The Blog


12:00 AM, Sep 9, 1996 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

I would think that it is not just contrariness on my part that makes me wince, these days, on hearing talk of civil society. Liberals and conservatives, communitarians and libertarians, Democrats and Republicans, academics and politicians appeal to civil society as the remedy for our dire condition. They agree upon little else but this, that mediating structures, voluntary associations, families, communities, churches, and workplaces are the corrective to an inordinate individualism and an overweening state.

The ubiquity of the phrase is enough to make it suspect. What can it mean if people of such diverse views can invoke it so enthusiastically? I am as critical as anyone (perhaps more than most) of an individualism that is self- absorbed and self-indulgent, obsessively concerned with the rights, liberties, and choices of the "autonomous" person. And I am no less critical of a state that has usurped the authority of those institutions in civil society which once mitigated that excessive individualism. But I am also wary of civil society used as a rhetorical panacea, as if the mere invocation of the term is a solution to all problems -- an easy, painless solution, a happy compromise between two extremes.

Civil society is indeed in a sorry condition. The welfare state is a classic case of the appropriation by government of the functions traditionally performed by families and localities. Neighbors feel no obligation to help one another when they can call upon the government for assistance. Private and religious charities are often little more than conduits of the state for the distribution of public funds (and are obliged to distribute those funds in accord with the requirements fixed by government bureaucrats).

But it is not only the weakness of civil society that is at fault. Some of the institutions of civil society -- private schools and universities, unions and non-profit foundations, civic and cultural organizations -- are stronger and more influential than ever. And they have been complicitous in fostering the very evils that civil society is supposed to mitigate. The individualistic ideology of rights and the statist ideology of big government are reflected in the causes that these institutions have promoted: feminism, multiculturalism, affirmative action, political correctness.

Proponents of civil society try to rescue the concept by specifying that the mediating structures they are talking about are not these large, bureaucratic, quasi- public institutions, but small, voluntary, face-to-face groups. But these too are sometimes part of the problem rather than the solution. The family, the most basic and intimate unit of civil society, is hardly a paragon of virtue. For a long time social workers, committed to the family as the natural, proper habitat for the child, made every effort to keep abused children with their abusive parents. Only recently, confronted with cases of the most flagrant cruelty, have some of them been persuaded to remove those children from their "dysfunctional families," as the euphemism has it.

Nor is the face-to-face principle reliable in other instances. It is instructive to recall that a great impetus to the ideology of absolute individual rights and freedom of choice came from small, neighborly, face-to-face groups in the early 1970s -- the consciousness-raising sessions that heralded the feminist movement. Today, we have other face-to-face groups -- neighborhood gangs, for example -- that by this definition qualify as members of civil society but are hardly what the proponents of civil society have in mind.

What is required, then, is not only a restoration of civil society but the far more difficult task of reformation-moral reformation. Even to articulate the problem is difficult, because the language of morality has become suspect. One of the reasons the idea of civil society is so attractive is that it is couched in the language of sociology, which speaks of society in structural and functional terms. In ordinary times, that language is sufficient for purposes of analysis and reform, because underlying those structures and functions is a moral consensus that is taken for granted, values that may not be articulated but that are the bedrock of society. It is only when that consensus is shattered that we are driven to reexamine those values to try to understand why our mediating structures have failed.