Thursday, December 13, 2007

Books: Amitai Etzioni: The Spirit of Community

Etzioni’s Communitarianism Cookbook
(add morality to taste then stir until social movement rises)
by Mar Walker
an essay in response to the book The Spirit of Community by Amitai Etzioni
this was originally written for a grad class in 1997, has been posted on my website for years
and I also posted it to as a book review

A Morality “Play”

Picture the scene. On the lawn, beneath your bedroom window a crowd is gathering in the dark. They know your spouse’s car and that red coupe that pulled in at 2 a.m. isn’t it. Mrs. Abernathy, a strict communitarian who lives across the street was up taking an aspirin when she spotted this car and saw the shadowy form of some home-wreaker sneaking through the side door. Duty bound, she called out a few neighbors to help you keep your morals in line. Your spouse, who had just fallen asleep, makes an appearance in the window to disperse them. (It was inconvenient enough when the car broke down on the way home from a seminar. The red coupe is a loaner.) You’re mad, so you open the window muttering and fling tennis shoes into the retreating crowd of busybodies. In the morning, this ungrateful behavior will get its own round of censure by telephone.

Communitarianism - as proposed in Amitai Etzioni’s “The Spirit of Community” assumes the moral legitimacy and truth of your community’s assumptions about your life. It offers an external morality without epistemology, theology or logic, without any messy philosophic notions of essence or virtue, without judge or jury. It offers a slap-dash recipe for suffocating Stepford communities where neighbors are encouraged to interfere in each others lives. And this call to action is not grounded firmly in a basis of friendship, common humanity or agape caring as in Scott Peck’s work on community building.

Mr. Etzioni himself should not be pointing any fingers. His communitarian morality represents either an ineptly presented or a cleverly muddled patchwork of positions with a little something for everyone. His occasionally tempting construct was designed to attract supporters for an underlying agenda of campaign reform in Washington, which he openly states must be leveraged from a position outside of politics through the political energy of a new social movement tied to morality.

As I began reading this book, I wanted to like it. But I kept getting an uneasy feeling - that same odd feeling one gets when reading certain literature. For instance, Vladimir Nabakov’s Pale Fire - where the narrator’s voice is unreliable in ways that are not obvious at first. Although Etzioni’s awkwardly worded tome is not a novel, I believe it contains some fictions.

The self-declared “single core thesis” on which Etzioni states Communitarianism is based is that “Americans .... can now act without fear. We can act with out fear that attempts to shore up our values... will cause us to charge into a dark tunnel of moralist and authoritarianism that leads to a church-dominated state or a right-wing world.”

Besides the obvious difficulty in the notion of “shoring up” values, this statement is not a premise. "Trust me you liberals and libertarians, there is nothing to fear in supporting my as yet unstated proposals to curtail your self-centered freedoms," Etzioni seems to coo with the butterfly net carefully hidden behind his back. His self-declared premise does not undergird any of the recommendations he subsequently proposes - but it is the basis on which he selected them. He throws enough bones to both extremes so the unwary and the battle-weary might buy in hoping for consensus at last.

Americans today have an attitude of entitlement, Mr. Etzioni says. They demand rights without responsibilities. Large numbers don’t even bother to vote. Yes, I thought, it’s true. So let’s call a moratorium on new rights. Sure, I said I can buy that. The ones we have constitutionally are pretty substantial. While pointing to “rights” that have no legal foundation, Etzioni claims quite a few of our constitutional rights need to be “notched” just a tad. Like Ayn Rand, he dismisses “rights” to housing and heath care saying, “who will pay for them?” But when it comes to children of nice middle class families - never mind the bill, we are too money-centered. After all, children with two normal parents are important, unless they need housing or health care.

Individual conscience is not enough to inspire virtue, Etzioni states. Communities should marshal focused social pressure to force people to do right. Of course he admits that he personally didn’t have the backbone to say what he really thought about Japan’s “dirty tricks.” I guess it’s easier to wag a finger at a neighbor than risk censure from your intellectual peers at work. He later expresses dismay that the public pays so much attention to the private scandals of politicians. Hey - attack Washington about something that really matters and save the moral nit-picking for the neighbors.

The family should be strengthened, he says. Somebody should be home with the children. Etzioni repeatedly says it doesn’t have to be the wife. The wife can work at home or the husband can - a suggestion designed to resonate with liberals and still not offended the conservatives. It is a suggestion already among the compromises couples routinely work out without this communitarian guidance. And when he talks about the farm boys raised in moral homes and working for other farmers in moral family-like settings, it’s interesting to note how ineffective his externally imposed morality really is. The minute these farm boys head to the city they turn into reprobates according to Etzioni.

Just as an aside, he notes we are all born half a human and must find wholeness in marriage. He declares flatly that thousands of productive single and divorced people are “damaged” goods, “in every sense of the word.” This is common knowledge according to Etzioni, as he sees no need for argument or supporting evidence for this outrageous dehumanization of significant portion of the population. (Does this attitude foster community?) Let’s just turn up the social pressure to marry and make divorce more difficult at the same time, as he proposes. That way those who really didn’t want to marry in the first place can suffer long-term damage if they cave in to social pressure and tie the knot! Perhaps we can resurrect Joe McCarthy and get those damaged singles off the streets and free up their jobs for married folk who really count.

Where’s the beef?

With no real premise stated, the first two sections of the book set the communitarian table with a smorgasbord of many flexible cheerleading-type phrases and many contradictory statements. Even the books opening bit - the pathetic flag-waving “We hold these truths” says very little in specific terms. Yes - -”We can do “A” (fill in some appealing but vague proposal) without offending you by causing “B” (fill in some authoritarian horror.) Still, he suggests people get the word out, talk up what ever you think communitarianism means with your neighbors over the back fence.

No where in this patchwork of moralizing and reassurance do we find Etzioni’s motivations for stitching this crazy quilt together. It’s not until the third section “The Public Interest.” that we come to a clear sequence of cogent reasoning - which I propose is the underlying motive for the entire unwieldy structure in first two chapters. In this section he targets big-monied special interests in Washington. “What is missing is a wide recognition that special interests are at the core of our systemic problems, a consensus powerful enough to unlock their grip on our legislature,” (Page 221). Again “The ultimate goal is to replace a government by and for deep pockets with a political system that is based on the principle of one person one vote, one that is responsive to all members of the community.” (Except the damaged ones who are obviously only half human.)

What does Etzioni really want? What he calls a “neoprogressive, communitarian,” legislative solution:

Finance congressional elections with public funds.” (Starting on page 234)
“Curb the flow of private money into the coffers of members of congress.
Impose a ban on PACS.”
Reduce the cost of running for office by offering free TV and radio ads.
Promote disclosure of the political process by lobbyists sign into a registration book each time they visit a congressional office. (Then the power lunch might become even more powerful)
Enhance the enforcement of all rules, old and new
Enhance the role of political parties - Channel campaign contributions through political parties rather than directly to individual candidates. (Isn’t that the so-called “soft money” that is so hard to track.? I guess it might increase public confidence if we didn’t know our who was bought or who did the buying.)
To get these reforms Etzioni has a plan: “There must be a new source of political energy sufficiently powerful to over come strong opposition and to propel far reaching changes...” (Page 226) “For reform to succeed, reformers, like Archimedes, must find a point of leverage outside the political world in order to be able to change it...... the challenge is to find ways to mobilize the great underrepresented majorities.” (Page 227) “Historical experience suggest that social movements are the source of the needed political energy... They command cadres that mobilize the rank and file to what ever social action is called for...” (Page 230)

After bemoaning the failure of groups like Common Cause to create widespread change he says “ I see it, what is missing is a broader agenda, one that goes beyond legislative reform and encompasses the deep moral issues at stake.... (Page 244) “Without a major social movement, the reforms required to render public policy responsive to the public at large will not take place.” (Page 245)

From the text of “The Spirit of Community” it’s hard to avoid concluding that entire moral construct of Etzioni’s communitarianism has been built to sign people up so later they can be called out to vote for his legislative reforms.

“It is sociologically naive to sit back and wait for new communities to spring up,” Etzioni says. Or social movements for that matter - why not build your own? ”It is often necessary, and there is nothing artificial or otherwise improper, in recruiting or training organizers and facilitators of we-ness,” he says. (Page 125)

However, as Etzioni’s brand of communitarianism attempts to cut a swath through the middle to pick up as much support as possible - it gets attacked from both edges. In a 1995 newsgroup post on the Progressive Sociology Network, Morton G. Wenger a professor of Sociology at the University of Louisville called Etzioni's ideas “a form of fascist ideology for the squeamish petit bourgeois.” Etzioni apparently responded by implied there were “reds under the bed” at the progressive network. On the other hand the libertarians cast glances across the middle from the other shoulder of the road: In a Sept. 1996 article published on the web by the libertarian Cato Institute, Tom G. Palmer calls Karl Marx, “an early and especially brilliant and biting communitarian critic of libertarianism.”

Greg Smith, Research Officer writing for Aston Charities’ Community Involvement Unit in London cited Etzioni's background. “Etzioni is a keen publicist writing in popular as well as academic journals, speaking in public and on the mass media....”

Could it be that the ideologic patchwork found in the first two chapters of The Spirit of Community and in the far less specific Communitarian Manifesto is not accidental and represents an attempt to lure as many people as possible into the fold?

In Chapter 1 of Smith’s on-line book “Community-arianism” Smith wondered how marginal groups or groups with divergent value systems could find a place in an America run by Communitarians.

“Although Etzioni denies that he is majoritarian and claims to accept pluralism there is an obvious problem in a diverse and plural society..... With a normative view of mainstream values and harmonious and homogenous local communities it is hard to see how groups with marginal or divergent values systems can be given space to participate in the community of communities which is national life. Can "fundamentalist" Islamic or Christian groups or other religious sectarian groups, New Age travelers or homeless street dwellers be give equal human dignity let alone equal economic, political and social rights?”

Despite his misgivings Smith's book undertakes a detailed consideration of communitarianism and community. By Chapter 9, he concludes that in a pluralistic society, the hope for a common core of shared values maybe untenable. He offers an alternative communitarianism with a more tolerant framework, after questioning the movement's moral tone.

"This is not so much because it expresses a preference for marriage and stable two parent families over libertarian sexual attitudes, but because it opens the way to stereotyping, blaming and stigmatising..."

As an American citizen who prizes my constitutional rights, I see no need to pursue any worthwhile ideas about community under some nebulous umbrella of communitarianism. (Not unless you're trying to drum up a social movement as Etzioni obviously is.) Frankly I’m not satisfied with the “extensively edited, rewritten and modified” and far-more palatable Communitarian Manifesto sanitized by Mary Ann Geldon and William Glaston (who no doubt removed the offensive specifics in Etzioni’s original draft.)

As a member of an about-to-be-oppressed minority, I’m taking my damaged goods over the to American Civil Liberties Union. My wallet suddenly seems one ID card too light.

Copyright 1997 Marjorie M. Walker