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Walzer: The idea of civil society

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Walzer. 1991. The idea of civil society: A path to social reconstruction. Dissent 39 (Spring): 293-304.

From (a very good) handout:

The Problem:

In E. Europe (post '89) social networks need to be rebuilt. In the West, civil society has become enervated. "[T]he networks through which civility is produced and reproduced" have been "neglected" [294]. Civil society needs to be built up. Four different approaches to the 'good life' are explored. Each is found lacking because it excludes "the necessary pluralism of any civil society" and misses "the complexity of human society, the inevitable conflicts of commitment and loyalty."

Four historical approaches:

From the left: Position 1 envisions a politically active, engaged citizenry [after Greeks, the left's Rousseau, and Mill]. Think positive freedom. Living well is working with fellow citizens in the determination of a 'common destiny'. Problem 1: In the modern world the state is not 'fully' in the hands of the citizenry. Problem 2: Citizens don't have time (or don't want to make time) for politics. Position 2 sees producers in a cooperative economy as its goal, as well as the liberation of production, and the institution of an administrative 'agency' instead of a state. Seeks a "'nonpolitical state, regulation without conflict, 'the administration of things.'" Think Marx. Problem 2: Unfeasible.

From the right: Position 3 sees the good life as located within the market. Freedom is many choices, manifested by consumption. Think pure capitalism. Epitomized by the entrepreneur--the hero "of autonomy, consumer[] of opportunity." Problem 3: The good life is not universally available. The more the "imperialism" 299 of the market, the greater the inequality. In its pure form, there is no citizenship in the market, no moral relations, and no loyalty.

Nationalism: Position 4 (nationalism) is based on remembrance, the cultivation of heritage, and argues for being the member of a whole. Often it is a response to capitalism's problems. There is no need for political choice or activity (just "ritual affirmation"). Autonomy is sought for a people rather than individuals. Problem 4: Nationalism is free floating and vague. It can also lead to chauvinism during crises.

Walzer's approach:

This position sees civil society as the 'free market' of ideas, faith, and identity [300]. It is also a composite of the others above. People form, reform, and dissolve "groups of all sorts... for the sake of sociability itself." It is a "project of projects." Civil society serves to produce citizens who care (sometimes) about the common good (viz. the political community) [303]. It should (1) decentralize the state to allow for more participation, (2) socialize the economy [thus mitigate substantial inequalities], and (3) pluralize/domesticate nationalism [thereby fostering tolerance]. State power is an important part of the equation. Civil society based on pluralism is not self-sustaining/sufficient. The state must be accessible to our involvement even if we aren't always involved [302]. It serves to redress/rebalance power relationships. Problem: The concept itself seems to be weak, disengaged, and nebulous.

Research on similar subjects


Walzer, Michael (author)Political TheoryCivil SocietySocial CapitalCultureDemocracy and Society

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