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The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 11-16

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Civil Society and its Discontents1

C. Fred Alford

I have spent the last two years listening to whistleblowers, and attending their support groups. 2 The experience influences how I view the civil society discussion in our discipline. The most striking thing about the whistleblowers I spoke with was how alone they were, and not by choice. All had been abandoned by their professional associations, almost all by their religious groups. The experience has made me critical of much of the literature on civil society. It has made me wonder whether many of the associations praised by Robert Putnam and others don't have the quality of a hobby: worthwhile activities that help overcome anomie, but otherwise have little to do with politics. If, that is, we define politics as concerned with power and freedom.

Civil society is said to promote social capital, James Coleman's phrase that Putnam (2000, 18-19) adopts to refer to generalized reciprocity, the willingness to trust others. But, whether social capital is good depends on whose capital it is, and what it serves to produce. Putnam (288) says that "economists . . . have demonstrated how social capital translates into financial capital and resource wealth for business and self-governing units." Tom Tyler (1998, 290) writes that "governments benefit from receiving the willing compliance of their citizens. Such willing compliance is encouraged by trust."

Trust, it should be noted, is not one of the contributions of association according to Tocqueville. Nor is social capital, the generalized availability of citizens for social and governmental purposes. For Tocqueville, association serves three purposes: (1) a standing resistance to government; (2) a substitute for government; and (3) release and relief from private life. The first two purposes see association as an alternative locus of power, a source of power not formed and framed by governmental institutions and purposes. Though Putnam is sometimes regarded as a contemporary version of Tocqueville, the first two senses of association are largely absent in Putnam's work. 3 Only the third contribution of association mentioned by Tocqueville finds much place in Putnam's account; civil society is an antidote to anomie, the normlessness that afflicts modern societies. Some who write of civil society come closer to Tocqueville's vision, such as Theda Skocpol (1999), who is concerned with how civil associations articulate themselves to political power. Nevertheless, it is the distance between Tocqueville's vision and that of many contemporary advocates of civil society, not the similarity, that is most striking.

Two Associations

Since whistleblowing is not the topic of this paper, I will spare you the details of my experience, telling only two stories to make my point. 4 All I need tell you about the whistleblowers is that they were professionals, and most were eventually vindicated in which court or in the media. Not one received any help or support from his or her professional association. Few received support from his or her faith community. The two stories concern the way in which the whistleblowers' professional associations made it a policy (not just a practice) not to support those members who speak out about illegal or unethical practices within the organizations they work for.

The first story is from the National Society of Professional Engineers' Board of Ethical Review (Case number 82-5, at It is based on a real case, not just a scenario. Engineer A is employed by a large defense contractor. He finds that one of the subcontractors is overcharging for standard work. In other words, the subcontractor is defrauding the Federal government. Management refuses to act, and Engineer A turns to the National Society for evaluation and support. In their review, the National Society quotes from its Code of Ethics Section II.1.a.:

Engineers shall at all times recognize that their primary obligation is to protect the safety, health, property and welfare of the public. If their professional judgement is overruled under circumstances where the safety, health, property, or welfare of the public are endangered, they shall notify their employer...


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