‘No society can function well’, writes Amitai Etzioni, ‘unless most of its members “behave” most of the time because they voluntarily heed their moral commitments and social responsibilities’.footnote1 The importance of strong families, caring neighbours, a flourishing sector of self-help groups, voluntary associations, churches, trade unions and social clubs, as well as a widespread sense of social membership to the healthy functioning of modern societies is now rarely disputed. The civic institutions of the family and neighbourhood are perceived by thinkers on the Right as a precondition for a sustainable welfare state,footnote2 and by conservative traditionalists as the foundation for the formation of self-disciplined and dependable personalities.footnote3 They are defended by civic conservatives, who recognize that effective free markets rely on and must contribute to strong moral and cultural institutions,footnote4 and by ‘ethical philosophers’ who see the principle of duty as the bond of social cohesion that limits the need for a repressive state.footnote5

Durable relations of trust and commitment are also important to ‘communitarian liberals’ who believe that the flourishing of individuals depends on deep and specific forms of common life anchored in a public culture shielded from commodity relations,footnote6 to those on the centre-Left concerned with the social fabric that facilitates economic efficiency and sustainable long-term growth,footnote7 and to ecologists who see the expansion of civil society as a means towards the self-limiting of consumption, the transcendence of acquisitive individualism, and the scaling down of the growth machine.footnote8 Even democratic socialists must concede that micro-social communities, buttressed by convivial associations and bonds of mutual reliance, are an indispensable antidote to consumer dependency, an essential vehicle for disconnecting people from the circuit of system-induced needs, and therefore a prerequisite for the democratic orientation of the economic system.

In each case, however, the same problem arises—to what extent should individuals be taught, exhorted, seduced or induced to behave in conformity with the needs of economic, social or ecological rationalization. If strong communities are compatible with the moral authenticity of the subjects who comprise them—and this is, indeed, the basic assumption of communitarianism—then the members of such communities must be able to see their social conduct and its results as deriving from their own free will, as something they can assume responsibility for and call their own.

In other words, morality requires autonomy, just as responsibility requires the freedom to be the author of one’s world. It is the contraction of people’s autonomy in the face of the relentless growth in market forces and the regulatory apparatuses that accompany them which has led to the current concern for moral order. We should not be surprised if the connection between morality and autonomy is unrecognized in much social thinking, for the prestige and authority of social science was after all won with the argument that authentic selfhood can be derived from rational systems, cultural classifications, and superior ethical codes.footnote9 As Isaiah Berlin warned in 1958, the ideal of a fully rationalized self has informed the thinking of crusading colonial administrators, authoritarian Victorian educators, violent revolutionaries, and all the members of the legislating professions who believed that scientific reason and the rational administration and management of the social system could be extended to include—and thus to harmonize, standardize and correct—the personal interests and motives of all.footnote10

In its crudest moments, communitarianism appears to have inherited the mantle of this moral crusade, bearing an alarming resemblance to the proto-functionalist moral organicism of Emile Durkheim, or to the ‘socialist morality’ preached by the former communist parties in Eastern Europe. This approach proceeds as if the systematic alienation and disempowerment of individuals could be remedied by deepening their awareness of the importance their narrowly specialized conduct carries for the realization of society’s collective project. My argument is that communitarianism offers no satisfactory answer to the disintegration of social bonds in the advanced societies, for its failure to defend the autonomy of individuals produces a morality without value, a one-dimensional world in which communities are blessed with a cohesion that is neither chosen, intended, nor lived by the people who produce them.

The right-wing revolutions initiated in the West by Reagan and Thatcher owed much of their success to the argument that welfare capitalism had tipped the delicate balance between entitlement and duty too far towards the former. This argument was persuasive enough to be adopted by many thinkers on the Left. Their greatest concern was that the large state apparatuses that were a legacy of Roosevelt and Johnson in the us, and Keynes and Beveridge in the uk, had generated a powerful class of bureaucrats, administrators, and self-serving professionals whose managerial hegemony led to inefficiency, lack of accountability, and the disempowerment of their clients.

Such disempowerment led to client dependency, the response to which was the abstract re-empowerment of recipients as the bearers of consumer rights. Michael Sandel argues that the modern concentration and centralization of state power developed in response to the growth of corporate capitalism and national markets at the end of the nineteenth century.footnote11 When the nation consequently proved too large a stage for maintaining, through a cohesive political community, a stable conception of the common good, the public philosophy shifted ‘from a politics of good to a politics of right’, from a conception of shared purposes to the defence of the sovereignty of the individual against the tyranny of the majority.