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The one and the many

When I was a student, our reading list for my first-year political science class featured the book Liberals and Communitarians by Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift. It was interesting enough to read at the time, but two and a half decades later its message resonates ever more loudly.

As the name suggests, the book considers the tension between two fundamental themes of political philosophy: liberalism and communitarianism.

It does so by exploring the writings of a selection of liberal and communitarian thinkers – including John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and Richard Rorty (representing the liberals) and Michael Sandel, Alisdair MacIntyre and Michael Walzer (representing the communitarians).

(As I write this, I realise that these are all men. I didn’t notice this twenty five years ago. So I’ve evolved, even if the book is now looking slightly dated in this respect.)

Liberalism is all about the rights and freedoms of the individual. It developed in response to the absolute monarchies and systems of hereditary privilege that plagued the Western world in the middle ages. And, while there are various schools of liberal thought, it’s usually regarded as synonymous with things like private property, the free market economy and the rule of law.

The big question with liberalism, though, is what the individual rights and freedoms that it promotes should actually be.

You could, for example, have what Thomas Hobbes described as a ‘state of nature’, where there’s no social contract governing human behaviour and everyone basically does whatever they like. This may sound appealing, but it’s worth noting that even Hobbes, in Leviathan, describes life under such circumstances as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

Perhaps for this reason, many thinkers have explored ways to determine the rights and freedoms with which we should be endowed. Others have set out what they think these specific rights and freedoms should be. See, for example, the french Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the first ten amendments to the United States constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights.

While few would argue with the notion of rights per se, a common criticism of liberalism is that it focuses on the individual at the expense of the collective. It ignores the complex web of social relationships that makes each of us who we are.

Liberalism, so the argument goes, leads to the atomisation of society – with us all living in our own individual bubbles – and to the breakdown of social cohesion and community relationships.

Enter communitarianism. Communitarianism is all about the interactions between the individual and the community of which they are a part. This might be a family, a workplace, a locality, a social group or something else. Whatever form it takes, we’re part of that community and the community plays a substantial role in shaping who are and what we do.

The underpinnings of communitarianism as a political philosophy have been around for some time. But it’s become more prominent in recent decades in the writings of Michael Sandel and others, often in response to the perceived failings of the political liberalism espoused by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice and other works.

Another book I first read at university was Amitai Etzioni’s The Spirit of Community. Amitai Etzioni was a sociologist – and , interestingly, a former elite commando with the forerunner of the Israeli Defence Forces – who sought to deepen our understanding of communitarianism, to advance the communitarian movement and to communicate the benefits of communitarianism to a wider audience.

While much of Etzioni’s work is academic in nature, The Spirit of Community was written for a more general audience. In it, he argues that our communities are breaking down and that we need to create a better balance between individual rights and social responsibility. We need to focus more on the institutions that bind us together, such as marriage, schools, the family, neighbourhoods and religious groups.

I remember reading at the time that The Spirit of Community went down well with US President Bill Clinton and with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Others were less enthusiastic about Etzioni’s ideas, arguing that communitarianism would lead inevitably to social conservatism and to intolerance of anything that didn’t meet established social norms. I must admit that I harboured such concerns myself, too.

The presence of an ongoing conflict between individual rights and social responsibilities – between the notions of liberalism and communitarianism – is, however, undeniable.

We saw this with masking during the pandemic, with some individuals refusing to wear a mask because it ‘breached their rights’, despite strong evidence that wearing a mask – not, in itself, an overly onerous prospect if you’re just nipping into Tesco – helped to protect those around you.

And Robert Shrimsley explains brilliantly in a recent Financial Times article how the battle between individual rights and social responsibilities is currently playing out in UK transport policy, with the demands of individual car drivers (cheap fuel, massive engines, ability to drive wherever and whenever the hell they want) repeatedly taking precedence over the needs of communities and of society as a whole (alternative transport options, safe streets, breathable air, combating climate breakdown).

As Shrimsley notes, there’s a balance to be achieved between the rights of individuals and the needs of community and society. Between the fundamental tenets of liberalism and of communitarianism. But it’s far from clear where this balance lies. And, indeed, where it should be.

This is a debate that has been simmering since well before I first read Liberals and Communitarians a quarter of a century ago.

And it’s not going to go away.

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Image: William White on Unsplash


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