Magazine article Liberal Education

Civil Society

Magazine article Liberal Education

Civil Society

Article excerpt

WHY CIVIL SOCIETY? Why now? That we are debating civil society, its meaning and purpose, is in and of itself fascinating and important. Civil society as a concept has a long and uneven history. For the political philosopher Hegel, it signified a realm of markets and competition and contract whose divisions would be healed over only when the citizen entered the most universal of all ethical realms, that of the state. Civil society, in the Hegelian scheme of things is a higher realm than that of individuals and families, but definitely lower in the overall picture than the more complete and perfect entity, the state.

This European (or perhaps, more properly, "Germanic") way of talking about civil society is not what those claiming the term for contemporary American political debate have in mind, however. For the most part, civil society in our context signifies a sphere of associational life that is, yes, "more" than families and "less" than states, and therein lie precisely its virtues rather than its defects or inadequacies. Americans have always been far more suspicious of the state and concentrations of power at the center than were European state-makers in the heroic era of state creation and legitimation.

By civil society we have in mind the many forms of community and association that dot the landscape of a democratic culture-families (for we often put the family in civil society, although it is lodged there pretty clumsily), churches, neighborhood groups, trade unions, self-help movements, volunteer activities of all sorts. Historically, political parties, too, were part of this picture, part of a network that lies outside the formal structure of state power. Observers of American democracy have long recognized the vital importance of civil society thus understood. Some have spoken of "mediating institutions" that lie between the individual and the government or state, locating each of us in a number of little estates, so to speak, which are themselves nested within wider, overlapping frameworks of sustaining and supporting institutions. This densely textured social ecology was-and remains-the ideal. For civil society is a realm that is neither individualist nor collectivist. It partakes of both the "I" and the "we."

Democratic theorists (not all, but most) have issued cautions over the years that America as a democratic culture is perhaps uniquely dependent on vital peripheries, reliant on the vibrancy of political spaces other than or beneath those of the state. These included, of course, town councils and governmental structures of all sorts. But the aim throughout was to forestall concentrations of power at the core or on the top. This is the argument associated with Alexis de Tocqueville in his much cited classic, Democracy in America: only many small-scale civic bodies enable citizens to cultivate democratic virtues and to play an active role in the drama of democracy. Such participation turns on meaningful involvement in some form of community, by which is meant commitments and ties that locate the citizen in bonds of trust, reciprocity, mutuality, competence for the task at hand.

Civil society's critics

This all sounds good. Too good to be true, argue some critics, who believe that the current civil society talk is at best a big evasion, at worst a pernicious invitation to triumphant localism. What is being evaded, in the critics' view? The legitimate role of central government, for one thing, for there are tasks only the federal government can, or perhaps should, undertake. This compelling criticism can be addressed and worked out, it seems to me, by noting the ongoing complexities of our federal system As one example, a spate of Supreme Court decisions this past summer has had, among other things, the effect of opening the door to a revitalization of federalism, even state sovereignty or multiple sovereignties. When I was studying constitutional law in the early 1970s, federalism was considered pretty much a dead letter. …

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