Civil Society.

            What is the relationship between the Individual and Government?  In the Western tradition of political thought, the answer to that question has been “civil society.”  However, the term “civil society” has meant different specific things at different times.  For the Greeks, it was the achievement of the “good life” through the “polis” (city-state); for the Romans of both the Republic and the Empire, the state and civil society were identical.  For Western Europeans of the Middle Ages, the term had no meaning in the decentralized system of feudalism and the social-economic system of serfdom.  During the Early Modern Period (c. 1500-1750), Absolute Monarchy became the ideal political form, even if reality rarely matched the ideal.  However, Absolute Monarchy’s ever-advancing claims to regulate aspects of life, provoked a reaction.  The most important thinker of this reaction was John Locke, who elaborated the existing “social contract” theory of politics as a check on absolutism. 

A bunch of thinkers then piled-on to Locke’s argument.  Hegel, De Tocqueville, and Marx all argued, in their various ways, that civil society meant the limiting of government power by the spontaneous creation and functioning of independent groups in a society.  The Nineteenth Century Liberal ideal of a small state rested, in part, on a faith in “voluntarism”[1] in a healthy society.  Massive population growth, industrialization, and political conflicts transformed the context of this argument.  In particular, the rise of the modern dictatorships between the two World Wars expanded the reach of government into private and associational life.[2]  The Nazis and the Soviets, in particular, either subordinated or destroyed and replaced with their own creations all independent social organizations. 

In theory, the emergence of “problem-solving” representative governments in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries should not produce the same collapse of civil society.  Yet, at least in the United States, that seems to have happened in the years since 1950.  More than twenty years ago, Robert Putnam argued that the long stretch of years after the Second World War witnessed a grievous decline in associational activities.[3]  Putnam’s explanations for this decline do not include the expansion of government substitutes.  However, Republicans have not hesitated to treat state expansion beyond certain limits as pathological.[4] 

Regardless of the cause of as social atomization, the atomization seems real.  One result is a “crisis of loneliness.”[5]  Democrats and Republicans may differ over whether the answer is to be found in government action or in private initiative.  The health of both private individuals and of democracy may be at stake in finding the right answers. 

[1] “See a problem, solve a problem.”  So, youth groups, sports groups, church groups, professional associations, trade unions, civic associations, hobby clubs.  NB: Night clubs and strip clubs don’t count. 

[2] On the Fascist dictatorships, see Victoria de Grazia, The Culture of Consent: Mass Organizations of Leisure in Fascist Italy, (Cambridge UP, 1981); Julia Timpe, Nazi-Organized Recreation and Entertainment in the Third Reich, (Palgrave Macmillan UK 2016).  For the Soviet Union, see the photographic exhibit of Peter Marlow, Recuperation and Recreation in Soviet Russia: Holidaying Behind the Iron Curtain • Peter Marlow • Magnum Photos   

[3] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). 

[4] This is particularly the case for federal welfare policies pursued since the “Great Society” of the Sixties.  However, the deluge of government spending during and after the Covid pandemic has become a prime target for Republicans who criticize dependence upon government payments.  In their eyes, it undermines self-reliance and self-respect. 

[5] John Leland, “How Loneliness Is Damaging Our Health,” New York Times, 20 April 2022; and Vivek Murthy, “Addressing the Public Health Crisis of Loneliness,” Addressing the public health crisis of loneliness – Bing video