Why Civil Society Can't Fix Us Print
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 24 May 2010 08:01

“Civil society” typically refers to private and voluntary institutions distinct from both the bureaucracies of the nation-state and the economic institutions of the market.  It includes “mediating institutions” like the family, the Moose Lodge, charities, churches, unions, the Chamber of Commerce, educational institutions, United Way, neighborhoods, softball teams, professional associations, the whole complex web of formal and informal associations in which modern Americans and Europeans spend much of their non-working lives.

Civil society has long been a talismanic theme among political thinkers, and has proved flexible enough to serve the purposes of both left and right.  Conservatives following the lead of Tocqueville emphasize that the institutions of civil society provide a “buffer” between the raw, indiscriminate power of the state and the isolated individual.  Were civil society to fracture (as some fear it is – Bowling Alone!), each individual would stand exposed before the potentially tyrannical bureaucratic apparatus of the state.  Institutions in civil society provide an intimate locus of identity and loyalty, which helps to curb the totalizing demands of the state.  Civil society binds us, and a cord of three strands is not easily broken.

On the left (and among certain kinds of conservatives), civil society is more often seen as a curb on the corrosions of the market and its protean values.  Left alone among the groaning shelves in the market, we’d tend to individualistic habits of self-indulgence and consumerism.  Were we to take our cues only from the market’s marketing, we’d be seduced by the flash of the ever-new.  Civil society is tradition-bound.  It offers goods that cannot be offered for sale.  It’s within the institutions of civil society that community happens and communal values are nurtured.

Whether the threat to social good comes from encroaching statism or encroaching marketism, we are assured from every side that civil society will be there to stop it.  Civil society will save us.

One of the most interesting contemporary advocates civil society is the English theologian and political guru Phillip Blond, whose “Red Toryism” borrows from both the right’s and the left’s uses of civil society.

Though a self-identified conservative, Blond is refreshingly hard to pin down.  He came to some prominence during the recent Parliamentary elections as a brainy advisor to the new Tory PM, David Cameron.  When you hear Cameron talk about his hopes for “Big Society,” you’re hearing him channel Blond.  Blond is conservative enough to write with respect about Enoch Powell, and he explains in his provocative, passionate, detail-bloated, (at times) indifferently written manifesto Red Tory (Faber and Faber, 2010) that he left his youthful leftism behind when he began to realize that all his leftist friends believed in “was unlimited choice and unrestricted personal freedom.”  He signed up as a leftist to empower the little guy not to make a fetish of abortion rights, and he was baffled when his friends instead embraced a “rootless cultural relativism” that celebrated choice but “could never tell you what to choose or why.”  Blond’s analysis of “illiberal legacy of liberalism” rings familiar changes, but it is a bracing sketch of how, unmoored from every vision of the common good, liberalism collapses into tyranny.

At the same time, Blond can be as hard on the contemporary right and as critical of contemporary capitalism as his erstwhile political allies.  He is no fan of Thatcherism, arguing that Thatcher damaged intermediate institutions and centralized power in ways that undermined her intentions of expanding the freedom of British citizens.  Thatcher failed, Blond thinks, because she was a liberal and not a conservative.  He endorses Hilaire Belloc’s complaint that socialism and the welfare state are forms of slavery, but he equally embraces Belloc’s charge that capitalism also institutes a form of master-slave relation and rests on dispossession of traditional land-owning classes.  For Blond, the common good of society, which is not identical to a rising GDP, is the aim of politics.

Behind all the heated political wrangling and rhetoric, he discerns altogether too much similarity between the leftish cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s and the rightist economic revolution of the 1980s and 90s.  Both, he says, share the same individualist and voluntarist view of human nature.  Both create oligarchies and rob ordinary people of power.

Blond’s proposals for solving the triple crisis of British society – economic, democratic, social – all aim at strengthening the institutions of civil society and empowering lower levels of government.  Despite their careful liberal denials, educational institutions and media already promote some vision of the common good; Blond wants them to take that responsibility seriously, and to promote genuinely good ends.  Markets will be free only if they are moral, and market regulations should arise out of a shared ethos rather than imposed by the state.  Power should be devolved to local communities, space should be carved out for small local firms to compete with multinational giants, local residents should police local areas.

For all its virtues, Blond’s Red Toryism reminds me of why I have grown impatient with appeals to civil society.  With William Cavanaugh, I wonder if civil society is (in practice as well as in theory) a construct of the modern nation state and, if so, whether it can pose a real alternative to rampant statism.  I wonder too if civil society really has the viscera to do what its advocates want it to do.  When medieval rulers overstepped, there was a bishop at the door, terrifying with a real spiritual sword.  Before modernity, the counterweight to state power was not some amorphous cobble of associations but a church with real power and a structure just as rigorously organized as the king’s realm, often more so.  Solidarity brought down the Polish Communist regime, but would it have done so without a Polish Pope?  Civil society looks like an alternative church, and an anemic one.  Constantine had a better idea: Empower the church.

That historical point indicates that the failure of civil society politics is finally a theological failure.  Blond studied with John Milbank and has edited a volume of essays on Post-Secular Philosophy.  He is, I presume, suspicious of secular politics, and I suspect he would agree that a revival of orthodox Christianity will be crucial to the success of Red Toryism.  But his manifesto makes only passing reference to religion, and even there he musters only a generic nod to “a transcendent God.”

Cavanaugh has pointed out, quite accurately, that the idea of civil society carries an implicit ecclesiology.  Advocates of civil society want to enlist churches into a program of national restoration.  The implicit ecclesiology is a thoroughly modern one: The church is not an alternative public or an alternative civic order, but a voluntary organization that assists the state because it has proven itself effective in forming a compliant citizenry.  But churches aren’t in the business of national restoration but are called to witness to and embody the kingdom to come.

More simply: Civil society is a prescription for social healing that relativizes the healing society.  It aims to restore brotherhood among men without acknowledging the Fatherhood of God, to restore communion without mention of the Spirit.  It is a proposal for social salvation that doesn’t make any mention of the Savior.

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