Communitarianism: the Overlooked Ideology

Jake Davies explores the ideology of communitarianism, the effective opposite of libertarianism insofar as it puts the community’s interest before the individual’s in the economic and cultural sphere, and why it is important for the Labour movement to understand.

The belief that a straightforward left-right binary does not adequately capture individuals’ political views is not original – one need only look at the popularity of the online political compass as evidence – yet it is far from widespread. Most people today still give themselves political labels that apply to a single continuous spectrum, and in doing so obscure far more of politics than they illuminate.

To give a concrete example, YouGov conducted an oft-cited survey of the British electorate in September 2016 asking voters to describe where they see themselves on the political spectrum. A sizeable 45% of all respondents, and over half of the females asked, put themselves in the political centre; only 25% of voters described themselves as centre left or left-wing, versus 30% who believe they are centre right or right-wing.[1] As a consequence of surveys like these, political pundits and pollsters continue to assert the importance to electoral victory of winning over the centre ground.[2]

Yet there is one major problem with this analysis. It assumes that the 45% of Brits who define themselves as centrist share a coherent ideology that political parties can tap into. In reality, this centre ground will contain both hard-core Europhiles aching for a second referendum on our membership of the European Union and current/former UKIP voters who see themselves as neither left nor right. [3] In essence, two fundamentally different groups that any political party would struggle to reconcile. Yet as long as we continue to conceive of politics as occurring on a single spectrum, they will remain lumped together to the detriment of these voters and everyone interested in understanding politics.

What this means for communitarians

The response to our flawed conception of politics should not be to ditch political labels altogether. Rather, we should encourage the use of more nuanced labels that illuminate the range of political ideologies in Britain instead of concealing them.

This approach is particularly important for communitarian voters who are perhaps most likely to feel unrepresented by the left-right binary. Although holding highly distinctive views on economic and social issues, they tend to describe themselves as politically centrist out of disaffection with both the mainstream left and right, thereby obscuring their particular worldview behind the vacuous concept of the centre-ground.

Broadly speaking, communitarians are left-wing on economics, favouring redistribution of wealth and more state control in the economy, and right-wing on social issues: they are sceptical of mass immigration, are strongly patriotic, and oppose liberalisation of drug laws. As explained later on, communitarianism is a coherent and valid ideology, and it is certainly not akin to centrism. Its existence, however, is rarely acknowledged by political commentators or activists.

This poses a problem for all parties, but it is perhaps most acute for the Labour Party, 30-40% of whose support base could be described as communitarian, with these voters most liable to switch to the more socially right-wing Conservative Party in an age when issues of culture and identity are becoming as salient political cleavages as economics, if not more so.[4]

Up to now, many voices within Labour have regarded the recent trickle of communitarian-minded voters to the Tories, evidenced by Labour’s loss of seats like Mansfield for the first time ever in the 2017 General Election, as owing to the Conservatives’ communicative success. It is said that these voters, while holding left-wing or progressive views on economics, have voted against their own financial interests because they have been won over by Conservative rhetoric on immigration, patriotism etc. and that the way to win them back is to make the left-wing case on social issues more vocally or more appealingly. Underlying this argument is the view that such voters are inconsistent in their beliefs as they are left-wing in some areas but right-wing in others, and that winning them over to the left on social issues should come naturally. This attitude misunderstands the coherence of the communitarian worldview.

To be clear, this author is not suggesting activists should stop trying to win round voters to their side of the argument as evidently people change their mind on political issues all the time. Yet they should also recognise that some people may not be converted because they possess their own genuine ideological convictions, which at the very least have to be properly acknowledged by the left instead of blaming their failure to win them over on the opposition banging the drum more loudly.

The communitarian worldview

So what is communitarianism all about? At its simplest, it can be explained with reference to how a person with communitarian convictions would respond to Margaret Thatcher’s infamous line: “there’s no such thing as society.” The communitarian would side with a mainstream left-wing individual in rejecting this claim from an economic viewpoint. Both people agree that unfettered economic freedom damages the public sphere, say with the example of negative externalities arising from car pollution, and that restricting individual liberty is justifiable to achieve some societal conception of the greater good.

Yet when it comes to social issues, the communitarian finds themselves at odds with the leftists who promote a far more individualistic politics in which social bonds, otherwise known as tradition, are seen as stifling the freedom of the individual.[5]

One example of this divergence between communitarians and leftists on social matters is over immigration with communitarians invariably favouring immigration controls while many on the mainstream left support open borders. For communitarians, the argument for unrestricted immigration too often focuses on the freedom of the individual to move to wherever they want without a concomitant discussion of migrants’ responsibility to the community they join. Indeed, much of the present resentment about migration to Britain can be traced to the concern that people are allowed to come here and enjoy benefits conferred by society without being required to contribute in return, something which offends the communitarian belief in individuals working to advance a shared conception of the good.

The debate over immigration also invariably entails different conceptions of the nation, with some left-wing supporters of open borders presenting what Dr. Hugh Burling calls a “shopping mall” view of the national community as home to a random collection of people with no shared values, norms or identity.[6]

To be clear, there are plenty of other arguments in favour of open borders which do not rely on such extreme individualism, and the above discussion is not sufficient on its own to dismiss the case for them. However, what it should highlight is the prevalence of individualist assumptions at the forefront of much left-wing discourse and the potential this has in alienating the many Labour and non-Labour supporting communitarians in the country, a key but little understood part of the electorate.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/10/britains-political-tribes-hinder-labour-chances-of-winning-coalition

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/28/jeremy-corbyn-policies-yougov-centre-ground-labour

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/mar/05/ukip-supporters-less-rightwing-than-tories

[4] This is at least the argument advanced by the likes of David Goodhart in his book The Road to Somewhere (2017)

[5] See, for example, Michael Merrick – Ch. 16 of Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics (2015)

[6] https://the-quadrangle.com/2017/03/13/open-borders-iii/

 

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