Beyond the lure of off-the-shelf ethics

The emphasis on unlimited personal freedom that reached its peak in the 1980s is being eclipsed by a return to the concept of community
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The Independent Online
Five years ago, it was not unreasonable to expect that the 1990s would be a decade of peace and prosperity, when, as John Major put it, nations would be at ease with themselves. Instead the dominant mood of the mid-1990s has turned out to be insec urity,not only about jobs, but about everything from crime to the state of public values.

In some parts of the world, anxieties of this kind tend to push people into reaction: to cling to nationalism or racism, and to search for scapegoats. In the Western world insecurity seems to be having a rather more benign effect, promoting an intensive search for a sense of community or cohesion, for ties that can bind people together.

The smarter politicians have all been sensitive to this shift. In Britain, the language of community and neighbourhood has rapidly moved from the margins of Liberal pavement politics to become a defining part both of Tony Blair's new Labour and John Major's softer civic Conservatism. In America, the shift has found expression in the communitarian movement, which has won support on both left and right for its programme of self-help and moral education, and for its call for new responsibilities to match the growth of new rights. In Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl has explicitly drawn on communitarian ideas, and in France, Sir James Goldsmith's manifesto, The Trap, crystallised a widespread desire to return to a more localised, more traditional way of life against the depredations of rationalism, high science and free trade.

Some have tried to interpret this swing away from the high individualism of the 1980s, from the promise that freedom could be expanded without limit or side-effects, as a classic pendulum swing from right to left. But this misreads the significance of what may turn out to be a rather deeper climatic shift, which is just as threatening for the libertarian new left and the technocratic social democrats as it is for the free-market right. For what seems to be happening is a return to clearly articulated principles of right and wrong, and a rejection of the common alibis of recent decades that made it possible for crime to be blamed on society, or for a deceitful and intrusive newspaper to justify its actions on the grounds of market demand.

This shift, towards what can loosely be termed communitarianism, has drawn on several diverse currents. One is philosophy. Since the late 1970s, many of the ablest political philosophers have been leading a powerful re-evaluation of the dominant liberal assumption that individuals are free-standing entities, able to choose whatever values, identities or roles they wish. According to thinkers such as Alastair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer, this view is not only philosophically flawed, but also likely to foster societies without any soul or any capacity to cohere or generate mutual trust. By turning choice into a totem, a good that stands above all others, Western societies have not only misread human nature but also misunderstood morals and ethics which, far from being things that can simply be picked off the supermarket shelf, are embedded in the ways we live our lives.

Such ideas have had little direct political influence. But they have given intellectual backbone to the second source of communitarian ideas, a political swing of the pendulum away from the more extreme radical free-market individualism of Britain and the US in the 1980s, and the claim that there is no such thing as society and no virtue in intermediate institutions. A decade later, it is striking that those societies that went farthest towards deregulation now have the most anxious, insecure populations. They also have the most vocal commentators arguing that rising crime, bad behaviour and the decline of traditional forms of authority are symptoms of societies that are out of balance and have lost some important, if invisible, glue that held them together.

In some respects this is nothing new; a century ago there was no shortage of thinkers and politicians warning that new industries and cities were destroying old communities and corroding people's sense of moral values. But the sheer pace of change in recent years, driven forward by rapid globalisation and declining deference, has lent new force to such fears.

The third source of the turn to communitarianism is a shift in attitudes about how change is achieved. According to the communitarians, a culture that emphasises only rights and freedoms inevitably tends to engender irresponsible behaviour: promiscuous HIV carriers, selfish drivers, parents who do not consider their children's interests, citizens who demand the right to be tried by jury but are unwilling to serve on one. The answer, they argue, is a change of heart, a cultural shift towards an acceptance of greater personal responsibility. Like Green politicians, they argue that people should act for themselves rather than wait for governments to solve problems.

The fourth source is a change in perceptions about government. Throughout most of this century, politics has been shaped by the idea that government can act on society through professionals working in ordered, top-down bureaucracies. Social workers, social citizenship, social security and socialism were all manifestations of belief in a (usually national) society. In the last quarter of a century, however, this cluster of ideas has fallen apart. Governments now seek to act on the choices of individuals and families, to develop services through a multiplicity of agents, to relate to specific communities rather than a single society, and to pass moral responsibility down from the whole to the parts. In this sense, Margaret Thatcher was not so far off themark in saying there is no such thing as society. Society may still exist but it is less tangible, less meaningful and less useful as a guide to policy.

Together these factors are transforming the political climate. Evangelistic faith in the transformative powers of the marketseems as absurd as the faith in government of an earlier generation of social democrats. But the swing is not understandable solely as one from individualism to communitarianism. It is also a swing away from ideologies (both of the free market and of the left) and back to ethics, away from large solutions to small ones, and away from universal analyses and prescriptions towards a concern for the particular and the incommensurable.

Needless to say, none of these ideas is uncontested. The clearest expression of communitarian ideas, set out in The Spirit of Community by Amitai Etzioni, the founder of the American movement, has called forth an extraordinary range of attacks from all sorts of guardians of orthodoxy, whether liberals or feminists, traditional socialists or free-market conservatives.

Two criticisms stand out. The first is that communitarian ideas are essentially nostalgic, harking back to a lost world of happy families and tight-knit neighbourhoods. Although, as the Henley Centre has shown, two-thirds of British people still live within five miles of where they were born and brought up, today's societies are far more mobile. It is easy to drive miles to work, shop, or enjoy ourselves. Telecommunications and television widen horizons and detach people from those who happen to live around them. And life (as in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral) revolves more around networks of friends than settled families. If there are communities, they are as likely to define themselves around work, fun, religion or interests as place. Rather than bringing people together, they are just as likely to be defined by the ways in which they differ from dominant values.

The second criticism is that communitarian arguments inevitably become illiberal. If they can't succeed in persuading people to change their behaviour, they will find it hard to resist the temptation to use the law as a tool of social engineering - by making it harder to divorce, by introducing compulsory community service for teenagers, or by penalising mothers who knowingly have children without the means to support them.

The problem with this line of argument, however, is that is it hard to conceive of any government which doesn't make some judgements about right and wrong, better and worse, and which doesn't make some attempt at social engineering. This is as true of taxes as it is of penal policy, and it was as true of the new right (as Margaret Thatcher put it, "economics is the means, the aim is to change the soul") as it was of social democrats.

But for now, few of the communitarians have quite such ambitious objectives.Most favour a soft communitarianism of persuasion and pluralism, rather than a more strident and legally enforced assertion of how people should behave. In this guise they win wide support for their call for stronger intermediate-level institutions, neighbourhood schools, family centres or voluntary organisations to give expression to community in ways that the top-down models of local government can no longer achieve.

Communitarian arguments have also won over many to the virtues of self-help and self-reliance that were strong on both left and right in the 19th century, before the huge expansion of the state. And the idea of balancing responsibilities and rights in practical ways, by policies which end "something for nothing" benefits systems, or require state-subsidised university students to give something back, not only by repaying their loans but also by taking part in community service, fit rather well with public common sense.

In these softer forms, communitarianism is likely to be an important fixture in politics of the late 1990s. Its themes can be found in the ideas of politicians as diverse as Paddy Ashdown, Gordon Brown, David Willetts, Alan Howarth and Frank Field. It appears to offer a partial solution to theupward pressure on public spending and to fears that our society is fragmenting into mutual indifference. So long as it does not go too far in seeking to impose consensus on contested issues such as family life, and so long as it does not appear to roll back hard-won rights, particularly of women, it has a powerful appeal.

But behind these arguments there is a deeper problem. In the era of MTV and supermarket religions, where is the authority that will make people behave in more communitarian, more responsible ways? Many on the right still argue that the old institutions of church and family, monarchy and traditional authority can call forth better behaviour with a language of duty. But this may be a vain hope.

Instead ours is an age where, as Gilles Lipovetsky argued in his fascinating, if extreme, book Le Crepuscule du Devoir ("The Twilight of Duty"), inherited duties and commandments have lost their pull. Today, for better or worse, everyone is brought up toquestion and to contest, and to think about ethics in much more personal terms. This may be why a more personal language of responsibility, rooted not in duty but in individual choices and the values each of us learns and experiences through school and life, fits much better with the times. But if this is true, it may become hard to find any institution with the authority to call on people to make significant sacrifices for others, for their children, and still less for future generations.

This distinction between responsibility and duty suggests both the power and the limit of the communitarians' argument. In its socially conservative guise, where community is used as a codeword for shoring up older institutions that can no longer either win legitimacy or deliver, it may divide far more than it unites. It may even remind people why their ancestors strived so hard to reject the oppressive demands of ancient institutions that claimed authority and demanded allegiance.

But as a way of bringing ethics back into the mainstream, and overturning the dominant economic view that individuals are only selfish, materially motivated and separate, it has huge potential. It can bring new insights to bear on the ties between individuals and larger groups, on the deficiencies of welfare and problems of social order. It can illuminate the vital role of self-help in the future delivery of everything from the environment and health to education. Perhaps it can even restore to politicsand leadership some of the meaning it has lost during a grey period of underachievement.

The writer is director of the independent think-tank Demos.

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