Keep Rowing: Amitai Etzioni and History

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<ul><li><p>SYMPOSIUM: THE ACHIEVEMENT OFAMITAI ETZIONI</p><p>Keep Rowing: Amitai Etzioni and History</p><p>Jonathan Marks</p><p>Published online: 3 July 2014</p><p># Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014</p><p>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.</p><p>Keywords Communitarianism . Etzioni . Contemporarypolitical theory . Political theory . Neoconservatism .</p><p>Tocqueville</p><p>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</p><p>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.</p><p>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</p><p>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</p><p>1Etzioni, Amitai and Jonathan Marks. Summer 2003. Communitarian-</p><p>ism and Classical Liberalism: A Dialogue. The Responsive Community13:3: 5060.</p><p>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 &amp; Littlefield), 405.4 Etzoni, Amitai.Winter 2014. MyKingdom for aWave. The AmericanScholar 83:1, 38.</p><p>J. Marks (*)Department of Politics, Ursinus College, Collegeville, PA 19426,USAe-mail: jmarks@ursinus.edu</p><p>Soc (2014) 51:362368DOI 10.1007/s12115-014-9793-y</p></li><li><p>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.</p><p>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?</p><p>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</p><p>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</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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.</p><p>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</p><p>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.</p><p>8 Etzioni, Brothers Keeper, 362.9 Deneen, 318, 320.10 Henderson, Keith. April 19, 1993. Advocate for a Changing Society.The Christian Science Monitor.</p><p>Soc (2014) 51:362368 363</p></li><li><p>participate in reaching an agreement about the shipsfuture course.11</p><p>More broadly, as Deneen acknowledges, Etzioni rejects thevoluntaristic view that a societal actor can remold theworld at will or what he also calls the Enlightenment con-ception of knowledge and willpower as the movers of societalmountains.12 For one thing, there are basic human needs,from survival, to recognition, to self-actualization, that imposelimits on social control. Etzionis example is the failure of theUSSR, after 50 years, to change the behavior of its people:the needs manifested in the behavior of the average Russianare surprisingly similar to those of theWestern person.13 Thisclaim is no afterthought; retrospectively, Etzioni views it asthe most important social philosophical position taken in TheActive Society.14</p><p>Etzioni, in other words, comes pre-chastened. And whileDeneen is right to find in him the spirit of confident modernity,he neglects Etzionis deep doubts about modernitys blessings:a central characteristic of the modern period has been con-tinued increase in the efficacy of the technology of productionwhich poses a growing challenge to the primacy of the valuesthese means are supposed to serve. More recent develop-ments in genetics and the chemical control of behavior expandthe freedom to choose but also make possible the choice todestroy everything, including freedom.15 Whether we willavoid dystopian possibilities remains to be seen. As Etzionisays in a different context, whether we will have a relativelyegalitarian and responsive society or a deeply inegalitarianand barely responsive society, depends in part on historicalforces beyond our personal and possibly collective control.16</p><p>This doubt explains what Wilson Carey McWilliams hascalled the edge of desperation that balances the optimismof the Active Society. When you consider that, in the rowboatmetaphor, Etzioni is not a whole society but a single publicintellectual, struggling to set in motion a movement capable ofanswering this frightening challenge, it is no wonder that he isrowing pretty hard.</p><p>Lets return to Etzionis misremembered proverb. Here iswhat Etzioni says about it:</p><p>I thought that the fishermans prayer was Oh God, thesea is so large and my oar is so small. When I was toldthat the prayer speaks of a small boat, not an oar, I askedmyself why I misremembered it in this particular way.The original text seems to concern someone who is</p><p>cowed by the sea, who fears being overwhelmed by itsmighty squalls. My fear is that I would not travel farenough, would not deliver what I was destined todeliver.17</p><p>Just as Etzionis ocean liner metaphor, which may appearoverconfident, is more cautious than it seems, Etzionis row-boat metaphor is more confident than it seems; whereas theoriginal proverb suggests fear that the boat cant be steered,the misremembered proverb suggests fear only that there willnot be enough time to complete the trip.</p><p>In the Active Society and Etzionis later writings, then, wefind the same combination of high purpose and caution. Theplacement of the rowboat metaphor as used in aMy BrothersKeeper Illustrates the point perfectly; it arises, in a chapterentitled Tomorrow, the World? just as Etzioni is contem-plating finding and promoting some form of global gover-nance, a goal he first espoused in The Active Society. Com-munitarianism is not a departure from but a working out, in theform of a social movement, of the goals of the Active Society.One last illustration must suffice. Deneen sees Etzionis em-brace of post-material values as a fundamental departurefrom the heady identification of power and knowledge thatmarked the Active Society. But the move away from materi-alism is already announced in The Active Society. Etzionisupposes that in such a society, as in the Greek city states,the status of political and intellectual activity combined [will]approximate the status of economic processes in modernsocieties. In Social Problems, Etzioni adds the search forgreater insight into self and better relations with others as oneof the strongest candidates to replace the materialisticproject.18</p><p>I have established, I think, Etzionis consistency, that hedoes not find himself in a rowboat instead of an ocean linerbecause an early hubris has been replaced with a sense oftragedy.19 It remains to consider why he thinks he is in such arowboat or, to be more precise, why he is having hard timecatching a wave.</p><p>Reflecting on the wavelet that brought communitarian-ism to prominence in the 1990s, Etzioni uses another vehicu-lar metaphor. Societies, he says, are like cars with loosesteering wheels; we keep steering them so far to the left orright that their course often must be corrected, which leads toovercorrectionwhich itself calls for still more course adjust-ments. To stick, for the sake of simplicity, to the UnitedStates, President Reaganwas elected in part as a conservative</p><p>11 Etzioni, Amitai. 1976. Social Problems (Englewood Cliffs, NJ).12 Etzioni, The Active Society, 68; Social Problems, 170.13 Etzion...</p></li></ul>