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Neither state nor individual: essence of the communitarian manifesto

Why is Amitai Etzioni important? The professor of sociology at George Washington University is the founder of communitarianism, an ideology which seeks a third way between an ever-expanding welfare state and an unbridled free market.

It dismisses the leftist tendency to blame society's ills on The System and the right-wing inclination to see them as signs of moral turpitude. He rejects the emphasis on rights and calls for a new sense of mutual responsibilities.

His theories came to prominence in the run-up to the US presidential election in 1992 when Bill Clinton embraced much of their rhetoric.

Etzioni wants to bolster institutions that stand between the individual and state - family, school, neighbourhood and community. He wants divorce made more difficult, counselling before marriage for young couples and better family benefits to encourage parents to stay together. Couples who intend to have children should promise that, if their partnership later runs into trouble, they will delay divorce. Fathers who walk out on their children must contribute to their upbringing.

Etzioni hopes for more flexi-time at work and parenting co-operatives in which fathers and mothers take turns to help to look after their children or elderly relatives. Individuals who lose jobs because of technological change should not bear alone this "price of progress''. A welfare state should share such burdens; but based on workfare, with only mothers of infants and the severely disabled exempted.

Etzioni favours national service, compulsory organ donation, random breath tests for drivers and public humiliation of criminals. People who are HIV positive must inform partners.

Critics say all this amounts to a new puritanism, that it fails to understand modern women and takes no account of the economic deprivation that forces husbands and wives to work. Etzioni replies that he does not want draconian new laws but "a new spirit" to improve society.

Paul Vallely