From organisational theory to the Third Way
Continuities and contradictions underpinning Amitai Etzioni’s communitarian influence on New Labour
in The Third Way and beyond

This chapter shows how Amitai Etzioni continues to reiterate the thoughts and impressions he had gained during his functionalist days as an organisational theorist in the 1950s and 1960s. The Third Way politics of New Labour can only emulate Etzioni's failings by imposing its own personal vision of community. In The New Golden Rule, Etzioni informs the reader that 'all forms of social order draw to some extent on coercive means, "utilitarian" means, and normative means. To establish the means through which the new communitarian society will evolve, Etzioni re-emphasises the need to amend the existing imbalance within society. Etzioni argues that American society requires a functional alternative to traditional virtue. Etzioni claims to have witnessed the rise in a counter-culture of individualism and instrumentalist reasoning that 'provided a normative seal of approval to a focus on the self rather than on responsibilities to the community'.


Across a wide range of social commentators there has been little doubt that New Labour is deeply influenced by the thoughts and sentiments of Amitai Etzioni and the new communitarian movement. Prideaux1 and Heron2 independently point to the original but persisting concept of ‘stakeholding’ and its emphasis on individuals taking an active ‘stake’ in a society or community. Powell, Exworthy and Berney3 explore the connection through New Labour’s zeitgeist of a ‘partnership’ between people, communities and government. Deacon4 looks at the moral ‘judgementalism’ of Etzioni and New Labour,5 whereas Levitas6 points to the characteristic centrality that both give to ‘family’ and ‘community’ as theatres for learning and social control. All reinforce Driver and Martell’s observation that if communitarianism ‘is New Labour’s answer to Thatcherism; so too is it Blair’s rebuff to Old Labour. Community will restore the moral balance to society by setting out duties and obligations as well as rights.’7

Quite simply, it is this communitarian emphasis on family, community, social discipline, obligation and responsibility – as opposed to an indiscriminate conferral of rights – that lies behind New Labour’s search for a ‘Third Way’ that would go ‘beyond Left and Right’.8 However, what is not common knowledge in the UK, and so has not been fully explored, is from where Amitai Etzioni actually drew his inspiration. Through a comparison of Etzioni’s later works with those of earlier times, this chapter contends that Etzioni has not said anything new or innovative. Nor has he provided a social prescription that manages to traverse the old political and socio-economic boundaries. More to the point, this chapter shows how Etzioni continues to reiterate the thoughts and impressions he had gained during his functionalist days as an organisational theorist in the 1950s and 1960s: the only difference being that the earlier micro-theories of organisations have now been transposed to fit a macro-theory about the perceived ills and remedies pertinent to contemporary ‘mainstream’ society.

Although the point has already been made that organisational theorists characteristically restrict their search for efficiency within the confines of North American relations of capital,9 it is not a charge that has been rigorously applied to Amitai Etzioni, least of all to his US best-seller The Spirit of Community and his rather immodest New Golden Rule.10 With a deeper analysis of the specific methodology employed, this chapter reveals the reliance Etzioni puts on his sociological origins and thus exposes the underlying limitations of his societal projections. Moreover, it will become apparent that this form of methodological analysis is used myopically to substantiate an argument for the promotion of a normative society remarkably reminiscent of America in the 1950s.

Finally, I discuss the ramifications of Etzioni’s approach. Such theoretical and methodological limitations are bound to affect the efficacy and applicability of the communitarian ideal, especially when the revival of a sense of community is still reliant on the relatively unfettered continuation of a competitive market. More importantly, though, such limitations can also affect the policies of New Labour by virtue of the fact that it, too, has adopted a communitarian stance.

A wistful template of reference: American society in the 1950s

When introducing The Essential Communitarian Reader, Etzioni succinctly defines the communitarian movement. He is at pains to distinguish the new communitarians from the communitarianism of the nineteenth century by distancing his position from the old blinkered ‘stress upon the significance of social forces, of community, of social bonds’11 and of the elements that individualistic theory neglected. Instead, he argues, new communitarians concern themselves with ‘the balance between social forces and the person, between community and autonomy, between the common good and liberty, between individual rights and social responsibilities’.12 Elsewhere, Etzioni sees himself – and, for that matter, this new form of communitarianism – as a responsive harbinger of social equilibrium locked in a quest to revitalise society through a unique blending of some elements of ‘tradition (order based on virtues) with elements of modernity (well protected autonomy)’.13

Pivotal to Etzioni’s social deliberations is the wistful image he holds of America in the 1950s and his contrasting disdain for contemporary life as he sees it. These two polarised images deeply affect his ideas on how a communitarian alternative can be achieved. And both provide him with a rather circular argument that fails to address any of the problems that may be inherent to the socioeconomic basis of Western society. Consequently, Amitai Etzioni’s vision of a communitarian society is heavily predicated on what he sees as having gone wrong with present-day social relations.

As a starting-point for his argument, 1950s America becomes the baseline template of reference. Almost yearningly, he talks of that decade as in many respects a social ideal. Core values, he argues, ‘were relatively widely shared and strongly endorsed’, and so helped to promote a context in which societal members ‘had a strong sense of duty to their families, communities and society’.14 Pertinently, morality and order during this period are seen by Etzioni to generate stable relations. Christianity was the dominant and guiding religion. Incidences of violent crime, drug abuse, alcoholism and illegitimacy were low, or at least discreetly concealed. The law made divorce difficult, abortion illegal throughout the USA, and ‘the roles of men and women were relatively clearly delineated’.15

Despite a passing acknowledgement that women and ethnic minorities were treated as second-class citizens, Etzioni still enthuses over this past society. In his eyes, low autonomy for certain groupings is not always a bad thing. To that end Etzioni ambiguously comments upon, but is not overly critical of, the fact that college students then were expected to take a fair number of ‘prescribed’ courses which ‘reflected unabashedly (and often with little self-awareness) the dominant set of values’.16 While Etzioni concedes that American society of this yesteryear was characterised by a high level of coercion, he nonetheless commends the fact that it was offset with a similarly high presence of moral suasion. Coercion, for Etzioni, is necessary at times, though it can be repressive and destructive if too readily and too generously applied. On the other hand, a pervasive moral suasion is one of his basic foundations for determining social order. An effective balance between the two is, therefore, an integral aspect of Etzioni’s communitarian thinking, and it is precisely this detection of moral suasion, alongside elements of coercion, which allows him to use 1950s’ America as a measure of comparative social stability.

An irresponsible existence: from the promiscuous 1960s to the instrumentalist 1980s

In contrast, Etzioni’s depiction of events in America from the 1960s to the end of the 1980s amounts to a very tainted picture that allows him to hark back to what he sees as the positive values of earlier times. Quite simply, ‘[i]f the hallmark of the 1950s was a strong sense of obligation, from 1960 to 1990 there was a rising sense of entitlement and a growing tendency to shirk social responsibilities’.17 Increasingly Etzioni claims to have witnessed the rise in a counter-culture of individualism and instrumentalist reasoning that ‘provided a normative seal of approval to a focus on the self rather than on responsibilities to the community’.18 For him, it was a self-interest that was soon to become an unacceptable, if not distasteful, base for social disorder and misplaced virtues: a base from which society would be riven by competition over individual entitlements arising out of an increased political preoccupation with ‘rights’ at the expense of ‘responsibilities’.

When tracing this later period of destructive change in social values, Etzioni declares that with the rise in promiscuity from the 1960s onwards, the role and influence of religion declined, divorce and abortion were eventually legalised, and notions of what constituted a family were redefined to accommodate ‘a wider variety of households’.19 The period saw a concomitant weakening of respect for authority. No longer, he maintains, was there a confidence in, or a passive acceptance of, the actions of those empowered to lead. In fact, the exact opposite was to become the norm. Voter turnout decreased, feelings of alienation were on the increase and, over the years, Americans would ‘become a tribe that savages and consumes its leaders’.20

On the socio-economic front, Etzioni restricts his attention to the tensions and conflicts that were occasioned by the rising demands for autonomy, the unintended consequence of dependence and the increased individuation of society. Central to Etzioni’s argument is the belief that, during this period, ‘changes in socioeconomic conditions contributed both to enhancing autonomy – and dependency, and hence the loss of autonomy’.21 This is a somewhat circular argument which rests on the belief that socio-economic policy had not only improved the living conditions of the disadvantaged but had created an unhealthy dependence on governmental support.

With regard to those in work, Etzioni points to the fact that household income was on the increase. But this had less to do with an increase in real income for individuals, and more with a greater financial need or reliance on more than one member of a household having to participate in the labour market. For Etzioni, this ‘development had strong autonomy-reducing effects as more and more members of the family felt they were forced to work outside the household and had severely limited time for other purposes, including family, community, and volunteer action’.22 Accordingly the family – the first institution of Etzioni’s social chain – is seen to be the primary unit to suffer from such divisive trends. The proportion of nuclear families had declined from 42 per cent in 1960 to 26 per cent in 1990, while divorce rates doubled and illegitimacy rose sharply ‘from 21.6 per 1000 births in 1960 to 41.8 in 1989’.23 All of this, the argument goes, reflects a gradual erosion/disintegration of the moral order within society.

At the same time, Etzioni remarks, there was a diversification and fragmentation of American society as a whole. The percentage of non-white and Hispanic Americans more than doubled and the ‘percentage of the population that is foreign born increased from 5.4 percent in 1960 to 7.9 percent in 1990’.24 Racial tensions started to come to the fore. African Americans felt under threat from the continued influx of new immigrants. They resented the special status accorded to new immigrants, and this fueled ‘conflict with Hispanics and Asian Americans’.25 Likewise, men and women were forming distinct groups, growing apart rather than continuing the 1950s’ idyll of two ‘human halves linked together in that basic human wholeness, the natural marital state’.26

In toto, Etzioni sees the 1960s and the 1970s as two decades characterised by a reduction in both coercive means of social control and a reliance on moral suasion to bring people into order. Coercion was seen to be reduced with the repeal of anti-sodomy laws, the gradual removal of abortion from the list of acts punishable by the State, the introduction of ‘no fault’ laws which made divorce even easier, and the diminution of public support for corporal punishment in schools. As for the reduction in moral suasion, Etzioni points to the effects of an upsurge in welfare liberal and laissez-faire conservative ideas as they took their respective turns to replace coercive measures. Traditional values lost much of their power. No strong new values arose, while the notion that one should not be judgemental gained currency to the extent that the ‘rise of the counterculture in the 1960s further weakened the country’s values of hard work and thrift, as well as compliance with moral codes of conduct’.27

Notwithstanding a partial return to coercive law enforcement and a revival in moral condemnation, the 1980s appeared to Etzioni to be worse than the previous two decades. This was not least because the intensification of laissez-faire individualist politics encouraged a culture of job insecurity and social greed which only helped to re-energise the social unrest that had been brewing in the 1960s and 1970s. For Etzioni, the end of the 1980s was the culmination of a growing state of ‘normless anarchy’.28 At its extreme, it was an anarchy epitomised by a lack of moral guidance that led to an increase in violent crime and to ‘movies that romanticize incest, such as Spanking the Monkey; the campaign by NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) to repeal the age of consent for sex; [and] the spread of hard-core pornography and highly offensive sexually violent material’.29 In short, the period was characterised by an unbounded autonomy that remains intolerable to Etzioni and his fellow communitarians.

The 1990s and a ‘curl back’ to social order

Despite all of this, Etzioni maintains, the 1990s, at last, began to curtail the libertarian excesses of the 1980s with a ‘curl back’30 toward societal stability. Not surprisingly, he sees himself and the communitarian movement as instrumental in furthering a moral regeneration designed to restore social order. Although Etzioni pays homage to the enhanced autonomy of many American women and minorities that the 1990s fostered, he still believes that autonomy should be curbed, even if not completely along the lines of America in the 1950s. To that end, he argues: ‘American society requires a functional alternative to traditional virtue: a blend of voluntary order with well-protected yet bounded autonomy.’31 Exactly how this should be done, however, is unclear to those not imbued by the communitarian ethos of today.

Even so, Etzioni and the communitarian movement have set themselves a comprehensive set of aims. They believe that America, and of course other Western societies of similar ‘advancement’, ‘can attain a recommitment to moral values – without puritanical excesses’.32 Law and order can be restored without the creation of a police state. The family can be saved without forcing women to stay at home, while schools can provide an essential moral education without resorting to methods of indoctrination. Concomitantly, a broader inclusion of the private sector alongside an emphasis on the market can enable the individual to become independent of the State yet reciprocally contribute to a thriving community.33 After all, Etzioni asks, is it not ‘better for all who seek work and are able to work to be employed than for some to have high salaries and benefits well protected, only to be taxed in order to pay unemplotment benefits?’34 As a consequence, those who follow Etzioni’s example firmly believe that people can overcome mutual hostilities and begin to live together in communities, since communitarian calls for increased social responsibility do not demean individual rights. Rather, the opposite is believed to be true: ‘strong rights presume strong responsibilities’.35

All-in-all, Etzioni’s is an argument that is convinced by the feeling that a commitment to the community can counter the pursuit of self-interest and unbridled greed. Commitment would not represent a life of self-sacrifice, altruism or austerity. Instead, it would reflect a dedication to the pursuit of ‘legitimate opportunities and socially constructive expressions of self-interest’.36 In the same vein, these new communitarians hold that powerful interest groups can be constrained without limiting the constitutional right of the individual to lobby and petition those empowered to govern. Superficially it is an argument that appears to rearrange ‘the intellectual–political map’37 by offering ‘a Third Way between anarchic individualism and repressive conformity’.38

But is this really the case? Could it be that this Third Way is more akin to repressive conformity than it would care to admit?

Reaching the communitarian ideal

To establish the means through which this new communitarian society will evolve, Etzioni re-emphasises the need to amend the existing imbalance within society. Through the use of a rather simplistic and not entirely representative metaphor, Etzioni constructs a working model as the basis for his continuing argument. His perspective is summed up with the claim that North American – and to a lesser extent British – society is like a stool with three uneven legs, the market and government representing the two longer legs, and community/civil society the third leg. The solution, he argues, is straightforward: simply lengthen the third leg through the propagation of a suitably modernised moral education.39 With the necessary revival of the highly functional institutions of family, school, neighbourhood and community as its aim, this moral education would start with the reassertion of family values, and continue through the support – and reiteration – given during formal education and future life in a vibrant communal atmosphere.

Only in this way, continues Etzioni, can a moral basis for politics be rediscovered. This will provide, restore or nurture a sense of mutual responsibility to individuals. Ultimately, this would result in the creation of a virtuous cycle where the suasion of communities would be seen to ‘gently chastise those who violate shared moral norms and express approbation for those who abide by them’.40 Moreover, this vision of virtue would not confine itself to the sphere of local communities. It would continue to grow and spread nationally or possibly beyond. To underline the point, Etzioni cites the examples of Scotland and Wales. For him, they are countries that have already managed to embrace the communitarian ethic. They demonstrate to all and sundry that it is possible to ‘combine regional identities with society-wide loyalties’.41 They are Etzioni’s proof that new communtarianism is not simply a utopian dream.

Etzioni’s myopic constraints and solutions

Despite this, the more one reads Etzioni’s writings the clearer it becomes that his brand of communitarianism is a highly conservative blueprint for future social relations. Realistically, it is a blueprint ‘built around caricatures and straw men’,42 chosen by Etzioni to construct a highly relativistic argument against errant social configurations. In effect, Etzioni selects polarised extremes in an attempt to substantiate a middle course already determined by his own moral sensibilities. For example, Etzioni’s positive recognition that America in the 1980s gave individuals more autonomy hardly compensates for his exaggerated insinuations that this very same society was liberally tainted by a growing mistrustfulness, increased racial tension, rising street crime, rampant incest (Spanking the Monkey) and homosexual paedophilia (NAMBLA). The fatalistic inference is clear: unbridled autonomy for humankind leads to an extremely distasteful selfish excess.

In opposition, Etzioni’s description of the US in the 1950s offers a picture more congenial to the palate. Notions of a strong sense of duty, shared core values, clearly delineated marital roles, respect for authority and a shared allegiance to the nation state easily overcome the feeling that America in the 1950s may have been overly coercive. For the average reader this latter, more positive, image is the more preferable state of affairs, one which, according to Newman and de Zoysa,43 suggests the stability of a Gemeinschaft where feelings of safety, comfort and a sense of belonging emanate out of face-to-face relationships, dependable values, freely shared norms, respect for standards and a paucity of deviance. It is the antithesis of the violent 1980s’ Gesellschaft image of anxiety, isolation, insecurity and instrumentalistic reasoning. Deliberately, the effect of this comparison is to gently coax the reader into a more receptive disposition toward the society of 1950s’ America.

Having created that impression, it is then easy for Etzioni to appear to build upon – not, he is at pains to point out, a harking back to – the ways of a bygone era, without being accused of nostalgia. He is suggesting, rather, that the cohesive values of American society in the 1950s have to be rekindled in order to curb the excesses of the 1980s, and so complement the advances made in the direction of liberty and independence. In reality, however, the favourable bias towards the past social configuration tends to sway suggested solutions to perceived ills towarda a reassertion of the mores and morals predominant in the 1950s. Hence the re-emphasis on the traditional roles undertaken by the family, education, community and society; hence also the attempt to reassert a moral consciousness capable of persuading individuals to conform to norms appropriate to the capitalism of America’s past.

As was suggested earlier, another example of Etzioni’s social conservatism is evident in the analytical and theoretical devices he deploys to make his case. They are techniques and understandings that are linked to 1950s’ America. Such devices are characteristic of the social functionalism emerging in the USA during that period. In this respect, it is no coincidence that Amitai Etzioni specialised in the functionalist discipline of organisational theory from the 1950s to the 1970s. Importantly, it was a discipline that embedded itself in the capitalist system through its dedication to the improvement of organisational efficiency from within. And, crucially, this discipline rested on the belief that capitalism is the ultimate mode of human cohabitation. Questioning its sovereignty, therefore, was not an issue for the practitioners of such theory.44

Apart from the obvious references in his work to social equilibrium, balance, cohesion, functionality, dysfunctionality and centripetal or centrifugal forces, Etzioni also manages to apply other, less obviously but equally well-worn, organisational models to his examination of society today. In The New Golden Rule, Etzioni informs the reader that ‘all forms of social order draw to some extent on coercive means (such as police and jails), “utilitarian” means (economic incentives generated by public expenditures or subsidies), and normative means (appeals to values, moral education)’.45 This is not a particularly innovative observation. Nor are its assumptions objective. To emphasise the point, one has only to look back to 1973. In trying to trace a path towards ‘a theory of societal guidance’, Etzioni actually used the same analogy to stipulate that social structures are more than just patterns of interactions, expectations and symbols. They are also ‘patterns of allocation of social assets, of the possessions of a social unit [which] can be classified analytically as coercive, utilitarian, and normative, concerning, respectively, the distribution of the capacity to employ means of violence, material objects and services, and symbols (especially values)’.46

In 1961 Etzioni had published A Comparative Analysis of Complex Organizations, a work that also centred around the same analytical triad. There, he attempted to place various organisations into a coercive–utilitarian–normative ‘scheme … to clarify certain problems which emerge from this classificatory endeavor’.47 Organisations, such as concentration camps, prisons and correctional ‘institutions’ were placed within the coercive category since the use of force ‘is the major means of control over lower participants and high alienation characterizes the orientation of most lower participants to the organization’.48 Business unions, farmers’ organisations, and blue- and white-collar industries were said to typify utilitarian organisations in that ‘remuneration is the major means of control over lower participants’49 and calculative involvement distinguishes the orientation of the majority of participants. In contrast, organisations which use normative power as the major source of control over its highly committed ‘lower’ order are typical of religious and ideological movements, hospitals, social unions, voluntary associations, colleges and universities.

This 1961 application of the triad reveals the true character of such analysis. Consistent with organisational theory, it is a triad that is specifically designed to measure and define the degree of social control being exerted in the quest for efficiency and cohesion. In reality, it is about the exertion of power from above and the effectiveness of the response it elicits from the supposedly ‘lower’ participants. By implication, ‘higher’ participants must be the ones wielding the power. Exactly who they are, and how or why they are able to do this, are not the immediate questions; they simply are. Power over others, in some form or other, is deemed a prerequisite. Only the type, character and nature of that power is called into question. Nevertheless, it is this process of questioning that indirectly reveals who is thought best suited to actually wield the power concerned.

Critically, Etzioni’s allegiance to the exertion of power, and to the stratified societal structures of hierarchy that allow for the exertion and distribution of it, is not limited to the study of organisations alone. The very notion of moving ‘toward a theory of societal guidance’ confirms this. Who, for instance, would be responsible for this guidance? What form would it take? Regardless of The New Golden Rule’s later call for open dialogue and the reassertion of a moral voice, the problem of who and how decides what is appropriate, right or wrong still remain. Likewise, problems over the preservation of individual freedom are still not tackled convincingly by Etzioni. Where can a consensus which is not tantamount to majority rule come from? Alternatively, if it is to be a minority voice that is heard, the danger could be that those most articulate would be best placed to determine the values and morals of future society. This, arguably, would fit Etzioni’s tripartite model perfectly. In his eyes, it would be an informed exercise of normative power from above: an exercise that would emanate out of the highly articulate world of academia, which is where, as it happens, Amitai Etzioni practises his communitarian thinking.

What is more, Etzioni’s use of this analytical triangle is in itself a serious – if not a dangerous – limit to the scope and breadth of any proposed solutions to the perceived moral decay. As we have seen, it is a model that encourages the use of linear polarisations to explain the intricacies of society. The ‘problems of social order are thus reduced to finding an almost mythical balance between diametrically opposed dualities’.50 As a result, investigation centres around the need to discover the point at which excessively coercive means can be effectively countered by utilitarian and/or normative means, and the point at which extreme utilitarian means may be countered by normative means alone. Therefore the search for an ‘acceptable’ equilibrium remains confined within the scope of the three power variants. This is not a true representation of social reality. Consequently Etzioni’s call for the regeneration of a moral voice to help restore and strengthen the favoured variant of normative power does not offer a

satisfactory answer to the disintegration of social bonds in . . . advanced societies, for . . . [Etzioni’s] failure to defend the autonomy of individuals produces 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.51

Social order cannot be reduced to simplistic expressions of teleology. One cannot simply detect a normative void and then assume that the missing components can be reinstated or reinvigorated through a recognition of their impotence. Even if they could, Norbert Elias would have been quick to point out that norms should ‘be understood as a superimposed layer of social reality, varying in strength and scope but always partial and derivative’.52 Moreover, Elias firmly believed that these norms should be analysed in terms of shifting power balances and power chances, since a neglect to do so would deny an examination of the fundamental question of ‘how and under what circumstances relationships that are not regulated by norms can be brought under normative control’?53

In essence, such an analysis is not merely Etzioni’s classificatory exercise of deciding which form of power is predominant and which is not. Nor is it a matter of Etzioni’s tacit assumption that norms or rules are universally present from the outset. Rather, it is the recognition that norms and rules emerge out of the social process itself. By implication, this requires an awareness of the effects and consequences of changing political and socio-economic conditions in which multi-farious human interactions are allowed to take place. In other words, norms and rules come and go from within society and cannot simply be applied or removed from without. Only a more ‘processual’ study of human interaction and social developments over a prolonged period would reveal this as distinct from the more ‘snap-shot’ style of comparative analysis indulged in by Etzioni. In truth, the flaws of Etzioni’s analysis undermine the efficacy of the remedy. Etzioni fails to address the possibility that inherent contradictions within the capitalist system have played an integral role in the demise of normative social cohesion.

New Labour’s communitarian myopia

In the light of both Etzioni’s characteristic method and his subsequent failure to address any of the possible contradictions within the socio-economic foundations of society, it has become obvious that this communitarian Third Way is firmly premissed on earlier functionalist interpretations of organisations. As a result, Etzioni restricts his arguments over the creation of a new communitarian society primarily to what he sees as the strengths and weaknesses of the country he has lived in since the 1950s. In this respect, Etzioni’s ‘“New Communitarian Thinking” is myopically North American . . . revealing . . . [a] most informative self-interpretation of the United States. No more, no less.’54 Moreover, by restricting his analysis to American relations of capital, Etzioni provides a micro focus on community that is also short-sighted in that it ‘neglects and denies the importance of differences within communities and among communities, especially among communities in different countries’.55 In sum, Etzioni mistakenly suggests that there is a single identity or a homogeneity of communities and, as a result, is guilty of attempting to impose his own Americanised version of community on the rest of the Western world.

The question remains, however, whether New Labour suffers from a similar form of myopia. Besides its repeated use of the term ‘community’,56 New Labour’s policy drive to reaffirm a sense of community is also permeated by Etzioni’s influence. Without doubt, New Labour wants to reinvigorate the institution of the family57 while also maintaining market relations by giving primacy to paid work.58 Certainly, its moral evaluation of the ‘irresponsible’ welfare claimant has produced a rationale designed to provoke a change of ‘culture’.59 In short, New Labour envisages that its most fundamental task is to instil a sense of responsibility through the principle of welfare ‘conditionality’.60

Given this, it is entirely consistent for New Labour to actively promote the welfare-to-work ‘New Deals’ and to expand the activities of the uncompromising Child Support Agency (CSA). Similarly, the introduction of the working families’ tax credit (WFTC), alongside a ‘National Childcare Strategy’, also adheres to this communitarian logic. Equally, these measures have a judgemental approach. All include notions of obligation and behavioural change; and all signify the importance New Labour attaches to the traditional role of the family.

With the WFTC, the communitarian associations are particularly obvious. Work is inextricably entwined with conceptions of the family. Although the WFTC attempts to give better in-work benefits to both lone-parent and two-parent families in which there is an adult in full-time (sixteen hours or more) low-paid employment,61 there is, nonetheless, the real possibility of a rather perverse consequence. By enabling men with limited earning power to support a non-working wife, the WFTC could help ‘re-establish the male breadwinner model among certain low-income households’.62 Etzioni would not be too disturbed by such a trend. Nor, one suspects, would New Labour, even though its declared aim in this area is to promote the idea that all should be able to combine paid work and family life.

New Labour’s plans for the CSA strengthen this suspicion. In keeping faith with the founding Conservative principle that ‘no father should be able to escape from his responsibility’,63 the CSA under New Labour still maintains its draconian presence. Moreover, despite the failures of this agency New Labour are determined to link its activities with an effort to get lone parents who are on benefit back to work through the relevant New Deal scheme on offer. This, in itself, does not appear to question the family structure. Neither does it suggest that women should stay at home. However, the original – and little heard of – consultation proposal for a male mentoring scheme in the ‘Sure Start’ element of the New Deal for Communities64 betrays New Labour’s thinking. The whole idea of a male mentor for a male child undermines the responsibility of a single mother. It suggests a deep mistrust of a single mother’s ability to cope alone. Instead, emphasis is placed on paid work and the inevitable involvement of others undertaking the necessary child-caring duties.

Similarly, in a follow-up document, New Labour’s intention to ‘improve couples’ decision making about getting married, and to enhance services which prevent marriage breakdown’,65 further substantiates these misgivings. In spite of Driver and Martell’s belief that Supporting Families: Summary of Responses to the Consultation Document66 has a largely pragmatic view on family forms, the proposals given send a rather different message. True to maintaining the ideal of traditional family forms, the proposals recommend: ‘an increased role for registrars in marriage guidance; a statement of the rights and responsibilities of marriage and the ceremony; the restructuring of marriage counselling to place greater stress on saving marriages; and funding for marriage advice centres’.67 The wistful tone, content and intent of the document could easily have come from Etzioni’s review of relationships in 1950s’ America.

On a more general level, all of the ‘New Deals’ put forward by New Labour are designed to promote accepted ‘mainstream’ values and to inculcate a change in perceived behaviour. The four options – work with an employer who will receive a job subsidy of up to £60 per week; full-time education or training; work with a voluntary sector organisation; or work on the Environmental Taskforce68 – are put forward to provide individuals with ‘opportunities’ to gain more independence – and responsibility – in their ‘escape’ from poverty, dependence and the age-old Gesellschaft interpretations of life in the supposed ‘underclass’.69 Crucially, work is presented as the principal channel for social cohesion, since paid work is ‘the main means of integration’.70 As such, work is seen specifically as ‘a route to an adequate income, social networks and personal fulfilment’. Therefore ‘[a]ttachment to the labour market … is the key to breaking the vicious cycle of long-term unemployment and social exclusion’.71

Effectively, the whole scenario represents a graphic example of Etzioni’s social engineering and sociological position. Quite simply, New Labour sees work, the family, community and ‘schooling’ as the bedrock for social development. As part of a virtuous cycle, families are seen primarily as institutions of social control and social welfare. They are ‘where the difference between right and wrong is learned, and where a sense of mutual obligation is founded and practised’;72 and it is ‘largely from family discipline that social discipline and a sense of responsibility is learned’.73

In support, education at school, at work and in the wider society provides more discipline and a further reinforcement of the basic values taught in the family. Finally (in a chronological sense), paid work and participation in the market generate responsibility, a moral sensibility, a feeling of belonging and, ultimately, stimulate the growth of a comforting and supportive community which, for New Labour, ‘is not some piece of nostalgia [since community] means what we share, it means working together’.74 In this way, the cycle of virtue is perpetuated as the community complements familial relations. Yet this reflects a negligently myopic position. As with Etzioni, the competitive and destructive machinations of capitalism are overlooked in their entirety. In contrast, an appreciation of these negative features of capitalism can reveal the first clues to the possible impotence, and failure, of this policy direction. After all, the same contradictions that beset and bedevil Etzioni’s social diagnoses of the past – and, indeed of the present – remain as formidable obstacles in the social workings of the UK today.

One major concern, is that the combination of supply-side labour reforms75 and the underpinning education, training and retraining principles that encapsulate the New Deal scenarios can have disastrous consequences. New Labour’s call for education to go beyond the realms of academia and re-equip the British workforce to be more flexible (geographically as well as socially) and globally competitive76 completely overlooks the problems surrounding job availability. While such innovations could well lead to the successful provision of a larger, more skilled workforce, if employment opportunities are limited competition for employment will intensify and the effects of an immiserisation process will still persist. Only this time, the unemployed may well possess more skills and greater levels of education. All the hours spent training in the aspirational pursuit of ‘opportunity’ could easily become a constant source of disenchantment and frustration. Moreover, the increasing availability of a reserve army of skilled labour would allow for some employers to reduce skilled wage levels much in the same manner as they have done to the unskilled workforce.

In the face of this cynical view of society-wide competition, exploitation, alienation and the possibility that high-skilled immiserization77 could actually broaden the demographic composition of the ‘underclass’, it becomes less and less clear how New Labour hopes to stimulate a deep sense of community. Etzioni’s call to redress individual rights with a collective responsibility could not be fulfilled under these conditions. In fact, the continuation of, let alone the possibility of an increase in, social exclusion can reflect only an imbalance in the opposite direction: an imbalance that could actually undermine the rights of the jobless poor and those with underpaid work in the name of competitive responsibility. This would be a direct contradiction of Tony Blair’s declared mission to develop a better society around a community spirit built on a reduction in the ‘moral and economic evil’78 surrounding the ‘underclass’. In sum, these formidable contradictions may well consign the New Deals’ gift of ‘opportunity’ to the realms of fantasy rather than reality.

Betwixt two stools: a conclusion

By way of a conclusion, it is worth noting that New Labour’s methodological approach to the problems facing British society displays similar failings to that of Etzioni. With a description of the communitarian dimensions of New Labour, Driver and Martell79 provide a useful insight. In an approach which reflects New Labour’s, Driver and Martell place the policies of New Labour within the confines of six polarities. Pluralist approaches are set against conformist; more conditional against less conditional; progressive against conservative; prescriptive against voluntary; moral against socio-economic, and individual against corporate. As with Etzioni, the resulting prescription is clearly limited by the chosen polarities.

Again we see an inherent bias arising out of the portrayed images. Individual responsibility is seen as the answer to the threat posed by a growing ‘underclass’; a work-centred communal morality is preferred to hedonistic individuality and materialism; while the ‘job of Government is neither to suppress markets nor to surrender to them but to equip people, companies and countries to succeed within them’.80 As this chapter has shown, the socio-economic consequences of capitalism are not addressed. Moreover, it has become increasingly clear that the creation of a nationwide sense of community would simply founder in the face of rising job insecurity, flexible working practices, fewer welfare rights and an increasing need to be socially and geographically mobile.

Put simply, The Spirit of Community under these conditions would have to be so flexible that it would be unable to provide any lasting social cohesion. It would be impossible to generate a united communal voice from a conception of community that had to mean different things to different people in different places, at different times. As a result, the Third Way politics of New Labour can only emulate Etzioni’s failings by imposing its own personal vision of community.


1 Prideaux 2001.
2 Heron 2001.
3 Powell et al.2001.
4 Deacon 2002.
5 See also Deacon and Mann 1997, 1999; and Driver and Martell 2002.
6 Levitas 1998.
7 Driver and Martell 1998: 29.
8 Giddens 1994.
9 See Allen 1975.
10 Deacon 2002.
11 Etzioni 1998: x.
12 Ibid.
13 Etzioni 1997: xviii.
14 Ibid., p. 61.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid., p. 63.
17 Ibid., p. 65.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid., p. 66.
21 Ibid., p. 67.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid., p. 68.
24 Ibid.
25 Ibid.
26 D. Miller and M. Novak (1977) The Fifities: The Way We Really Were, quoted Etzioni 1997: 62.
27 Etzioni 1997: 64.
28 Ibid., p. 72.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid., p. 73.
31 Ibid.
32 Etzioni 1995a: 1.
33 Heron 2001.
34 Etzioni 2000: 46.
35 Etzioni 1995a: 1.
36 Ibid., p. 2.
37 Etzioni 1997: 7.
38 Levitas 1998: 90.
39 Campbell 1995.
40 Etzioni 1995: ix.
41 Etzioni 1995b.
42 Skoble 1998: 44.
43 Newman and de Zoysa 1997.
44 See Allen 1975.
45 Etzioni 1997: 13.
46 Etzioni 1973: 151.
47 Etzioni 1973: 26.
48 Ibid., p. 27.
49 Ibid., p. 31.
50 Prideaux 2002: 78.
51 Bowring 1997: 51.
52 Arnason 1987: 435.
53 Elias 1970: 435.
54 Bauer 1997: 73.
55 Ibid.
56 In a controversial and much heckled speech to the Women’s Institute on 8 June 2000, Tony Blair made eighteen allusions.
57 Barlow and Duncan 1999; Driver and Martell 2002; Fox Harding 2000.
58 Levitas 1998.
59 Deacon 2002; Deacon and Mann 1997 and 1999; Department of Social Security 1998.
60 Dwyer 1998, 2000a and 2000b; Heron and Dwyer 1999.
61 Dean and Shah 2002.
62 Dean 2002: 6.
63 Margaret Thatcher quoted in Timmins 1996: 452.
64 Home Office 1998.
65 Driver and Martell 2002: 51.
66 Home Office 1999.
67 Driver and Martell 2002: 51.
68 DSS 1998.
69 See Bauman 1998; Bagguley and Mann 1992; Campbell 1995; Etzioni 1995a, 1997 and 2000; Mann 1992; Murray 1984.
70 Levitas 1996: 13.
71 Ibid., p. 14.
72 Mandelson and Liddle 1996: 125.
73 Blair 1994: 47–8.
74 Blair 1996: 64.
75 Driver and Martell 1998.
76 DfEE 1998.
77 Prideaux 2001.
78 Blair 1996: 59.
79 Driver and Martell 1997.
80 Labour’s Economic Policy Commission 1995: 14.


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The Third Way and beyond

Criticisms, futures, alternatives



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