Friends and Neighbours. (Community and Communitarianism)

By Pahl, Ray; Spencer, Liz | New Statesman (1996), September 26, 1997 | Go to article overview

Friends and Neighbours. (Community and Communitarianism)


Pahl, Ray, Spencer, Liz, New Statesman (1996)


The communitarians have got it wrong. Our modern micro-societies are governed not by settled communities but serial friendships

Mrs Thatcher's notorious idea that "there is no such thing as society" has in the late nineties caused an overreaction, in which the political buzzwords are social cohesion, social exclusion, trust, social glue, social networks and, overwhelmingly, "community". Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Chancellor Kohl are among those said to have been influenced by the ideas of community and communitarianism.

On both sides of the Atlantic there is a common concern to find a style of government that will encourage and support a more responsible society, which recognises duties as well as rights. The assumption is that not only does society exist but that it is in trouble, and that something connected with community is part of the solution. It may be, however, that those who have urged politicians to focus on the quality and style of social relationships have themselves helped to stimulate a moral panic. This panic has been gaining momentum in the United States since the mid-eighties, and was well expressed recently by the arch-capitalist speculator George Soros: "Too much competition and too little co-operation can cause intolerable inequities and instability."

Moral panics about the lack of social cohesion are nothing new. Martial and Horace in ancient Rome were saying much the same as Soros. Even such a distinguished sociologist as Emile Durkheim, writing in 1906, claimed: "Today traditional morality is shaken and no other has been brought forward to replace it. The older duties have lost their power without our being able to see clearly and with assurance where our new duties lie. Different minds hold opposed ideas and we are passing through a period of crisis. It is not then surprising that we do not feel the pressure of moral rules as they were felt in the past. They cannot appear to us in their old majesty, since they are practically non-existent."

If today's politicians come to resemble Old Testament prophets, urging people to fight the cancer of individualism with the moral weapons of a fuzzy communitarianism, they may unwittingly create a self-fulfilling prophecy: reinforcing notions of a lost golden age can all too easily fuel popular fears about the breakdown of community. There is evidence that such fears are starting to take hold.

A golden-age vision based on shared communities of fate is no solution to the problems of contemporary society based on risk and uncertainty. There are indeed indications of change in the nature of marriage and family life, and the occupational communities of old Labour are gone for ever. These communities, when stripped of nostalgic haze, were typically inward-looking, notoriously reluctant to accept innovation and drew much of their strength from hostility to outsiders. The ties that bound the people together were those of isolation, unremitting toil and, frequently, patriarchal domination. There can be no going back to the "traditional" forms of marriage, family and community.

If old communities cannot provide a solution, what can? The answer may be found in what we believe to be a positive, new and important theme in contemporary society, namely the growth of friendship and friend-like relationships. The dense interlocking ties of old communities promoted a sense of well-being and acted as a buffer against social change; but sociological research on both sides of the Atlantic shows the importance of weaker, "bridging" ties, which provide routes out of communities and facilitate innovation and change.

The inward-looking, strong ties of family remain important for children to make the necessary strong attachments inherent in the growth of a healthy personality, and they may become important again as people age and need regular care. However, there is also a need to break out from constraining ties if people are to cope with a risk society and gain full opportunities from a flexible labour market. …

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