The Search for Civil Society


by Benjamin R. Barber

Can We Restore the Middle Ground Between Government and Markets?

In the Age of Gingrich, no one cares much for government. Yet at the same time, the privatization of public policy-the dominant theme of Republicans since the Reagan revolution-does not and cannot satisfy Americans' longing for family values and a sense of community. Americans are being offered an unpalatable choice between an excessive, elephantine, and paternalistic government and a radically self-absorbed, nearly anarchic private market. No wonder they are outraged at politicians.

Yet once upon a time, between the poles of government and market, there was a vast, vital middle ground known as civil society. Although in eclipse today, civil society was the key to America's early democratic energy and civic activism. Its great virtue was that it shared government's regard for the commonweal, yet unlike government made no claim to exercise a monopoly on legitimate coercion. Rather, it was a voluntary, "private" realm devoted to "public" goods.

Civil society is the domain that can potentially mediate between the state and private sectors and offer women and men a space for activity that is simultaneously voluntary and public; a space that unites the virtue of the private sector- liberty-with the virtue of the public sector-concern for the general good.

Civil society is a societal dwelling place that is neither a capitol building nor a shopping mall. It shares with the private sector the gift of liberty; it is voluntary and is constituted by freely associated individuals and groups. But unlike the private sector, it aims at common ground and consensual, integrative, and collaborative action. Civil society is thus public without being coercive, voluntary without being private.

The best way to think about civil society is to envision the domains Americans occupy daily when they are engaged neither in government (voting, serving on juries, paying taxes) nor in commerce (working, producing, shopping, consuming). Such daily business includes attending church or synagogue, doing community service, participating in a voluntary or civic association, joining a fraternal organization, contributing to a charity, assuming responsibility in a PTA or a neighborhood watch or a hospital fundraising society. It is in this civil domain that such traditional institutions as foundations, schools, churches, public interest groups, voluntary associations, civic groups, and social movements belong. The media too, when they place their public responsibilities ahead of their commercial ambitions, are better understood as part of civil society and not the private sector.

People occupy civic space all the time; the trouble is, they seem not to know it. Not long ago, following a lecture on citizenship and civil society, a chastised middle-aged woman raised her hand and said to the speaker: "You shame me, sir! Clearly, being a citizen in civil society is vitally important. But I have to tell you, what with my chairing the church bazaar committee, my service at the hospital, my assignment on the PTA, and now I've been elected head of my block association, well you see, I just don't have time to be a citizen!"

What we call things counts. We need to understand our civic engagements not as private activities, but as non-governmental public activities, and we need to call the spaces we share for purposes other than shopping or voting civil society. When the free space that is civil society goes unrecognized, we begin to treat the activity that takes place within it as private activity that is on a moral par with the most selfish forms of commerce. This is how associations concerned about the good of all people-for example, labor unions and environmental organizations-lost their identity as "public" interest groups and re-emerged as "special" interests whose aims are indistinguishable from those of the for-profit corporations with which they compete.

The Lost Tradition

How did it come to pass that a nation that prides itself on its democratic civic tradition lost touch with the foundations that gave that tradition resilience? How could so rich a political idea-drawing sustenance from John Locke, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexis de Tocqueville- get shunted aside?

Throughout the 19th century, in Tocqueville's 1830s America and afterward, our society comprised not two but three sectors: government, markets, and civil society. In that era when, as Tocqueville observed, liberty was local and civic activity more prevalent, a modest governmental sphere and an unassuming private sector were overshadowed by an extensive civil society tied together by school, church, town, and voluntary association.

However expansive they looked at the time, the Federalist constitution and later the unionist Republican Party were by today's benchmark studies in civic humility. Though his opponents feared he would be a kind of monarch, George Washington in fact governed with an executive staff that numbered only in the dozens. And the states and the people, to whom the 10th Amendment had left all powers not expressly delegated to the central government, were the real theater and agents for civic action.

In this simpler time, individuals thought of themselves as citizens and their groups as civil associations; citizens and associations together composed civil society. After the Civil War, civil society rapidly began losing ground to nascent capitalist corporations with an appetite for expansion and a tendency to monopoly. Market forces soon began to encroach on and crush civil society.

Government responded with an aggressive campaign on behalf of the public weal, though it did not directly involve the public. In assuming the powers it needed to confront the corporations, government inadvertently encroached on and crushed civil society from the opposite side. Squeezed between the warring and ever-expanding state and corporate sectors, civil society began disappearing from American life.

Sometime between the two Roosevelts, it vanished altogether. Its denizens were compelled either to find sanctuary under the feudal tutelage of big government or to join the private sector, where schools, churches, and foundations assumed the identity of corporations and could aspire to be nothing more than agents for their members. That their objective was the public good became irrelevant since, by definition, all private associations necessarily had private ends.

This melancholy history has left us stranded in an era in which citizens have neither a home for their civic institutions nor a voice with which to speak. Be passively serviced (or passively exploited) by the massive, busy- body, bureaucratic state, where the word "citizen" has no resonance and the only relevant civic act is voting (an activity in which fewer than half of citizens engage); or sign onto the selfishness and radical individualism of the private sector, where the word "citizen" has no resonance and the only relevant activity is consuming (an activity in which just about everybody engages). Be a "citizen" and vote the public scoundrels out of office and/or be a consumer and exercise your private rights on behalf of your private interests-those are the only remaining obligations of the much diminished office of American citizen.

Lessons Old and New

There is no task more pressing for our leaders than the restoration of a non-governmental public space that citizens can call their own. Tocqueville celebrated the local character of American liberty and thought that democracy could be sustained only through vigorous civic activity in America's municipalities and neighborhoods. He would scarcely recognize America today, where our alternatives are restricted to government gargantuanism and private greed, and where the main consequence of the recent elections seems to be the supplanting of New Deal arrogance by market arrogance.

Ironically, America's admirers abroad have learned lessons from us that we have forgotten. At the time of the American founding, our Committees of Correspondence played a role comparable to that of the pro- democracy group Civic Forum in Eastern Europe, creating space for civic action in the face of an oppressive government. In Vaclav Havel's Czech Republic, where Civic Forum helped transform the nation, and in Fang Lizhi's China, where a similar spirit is being cultivated, civil society has proved to be a prelude to democracy. It is clear to those who live under tyranny that freedom must first be won by citizens establishing their own public space; only afterward can it be secured by constitutions and law. Although American government today is neither colonial nor totalitarian, it has usurped the space of civil society. The situation cries out for a remedy.

Without a civil society to nourish engaged citizens, politicians turn into "professionals" out of touch with their constituencies. Consider the wreck of health care last year. In a debate that increasingly became technocratic and abstract, the people in whose names reforms were being drawn up were invisible. The "public" had no voice in the debate and those in search of it hardly knew where to look, for neither opinion surveys nor the special interest groups claiming to speak for the people accurately reflect civil society. The abyss that separated the President's plan from its intended constituents sealed its demise. While the merits of the health care plan recently adopted in Oregon can be debated, Oregon got a plan because it created "health parliaments" and similar institutions that gave citizens a direct hand in shaping the reforms.

The story of AmeriCorps also holds important lessons. National and community service belongs in the domain of neither government nor the private sector, but in civil society-indeed, such service helps define citizenship. Yet because civil society is not a part of our political consciousness, many Americans mistakenly view AmeriCorps either as government-sponsored volunteerism (a contradiction in terms) or as a special interest benefit package for college students and the disadvantaged. In truth, it is an exercise in high citizenship of which Americans can feel especially proud.

A Mediating Domain

In the last 30 years, Democrats and Republicans have hardened their battle lines. The former are pledged to defend government, however alienating and inefficient a tool it has become. The latter are committed to privatization, even if it means compromising the ideals (family, religion, liberty) to which they have traditionally been committed. The parties are locked in a zero-sum game in which the government cannot expand justice without diminishing liberty and in which the private sector cannot expand liberty without diminishing justice.

Citizens are happy with neither choice. They sense that democracy is precisely that form of government in which not politicians and bureaucrats but an empowered people put flesh on the bones of their liberty; and in which liberty carries with it the obligaions of social responsibility and citizenship in government as well as the rights of legal persons against government. It is that form of government in which rights and responsibilities are two sides of a single civic identity, one that belongs neither to state bureaucrats nor to private consumers but to citizens alone.

Civil society is in fact the domain of citizens: a mediating domain between markets and government. It can contain an obtrusive government without ceding public goods to the private sphere. It also can dissipate the atmosphere of solitude and greed that surround markets without suffocating us in big government's exhaust fumes.

William Bennett's Book of Virtues tells many a salutary moral tale, but the virtues it celebrates are the product neither of government nor markets but of families and citizens acting in the free space of civil society. There is a danger that Americans will think that the act of buying the book somehow is tantamount to acquiring the virtues. Character can be a source of American renewal, but those who think commercial markets can instill character better than government have not spent much time with the consumption- obsessed shoppers who cruise suburban malls on Thursday nights, when stores stay open late.

We do not need a novel civic architecture to recreate civil society. Rather, we need to reconceptualize and reposition existing institutions. Schools, foundations, community movements, the media, and other civil associations need to reclaim their public voice and political legitimacy against those who would write them off as hypocritical special interests.

Americans are sick of the partisans of both political parties who would make them choose between a far too filling government stout and a much too vapid market lite. Americans want, need, and have a right to civil liberty- the liberty earned by citizens engaging in self-government, willing neither to turn over their destinies to government proxies nor to pretend that commercial markets can produce the social goods and values that are necessary for democratic community life.

A third way needs to be found between private markets and coercive government, between anarchic individualism and dogmatic statism.

If we fail to find it, we seem fated to enter an era in which America's public voice, the nation's civic soul, will be left forever mute. reg.

Benjamin R. Barber is Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University and author of Strong Democracy (1984), An Aristocracy of Everyone (1992), and the forthcoming Jihad Versus McWorld.


Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. The New Citizenship by Will Marshall.
  3. The Search for Civil Society by Benjamin Barber.
  4. Up From the Ashes by Sarah Jackson-Han.
  5. Power to the People by Sara Jackson-Han.
  6. The Good Work by Harry Boyte and Nancy Kari.
  7. Are You Being Served? by Ed Kilgore.
  8. For more information...