On Civil Society
I wrote recently about wanting to co-opt and redefine Arnold Kling’s ‘Civil Societarianism’. I’ve given this more thought over the past few weeks, and have some observations and thoughts that should help clarify my thinking on this, and how it intersects with my political evolution.
Civil society exists between the state and corporate spheres. Charities, religious affiliations, clubs, and other groups that work to enrich society for reasons other than profit and through means other than taxation are all part of civil society. In Kling’s formulation, government is ‘a weed’ and civil society is the rest.
So again, here’s Kling:
I strongly support the institutions of civil society. These include families, corporations, religious groups, private schools, charities, trade associations, and the other peaceful, voluntary collective organizations that promote our individual and collective well-being.
Including corporations is a radical departure from most interpretations of civil society in modern times. I countered this in my initial post by saying public libraries, schools, and other elements of local government should be considered part of civil society as well. Classical interpretations of civil society did not distinguish between elements of the state and the rest of society so long as those elements worked to achieve similar goals. However, the dividing line between state and the rest of society used to be far blurrier than it is today.
Kling and I are both wrong. Corporations are not a part of civil society, but neither are institutions funded by tax dollars. We should hew to the consensus here. So then what would differentiate my brand of Civil Societarianism from Kling’s?
Kling wants civil society to act as a counter against an intrusive state by creating a system of private competition against government. So privatization of traditionally public services figures very largely in Kling’s beliefs. Kling pictures civil society as a nice lawn and government as a weed attempting to overtake that lawn. He wants private companies to do much of the heavy lifting governments do today, thereby clearing the lawn of weeds. In this sense, I’m not even sure Kling is describing Civil Societarianism at all – he wants to replace government with for-profit private enterprise.
I view civil society as inherently cooperative rather than competitive. Whether you view government as a weed or not, privatizing traditionally public services by handing them over or contracting them out to for-profit institutions is a mistake. Picture civil society as a nice lawn and picture government and corporations as weeds. You do not get rid of the weed of government by making room for the weed of for-profit enterprises. But actually, I find the analogy of weeds to be misleading. It isn’t that we want to utterly abolish government or corporations, it’s just that a cooperative economy would require less of each to function properly. Cooperative Civil Societarians then have two goals:
- To work cooperatively with both the state and the private sector to expand civil society through voluntary associations wherever possible. Institutions like public universities and public libraries may not be parts of civil society, but their basic mission is in line with that of civil society. Cooperation between these institutions is important.
- To replace state institutions (if it is necessary to do so) with local, non-profit cooperative institutions rather than for-profit corporations. This is the tricky part – the idealistic part. It’s also where this particular brand of civil societarianism falls in line with some leftwing anarchist philosophy.
Take a public library, for example. The rightwing Civil Societarian (or libertarian) would suggest privatization, turning it over to a for-profit corporation (which would profit vis-a-vis government contracts or member dues, advertising, etc.) This corporation might be based anywhere in the world. The Cooperative (or leftwing) Civil Societarian would suggest turning the public library into a local cooperative run as a non-profit by the local community. How would this be any different than a public library based on taxation? It might not be very different at all, actually, except that it would be a voluntary enterprise rather than one reliant upon taxation.
Admittedly, turning public libraries into co-ops is pretty far down my list of goals – working with public libraries is much more pragmatic. Furthermore, I believe that democracy and taxation and public service are all wound up together in what is, for the most part, a pretty voluntary business at least at the local level. But I think a library cooperative is far more preferable than turning public libraries over to multi-national corporations.
PS – Just so it’s clear I don’t view corporations or the government as weeds and was merely riffing off of Kling’s analogy. Civil society is a good thing, but it should work cooperatively with both the state and the for-profit sector to achieve its goals. For instance, in my hometown we have a lot of events that are put together by city and business leaders and are free to the public – downtown outdoor movies for kids to name one example. This is a collaborative effort on the part of small businesses, government, and various local organizations. This is one sort of cooperative economy. Actual cooperatives, owned by the workers or run by artists, etc. are another. The point is, not everything needs to be about competition at every level in order for it to be good.