The ABCs of Communitarianism

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July 26 1996 3:30 AM

The ABCs of Communitarianism

A devil's dictionary.

(Continued from Page 1)

Part of the reason that Putnam's article resonated so strongly outside elite circles--People magazine profiled him in a bowling alley--is that in using the example of bowling, that staple of 1950s, Putnam touched on a powerful chord of nostalgia for the America of that golden decade. A new book by Alan Ehrenhalt, The Lost City, is subtitled Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s.

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Ehrenhalt's book may be the best of the new literature on community, because rather than waxing poetic about community in the abstract, he describes actual communities. The result is a vivid picture showing that the strong bonds that developed in those fabled neighborhoods of yore were kindled by conditions that we might find discomforting today--fear of authority, lack of choice, and poverty. People stayed in neighborhoods, for example, because they could not afford to move, and because other neighborhoods would not accept them easily. They attended church services and neighborhood social events because small banks, schools, and other community institutions were run by a local elite that enforced a certain kind of conformity. Porches and stoops, those symbols of a vibrant social life, stopped being used as gathering places for a rather practical reason--air conditioning. Ehrenhalt himself advocates a return to the choice-free, obedient life of the 1950s, but while seductive in the abstract, it sounds more and more confining on close examination. Imagine having to go to parties with your local bank manager so that you could get a mortgage.

Hard-core left-wingers are horrified by this rise in nostalgia about the 1950s, a decade that was seen, not so long ago, as a grim period of pre-enlightenment, racist, sexist, capitalist boredom. The Nation's Katha Pollitt takes Putnam's very example, the shift from league bowling to ad hoc bowling, and suggests that "[that] story could be told as one of happy progress from a drink-sodden night of spouse-avoidance with the same old faces from work to temperate and spontaneous fun with one's intimate friends and family." Hmm. "Temperate and spontaneous fun" sounds like something one might have to do in a work camp. And the occasional "drink-sodden night of spouse-avoidance"--for both sexes--is probably key to enduring marriages.

B, by the way, could also be for "baseball," but it turns out that baseball leagues have been growing steadily over the last decades. And the number of soccer clubs has been rising meteorically as well. The simplest explanation for this rise might be the desire for a little exercise.

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C Is for Civil Society. Civil Society has nothing to do with Emily Post. It's a term used to describe that part of society that exists between the family and the state--voluntary organizations, choral groups, Rotary clubs, etc.

Alexis de Tocqueville noticed in the 1830s that America was brimming with them, and argued that they were good for democracy. This celebrated hypothesis has by now become a theological certitude in the minds of most American intellectuals. It recently received powerful empirical support from Robert Putnam, whose 1993 book, Making Democracy Work, documented that northern Italy is civil-society rich and southern Italy, civil-society poor. Certainly the north has been better governed than the south for centuries, but that is not to say that is has been a better democracy. After all, Italy has not been a democracy for that long. There was that fellow, Mussolini, and before him, the emperor. Perhaps civil society is good for efficient government rather than democratic government. Memo to Lee Kuan Yew ...

Of course, civil society could also be the Mafia, the Michigan militia, Hamas, the Nation of Islam and other such groups involved in communal projects. But when most civil-society boosters talk about the concept, they use it to mean--arbitrarily--those groups that they like. So the left points inevitably to nonprofit do-good organizations, and the right talks about church groups.

Consider the difference between the conservative writer Francis Fukuyama and left winger Benjamin Barber, who, in their recent books, praise civil society extravagantly. In Fukuyama's Trust, he argues that private companies are an important part of civil society and that nonfamily business activity is a key indicator of a politically and economically healthy society. But for Barber, the author of Jihad vs. McWorld: How the Planet is Both Falling Apart and Coming Together--and What This Means for Democracy--a book President Clinton has read and praised--business, far from being part of civil society, leads the assault on civil society. "Who will get business off the backs of civil society?" Barber asks. Now it isn't clear why firms don't fulfill most of the functions of civil society. Indeed the term "civil society" originated with writers like Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and David Hume in England and Scotland in the 18th century as a way to describe private business activity. On the other hand, you don't hear many conservatives proclaiming the virtues of Greenpeace.

Communitarianism was supposed to be a third way, neither liberal nor conservative, that charted a new course for philosophy and politics. But as this primer suggests, it has become a collection of meaningless terms, used as new bottles into which the old wine of liberalism and conservatism is poured. Community means one thing if you are a conservative and another if you are a liberal--the same with civil society, and even bowling. Call it politics as usual.

Illustrations by Robert Neubecker

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