Write compassion into the new faith

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The Independent Online
One by one our gods fail us. Paternalistic capitalism, corporatism, communism and, latterly, untrammelled individualism have all been advocated, tried, and largely or wholly abandoned. The old isms are in disarray. Yet the Nineties are not characterised by a retreat into pragmatism and materialism. On the contrary there is a search for meaning and a preoccupation with ethics. If the Sixties were about sociology, the Eighties about economics, then this is the decade of philosophy.

The last decade was awash with words such as consumer, yuppie, market and manager. This one is very different: the new buzz terms are community, responsibilities, civil society and cohesion. Thus in Tony Blair's proposed new Clause IV, unveiled this week, we find a commitment to "create a community ... where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe ...", a society "which nurtures families" and where "decisions are taken ... by the communities they affect".

The key words are community, family, rights and duties - not government, councils or individuals. It is a change of political language that reflects the beginning of an attempt to remodel society and the people in it - a new "project".

An influential figure in this trend is the American professor Amitai Etzioni, who was in London this week. Etzioni's "communitarianism" is said to have influenced the Labour leader. For Etzioni the key is "civil society" - the network of formal and informal organisations and groups, ranging from the family to Neighbourhood Watch, from the WI to the local gay group - to which we all belong. This third leg of the stool (the other two are the state and market) has, he says, been neglected and must now come to the fore.

It is difficult to disagree with this. Civil society has been sadly neglected in the political rhetoric of both left and right and yet lies at the heart of the problem of social cohesion. The problem is how you describe civil society and determine what precisely is the problem.

Take the family, for instance, which is central to Etzioni's analysis. He argues that we spend too little time helping our children to become moral beings. We are - or have become - bad parents. Yet the consequences of our actions are not ours alone, but are felt throughout society. This is the parenting deficit that needs to be made up. It would help if there were more two-parent families, fewer divorces and more time spent at home.

Fair enough. But many women fear that Etzioni's arguments will lead to demands for a return to pre-feminism. There is a strange gender-blindness about much of his writing. He pays little attention to the feminist revolution. There is little acknowledgement that there can be no return to the old- style family, nor that the big problem concerns masculinity. There is a fear that communitarian-inspired policies designed to buttress the family will consist of cuts in single mothers' benefits, tightening divorce laws and encouraging women back into the home.

But this need not be the implication. Although Etzioni's analysis of a parental problem is clearly right, his deficit could be made up by transforming men's role within the family rather than by restricting women. If men were more valuable as parents and husbands,women would be less likely to begin families without them, divorce them or be forced to choose between a career and the welfare of children. Many men now believe this.

Even so, lots of families will fail. When they do a punitive attitude will not help. Of course parents need to understand the likely results for their children of divorce or separation, but if it happens help will be required, not condemnation.

The idea of building up the power and influence of "civil society" is also good and important. Far from being backward looking, this perspective is in tune with very modern, devolutionary instincts. The more citizens can be entrusted with the means to run their own streets, schools and facilities the better. And it is reasonable to expect individuals to observe certain codes of behaviour.

But individuals also have rights that need to be protected. In any community there is always the danger that moral leadership will be assumed by zealots or busybodies, whose pleasure lies in excluding others rather than empowering them. Part of the new contract would have to include the constitutional protection of the citizen through a Bill of Rights.

There is room for a new settlement which balances the needs of the community with those of the individual. But it must be flexible and compassionate, or it will become yet another inadequate faith.