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6 Civil Society and Intermediate Organizations When premodern theorists of civil society considered economic affairs, they almost always treated them as threats to civil society. Consid­ ered by themselves, commerce and trade were thought to be destructive of the bonds that held social life together. Only when markets began to orga­ nize civil society was it possible to differentiate social or economic cate­ gories from political or religious ones. As we have seen, the first strand of modern thought concerning civil society conceptualized it as a market-or­ ganized sphere of necessity. This view came to a head with Karl Marx and continues to drive the Left’s critique of capitalism. Marx drew his understanding of civil society from G. W. F. Hegel’s analysis of “the system of needs,” and Hegel had infused the public sphere with a much stronger no­ tion of power than Immanuel Kant’s “introversion” had made possible. Al­ though they understood civil society in broad terms, Hegel and Marx agreed that class, production, interest, and competition lay at its core, and both men paid close attention to the processes by which it creates and dis­ tributes wealth. But economics does not play a particularly important role in the second strand of modern thought. Rooted in aristocratic criticisms of royal abso­ lutism, it describes civil society as an intermediate sphere of voluntary asso­ ciation and activity standing between the individual and the state. This view, which rests at the heart of much contemporary theory, is closely iden­ tified with the work of Alexis de Tocqueville, but its roots can be found in the Baron de Montesquieu’s fear of modernity’s centralizing monarchies, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s preference for an intimate small-scale republic, and Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution. All three came together in Tocqueville’s remarkably influential body of thought, whose antistatist thrust and disregard of the material processes of civil society helps explain its contemporary popularity. 144 Civil Society and Intermediate Organizations | 145 The Aristocratic Republic Born in 1689, Montesquieu belongs to the first generation of Enlighten­ ment thinkers. The writings of Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton, and John Locke were fresh and controversial, and the Glorious Revolution had pro­ vided a moderate alternative to Stuart absolutism. Like many of his contemporaries , Montesquieu was attracted to England because its tolerant and flexible social order seemed to have brought a century of upheaval to a close without falling into the extremes of despotism or anarchy. England had apparently accomplished everything that proponents of balanced gov­ ernment since Aristotle’s time had hoped for. The division of society into the three estates of king, nobility, and people was mirrored in the institu­ tions of Crown, Lords, and Commons. It appeared that the ancient dream of balancing monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy had been made con­ crete by combining the principles of the one, the few, and the many in a happy and judicious constitution. State and society were one; economic ac­ tivity and political power mutually defined one another in an informal arrangement that worked to the benefit of all. The aristocracy had lost its dominant role but had not been destroyed, and its inherited property could still act as a buffer between the centralizing Crown and the unruly popula­ tion. Montesquieu’s thinking took shape in a period dominated by the long struggle between aggressive French monarchies and aristocracies trying to retain their ancient privileges. Much more powerful than its English coun­ terpart, the leveling Crown often enlisted the bourgeoisie and the people on its side by curbing the lords and subjecting aristocratic institutions to intense pressure. The French Crown tended to regard local privileges with hostility. Since the aristocracy’s power rested on custom, the kings often forged temporary alliances with a nascent bourgeoisie that stood to gain from uniform market relations. Montesquieu saw this developing, and his desire to protect the nobility’s parlements, courts, estates, and other organi­ zations stands behind his important contribution to the second branch of modern thought. The aristocracy had always justified its monopoly of the land by arguing that since its power and property were independent of both the will of the monarch and the passions of the crowd, it was the only estate that could mediate between them. It tended to appeal to the king by warning about the dangers of mob rule, and to the people by invoking the threat of royal despotism. Montesquieu was not interested in natural law or the...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814722831
Related ISBN
9780814722077
MARC Record
OCLC
45844125
Pages
288
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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