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Prophets, creeps and publishers

The Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society by Amitai Etzioni,

Profile Books, pounds 12.99

Many of us spend our youth escaping from a community and our maturity trying to find one. The prophet Etzioni offers us his new Golden Rule in two forms: "Respect and uphold society's moral order as you would have society respect and uphold your autonomy"; and, "a good society requires a carefully maintained equilibrium of order and autonomy, rather than `maximisation' of either". So, as he made clear in his earlier, famed and more succinctThe Spirit of Community, Etzioni is standing between the individualism of market liberalism and the community-based ideas of order common to both socialists and old Conservatives.

Now the question arises as to whether a cover and its blurb, as well as the text, are part of a book, and whether the author is responsible for them. I doubt whether Etzioni objects to his publisher's bold assertions that he is "one of the world's leading social scientists" and that he "has been very influential on New Labour". But he can hardly be held responsible for the press release that quotes the whole of Clause Four, paragraph 1, of what they call "New Labour's Aims and Values". I thought that it was the amended Labour Party Constitution, for which - I hastily add, so that one day I may wear ermine - I voted.

The quotation refers to "common endeavour ... to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential, and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few". But "community" also figured large in Labour's old socialist discourse, more often in the plural - as the shades of Tawney and Laski will testify. Thinkers such as Mike Rustin and Paul Hirst have followed in the same vein. If Tony Blair has acknowledged a partial debt to Etzioni, it must be for the "standing between" idea rather than for community as such.

For in British socialism "community", or rather communities, was the language of pluralists, decentralisers and small-group folk, rather than the centralisers, whether with Fabian or Leninist theories of the state. That distinction cut across left and right, but pluralism fundamentally lost out when Aneurin Bevan defeated Herbert Morrison's wise argument for the new health service to be run by local government.

Alas for prophets, creeps and publishers. Before a book is out, the moving caravan has moved on. Of late, we have heard as little about "community" as about "stakeholding". When Blair did speak of community, it was always coupled with "nation" or "society as a whole", not with what most sociologists and political theorists think meaningful to call community. That is a group small enough to maintain an informal, traditional or voluntary moral order, as distinguished from "society", which may or may not have a moral consensus, but needs legal restraints and procedural consensus to maintain order. To call a political society or a nation "a community" in a multinational state is either obfuscation or muddled rhetoric.

Etzioni makes far more sense in the US, to where nearly all his examples are addressed, and where strident, socially irresponsible individualism needs some such answer when even Blairy "social-ism" is not on offer. Certainly, there needs to be a constant balancing (surely never "an equilibrium"?) between social order and individual autonomy. Indeed, both campus liberals (where Etzioni's reputation lies) and capitalist individuals need reminding that autonomy, personality and identity all depend on interaction with proximate others, not with the social order as a whole. I am what you make of me, if I pay you enough respectful attention to create some mutual perception.

A great deal has been written recently about the ideas and institutions needed for the practice of citizenship. Etzioni makes little use of this, mainly remaining with both feet firmly planted in mid-air: "the sociological challenge to develop societal formations that leave considerable room for the enriching particulars of autonomous subcultures while sustaining the core of shared values". But if the "autonomous" individual gets leant upon by these "autonomous" subcultures (as happens to women from time to time), how far should the law intervene? He raises in a solemn, moderate and accessible tone, like an Anglican preacher, all the fraught issues - but resolves none. Instead, he falls back with eccentric, ethnocentric frequency on the US constitution as embodying "national dialogue".

Are communitarians trapped in relativism? Are there universal values? It seems there may be, if we do not try to enforce them but simply enter into dialogue.

The prophet dedicates his book to his family of 30 named young researchers. One of them has let him down, for in one of the few references to nationalism and abroad, we are told that the UK "faces a separatist movement in Scotland ... where two-thirds of the people prefer to consider themselves Scottish rather than British, and extremist organisations advocate violence as a means to independence". Really? "Charlie Brown, Charlie Brown, you were dumb in school today. You got everything wrong." "I thought I only had to be sincere."