268. "Just a Social Crowd of Folk" The Guardian (February 18, 1995) p. 29.


Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University in Washington DC, is probably the best-known exponent of modern communitarian ideas. He has taken a particular interest in issues of parenting, family, and welfare policy.


SO WHAT is Communitarianism? We are a social movement aiming at shoring up the moral, social, and political environment. Part change of heart, part renewal of social bonds, part reform of public life.

Change of heart is the most basic. Without stronger moral voices, public authorities are overburdened and markets don't work. Without moral commitments, people act without any consideration for one another. In recent years too many of us have been reluctant to lay moral claims on one another. It is a mistaken notion that just because we desire to be free from governmental controls we should also be free from responsibilities to the commons, indifferent to the community.

Which values should the renewed moral voices reaffirm? Let's start with those we all share. Nobody seriously maintains that lying is better than truth-telling. Using force to push around other fellow human beings - whether it is a police officer indiscriminately clubbing a civilian or rioters pulling innocent people out of their cars - is something we deem unacceptable. Sexual harassment occurs, and although we may disagree about what exactly is encompassed by this term, we all agree that it should be considered morally inappropriate. And so on.

In the fifties we had a well-established society, but it was unfair to women and minorities and a bit authoritarian. In the sixties we undermined the established society and its values. In the eighties we were told that the unbridled pursuit of self-interest was virtuous. By the nineties we have seen the cumulative results. There is now near universal agreement that the resulting world of massive street violence, the failing war against illegal drugs, unbridled greed, and so on, is not one we wish for our children or, for that matter, ourselves. Where do we turn from here?

To shore up the moral foundations of our society, we start with the family. The family was always entrusted with laying the foundations of moral education. In the renewed communities we envision, raising children is a job for both parents. There is no contradiction between treating women and men as equals and calling for greater attention to, investment in, and a higher valuation of children.

Second in line are the schools. They are more than places in which people acquire skills and knowledge: they are places in which to acquire - or fail to acquire - education. Education includes the reinforcement of values gained at home and the introduction of values to those children whose parents neglected their character formation and moral upbringing.

Third are the social webs that communities provide, in neighbourhoods, at work, and in ethnic clubs and associations, the webs that bind individuals, who would otherwise be on their own, into groups of people who care for one another and who help maintain a civic, social, and moral order. However, for these communities to be able to make their contributions, they themselves need to be shored up. This requires a new respect for the role that institutions, such as local schools, have in sustaining communities. Government needs to refrain from usurping their functions; planners need to make spaces more community-friendly; and all of us need to invest more of ourselves in one another.

Fourth, the national society must ensure that local communities will not lock in values that we, as a more over-riding community, abhor - such as burning books. The national society should seek to maintain encompassing bonds that keep the many vying groups from turning hateful and violent towards one another. We can readily accommodate, indeed be enriched by, the cuisines, music, and religious practices of the great variety of subcultures. But all sub-groups must subscribe to a set of overarching values: specifically the democratic process, and the commitment to respect one another.

We do not have all the answers. But we are engaged in a genuine, shared undertaking. Many of these answers must evolve out of the give and take among those who make the Communitarian movement their social, civic, and moral home. It is, I assure you, a mighty fine place to start.

From The Spirit of Community, to be published by HarperCollins as a Fontana Press Original in October 1995 at pounds 7.99 (Amitai Etzioni 1993)

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