From the Active Society to the Good Society:
The Second Sailing of Amitai Etzioni
Patrick J. Deneen
Princeton University (now Georgetown)
Among the most ancient and evocative metaphors for human community – be it a polis, the State, or society – is that of a ship. “Ship of State” is a phrase commonly invoked to capture the sense of common undertaking among citizens, the concomitant intimation of a common destination, as well as the awareness of peril that threatens any sea-bound vessel.
While invocations of the image of a “ship” as a symbol for society are common throughout western political thought, there is a broad but fundamental distinction that might be thought to divide ancient from modern conceptions of “ship” as society. For the ancients, the invocation of the ship metaphor more often directed attention toward the internal elements of the ship, particularly the character and relationships among the “sailors” qua citizens. Alternatively, for moderns, the invocation more often pointed to the ship itself – the elements of its construction, its condition, its course. For the ancients, the excellence of a “ship” was primarily determined by the excellence of character (ethos) or soul (psyche); for the moderns, attentiveness to external structures reflect both the modern inclination to avoid the potential oppressiveness that comes from character-formation, as well as a greater belief in the possibility of human mastery and dominion.
A characteristic, indeed foundational, invocation of the ship image is one of the rightly famous images amid the description of the “city in speech” in Plato’s Republic. Socrates describes the baleful condition of most cities because of a certain inattentiveness to the arts of ruling and right order:
Conceive something of this kind happening either on many ships or one. Though the shipowner surpasses everyone on board in height and strength, he is rather deaf and likewise somewhat shortsighted, and his knowledge of seamanship is pretty much on the same level. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the piloting, each supposing he ought to pilot, although he has never learned the art…. Enchaining the noble shipowner with mandrake, drink, or something else, they rule the ship, using what’s in it; and drinking and feasting, they sail as such men would be thought likely to sail…. They don’t know that for the true pilot it is necessary to pay careful attention to year, seasons, heaven, stars, winds, and everything that’s proper to the art, if he’s really going to be skilled at ruling a ship.
In a similar vein, if characteristically less hierarchical, Aristotle also compared the city to a ship, and more importantly, the citizenry to its complement of sailors in the Politics:
Like a sailor, a citizen is someone who shares in community with others. And although sailors are unlike in their capacities (for one is a rower, another a helmsman, another a lookout man, and another has some other such title), it is clear that … there will be some common account that fits them all. For they all have as their work the safety of the voyage. In like manner, then, the citizens, though being dissimilar to each other, have the safety of the community as their work….
Both these examples, drawn from constitutive works in the ancient tradition, attest to the attentiveness paid by ancient thinkers to the quality and relationships of the individuals and community on the ship, and concomitantly less emphasis upon the ship itself. For Plato, such ships, like most cities, are ill-governed and chaotic precisely because the ruling arts are not recognized by most ordinary people, and one who would practice them, a “true pilot,” is considered by the rabble to be “a stargazer, a prater, and useless to them by those who sail on ships run like this” (489a). The Republic’s recommendation of the “philosopher-king” is an attempt to bring proper order toward the end of creating the good city, and hence, by implication, a well-managed ship. Aristotle, not altogether differently, views the division of labor aboard the “ship of state” to be a sign not most fundamentally of civic divisiveness, but rather as a source of strength for the common enterprise of the preservation of the regime. These accounts are characteristic of the ancients in their emphasis upon the dispositions, qualities, even souls of the “sailors.” The condition of the ship is secondary to the character of and relationships among its “crew.”
Modern political thought frequently alludes to the “ship of state,” but often with more attentiveness to the ship itself rather than its crew. A characteristic modern articulation of the greater importance of structure over “character” is expressed by David Hume in his essay “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” in which Hume relates that European mathematicians have been divided over “that figure of a ship, which is the most commodious for sailing…,” and proposes in this regard that “it must be advantageous to know what is the most perfect in the kind, that we may be able to bring any real constitution or form of government as near as it is possible….”
Reflecting Enlightenment confidence of the human ability to navigate, and conquer, nature, Thomas Jefferson emphasized the structure of the ship over its sailors: “The storm through which we have passed, has been tremendous indeed. The tough sides of our Argosie have been thoroughly tried. Her strength has stood the waves into which she was steered, with a view to sink her. We shall put her on a republican tack, & she will show by the beauty of her motion the skill of her builders.” The image of the modern state as near-impervious ship is captured most characteristically in the confident rhythms of the final stanza of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “O Ship of State”:
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
We know what Master laid thy keel,
What Workmen wrought thy ribs of steel,
Who made each mast, and sail, and rope,
What anvils rang, what hammers beat,
In what a forge and what a heat
Were shaped the anchors of thy hope!
Fear not each sudden sound and shock,
'Tis of the wave and not the rock;
'Tis but the flapping of the sail,
And not a rent made by the gale!
In spite of rock and tempest's roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee.
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er our fears,
Are all with thee, are all with thee!
These images portray the modern ship of state – particularly the consummately modern regime of America – as nearly invincible in its power and perpetual on account of its superb design and workmanship. Even images that take into account modern man’s purportedly more modest sense of human potential nevertheless evoke, if only as an undercurrent, persistent belief in the prospects of human mastery. The ship image that haunts the modern belief of its mastery and dominion is, inexorably, the Titanic, capsized in apparent contradiction to its proud claims of invincibility. Yet even in this evident warning against the hubris of modern man, the Titanic’s mythology is just as often invoked to remind us of the possibility of that its downfall was not, most fundamentally, the failing of the ship (or of a similar ship properly designed), but of its flawed human creators who might, absent their penchant for corruption or by means of further technological improvement, be capable of yet creating an unsinkable ship.
Amitai Etzioni begins his pathbreaking 1968 book The Active Society with a nautical image that, he says, accompanied him throughout: “The image which often appeared to me as these pages were written was that of an ocean liner propelled by an outboard motor, requiring not only more drive but also reconstruction while continuing to sail the high seas.” His image is insistently modern in its emphasis upon the ship, and especially so by dint of its appeal to the motorized and massive “ocean liner,” a vessel that plies the sea virtually without obstacle, one vastly larger than almost all other man-made objects afloat. The Active Society, Etzioni alerts us by means of this introductory image, is consummately modern. Its orientation, thus, might be said to focus more upon activity than the condition of the “crew,” or the members of society, as such. One labors largely in vain to find in its pages a discussion of the necessary character of the citizenry of an “active society,” or recommendations of forms of civic education or moral culture that would be necessary to cultivate and sustain such a citizenry. Rather, one sees its strongly modern orientation, in particular, in Etzioni’s equation of “knowledge and power,” and in his continual insistence upon the necessity of “transformation.”
Absent among the hundreds of names that appear in the index of The Active Society is Francis Bacon, although his presence is certainly evident in spirit if not in fact. Bacon is among the first thinkers in the Western tradition to equate power and knowledge: “knowledge is power,” he wrote in 1597. For Bacon, power could be augmented especially by means of scientific investigation into nature, and further, the alteration and manipulation of nature by means of “discoveries and inventions.” Nature is, if most obviously humankind’s unwitting antagonist, nevertheless also a vast storehouse of potential remedies for the very challenges posed by nature itself. Bacon advanced a conception of science that emphasized control of nature – to the extent possible – as a means to securing and extending power in all domains. As he wrote in the explanation of his essay “Proteus” in The Wisdom of the Ancients – an updating of the ancient myths in which the myths reveal the wisdom of scientific advancement – science could extract nature’s secrets by force in a manner akin to the Inquisitor:
For the universe, with the common structures and fabrics of the creatures, is the face of matter, not under constraint, or as the flock wrought upon and tortured by human means. But if any skilful minister of nature shall apply force to matter, and by design torture and vex it, in order to its annihilation, it, on the contrary, being brought under this necessity, changes and transforms itself into a strange variety of shapes and appearances; for nothing but the power of the Creator can annihilate, or truly destroy it; so that at length, running through the whole circle of transformations, and completing its period, it in some degree restores itself, if the force be continued. And that method of binding, torturing, or detaining, will prove the most effectual and expeditious, which makes use of manacles and fetters; that is, lays hold and works upon matter in the extremest degrees.
Science, seen as an enterprise by means of which knowledge continually expanded and power was constantly extended, undergirded the definitively modern tenet that Bacon, perhaps among the earliest if not also most fervent of early modern thinkers, advanced – namely, the belief in progress. Progress was conceived to be possible not only in the material sphere alone, but, as human knowledge and power expanded, in the moral realm as well. In this sense, Bacon viewed his own project as fundamentally transformative of the human condition, even to the extent that humankind would return to the prelapsarian condition in which alienation from other humans, nature, and the divine could be overcome, and humankind’s original “power” could be restored.
Etzioni stresses the importance of knowledge as a means of increasing power to control of societal processes: “To know is to have power, and social knowledge is a source of power over society…” (AS, 15). In The Active Society, Etzioni – like Bacon before him – places his hopes for the expansion of knowledge, and hence, an increase in power and societal activity, in the practices of science and scientists, albeit now the social sciences. Knowledge, qua power, is thus “the propellant of transformation” (AS, 201). The aim of the “active society” is the transformation of society and all of its members:
In the process of societal activation, not only do more people gain a share in the society, thereby reconstituting its structure, but the members themselves are also transformed…. Mankind is continually redefining itself…. A general will exists which, though not standing above the members, is not merely their reflection at each point in time. Members who are active change the societal structure, advance the general will, and, in turn, rely on the changes structures in advancing themselves.)
Etzioni’s overarching argument in The Active Society replicates a number of fundamental tenets of modern faith: the possibility of ongoing and endless progress, the prospect of human and societal transformation, the vision of control and dominion over natural and social processes: “to be active is to be in charge; to be passive is to be under control, be it of natural processes, of social waves and streams, or – active others…. The fact is, however, that social laws can be altered. It is here that we find the key to a secular conception of man – in the ability of men, by changing their social combinations, to change themselves, to be their creator” (AS, 4).
Much of The Active Society echoes many themes from American, and especially Deweyan, pragmatism (and, not accidentally, Dewey consciously appeals to the authority of Bacon in fashioning modern pragmatism). The “active society” is one in which high levels of activity, aimed at articulating and securing the common good of the society, is cultivated and extensively undertaken. “The Active Society” combines a notion of a highly participatory society – mainly through its various organizational sub-units – while recognizing the need for “societal guidance” that is afforded by social elites. Etzioni’s theory is a rejection of then ruling determinist paradigms of “structural functionalism” associated especially with the sociological theories of Talcott Parsons. Equally, Etzioni sought to set himself apart from sociologically thin “voluntarist” theories of society emanating from the liberal/contractarian school of political theory. Etzioni saw his theory occupying a middle ground between these two prominent positions in sociological and political theory. “It seems most productive to presuppose a perpetual, in part, creative, conflict between the forces of design and those of inertia and opposition, to see social systems as in part guided by a cybernational overlay, and in part an underlay composed of collective bodies, of societal bonds, values, institutions, and powers that resist guidance.” The challenge, in Etzioni’s view, was to increase “activity” by facilitating communication between guiding elites without those same elites thwarting or undermining the prospects of widespread popular activity. Communication was conceived as an acceptable form of power, aimed at increasing levels of social activity – primarily, but not solely, through social movements. As such, Etzioni decidedly favored “persuasive” power over alternative forms, such as “utilitarian” or “coercive” (AS, 357-9).
Etzioni is realistic in thinking that all societies exercise power, whether as an outright form of coercion or through less visible forms of influence and subtle control. Even “conserving a status quo” reflects an exercise of power: “the notion that evil is imposed by power while goodness flies on its own wings assumes an optimistic view of human nature and societal institutions that has little evidence to support it” (AS, 321). For Etzioni, the exercise of power “is the principle way of getting things done,” and thus is an overarching factor in creating “the active society.” Etzioni seeks not an absence of power, per se, but rather a high degree of consensus in the exercise of power by means of the creation of the active society. Societies must be rendered “responsive” by means of an expansion of communication from elites to groups, and through “feedback” from social groups to scientific, educational, and political elites (AS, chs. 17-18).
In The Active Society Etzioni rejects “community for community’s sake”: such a commitment to existing social bonds and relationships represents “a retreat from engagement, consciousness, and effective action; a return to passivity is a trap to which many social movements have fallen” (AS, 14). Activity is the sole means of effecting the ongoing “transformation” of society, of increasing the possibility of high levels of communication and feedback among and between the different strata of society, and finally of forging consensus about the shared values that emanate from such social ferment. Ultimately, an “active society” will overcome the limits of “society” narrowly conceived: Etzioni envisions that the trajectory of the “active society” is toward an increasingly international order in which limiting communities are superseded. “Many values to which societies under study subscribe, especially stable peace, cannot be realized unless tribalism is superseded at least to a degree.” Etzioni propounds “a change in the boundaries of the units of control and of responsiveness. The national society, a concentration of societal guidance in the hands of a nation-state, is a limited historical phenomenon…. Since the active society will be a post-nationalist one, an active citizen will be a cosmopolitan one…” (AS, 11). Social scientists will play a key role in effecting the transcendence of citizens from particular allegiances to cosmopolitan identities – a prospect that will be furthered when social science understands its own mission as distinct from any allegiance to national sub-units, and instead recognizes “the community of man” (AS, 608).
The model form of “activity” that is most likely to effect this fundamental “transformation” of human society is best discerned in the engagement of social movements in the transformation of modern society: by means of such movements as “the civil rights movement…, decolonization and modernization…, [such societies] have come relatively closer to an active society, a society responsive to its changing membership, one engaged in an intensive and perpetual self-transformation. As the active society is best depicted as a macroscopic and permanent social movement, the examination of social movements is of particular interest.” (AS, viii). Democracies are the pre-eminent source and goal of “activity”: democracy at once encourages such forms of activity, while benefiting from the self-reinforcing democratic aspects of such widening forms of social activity, largely due to its superior “flexibility” (AS, 507-9). The “active society” – overcoming divisions that result from insufficient flexibility, communication, and feedback, resulting in greater “interdependence” and responsiveness – is a society that can hope finally to overcome alienation of its members from one another. Following the recommendations of Comte – who promoted “the religion of humanity” – Etzioni foresees the prospect of the overcoming of human alienation by means of the growth of a sense of what Marx called “species-being”: “[The] idea of universal order is consummated only through the union of all individuals in mankind, and the positivist destruction of obsolete theological and metaphysical standards…. Humanity, not the state, is the only reality.”
The Active Society appears to be consummately a book of its time, namely, unsurprisingly for a book written from 1964-5 and published in 1968, brimming with dreams of social transformation and even (in spite of its sometimes turgid sociologese) ecstatic utopianism. Perhaps more interesting than the fate of The Active Society after thirty-five years is the fate of Amitai Etzioni – the “father of communitarianism” – who came if not in every particular to repudiate the modernist and utopian teachings of The Active Society, nevertheless to champion a chastened vision of human community that advanced a recognition of limits, the reining in of the dream of control and mastery, and embroidered a profound sense of the tragic dimension of human existence into his sociological theory that otherwise seemed absent from The Active Society. In the process, he came to promote less the active society than the good society. The story of this transformation is at least as interesting as the argument on behalf of social transformation advanced in The Active Society.
From the “Active Society” to the “Good Society”
Only with great hesitance should one hazard to attribute changes in intellectual orientation to biography, but, given the extent to which Etzioni has linked the events of his life to his thought and to his role as a public intellectual, we perhaps do Etzioni more justice by taking his life into account than by attempting to attribute all alterations of his thought solely to isolated accounts of intellectual development. For, there is a signal moment in Etzioni’s life, shortly after the publication of The Active Society, that – while not indicating a thoroughgoing departure from his main interests in increasing communication among members of society, in promoting democracy and community, and, above all, in ascertaining how society can be fruitfully directed (but not dictated to) by responsible and responsive elites – marks a departure from what might be regarded as his more optimistic, even consummately “modern” vision in The Active Society, and instead reveals the increasing influence of (subtly) ancient and (implicitly) religious perspectives. That moment occurred in 1969, and is described in a section of his recent autobiography My Brother’s Keeper entitled “Parting of the Ways: No Cracked Eggs (1969).” (BK, 109-114).
Etzioni was a popular figure among student activists in the 1960’s – a frequent speaker at “teach-ins” and rallies. Yet, shortly after the publication of The Active Society, Etzioni’s disquiet at aspects of the student movement led him to break with its more radical elements, and in effect to forfeit the influence and popularity he had built among student leaders. In particular, he abhorred the turn to violence that was increasingly advocated and practiced by student radicals, and decided to draw down some (and, in retrospect, possibly most) of his “political capital” by admonishing students at a rally to eschew the route of violence (BK, 114). Regardless of his agreement with many of the ends of the student movement, he saw no principled difference in the employment of violent means, whether employed in a noble or questionable cause: “Acts of violence against persons are in principle no different than the violence of the Vietnam war, except that a fist may be used instead of a bomb” (BK, 111). Etzioni’s revulsion toward violence is connected to his extraordinary military career as a young man fighting on behalf of a Jewish homeland (BK, chs. 1 and 2). His comments are revealing – both of his awareness of the profoundly chastening effect his wartime experience, and his own growing sense of limitations on the extent to which words, ideas, arguments and dialogue might be expected to effect rapid and thorough societal transformation. “I wished I had more compelling arguments and personality so that I could have convinced the students to refrain from the use of force. If I could have transported the students, for a few days, to the mountains of Judea, burying friends, consoling their families, witnessing the agony of those at the receiving end of violence – I was sure – they would have seen the light. But as much as I tried, I swayed only a few” (BK, 114).
If in The Active Society Etzioni rejects “community for community’s sake,” in his break with the student movement and subsequent activities attempting to rein in scientific “progress” in the form of space exploration and genetic research, one perceives a rejection of “activity for activity’s sake.” Indeed, his disquiet at the student advocacy of violence suggests that Etzioni clearly saw the dangers entailed in the unbridled promotion of “the active society,” namely, the likelihood that utopianism would foster impatience for the ideal of overcoming injustice, hierarchy, and alienation. Witnessing the revolutionary and violent implications of “activity” in action, Etzioni increasingly stressed a subtle undercurrent in The Active Society – namely, a call to be wary of political excesses and a reminder of the dangers of seeking social amelioration at all costs without awareness of intended or unintended consequences. An overarching and unmistakeable “lesson” that one receives from a reading of his biography – subtitled “a memoir and a message” – is the call to recognize the severe constraints that limit social change and the unlikelihood of achieving any thoroughgoing societal transformation. Talk of overcoming human alienation largely disappears from Etzioni’s work following 1969; by 2003, writing of his efforts to change policy through the levers of government while working for the Carter administration, Etzioni avers that one who would enter politics “better have the patience of Job” (BK, 163).
Recalling his many successes and even more numerous frustrations in his career as an academic, a political actor, and as a public intellectual, Etzioni concludes with a revealing proverb that he mistakenly remembered throughout much of his life. It attests both to his strong sense that fundamental change and transformation are difficult if not impossible, yet, as well, to his belief that one must do one’s utmost in spite of overwhelming obstacles. Etzioni’s altered proverb combines a sense of humility and hope, an awareness of tragic and nearly insurmountable limits and the necessary dose of hubris to keep trying. And, it takes the form of a reference to a sea-borne vessel, though now one very different from the high-powered “ocean liner” with which The Active Society begins:
For years I thought that the fisherman’s prayer was, “oh God, the sea is so large and my oar is so small.” When I was told that the prayer speaks of a small boat, not an oar, I asked myself why I misremembered it in this particular way. The original text seems to concern someone who is cowed by the sea, who fears being overwhelmed by its mighty squalls. My fear was that I would not travel far enough, would not deliver what I was destined to deliver. Oh, Lord, the sea is so large, and my oar is so small.
Etzioni’s repudiation of the violent means to which student activists increasingly turned in the late-1960s represents a signal recognition that frustrated utopian dreams could lead, on the one hand, to an impatience that had a tendency to take the form of violence, and on the other, toward despair that might lead to a repudiation of engagement in pursuit of social and political amelioration. Etzioni’s later work reflects an abandonment of optimism in favor of hope. Modern optimism could too easily lead, on the one hand, to the unadvised wholesale effort to disassemble the ship while between ports, or, on the other, to an abandonment of seafaring altogether for the solitude of a deserted island. Etzioni’s later image – one of a small boat afloat on a vast ocean, powered by a nearly insignificant oar – is echoed by Etzioni’s frequent description of communitarianism as “faith in faith.” This evocative phrase – similar to that of “hope against hope” – reveals Etzioni’s awareness that social change can be effected only by the attentiveness to the character of members of the “ship,” not by means of wholesale efforts of elite groups to reconstruct the ship itself. As such, “faith in faith” is most often described by Etzioni as the repudiation of attempts at transformation by means of coercion – particularly legal coercion, a form that, at base, contains an unavoidable threat of violence – and rather insists upon the central and unavoidable importance of persuasion (NGR, 29, 120, 138; N, xi, 21-46). The emphasis moves away strictly from correct elite structural reorganization in order to effect society’s transformation, and instead lights more extensively upon the necessary character that is willing and morally equipped to engage in such dialogic activity. At the same time, among these later works there is a growing emphasis upon the “good society” as a necessary prerequisite for cultivating such characters (just as these characters, in turn, contribute to the creation of a good society). Etzioni moves away from considering “the responsive society” exclusively a means to the end of social transformation, and instead begins to write of it in terms more closely proximate to those of the ancients, namely, as “the kind [of good] that we like for its own sake and for what comes out of it, such as thinking and seeing and being healthy.”
Communities are the loci of self-government, of moral training, of the reconciliation of the many and the one; they are the intermediate area between the State and the economy, the sphere of “civil society” where humans are not reducible to voters or consumers (N, xi-xii). As such, communities are an indispensable ingredient in the creation of the “good society.” His commendation of the “responsive community” continues to echo many of his recommendations in The Active Society on behalf of persuasion and causes of justice. Even in his most recent writing Etzioni maintains a commitment to “responsive communities” for their potential contributions for further “progress”: “For all these reasons, cultivating communities where they exist, and helping them to form where they have been lost, is essential for the future provision of much social good and should be a major priority for future progress” (N, 8; Etzioni’s emphasis). He remains open to the idea and ideal that communities can be substantially altered from within, albeit consensually and thereby, one surmises, only incrementally.
At the same time, a further element is present in Etzioni’s more recent writing that was less in evidence in The Active Society, one that emphasizes community as the locus of humility and restraint and the sole training ground for appropriate human yearnings and ends: community draws people out narrow concern for self-advancement, even as it constrains dreams of dominion and mastery that might result from allegiance to national and imperial undertakings. Community points us beyond affluence as the sole measurement of human success, but rather emphasizes “mutuality and spirituality” (N, 110). Etzioni, seemingly returning to his posture as an activist of the 1960’s era, recommends community for its fostering of a “counterculture” – however, not one now that seeks human transformation, but rather inasmuch as it fosters a human ecology born of realism and accessible to humans as they are rather than how they might be: “A return to counterculture is … a realization that one can find profound contentment in reflection, friendships, sunsets, and walks on the beach rather than in the pursuit of ever more control over ever more goods” (N, 112). These homely recommendations of (extra)ordinary human experiences signal a fundamental departure from the heady identification of “power” and “knowledge” that marked The Active Society. The “good society” does not necessarily aim at activity, or at least not in with the same orientation toward mastery, as that recommended in his most recent books.
Government has a role to play in the fostering of communities, and thereby must be supportive if even at one remove in the cultivation of good citizens that is effected in communities. Society is ever-reliant upon politics to fashion those conditions amenable to human ecology, or, in the absence of such attentiveness, in danger of contributing (if by only by benign neglect) to the deterioration of cohesive and character-forming communities. “Government needs to do more to foster communities where they exist and to prime their development where they have failed” (N, 61). Governments cannot be indifferent or “neutral” toward prospect of cultivating virtuous citizens and “good” societies: the claim to “neutrality” is tantamount to acquiescing to the vitiation of civic virtue and good societies, particularly in societies in which utilitiarian market dynamics that promote short-term thinking and self-interest will invariably gain prominence in the absence of attempts to counterbalance such tendencies with civic considerations.
The Many or the One?
A tension exists at the core of Etzioni’s lifetime work, one that is likely unavoidable in contemporary “communitarian” theory, namely, the tension between “particularism” and “universalism.” In much of his work, from The Active Society to his contemporary writings, Etzioni appears at times to endorse a nearly-thoroughgoing relativism born of a commitment to “particularism,” as might be expected of one devoted to “communitarian” ideals. Indeed, one sees that aspect most clearly by returning to the earlier image of the ship from The Active Society: that is, the image of “an ocean liner propelled by an outboard motor, requiring not only more drive but also reconstruction while continuing to sail the high seas” (AS, x). In near-contemporary thought, almost this precise image of the ship was employed by Otto Neurath in order to describe the “antifoundational” condition of modern humanity. “We are like sailors who have to rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry dock and reconstruct it from the best components.” The ship here is something that we can only provisionally repair in a piecemeal fashion; yet, at the same time, there is no one “kind” of ship. Such ongoing and provisional repairs result in continual alteration of the ship itself: “Mankind is continually redefining itself…” (AS, 15). Communities cannot endorse any a priori set of commitments: rather, Etzioni recommends “megalogues” – grand, extensive, and potentially transformative national conversations – by means of which social conflicts are resolved (NGR, 106-8). More important than the actual outcome of the conversation is the fact that such dialogue transpires: “megalogues are often extensive, disorderly (in the sense that there is no clear pattern to them), have an unclear beginning, and no clear or decisive conclusion. Nevertheless, in societies that are relatively communitarian, megalogues lead to significant changes in core values” (NGR, 107). There is no predetermined decision toward which a communitarian decision should tend; rather, it is the conversation that fosters community, not the ultimate outcomes of those deliberations.
At the same time, Etzioni has expressed misgivings and even outright disagreement with those in the communitarian movement who embrace the most robust and vocal forms of “value pluralism.” In particular, he objects to forms of communitarian relativism that posit that one is philosophically barred from judging decisions taken by other communities in which one is not a member. He expressed these misgivings most directly in describing the first meetings during which the Communitarian Platform was written:
In contrast [to some relativist conceptions of communitarianism], I believed that without recognizing universal principles (expected of all, although the communities to which they are responsible may vary), communitarianism was but a form of relativism. If we do not recognize any values above and beyond those upheld by various communities or cultures, we would deny ourselves a basis on which to rest moral claims. Nor could we challenge other nations’ practices of stoning adulterous women, chopping off the limbs of thieves, jailing dissenters, and trading sex slaves, not to mention child labor, forced marriage, and female circumcision…. Based on my deontological inclination, I argued that there must be a few select moral causes that all people would find compelling – once they were able to examine them in a free dialogue. (I granted that historically these universal values have been hidden from people in oppressed countries). [BK, 214]
Elsewhere Etzioni has described more fully some of these universally available truths; perhaps unsurprisingly, they resemble extensively the fundamental philosophical assumptions that undergird the American regime. They include: “democracy as a value”; “the Constitution and its Bill of Rights”; and “neutrality, tolerance, or respect” (NGR, 199-210). As such, core universal truths appear at first blush to resemble those procedural agreements upon which modern liberalism rests. As stated in Kantian or Rawlsian terms, there is a priority of the “right” (correct, if purportedly contentless, egalitarian and liberal procedures) over the “good” (a more robust conception to what end human life, and hence political legislation, should aim). Ironically, these self-same “universals,” particularly as embodied in American constitutional law and increasingly supported by promoters of an international rights regime, have become the main source of appeal against any special consideration that might be accorded to communities. Etzioni’s “universals” appear to work at significant cross-purposes to his communitarian position. Even Etzioni appears to recognize this problem, and, returning to his cosmopolitan position dating back to The Active Society, has argued that the definition of “community” can be extended so far as to encompass a “world community,” thereby raising into question whether, in the final estimation, there is a significant difference between Etzioni’s position and mainstream liberals who otherwise criticize the language if not the substance of communitarianism.
The main feature that distinguishes Etzioni’s thought from procedural forms of liberalism lies within the “particularity” of his “universals”: he finally rejects the monistic underpinnings of “cosmopolitanism,” instead lighting on a firm commitment to “communities of communities,” that is, the central importance of intermediate spheres of belonging that occupy an interposing position between the complementary modern devotions to autonomous individualism and cosmopolitanism. The recommended procedural universalisms – all of which seek, at base, to promote open forms of democratic communication – implicitly contain content that Etzioni finds underarticulated in many predominant forms of liberalism, and in particular, those forms that stress individualism arising from social contract theory. That content is embedded in Etzioni’s conception of dialogue, and points to the single, unbroken thread that connects all of Etzioni’s work, dating back to his early graduate career in Israel, continuing as a dominant feature of The Active Society, and undergirding his ultimate communitarian devotions (the linguistic relationship between community and communication becomes more obvious). Etzioni has, throughout his career, sought to advance nothing less than a societal-wide application of Martin Buber’s conception of “I and Thou” relationships. At base, seemingly content-free liberal democratic proceduralism contains a more robust set of assumptions about human inter-relatedness which in turn serves as firmer source of an endorsement of human equality and equal dignity than can arise from an individualistic (e.g., social contractarian) model. Commitment to forms of recognition (to adopt the Hegelian term for Annerkennung) of common human aspirations and experience must proceed and be embedded within commitment to liberal democratic procedures. Dialogue is the bridge (or, grammatically, the dash) between the chasm of “I-Thou,” reflecting a prior commitment to a robust form of recognition of our common humanity, even if dialogue itself cannot aspire to overcome completely the dichotomy and finally unbridgeable divide between individuals. As such, the commitment to liberal democratic procedures already contains an extensive content, and Etzioni would remind us that individualistic conceptions of liberalism fail to afford the necessary priority for this more dialogic underpinning.
Arguably there is even more content in these Buberian dialogic commitments than even Etzioni is willing explicitly to acknowledge, except perhaps in passing. Buber wrote that all particular “I-Thou” bonds were a “glimpse through to the eternal Thou” and derived their ultimate meaning via the relationship between man and God. Buber was primarily engaged in exploring a theological relationship between the divine and the secular and of contemplating the ways that the divide between the two was at once permeable and yet insurmountable. Humanity’s relationship with the divine forces upon humanity the simultaneous recognition of thoroughgoing human dependence even as it opens space for the possibility of human freedom. Buber writes: “Yes; in pure relation you have felt yourself to be simply dependent, as you are able to feel in no other relation – and simply free, too, as in no other time or place: you have felt yourself to be both creaturely and creative.” Humanity is not its own creator, and our recognition of the divine must be accompanied by the acknowledgement of human finitude and weakness. Our equality is thus bound up in our shared origin as “creatures,” i.e., created beings: we share a common fallibility and insufficiency. The “I-Thou” relationship between man and God is the core source of human equality: it is not an equality that can be “created” by humans through some future transformation of the human condition itself, but is rather the consequence of our “created” nature. Etzioni’s eventual retreat from the optimistic belief in human mastery that characterizes The Active Society reflects a re-embrace of the entirety of Buber’s teaching – not only the promotion of “creativity,” in particular the creativity that results in dynamic and “active” human communities – but an acknowledgement of limits on the prospects for human dominion that accompanies the recognition of our “creaturely” nature.
This Buberian insight urges us, as it moved Etzioni, from an attempt at the perfect construction of the “ship” to consider instead the vastness and uncontrollable nature of medium in which the ship travels: “Oh, Lord, the sea is so large, and my oar is so small.” Humans may create the ship, but the seas upon which we float and the sky stretching endlessly above us that brings down both storms and calm winds are not subject to our ultimate control. By attending to what we have not created – including, finally, ourselves – we are encouraged as well to consider our common state of insufficiency: the recognition of our common humanity, one marked by neediness and incompleteness, pushes us to see our equal status as brothers and sisters and of our shared obligations to each other. Visions of “activity” give way to concrete concerns for “goodness.” As Etzioni would urge us to remember – by way of rejection of the dreams of mastery that marked the first sin of Cain – we are our brother’s keeper.