Creating a sense of Us and Them: The buzz concept of 'community values' is no social cure-all, says Kenan Malik, but an attack on individualism

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The Independent Online
WALTER BAGEHOT once said about the concept of a 'nation' that 'we know what it is when you do not ask us, but we cannot very quickly explain or define it'.

The same may be said about the idea of 'community'. Invocation of community has become as essential an accessory for today's politician as clean pockets for an England cricketer. Everyone from that nice Mr Blair to the nasty Michael Howard wants to claim Community as their own Big Idea. Yet when Professor David Marquand, a leading advocate of the idea of community, was asked to define it recently, he had to admit that 'we are grappling with it and it will eventually come right: somewhere between the 'market' and 'social solidarity'. In other words, I know what it is, but don't ask me to explain it.

It is the very woolliness of the idea that is so important to politicians. In reality, there is no such thing as 'community'. Society is composed of different interests and values, which increasingly seem to be irreconcilable. Virtually every policy decision implemented by virtually every Western government seems to have the consequences of creating greater social disharmony. The result has been increasing social fragmentation and popular disenchantment with public institutions. In such a context, the idea of community is an attractive way of imposing a commonality of values and interests across a divided society.

But since no such commonality exists, the question that needs to be asked is 'whose interests?' and 'whose values?' - and indeed, 'whose community?'. Social values are inevitably shaped by those with greater access to power, so the fiction of community penalises the weakest and least powerful sections of society. Single mothers, immigrants, minority groups - those whose values do not appear to coincide with the mythical community's - become the victims of communal coercion.

Of course, this is not the intention of the notion's liberal advocates. Communitarians attribute the problems of social fragmentation to the failure of unfettered free-market policies. As the Oxford don and former Thatcherite John Gray writes in his recent paper The Undoing of Conservatism: 'human beings, more than they need the freedom of consumer choice, need a cultural and economic environment that offers them an acceptable level of security and in which they feel at home.' Selfish individualism, Dr Gray tells us, has created an atomised, alienated society. What we need, therefore, are extra economic values of care, duty and citizenship to shore up the atomistic individual and make him or her part of a community.

Any criticism of free-market values may seem to be welcome, and one cannot but feel a sense of schadenfreude when much of this criticism comes from former Thatcher acolytes. But the implications of the communitarian argument are thoroughly conservative. At the heart of the philosophy of community is the elevation of duties to society above individual rights obtained from society. What communitarians create is not an alternative to the Thatcherite vision of the free market, but a potentially more coercive and divisive version of it.

For communitarians social fragmentation arises from individual selfishness. 'We are all becoming worse people,' the Tory MP David Willetts has observed, 'more self-centred, more aggressive, more hostile to excellence and achievement, less civil, less willing to give time to any cause greater than ourselves'. This argument goes back to Edmund Burke and beyond. Humans are troublesome, quarrelsome, irrational beings needing the restraint of community, state and tradition to keep their baser instincts in check. Paradoxically, through this argument, the philosophy of community recasts social problems as individual and moral ones. The failure of society becomes the failure of individual human beings to adapt to society.

It was no surprise, then, that Tony Blair should take the opportunity of his first public interview as Labour Party leader to launch an attack on single mothers. Single mothers and errant fathers are classic victims of the philosophy of community. Through their selfish actions and amoral values, runs the argument, they have debased family life and undermined the social fabric. The attack on single mothers shows how easy it is, once immoral individuals are seen as the problem, to slip from a critique of Thatcherite selfishness into the belief that welfarism promotes too individuated an idea of the right to state assistance. The trouble with society is that individuals have too big a claim on the community.

The force behind communitarian criticism seems to be its rejection of the dehumanising effects of the market. But the underlying argument it promotes is that the market is insufficient to control individual behaviour. The solution can only therefore be to augment market forces with the power of state administration. This implies a greater degree of coercion, directed at those who stand outside of the perceived values of the community, whether they be single mothers, illegal immigrants, or the undeserving poor.

Because community is an abstraction from real society, it cannot be established through a positive invocation of what we may have in common. Rather it becomes defined through who we are not, not inclusive of values but exclusive and intolerant. A Hertfordshire village defends its community against invasion from Hindu worshippers; Eurosceptics defend British traditions from Brussels bureaucrats; Margaret Thatcher defends British culture from being swamped by immigrant values. The idea of community inevitably creates a sense of Us and Them and lays the ground for a whole host of prejudiced and xenophobic ideas.

Few liberal advocates of community would go this far. But once they have insisted that civic duty takes precedence over individual rights, they cannot deny the logic of the argument: conform to the values of the community or be coerced.