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Civil Society Reconsidered

Little platoons are just the beginning.

Apr 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 30 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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In the conclusion to Coming Apart, after describing a society that is in even greater disarray (literally, coming apart) than we had supposed, Charles Murray holds out one hope for the future: “a civic Great Awakening.” Previous Great Awakenings in America had been religious. The new awakening would enlist the spirit of evangelicalism in the cause of civic revival, regenerating those aspects of life—family, vocation, community, and faith—essential to human happiness and to a healthy society. Murray has been hailed (in some circles berated) for making morality rather than economics responsible for the ominous divide in American society. Perhaps more important is the fact that he has put the idea of civil society (“civic life” or “civic culture,” as he more often calls it) back into circulation, making it central to “the American project.”

Drawing of the guillotine

French revolutionaries: never molded into civil society

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Civil society was once a staple of discourse, in the academy and without. Twenty or more years ago, sociologists and political scientists, politicians and “public intellectuals” of all persuasions invoked it almost as a mantra, a remedy for the ailments of our time. Civil society—families, communities, churches, workplaces, formal and informal associations—was to be the countervailing force to an overweening state on the one hand, and an unrestrained individualism on the other (the “unencumbered self,” in Michael Sandel’s apt phrase). It is there, we were told, that character is formed, children are civilized and socialized, individuals voluntarily assume their obligations, rights are complemented by duties, self-interest is reconciled with the general interest, and civility mutes the discord of opposing wills. And all of this would be accomplished without resorting to the state, which was itself subverting these natural virtues.

The appeal to civil society was altogether admirable. Yet the fact that it was endorsed by people of discordant views and dispositions was itself cause for suspicion. The disaffection with the state seemed to be confirmed, ironically, by no less an authority than President Clinton, who proclaimed in his State of the Union address in January 1996: “The era of big government is over.” His address the following year used the word “community” 18 times, expanded at one point to “a community of all Americans”—thus belying the very idea of “community.” One is reminded of Governor Mario Cuomo’s keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1984, which opened with his speaking on behalf of “the whole family of New York,” and closed with our love for “the family of America”—hardly the “family” the proponents of civil society had in mind. 

If the idea of civil society has fallen into disuse in recent years, it is not because the twin excesses, of individualism and dirigisme, have abated—on the contrary, they are more urgent today than ever—but because civil society itself has turned out to be a more complicated and ambiguous entity than might be supposed. Indeed, it is sometimes complicit in the problems it purports to solve. Nor can the state, however egregious today, be entirely absolved of the need to help solve them. In the light of recent experiences, it may be useful to revisit the idea of civil society.

 Civil society has a venerable philosophical lineage, but it is social science that brought it to the forefront of attention in America. In 1979, Nathan Glazer, in an essay in the Public Interest, “On Subway Graffiti in New York,” demonstrated the unfortunate effects of what seemed to be so trivial a matter as graffiti. While Norman Mailer was celebrating graffiti as a new art form, Glazer saw them as a persistent threat to urban society, assailing millions of New Yorkers every day with the sight of vandalized subway cars, and giving them a sense of willful predators capable of any kind of violence or criminality. As a subway rider himself, Glazer shared that experience, and as a sociologist inquiring into the problem, he examined the serious but ineffectual attempts of the police and other authorities to curb that problem.

 

 

Three years later, George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, in the Atlantic Monthly, described a similar situation in “Broken Windows.” The article is based upon a study of broken windows in particular neighborhoods, but the phrase is a metaphor for disorders of a similar nature—vandalism, public drunkenness, obstreperous panhandling, and the like—minor infractions of the law which generate an atmosphere of lawlessness that is an invitation to crime, requiring the intervention of the police. More than a dozen years later, when “broken windows” had become a catch phrase, John DiIulio echoed it in “Broken Bottles,” demonstrating that a multiplicity of alcohol stores in a neighborhood acted as a “multiplier of crime,” resulting in regulations limiting the number of such stores.

The “broken windows” phenomenon is often cited as a prime example of civil society in operation (although the term itself does not always appear in these essays). In each case, however, the problem turns out to be within civil society itself—disorderly and criminal elements within the community, often among the young. And the solutions, or attempted solutions, come from without—not from families, neighbors, churches, or voluntary associations, but from the police and other public agencies; and not by invoking the manners and morals, habits and customs, of the community, but by the more rigorous enforcement of the law or the enactment of new laws and regulations. What the broken-windows syndrome demonstrates is that when civil society itself is in disrepair, public authorities (local ones, preferably) and legal (or quasi-legal) sanctions are called upon to help restore the fabric of society.

Another study, with an equally provocative title, raises still other questions for civil society. “Bowling Alone,” by Robert Putnam, received the same acclaim in 1995 as “Broken Windows” earlier. Expanded five years later into a massive tome, it acquired a somewhat more optimistic subtitle: “America’s Declining Social Capital” became “The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” But the message is the same. More Americans than ever are bowling, but they are bowling alone rather than as members of leagues. And so with other activities: Individuals are increasingly removed from the traditional networks of “civic engagement”—family, friends, neighbors, professional organizations, and other associations. This erosion of civil society results in a decline of “social capital,” which bodes ill for democracy at home and for democratization abroad.

Putnam’s data have been disputed and his conclusions qualified, but at least one part of his thesis is more pertinent than ever. In the new technological as well as global world, the world of television and the Internet—of surfing, blogging, tweeting, texting, linking, and Facebooking—civil society is increasingly tenuous. People are not so much speaking to each other as speaking across each other, befriending each other in such quantities as to belie the very idea of friendship, violating the confidences of acquaintances and any presumption of privacy, using language that makes a mockery of what used to be called civic discourse. In this sense, people are bowling alone, so to speak, more than ever. A friendly commentator might look kindly upon this as liberalism at its best, giving free rein to the individual as against a conformist and oppressive society. A harsh critic would find it uncomfortably reminiscent of the “state of nature” that civil society was meant to supplant.

Compounding the problem is the fact that as the culture becomes more aggressively individualistic, so the state becomes more aggressively expansive. “Obamacare,” perhaps the most ambitious enlargement of the welfare state since its inception, has provoked sufficient attention and concern, but the latest manifestation of it is conspicuous, if only because so unexpected. It is a long time since birth control was a subject of dispute; it is legal, available, not too costly (sometimes free), and widely used (even by those who have theological objections to it). What is new is the provision of Obamacare mandating that all institutions, including Catholic ones, provide it free (or under compulsory insurance policies)—legitimizing, in effect, a practice they regard as theologically sinful and morally abhorrent. The ensuing controversy has focused on religious liberty and the separation of church and state. But another issue is at stake. If ever there was a subject belonging within the province of individuals, families, churches, and communities—in short, civil society—it is surely contraception. This latest episode reminds us why the idea of civil society was invented in the first place, and why it is still our main recourse against an increasingly intrusive state.

 

Civil society, then, yes, but a reformed civil society, not one that has been subverted by the very forces it is meant to resist. For some of the major institutions in civil society, the state has become a model and even a collaborator. Philanthropic societies, almost as large and bureaucratic as government agencies, are often little more than conduits of the state for the distribution of private funds, which they are obliged to distribute, moreover, in accord with government requirements. Financial institutions are subject to government regulations so rigorous as to make them quasi-governmental organs. Public schools assume functions once reserved to the family, displacing parents, for example, in the sex education of their children and in the inculcation of sexual mores—again, in accord with Department of Education regulations. So, too, trade unions, professional associations, universities, hospitals, and other ostensibly private institutions are subject to so many public controls as to make them more public than private.

Religion is surely a valuable prop of civil society, creating and sustaining a variety of civic as well as religious institutions. But here too there has been significant erosion. Traditional denominational, neighborhood, family-centered churches are being threatened by two rivals: megachurches, consisting of thousands of people brought together by a single charismatic preacher, which do not survive the death of the preacher; and small, transient, nondenominational churches, some professing to be “spiritual” rather than religious, which are unstable in doctrine as in membership. The effect of both is to undermine the commitment of congregants and the effectiveness of the churches themselves, making religion a less effectual force in civil society. 

Even more ominous is the condition of the family. The most fundamental component of civil society, it has also become the most vulnerable. Civil society is often identified (thanks largely to Tocqueville) with “voluntary associations.” But the traditional family is not, or at least did not used to be, a voluntary association. Indeed, it is important precisely because it is not voluntary, performing the natural, elemental, even biological functions of bearing and rearing children. Today, as a result of divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, single-parent families, and single-sex parenting, the family has become, in a sense, voluntarized. We are sometimes assured that these “alternative lifestyles” are merely variations on the old, serving the same purposes as the “nuclear” or “bourgeois” family. In fact, these families—“broken families,” like “broken windows”—are often literally “dysfunctional,” incapable of performing the natural functions that define the family.

Civil society has been described as an “immune system against cultural disease.” But much of it has been infected by the same virus that produces the disease—a loss of moral integrity and purpose. What is required, then, is not only the revitalization of civil society but its reform and remoralization—the reform of those institutions that parody government agencies, and the remoralization of those that have lost their moral focus.

 

This is a formidable challenge, inspiring us to recall those to whom we are indebted for the idea of civil society and whom we now cite in support of it. It is to Locke, of course, that we owe the distinctively modern concept of a civil society that mediates between the individual and the state. But it is not quite the individual and the state that figure in Locke’s trinity. It is the “state of nature” and “political society” that are on either side of “civil society.” This is not a trivial semantic point. The “state of nature,” as Locke describes it, is more fearsome than the “individual,” and “political society” less formidable than the “state.” Moreover, in Locke’s account, civil society has a close relationship to political society, almost overlapping with it, as opposed to the state of nature, which is always in sharp contrast to civil society: “Those who are united into one body and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another; but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature.”

Similarly, Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations,” which we sometimes equate with civil society, are not as exclusively within the domain of civil society as we might suppose. Tocqueville has the highest regard for these associations which are unique to America—but not unique to civil society. On the contrary, the genius of American democracy is the proliferation of “political associations” as well as “civil associations,” and, more important, the intimate relationship between them, the civil being dependent upon the vitality of the political. “In all countries where political associations are forbidden, civil associations are rare. .  .  . Thus civil associations pave the way for political ones, but on the other hand, the art of political association singularly develops and improves this technique for civil purposes.”

And then there is Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France repeatedly invokes the idea, and the term, civil society, as in the rebuke to the revolutionaries for acting as if they had “never been molded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew.” But it is his “little platoon” that has become the battle cry of civil-society enthusiasts. The first sentence of that passage is frequently quoted: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” Less often quoted is the following no less memorable sentence: “[The little platoon] is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” Later in the book, the sentiment is reaffirmed:

We begin our public affections in our families. .  .  . We pass on to our neighborhoods and our habitual provincial connections. These are inns and resting places. .  .  . Perhaps it is a sort of elemental training to those higher and more large regards, by which alone we come to be affected, as with their own concern, in the prosperity of a kingdom so extensive as that of France.

Today, in our anxiety about the excesses of individualism and statism, we may find ourselves looking upon civil society not merely as a corrective to those excesses but as a be-all and end-all, a sanctuary in itself, a sufficient habitat for the human spirit. What our forefathers impress upon us is a more elevated as well as a more dynamic view of civil society, one that exists in a continuum with “political society”—that is, government—just as “civil associations” do with “political associations,” “private affections” with “public affections,” and, most memorably, the “little platoon” with “a love to our country and to mankind.” This is civil society properly understood (as Tocqueville would say), a civil society rooted in all that is most natural and admirable—family, community, religion—and that is also intimately related to those other natural and admirable aspects of life, country and humanity.

Gertrude Himmelfarb is the author of The Moral Imagination and, most recently, The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England from Cromwell to Churchill.

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