Acton Institute Powerblog

What conservatives and progressives get wrong about civil society

In the wake of modernity, we’ve seen in an increasing divide between individual and state—a simultaneous acceleration in both self-exultation and blind deference to the power and might of “collective action.” The result has been a cultural amnesia regarding the middle layers of civil society.

To what degree have we neglected that space—from families to churches, from charities to any range of economic enterprises and activities? What might we be missing or forgetting about these basic institutions that, up until now, have held our country together?

In recent years, thinkers across the ideological spectrum have drawn our attention to the void, as seen in works ranging from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone to Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. Thankfully, it has revived a bit of our national attention toward the importance of civil society to the flourishing of America. But is there still something we’re missing?

In an essay in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Yuval Levin notes that, despite our renewed focus on the value of civil society, conservatives and progressives continue to operate with significant blind spots—viewing the mediating institutions through the narrow lens of ideological positioning and political leverage.

“Americans are also distinctly obsessed with civil society because although the civil sector has always had a central place in our national life,” Levin writes, “its place has also always been contested in ways that cut to the core of our politics, and because the very idea of civil society points to deep tensions in our understanding of what our society is and how it works.”

For conservatives and libertarians, Levin observes, promotions of civil society are often grounded in an instinctive reactionism against the state, providing value only as a buffer or cushion between government excess and the free reign of the individual:

In the conservative and libertarian imagination, civil society is often forced into theories of classical-liberal individualism that view the voluntary sector as fundamentally a counterforce to government, and therefore as a means of enabling individual independence and holding off encroachments of federal power. It is in the civic sector that liberal theories of legitimacy—as arising from direct consent, and leaving fully intact the rights and freedoms of the individual—are said to be best put into practice, so that it is in civil society that legitimate social organization is said to really happen. The implicit goals of this approach to civil society involve a transfer of responsibility from government to civil society, especially in welfare, education, and social insurance.

For progressives, however, civil society is often a mere bridge between the individual and the state—momentarily curbing the inevitable, reckless destruction of free individuals, but eventually leading us to greater expansions and realizations of government control, centralization, and self-protection:

In the progressive imagination, meanwhile, civil society is often understood in the context of intense suspicion of non-democratic power centers, which are implicitly taken to enable prejudice and backwardness that oppress minority groups and undermine the larger society’s commitment to equality. This has led to an inclination to submit the work of civil society to the legitimating mechanisms of democratic politics—and especially national politics. In practice, this means allowing the federal government to set the ends of social action and then seeing civil-society organizations as among the available means to those ends, valued for their practical effectiveness and local flavor, but restrained from oppressing the individual citizen or effectively governing him without his consent. The implicit goals of this approach to civil society involve a transfer of decision-making responsibility from civil society to the government, which can then use the organs of civil society as mere administrators of public programs—especially in welfare, health care, and education.

By assuming these sorts of postures, Levin warns, we devalue and diminish the role that civil society actually plays in shaping our social, economic, and political lives. By framing our imaginations about civil society only in defense or reaction to the individual or the state, we are likely to perpetuate the very problems we claim to fear.

Indeed, when we dilute or remove the mediating institutions of society, the warring sides of radical individualism and hyper-centralization actually look more similar than ever, whether in the baseness of their basic allegiances or the coarse consistency of their ultimate fruits:

A politics shaped by such multilayered distortions easily devolves into crude, abstract debates between radical individualism and intense centralization. And these, in turn, devolve into accusations of socialism and social Darwinism, libertinism and puritanism.

But centralization and atomism are not actually opposite ends of the political spectrum. They are closely related tendencies, and they often coexist and reinforce one another—each making the other possible. The centralization and nationalization of social services crowds out mediating institutions; the resulting breakdown of communal wholes into atomized individuals leaves people less capable of helping themselves and one another, which leaves them looking to the national government for help; and the cycle then repeats. It is when we pursue both of these extremes together, as we frequently do in contemporary America, that we most exacerbate the dark sides of our fracturing and dissolution.

Instead of seeing civil society as a mere buffer or a bridge, we should align our imaginations around its true, civilizational function—the basic core of our social, economic, and political lives.

By returning the “middle-layer” of society to its proper place and granting it the appropriate respect, we will not only enrich our views about the individual, but we will also begin to see the true function and limits of politics and government. Once we see the centrality of the spheres of culture, we are able to flip our thinking about the supposed centrality of the state and the self.

In turn, politics can become a place not of power struggles and micro-managing, but of problem-solving within the proper constraints. “We can see our way toward a politics that might overcome some of the dysfunctions of our day,” Levin concludes: “a politics that can lower the temperature, focus us on practical problems, remind us of the sources of our freedoms, and replenish social capital.”

Image: Public Domain

Joseph Sunde

is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.