Monday, August 11, 2008

Let's All Hold Hands So We Can't Punch Each Other

Communitarianism is an interesting political ideology. The first time I heard the word I rather liked it, because it seemed to stand for all sorts of goody-two-shoes values and I love those values. Communitarians want all of us to work for the common good, you see, and that's quite wonderful.

But then I got a few books on the topic from the library and felt sort of let down. One of those books was by Amitai Etzione, one of the big names in communitarianism. Whether it was his book or one of the others I read I can't remember, but one of the books had a long chapter on all the bad things about feminism, including the idea that because women in the past were banned from jobs they did the important charity work instead. Now that many women work for money nobody is doing that important charity and therefore the past might have been a better time for the community. Surprisingly, the chapter had nothing about charity being a task which men, too, could practice.

This whole treatment made me uncomfortable, because it appeared to construct "the community" as somehow not including the women whose free labor was perhaps semi-forced into charitable uses. It also has that odd flavor of communitarianism as the kind of barn-raising where the communitarian prophet tells other people to raise the barn while he sits back and has a beer or two. I've known people like that in the real life, by the way. They're very keen on community efforts and it may take some time to realize that the efforts are to be made by others.

To return to the topic at hand (or, rather, to stay on the topic), I got the feeling that many communitarians want other people to have good unselfish values while they themselves continue working as professors or whatever they do for money. It's a neat trick, that one, because the only way you can really be a selfish communitarian is by leading the movement. Or so I think.

What brought this rant on? Some time ago I read a Huffington Post piece by Etzione on how Obama really is a communitarian:

The nature of communitarianism is best illustrated by contrasting it with identity politics, the rejection of which is both a major theme of Obama's campaign, and is symbolized by his post-racial biography and personhood. Identity politics build on what differentiates us from one another: our racial or ethnic origins; our sexual orientations; our separate past social histories. Identity politics led to attempts to form a 'rainbow' coalition, composed of various groups who considered themselves victimized -- against the declining white, male majority. Other forms of identity politics pitted citizens against immigrants. Some of the more radical versions of multiculturalism also contributed to this kind of divisive politics.


A revival of the American community requires us to spend much less of our energy and resources on fighting one another, and invest much more of it in the common good, in those goods that serve one and all. Hence, Obama seeks not only social justice for the poor, but decent work at decent wages for one and all; he harps less on the uninsured, and seeks a health care system that will encompass all Americans; he is as open to those with a strong faith as he is to those who embrace secular humanism.

I don't think Obama is a communitarian in the Etzione mold, actually. But notice something odd about that quote: The focus on "the common good" that Etzione advocates is great. But he's not saying anything at all about the fact that what "the common good" is might be under great dispute by different groups in the society. Instead, his statement assumes that question to be already solved in some odd way and that solution to assume that no particular group in the community is at all advantaged or required to contribute more than other groups because of that.

An extreme example might make my criticism fairer: If communitarianism had been applied in the slavery era of this country, what would its message have been? That both the slaves and the free citizens should just work together without always focusing on identity politics?

I'm not actually opposed to many communitarian values, but the juxtaposition of those with "identity politics" makes me grit my teeth. The kind of communitarianism that Etzione advocates is too easily just a defense of the current status quo in the distributions of income and power, empty in specific details about what it tries to accomplish and far too amenable to a conservative interpretation.