Thursday, April 19th, 2012
Among those who study social science and matters of civic engagement, the idea of civil society is regularly held up as a sort of be-all-end-all solution to the many social problems that vex our communities. George L. Kelling’s and James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory (observing that minor infractions like broken windows in a neighborhood spur on more and more serious infractions) and Robert Putnam’s diagnosis of Americans as “bowling alone” (more Americans are bowling, but fewer are doing so with one another) continue to encourage research that laments America’s declining “social capital” and its weakening communities.
While acknowledging the truth of these trends, Gertrude Himmelfarb, writing in The Weekly Standard, finds the appeal to simply strengthen civil society as missing something fundamental. She writes:
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.
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. […]
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.” […]
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.
Himmelfarb’s essay is a helpful reminder about the complex nature of civil society and the importance of taking it seriously–not as a silver bullet that will solve all our society’s problems by itself, but as a complex web that, when healthy, will form and reflect strong communities and good citizens or, when unhealthy, their opposite. Read Himmelfarb’s whole piece here.