The most unsettling aspect of modern politics is that the Enemy is no longer plain in view. We may feel in our bones that we are as oppressed, disenfranchised and generally shat upon, in our way, as those who suffered under Nazism, Marxism and fascism. But the actual evidence doesn’t seem to bear this out.
We’re free to fly wherever we want on our hols. No one is starving. We can vote. There are no death camps. We don’t dread the small-hours knock at the door. Our politicians consult focus groups because they feel they ought to care what we think. There are lots of channels on TV, not all of which reflect the ideology of the state. Being Jewish, gay or an intellectual are not crimes. (More’s the pity in the case of the last one.) We can speak out against whomsoever we want (so long as they’re not Muslim) without fear of being arrested. We don’t need to belong to the Party to get a job. There are no bread queues. Our kids aren’t obliged to spy on us.
Why then do we yet feel so un-free? By ‘we’ I don’t mean all of us, of course. I can’t imagine, say, David Aaronovitch waking up every morning and gnashing into his Coco Pops over the liberties Big Government is taking with his liberty. I doubt Michael Moore, Paul Krugman or the environment pod at the Guardian have ever done anything except shudder very pleasurably as the tentacles of state have crept ever deeper into their every orifice. But I’m guessing I’m not the only Speccie-reading type who surveys this brave new world we inhabit with growing alarm. ‘I do hope it’s no more than my imagination,’ we say to ourselves. ‘But it seems to me that, politically, we are ****ed.’
And if that’s what you think, you’re right, we are. But your problem — as was mine, till I discovered this thing I’m going to tell you about — is that you don’t really know whom to blame, whom to hate, whom to fight. And the reason for this is that the Enemy have arranged it that way. These are exactly the same kind of people who brought you Nazism, Marxism and fascism. Their controlling, bullying, puritanical, freedom-hating instincts are as intense as ever. The only difference is that this time they’re inflicting them on you with your permission.
This nebulousness and insidiousness is precisely what makes communitarianism so much more dangerous than any of the other totalitarian philosophies I’ve just named. Communitarianism? Though it crops up quite a bit on websites, it’s still not a term you find in quotidian use. Which is odd, because it’s the defining ideological concept of our age — embracing everything from the puzzling leftishness of the supposedly ‘Conservative’ David Cameron to Australian farmers no longer being able to cut down trees on their land, to the mystifying career of comedy academic Philip Blond, to the Environmental Protection Agency, Barack Obama, the Big Society, the EU, the UN, the BBC, your kids’ schools, my kids’ schools, Maurice Strong and the Rio Earth summit, to name but a few.
How does it work? Well one good example is the Localism Bill mentioned by Charles Moore the other week, which will give you, the people, more citizen power, supposedly. Except it won’t. What it will actually do is undermine one of the pillars of a free society: your property rights. By allowing ‘local people’ (clearly whoever drafted it has never watched The League Of Gentlemen) to designate something a ‘community asset’ — say, to use Charles’s example, a private field which the owner allows villagers to use as a cricket pitch — the Bill will strip away the ability of the property owner to dispose of his asset as he sees fit. What’s happening is a more consensual, touchy-feely version of what Jews experienced under the Nazis or aristocrats experienced under Lenin. Call it Big Society; call it social justice; call it what you like. What’s going on is state-sanctioned theft.
I wish I had space to explain the communitarian philosophy in more detail. One of the best primers I’ve found is a blogpost by an Alaskan called Niki Raapana, who neatly defines it as ‘a Dictatorship of the Community’ whose ‘global standard of norms’ will ‘rebuild the world under a new model of governance with jurisdiction over all national state citizens’. Communitarianism’s great enabling act was a measure launched at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit called Agenda 21. Its almost risibly sinister name (quite accidental: it just means ‘an agenda for the 21st century’) means that whenever worried conservatives invoke it they come across like paranoid conspiracy freaks. But its effects are all too real. Over six hundred local government groups around the world from the City of Dallas to Woking Borough Council have signed up to Local Agenda 21, a voluntary code of practice committing them to a range of superficially worthy causes from (Marxist codeword) ‘sustainability’ to ‘diversity’. You didn’t vote for this stuff, but it’s on the books anyway.
One more brief example: lots of London councils have taken upon themselves the responsibility of ‘combating climate change’ by charging 4 x 4 owners more for their parking permits, encouraging electric cars, penalising non-recyclers and so on. But what if you’re a council taxpayer who knows it’s a crock: that electric cars are every bit as eco-unfriendly as normal ones, that recycling often uses more energy than it saves? Your view doesn’t count, nor even can you express it at the ballot box, since all the main political parties share the same value system. This is communitarianism. And you are stuffed.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 25, 2011