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The loss of civil society

10 August 2010

I came across this paragraph in an article in a rather surprising source that seems to sum up much of the malaise in modern society The American Conservative — Shattered Society:

The loss of our culture is best understood as the disappearance of civil society. Only two powers remain: the state and the market. We no longer have, in any effective independent way, local government, churches, trade unions, cooperative societies, or civic organizations that operate on the basis of more than single issues. In the past, these institutions were a means for ordinary people to exercise power. Now mutual communities have been replaced with passive, fragmented individuals. Civil spaces have either vanished or become subject-domains of the dictatorial state or the monopolized market.

Hat-tip to Red Tories? | Caelum Et Terra.

I’m not sure that I like the term “Red Tory” used to describe that view of politics, economics and society, which I share to some extent. I’d prefer to call it “communitarian”, because it sounds rather like the vision of Dorothy Day or G.K. Chesterton.

And though I don’t agree with everything in the article cited, I think there’s a lot of truth in this: “Contemporary libertarian individualism and statist collectivism created each other and are locked in a fatal embrace that destroys the civic middle and the life and economy of the associative citizen.”

And this is where Orthodox anthropology differs from modernity with its individualism and collectivism. As Hierotheos, bishop of Nafpaktos, says:

Two modes of life can be seen nowadays, ‘individualism’, in which the individual holds a central position, and in this case there is no real communion, and ‘collectivism’, in which man becomes a part of a mass and loses his freedom. In the first mode, individualism, the person is abolished in the name of freedom. In the second, collectivism, man becomes part of a mass in the name of the unity of society, and so the freedom of the person is abolished… St Gregory the Theologian makes some excellent observations on the subject. Man, being in the image and likeness of God, can neither be considered a numeric unit nor can become part of a mass. Thus, in the Orthodox Church, as preserved in parishes and monasteries that securely move within the Orthodox framework, both the person and communion among men is vouchsafed, in which case man can neither be enclosed in a barren individualism nor be transformed into part of a mass.

Or, as Christos Yannaras puts it:

In everyday speech we tend to distort the meaning of the word ‘person’. What we call ‘person’ or ‘personal’ designates rather more the individual. We have grown accustomed to regarding the terms ‘person’ and ‘individual’ as virtually synonymous, and we use the two indifferently to express the same thing. From one point of view, however, ‘person’ and ‘individual’ are opposite in meaning. The individual is the denial or neglect of the distinctiveness of the person, the attempt to define human existence using the objective properties of man’s common nature, and quantitative comparisons and analogies. Chiefly in the field of sociology and politics the human being is frequently identified with the idea of numerical individuality. Sometimes this rationalistic process of leveling out is considered progress, since it helps to make the organization of society more efficient.

Perhaps some of the recent rhetoric of David Cameron, the leader of the UK Liberal-Conservative coalition government about the “big society” echoes this. The rhetoric might sound like “Red Toryism”, but the reality will not simply magically appear. Civil society has been systematically destroyed by government and big business (often in collusion, as in the “bail outs”). It will not magically reappear.  We saw the same thing in South Africa in 1994/95. When the ANC won the general election of 1994, Nelson Mandela stressed that the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was not negotiable. After a few little chats with the likes of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it was abandoned within a year, and all that is left of the RDP is a term to describe jerry-built houses that no one in their right mind would want to live in.

As Dorothy Day once wrote, the way to peace lies in “Land trusts, credit unions, cooperatives, decentralization, a redistribution of land — this is the living peace movement today. “There can be no revolution without a theory of revolution.” So on with the study of theory which leads to action. Reading Eric Gill and Chesterton would help, too. This is the Personalist and Communitarian Revolution of Emmanuel Mounier and Nicholas Berdyaev.”

The trouble is that no one is talking about, learning or discussing the theory. The “big society” rhetoric may end up casting out a demon so that seven worse ones can take its place.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Jones permalink
    10 August 2010 6:47 pm

    I am curious why you said this came from a “rather surprising source.” If you are not familiar with the magazine and website “The American Conservative,” you may think that it represents and advocates the sort of conservatism that has come to be seen as “American”; the sort of “conservatism” that is associated with George W. Bush and his neo-conservative advisers and supporters.

    The American Conservative magazine and website is anything but that; it is composed largely of figures who have been expelled from the mainstream American “conservative movement,” and it represents an older and more traditionalist conservatism, with more loyalty to Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk than to mainstream conservatives in America today.

    Given all of that I do not find it a surprising source at all for such an article.

  2. 13 August 2010 7:56 pm

    The author of that article should go do some volunteer flood relief sometime. After one hits, while the authorities are Three Stooging around with their red tape, private church groups are on the ground running. This is still a great nation, with strong civic ties, full of good, generous people–no matter what doom-sayers on the right and left say!

  3. 30 May 2014 12:29 pm

    Thanks Steve. I wholeheartedly agree with this. My question is: what are we to do? I do what I do through my church, so I suppose I contribute, but what of our South African society in general?

    I hit a wall of quiet misery during election time because I couldn’t find a single party which spoke about this in any way (not even the party with ‘civic’ in its name). You say few speak of this – where do you think it should be spoken about, in the public sphere, to at least make people think?

    • 30 May 2014 2:02 pm

      Speak whenever the opportunity arises, do something when the opportunity arises. Stokvels were a sign of a burgeoning civil society — what has happened to them? The Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of a church-initiated alternative to payday loan sharks like Wonga. Can’t we do something here? SA churches uttered not a squeak when building societies privatised and went commercial…

      • 30 May 2014 7:53 pm

        I suppose there’s a lot to be said about how churches have privatised and gone commercial, too. That’s a big problem which I think many people are highlighting today.

        The only mention I saw of a stokvel in these elections came from the Ubuntu party – and I’m sure you know what they were about!

        I think churches just had no idea what it at all meant when building societies privatised. “Local” churches themselves are not so much about the local anymore either. The Slow Church idea may be, without realising it, pretty much saying the same thing here – the need for local to rise again. (Check out, there’s a book on the way.)

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