Friday, July 22, 2011

Energizing Civil Society

Suppose we agree with Edmund Burke that it is the "little platoons," with Berger and Neuhaus that it is the "mediating structures", and with Lawrence Cahoone that civil society is the essential ingredient for the liberal republican society because "under conditions of civility, membership plus freedom equals dignity." Now what?

The what is obviously the culture that animates the civil society. The whole point of civil society is that it is a space of people living together without the interference of government, a community that, most of the time, resolves its problems internally.

But obviously, people do not just jolly along with their neighbors in a vacuum. They are inspired by trust in each other.

In The Faith Instinct Nicholas Wade makes it clear what it takes to get people to live together without being bossed around by police and government. It is religion. In the crudest terms, it is the threat of divine justice. People that behave badly may not be punished in this life but they will certainly be punished in the next one.

To expand this notion we could say that culture, in the broadest sense including religion, folkways, philosophy, and moral movements, is what makes civil society--people living together--work and give life meaning.

In the United States in the last century we have experienced a culture war between people who wanted to continue the Judeo-Christian religious cultural tradition and those who wanted a break with it in the direction of more sexual freedom, more cultural creativity, and more government in the areas of health, education, and welfare that were previously the responsibility of the Church and civil society. The situation has become complicated by the entry into the United States of East and South Asians with their faith traditions. How can all these traditions be brought together and blended so that civil society is still possible?

The answer is fairly simple. The three great cultural traditions, Abrahamic, Hindu, and Confucian, must come together to tame the modernist war on tradition and the mediating structures of civil society. For the great traditions are united in their knowledge of the importance of personal piety, the moderation of the individual impulse with the social impulse. They stand in the way of radical individual license and radical government power.

The moment for this coming together is now, as the modernist combination of radical individualism and overweening government crashes morally, economically, and financially all over the world. The great power of instrumental reason in the economic sector and the political sector must be tamed, and the place to do it is in the middle, the public sphere between the megastructures where people come to live together or close to each other and take off their political armor and economic weapons.

Is this possible? Can we really succeed in taming the monster? We already tamed the monster of plantation slavery, that Original Sin of capitalism. Now it is time to tame the monster combination of antisocial individualism and anti-human big government. It can't be that hard.

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