If one took some of our social philosophers seriously, one would conclude that the democratic impulse, the essential spirit of fraternity, is dwindling as the majority become increasingly scared about their futures, their tax bills and a babbling host of demons beyond the front door, from drug- addicted (subhuman) criminals round the comer to (superhuman) competitors abroad. Some of the despair is moral and religious in tone, some is environmental, but most of the gloom derives from that same system of political economy which had so recently delighted itself by winning the Cold War.
What too few of today's prophets have included in their calculations is that humans are an adaptable lot. Just as the chorus of predictions of individualistic mayhem rises to a crescendo, another counter-line of more affirmative song has been swelling up. It has consisted of a single word, "community". Everyone, it seems (or nearly everyone), is in favour of community. This has become the intellectually respectable form of nostalgia, but also the propaganda of optimists everywhere. It is the watchword of penitent freemarket Conservatives, and impenitent ones, too; of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, of Greens, of church leaders, of moralistic joumalists. There are, no doubt, 18-stone, shaven- headed neo-Nazis who start to blub quietly whenever community is mentioned; and, at the other end of the spectrum, extreme greens like Rudolf Bahro call for a return to Benedictine-like communities as a way of spiritual and economic renewal (strange but true). At a more cerebral level, there has been a distinct revival of interest in the socially richer Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith, at the expense of his Eighties blockbuster, The Wealth of Nations.
From America has come "communitarianism", something like an intellectuals' political movement dedicated to spreading attitudes and policies for community feeling and social cohesion. Its guru, Amitai Etzioni, an Israeli-born academic, hopes it will become large-scale like the women's movement or the green movement (political ecology, again), which will have more sustained impact than mere pressure groups or even a political party. He explains it thus: "We suggest that free individuals require a community, which backs them up against encroachment by the state and sustains morality by drawing on the gentle prodding of kin, friends, neighbours and other community members, rather than building on government controls or fear of authorities." This movement has spread, so far in a small and semi- organised way, to Britain, too. Etzioni rightly notes that British politicians, including Tony Blair, have shown interest in these ideas, but there are the beginnings of a separate British communitarian movement. In May 1995, a group of academics, community leaders and business managers launched The Citizens' Agenda: for Building Democratic Communities, which contained the same mix of moralism and community politics as the American version, though the British communitarians placed far more emphasis on democratic structures.
More significantly, there are examples of spontaneous "communitarian" developments, from Camden to Glasgow, where local groups take charge of schools, housing schemes or whatever, and try to develop stronger local control: if there is a yearning for "community" in some vague way, then there are still plenty of concrete, mundane examples of communities in action. There are, of course, the tens of thousands of councillors who, for all their lack of power, remain by far the most popular stopping- off point for people with problems, and thousands of self-help organisations, charities and campaigning groups.
In most cases, any connection with the formal, inherited democratic system is haphazard - or coincidental at best. Yet it looks as if, wherever people feel they can make a difference, or affect real things, they are still prepared to be political. Even if the word community is in danger of becoming so over-used that it is subsiding into bland nothingness, the instinctive use of it by so many is an important sign; a feeling in the herd that something has gone wrong and requires corrective (not to say collective) action. (Critics remind us that communities were not always liberating.)
It is also true that the interconnectedness and technological richness of modem life make the traditional village or small town community difficult to recover - even if we wanted to do so. The rising level of violence in many Westem societies, or at least the rising fear of violence, puts many people off the idea that they should go about poking their noses into other people's business. Geographic "communities" can be hard on, or savage to, other sorts of "community", be they Asian, gay or simply eccentric. Local communities, too, can be coldly selfish about keeping out the less attractive things that cities and countries require - mental homes, prisons, new housing developments, even sewage works and local dumps.
Yet it would be wrong to brush aside this contemporary fascination with community as illiberal or irrelevant. It may be vague, even woolly. It may not be a new idea. It may be open to abuse. But it is also, quite simply, a return to the values that have sustained human societies for a long time, and which seem pertinent today precisely because of the opposite pressure of globalisation.
It may be objected that "all this community stuff" is "mere words" and lacks a firm programme, a leader, a manifesto. I think this is to misunderstand how political change happens. The ideas always come first, and are disseminated and take root if they accord with the daily experience and instincts of enough people. As we have seen, some of this instinct is being put into practice, more commonly than the national political conversation has yet noticed. But even for the majority of citizens who are not involved in schools, churches or whatever, the emotional charge of "community" matters. Dreams of past Edens have always been one of the chief spurs to political change, an emotional resource which overwhelms the fact of whether that past Eden actually existed or not. Contemporary reformers' feelings for a lost community, which they would like to regain, can be compared to the ancient idea of liberty, the belief that "once upon a time" we were all free.
Community is code for the countervailing force to economic globalism, the democratic instinct, the essential missing element to the faster- moving, rougher and world-sized economy whose effects have inspired and haunted these pages. Those who make it more than words will come from all political backgrounds, and none. There is, for instance, the wasting moral energy that has been dammed and frustrated by the failure of the socialist project - a great impulse to answer the first political question of all, which is, "how should we live together?" Socialism, as a programme dependent upon high taxes, specific statist levers and solutions, is dead. But is it therefore the case that all the energy which powered the socialist dream has simply evaporated into the far blue yonder, doing its bit for global warming? After all, the earlier socialists worked through communities, whether industrial ones or through local councils, or by doing social work and organisation in the poorest areas - as Attlee did. Perhaps the failure of the project to impose socialist righteousness by military and political force may have, over time, a similarly dramatic and unexpected coda. Is it impossible that tens of thousands of people will quietly and slowly regather their energetic altruism and take it back into the world around them - their communities - and achieve a raggeder, grander change?
'Ruling Britannia', Michael Joseph, pounds 16.99Reuse content