The Case for a Radical Moral Communitarianism

Published 17/12/2014
Type Article
Author(s) Roger Hopkins Burke
Corresponding Authors Roger Hopkins Burke, Principal Lecturer in Criminology, Nottingham Trent University

Communitarianism emerged in the USA during the 1980s influentially proposing that the individual rights vigorously promoted by traditional liberals need to be balanced with social responsibilities to the communities in which we live (Etzioni 1995a, 1995b). It is a political philosophy that was very influential with the Clinton administrations in the USA and the New Labour governments in the UK from 1997. Critics nevertheless observed from the outset that these governments were more authoritarian in practice than suggested by the rhetorical appeal to the relatively autonomous powers of civil society proposed by communitarianism (see Driver and Martell, 1997; Jordan, 1998). Hughes (1998) refers to this version as moral authoritarian communitarianism and calls for a more radical non-authoritarian variant with policies focusing on the elimination of poverty, the promotion of equality and thus the reduction of social problems and crime (Jordan 1992, 1996; Currie 1993, 1996, 1997; Young, 1999). Houdt and Schinkel (2013) nevertheless observe that in the context of increasingly harsher economic times communitarianism has been used in conjunction with neoliberalism as a strategy of governmentality for controlling problematic social groups in the interest of the market economy with responsibilities increasingly enforced very much to the detriment of individual rights. This paper responds by proposing the development of a radical moral communitarianism founded on notions of consensual interdependency with an appropriate negotiated balance between proper rights and responsibilities for all citizens.

An earlier paper published in the British Journal of Community Justice – ‘Moral Ambiguity, the Schizophrenia of Crime and Criminal Justice’ (Hopkins Burke, 2007) – entered into the debate ‘about the contested meanings of the concept of community justice’ (Williams, 2004:1) and argued that the parameters of discussion be extended to encompass observations about the very nature of community, crime and criminal justice in contemporary societies. That paper concluded with a proposal that any legitimate community justice needs to be located in the context of a wider ‘new liberalism’ which considers equally both the rights and responsibilities of individuals and societies.

This is the first of two papers which return to that debate and discuss the rationale, theoretical foundations and the policy implications of that ‘new liberalism’, a radical moral communitarianism with its foundations in the work of the French social theorist Emile Durkheim and a particular conception of individualism – French individualism – which provides the basis of a rather different form of social organisation than those offered by competing notions of individualism. This first paper presents the case for a radical moral communitarianism. It commences with an exploration of the political philosophy of communitarianism and its perceived authoritarian deficiencies in implementation, a consideration of the alternative agenda proposed by radical egalitarian communitarians and their analysis of the socio-economic inadequacies of contemporary society. It concludes with a discussion of the neoliberal response to economic decline and its failings evidenced by the increasing expansion of a seriously unbalanced UK economy and the emergence of a neoliberal communitarianism which has sought through the implementation of a multifarious multitude of disciplinary tutelage strategies to manage and control a fragmented and diverse population. Problematically, these interventions have merely accentuated these socio-economic problems and impacted disastrously on the process of capital accumulation to the extent it is argued where a tipping point has been reached and where we need a new way of doing things: a new social contract between the state and it citizens. We will start by considering the parameters of the orthodox communitarian agenda.

The Communitarian Agenda
Orthodox communitarianism emerged as a political philosophy in the USA during the 1980s as a response to what its proponents considered to be the limitations of liberal theory and practice. It is significant for the conclusions reached in this paper that diverse strands in social, political and moral thought, arising from very different locations on the political spectrum – such as Marxism (Ross, 2003) and traditional ‘one-nation’ conservatism (Scruton, 2001) – can be identified within communitarian thought. The general concept thus has support across political boundaries but nevertheless with significant differences in emphasis.

The two dominant themes of orthodox mainstream communitarian philosophy are first, that the individual rights promoted by traditional liberals need to be balanced with social responsibilities and second, autonomous individual selves do not exist in isolation but are shaped by the values and culture of communities. The key proposition is that unless we redress the balance toward the pole of community our society will continue to become normless, self-centred, and driven by special interests and power seeking. In response this paper argues that the balance has subsequently shifted excessively and unhealthily towards the pole of community with a much greater contemporary emphasis on the responsibilities of individuals to the detriment of their rights in the context of the neoliberal backlash of austerity policies. The radical moral communitarianism proposed seeks a reconstituted appropriate balance between rights and responsibilities in the context of a fairer society and these themes are developed in more detail in the second paper in this series.

It is this critique of the one-sided emphasis on individual civil or human rights that is the key defining characteristic of orthodox communitarianism. ‘Rights talk’, it is argued, has corrupted political discourse, inhibited genuine discussion and has been employed without a corresponding sense of responsibilities (see Emanuel, 1991; Glendon, 1991; Etzioni, 1993, 1995a, 1995b). It is a perception of the individual as a ‘disembodied self’, uprooted from cultural meanings, community attachments, and the life stories that constitute the full identities of real human beings. Moreover, dominant liberal theories of justice as well as much of economic and political theory, presume such a self (see Etzioni, 1993).

Communitarians shift the balance and argue that the ‘I’ is constituted through the ‘We’ in a dynamic tension. Now, significantly, this is not an argument for the restoration of traditional communities with high levels of mechanical solidarity (Durkheim, 1933) and the repressive dominance of the majority or the patriarchal family, although some conservatives have influentially adopted that position. Orthodox communitarians are indeed critical of community institutions which are authoritarian and that cannot bear scrutiny within a larger framework of human rights and equal opportunities. Indeed, they appear to be accepting of the (post)modern condition argument that we are located within a complex web of pluralistic communities – or organic solidarity – with genuine value conflicts within them and within selves (see Hopkins Burke, 2013b).

Etzioni et al. (1991) outline the basic framework of orthodox communitarianism urging that the focus should be on the family and its central role in socialisation proposing that employers should provide maximum support for parents through the creation of work time initiatives, such as the provision of crèche facilities, and they warn us against avoidable parental relationship breakdowns, in order to put the interests of children first:

‘The fact is, given the same economic and social conditions, in poor neighbourhoods one finds decent and hardworking youngsters next to antisocial ones. Likewise, in affluent suburbs one finds antisocial youngsters right next to decent hardworking ones. The difference is often a reflection of the homes they come from.’ (Etzioni, 1995b:70)

Etzioni influentially referred to the existence of a ‘parenting deficit’ in contemporary western societies where self-gratification is considered a much higher priority for many parents than ensuring that their children are properly socialised and instilled with the appropriate moral values that act as protection against involvement in criminality and anti-social behaviour. The outcome is both inevitable and disastrous:

‘Juvenile delinquents do more than break their parents’ hearts. They mug the elderly, hold up stores and gas stations, and prey on innocent children returning from school. They grow up to be useless, or worse, as employees, and they can drain taxpayers’ resources and patience…Therefore, parents have a moral responsibility to the community to invest themselves in the proper upbringing of their children, and communities – to enable parents to so dedicate themselves.’ (Etzioni, 1995b:54)

In the UK, Dennis and Erdos (1992) explained the ‘parenting deficit’ in terms of the liberalisation of sexual mores that has been endemic in western societies since the 1960s. They observed that the illegitimate children of single parents do less well on several fronts with young males becoming involved in criminal behaviour because of the absence of a positive male role model while, at the same time, the whole project of creating and maintaining the skills of fatherhood is being abandoned and lost in contemporary societies.

Communitarians seek to reverse these trends and they demand a revival of moral education in schools at all levels, including the values of tolerance, peaceful resolution of conflict, the superiority of democratic government, hard work and saving. They also propose that government services should be devolved to an appropriate level, with the pursuit of new kinds of public-private partnerships, and the development of national and local service programmes. These ideas became very influential during the 1990s and beyond and in a pamphlet written shortly after he became Prime Minister of the UK, Tony Blair (1998:4) demonstrated his communitarian or ‘third way’ credentials:

‘We all depend on collective goods for our independence; and all our lives are enriched – or impoverished – by the communities to which we belong…A key challenge of progressive politics is to use the state as an enabling force, protecting effective communities and voluntary organisations and encouraging their growth to tackle new needs, in partnership as appropriate.’

The most familiar and evocative, of the ‘abstract slogans’ used by Blair in the promotion of the importance of community was the idea that rights entail responsibilities which was taken directly from the work of Etzioni (1993). Thus, in contrast to the traditional liberal idea that members of a society may be simply entitled to unconditional benefits or services, it was now proposed that the responsibility to care for each individual should be seen as resting first and foremost with the individual themselves and their families. For Blair and his eminent sociological guru Anthony Giddens (1994, 1998) community is invoked very deliberately as residing in civil society: in lived social relations, and in ‘common-sense’ notions of our civic obligations. This ‘third way’ was presented as avoiding what its proponents observed as the full-on atomistic egotistical individualism entailed by the Thatcherite maxim that ‘there is no such thing as society’ (the Anglo-Saxon notion of individual we will encounter in the following paper), and on the other hand, the traditional social-democratic recourse to a strong state as the tool by which to realise the aims of social justice, most notably that of economic equality (epitomised by German individualism).

Dissenters have subsequently observed that the implementation of the New Labour agenda took rather a different course with its character rather more authoritarian than that suggested by the rhetorical appeal to the relatively autonomous powers of civil society to deliver progress by itself (see Driver & Martell, 1997; Jordan, 1998). Hughes (1998) thus refers to the communitarianism of Etzioni and his acolytes – and pursued enthusiastically by governments in both the USA and the UK – as moral authoritarian communitarianism and calls for the implementation of a more radical non-authoritarian variant that we will now consider.

Radical egalitarian communitarianism
Radical egalitarian communitarians such as Bill Jordan (1992, 1996), Elliot Currie (1993, 1996, 1997) and Jock Young (1999) have focused their attention on inequality, deprivation and the market economy as causes of crime and have thus proposed policies to eliminate poverty and a communitarian rebalance towards the pole of individual rights. Jordan (1992) argued that the UK and similar western societies have witnessed a substantial decline in social relations due to the poor being denied access to material goods with their only experiences of power being unjust ones. He observed the formation of two very different opposing communities of ‘choice’ and ‘fate’ with the former being ones where individuals and families have developed the income security strategies associated with comfortable ‘safe’, convenient, healthy and status giving private environments and the latter being those bound together by long-term interdependencies because of a lack of opportunities to move geographical location, gain access to good education or healthcare, get decently paid legitimate employment or share in the cultural enjoyments of mainstream society.

Jordan argued for an unconditional basic income for all citizens as one specific means of sharing out the common good in a more equitable fashion, opening-up the possibility for individuals and groups to participate in their own chosen projects and commitments while such a scheme would reduce the institutionalised traps and barriers to labour market participation that undermine legitimate efforts by members of ‘communities of fate’ to rejoin mainstream society.

The radical egalitarian communitarian agenda thus gives ethical priority to decisions about the redistribution of resources which allows all members an opportunity to share adequately in the life of community on an equal basis. This is clearly a laudable agenda but this does raise the question as to whether the state has to first ‘repair’ the social wounds before ‘the community’ can be allowed to participate in an inclusive politics of crime control and social justice. Moreover, this was before it became widely recognised that unconditional long-term welfare benefits paid to the fit and able can actually subsidize unofficial ‘off the cards’ non-taxed employment and a comfortable deviant criminal lifestyle in some cases. This was also before the great economic collapse of 2008 and the subsequent austerity policies which have transformed many communities of ‘choice’ into those of ‘fate’ with many more tottering on the edge of the apocalypse. At the same time, the Coalition Government has conducted an unprecedented assault on all categories of welfare benefit claimants.

Elliot Currie (1985, 1993, 1996 and 1997) made a significant contribution to the radical communitarian debate and argued that the most serious problem in contemporary USA was that the most disadvantaged communities are sinking into a permanent state of terror and disintegration in a society dominated by the market and consumerism. Currie (1993) outlines the complex deprivations of life in the inner-inner city and the failure of the state to respond with any sense of humanity, implementing a mass programme of incarceration and incapacitation, while at the same time introducing huge cut-backs in welfare expenditure. He argued that what characterises the ‘underclass’ in the USA is a ‘surplus of vulnerability’ exacerbated by the pervasive movement towards a more deprived, more stressful, more atomised and less supportive society, observing that many parents in the deprived communities are overwhelmed by multiple disadvantages and are in no position to counter the effects of family crises on their children.
Currie observed that the ‘triumph’ of the market society has created deprived communities characterised by the destruction and absence of legitimate livelihoods, significant extremes of economic inequality, the increasing withdrawal of public services, the erosion of informal/communal support networks, the spread of a materialistic and neglectful culture, the unregulated marketing of a technology of violence and a weakening of social and political alternatives:

‘The policies of the seventies and eighties, then, did more than merely strip individuals of jobs and income. They created communities that lacked not only viable economic opportunities, but also hospitals, fire stations, movie theatres, stores, and neighbourhood organizations – communities without strong ties of friendship or kinship, disproportionately populated by increasingly deprived and often disorganized people locked into the bottom of a rapidly deteriorating job market. In many cities these disruptive trends were accelerated by the physical destruction left by the ghetto riots of the 1960s or by urban renewal projects and freeways that split or demolished older, more stable neighbourhoods and dispersed their residents.’ (Currie, 1993:70)

Radical communitarians like Currie are arguing that behind the growth of crime is a cultural, as well as a, structural transformation of poor communities and in this regard there are some common themes between orthodox communitarians and the radicals. The situation has certainly not improved in the intervening years and in some geographical locations in the UK we can observe communities where there are three or four generations of welfare claimants with little or no participation in the legitimate labour market. The reintegration of these socially excluded groups back into mainstream society was an essential and laudable New Labour strategy termed ‘reintegrative tutelage’ by Hopkins Burke (1999) and although clearly there were some success stories this was ultimately a flawed strategy scuppered not least by the unremitting ravages of the market economy.
Hall et al. (2008) conducted a study of the criminal patterns and criminals living on the alienated housing estates of the North East of England where in some cases there was no-one in employment. The researchers observed that the significant economic downturn of the 1980s was more than a mere structural adjustment for those living in these communities. Rather, it was a radical shift in political economy and culture, a move to the unprecedented domination of life by the market which was to create a large number of locales in permanent recession in both the UK and the USA. Hall et al. (2008:3) observe that:

‘The criminal markets developing in these areas now tend to operate in the relative absence of the traditional normal insulation…regarded as essential to the restraint of the inherently amoral and socially logic that lies at the heart of the liberal-capitalist market economy.’

The researchers pointedly observe that therefore contrary to the arguments presented by some, the 1980s was not a time of vigorous and inherently progressive cultural change for all, certainly not in those large brutalised and inherently criminogenic communities in which they conducted their research. Again this was the situation in a great deal of the UK prior to the great economic collapse of 2008 which was to spread that condition to a much wider section of the population both geographically and socially. The story nevertheless begins with the end of the long post-Second World War economic boom in 1973.

Economic Recession, Austerity and Neoliberal Communitarianism
Neoliberalism (sometimes termed ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘Reaganomics’) emerged as an economic strategy in response to the end of the long post-war boom in 1973. The apparent failure of Keynesianism and other forms of state capitalism predisposed many politicians, not just to accept, but wholeheartedly embrace, free-market and monetarist theories which they would earlier have rejected as eccentric, or even dangerously destabilising. Neoliberals initially tended to focus less on restoring the profitability of business and more on reducing the amount of state expenditure, the size of the state itself and controlling inflation, since these initiatives could be presented as beneficial to taxpayers and consumers. The major obstacle to the reorganisation of the economy was nevertheless perceived to be the need to control labour costs and this was to be done by a sustained assault on organised labour and abandoning the previously sacrosanct post-war economic strategy of full-employment.

Davidson (2013) observes that the sustained neoliberal attack on trade union power involved three chronologically overlapping political strategies. The first was to crucially abandon full-employment as the focal economic strategy and deliberately allow mass unemployment to grow by maintaining high interest rates and refusing to provide state aid to industries in the form of subsidies, contracts or import controls. The second was to provoke decisive confrontations between state-backed employers and one or two important groups of unionised workers and this was to ensure that there was little effective resistance to later closures that took place. The showdowns with postal workers in Canada (1978), car workers in Italy (1980), air traffic controllers in the USA (1981), textile workers in India (1982) all preceded that with the miners in the UK (1984-5). The third strategy was to establish new productive capacity, and sometimes virtually new industries, in geographical areas with low or non-existent levels of unionisation and to prevent as far as possible the culture of union membership from becoming established.

The relative success of these strategies allowed corporate restructuring, the closing of ‘unproductive’ units and the imposition of ‘the right of managers to manage’ within the workplace, which in turn ensured that wage costs fell and stayed down, so that profits were increased.

There were three further longer-term developments. The first was to ensure that when economic growth was resumed working class organisation was in no position to take advantage of increased profit rates by pushing for higher wages and better conditions. The second was the failure of neoliberal policies to deliver what they had promised in material terms for the majority of people, with resulting increases in poverty and inequality on the one hand, and increases in family breakdown and crime on the other (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009). The consequences of which were, unintended or not, renewed rounds of the kind of state intervention supposedly rejected by neoliberalism in theory, but which were required to deal with the social problems it had generated, in increasingly expensive practice. The third was the failure of neoliberalism’s inherently contradictory aspiration to create a population that behaves as sovereign individual consumers in the marketplace, obedient wage labourers in the workplace and subordinate mass citizens before the state. Thus, a market which establishes personal fulfilment through consumer choice as the ultimate societal value not only destabilises those forms of identity which have traditionally helped support the market economy – like the family and the nation – but the very personal constraints which allow capitalist accumulation to take place (see Bauman, 2008).

It is in this context that some have argued that the last decades of the twentieth century saw ‘welfarism’ as a regime of social regulation replaced by neoliberalism in post-industrial Western societies (see Lacey, 2013) with the latter significantly responsible for the harsher penal regime of the last few decades (Cavadino & Dignan, 2006) which has helped discipline and tutor a recalcitrant working class population in the interests of the neoliberal economy (Wacquant, 2009). Houdt and Schinkel (2013) take this all a step further and pertinently observe that neoliberalism is not separate from but actually operates in combination with communitarianism with the emphasis on ‘responsibility’ in the latter compatible with the notion of ‘responsibilisation’ in the former, in other words, a neoliberal communitarianism.

Houdt and Schinkel (2013) argue that neoliberal communitarianism is a strategy of governmentality that combines the main features of neoliberal governmentality (Foucault, 2004) with those of governmental communitarianism (Delanty, 2003; Ross, 2003; Adams & Hess, 2001; Van Swaaningen, 2008) and it consists of a combination of the new public management and the outsourcing of responsibility to a plethora of agencies and organisations. It combines scientific measurement and the treatment of social problems with the stimulation of notions of ‘active citizenship’ and the rational governing of community.

Houdt and Schinkel illustrate how neo-liberal and communitarian elements have combined in crime policies over the last decades with reference to three crucial trends. First, there is ‘the prioritisation of crime and the intensification and pluralisation of punishment’ where we have seen increasing ‘selective incapacitation’ and ‘selective rehabilitation’ (Downes & Van Swaaningen, 2007) which involves a broader range of possible punishments, including restorative justice and a variety of tactics deployed to suppress ‘risky’ behaviour. Second, there is the ‘actuarialisation of crime’ where there is a transformation from the criminal subject as causally determined towards one as a bundle of risk factors, a focus on choice, and the discovery of inappropriate subculture as a risk factor (O’Malley, 1992; Osborne & Gaebler, 1993). Third, there is ‘the institutional transformation of crime regulation’ following the 1980s where penal welfarism was attacked for being ‘inefficient’ and ‘ineffective’ and which was replaced by the adoption of managerial principles and a business model to make criminal justice both more ‘effective’ and ‘efficient’. Hopkins Burke (2012, 2013a) argues that the practitioners, professionals and experts that have implemented these neoliberal strategies are invariably unaware of their contribution to the increasingly pervasive socio-control surveillance matrix of the carceral society which is encouraged and legitimized by a depoliticized general public ultimately but again usually unwittingly in the interests of the market economy.

All of which has occurred in the context of an increasingly unbalanced economy where a large population of economically non-productive people – the victims of the retreat from full-employment policies and their descendants – have come to be ‘looked after’ and ‘controlled’ by another large population of economically non-productive people in a world where apparently the only significant economically productive game in town is the banking and the financial service industries who contributed significantly to the disastrous economic meltdown of 2008.

The world-wide ‘credit crunch’ in September 2008 brought an inauspicious end to the long-run world-wide economic boom that had existed in the UK from 1997 and heralded a global financial crisis unprecedented in recent times, a major economic recession, with many business collapses, rising unemployment and, in many countries (such as the UK) the ultimate response being a new austerity politics aimed at reducing high and unsustainable levels of national debt. For the majority of ordinary working people, the consequences were felt directly in pay freezes, reduced hours, redundancies and an uncertain (but far from optimistic) future. The middle-classes (in particular, those public sector employees who had done so well during the previous artificially extended economic boom) were now increasingly absorbed into the ranks of socio-economic exclusion, previously the preserve of those involved in manual occupations, many of those now living workless, often out on the desolate jobless housing estates of our towns and cities (see Hall et al., 2008 above).

The General Election in 2010 produced the first coalition government since the Second World War formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and the alliance agreement between the two parties contained a centrepiece economic policy of eliminating the UK’s structural deficit by 2015 which was to be based primarily on public spending cuts rather than on tax rises. The Spending Review later that year announced a series of measures aimed at achieving this goal, including an average 19 per cent cut across departmental budgets, an extra £7 billion in cuts to the welfare budget on top of £11 billion already announced, and a major reform of public-sector pensions (HM Treasury, 2010).

The issue of a rebalanced economy is fundamental to the argument being developed in this paper. The Coalition Government argues that the financial crisis exposed an unstable and unbalanced model of economic growth based on unsustainable levels of public and private sector borrowing and this has arisen during two overlapping phases (GOV.UK, 2014). First, the major neoliberal economic restructuring of the 1980s decimated traditional income-creating manufacturing jobs and produced as a consequence a large non-productive workless sector. Second, this situation was exacerbated from that time onwards by the rapid expansion of a further large section of the population employed in the public sector to ‘look after’ and ‘control‘the increasing first sector.

In response the Coalition Government produced a neo-Keynesian public sector economic investment package, the National Infrastructure Plan, with investment proposed in critical infrastructure projects worth £100 billion over the next Parliament as well as measures introduced to attract major new private sector investment to the UK. The Labour Opposition subsequently acknowledged the necessity of re-balancing the economy and at least partially plans to do this by introducing measures to increase the number of better paid middle income jobs but within the context of a high productivity, high skilled, innovation-led economy not in the non-productive public sector which epitomised the New Labour years (Thisismoney, 2014).

Reality would seem to be long-term if not permanent austerity not least if the economy continues to be unbalanced. Two influential think tank reports have cautioned that austerity measures in the UK could still be in place when the 2020 election takes place. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Institute for Government have both observed that, ‘we are still as far away from the (budget deficit) target as we were in 2010. … Indeed, it would not be surprising if not just 2015 but also 2020 was an ‘austerity’ election’ (BBC, 2013). Some of us think that it could well take longer and austerity will be the economic orthodoxy in Europe for the foreseeable future if these economic policies continue to be pursued. Prime Minister David Cameron has reiterated that austerity policies are not only likely to stay for the anticipatable future but they are also a good thing and we can all look forward to a permanently slimmed down more efficient state (Mail Online, 2013). Clearly neoliberalism is not working. Capital accumulation is significantly impeded by the inherent contradictions within the neoliberal project which while demanding a pared back state is actually faced by an expanding state required to both look after and control the increasingly impoverished economically non-productive population it has rejected and the complex sophisticated costly strategies of the neoliberal communitarian disciplinary tutelage programme. What is clearly required is a different form of communitarianism.

Concluding Comments
It is the work of Emile Durkheim and his observations on the moral component of the division of labour in society that provides the theoretical basis of a radical moral communitarianism which challenges the orthodox articulation of the political philosophy and its hybrid neoliberal variation. It is a formulation which actively promotes both the rights and responsibilities of both individuals and communities but in the context of an equal (or at least significantly less unequal) division of labour. It is a communitarianism based on a particular conception of (French) individualism which provides the basis of a rather different form of social organisation than those which emerge from its rival conceptions (Anglo-Saxon and German individualism) which inform the mainstream, radical egalitarian and neoliberal variants. The forthcoming second paper in this two part series discusses the theoretical foundations and outlines the policy implications of this radical moral communitarianism.


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