STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
Lies of Neo-Communitarianism?
By Staff News & Analysis - March 22, 2010

The United States is becoming a broken society. The public has contempt for the political class. Public debt is piling up at an astonishing and unrelenting pace. Middle-class wages have lagged. Unemployment will remain high. It will take years to fully recover from the financial crisis. This confluence of crises has produced a surge in vehement libertarianism. People are disgusted with Washington. The Tea Party movement rallies against big government, big business and the ruling class in general. Even beyond their ranks, there is a corrosive cynicism about public action. But there is another way to respond to these problems that is more communitarian and less libertarian. This alternative has been explored most fully by the British writer Phillip Blond (left). – New York Times/David Brooks

Dominant Social Theme: It takes a village to recover from the ruin of modernity.

Free-Market Analysis: Now it comes clear! We see in Britain what is to replace New Labour – and what surely will be an important influence in American political rhetoric as well. And that is the "ownership state" as proposed by someone named Phillip Blond who has come seemingly from nowhere to set up a British non-profit called Res Publica, and is now on an American book tour. Blond, as we can see in the above supportive excerpt by neo-conservative American writer David Brooks, is offering a "communitarian" alternative to regulatory democracy, one which, astonishingly, has apparently become a kind of life jacket for Britain's foundering conservative Tory party.

With Britain on the brink of a bankruptcy as profound as Greece's, mired in an unpopular war, providing public services that fail on every level, the Tory party in Britain has managed to do something miraculous – position itself for potential defeat in the upcoming election with Gordon Brown and New Labour (not so new anymore). Yes, the same New Labour that has virtually denuded Britain of industry and solvency over the past decade (first under Tony Blair and then Brown). The same New Labour that has empowered everything that is worst about Britain – its nanny-statism, its mendacious authoritarianism and military expansionism, etc. Somehow the Tories are managing to fumble away the upcoming election. In the nick of time, they have seemingly discovered Blond's communitarianism, or so Brooks informs us. Here's some more from Brooks on Blond:

In a much-discussed essay in Prospect magazine in February 2009, Blond wrote, "Look at the society we have become: We are a bi-polar nation, a bureaucratic, centralised state that presides dysfunctionally over an increasingly fragmented, disempowered and isolated citizenry." In a separate essay, he added, "The welfare state and the market state are now two defunct and mutually supporting failures." …

Economically, Blond lays out three big areas of reform: remoralize the market, relocalize the economy and recapitalize the poor. This would mean passing zoning legislation to give small shopkeepers a shot against the retail giants, reducing barriers to entry for new businesses, revitalizing local banks, encouraging employee share ownership, setting up local capital funds so community associations could invest in local enterprises, rewarding savings, cutting regulations that socialize risk and privatize profit, and reducing the subsidies that flow from big government and big business.

To create a civil state, Blond would reduce the power of senior government officials and widen the discretion of front-line civil servants, the people actually working in neighborhoods. He would decentralize power, giving more budget authority to the smallest units of government. He would funnel more services through charities. He would increase investments in infrastructure, so that more places could be vibrant economic hubs. He would rebuild the "village college" so that universities would be more intertwined with the towns around them.

Essentially, Blond would take a political culture that has been oriented around individual choice and replace it with one oriented around relationships and associations. His ideas have made a big splash in Britain over the past year. His think tank, ResPublica, is influential with the Conservative Party. His book, "Red Tory," is coming out soon. He's on a small U.S. speaking tour … Britain is always going to be more hospitable to communitarian politics than the more libertarian U.S. But people are social creatures here, too. American society has been atomized by the twin revolutions here, too. This country, too, needs a fresh political wind. America, too, is suffering a devastating crisis of authority. The only way to restore trust is from the local community on up.

So now we begin to see the next rhetorical response to the truth-telling of the Internet. For make no mistake about it, the Internet is responsible for the rise of the libertarian rhetoric that Brooks seemingly bemoans. Classical liberalism in one form or another has been around for thousands of years. But it was grievously suppressed in the 20th century. Within the Anglo-American orbit, democratic socialism was offered as a replacement on one side and democratic fascism (republicanism/Toryism) on the other. Actually, both are on the same side, for both demand the active involvement of the state. Libertarianism – classical liberalism – is the only political philosophy that actively seeks less government control. Only with the rise of the Internet have the tenets of classical liberalism become popular and better understood again.

The reason classical liberalism works is it sets the stage for competition and free-market price allocation, which in turn allows business to flourish and societies to grow wealthy. Government produces nothing and taxes productive enterprises in order to perpetuate itself. Then, in order to further justify its existence in aggregate, government's proponents attack the marketplace and seek to "regulate" its abuses. The mechanism involved does not significantly change whether the government's approach is communitarian, socialist or fascist. They all feature expansionist state power and all end up at an authoritarian destination.

So now we have Res Publica. In about a year's time, Blond has gone from writing an article to performing as an international power-broker and helping to set the formal political agendas of the more conservative elements of the Anglo-American axis. We have no doubt that in America the powers-that-be will try to blend his muzzy rhetoric featuring "empowerment" and the "ownership state" with certain of the Tea Party's elements of faux libertarianism to come up with the next flavor of Republican governance. It won't work of course, anymore than it will work in Britain. But since "New Labour" worked for a while as a rhetorical device, it very well may be tried. Here's something directly from the Res Publica site about communitarian ownership:

We argue that the way to unleash the energies of frontline staff and citizens and scale up their impact is through the power of shared ownership. We propose a new model of public sector delivery, in which services are provided by social enterprises led by frontline workers and owned by them and the communities they serve. These new social businesses would exchange economies of scale (which are all too often illusory) with the real economies that derive from empowered workers and an engaged public … The involvement of both the public and frontline workers provides a vital safeguard for the interests of the vulnerable: a powerful public stake prevents organisations from becoming producer interest groups, while the role of public sector experts helps ensure fair and high quality provision.

To deliver this, we recommend that a new power of civil association be granted to all frontline service providers in the public sector. This power would allow the formation, under specific conditions, of new employee and community-owned 'civil companies' that would deliver the services previously monopolised by the state. Central to this power would be the obligation to ensure that full budgetary delegation of all the supporting services goes along with new responsibility. The new civil company would be structured as a social enterprise, with the scope and flexibility to allow a number of different governance structures in the light of local conditions. Such structures include community interest companies with an asset lock that prevents external transfer of the resources of the new organisation, or alternatively a similar level of social reassurance could be provided by a partnership trust along the lines of the John Lewis model.

Governed neither by the public state or the private market, this new civil association would localise responsibility, direct agency and promote ethos. It would do this by spreading the ownership of publicly funded provision, revolutionising public service delivery for the benefit of all.

These are the suggestions that have reportedly galvanized the Tory party in Britain and are in the process of winning over converts in America. But a little free-market thinking brings us to the clear conclusion that it is competition that provides the discipline that elevates services and makes the private sector efficient. If Blond was arguing for a true privatization of public services – the ability for numerous private enterprises to attempt to deliver services now offered via public ones – then his solutions would have a chance of being effective. But he doesn't appear to be doing that. What he is proposing apparently is that one can give people "shares" in these corrupt enterprises and then these bloated public entities will begin to finally do the job because people will have ownership and will care.

Is this solution any better than the privatization mania of a few years back? Then the idea, in America anyway, was that if you allowed a private company to take over the responsibilities of a public monopoly, the performance would suddenly improve. It didn't work that way of course. The problem is the mercantilist-monopoly power itself. No competition, no elevation of services. It is remarkable from our point of view that the ideas of Res Publica have become so popular and influential so quickly. It just shows the desperation of those who want to justify state power.

It would seem those who want to become rich and influential right now need only come up with some sort of public discourse justifying statism. This tells us two things. One, the Internet itself has been extraordinarily effective in letting people know that only competition and a free-market can raise the standard of living and create wealth. Two, ideas have consequences. In fact, free-market thinking dispersed by the Internet has been so effective that those who want to oppose it seem to have few arguments left at their disposal. The success of Res Publica illustrates the failure of statist justifications. There is apparently nowhere to go. This is a most significant evolution – and we are brought to it by observing the hyper-penetration of Blond's communitarian message.

After Thoughts

Are the dominant social themes of the elite ceasing to be persuasive? Societies are organized around stories, and those with the most power and influence are those with the most influential tales to tell – tales, of course, that seem to resonate with current reality. Today, those who espouse freedom would seem to be gaining the upper hand when it comes to believability and credibility. Fixing society is simple, in fact – and not nearly so complex as Blond seems to indicate. Allow gold and silver to circulate freely and restrict government from over-reaching both economically and militarily. Let government provide only the most essential services, and guard against its expansion jealously. Communitarians need not apply?

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