Rescuing Civil Society

Rescuing Civil Society

The famous American liberalism/communitarianism debate, which is now being reproduced (at least among academic political theorists) in many parts of the world, is far less important for real politics than the recognition of two competing kinds of communitarianism, one focused on the state and one on civil society. I want to describe these two, and then argue that each of them can play a part, but not in isolation from the other, in helping us address the hardest problems of contemporary society.

(1) The civic republican, Jacobin, statist model—which holds that there is only one really important community, the political community, whose members and agents are the citizens themselves, all of them, conceived as active participants in democratic decision making. Ideally (in Rousseau’s description, for example) they “fly” to the public assemblies; they are eager to join in debates over public policy; when they choose positions, they regularly set the common good over their private interests; they “give the law to themselves,” and live in accordance with this self-legislation. They proudly exemplify the civic virtues. Theirs is a noble image, but, perhaps for that reason, their work doesn’t extend to the more prosaic administrative and distributive activities of the republican state. They are high-minded amateurs, devoted volunteers, but only for the highest tasks; they meet to argue about the great issues of the day. Administration and distribution are left to professionals, to a civil service whose work is determined but not joined by ordinary citizens. In principle, at least, all the citizens participate in deciding how they are to be served, and then the civil service serves everyone.

(2) The pluralist, multiculturalist, model—which holds that there are many communities, based on class, religion, ethnicity, neighborhood, and so on. The state is now understood as a framework, a social union of social unions (in immigrant societies like the United States, a “nation of nationalities”), where intensity, commitment, and the most satisfying forms of common work are realized in the plural social unions, which the singular state supports and facilitates. In the different communities, participation, because it is generated by very strong feelings of solidarity, is focused less on argument and decision making (though the members do have to make decisions) than on mutual aid, and the professional civil service is partly replaced by voluntary social service. Ordinary members serve each other, committing themselves to the everyday work of welfare, schooling, communal upkeep, and celebration. Like republican citizens, they are amateurs, but they are more widely committed than citizens commonly are: they work as recruiters, organizers, administrators, teachers, fund raisers, “helping hands.” They assist the poor, visit the sick, and console the bereaved.

Both these communitarian doctrines are reactive in characte...