Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Communitarianism

What Money Can’t Buy. Michael Sandel. A Socialist Review.

with 3 comments


What Money Can’t Buy. Michael Sandel. The Moral Limits of Markets.   Allen Lane. 2012.

Conservative MP, Ben Gummer (Ipswich), believes that owning a business should give you an extra vote in municipal elections. Local councillors too often “cannot read a balance sheet”. Towns and cities need to be run by those who can. Following the City of London there should be special electoral privileges given to companies and their owners. This would help councils face economic reality.

It’s hard not to be reminded of this when reading Michael Sandel’s new book. The philosopher notes that “Today, almost everything is up for sale”. In Santa Ana California you can by a “prison cell upgrade” to make your time in goal more comfortable. You can get into a top university by paying, passing ahead of those with better grades.

“Jumping the queue” with cash, for everything from airport immigration control, theatre tickets to medical care, is spreading like wildfire across the USA. These, and other aspects of “marketisation”, from corporations benefiting from ‘insuring’ their employees lives, to rampant advertising and ‘sponsorship’, are part of a world where “everything is up for sale”.

Sandel is less sure-footed about the UK. Here people have, despite the NHS, been able to pay to jump the queue for medical needs; public schools offer a way to buy an education that guarantees far superior access to Universities.

But there are signs that the process is not so different.

Conservative councils, like Barnet, propose offering better services and quicker access to those who can fork out cash. Companies and others have been able to purchase influence over Academy Schools. Now ‘free schools’ are a way for those with the money to get state support for their educational projects, including private firms and religious groups. Payment extends to lesser affairs. To urinate in a Council (though privately run) lavatory in Westminster costs 50 pence, leaving the really poor to piss in the streets.

Markets and Queues.

“Markets and queues – paying and waiting – are two different ways of allocating things…” Sandel writes. There is an “ethic of the queue” It is, ‘First come, first served’. It “ignores privilege, power and “deep pockets”. There is a deep resentment against anybody who refuses to wait her or his turn. It is, one might say, justice as fairness. Read the rest of this entry »


Against Communitarianism.

with 3 comments


Against Communitarianism.

A Critical Review:  Justice. What’s the Right Thing to Do? Michael J. Sandel. Allen Lane. 2009.

Michael Sandel is a ‘communitarian’. A critic of political and economic liberalism and its building block, the private “unencumbered individual”. An advocate of the common good based on “situated” selves. In the Reith Lectures of 2009, Sandel threw caution about transposing a version of US history to a different European context to the wind. He announced that, “renunciation of moral and religious argument in politics in the decades following World War ll, prepared the way for the market triumphalism of the past three decades.” This must be remedied. In place of a framework of neutral law and secular politics we should engage in substantive debate about the good society – including within this those who argue in terms of the sacred. Or as he puts it in Justice, “a politics of moral engagement”. One that, in contrast to the liberal and secularist hostility to religion, is “more capacious faith-friendly form of public reason.” Issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, patriotism, stem-cell research, the ‘moral limits of markets’, and redistributive taxation, imply, inevitably, “moral and religious controversies” that should not be kept out of the civic domain. Indeed they reveal “moral ties” that are bound up with the striving for a better life.

In many respects Justice is an expanded version of Sandel’s best known book, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982). This – an extended critique of John Rawls’ egalitarian liberal A Theory of Justice (1972) – put forward the notion of justice as “constitutive”. That is, made up by people’s “shared self-understandings” of their “attachments”. He concluded that with this type of politics, “we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.” The present text, which “accompanies” his “legendary” Justice course at Harvard University, is directed at a less specialist audience. As such it often resembles the curriculum of those Great Thinkers DVDs one sees advertised in the New York Review of Books. There are chapters on Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill), neo-liberalism (Milton Friedman), market-libertarianism (Robert Nozick), political liberalism (Kant, John Rawls), and an interpretation of Aristotle, associated with fellow communitarian (Catholic and one-time New Leftist) Alasdair MacIntyre. Along the way, he spins folksy anecdotes or as he calls them, from MacIntyre, “story telling” (about, amongst others, car repair-men, and baseball players) to make his case. Whose tendency to run to blandness is enlivened by a dose of some Tabasco Sauce – a plea for citizenship beyond the logic of the market, and for the pious to play an important role in defining our “sense of community.”

With its appeal to religious ethics seriously, it is hardly surprising that Justice has found admirers in faith communities. These range from enthusiasts for ‘social’ Christianity to Islamists, desperate to find someone who recognises the value of their calls to divinely grounded Justice. Some former leftists flaying around for support for their claim that key alliances must be made with believers on issues of communal injustice might be equally seduced. No doubt there will be also Third Wayers who are drawn back to Tony Blair’s brief flirtation with another – much more woozy – communitarian, Amitai Etzioni. And whatever it was is he said about mutual obligations in “responsive communities”. Much of Sandel’s “exhilarating journey” (blurb) is more wide-ranging. As already described, it is a History of Great Ideas: of Freedom, Ethics and the Good Life illustrated by Burning Issues of the Day. It is by examining them that Justice attempts to demonstrate that the “demands of solidarity” raise topics where religious, and other heart-felt, moralities’ voice should be heard. They should be part of the “narrative conception of moral agency”.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Andrew Coates

March 8, 2010 at 12:23 pm