Health: The guru with a message of repression

Britain on the couch
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IF BARONESS Thatcher's guru was Milton Friedman, Tony Blair's is also American, Amitai Etzioni. The whole of New Labour, not just its leader, repeatedly use his buzz-words ("rights" and "obligations") and they have implemented some of his policy proposals. He provides the intellectual underpinning for Blair's concentration on moral and cultural solutions (which, it just so happens, usually cost government nothing) rather than economic ones, such as reducing inequality and globalisation. Almost all the criticisms of Etzioni's thinking apply precisely to Blair's.

According to Etzioni's 1992 book, The Spirit of Community, we have forgotten that when we assert our rights, they also carry obligations. Young people, for example, feel it is their right to be tried by a jury yet are reluctant to fulfil their obligation to be jurors themselves.

Most American parents were in favour of the 1992 Gulf War but few wanted their offspring to actually fight in it. Etzioni offers a list of moral absolutes that are needed to restore the balance, but each is immediately followed by a disclaimer to the effect that it will not curb the hard- won freedoms of the Sixties.

He states that: "We hold that a moral revival in these United States is possible without Puritanism; that is, without busybodies meddling into our personal affairs, without thought police controlling our intellectual life. We can attain a recommitment to moral values - without puritanical excesses." In other words, we can have our cake of freedom and eat it too.

There is a refreshing lack of cynicism about Etzioni's "communitarianism" but the causal role he assigns to morality is flatly contradicted by almost all the major theories and most of the empirical evidence of social science. Cross-national and historical studies suggest that our beliefs about right and wrong, our morals, arise in response to our material conditions and our position within society.

Poorly educated people with low incomes are more liable than average to feel that stealing and violence are acceptable, for the obvious reason that they often feel they have no other means for getting what they want.

But highly educated people working in the City may be every bit as unscrupulous, being part of a savagely competitive system that makes deceit and dishonesty attractive.

Either way, confused or weak morality is an effect of economics and social structure and no amount of communitarian culture will overcome the dire social effects of globalisation and inequality. About these, Etzioni has little to say.

Another problem is that, despite his repeated protestations to the contrary, Etzioni is proposing to curb our freedoms. I have no objection whatsoever to this in itself (indeed, there are many curbs I would advocate myself, in addition to some of his), but it leaves us feeling Etzioni is not being straight with us - very Tony Blur. If he were more honest, he would admit that he is advocating a return to the repressions of the Fifties and give up the pretence that we can carry on enjoying the same freedoms.

For example, Etzioni proposes that families should reinstate the habit of eating meals together rather than in front of the television set, and that random testing of drivers for drink and drugs should be applauded.

But children who do not want to sit at meals with their (perhaps abusive and cruel, at least in some cases) parents, will have to be forced to do so if his plan is implemented.

Likewise, those who drink or take drugs regularly will have to reduce their intake - reductions in individual freedoms. He does not wish to be a killjoy. He says that he will not interfere with our enjoyment of the hedonistic party that started in the Sixties, but when we read the small print, it rather looks as though it will be a lacklustre, teetotal event, with no loud music, ending well before the pubs close.

Calling for a new morality and blaming individuals lets politicians neatly off the hook, making their obligations to voters priestly rather than material. Small wonder that Etzioni's ideas are so popular with our leaders. Indeed, repeated utterance of the mantra "no rights without obligations" has served New Labour well, not just in getting them elected but also in reinstating a (much needed) greater realism.

But the core problem is our feeling that there are all sorts of commodities - material things, relationships, psychological states - that we are being deprived of: the feeling of relative deprivation.

Only if advanced consumer capitalism's active genesis of dissatisfaction is challenged and curbed will our morals change. It multiplies our individual needs and wants in order to sustain relentless economic growth. So long as the consumer culture that results is allowed to have its wicked way with us, it will continue to play havoc with our morals.

We hear a great deal from New Labour about the need for individual employees and citizens to recognise their responsibilities, but very little indeed about the responsibilities of our leaders. Global corporations, such as Rupert Murdoch's News International, which pays just 10 per cent a year in taxes, and politicians who advocate reduced government spending, are showing scant sense of their obligations.

The truth is that communitarianism and globalised consumerism are mutually exclusive. So long as financial pirates can roam the globe moving huge sums of money to wherever it will make the most profits, or to where pay is lowest, communities and morals will continue to be smashed.

When a company such as Fujitsu, in Blair's Sedgefield constituency, makes 1,000 employees redundant, it tears the social fabric. The same is true when unregulated speculators on money markets undermine national currencies - as Brazil has become only too aware, and as Indonesia has already discovered.

But in a rare interview on the Today programme last week, Blair reaffirmed his commitment to the globalised economy, rejecting suggestions of controls on the flow of money around the world. In theory, he is committed to rejuvenating communities and to nice, cuddly ideas such as greater co-operation between businesses and workers.

In practice, though, his economics have many of the damaging social implications of Thatcherism.

The paperback edition of Oliver James's book, `Britain On The Couch - Why We're Unhappier Compared With 1950 Despite Being Richer', is published by Arrow (pounds 7.99)

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