Volume 14 Number 1
The Face of Politics to Come
01 February 2001

What makes a society strong? The vitality of its community life, maintains Mike Lowe.

In Britain and the USA politicians have been sounding a new note--perhaps a little faint and uncertain at first, but sure to become louder as the century progresses. It is the surprising sound of the politician concerned with the moral and spiritual health of their people.

There are lots of reasons why people might think this is a bad idea. Two centuries of Enlightenment tradition say that politics and religion are separate spheres and shouldn't be mixed. And, as Bill Clinton found to his cost, public figures live under the constant scrutiny of a media hungry for scandal. Nevertheless, these liberal democracies have reached an impasse in which traditional political remedies don't seem to work any more. Hence the need for new solutions.

In a global economy, the politicians who we directly elect are increasingly powerless to make decisions that affect our lives. We are affected by interest rates set by banks in far away countries and by economic growth or recession on other continents. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War, ideological differences on how to run the economy have disappeared. At elections we are not asked to choose the best economic system but simply who we think will be better managers.

All of which means that the debate, which was once centred on the economy, has focussed more on rights. The Left has been concerned with equality, wanting government to even out the playing field for minorities, the dispossessed and disadvantaged. The Right has wanted more rights for the majority, distrusting government intervention in general and pressing for small government.

In Britain we have a passengers' charter outlining the rights of rail travellers, a patients' charter for 'customers' of the National Health Service and a parents' charter for schools. In America, with more lawyers per head than any other nation, every citizen has the right to sue. Yet, as recent passengers of Britain's rail system would agree, many fundamental problems can't be solved by handing out more rights.

Politicians are discovering the need to rekindle a sense of our moral responsibilities towards each other. As British Prime Minister Tony Blair says: 'People are not separate economic actors competing in the marketplace of life. They are citizens of a community. We are social beings, nurtured in families and communities and human only because we develop the moral power of personal responsibility for ourselves and each other. Britain is stronger as a team than as a collection of selfish players.'

Blair has not been shy in proclaiming a new style of politics, the much vaunted 'Third Way'. In his book of the same name, Anthony Giddens, allegedly Blair's favourite intellectual, writes: 'The theme of community is fundamental to the new politics.... Civic decline is real and visible in sectors of contemporary societies.... It is seen in the weakening sense of solidarity in some local communities and urban neighbourhoods, high levels of crime, and the break-up of marriages and families.... Government can and must play a major part in renewing civic culture.'

Similar thinking can be found in the Clinton administration, particularly in Hillary Clinton's book It takes a village to raise a child. This philosophy has been labelled 'communitarianism' and owes much to Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University.

The starting point of this philosophy is a recognition that we depend on one another. If you think about who made the food you eat, the clothes you wear, the people who supply your electricity, water etc, you quickly realize that each of us depend on many thousands of others around the world for our normal daily lives. Similar calculations can be done about the people who depend on us.

As the Communitarian platform--a kind of manifesto of communitarian thought--puts it: 'Neither human existence nor individual liberty can be sustained for long outside the interdependent and overlapping communities to which all of us belong. Nor can any community long survive unless its members dedicate some of their attention, energy and resources to shared projects. The exclusive pursuit of private interest erodes the network of social environments on which we all depend, and is destructive to our shared experiment in democratic self-government. For these reasons, we hold that the rights of individuals cannot long be preserved without a communitarian perspective.' (www.communitariannetwork.org)

The argument is for some kind of balance between individual rights, and responsibilities to the community. Bestowing rights is fairly easy for a government. Much harder is to make people feel responsible. As Blair puts it: 'Democracy can flourish only as part of a rich culture of rights respected and duties performed. Most of the rights and duties relate to community life beyond the sway of the politician or the ordinary scope of the courts.'

The answer, say communitarians, is to encourage small groups of all shapes and sizes and varieties, where people feel that their contribution matters. Such small groups--known as 'civil society'--were a feature of 19th century America particularly noted by the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville on his travels. He concluded that such groups taught Americans the 'art of association' and the 'habits of the heart' which balanced their individualism with a sense of responsibility for the community. America little resembled the European model of a state at that time--which was more or less absolute monarchy. America was more a 'community of communities'.

The German thinker Karl Mannheim also observed: 'In small groups in which everyone feels that a great deal depends upon his actions, and learns to act upon his own responsibility instead of losing himself in the anonymity of the mass, social patterns grow up in which individuality can almost certainly develop.'

A recent study in the USA found that 40 per cent of Americans--some 75 million--belong to at least one small group that meets regularly. The author, Robert Wuthnow, concluded, 'Small groups are doing a better job than many of their critics would like to think. The communities they create are seldom frail. People feel cared for. They help one another.... The attachments that develop among the members of small groups demonstrate clearly that we are not a society of rugged individualists who wish to go it entirely alone but, rather, that... even amidst the dislocating tendencies of our society, we are capable of banding together in bonds of mutual support.'

Similarly, in Britain nearly 20 per cent of the population engage in some form of voluntary work during the course of the average year, and about 10 per cent do so on a weekly basis. Moreover younger people are involved in voluntary work at least as frequently as they were in earlier generations.

According to Anthony Giddens, the area where civil society is least developed is in areas marginalized by the sweep of economic and social change, and it is here that government can actively encourage local self-help organizations by offering money and training.

But, if small groups have a role in developing responsible attitudes, by far the most effective small group is the family. As Giddens puts it: 'The family is a basic institution of civil society.' He sees family policy as 'a key test for the new politics'. The picture doesn't look good. In the UK in 1994, 32 per cent of births occurred outside marriage. Across western societies, the divorce rate has risen steeply.

The Communitarian platform states, 'Bringing children into the world entails a moral responsibility to provide, not only material necessities, but also moral education and character formation.' It argues for policies that make it easier for parents to have time to care for their children, tax schemes that don't penalize marriage and that 'divorce laws should be modified, not to prevent divorce, but to signal society's concern'. On these policies, Blair's government has a mixed record, with its pressure on single parents to go out to work.

After the family, argue communitarians, schools have the key role in shaping moral values and responsible attitudes. This goes against recent traditions in education which say that we shouldn't impose our values on children, but encourage them to come to their own conclusions--an idea which is at best a half-truth.

Research by Professor Robert Coles shows that children search actively for values, moral purpose and meaning. If educators withhold their own values and sense of purpose this signals to the children that these questions are 'off limits' and that shared purpose and values do not exist. In attempting not to impose values, we simply impose the doctrine of moral relativism.

Once again, Blair's government has a mixed record here. Its emphasis on academic achievement in schools has led to less time for activities which develop social character. Since there are no exams to be taken on character (at least this side of the grave), moral education doesn't show up in the league tables by which schools and teachers tend to be judged and there is little incentive for teachers to work at it.

Finally, there is the moral role of leadership itself. Most cultures have taken politics and religion to be part of the same fabric. Their separation in modern western society is an exception that seems hard to sustain. As Blair puts it: 'Individuals prosper best within a strong and cohesive society... a society which is fragmented and divided, where people feel no sense of shared purpose, is unlikely to produce well-adjusted and responsible citizens.' It is easy to parody Blair as the 'Vicar of St Albion', but this may increasingly be the style of politics to come.
Mike Lowe

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