The -ism now arriving . . .

COMMUNITARIANISM: A QUICK GUIDE What is it? Who thought of it? Who wants it?
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The Independent Online
SUDDENLY, a new word has come into fashion. Many of the old "isms'' are in retreat - Marxism, socialism. Capitalism and market liberalism seem to rule the world, but there is growing concern about the social hardship and dislocation that they involve. So what else is there? Politicians, commentators and academics are talking about a new idea: communitarianism. What is it?

A new ideology that is neither right-wing nor left-wing. It rejects the liberal left's emphasis on individual rights as well as the right's embrace of the free market. Both, argue the supporters of communitarianism, hurt wider social interests. The new ideology puts the individual's responsibility to the community at the centre.

The crisis over bringing up children sums up the failure of existing right and left-wing attitudes, according to Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University, Washington DC. The decision to have a child has become "a personal and private act", he says. Liberal laws and liberal attitudes have made divorce easier; they have also made it easier for young mothers to contemplate bringing up children on their own. The conservative emphasis on material acquisitiveness has led some parents to spend too much time at work. So parents, with the tacit encouragement of both left and right, are failing in their social obligations to their children. The result is crime, educational failure and mental illlness among young.

Who invented it?

Nobody really. The word was used by jargon-loving American commentators long before the ideology appeared.

A strand of modern philosophy has for 10 years now been emphasising the importance of duty and responsibility. But communitarianism got wider notice when a diffuse group of American academics writing about the family, crime and society attracted the notice of the press and politicians shortly before Bill Clinton's election in 1992. There is now a communitarian network in America with about 6,000 members which has its own journal and a British "chapter" of the [communitarian] Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics was founded last year.

Who supports it?

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown looked at the idea when they visited America for the 1992 election campaign. Indeed, Mr Blair is reported to be capable of quoting whole chunks of Professor Etzioni's book, The Parenting Deficit. Bill Clinton is said to be inspired by it. But there also sympathisers on the right: for example, Jack Kemp, a Republican presidential aspirant and David Willetts, Conservative MP and former luminary of the Centre for Policy Studies, who sees communitarianism as a useful antidote to the belief that only the state can act altruistically. One of the most enthusiastic advocates is Demos, the think-tank. Its director, Geoff Mulgan, proclaims that communitarianism is part of a deep ideological shift, offering a middle way between public and private which is being supported from Germany to Brazil.

What does it mean in practice?

First and foremost, that parents should stay together and care for their children. The state should encourage this by providing better family benefits. Society should take marriage more seriously. Etzioni wants prospective spouses to attend "counselling sessions and learn the secrets of joint decison-making, mutual respect and budget-making". Couples who want children should promise, if their partnership runs into trouble, to delay divorce. Schools should prepare children for parenthood.

Communitarians also advocate national schemes of community service for young people (like the US Peace Corps) and an obligation on all citizens, apart from conscientious objectors, to bequeath their organs for transplant as an "act of obligation to the community". Above all, they want a moratorium on the creation of new rights so that civic duty can be emphasised. But, as one critic puts it, trying to define communitarianism is "like trying to pin down custard".

Isn't all this rather authoritarian?

Hard to tell. Communitarians tend to draw back from laying down laws. They emphasise the need for people to change their hearts and to realise that, for example, it is more satisfying for parents to bring up children properly than to spend all their timeat work.

In the US, Etzioni and his associates are defenders of state road blocks to catch drunken drivers; alcohol and drug tests for pilots; and proposals that people should be compelled to tell their partners if they are HIV positive. These issues are explosive in America because they involve potential breaches of constitutional rights. This makes it hard for Europeans to understand the passions the arguments create. But communitarian ideas in practice in America can be punitive. In Wisconsin mothers on benefit have their welfare payments docked, if their children miss school. Parents in Arkansas can be fined $50 for missing a parent-teacher meeting. Across America, there are proposals to make welfare dependent on single mothers training for work and limiting the size of their families.

What do the critics say?

Many British academics regard it as a parochial American idea. Alan Ryan, the British philospher, now based at Princeton University, argues that the British enthusiasts betray confusion. While Americans argue about citizens having too many rights, the problem in Britain is the opposite. We have no constitutional guarantees for freedom of speech and assembly.

The left points out that, in the US, the communitarians' target is not big business but the American Civil Liberties Union. It says that they blame too many social problems on individuals and cop out of challenging corporate power. In particular the communitarians fail to understand modern women. The emphasis on morality means that little account is taken of economic deprivation which forces both husbands and wives to work.

Dr John Gray, fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, who switched from supporting to opposing Thatcherism, says: "Communitarianism is not a movement which looks at the real world. It is moved by nostalgia, authoritarianism and moralism, which is inevitably linked to American religious fundamentalism. It offers no remedy to the most pressing problem in Britain: how to deal with the quango state and create new institutions and ways of distributing power."

Is the Labour Party communitarianism?

Up to a point, say Tony Blair's advisers privately. Labour likes all the discussion of community - "it's territory the Tories do not know how to fight on." Blairites tend not to mind tough talk on social issues as Blair was famously "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime".But they reject the odder ideas from America and says that being tough on the causes of crime means taking poverty seriously. And that, they say, is what the Americans tend to overlook.

Leading article, page 22.