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How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong
By Benjamin R. Barber
Hill and Wang, 1998, 166 pages

This slim volume by one of America's leading political philosophers takes up the idea of civil society — its historical background, conceptual underpinnings, and essential prerequisites — against the background of a contemporary American society marked by "conflict, alienation, the colonization of everyday life by bureaucracy and markets, the erosion of traditional work, [and] a scarcity of meaningful jobs."

Benjamin Barber contends that while "civil society" has become a popular catchphrase on both sides of the political spectrum and is often bandied around by those more enamored of novelty than real meaning in political discourse, the idea nevertheless captures an essential truth about our current democratic predicament: the public realm of government and the private sphere of commercial markets cannot by themselves sustain a democratic society.

What is needed is a "third sector" or "civic terrain" made up of families, clans, churches, communities, and voluntary associations that can effectively mediate between "prince and market" — between big government and wholly private commercial markets, between public and private, between the power of public communities and the liberty of private individuals.

Barber interprets civil society not as an alternative to democratic government, but rather as "the free space in which democratic attitudes are cultivated and democratic behavior is conditioned." Borrowing a phrase from philosopher Michael Walzer, he calls it "the space of uncoerced human association and also the set of relational networks — formed for the sake of family, faith, interest and ideology — that fill this space." It is the domain of "you and me as we gather into we's."

Barber distinguishes between three kinds of civil society: the libertarian, communitarian, and strong democratic models. Libertarians tend to define civil society as a synonym for the private market sector, pitting the people and their government at odds and making power the nemesis of liberty and the state the enemy of the individuals it is supposed to serve. This model views social relations both within the private sector and between it and the state sector in terms of contract relations: a series of deals that free individuals or associations make in the name of their interests and goods in defense of their liberties. The defining actor is the rights-bearing consumer. This social-contract model is, according to Barber, grounded in a "thin" and "shallowly instrumental" conception of social relationships.

By contrast, communitarians define civil society largely in terms of "given" or "ascriptive" social relationships based on family, religion, race, ethnicity, etc. Like libertarians, they see civil society as an essentially private realm, but they think of it not in terms of contractual relationships and exchange, but in terms of natural social ties and communal identities. The defining actor in this model is "the bondsman tied to community by birth, blood, and bathos."

According to Barber, both libertarians and communitarians conflate private with civil space, whether in the form of markets or communities. Contract associations and kinship communities "certainly represent forms of human engagement," he says. "But neither offers room for us to engage with neighbors, friends, citizens, and strangers who must of necessity live together."

Proponents of "strong democracy" favor a third conception of civil society that seeks to maximize citizen participation and work on behalf of the common good. This model defines civil society not as a private realm but as a mediating civic domain or "commons" comprised of voluntary and inclusive rather than ascriptive and exclusive groups. Neither wholly public nor wholly private, it is a primarily civic in orientation, committed to exploring common ground, doing public work, and pursuing common relations.

Barber stresses that both government and private enterprise must be enlisted in the effort to revitalize civil society. Government must take a more active role in nourishing, protecting, and encouraging robust civic activity. When problems demand it, it must also act on behalf of the citizenry. "Government is civil society's common arm, just as civil society is government's animating body." At the same time, private enterprise must be more sensitive to the demands of democracy and civility. As Barber sees it, corporations must either "give us back our government and, while pursuing profits, accommodate governmental encroachments and regulation in the name of the public weal, or they themselves will have to become more civic-minded and democratic, no matter what the cost to their profits. Anything less means the end of democracy."

Barber proposes six areas for legislative action in support of civil society. These include enlarging and reinforcing public spaces; fostering civic uses of new telecommunications and information technologies, such as a "civic Internet," electronic town meetings, and a check on mass-media advertising for children; domesticating and democratizing both production and consumption in the global economy — that is, protecting the labor market, challenging disemployment practices, making corporations more responsible to the common good, protecting just wage policies, ensuring workplace safety, and protecting the environment, etc.; developing national and community service programs; and cultivating the arts and humanities through government-supported arts education and service programs.

Barber concludes with a look at two issues he feels demand greater attention in the context of civil society: the growing incivility of our public discourse — incivility, he says, betokens an uncivil society — and the "end of work," the problem of unemployment, under-employment, and disemployment in democracies where private market labor is becoming economically redundant (thanks largely to new labor-saving technologies and the loss of jobs to developing nations), just at the time when public forms of work such as community service, child rearing, and cultural or civic efforts are needed more than ever. The future of civil society hinges on both these issues, Barber insists. Unless public discourse can be infused with greater deliberation, inclusiveness, imagination, and empowerment, and unless our work lives are meaningful and afford sufficient leisure — "time to be educated into civil society, time to participate in deliberation, time to serve on juries, occupy municipal magistracies, volunteer for civic activities" — democracy itself is in jeopardy.

Related Interview: Benjamin Barber and Scott London explore the politics of education (1992)