“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.
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.
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.