Friday, 15 February 2013

Communitarianism Revisited

by Jonathan Boswell & Henry Tam

Communitarian concerns for mutuality and solidarity can be traced back to ancient Greek and Chinese philosophers and mainstream world religions. They came to be embraced in action by working class movements, cooperative Owenites and others in the 19th century. The ethos of cultivating democratic cooperation to build inclusive communities, where none will be left to the whim and mercy of others, became an inspiration to all who want an alternative to regimes that only regard might (military, hierarchical, or increasingly, economic) as right.

With the rampant rise of market individualism in the 1980s, the two of us (both academics – one ex-industry and politics, the other with experience from national and local government), decided to set out what communitarianism should mean in theory and practice if it is to help society navigate through the battering of plutocratic forces.

Jonathan Boswell’s book on democratic communitarianism, Community and the Economy (1990), argued for prioritising values of fraternity, complementary association and democratic participation. It examined public co-operation in the economy, and proposed arrangements whereby sectional interests could better co-operate with each other and government in the interests of social norms and public policies.

Henry Tam’s book, Communitarianism: A New Agenda for Politics and Citizenship (1998) attacked both individualism and authoritarianism. It argued for the ideal of inclusive communities based on the principles of co-operative enquiry, mutual responsibility and citizen participation. These were applied to the development of education, work and protection for citizens across state, business and third sectors.

Both books were widely reviewed and came to define the reform focus of communitarianism. We warned against allowing the Thatcherite-Reaganite ideology of the unrestrained market to corrode society and the economy. Sadly, however, plutocracy has since triumphed over the timid reform agenda of New Labour. We now have big money dominating government; public services relentlessly contracted out or sold off; accelerating disparities in income and wealth; deregulation unleashing greed, speculative frenzy and financial crisis; and failed banking institutions requiring bailouts, burdening the state with massive deficits. On top of it all, we have bone-headedly misguided economic policies, already producing miserable results for all but the privileged few.

So who is to be entrusted with rebuilding our crisis-torn economies and social fabrics? Up to 2010, our approach was to keep all political channels open. We placed a lot of emphasis on the voluntary, local and educational. We looked to civil society to play a key role, separate from party politics, as well as independent of both central government and the market. But in the light of what the present Government is doing to the UK, a party political strategy is no longer optional.

A new government is urgently needed to redress the damage and ensure those with an abundance of resources they have accumulated on the back of others’ hard work, will contribute to the common good. We've concluded that only the Labour Party is in a position to form such a government. But to succeed, Labour must face up to three key challenges.

First, it must be clear that it has learnt the lesson on the deregulations which helped to ruin the economy and distort public finances. It must be prepared to take vigorous state action to confront the problems of unethical, anti-social banking; over-mighty corporate lobbies; media irresponsibility; and massive tax avoidance. It should show leadership in investing in growth, employment, and affordable housing. It should recognise that to support these aims richer forms of public co-operation will be needed.

Secondly, it needs to promote social, civic and collaborative criteria, not competitive ones, in all public services from health and welfare, to education and criminal justice. Local government needs to be reinforced and empowered with real freedom, not financially decapitated. And it should ensure that citizens are aware of and involved in the development of decisions that affect them.

Thirdly, a Labour government should promote co-operative enterprises and both worker and community involvement in business in the private sector. It should also improve civic education and nurture public interest forums at local as well as national levels, as these will be important as bridges between social, economic, environmental and other groupings.

Blue Labour advocates have invoked some elements of communitarian thinking in their attempt to refocus British politics. In our view, the only worthy government would be one committed to meeting the communitarian challenges in full in reversing the growth of inequalities, rebuilding social solidarity, and reinvigorating a cooperative economy. That is the path to put our fragmented communities back together in one inclusive nation.

[Communitarian ideas were taken forward in the US too by eminent colleagues such as Amitai Etzioni, Philip Selznick, Charles Derber and Robert Bellah; and currently these ideas appear to have a major part to play in President Obama's Second Term.]