Is Civil Society Obsolete?: Revisiting Predictions of the Decline of Civil Society in “”Whose Keeper?””

September 1, 1997

Revivified during the 1980s after a long period of dormancy, the concept of civil society—those forms of communal and associational life which are organized neither by the self-interest of the market nor by the coercive potential of the state—introduced considerable fresh air into both the theory and practice of contemporary societies.

For activists, especially Eastern European dissidents struggling against Communist dictatorships, civil society offered a language of volunteerism and freedom. And for social scientists and political theorists everywhere, civil society served as a reminder that even in the modern world there was more to social life than political economy; while no one doubts the power of private companies and public government, families, neighborhoods, voluntary organizations, and spontaneous political movements nonetheless survived and, on occasion, could assume dramatic importance.

No wonder, then, that the idea of civil society went from theoretical and academic conceptualization to fodder for politicians in record time. Left, right, and center found something appealing in the idea. Senator Bill Bradley articulated the theory of civil society to the National Press Club; Senator Dan Coats introduced a series of bills in Congress to promote its recovery; and General Colin Powell spoke the language of civil society at the volunteer summit in Philadelphia. In Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, organizations were founded to promote civil society in American life.

The publication of Robert Putnam’s article “Bowling Alone” was greeted by unprecedented media and popular attention to a work of scholarship. While one could—and many did—challenge Putnam’s data and interpretations, it was impossible to argue that interest in the idea of civil society was somehow manufactured or ungenuine. Clearly the idea and the national mood worked in tandem.

Too Popular for Its Own Good

Some ideas fail because they never make the light of day. The idea of civil society, many critics charged, failed because it became too popular. One hears this mostly among academics, who rightly, if often intemperately, see it as their mission to question any received or conventional wisdom. For Jean Cohen, who, with Andrew Arato, wrote a massive tome tracing the intellectual history of civil society, the concept that originated out of Hegelian philosophy is inevitably corrupted and cheapened when American politicians try to use it in their speeches. Along similar lines, Adam Seligman argues for “the inadequacy of the idea of civil society as a solution to . . . contemporary impasses.” Modern life, Seligman writes, requires ways in which large-scale, impersonal societies can generate trust among strangers, but civil society implies small-scale worlds of personal relationships that are what Seligman calls “presociological” in nature. Civil society, from his perspective, is an anachronism.

While one ought always to welcome criticism of any idea, these kinds of theoretical points strike me as off the mark. It is certainly useful to inquire into the origins of the term civil society and to be reminded of its context in 18th-century Scotland or 19th-century Germany, but just about all the terms we use today meant something different when they were introduced. When Adam Smith talked about the market, a term he actually used rarely, the systems of exchange he had in mind bear little resemblance to the impersonal, complex, and rule-driven methods of seeking to maximize return that the term has taken on in contemporary microeconomic theory. The same thing applies to a term like civil society. In the writings of Hegel, it may have referred, in Seligman s words, to a realm in which “free, self-determining individuality sets forth its claims for satisfaction of its wants and personal autonomy,” but that does not prevent us from using the term today to describe families, churches, and neighborhood associations—so long as we are clear that we are doing so.

Nor is it persuasive to argue, as some critics do, that civil society is a term appropriate to Eastern Europeans trying to carve out free space in a corrupt Communist system, but not to Americans thinking about volunteerism. If anything, an understanding of civil society as a realm standing between the market and the state is more relevant to contemporary American experience than it is to the situation in former Communist countries. Eastern Europe is experiencing the traumas of the transition to capitalism. Trust, cooperation, and altruism—behaviors generally associated with the virtues of civil society—are not much in evidence; crime, cheating, and rampant suspicion are. Events in that part of the world since 1989 suggest that Eastern European countries will have to pass through some of the more unpleasant dynamics of pure market economies before they will be ready for civil society. Americans, by contrast, have already had their robber barons. Despite our own dispositions toward unfettered capitalism, we have much more strongly developed social institutions capable of cultivating civil society than do Eastern Europeans.

The question is not whether academics and politicians are using the term civil society correctly; it is whether the reality they are trying to capture when they use the term is accurate.

Civil Society in Decline?

A more valuable criticism of the idea of civil society is that writers like Putnam and me, who make the case that civil society has declined, have our facts wrong.

Implicit in this criticism is not just the question of whether soccer leagues are an effective replacement for bowling leagues or whether television is the culprit for declining rates of civic engagement. Rather, moral and political world views clash where the institutions of civil society are presumed to exist. For many feminists, for example, the whole idea that civil society is in decline can be interpreted as part of the backlash against women s entry into the workforce, since it was women historically who assumed the burdens of family and communal life.

But it is not just feminists who advance this line of argument. The feminist critique, rather, is shorthand for a defense of modernity against nostalgia. Women’s entry into the labor force is just one of many changes in America since the 1950s that can be understood as part of the desire of individuals to have more control over their lives. Others might include greater social and economic mobility, the breakup of neighborhoods organized along lines of racial caste and ethnic homogeneity, and the desires of the young (and the old) for more autonomy. Defending those changes, writers in this tradition argue that we ought to scrutinize carefully any claims that a past golden age was more wholesome than present discontents, if for no other reason than to check the propensity of social critics to romanticize an era which, however communal it might seem in retrospect, gave people less freedom than they have now.

I feel attracted to both sides in this debate. My book, Whose Keeper? Social Science and Moral Obligation, published in 1989, was one of the first attempts to take the concept of civil society as it had emerged in Eastern Europe earlier in the decade and apply it to modern Western societies. In that book I spent considerable time comparing the United States, which relies more on the market, with Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, where the state plays a major role. Is there any evidence, I asked, that both kinds of societies, no matter how different in the institutions they use to fulfill moral obligations, are nonetheless similar in neglecting a third realm of social life which is neither economic nor political? My conclusion—based on such indicators of voluntary activity as blood donations, charitable giving, and the treatment of the young and the elderly—was that both did indeed tend to neglect the role of civil society. My book was written from the perspective that civil society would hardly be worth discussing unless it was in danger.

At the same time, I shared the political perspective of the anti-nostalgia camp. Worried that my book would be interpreted as a call to return to a world of racial caste and gender discrimination, I wrote that a healthy realm of civil society was necessary, not to reject modernity, but to complete its trajectory. Already then, and even more since, I felt a strong distaste for the Jeremiah-like social science practitioner whose description of America in decline seemed to have as much to do with his own distemper as with empirical reality. I hoped that at least parts of Whose Keeper? would be proven wrong, as indeed, parts of it were. Scandinavian societies, for one thing, reached the limit of their reliance on the state: Swedes retain their distaste for volunteerism, but they have been forced to cut back the welfare state, while the Danes, who do not like the Swedish cutbacks, have always had more tolerance than the Swedes for private schools or grass-roots organizations. And in America, the very fact that civil society became so popular a term suggested that my predictions of its weakening were premature.

Controversies over the presumed decline of civil society are deep and divisive, but they also serve as a model for how important ideas ought to be discussed. There seems little doubt that some of the more alarmist accounts of civil society’s decline, including my own, were exaggerated. Robert Putnam’s earlier formulations of the degree to which social capital has been depleted have been effectively criticized by a veritable academic and journalistic industry, but that only testifies to the power of Putnam’s way of analyzing the problem, the initially persuasive nature of the data he assembled, and his skill at calling attention to this idea. The social sciences cannot be modeled exactly on the natural sciences, but they do have this one similarity with them: the hypotheses they advance must be subject to as vigorous a process of disconfirmation as possible, after which they ought to be reformulated and reworked to account for alternative data and interpretations. This is exactly what has happened to “Bowling Alone.”

Adapting to New Realities

At the same time, there remains an important core of truth in Putnam’s argument. When all the data and interpretations are sorted out, my guess is that the story will run something like this: those who worried that civil society was in decline were correct to suggest that something serious was taking place in that realm of social life which—whatever we call it—relies on cooperation, altruism, and intimacy. But those changes can best be understood as qualitative rather than quantitative in nature. It is not the number of organizations to which one belongs that matters. Nor is it whether they require active members or rely mostly on mailing lists. Americans retain their social and civic instincts, but they have little choice but to shape them to the new realities of two-career families, suburban life styles, and rapid career changes. There is little question that the world of civil society at century s end bears little relationship to the images Americans often have of how communal and associational life is supposed to work. There are, however, many open questions about what this new world of civil society looks like and whether it can play the role that important theories of democracy have assigned to civil society in the past.

Less likely to find civil society in neighborhoods, families, and churches, Americans are more likely to find it at the workplace, in cyberspace, and in forms of political participation that are less organized and more sporadic than traditional political parties. Can these newly emerging forms of civil society act as a buffer between the market and the state, protecting Americans from the consequences of selfishness on the one hand and coercive altruism on the other? Will they encourage people to practice political participation, learning through the local and the immediate what it means to be a citizen of the nation and even the world? Are they sufficient to encourage in people a sense of responsibility for both themselves and those with whom they share their society?

We will obviously not have definitive answers to these questions for some time, if ever. Still, I think the outlines of a general answer are already evident. If we listen carefully both to those who worry about civil society s decline and to their critics, we ought to come away impressed by the capacity of Americans to reinvent their worlds. The lament that civil society is in decline too often pays insufficient respect to this perpetual reinvention. It is a testimony to Americans that they constantly tinker with families, neighborhoods, and churches, searching for new forms that provide for both tradition and modernity, freedom and community. The nostalgia trap is a real one, and we are best off not falling into it.

At the same time, there is no guarantee that new forms of association will satisfy what civil society has often been called on to do. That is why, even as we avoid nostalgia, we also ought to listen to the worrisome tone in accounts of civil society’s depletion. The fact that changes in the nature of the family benefit women does not necessarily mean that they benefit children. Organizations devoted to single-issue causes encourage political activism, but not in the same way as organizations more concerned with the public interest. Political campaigning which relies on television can educate voters and turn them out, but does not encourage responsibility in the same way that political parties once did. Churches which recruit new members in ways more similar to therapy than religion have their uses, but encouraging acceptance of the tragic limits to life is not one of them. The more things change, the less they stay the same.

Civil society, in short, is not obsolete; it can never be. Without a realm of associational and communal life independent of the market and the state, we cannot experience the richness of citizenship and the rewards of personal and group responsibility. But one term in the discussion of civil society is, or ought to be, obsolete, and that is the notion of decline. We ought to abolish from our language dealing with social institutions and practices a way of thinking which compares the present with some mythic past—as well as some hopeful future. What we need when we talk about society is not a sense of the worlds we have lost. We need to live in the world we have as best we can. So long as that is the case, civil society will always be around us—and can always be improved.