Friday, August 12, 2011

Riots and Civil Society

Peggy Noonan, as usual, asks the critical question in the aftermath of the London riots and the Philadelphia flash mobs.

When the riot begins or the flash mob arrives, the best the government can do is control the streets, enforce the law, maintain the peace.

After that, what? Britain is about to face that question. We'll likely have to face it, too.

The usual answer, she writes, is "The government has to do something. We must start a program, create an agency to address juvenile delinquency." Only that seems to be a joke these days. After all, the youths of London have been programmed, agencied, and delinquencied to death in the last half century. And still we get riots?

The conservative answer to the failure of the authoritarian welfare state with its programs, its agencies, and its flexible responses is "civil society." That goes back to Edmund Burke and his "little platoons." Berger and Neuhaus addressed it in To Empower People where they argued for "mediating structures," of family, church, association between the individual and the state.

But recently I have been reading the work of Lawrence Cahoone. His Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics is a profound critique of the failure of "neutralist liberalism" and an argument for civil society. Of course, his book is not a font of policy prescriptions, ammo for politicians eager to "do something" in the present crisis. It does little more than describe civil society: What it is, what it means, and what it does.

Even in the chaos of the London riots we can see civil society at work. From the Daily Mail.

In Dalston and Hackney, north-east London, Turkish shopkeepers and their families fought back against looting youths, before spending the night standing shoulder-to-shoulder in an attempt to deter further attacks.

One man said: 'This is Turkish Kurdish area. They come to our shops and we fight them with sticks.'

Well, that is getting close to tribalism, but you get my point. When the chips are down, civil society means that the men get together to defend their neighborhood. You can also see that where families have degraded into single mothers and children, the defense option has suddenly become problematic. The neighborhood women defending their homes, assisted by their feral children?

Cahoone describes civil society in two major chapters of his book. The first, "Civil Society," describes civil society institutionally; the second, "Civility, Neighborhood, and Culture," describes it from a cultural perspective.

The key point is that civil society is informal, a "quasi-independent association of households." It is not government, but it is an association that relates to government. In detail, Cahoone describes five characteristics of civil society:

  • The autonomy of the social "Society gets its norms from the inside rather than from institutions outside it."
  • Expansion of civitas to society There are no subjects, only citizens. Aristocrat and commoner are united in their "Frenchness" or "Englishness."
  • Spontaneous order Social order emerges out of "social interactions not coordinated by command" or political will.
  • Institutional pluralism No "single agency dominates social life." There are different types of institutions competing and many competing within each type.
  • Market economy Civil "societies must have market economies," but civil society is not the same as the market; it abuts the market economy and "the rules of civility are not the rules of the market."

You can see that anyone taking these notions seriously must be a foe of what Juergen Habermas called the "authoritarian" welfare state.

At the cultural level, writes Cahoone, it is important to keep front and center the idea that civil society is not politics. It is primarily "living-with, not talking-with." It has these qualities: "membership, freedom, civility, and dignity" that must not be violated. It is a loose form of association, with moral rules, obligation, and civility that falls short of a binding social contract. It requires above all a recognition of dignity, "recognizable worthiness," a rough equality so that banker and laborer take care to relate as equals, treating each other with civility and dignity.

The culture of the neighborhood and of localism is threatened in the modern era, partly by the growth of the modern economy and state, and partly by "liberal anti-localism." When liberals want to do something, they do it at the national level. Yet it is clear from the London riots that the marginalization of civil society at the neighborhood level leaves the local community naked to the power of the thugs.

The essential core of the civil society is its "dialectic of civility and culture." There cannot be a "pure civility." It "must be informed by some cultural tradition." But not just one tradition. Thus civil society implies a diversity, a competition of cultural narratives, with some inside the cultural consensus and some left outside. The point is to minimize coercion, so that competing narratives can try to change the consensus. "Civil society and culture engage in a kind of dance" in which "the point is to keep dancing."

The deeper you immerse yourself in this kind of thinking the more you understand just how it challenges and threatens the current hegemony of the liberal elite and their authoritarian welfare state. Liberals cannot bear the idea of a spontaneous order where they cannot direct the national conversation. They cannot bear the idea of giving up control of the local neighborhood; they cannot bear the idea of toleration and co-existence with conservative culture.

Modernity is a mix of "market, civil society, and nationalism," writes Cahoone, and when you think about it, our liberal friends are at war with all three. They want to control the market, marginalize civil society, and neuter nationalism. And for what?

Right now, we see the whole liberal project teetering, and some prophesy that it is about to collapse in ruins. Given the weakness of President Obama, there is no telling what may happen. But the cultural and political opening created by the liberal crack-up creates an opportunity. With the right ideas and a new appreciation for civil society modern conservatives can work with the American people to conceive and birth a new order, in which the war on modernity will be defeated, and the three sectors of modernity can grow and flourish in freedom, trust, and dignity.

But first we must dash aside the poisoned chalice of the authoritarian welfare state.

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