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The Big Answer

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The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays

a book by Don Eberly

(our site's book review)

In The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays, Don Eberly, the editor and a contributor, presents the classic writings of the leading scholars and organizers who have brought the civil society debate to the forefront of American politics. This introduction to our current social condition is about the best you'll find. It’s the mother lode of civil society thinking, even if some things are nearly 14 years out of date. (It is 2014 as of this writing, but this expensive book—whose hardcover is over 100 bucks—is from 2000.)

The Essential Civil Society Reader: The Classic Essays is a response to a growing anxiety about the basic health of society. Everywhere we see the fraying of the social fabric, the decline of families, the absence of consensus on unifying moral principles, and the disappearance of community and voluntary associations, as if everyone is too busy to be civil or act on civil values. Part of this civilizational change can be explained clearly in Toffler's The Third Wave, of course, as the world moves from the industrial age to the information age. But there's more to the civil fraying than that.

The authors hope that, if the 20th century was about the erosion of civil values, the 21st century can be about their restoration. The social action and moral renewal that comes from the work of voluntary associations are creating a strong society or at least a stronger one. Eberly tells us that many of the great social movements in America have been managed by voluntary associations; e.g., justice for women and children and the alleviation of suffering and poverty. Even more vital to our country is the role these associations play in strengthening democracy and values and citizenship. (Factors even more effective than voluntary associations for strengthening democracy can be found in this review: The Responsive Communitarian Platform.)

According to Eberly, “Much of the most consequential change in America was produced by the stirrings of concerned individuals joining together in association with others.” He sees a fresh outpouring of social entrepreneurship lately. Civil society’s emergence is explained, by some authors in Eberly’s book, by real inadequacies in the current ideological frameworks of Left and Right—these authors seem to be willing to reflect on these and face evidence that is inconvenient to their positions and views. But one wonders how much “facing” is being done, and how much rephrasing their doubts into sound bites to pummel those that don’t agree with them. All politics this century has been totally partisan—no one ever listens to the other side or acts in a bipartisan manner.

Pummelling those that don’t agree with them
Pummelling those that don’t agree with them

Polls show that the people of our nation feel that the United States has lost its moral and cultural center, and also that responsibility and accountability have been left behind, and that public institutions no longer garner the respect they once commanded. So the role civil society would play in sustaining a viable democratic order would be an absolutely essential one. The government cannot give us democracy—we must use civil society to recreate it, since the most important things about democracy seem lost, forgotten, or eroding in the current climate in the U. S. and the government, because of special interests influence, seems to be headed at best at right angles to the public’s aspirations if not fully contrary to them. (See The US is an oligarchy, study concludes.)

The pushmi-pullyu: our metaphor for the U.S. political circus the U.S. oligarchy puts on to distract us from the realities of the Corporatocracy
The pushmi-pullyu: our metaphor for the U.S. political circus the U.S. oligarchy puts on to distract us from the realities of the Corporatocracy

Eberly also states that “The renewal of civil society is also the object of a growing popular movement. Though diverse in its makeup, this movement is commonly described as having several related objectives: it reflects a search for a new citizenship that is less self-interested, more civil, and more civically engaged. Civil society is the framework that is guiding attempts to restore community institutions, to recover the spirit of volunteerism and responsible citizenship, and to draw Americans together at a time of social isolation and fragmentation.’ As such, this popular movement is only responding to the hopes and expectations the people themselves have for a renewed civil society.” See:

Conservatives think that civil society embodies a vision for a larger role for community-based charities, especially religious ones, which can be substituted for flawed, ineffective governmental programs. Libertarians think civil society is a synonym for privatization, implying that the term’s major attraction may be its usefulness in expanding the marketplace and limiting the state. Liberals see civil society as a means to deepen community participation in public projects, thereby improving both the performance of government and the public’s acceptance of it.

The book is a good one, but in some ways misses the forest for the trees. In spite of the community spirit and faith in American civil forces shown by the book's contributors, it can be easily seen that, currently, most Americans' character is a poor fit for the civic actions, responsibility, unselfishness, and compassion needed by the civil movement desired by Eberly and company. See why in The Responsive Communitarian Platform. Getting the needed civil actions from Americans with their present character qualities would be like trying to force a square peg into a round hole.

trying to force a square peg into a round hole
Trying to force a square peg into a round hole

See also: