New Statesman & Society, 3 March 1995
Paul Anderson and Kevin Davey talk to the guru of the communitarian movement, Amitai Etzioni
Amitai Etzioni has no doubt that communitarianism is as relevant to Britain as it is to the United States. "Your trends are American," he says. "In the UK you now have rising crime, the dismemberment of the family, drug abuse and corruption in politics. Look at us and learn. We have a crisis of values. The institutions essential to a civil society are being destroyed. Is this where you want to go ?"
Even though the book in which Etzioni outlines the basic philosophy of the communitarian movement, The Spirit of Community, is not yet published here, his arguments have already attracted the attention of the political class and the media – and they will get more the week after next, when he addresses a conference in London organised by the think-tank Demos and sponsored by the Times. But can an approach based on the idea that people have too many rights and not enough responsibilities really take root in a country that doesn't even have a bill of rights? Etzioni is insistent that it can, dismissing along the way the charge that he is an authoritarian. "All societies face the same basic questions," he says. "They either veer in the direction of too much individualism or towards too much collectivism. You always have to return them to a point of balance. In the US, we must move back from individualism towards the point of balance. Western European societies are closer to the point of balance. They have a more solid communitarian foundation. You need to worry about these things less than we do, but you still need to worry."
There are some liberties that British citizens lack, Etzioni admits. All the same, he approves of the restrictions on the right to silence in the Criminal Justice Act. "People here plead the fifth amendment. You have the same problem but you've done something about it by diminishing the right not to self-incriminate. That's an attempt to correct an imbalance. Another example is your introduction of surveillance cameras into public places. That's another attempt to redress the balance between public safety, the common good and private interests. You're actually having the same debate but using different terminology. You use different tools, but the issues are the same, and they're unavoidable. No society can avoid the question of where to draw the line."
Not that this is simply a matter of legislative changes. Etzioni demands nothing less than a transformation of the way people behave. Put simply, we must all embrace our responsibilities without coercion. The only incentive is that it is right to do so." If there is no civil order we risk a police state. We must aim for a moral dialogue and agreement on what is right. We cannot leave everything to the state. We must take responsibility in our families and communities."
On both sides of the Atlantic, such ideas are attractive to politicians who doubt their ability to generate full employment or sustain the welfare state. Etzioni has given them a crusade that can take place despite austerity. But it would be wrong to paint Etzioni as an enthusiast for self-help who would like the welfare state to wither away. If the resources were available, he says, he would have no hesitation about strengthening public services. " I share the ideal that life should be made as easy as possible. But in reality we have to choose what we want to use the resources for. My priority would be children, children, children. We have to recognise scarcity. By doing things for one another, we protect the welfare state. We threaten the welfare state when we overload it."
The welfare of children is the bedrock for a good society, and the reinforcement of the family essential, he says. "I simply ask this: Are children in our society receiving the parental and societal attention they are due? How do things compare to 20 years ago? Everyone is working hard and long hours. That results in a deficit for our children. Children are not being as well attended to. They deserve more than they are getting. They have been devalued and neglected."
Feminists argue that the communitarians take a far too sanguine view of the traditional family and have acted as cheer-leaders for those on the right who would like to see women returning to the home. Etzioni says that they are misunderstanding his position. "I agree with the feminists that we need to do more to enable parents to be parents," he says. "There must be more maternity and paternity leave. Fathers and mothers both need to increase their investment in children. And it's true that in some cases relationships between parents are very bad, and divorce is preferable to marriage. But on average it takes three parents to bring up a child. Parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents, sometimes the whole village, are necessary. It's a very labour intensive job.
"Some single parents do well by their children, others don't. But all things being equal, I'd rather give a child three parents than one. Two is the absolute minimum to bring up a child under normal conditions. Take any measurement you want – criminality, drug abuse, performance at school, asocial behaviour – and you'll see that it's obvious."
Etzioni is equally dismissive of critics who say that his notion of community is merely nostalgic. "It's no good saying that we can go back to the days of one community," he says. "We are members of many communities. Communities nestle within one another in many layers, with many levels of loyalty. We must see each of our communities as part of ever larger and more encompassing communities, so that a community of communities can be developed at the level of the nation, the continent, or even the world."