262. "Nation in need of community values" The London Times, (February 20, 1995).


Communitarian thinking has recently been subjected to some spirited criticism in this country. The communitarian call to restore civic virtues, for people to live up to their responsibilities and not merely focus on their entitlements, to shore up the moral foundations of society, is said to endanger individual liberties.

Communitarians stand accused of being “nostalgic” about an orderly past that never existed, and immobilised by a “neurotic” fear of the future in their quest to save the family from extinction. Some of the criticisms themselves illustrate the breakdown of civility, about which communitarians express alarm. The claim, in The Sunday Times, that I “do not understand the past”, and therefore pave the way for a new Mussolini, is ugly name-calling rather than an argument. For The Economist, a leading libertarian magazine, to declare the ideas of this Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany akin to those of a Nazi pamphleteer is an attempt to establish guilt by phony association. However, behind these incivilities lie serious questions, deserving careful answers. These are increasingly necessary as a wide spectrum of political leaders are expressing communitarian ideas with growing frequency - although they rarely utter the six syllable word. In the United Kingdom, Tony Blair and David Willetts, a Conservative MP and author of Civic Conservatism, often use communitarian language. In Germany such ideas are found in the arguments of Kurt Biedenkopf, the Christian Democrat prime minister of Saxony, Norbert Burger, the Social Democrat Mayor of Cologne, and party intellectual Thomas Meyer; and a leading Green, Joschka Fischer. In France, Jacques Delors, the former European Union President, speaks like a born again communitarian. In the United States, President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore and Republicans such as Lamar Alexander and Jack Kemp have expressed strong communitarian sentiments.

The main criticisms levelled against communitarians are that community is a vague, fuzzy term and that rebuilding strong communities will curb individual freedoms. As I see it, communities are social webs of people who know one another as persons and have a moral voice. Communities draw on interpersonal bonds to encourage members to abide by shared values, such as, “Do not throw rubbish out of your window” and “Mind the children when you drive”.Communities gently chastise those who violate shared moral norms and express approbation for those who abide by them. They turn to the state only when all else fails. Hence, the more viable communities are, the less the need for policing.

In some earlier periods, in some communities, such moral voices proved to be unduly demanding, harsh, and confining. They led groups of British dissenters to establish the American colonies where, in turn, they engaged in the relentless promotion of virtue, taking its most extreme form in witch hunts. Communities can of course over-react. But the same is true of most medications: they must be ingested in fair measure. One can overdose. But no one in his right mind would seek to ban all medicine.

The course of community should be compared to a bicycle, forever teetering in one direction or another - towards the anarchy of extreme individualism and the denial of the common good or toward a collectivist ethos that makes the collective group morally superior to its individual members. Hence, communities constantly need to be pulled toward the centre course, where individual rights and social responsibilities are properly balanced.

In the contemporary West, there is an urgent need to rebuild a sense of personal and social responsibility, a sense that we are not only entitled but also must serve, that the individual good is deeply intertwined with the needs of commons. To argue that the contemporary United Kingdom need be anxious about the development of strong communities for fear that they turn out to be domineering, say, run by the right-wing religious groups, is like arguing that we should forgo heating in the winter because a hot summer may follow. The West is in the cold season of excessive individualism and yearns for warmth of community to allow human relations to blossom.

True, the United Kingdom has not yet reached the levels of moral anarchy that we witness in the United States, but the trends are clear. Increases in rates of violent crime, illegitimacy, drug abuse, children who kill and show no remorse, and political corruption are all significant symptoms. It matters little of these portents are old or new, or that other societies are more decayed; it only matters that by any measure the readings of social ill health are far too grave for a civic society. The best time to reinforce the moral and social foundations of institutions is not after they have collapsed but when they are cracking. Does anyone truly believe that they have not yet cracked in the United Kingdom?

Communitarians, the libertarians say, are dreaming when they claim that to change a society’s course one must focus on changing the habits of the heart, on a grand dialogue in which people come together to agree upon a new direction. Compare the way the United States tried to curb alcohol consumption without prior dialogue, leading to the socially devastating failure of Prohibition. The United States is now much more successful in curtailing smoking because legislation came largely after a quarter century of public debate. Similarly, to ban divorce now, or even make it significantly more difficult, would backfire. We need to allow the debate about the importance of the family to mature before we enshrine the conclusions in legal terms.

Ultimately a community can and may draw on the state. But in what Daniel Bell, in his review of my book The Spirit of Community in the Times Literary Supplement, called our most original contribution, we developed four criteria whose explicit purpose is to limit the state in those occassions when we must call upon it. There must be:

 * Clear and present danger - such as the Aids epidemic - rather than some drummed up fear

 * No alternatives to state involvement available - try public education first

 * The involvement must be as unintrusive as possible

 * And damaging side effects must be mopped up

“One may quibble with the details, but pace Normal Stone, I do not know of any theorist of fascism who has formulated similar guidelines,” writes Bell. The argument that communitarians are majoritarians and hence will vote to over-ride minority considerations, is a position that we systematically rejected. The reason we called our platform a bill of rights and responsibilities, and named our quarterly The Responsive Community: Rights and Responsibilities , is precisely because we firmly hold that communities should be governed by constitutional democracies and not simply by majority rule.

For this reason, we oppose hate codes that allow the majority to define certain forms of speech as insulting and hence outlawed. We favour one-to-one meetings across racial and ethnic lines and intensified community dialogue to deal with intolerance.

“Reinforcing one sort of community means weakening another” pronounce the libertarians at The Economist. They mock: So which community is yours - the local, regional, national or what? True, there is a danger of tribalism, of communities turning on one another. However, the history of the United Kingdom shows that, despite some stresses among various levels of community, local communities can thrive within regional ones. Despite all the rhetoric, Scotland and Wales combine regional identities with society-wide loyalties. Communities nestled within more encompassing communities are the wave of the future and at the heart of the communitarian agenda.

Communitarian thinking is not an American import. Its roots sprout from ancient Greece and the Old and New Testaments.(I was trained by Martin Buber in Jerusalem.)While each society must evolve its own communitarian answers, the challenges are similar. Man and woman do not live by bread alone; it is unwise to believe that all we need is economic rehabilitation. We require our daily acts to be placed into a context of transcendent meaning and their moral import made clear.

We should not allow libertarians, who see in all attempts at community dialogue the shadow of an overpowering state, to hinder the development of a British and, ultimately, European communitarian agenda for social and moral reconstruction. Unless civil and moral order is shored up, more and more people will call for strong-armed leadership. Moral anarchy, not the excesses of community, is the danger we currently face.

The Communitarian Network
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