Communitarianism and liberalism

First a few scattered thoughts about community, followed by some chunks out of Prospect relating to Jon Cruddas’ fine line.

The World Cup is ongoing. Because half the delegates had gone awol, I had the opportunity to interface directly with Wikipedia-founder Jimmy Wales at an online conference. Delegates came from across the world, and I had hardly heard of any of them. And yet – I’m usually mousey at conferences – in that chat pane I got into some of the more edifying and immediate debates of my working life, and presenters would adapt what they were saying in response to what was being typed there. The distance became a great virtue because the unique potential of the technologies to afford communication without interruption came into play, and there was a readiness of the presenters, moderators and participants to use it. So often at online conferences, you get the one but not the other, with the result that you feel remote and dystopian. For those of us who are connected (and education, age and income are implicated in digital exclusion) community isn’t only geographically based any more.

A football pundit – or somebody BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme got on just before 09:00 to talk about the football – quoted Hobsbawm: “The imagined community of millions seems more real in the form of 11 named people”. I was out last night after England beat whoever it was they beat. By the end of the night London Bridge was a mess of addled men, blood, cocaine and rozzers.

It’s midnight – Today In Parliament is on Radio 4. The stand-in Labour leader Harriet Harman (I think) is protesting the rise in pensionable age for men to 68 in 2016. She’s not talking about safeguarding a good later life for people who have made a direct economic contribution for as much as 45 years, and who will probably continue to make an indirect one for many years to come. She’s not talking about the look the old duffers where I work (including people with some of the most potentially rewarding jobs going) get in their eyes when they talk about their imminent retirement, and the cloud which comes over their not-so-distant juniors’ when you talk about the goal posts being moved. No, she (or perhaps the editor – I should check Hansard) is expressing it in cash terms.

In this month’s Prospect (June 10, p42 – a sociologist I know a little does Prospect down as ‘Blairite’ but I don’t really get that – compared to anything to its left Prospect just strikes me as above all committed to getting to the bottom of things – and a great many different things, too) I was reading an arresting piece by David Edmonds on the Dagenham and Rainham MP Jon Cruddas. Besides Dave Edmonds’ frank encounters with the regulars of The Roundhouse, a BNP pub in Dagenham, the arresting thing about it was that the threat Cruddas’ faced from the right and extreme right last election had stimulated a new approach, and that new approach is (to put it contentiously) illiberal.

“When a local resident was asked why he was voting BNP he was flummoxed, “Well I can hardly vote Tory, can I?”

Jon Cruddas has tried to win back such voters. He refers, repeatedly, to an encounter with an 86-year-old woman in Dagenham. She pointed across her street to an old mattress dumped by the house’s occupant in his front garden. “This mattress was a proxy for disenchantment and abandonment, he told me, for the decline in neighbourliness, for things that “ruptured a tacit covenant between the traditional working class and Labour”. Cruddas’ response was to back a scheme to get rid of eyesore gardens: people could tell the council about gardens full of rubbish, and the council would ask residents to clear it up. If they didn’t, the council did it for them, but made them pay. “So the front yard became a political space in which we could re-establish a sense of community”.

(In fact it’s usually the thought of the neighbours’ gaze which prods me to tend the garden at the front of my home.)

“Working out how to deal with that abandoned mattress may seem a trifling affair, but it matters: it delineates the line between liberal and communitarian values, and it’s pretty clear on which side of the privet hedge Cruddas sits. “It’s a really interesting question and it is cropping up in other local policies,” he said. “Whether you can walk around with a can of Special Brew; how people look after their dogs; and what about if you burgle a home and get caught – should your wife and child get chucked out of public housing while you are in prison? Has a covenant been broken? These things are right on the frontline of the liberal-communitarian debate.”. He talks approvingly of a council plan to prohibit rowdy revellers from public drinking. It will undoubtedly prove popular… Nonetheless it’s a philosophy that contains dangers. That mattress was on private property. Residents might object to it, but what if the majority of residents were equally offended by neighbours wearing a niqab? Cruddas says that these topics are “issue specific” but what’s required is a principle (or a set of rational criteria) to justify when communitarian values can be imposed on citizens, and when they cannot – and that principle Cruddas has yet to supply.”

You’ve probably guessed what comes next – remember how Margaret Hodge (MP for Barking, next door) was attacked for proposing that length of residency in the community be taken into account when allocating social housing, rather than making decisions based on need alone? That was a communitarian proposal.

It’s a really thought-provoking piece, where the central dilemma of liberalism v. communitarianism (i.e. the social engineering of communal infrastructures and resource where there is currently none) is sharpened by Jon Cruddas’ predicament. There is no sense of fighting for a redistribution of wealth – or not in those bald terms. Well, in the Conservative-Liberal budget, the City’s bonuses stay tax free. Meanwhile, as Caroline Lucas points out, we lose tens of billions a year to tax avoidance and evasion.

This is relevant for where I live, as comments here and conversations show. I know this will occupy my mind for a long time to come.

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2 thoughts on “Communitarianism and liberalism

    • Actually thinking about it, I misremembered – a moderator relayed my question (and mispronounced my name). But hearing her ask it was like asking it myself, with a pretty German accent. And when he replied, it was to me directly – in rendered ones and noughts. Exhilarating.

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