Should we live this way?

Communitarians say we have too much freedom. Joan Smith takes issue with their guru
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The Independent Online
He has met Tony Blair, lunched with Paddy Ashdown and dined with Conservative MPs. Newspapers, notably the Times and the Guardian, give him generous space to air his views and promote his book, out on Tuesday.* When he took part in a discussion earlier this month at the London School of Economics, where he has just completed a visiting lectureship, the event was chaired by Geoff Mulgan, director of the think-tank Demos and a Blair insider.

Without being a household name, Amitai Etzioni is a man with friends in high places. Of course, listening is not the same as doing, but some of his admirers, including his publisher, Profile Books, claim his influence is visible in the re-writing of Clause IV of New Labour's aims and values. This may be overstating the case but its reference to "community" and "common endeavours", and anemphasis on duties as well as rights, is much in line with Etzioni's thinking.

So who is Amitai Etzioni? A German-born sociologist, he is a professor at George Washington University. He is best known, however, as one of the founders of communitarianism. He set out his philosophy four years ago in a best-selling book, The Spirit of Community Rights, Responsibilities and the Communitarian Agenda, which got fawning reviews in America, not least from President Clinton.

"Thank you very much, Dr Etzioni," Clinton gushed, and promptly appointed him policy adviser - overlooking the fact that Etzioni held a similar post in 1979, a year before Jimmy Carter lost the Presidency. "Thank you for the inspiration that your work has given to me and to so many others, [and] for your wonderful book. There are no institutions really for bringing us all together, across the lines that divide us, in our common cause of building what is good about America and building up what is good within the character of our people."

Communitarians are keen on this kind of language, although here it has uncomfortable echoes of doomed crusades like Moral Re-armament in the 1930s. Indeed, Etzioni's Italian-sounding name is his own invention and reflects his commitment to moral values. He was born Werner Falk in 1929, shortly before his family fled from the Nazis to the Middle East. His father was a Zionist businessman and the name his son chose combines an almost comical high-mindedness - amitai is the Hebrew word for truth - with the name of a region of Israel whose central four letters spell out the family's creed (EtZIONi).

As a teenager, Etzioni smuggled Jewish refugees into Palestine, joined the Israeli commandos and fought against the British in 1948 - an experience he recalls as embodying communitarian ideals of decency and the common good: "I have no grim memories of my time in the Haganah fighting the British. We had a lot of gentlemen's agreements in the way that we waged that conflict. When my unit of the Haganah blew up the British radar station at Haifa, we warned them beforehand so they could evacuate it."

Etzioni studied under Martin Buber, whose books advocate co-operation and limits on self-interest, at university in Israel before arriving in the US to study philosophy in 1957. He married and had five sons, though he became a de facto single parent after his wife was killed in a car crash when the youngest child was 11. His formative years in an embattled culture with a strong emphasis on family values, and in a nascent state surrounded by enemies, go a long way towards explaining his apocalyptic vision - and remedies which his critics regard as authoritarian in effect, if not in intention.

Etzioni's analysis of what has gone wrong in the West is a classic example of fin-de-siecle moral panic: we are suffering from "rampant moral confusion and social anarchy. We often cannot tell right from wrong - or cannot back up what we do believe in." His argument is that we have too much freedom and not enough responsibilities: "We should, for a transition period of, say, the next decade, put a tight lid on the manufacturing of new rights," he writes.

If this sounds like a peculiarly American analysis, a reaction to expensive lawsuits over spilt coffee, it has to be said that it has resonance in Britain. In Connexity, Geoff Mulgan argues that "in much of the world today the most pressing problems on the public agenda are not poverty or material shortage... but rather the disorders of freedom: the troubles that result from having too many freedoms that are abused rather than constructively used"; a message he is well placed, from his new office in the No 10 policy unit, to urge on members of the Government.

Communitarians disdain economic explanations for bad behaviour, whether we are talking about high crime levels or "the fact that people with sufficient spending power tend to overeat", to take one of Mulgan's idiosyncratic examples. They focus instead on moral decline and the collapse of the family. Etzioni's big idea is the "parenting deficit", which has allegedly led to most of the ills that beset us.

Imagine parenting as an industry, Etzioni writes. "Over the past 20 years, millions of American mothers have sharply curtailed their work in the parenting industry by moving to work outside the home." This exodus, he claims, has had dire effects, a failure of "effective personality formation" in infants and a reliance on child care facilities which are sometimes no more than "kennels for kids". Teenagers brought up like this are unable to say no to drugs, alcohol and premature sexual activity.

So it's back to the home for women, and a 1950s-style division of labour? Etzioni denies it, extolling instead something called "peer marriage" - a two-parent family in which both parents have the same rights and responsibilities. But who is going to stay at home with the children, and for how long? Who pays? What if both parents want to work and believe their child care arrangements are satisfactory? Etzioni's response is to list a series of "pro-family practices and policies", including extended "family leave" of up to two years after a child is born. He also wants the law to be changed "not to prevent divorce, but to signal society's concern".

The latter is a typical fudge, and it is on this issue - how far society can go in enforcing its moral codes - that cracks begin to show. Etzioni is keen to talk about persuasion, reticent about what happens when exhortation fails. What he advocates is a social order in which the community identifies the "common good" and encourages its members to work towards it: safe driving, for example. Yet it is possible to imagine other examples in which a community endorses values like racism or homophobia.

Then there is the question of dissent. What happens when a community fails to persuade its members to conform to ideals like marriage-for- life and two-parent families? Etzioni's answer, in his LSE lecture, was that certain arguments will succeed because they have moral force. The Chinese, he said, can laugh off comments about their failure to use knives and forks, whereas criticism of their record on human rights strikes home - a naive argument which suggests that the Second World War would not have been necessary if only someone had pointed out to Hitler that genocide is not very nice.

When Etzioni advances absurdities like these, it is hard to realise that anyone takes his work seriously. So I rang Profile Books and asked whether they could name a government policy which had been implemented as a direct result of his advice. "In the States, community policing in a pretty broad sense. In the UK, he's had most influence on stakeholding and the new Clause IV," was the answer.

I would have put this question to Etzioni myself, but he refused to speak to me. Two weeks ago I was invited to dinner with him where the other guests included Geoff Mulgan. When I was introduced to Etzioni, I asked whether his policies would not reinforce traditional gender roles. His reaction was volcanic. "How would you feel if I called you a fascist?" he demanded. "You're stupid and ignorant and I'm not going to talk to you." He stalked off, in search of more congenial companions. Communitarians, I decided, don't prefer blondes.

*'The New Golden Rule: Community and Morality in a Democratic Society', Profile Books, pounds 12.99.