as a citizen”, most Americans (81 percent) considered health care a right ... Two thirds (66 percent) considered adequate housing a right ... indeed, why not? Until one asks, as there are no free lunches, who will pay for unlimited health care and adequate housing for all.’

In particular, Etzioni claims, individualism has undermined the family as an institution. In his view single parent families are inadequate means of bringing up children properly. Behind them lies the ease of divorce, justified by the idea that individuals have the right freely to enter and leave relationships.

Addressing the social problems currently obsessing American politicians and commentators – drugs, crime and the like – requires an end to ‘the celebration of the self’, and the achievement of ‘an age of reconstruction, in which we put a new emphasis on “we”, on values we share, on the spirit of community’.

The founding text of philosophical communitarianism is Alistair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Much of this book is a brilliant critique of liberal philosophy. None of its variants, MacIntyre argues, is able to come up with a rationally compelling way of deciding between rival moral views which confront each other.

MacIntyre was once a Marxist but he records his disillusionment with Marxism and concludes that there is ‘no tolerable alternative set of political and economic structures which could be brought into place to replace the structures of advanced capitalism’.

He sees in ancient Greek society, especially in the philosophy of Aristotle, a coherent ethical tradition where recommended ways of being and acting – virtues – are securely based in concrete forms of social life. Mediaeval Christianity, he argues, carried on this tradition.

MacIntyre’s invocation of these past societies is an example of what Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács called ‘romantic anti-capitalism’. He criticises the moral and intellectual fragmentation of capitalist society from the standpoint of an idealised pre-capitalist past.

A similar reactionary tendency is evident in more crude communitarians such as Etzioni, who tries to distinguish himself from the Christian fundamentalists and their right wing Republican allies. But consider, for example, the following, devoted to his favourite theme, the ‘communitarian family’. Etzioni begins even handedly enough, ‘We must all live with the consequences of children, who are not brought up properly, whether bad economic conditions or self centred parents are to blame.’

By the end of the paragraph, however, parents are identified fairly and squarely as the problem, ‘Parents have a moral responsibility to the community to invest themselves in the proper upbringing of their children, and communities – to enable parents to do so.’ ‘Bad economic conditions’, as a cause of whatever trouble ‘improperly’ brought up children are supposed to get into, have effectively disappeared behind a vague reference to the duties of ‘communities’.

The effect of the communitarians’ chatter about ‘values’ and ‘moral education’ is to reinforce one of the most striking themes of right wing political thinking on both sides of the Atlantic. This is the rehabilitation of the Victorian idea of the ‘undeserving poor’. Increasingly it is becoming acceptable to say that the main cause of poverty is poor people themselves – their fecklessness, unwillingness to save, drunkenness, drug addiction, or failure to form lasting relationships.

This serves to justify the idea that the object of social policy should be to punish the poor for being poor. This idea, which decent people thought had been buried when the New Poor Law of 1834 finally perished as a result of the social reforms of the first half of this century, is now back with a vengeance.

It is a sign of how far Tony Blair has drifted from the traditions of even right wing Labourism that he should take up such reactionary ideas. But there is a certain logic to it. For Marxists such as Lukács have argued that it is capitalism that both denies individuals genuine fulfilment and prevents authentic and lasting communities from existing. The only way out of this contradiction is to overthrow capitalism. Since Blair plainly hates the idea of doing that, perhaps he has no alternative but to try to shore up a disintegrating society with whatever ‘values’ come to hand, however repellent they may be.

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