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Community: "a web of affect-laden relationships among a group of individuals, relationships that often crisscross and reinforce one another (rather than merely one-on-one or chainlike individual relationships), and a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, norms, and meanings, and a shared history and identity--in short to a particular culture."
    Amitai Etzioni, The New Golden Rule

The life story that Amitai Etzioni has to tell is quite compelling. He's had an uncanny knack for being in the thick of things over the past half century and more, from fleeing Nazi Germany to fighting in the Palmach as a young man to opposing the Space Program, Vietnam War, and nuclear weapons (three issues on which we would have hoped to see some introspection and regret, if for no other reason than that activism on the latter two in particular was terribly divisive) to founding communitarianism to working for Jimmy Carter and meeting with subsequent presidents and leaders across the globe. He seems an earnest man, dedicated to improving his community and the world community. He and his fellow communitarians seem uniformly decent, patriotic (1), and intelligent. Their writings are typically incisive and their critique of the modern culture spot-on. There's much to like here, both in Mr. Etzioni personally and in communitarianism, but there's much too that frustrates.

Mr. Etzioni, often described as "The Godfather of Communitarianism", describes his own early thoughts on the topic this way:
As I took copious notes during my various classes and readings, two intertwined themes stayed with me. First, the advance of modernity, the march of enlightenment, the rise of new technologies and industries, and secularism were undermining the traditional society based on life in small communities. The new society allowed one to escape the conformity and hierarchy of small towns and villages to live in anonymity in the city as an individual--to be free. Second, at the same time, the resulting loss of social fabric, the increase in human isolation, threatened people's mental health and moral character, resulting in alienation and crime. It made people yearn for a more communal life.

Moreover, people in the modern world were missing not merely community as a place of strong personal bonds, but also a life in which the social order was based on shared values and informal controls rather than on extensive law enforcement.
Except for the strange, but characteristic, silence about the role of the State in this process, this sounds very much like a standard conservative analysis: rationalism, secularism, individualism, and others modern "ism's" combine to destroy morality and traditional society and to alienate us from each other, leading to a variety of social pathologies. So far so good, except for the part where statism isn't mentioned. One waits with bated breath to hear the clarion call for the remedies that this diagnosis seemingly requires--a return to faith, resurrection of religious values and institutions, emphasis on traditional morality and social structures... Alas, though, one waits in vain. For the perplexing fact of the matter is that the communitarians stubbornly refuse to follow where their own ideas lead. The rise of the Welfare State is not cited as a cause of our problems because they have no intention of taking it on. Their belief in the efficacy of community seems not to extend so far as to imagine that we could return to genuinely community based lives, social services, "shared values", and "informal controls".

To take just one example from the book: at the initial meetings when Mr. Etzioni and some colleagues were working out a platform around which they could unite to launch communitarianism as a "school" or movement, one of the issues they took up was AIDs. As part of their ethos that one's individual rights sometimes have to yield to one's responsibilities to the community, they discussed how to get people tested and whether it was proper to then share information about test results, trace contacts, and notify partners. As they noted then, such aggressive steps would have been routinely taken for any other such public health crisis, but normal protocols were not being followed because of gay activists' assertions that their rights would be violated. Mr. Etzioni recalls himself saying at the meeting:
"The emphasis on the moral culture is a cardinal insight of the communitarian perspective. Liberals object even to moral censure of HIV carriers who do not inform others; conservatives rush to call in the state. Communities lead with their moral voice, appreciating those who act responsibly, and chastising those who do not. When the law is called in to enforce a social position on a broad basis rather than dealing with a few recalcitrant individuals, it is a sign that the community is failing."
There would seem to be several ways of dealing with a social problem--forceful coercion by the state; moral suasion and conformist pressure by the community; or reasoned argument (persuasion). In broadest terms we might refer to these options as manifestations of statism, religious traditionalism and rationalism. Paradoxically, having disavowed both state action and community censure, what the communitarians propose is really the individualistic solution, mere reliance on people to accept responsibility because it's the right thing to do. This faith that folks will do the right thing naturally does separate the communitarians from conservatives, but it's difficult to see how it vindicates community, tradition, or a moral culture and only becomes harder to figure out when Mr. Etzioni adds this:
"If we're going to call on people to 'be responsible,' we also ought to say, 'we're going to do all we can to ensure that you will not suffer from discrimination.' We will act to protect people's jobs, housing, and health insurance, which are often endangered for those known as HIV or AIDs carriers."
The communitarians are themselves proposing that a new right be created, to protect homosexuals from discrimination, and, combining the sins they'd just laid at the respective doors of conservatives and liberals, "rushing to call in the state" to bar the community from using robust "moral censure". Accept their proposal and a right is born, state power increased, and community strength damaged. There is no other way to describe it than as an attack on the very sinews of community that are supposed to support communitarianism and a repudiation of their own philosophy. This is the core of the Right's criticism of the communitarians, that they address problems in a conserative tongue but then advocate Leftist solutions to those problems.

Even if one assumes that the community generally shares with the communitarians their willingness to set aside perhaps-outdated moral strictures and in this instance shares their progressivity, the necessity of such enlightened opinion points out the deepest problem with their philosophy. As we can see on another recent question of civil rights, Jim Crow laws, community values may not always conform to the standards desired by social scientists and intellectuals. Indeed, they will not always conform to the standards of traditional (Judeo-Christian) morality. The question then becomes: how do we bring community values into line with what we believe to be right. Cultural conservatives have an easy out in these situations: we can just demand that the community conform to its own religious beliefs, absolute rules handed down from generation to generation (whether or not you believe they're handed down from on high). Thus, religious leaders were thoroughly involved in the Civil Rights campaign and their method, of non-violent protest, was premised on shaming the majority into a recognition that it was betraying its true values. This created the environment in which much of the community was prepared to do away with at least the worst vestiges of segregation. But where folks were recalcitrant or where die-hards held up the necessary reforms, there was ample ground for recourse to the law, to the State, to legislate and enforce those religious principles, chief among them that every person is created in the image of God and thereby imbued with a dignity that warrants our respect. No one can be a lesser person merely by the circumstances of their birth or by the immutable traits of their being. Racism was a pathology of the community, was addressed first as a community matter, and only when this failed to bring the community into accord with its own values was the State called in, as a necessary last resort

Communitarianism has no such absolute values to appeal to; as in the case of AIDS, its values are rather ad hoc. Were communitarian ideals to be rigorously applied in such a situation--and here we mean communitarianism as Mr. Etzioni's group presented it, devoid of a basis in Judeo-Christian morality--it would rapidly run into a problem that the great Christian Apologist Francis A. Schaeffer defined well in How Then Should We Live?:
Here is a simple but profound rule: If there are no absolutes by which to judge society, then society is absolute.
If we are to accept the notion that what the community/society decides is de facto "right", the mere opinion is absolute. We've a tyranny of the majority and now it's a majority unrestricted by traditional morality.

This is potentially fatal weakness of communitarianism as even Mr. Etzioni seems to recognize:
Communitarians often fall into a relativist trap when they imply that a community is and ought to be the ultimate arbiter of that which is moral, of what is right and wrong for its members. All one has to do to realize the moral untenability of such a position is to think of a community in which all members heartily agree to lynch whomever they consider deviant or an outsider.
He refers to this relativism trap as the "toughest issue communitarians face", but offers only references to the Constitution, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and "cross-cultural dialogues" as a way around the problem. This response, nothing more than an expansion of the relativist pie is obviously inadequate--two relativisms after all don't make a right. If we leave the matter up solely to majority opinion in the community--even if that opinion is derived from a variety of political documents and multicultural chats--we will inevitably arrive sometimes at results that are morally intolerable. Obviously this will not do, especially for the folk of the decent Left who populate the communitarian movement, so what to do?

First, let us return to homosexuality, which presents an even more difficult case because it differs from race in that it is a behavior rather than a characteristic of one's birth, in that there is no traditional moral grounds under which it must be accepted, and in that, because of these prior facts, the community cannot be shamed into accepting it. What is a communitarian to do when the community won't do what he wants it to? As Mr. Etzioni says above, "We will act...". In essence we've arrived at a point where communitarianism has devolved into the imposition of elite opinion on unwilling communities, without regard for the effects on those communities. Where gay rights are concerned we've already seen one of the unintended effects, as the donations and meeting places that invaluable community groups like the Boy Scouts depend on have been withdrawn because of their policy of not allowing gay Scout Masters. Even if many people are unbothered by this result, someone concerned about the tearing of the social fabric presumably does have to be concerned when their own actions do the tearing.

[For criticisms of some other aspects of communitarianism see also our reviews of: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Robert D. Putnam) and Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (Mary Ann Glendon)]

Mr. Etzioni gives up the game when he considers the legacy of communitarianism:
Above all, our ideas provided a significant alternative to the religious right for those who were troubled by the moral decline of the last decades, but were opposed to returning to the values of the 1950s and to simple, predetermined answers. We opened an inclusive and democratic dialogue on moral virtues and the institutions that undergird them. We agreed that the time was overdue for moral and social reconstruction, but not by returning to authoritarian by-the-book traditionalistic answers.
Having begun with a concern that modernity was "undermining...traditional society", he's ended by disavowing a return to "traditionalistic answers". If the traditional is both the desired end and the enemy how can communitarianism help but be somewhat schizophrenic. Looking wistfully backwards even as it spurs society forwards, communitarianism finds the ideal always receding.

One finishes the book with heightened regard for Mr. Etzioni, whose life has been dedicated to improving the world around him, to being his brother's keeper, but profoundly uncertain that communitarianism is an appropriate means to achieve this improvement. The ideas engage but they don't convince. We highly recommend the book, but more for its tale of a remarkable life than for its problematic philosophy.

(1): See, for example, Michael Walzer's excellent post 9-11 essay, Can There Be a Decent Left


Grade: (B)


Amitai Etzioni Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Amitai Etzioni
    -OBIT: Amitai Etzioni, 94, Dies; Envisioned a Society Built on the Common Good: A sociologist, he advised U.S. presidents and other Western leaders while fathering communitarianism, a political middle ground between the left and the right. (Robert McFadden, 6/03/23, NY Times)
    -OBIT: Amitai Etzioni, who championed the virtues of community, dies at 94: The sociologist and public intellectual worked as an adviser for President Jimmy Carter and won an audience with world leaders including Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (Harrison Smith, June 1, 2023, Washington Post)
    -The Communitarian Network (Amitai Etzioni)
    -Responsive Communitarian Platform
    -BLOG: Amitai Etzioni Notes
    -The Responsive Community: A Quarterly Journal
    -COLUMN ARCHIVES: Amitai Etzioni (Jewish World Review)
    -ARCHIVES: The New York Review of Books: Amitai Etzioni
    -EXCERPT: From My Brother's Keeper: A Communitarian's Childhood of Disjointed Community (Amitai Etzioni)
    -EXCERPT: from Limits of Privacy: Isolate them: Paedophiles should be confined together in special towns (Amitai Etzioni)
    -ESSAY: 'Diversity' argument fails the smile test (Amitai Etzioni, 4/07/03, The National Law Journal)
    -ESSAY: Communitarian Dreams: The newest intellectual fad is liberalism's effort to preserve its welfare-state policies by cloaking them in conservative-sounding rhetoric. (Roger Scruton, Autumn 1996, City Journal)
    -ESSAY: Community, Yes. But Whose?: Communitarians present themselves as champions of traditional social ties and opponents of the self-absorbed individual. But are they just apologists for the welfare state? (Amitai Etzioni and Roger Scruton, Spring 1997, City Journal)
    -ESSAY: The Virtues of Humiliation: Amitai Etzioni versus Carl F. Horowitz (Amitai Etzioni, The American Prospect)
    -ESSAY: Toward a Socio-Economic Paradigm (Amitai Etzioni, Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics)
    -ESSAY: Killing Christians: The underreported story of Islamist violence around the world (Amitai Etzioni, 11/11/2002, Weekly Standard)
    -ESSAY: The Jewish State: The Next Fifty Years (Amitai Etzioni, Winter 1999, Azure)
    -ESSAY: In and Out: There is no ethical or logical reason to stay in Iraq. (Amitai Etzioni, 10/03/02, National Review)
    -ESSAY: Throw book at terrorists who hide as civilians (Amitai Etzioni, 07/02/2002, USA Today)
    -ESSAY: An earful on the war from America's 'allies' (Amitai Etzioni, May 01, 2002, CS Monitor)
    -ESSAY: You'll love those national ID cards (Amitai Etzioni, 1/14/02, CS Monitor)
    -ESSAY: Law can be rewritten to protect children from online porn (Amitai Etzioni, Jun. 11, 2002, San Jose Mercury News)
    -ESSAY: A Nation of Minorities? (Amitai Etzioni, Winter 1999/2000, The Responsive Community)
    -REVIEW: of Six Days of War by Michael Oren (Amitai Etzioni, Weekly Standard)
    -INTERVIEW: His Brotherês Keeper: Public intellectual and career academic Amitai Etzioni discusses the communitarian movement, Bill Bennett and his new memoirs (Brian Braiker, 5/23/03, NEWSWEEK)
    -INTERVIEW: Online NewsHour: A Conversation with Amitai Etzioni (Ray Suarez, July 17, 2000)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Privacy and the Internet Age: With Dr. Amitai Etzioni Author of The Limits of Privacy and The Spirit of¾ Community: The Reinvention of American Society (MPR, November 19, 1999)
    -INTERVIEW: On Transmitting Values: A Conversion with Amitai Etzioni (Diane Berreth and Marge Scherer, November 1993, Educational Leadership)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Significance of Community: Amitai Etzioni (Hugh LaFollette, "Ideas and Issues" (WETS-FM)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: The United States of Surveillance (The Connection, 11/20/02)
    -INTERVIEW: Q&A with Amitai Etzioni (Sava Tatic, Transitions)
    -DISCUSSION: The Sins of Our Fathers?: The current welfare debate has focused attention on single mothers. But that’s not enough. What about the fathers? The number of in-house fathers is quickly decreasing, as illegitimacy rates are rising steadily. (Think Tank, 4/21/1995, PBS)
    -PROFILE: I or We?: Would you like a nation where people cared more for each other but divorces were legally difficult? Welcome to communitarianism, a new movement with a controversial leader and the ear of the president. (Michael D'Antonio, May/June 1994, Mother Jones)
    -VISIONARIES: Amitai Etzioni (Utne, 1995)
    -ESSAY: Neutrality, Autonomy and Order: Amitai Etzioni's Communitarian Critique of Liberalism Under Scrutiny (Aneta Gawkowska, IWM Junior Visiting Scholars Program)
    -ESSAY: Prof. Amitai Etzioni: Ignorance Is Bliss (Larry Pratt, September 2001,
    -OUTLINE: The Moral Dominsion by Amitai Etzioni
    -ARCHIVES: "amitai etzioni" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES: etzioni (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW: of The Limits of Privacy by Amitai Etzioni (Mike Godwin, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Limits of Privacy (Frank H. Free, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of The Limits of Privacy by Amitai Etzioni (HP Pub)
    -REVIEW: of The Monochrome Society by Amitai Etzioni (Ken Masugi, Philanthropy)
    -REVIEW: of The Monochrome Society by Amitai Etzioni (Fred Siegel, Blueprint)
    -REVIEW: of The New Golden Rule Community and Morality in a Democratic Society by Amitai Etzioni (Michael Elliott, NY Times Book Review)

    -Civic Renewal Movement (Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland, Civic Practices Network)
    -The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies
    -Alliance for National Renewal : Unleashing the Power of Communities (A National Civic League Program)
    -Alliance for Community Media
    -Center for the Community Interest : NATIONAL ADVISORY BOARD
    -The Civic Network : A project of The Center for Civic Networking
    -Journal of Markets and Morality
    -Radical Middle Newsletter : Thoughtful Idealism, Informed Hope
    -ESSAY: Rights, Responsibilities, and Communitarianism (Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D.,
    -ESSAY: Harmonization Between Communitarian Ethics and Market Economics (Basant K. Kapur, Journal of Markets and Morality)
    -LECTURE: The Communitarian Impulse : Colorado College's 125th Anniversary Symposium: Cultures in the 21st Century: Conflicts and Convergences (Richard Rorty, Delivered at Colorado College on February 5, 1999)
    -LECTURE: Communitarian critics of liberalism
    -ESSAY: Communitarian Liberalism and Common Schools (Rob Reich, Stanford University, Philosophy of Education)
    -ESSAY: Needed: Catchword For Bush Ideology; 'Communitarianism' Finds Favor (Dana Milbank, The Washington Post,  February 1, 2001)
    -ESSAY: Family Values Communitarian-style
    -REVIEW: of The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s , by Alan Ehrenhalt (Peter Coclanis, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of Democracy's Discontent America in Search of a Public Philosophy by Michael J. Sandel (Andrew Sullivan, NY Times Book Review)
    -BOOK LIST : The Communitarian Bibliography (Communitarian Network)

    -ECYCLOPEDIA: Civil society: The ultimate Third Way? (BBC)
    -Policy Review : Civil Society (September 1998)
    -ESSAY: Does the social capital hypothesis offer hope for untrusting societies? (Toby Fattore, Nick Turnbull and Shaun Wilson, June 16, 2003, OnLine Opinion)
    -ESSAY: DEMOCRACY OUT OF  BALANCE : Civil society can't replace political parties (Ivan Doherty, April 2001, Policy Review)
    -ESSAY: On Self-Government :  Families, congregations, and civic associations are America's "schools of liberty." Progressivism threatens them all (Michael S. Joyce, July 1998, Policy Review)
    -ESSAY: The Commonwealth of Freedom : It is time to recapture a lost tradition of community-building (Harry C. Boyte and Nancy N. Kari, November 1997, Policy Review)
    -ESSAY: A New Mission for Philanthropy : Promote civic entrepreneurs, not new government programs (Lamar Alexander and the Commission on philanthropy and civic renewal, September 1997, Policy Review)
    -ESSAY: Family. Faith. Freedom : A manifesto for cultural renewal (Adam Meyerson, May 1997, Policy Review)
    -SYMPOSIUM: "I Have a Dream" : Great ideas for repairing civic life : A Symposium (Harvey Mansfield, Milton Friedman, Virginia I. Postrel, Witold Rybczynski, Jack Miles, Michael Medved, James P. Pinkerton, etc.)
    -ESSAY: Can Congress Revive Civil Society? (Dan Coats With responses from Gertrude Himmelfarb, Don Eberly & David Boaz, January 1996, Policy Review)

    -ESSAY: I'll Stand Bayou : Louisiana couples choose a more muscular marriage contract (Joe Loconte, May 1998, Policy Review)

    -REVIEW: of Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch (Scott London)

Book-related and General Links:

See also our reviews of:
    -Memoir on Pauperism (1835)
    -The Person and the Common Good (1946)
    -Christian Faith and Modern Democracy: God and Politics in the Fallen World (2001)
    -The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit (2001)
    -A Nation of Strangers (1972)