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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


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.



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