(Warning, this is highly wonkish. And I have no idea what inspired it. I just felt it needed to be written.)
The political debate (behind the scenes) at the moment is all about Communitarianism. This is a relatively new branch of political philosophy that has emerged as a response to Liberalism as it developed in the middle of the 20th century, and specifically to the ideas of people like John Rawls and Isaiah Berlin. It’s very fashionable at the moment with influential ideologues like Maurice Glasman and Philip Blond who have the ears of ministers and party gurus. Therefore it is a very important shaping force in the formulation of policy. And it needs to be understood and criticised.
Communitarianism represents something of a ‘Third Way’ (not like Blair and Brown’s Third Way, which was little more than a pragmatic fudge – as we now know – the idea that by treading a middle path between deregulation of industry and moderate fiscal expansion you could pay for the necessary infrastructure investment through the proceeds of increased growth). No, an actual ideological Third Way which looks to take away power both from the centralised State and Capital and distribute it instead to organised groups of citizens. Maurice Glasman has been closely involved with London Citizens, for example, and sees this group as a model of how distributed power handed back to communities could be effectively harnessed for social good.
Philip Blond (of Red Tory fame) on the other hand, comes from a totally different perspective. His idea is much more in line with the traditional small Statism of the Notting Hill set and people like Nick Boles, Francis Maude, Michael Gove and Oliver Letwin. In this group, Communitarian ideas are simply a veil for a further attack on the State, presenting local people and ‘close to the ground’ decision making as much more efficient and democratic than the bureaucracy of Whitehall and even of local authorities.
But let’s take a look at some of the intellectual foundations of this idea. Michael Sandel is one of the most prominent philosophers today associated with Communitarian thought, and his version of this set of ideas is largely critical of Rawls’ ‘Theory of Justice’, one of the most important works of liberal philosophy of the 20th century (and one which many so-called liberals today have not read or even heard of – they still think of a liberal as someone whose closest intellectual godfather is John Stuart Mill. I’ve got nothing against Mill, he’s very important, but times change, and ideas develop). Sandel and fellow thinker Charles Taylor have argued that Rawls’ classic formula of the ‘Veil of Ignorance’ rests on a depiction of the individual self that is too separate, too disconnected, from the community and the family to which he belongs. That Rawls’ thought experiment can only remain an experiment because in reality each of us is formed by, and only exists as, a set of connections (see Bakhtin again).
I disagree with this position and actually I think that Rawls’ idea of how we must arrive at a consensus about political authority is very strong. I don’t think that the Communitarian argument, as advanced by Sandel and Taylor, actually weakens Rawls’ argument in any sense, because Rawls is asking each of us to perform the same thought experiment, to imagine an ideal scenario. That was the point, because only by thinking in this abstract, idealised way can we arrive at the necessary agreements.
Anyway, whether you agree with Sandel or not is not really the point. Even if you do, you would have to see that the ideas put forward by people like Philip Blond and Maurice Glasman are incredibly shallow and weak versions of his arguments. They are a kind of pop-philosophy version of Communitarianism.
Glasman himself is more deeply influenced by the Hungarian thinker Karl Polanyi, whose major work was ‘The Great Transformation’, published in 1944. Polanyi’s main arguments are loosely grouped under the term ‘Substantivism’, but his ideas about the ways in which economic activity is embedded in the social and political context of the community are analogous in many ways to Sandel’s Communitarianism. Where Sandel enphasizes the individual’s connections with community, family and society, Polanyi talks about the place of markets in society and the conflict between what he calls the ‘Self-Regulating Market’ and man’s social nature.
There is a similar appeal in both of these philosophies, an appeal based on the notion of a return to traditional values, of the human scale, of the organic popular movement, of the homely authority of the people, of going back to a simpler, less atomised and less alienated (to throw in some Marxist terminology) time. There is a desire to re-establish the connections between people, to strengthen communities, to give capitalism a more human aspect. At least there is, I think, on the part of the progressive left. On the right, I am more suspicious that these ideas are simply a convenient way of masking deeper objectives, objectives of strengthening private capital against the counterweight of an active and interventionist state.
In this way, there is a danger that Glasman’s Blue Labour movement, and people like James Purnell’s hasty adoption of the red flag of Keir Hardie and the history of the Labour movement, actually plays directly into the hands of the conservative right’s agenda. If Labour, for instance, decides not to stand up for the state but instead to promote the increasing re-distribution of power to communities, they will, unwittingly perhaps, be strengthening the control and influence of capital. I believe that the state is the only effective force that can balance the enormous power of global private capital. And in many ways, as we know to our cost, it has proved too weak over the last twenty or thirty years, and too apt to be seduced or bought outright by the financiers.
Although there are attractive features about the Communitarian/Substantivist ideal, I simply can’t see how the kinds of groups and community organisations they advocate can provide a proper check on corporate power. Liberalism, in its classic form (at least if you take Locke’s view) and in its more recent updating by Rawls and Berlin, not to mention its application in practical political economy by Keynes and social reforms by Beveridge, recognises the vital importance of balance between the state and the private sector and private capital. That recognition came after centuries of struggle, oppression, and gradual progress. The danger of a new political Communitarianism and other assaults on Liberalism is that they have not taken that history into account and they will simply reduce the power of democratic political institutions to protect people from the rampant power of private capital.