keep rowing: amitai etzioni and history

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    Keep Rowing: Amitai Etzioni and History

    Jonathan Marks

    Published online: 3 July 2014

    # Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

    Abstract Reflecting on themost recent stage of his career, thecommunitarian, Amitai Etzioni, gives three reasons for whathe perceives as his loss of influence. First, the media prefers anargument between strongly opposed positions, but Etzioni isneither liberal nor conservative. Second, the media prefersspecialized intellectuals, but Etzioni has refused to stick tohis knitting. Third, Etzioni has taken an unpopular, dovishposition on China. I argue that Etzioni is mistaken about thereasons for his and communitarianisms rise and perceived falland offer a more optimistic assessment than he does of thepotential influence of his thought. I use this local problem ofhistorical interpretation to question Etzionis global interpre-tation of modern history.

    Keywords Communitarianism . Etzioni . Contemporarypolitical theory . Political theory . Neoconservatism .


    I first had the pleasure of conversingwithAmitai Etzioni in 2000.He trackedme down after I published a review of JamesDavisonHunters The Death of Character: Moral Education in a WorldWithout Good and Evil. I was beginningmy career. Amitais noterequesting a conversation made no reference to the review andwas so flattering that I was certain he had me confused withanother Jonathan Marks, the distinguished Yale University an-thropologist. I wrote him back to that effect. I may even havepassed along that other Jonathans e-mail address. Fortunately forme, Amitai persisted. Eventually we published a dialogue oncommunitarianism and classical liberalism together.1

    At least a few things are notable about that initial encounter.First, Amitai, who is no conservative read The WeeklyStandard.2 Second, Amitai is glad to test his ideas againstpeople who object to them. My review had said a number ofunflattering and, in retrospect, unfair things about communi-tarian character education. And although I never wrote there-after anything in unmixed praise of communitarianism,Amitai continued to invite me to conferences and otherwisechampion my work. Third, Amitai was either very kind tonovices or unmindful of distinctions of academic rank. Heseemed as happy to tangle with me as he was to tangle withheavyweights like Robert George and Roger Scruton.

    Amitai read and acted on my review during a year in whichhe also found time to publish some 30 articles and opinionpieces on matters ranging from Israel, to the Internet, to publicritual, to moral dialogues. Three years later, in My BrothersKeeper: A Memoir and a Message, he would write that thehourglass is almost empty.3 Since then, he has written sevenbooks and about 278 shorter pieces which, far from simplyrepeating what he was saying when I met him, address, amongother things, Somali piracy, the Tea Party, and drone warfare. Iam leaving out his blog and the fact that, according to a recentpublication, he is weighing the suggestion of his youngcolleagues that he learn to boil his thoughts down to tweets,though he is not inclined to stream, beam, and scream.4

    Let me begin with that recent publication, My Kingdomfor a Wave. In it, Etzioni again declares that the hourglass isalmost empty, reflects on the remarkable rise of the commu-nitarian wavelet he helped set in motion and guide, and

    1Etzioni, Amitai and Jonathan Marks. Summer 2003. Communitarian-

    ism and Classical Liberalism: A Dialogue. The Responsive Community13:3: 5060.

    2 As Wilson Carey McWilliams has observed, Etzionis communitarian-ism, its genuine middle way aspirations notwithstanding, leans decid-edly to the left of center (Wilson Carey McWilliams. Spring/Summer2004. The Journey of a True Communitarian. The ResponsiveCommunity 14:2: 99.3 Etzioni, Amitai. 2003.My Brothers Keeper: A Memoir and a Message(Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield), 405.4 Etzoni, Amitai.Winter 2014. MyKingdom for aWave. The AmericanScholar 83:1, 38.

    J. Marks (*)Department of Politics, Ursinus College, Collegeville, PA 19426,USAe-mail:

    Soc (2014) 51:362368DOI 10.1007/s12115-014-9793-y

  • considers the causes of what he calls his gradual loss of amegaphone.My Kingdom as a Wave offers a mini-historythat I will use as a jumping off point for further reflections onhistory, including the history of Etzionis thought, the reasonsfor the rise and tapering off of the communitarian movement,and, more briefly, the role of history in Etzionis thought. I willrespectfully disagree with Etzonis thoughts on history but Ihope to do so in a way that offers a more optimistic assessmentthan his of the reach and relevance of his message.

    In the Preface of The Active Society, the book that an-nounced him as a major thinker, Etzioni imagines society asan ocean liner propelled by an outboard motor, requiring notonly more drive but also reconstruction while continuing tosail the high seas.5 More than 40 years later, reflecting on theend of his career, Etzioni imagines himself in a rowboat,pulling at the oars, no matter how small my boat, howeverbig or choppy the sea.6 How does Etzioni get from one boatto the other?

    We will get to how Etzioni thinks it happened. But first,lets consider a different account, offered by the politicaltheorist Patrick Deneen, of Etzionis move from ocean linersto rowboats. Deneen has argued that the ocean liner is aninsistently modern metaphor. When ancient political philos-ophers like Plato wrote about a ship of state, they directedattention to the internal elements of the ship, particularly thecharacter and relationships among the sailors qua citizens.Moderns, like David Hume, in contrast attended especially toexternal structures both because they wanted to avoid thepotential oppressiveness that comes from character forma-tion and because they had a greater belief in the possibilityof humanmastery than the ancients did. An ocean liner pliesthe seas virtually without obstacle; assuming human techni-cians add the requisite drive and reconstruct the ship, we canexpect that it will be nearly invincible in its power andperpetual on account of its superb design and workmanship.By using the ocean liner metaphor, Etzioni declares himselfconsummately modern, betting on the transformative powerof social science knowledge rather than on civic educationand moral knowledge. Although the active society must be,as Etzioni puts it, responsive, the capacity to change oursocial combinations, for people to change themselves andbe the creator depends on the new social science.7

    As Deneen observes, Etzioni already imagines himself in avery different kind of boat by the time he writes BrothersKeeper, which came out in 2003, the same kind that appears inMy Kingdom for a Wave. Reflecting on the problems the

    world faces in the newmillennium, he recalls a proverb that hehas always misremembered (I will come later to what hemisremembers): Oh lord, the sea is so large and my oar isso small.8 Deneen thinks that Etzioni, in part because of hisdisappointment with 1960s student activism, has come toembrace a chastened vision of human community that ad-vance[s] a recognition of limits, the reining in of the dream ofcontrol and mastery, and . . . a profound sense of the tragicdimension of human existence.9 This move to what Etzionidubbed communitarianism is his second sailing, one under-taken humbly in a small boat, rather than grandly in an oceanliner.

    But Deneen is wrong, at least in part about the ocean liner,which is already a symbol not only of our power but of theconstraints on it. Societies, like ocean liners, are difficult tomaneuver once they get moving. As Etzioni puts it, albeitmore than two decades after the publication of The ActiveSociety, society is like an ocean liner. It doesnt turn on adime.10 More tellingly, since this statement comes muchnearer in time to The Active Society, Etzioni compares societyas an ocean liner to something much more maneuverable, atorpedo, and makes it abundantly clear, that as for Plato,reconstructing the ship does involve the ships internal ele-ments, the relationships among the sailors, as well as theirfeelings, preferences, values, and interests. The latter must beconsidered for both normative and practical reasons.Unliketorpedoes and other technical systems those elements subjectto review and signaling in a society are not dead matter butindividuals and groups of persons.

    Indeed, reconstruction of the ship mean not simply tendingto external structures (e.g. institutional mechanisms) but tohow the people on the ship will determine its course. Thisidea, far from being secondary is the precise meaning of theocean liner metaphor.

    The core metaphor is of society as an ocean liner pro-pelled by an undersized engine; thus it partly drifts withthe ocean current and is partly self-propelled. Mean-while, a struggle goes on among the decks . . . overwhere the various groups of passengers want the ship togo and over how the deck privileges will be allocatedand by whom. The result is that the ship itself is contin-ually being restructured as it sails the high seas. Sailingthe ship safely into port is clearly more than a matter ofcorrectly determining latitude and longitude and work-ing the rudder; it has to entail finding ways to reduce thestruggle among the passengers and between the passen-gers and crew and finding a means for everyone to5 Etzioni, Amitai. 1968. The Active Society: A Theory of Societal and

    Political Processes (New York: The Free Press), x-xi.6 Etzioni, Wave, 38.7 Deneen, Patrick. 2006. From the Active Society to the Good Society:The Second Sailing of Amitai Etzioni. In The Active Society Revisited.Ed. Wilson Carey Mc Williams (Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield),31118.

    8 Etzioni, Brothers Keeper, 362.9 D


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