October 4th, 2011

Now that I can’t write much (if at all) about what I do for a living – too much is commercially confidential these days – this blog is likely to lurch into yet another form, with random bits of comment and opinion. Here’s one such idea I’ve been meaning to write about for a while.

A couple of months ago, I read a book called “Welcome to Everytown” by a chap called Julian Baggini. He’s a philosopher, a writer for the Guardian and appears on Radio 4. The essential premise of the book is that he spends six months living in the “most representative” postcode district of England – as calculated for him by an opinion polling firm – and engages in only the most popular leisure activities. The idea is that he finds out the “essential philosophy” of the English nation – the way that the majority of people think and behave. Now, when I started reading the book I was concerned that it might come across as a “safari to see how the poor people live”, but it’s not at all like that, and contains lots of useful insights.

One such is the idea of communitarianism. I’d never heard of this particular “-ism” before reading the book, but since reading it, I’ve realised how useful it is as a concept, and thought I’d share it. Baggini highlights communitarianism (along with “small c” conservatism) as the essential political philosophy of the majority of English people.

Communitarianism (in the sense Baggini uses it) is the belief that individuals form part of a society, and that rights and privileges are conferred upon individuals only while they retain their commitment to that society. As Baggini says “this makes [communitarians] illiberal, because [they] do not believe that principles such as the right to a free trial or life have to be maintained at all costs: rights can be forfeited or suspended.”

So, we should not be surprised that our more perspicacious politicians like to play to this particular point of view. The noise being made by Teresa May today about the Human Rights Act is pure communitarianism – foreigners are not part of our society, and thus do not acquire the same rights. In the eyes of the communitarians, to commit a crime is to spit in the face of society, and society should retaliate by the withdrawal of rights and privileges from the criminal.

Of course, like all political philosophies, it becomes ludicrous when taken to its logical extreme: a society where being a citizen confers rights, whilst those who committing crime are stripped of their citizenship, denied all basic rights and required to perform forced labour until they earn their citizenship again.

Interestingly, one of the few nations with an overtly communitarian society is Singapore, where the first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew set out to create a society where “for the greater good of society” the rights of the individual are considered less important than the responsibilities of the individual towards their community. This has built a stable but rather repressive society.

Anyway, communitarianism appeals to many people’s sense of “natural justice”, and those of us arguing from a more liberal perspective need to make clear why the communitarian position, however attractive it may seem, leads to undesirable outcomes.

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