|"There can be life beyond economics and politics" OR "A
short history of civil society" May 16, 1998
For the Calgary Herald
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, political scientists and sociologists have been singing the praises of civil society. The explanation is this. Civil society is the domain of freedom and voluntary co-operation; it is a manifestation of gregariousness; it is a sure sign that human beings are naturally social and capable of co-operating in the absence of the coercive power of the state; it is proof that political force is unnecessary to create order. In short, civil society is a testimony to the human capacity for spontaneous order.
Unfortunately, this natural human capacity was ruthlessly suppressed by the totalitarian state in the former Soviet Union. And now that the totalitarian state has been dismantled, the territories that once made up the former super- power are floundering, bereft of order and civility.
The task at hand is to make possible the development of that delicate flower that has been so mercilessly destroyed. That cannot happen overnight but will take decades. This is the current wisdom that has led to the romanticization of civil society into a panacea for all the ills of politics. But a short history of civil society will tell a different tale.
In the 17th century, civil society was a term used by philosophers such as John Locke as a way of distinguishing political order from the state of nature. Locke thought that the society itself was natural, but that political order was an artificial construction. As the father of liberalism, Locke bequeathed to the liberal tradition the important distinction between the state and society.
In the 19th century, the philosopher G. W. F. Hegel inherited the liberal distinction between the state and society, which he referred to as civil society. Hegel complained that liberalism regarded the state as an association of mutual advantage and, in so doing, failed to distinguish it from civil society. The latter is the domain of the family, the Church, professional associations, corporations, clubs and other associations of mutual interest and advantage. Civil society is particular, pluralistic, and diverse. In contrast, the state has its foundation in universal principles to which all owe allegiance regardless of their particular interests, religion, or station.
For Hegel, the state is not built on selfishness and mutual advantage, but on selfless devotion to principles and a willingness to lay down one's life for these ideals. He therefore surmised that the state is superior to civil society. In contrast to the state, civil society seemed to him like a selfish affair.
Despite his deprecation of civil society in comparison to the state, Hegel upheld the liberal idea that the state should leave society alone and not interfere in its affairs.
But the damage was done. Hegel's romanticization of the state opened the way to the total or totalitarian state-- the state that regards itself as sovereign, the state that subordinates everything in civil society to itself, the state that turns civil society into a means for its own ends, the state that interferes in every aspect of life; the state that totally strangles civil society and its spontaneous order. The totalitarian state was the enemy of the market, the churches, and the synagogues; it controlled education, communication, the media and all cultural activities.
The totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, and Stalin subverted the liberal spirit of Hegel's philosophy and focused only on his praise and eulogy to the state. They used the state's alleged superiority to interfere in every aspect of civil society.
Karl Marx was critical of Hegel's distinction between the state and civil society and rejected his liberal view of civil society as a domain of freedom that must remain independent of state interference. Insofar as the market economy belonged to civil society, it was outside of the jurisdiction of politics and immune to its regulation. In Marx's view, this was little more than a capitalist trick that allowed economic exploitation to proceed unimpeded by the power of the state. Marx reduced civil society to the market and argued that all other associations within civil society were but reflections of market forces.
Marx is not popular in our day and age. He inspired the bloodiest revolution of our century. But he also inspired the great reforms of the western industrialized world. Reforms such as minimum wages, maximum working hours, labor unions, the prohibition of child labor, and publicly funded education have moderated the injustices of the capitalist system and made it possible for it to survive-- much to Marx's chagrin. The irony is that if we really want to preserve capitalist economics, we must listen to its greatest critic and modify it accordingly.
The Canadian social welfare state is a classic example of how the wrongs of capitalism were tempered by socialist ideas.
The fall of communism in Eastern Europe has renewed the vitality and moral righteousness of capitalism. Civil society has become a battle cry for advocates of laissez- faire capitalism. The term obscures the injustices of unrestricted capitalism and presents capitalism dressed in the garb of civil society-- freedom, diversity, plurality, individuality, initiative, and collective co- operation.
This is why we must be wary of politicians who sing the praises of civil society too loudly. The language of civil society is more often than not a defense of big business masquerading as a defense of freedom. The term conceals the market imperialism of the right-wing agenda. The latter is determined to reduce all of life to commodities at the mercy of market forces – education, health, the sciences, and the arts. We are led to believe that any state interference in the capitalist economy is simply a totalitarian destruction of the precious flowering of spontaneous order. But not every spontaneous order is just or desirable.
The sovereign imperialism of the market economy is not desirable because the market cannot sustain the most valuable activities of civilized life. For example, the decline of film-making in Hollywood is directly connected to its increasing reliance on market forces. Canadian universities are quickly moving in the same direction, eager to make their research relevant to an increasingly sovereign market; they have compromised themselves and the quality of their education. A sovereign market economy is not only undesirable but also impossible. Laissez- faire economists who insist on freedom from state interference are disingenuous. No one relies more heavily on the assistance of the state and its resources than big business.
Our current political life is largely a struggle between big business and big government. New advocates of civil society, such as Michael Walzer (an American liberal political theorist), believe that there is more to civil society than the market and there is more to social life than politics. They would dearly love to revive the plurality and diversity of human associations that were invoked by Hegel when he used the term civil society. They believe that only a diversity of strong associations can succeed in diffusing the power of the market on one hand and the state on the other. But so far, this is little more than wishful thinking.