So what's the big idea, Mr Etzioni?

Amitai Etzioni, communitarian guru, believes happy families make a moral society. Beatrix Campbell asks if that is enough
Beatrix Campbell: Tell us something about yourself.

Amitai Etzioni: I was born in Germany and raised in Israel where I participated in the Israeli war of independence. Then I got my BA and MA at the Hebrew University and in 1957 I went to Berkeley where I got my PhD, then taught for 20 years at Columbia University. I went to work at the White House for Jimmy Carter and decided to stay in Washington.

You have five children.

I sure do.

How did you manage childcare?

My wife and I were both working, but being a professor it was relatively easy for me to do some work at home. We both participated rather intimately, but there is no question she did a disproportionate share.

What do you now think about the sexual division of labour?

I think men and women, fathers and mothers, should have exactly the same rights and exactly the same duties.

When people are poor they are under such economic pressure that it becomes society's job to enable them to be better parents. But when we move up the economic structure people have more choices. Take a couple of lawyers - both working outside the home, both wanting to make a million. They bring clients home, and their briefcases, and they have no time or energy left for their children. I think it's bad for all concerned - for them, the children and for society.

The greatest joy I get out of my life is my five sons. My wife was killed in a car accident and I was very much a single parent. The youngest boy was 11. It was very painful and then very wonderful, because we really got very close together.

So you had an experience of fatherhood that was more engaged than most?

I wasn't engaged as much as one could be, but I was certainly more engaged than I had been before. Then again it was a privilege of my position that I was ahead of my time. Being a professor simply allowed me more latitude than somebody who is, say, a mineworker.

What do you feel about the way your argument in The Parenting Deficit has been interpreted?

Some people have understood what we are trying to say - that we need to pay more attention to the children - and some have been quick to demonise us, claiming we want to go back to the old parent system. But we always emphasise that both parents have the same rights and both must be more dedicated to their children.

What about men's relationship to their children?

Fathers are often deficient. There are a lot of fathers walking out on their children. Once they are divorced they often vanish psychologically. They don't do their share of paying for the children - they are very often negligent.

You don't talk about this in The Parenting Deficit.

That's true. We didn't get round to other things that needed to be said.

So your priority was the behaviour of mothers rather than fathers?

No that's absolutely not true. I emphasise that both parents need to do more. I didn't single out any one group.

The parenting deficit is rather different in Britain. What do you feel about the British situation?

Well, what is that difference?

The best research on men and women's routine housework and childcare shows a different pattern. Both do more childcare than they did, and women in full-time paid work spend more "quality time" with their children than full-time homemakers did 30 years ago.

I just want to be sure I follow what you are saying. Are you saying that in Britain mothers who work full time find a way to relate to the children in a way which fulfils fully what the children need?

I don't know that this in any way relates to what children need. But your argument attributes the parenting deficit to women's entry into the wage labour market.

Well, I'm sorry, but that is not what I am saying, and I never have. You keep talking about women. I'm saying that both parents tend to value their career more than their children, and both neglect their children. It's nothing to do with any one group entering into the labour force. It has to do with the change in cultural values.

In part it is economic pressure, in part it's technological change. There's a lot of pressure on the lower part of the income scale to work outside the home, while the upper part of the scale in the Eighties greedily pursued a high income, Gucci shoes and a Mercedes. So for different economic reasons both categories of parents became ever more involved in material success and as a result devalued their children.

So are children the centre of the moral order you are proposing?

They are not the only player, but they are the ones who suffer most and therefore that's where the moral story starts, it's not where it ends.

What do you feel about the great discoveries of the past 25 years on what goes on between men and women, adults and children, and the discoveries concerning domestic cruelty and abuse?

They're horrifying, and we need to do everything we can, police-wise, economically, sociologically, to bring these things to the public attention and to apply all measures we can to correct them. That's exactly what it means to give children priority. To ensure they have an environment where they are not abused, where there is no violence between the parents and towards them, and where they can lead a wholesome life.

You place your political energy within civil society rather than the party political system, is that right?

Our society is like a stool with three legs: the market, the government, and the community or civil society.Two legs are long - the government and the market. The civil society leg is short, thereby destabilising the whole combination. Therefore we need to lengthen the third leg. That doesn't mean the two other legs are not a necessary part of the system.

Why is the civil society "leg" so short?

We have cut it short, especially in the Eighties. We had this philosophy that focusing on self-interest would take care of everything, not only in the market place but in society. It is clearly not so.

And then you had this libertarian philosophy that there should be no discussion of the common good, that what we should have is everybody sorting out their own agenda and somehow, out of that, a societal agenda would arise. So we had an economic and a philosophical attack on civil society.

What do you think about the evidence of renewal within civil society, of self-help groups and new cultures?

The way we usually change direction in society is by dialogue. We had such dialogues on the environment and women's rights. Now we are having one on gay rights. When those conversations develop, sometimes we get a change of direction, sometimes we don't.

The good news is that, as of the early Nineties, both in the US and UK, a debate about what civil society should be like has been joined. We haven't taken it nearly far enough, but at least we are willing to discuss the issues. In the Eighties we pretended they didn't exist and shoved them under the rug.

Self-help groups have always existed, but I think they have been diminishing as women have been forced, or chosen, to go into the market place. Because in the past they carried a disproportionate share of the burden of that work, it's even more short-handed now. We simply have neighbourhoods empty during the day. I'm not saying it's anybody's fault, or that there's anything wrong with women working, but it means there is less time and energy left for civil society.

What do you feel about the political tendency to walk away from the problem of poverty, here and in the US?

What I see happening is an enormous divisiveness in society where everybody is at each other's throats. The result is that two thirds of Americans are very angry, but it's not the kind of anger which is channelled in a constructive direction, leading to some tremendous movement for change.

It's a very negative, slashing anger, and it's dangerous, first for progressive forces and in the longer run for the stability of the political system. So we must find ways to correct past injustices without blowing the whole place apart.

What would those ways be?

I have not yet heard any solutions which I find compelling. Some people talk about a shorter work week but I don't think it begins to get to the heart of the matter.

Why not?

We are witnessing very strongly felt emotional upheavals. People feel that everything in their life is changing: the definition of gender, the definition of relationships, their economic future is insecure, their children are out of control. I'm not sure that if they work 36 hours instead of 40 that somehow takes care of the issue.

Why not?

Well, there's just no connection between how many hours you work and what you feel on your gender identity, or your feeling about somebody who is less advantaged than you.

What do you think about the work of the American sociologist Charles Murray who has been very influential in Britain?

I think he should wash his mouth with soap because he's a racist.

Some people began to feel slightly shocked that they had adopted his view on the underclass and then were embarrassed by his view on race.

They are indefensible. Not only from an ethical viewpoint, they are also scientifically indefensible. That's the worst of both worlds.