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The Good Society 12.1 (2003) 17-24

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Civil Society:
The Unanswered Question of Where Power Resides

James M. Glass


Proponents of civil society assume that where association lies, power follows. Yet, power resides in social and cultural sites that have little to do with formal institutions of political power and the political functions of voluntary associations. The Aristotelian virtue of participation (at the heart of the literature extolling the democratic benefits of association) guards against tyranny in public institutions; but power also moves along cultural grids which have little attachment to public or governmental structure, power that works on the self in everyday life, power that ministers to the body, its regulation and treatment, its containment and confinement. That kind of power, with sites deep in cultural and social practice, supported by strong belief and entrenched knowledge, scrutinizes and disciplines individual and group behavior. It is power that rarely appears in the deliberations and programs of those secondary associations de Tocqueville found critical to the vibrant democratic life of America.

Participation may not be a totally accurate index for measuring the health of American democracy; it may even, as Nancy Rosenblum argues in Membership and Morals: the Personal Uses of Pluralism in America (1998), move against the bulwarks of liberal value and democratic right. She finds danger in the "undisciplined multiplicity of associations that amplify self-interest, encourage errant interest group politics, and exaggerate cultural egocentrism" (1998, 32). The competitive demands of association, their narcissism and self-centeredness may work against the interests of a liberal, open and tolerant political environment. This is not always the case, but participation, she maintains, is not an uncomplicated blessing; it brings its own troubles.

Ernest Gellner (1994) celebrates civil society in establishing democracies in Eastern Europe; associations provided an alternative method of political voice to single party regimes. Yet, American democracy developed in the midst of liberal assumptions about property and wealth; and expansion of the franchise and the extension of rights to previously excluded groups occurred against the backdrop of a liberalism zealous in its protection of property rights and individual prerogative, and, at least through the mid-twentieth century, notoriously insensitive to issues of race and racial violence. Voluntary associations flourished in this competitive and contingent world of possessors, doers and aspiring capitalists. However, it is not at all clear that membership in these associations "improved" moral character or elevated the level of democracy's ethical life. Rosenblum, for example, questions the Aristotelian assumption that participation enriches moral character. "The existence of a dense array of associations," she argues, "may fail to contribute to the moral uses of pluralism" (1998, 46). Further, the groupishness of voluntary associations may submerge individual identity, leading to "self-inflation" and a corresponding damage to "moral personality" (1998, 62), real consequences for democratic rights and the protection of the individual.

Further, civil association might in some contexts exercise a negative impact on individual freedom and the protection of rights. For example, in the Germany of the 1930s and 1940s, a number of associations supported and administered race-based action whose impact lay in radical exclusion. Medical, legal, technical and civil associations established race-based criteria for inclusion or exclusion whose impact lay in redefining the moral compass of the entire culture. Civility for most Germans included harassing Jews and gypsies, appropriating property and restricting employment opportunities. The entire range of voluntary associations standing between the state and the individual worked for the interest of a racial ideology that defined the Jews as "life unworthy of life." This moral environment, legitimating exclusion and later, killing, became the defining standard not only for the political apparatus, but for the social world of groups that enabled this apparatus to operate. The race ideology systematically elaborated within Germany's scientific, medical and political establishment, argued that blood contamination constituted a grave threat to national culture and the boundaries of political society.

Groups and the Action of Civil Society

What was different about the growth of civil society in American lay in its argument for inclusion, for expanding...


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pp. 17-24
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