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Introduction For three days toward the end of April 1997, the President’s Summit for America’s Future focused national attention on a succession of speeches, workshops, and exhibits in Philadelphia. President Clinton gath­ ered George Bush, Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan, Colin Powell, thirty gov­ ernors, dozens of corporate executives, and Oprah Winfrey to urge Ameri­ cans to volunteer for community service. “The campaign, which General Powell is heading, seeks to mobilize volunteers and corporate money to help two million children by the year 2000,” reported the New York Times. “It hopes to compensate for a retreating federal government—much of the retreating done under Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton—by providing children with mentors, safe places after school, health care, job skills and a chance to perform community service themselves.” Articulating a central theme of his administration, the President called on volunteers to tutor children, paint schools, revitalize communities, and strengthen habits of good citizenship and public service. The Philadelphia summit’s emphasis on local action and voluntary asso­ ciations captured an important moment in a period marked by rapid eco­ nomic change, sweeping attacks on the welfare state, and general with­ drawal from political engagement. It articulated a distinctively American way of thinking about “civil society,” a notion that has figured prominently in academic and political discourse for most of the past decade. In the ab­ sence of noble public goals, admired leaders, or compelling issues, many ob­ servers have charted an alarming erosion of civic spirit and a corresponding decline in the quality of public life. An increasingly distressed literature has alerted the country to the damage done by cheapened standards of behavior, rude political speech, “road rage,” and offensive jokes. Experts worry that an overworked, disengaged, acquisitive, and self-absorbed population has allowed its moral connections, social engagements, and political participa­ tion to atrophy. Their concern is not limited to bad manners but has spilled over into political affairs and generated many suggestions about how public ix x | Introduction life could be improved in a period marked by fraying communities, widespread apathy, and unprecedented levels of contempt for politics. The American Political Science Association, for example, has organized a “Civic Education Project for the Next Century” to support research and stimulate teaching about “civic trust, civic engagement, and civic education.” In an effort to combat rampant cynicism and anger about public affairs, the pro­ ject seeks to reinvigorate a particularly American orientation toward “the civic work of ordinary people who, located in diverse, plural communities, work on behalf of their communities and seek eagerly for common goods, both heroic and mundane.” Driven by an uneasy sense of decline and ani­ mated by a deep suspicion of the state, a growing body of contemporary work hopes that civil society can revitalize public life. But the view that local voluntary activity sustains democracy is only one way of understanding civil society. Ironically, those who brought this notion to the center of contemporary political life conceptualized it in very differ­ ent terms. In the early 1980s, a remarkably broad series of civic forums, independent trade unions, and social movements began to carve out areas of free political activity in the Eastern European countries of “actual existing socialism.” Their leaders talked of “the rebellion of civil society against the state,” and when they started coming to power in 1989 the stage was set for an explosion of interest that has been gathering force ever since. Liberal po­ litical theory was revived in demands for “law-governed states” that would protect private life and public activity from the intrusive hand of meddling bureaucracies. It was not surprising that Eastern Europeans should concep­ tualize civil society in terms of limiting state power, or that Americans should express it in the neo-Tocquevillean language of intermediate organi­ zation. If civil society meant constitutional republicanism in one area and local volunteerism supported by informal norms of solidarity and mutual aid in another, both bodies of thought sought to theorize it as a democratic sphere of public action that limits the thrust of state power. As important as such formulations have been, the current literature leaves a great deal unsaid and unexplored. Seemingly new and hastily used concepts sometimes turn out to have revealing and instructive genealogies. Civil society is a very old idea and has long provided a fruitful vantagepoint from which to evaluate the central categories of political thought. But many of the lessons that the past offers are obscured by the restricted...


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