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Winter 1992
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The New Communitarians
Jules Cohn
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The emerging communitarian movement is an effort by an odd collection of academics to come up with a new perspective on our social problems by turning to some old-fashioned themes: the moral state of the commonweal, the obligations of citizens, and the need for “social virtue.” Prominent among these thinkers are professors of social science, literature, and law. In their recently founded journal, The Responsive Community, they describe themselves as “neither right nor left, liberal nor conservative. “ Most communitarians, however, were once liberals, who believed in governmental solutions for social welfare problems. Now they are catching up with events in the real world, and want to come to terms with what they recognize as the unwanted consequences of their old ideas.

The communitarians argue that our prospects for achieving a reasonably harmonious civic consensus are undermined by the proliferation of interest groups that take only their own needs into account, whether they pursue narrow aims at the local or neighborhood level, or define themselves by their economic goals, sex, sexual preference, race, or religion. Critical of the politics of “self-interests,” the communitarians want to reassert the importance of the common good. Furthermore, they contend that dependence on public programs has turned too many of our citizens into passive or indifferent clients of government, availing themselves of benefits and resources without taking heed of the costs entailed or actively participating in what was meant to be a system of self-government.

The communitarians want Americans to take more responsibility for themselves and to strengthen their attachments to basic institutions—family, school, workplace, neighborhood, and religious fellowships, as well as local governments. To remedy the decline of civic standards, according to them, we must forge agreement on the obligations of citizenship and norms of reciprocity that would require competing interests to honor community values alongside their own.

Significantly, the new communitarianism bears no resemblance to the community control movement of the 1960s, which was driven by the spirit of entitlements, not by a call for citizen responsibility. The community control movement sought to decentralize the administration of schools, housing, and poverty programs by transferring power from big-city bureaucracies to local groups. It ignited considerable conflict as groups fought over community resources. Its divisive effects are still being felt, particularly in New York’s school districts.

Cooperation and obligation, rather than conflict and entitlement, are the bywords of communitarianism. The communitarians envision citizens creating the good society by working together at the local level, in groups of many kinds, to make their institutions function and to uphold standards of public behavior.

To be sure, these ideas are not entirely new. For one thing, they hark back to Rousseau’s emphasis on the “general good.” But in the main the communitarians have turned away from European collectivist theories, especially Marxism. Their program is basically American in its roots; the optimism that characterizes some of their leading propositions and the large doses of sentimentality and utopianism that crop up in their writings also have a homegrown ring.

The new communitarians have been influenced by Jefferson, who enriched the ideal of decentralized government with the hope that active participation in public life would ennoble ordinary citizens. Their ideas also recall Emerson’s vision of a vibrant civic morale stemming from the self-reliant efforts of individuals.

Another precursor of today’s communitarianism is Edward C. Banfield, whose studies of community politics emphasize the connection between the basic values of individual citizens and the quality of civic life. It was Banfield who first demonstrated that deep cleavages in civic life have a profoundly disturbing effect on the ability to govern. His analysis was stark, however, unlike the communitarians’. As he saw it, self-interest is the main motive in everyone’s political life. Thus, the proper role of political leadership is to build a community by providing as many accommodations to individual interests as possible, rather than preaching against them and holding out for the arrival of social virtue.”

More recently, the insights of some contemporary social critics have paved the way for the emergence of communitarianism. Charles Murray and James Wilson, for example, advocate public policies that stress citizen responsibility instead of entitlements. And Nathan Glazer has recently commented on our need to reassert the right of the community to pass judgment on deviant and destructive behavior, using as an example New York’s streets, where the most ordinary rules of civility no longer prevail.

In their writings the new communitarians are often suckers for the quaint tone and the homespun anecdote. Some of their work brings to mind the writing of more-optimistic eras, when Philadelphia boosters could with a straight face advertise the city of brotherly love, and New Yorkers could enjoy the sweetness of riding back and forth all night on the Staten Island Ferry, unmindful of muggers. But despite some cloying affectations, the new communitarians are addressing an important matter.

Some communitarians, more evangelical than clinical in describing our current problems, center their attention on what they see as a spiritual malaise. Thus the communitarianism of Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton (hereafter known as Bellah et al.), authors of The Good Society (and an earlier volume, Habits of the Heart), rests on a moral vision of social life.

The members of this West Coast group envision a reconstituted civic life centered on collective reflection about the “ultimate problem of meaning.” Unfortunately, what they mean by this is never clarified. Their book, one part sociology and one part Garrison Keillor, is a folksy effort to examine the possibilities of revitalizing our basic institutions through enhanced citizen participation at the local level.

Bellah et al. offer some worthwhile suggestions for improving our local schools. They would, for example, revive the long-neglected study of rhetoric to teach students how to think about ethics and morality in a disciplined way.

They are especially interested in local religious institutions and would like to see them become models for other civic organizations, fostering a sense of mutual obligation and responsibility. They regret the rise in our time of the “caucus church,” whose spiritual mission has become politicized. The church as advocacy organization, they argue, has compromised its authority as the guardian of faith.

Bellah et al. are also acute about what is wrong with the way New Yorkers live. The city’s elites, they observe, isolate themselves from the rest of the community by spurning public services (supported, to be sure, by their taxes) in favor of private consumption. They buy what they want (private schools, private security guards, limousine and catering services, housekeepers, health clubs, doormen), and tolerate inferior services for the poor.

Undaunted by present reality, these communitarians propose making New York a test case for their program of “civic equality,” ready to enlist in their crusade all those well-off New Yorkers holed up behind their doormen.

Unfortunately, most of the communitarian program proposed by Bellah et al. amounts to nothing more than the old utopianism in a new bottle. Calling themselves “ambassadors of trust in a fearful world,” these California dreamers, unwilling to discard all their ideological “habits of the heart,” have merely shifted their focus from a utopian reliance on government programs to a utopian reliance on making people feel good about being socially responsible.

Christopher Lasch, a onetime “progressive liberal,” who now says he has lost faith in progress, aims to approach communitarianism from a philosophical rather than an evangelical standpoint. In The True and Only Heaven he blames “the whole modern project” for our current crisis of civility, and presents communitarianism as a pessimist’s compromise between “hope and fatalism.”

Lasch complains that centralized programs have turned people into clients instead of active citizens, and emphasizes the need to educate and develop a responsible citizenry who would rely less on programmatic solutions for our civic problems. He would like to see local units of work, politics, and culture fashioned by citizens themselves serve as mediating agencies on behalf of the “lost individual” of modern democratic life.

But Lasch is unable to acknowledge the important connections between free markets and free institutions. Instead he is preoccupied with accusing our economic system of fostering greed and rebuking liberals for their faith in large-scale production and centralized administration. As an alternative to all that he derides, Lasch relies on a fantasy of his own—a populism for the twenty-first century that finds moral inspiration in old-time grass-roots radicalism.

A number of new communitarians claim to be practicing their faith already by endeavoring to forge networks of likeminded souls devoted to shouldering responsibility for the common good. They have launched a new Journal, The Responsive Community, in Washington, D.C. (with, they note, “voluntary labor, dedication, and commitment”). The journal’s editors, in an inaugural issue, call on readers to form local groups to “engage in dialogue” to “make our shared community more responsive.

One of those editors is Mary Ann Glendon, a professor at Harvard Law School and author of Rights Talk. Glendon exhibits neither the evangelical optimism of Bellah et al. nor the disingenuous new-found pessimism of Lasch. Presented within a framework of law and constitutionalism, her rigorous analysis stands out among the work of the communitarians.

Glendon traces the disorder in our body politic to our present “rights mentality.” Her felicitous phrase is that we are saturated with rights”: the rights of trees, animals, smokers, nonsmokers, consumers, etc. This ever-growing list serves to trivialize rights that are central to democratic life.

Our obsession with rights has placed the self at the center of our moral universe, she maintains. Her most effective image, evoking the Lone Ranger of radio days, is of a “lone rights bearer.” This dude, rather than wandering the range on the lookout for injustice to others, now champions only his own rights. He is “radically free.”

According to Glendon, our reliance on the language of rights makes us adversaries; we go to court rather than solve our problems through politics. She points out that most lawyers “know that the assertion of rights is usually the sin of breakdown in a relationship.” Yet all too often, we prefer the test case to the give-and-take of deliberation and negotiation.

For example, Glendon illustrates how debate on abortion in this country has resulted in a “deadlocked clash of rights.” She provides an intriguing critique of the privacy argument used by pro-choice activists: “Privacy,” she writes, has been made into a “superright, a trump,” outflanking rights that properly belong to the community. To Glendon, the pregnant woman has rights but also obligations (to the unborn child, to society). Only a shared communitarian outlook can resolve the issue, she suggests.

Glendon calls for a return to the democratic political process as the primary means for solving such conflicts. She is only moderately encouraged about the prospects for implementing communitarian remedies for our difficulties. One hopeful sign, she writes, is that the Supreme Court is relaxing its grip on issues heretofore removed from legislative and local control, allowing the democratic processes of bargaining and persuasion to supplant the nonnegotiable “clash of rights” by which we are too often divided.

As rendered by most of its other proponents, communitarianism is drenched in sentimentality, especially when it idealizes or abstracts real life in the local community. Its goals of social solidarity, on the one hand, and the development of an active and ethical citizenry, on the other, are a tall order, calling for subtle but all-important adjustments between obligations and rights.

In disavowing programmatic, centralized solutions to social problems, communitarians center their attention on the local community, in the hope that its members somehow will be bound together by shared moral standards. But from the standpoint of the harsh community life in New York City, their hope is a pipe dream. The communitarians seem to know little about politics and less about literature, for their commendable efforts to develop a practical plan are uninformed by the tragic vision that ordinary New Yorkers find in their reading of the daily newspapers and their descent down the subway stairs.

The communitarians, evasive about the force of individual self-interest, fall to explain how their proposals will prevail against ordinary “me-tooism” in planning boards, town meetings, housing projects, suburban enclaves, factories, and offices. Nor have they come to terms with recent discouraging episodes in various communities in New York. Surely, the destructive battles for control of school boards and the intergroup conflict currently raging over “multiculturalism” indicate the poor prospects for achieving the consensus envisioned by Amitai Etzioni’s “invisible moral colleges” at the local level.

Communitarianism may well turn out to be a halfway house. Still holding on to their illusions about benign human nature, and inclined to see evil only in markets and materialism, its proponents are at least renouncing some of their old doctrines. But communitarianism’s advocates have yet to formulate an integrated, systematic expression of their ideas to match the complexity of our civic problems. Perhaps the most significant contribution of the new communitarianism is the idea that our citizens themselves, accustomed to claimant politics and the rhetoric of rights, are the key to our problem.

 

 


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