Is Civil Society Obsolete? Rvisiting Predictions of the Decline of Civil Society in 'Whose Keeper?'

By Wolfe, Alan | Brookings Review, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Is Civil Society Obsolete? Rvisiting Predictions of the Decline of Civil Society in 'Whose Keeper?'


Wolfe, Alan, Brookings Review


Revivified during the 1980s after a long period of dormancy, the concept of civil society - those forms of communal and associational life which are organized neither by the self-interest of the market nor by the coercive potential of the state - introduced considerable fresh air into both the theory and practice of contemporary societies.

For activists, especially Eastern European dissidents struggling against Communist dictatorships, civil society offered a language of voluntarism and freedom. And for social scientists and political theorists everywhere, civil society served as a reminder that even in the modern world there was more to social life than political economy; while no one doubts the power of private companies and public government, families, neighborhoods, voluntary organizations, and spontaneous political movements nonetheless survived and, on occasion, could assume dramatic importance.

No wonder, then, that the idea of civil society went from theoretical and academic conceptualization to fodder for politicians in record time. Left, right, and center found something appealing in the idea. Senator Bill Bradley articulated the theory of civil society to the National Press Club; Senator Dan Coats introduced a series of bills in Congress to promote its recovery; and General Colin Powell spoke the language of civil society at the volunteer summit in Philadelphia. In Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, organizations were founded to promote civil society in American life.

The publication of Robert Putnam's article "Bowling Alone" was greeted by unprecedented media and popular attention to a work of scholarship. While one could - and many did - challenge .Putnam's data and interpretations, it was impossible to argue that interest in the idea of civil society was somehow manufactured or ungenuine. Clearly the idea and the national mood worked in tandem.

TOO POPULAR FOR ITS OWN GOOD

Some ideas fail because they never make the light of day. The idea of civil society, many critics charged, failed because it became too popular. One hears this mostly among academics, who rightly, if often intemperately, see it as their mission to question any received or conventional wisdom. For Jean Cohen, who, with Andrew Arato, wrote a massive tome tracing the intellectual history of civil society, the concept that originated out of Hegelian philosophy is inevitably corrupted and cheapened when American politicians try to use it in their speeches. Along similar lines, Adam Seligman argues for "the inadequacy of the idea of civil society as a solution to ... contemporary impasses." Modern life, Seligman writes, requires ways in which large-scale, impersonal societies can generate trust among strangers, but civil society implies small-scale worlds of personal relationships that are what Seligman calls "presociological" in nature. Civil society, from his perspective, is an anachronism.

While one ought always to welcome criticism of any idea, these kinds of theoretical points strike me as off the mark. It is certainly useful to inquire into the origins of the term civil society and to be reminded of its context in 18th-century Scotland or 19th-century Germany, but just about all the terms we use today meant something different when they were introduced. When Adam Smith talked about the market, a term he actually used rarely, the systems of exchange he had in mind bear little resemblance to the impersonal, complex, and rule-driven methods of seeking to maximize return that the term has taken on in contemporary microeconomic theory. The same thing applies to a term like civil society. In the writings of Hegel, it may have referred, in Seligman's words, to a realm in which "free, self-determining individuality sets forth its claims for satisfaction of its wants and personal autonomy," but that does not prevent us from using the term today to describe families, churches, and neighborhood associations - so long as we are clear that we are doing so. …

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