American civil society

by Henry on July 13, 2004

Spinning off from the general question of the left and third parties – what are the political consequences of the US left’s failure to create a long lasting set of social institutions independent of government? Colin Crouch, my former Ph.D. co-supervisor, gave an address which touched upon this last week, where he claimed that neither classical liberalism nor classical social democracy had much to say about society, the former obsessing about the market, and the latter obsessing about the state. He did, however, have to acknowledge that the left created a vibrant set of alternative social institutions in many European countries, which provided all sorts of social benefits to ordinary people. Usually, these networks of institutions were set up in competition with rather similiar networks that were run by the Catholic Church and Christian Democratic party. Both networks were intended to shore up political support by providing tangible goods in return. When I lived in Italy in the late 1990’s, there were a few remants of the old Leftist alternative civil society around – the Casa del Popolo (People’s Palace) in Fiesole had some of the best pizza in town, and ran a great May Day festival.

Of course, none of this really ever got going in the US. The only really active set of alternative social institutions in the US isn’t socialist, or even Christian Democratic – it’s the localized networks associated with evangelical Christianity. The Catholic church also plays a role, especially in education, but isn’t anywhere near as important as far as I can tell (I may be wrong). It seems to me as an outsider that this has shaped the US debate on the proper relationship between state and society in important ways. On the one hand, most left-wingers are virulently hostile to the idea that ‘state’ type social services should be delegated to civil society, because they see civil society as composed of religious zealots who will require that anyone who accepts their services also accept Jesus into their hearts. While this may, or may not be true, it seems to me to be associated with a certain lack of imagination on the left, a failure to think beyond the state. On the other, the enthusiasm of the conservative right for outsourcing social services to civil society is equally a product of the social dominance of religious organizations. How many of them would be keen on this, if, say, there was a thriving set of social democratic third sector institutions that could compete with religious groups to provide services (and perhaps smuggle in a bit of indoctrination along the way?) Not many, I imagine.

{ 20 comments }

1

Carlos 07.13.04 at 5:11 pm

Of course, none of this really ever got going in the US.

Huh? The current trend of religious alternative social institutions in the US is _recent_. Secular clubs and organizations used to be far more important only a few decades ago than they are today.

2

Henry 07.13.04 at 5:27 pm

But did they provide something similar to the kinds of extensive networks of social assistance that I’m talking about? My vague sense – which I’m happy to be corrected on – is that this was mostly Kiwanis-Elks-Lyons type stuff where there was some involvement in local charity, but nothing especially systematic. But if I’m wrong, tell me!

3

JRoth 07.13.04 at 5:29 pm

Thank you, carlos. To add on, the slow death of fraternal orgs and the like has been cited as evidence of the atrophy of American civil society (as opposed to consumer culture).

OTOH, Henry’s point about the absence of these as explicitly political/ideological orgs holds, I think. A few thoughts on this:

Many of these American groups were once political, but never as a raison d’etre – the Ancient Order of Hibernians might turn out to vote for increased police pensions (to use a handy ethnic stereotype of the NE US) or to encourage the US to support Eire, but that was incidental to its ethnic origin. There were places like Hull House 100 years ago that served muckraking with their soup, but most progressives of that era looked to the gov’t as the solution, and never intended to be in the full-time social services/social activism game, if they could get gov’t to take responsibility.

But I think the critical factor is the overwhelming xenophobia and fundamental political conservatism of the US. Even highly respectable progressives like Jane Addams were liable to be tarred as anarchists or communists, and so they had to be relatively circumspect in their activism – or risk running for office from jail, like Debs. The Red Scares of the 20s & 50s really cemented Americans’ mistrust of politically-driven social services, as a Peoples’ Palace would clearly be nothing but a front for the International Communist Menace.

In contrast, it’s clear that whatever social services are offered by Falwell, et al, are given in the spirit of true Christian Charity, no strings attached.

4

harry 07.13.04 at 5:35 pm

Friends of mine talked semi-seriously about setting up a Communist school in Milwaukee to participate in the voucher scheme. They weren’t communists, but figured it would be interesting to see what happened. Henry’s hypothesis:

bq. How many of them would be keen on this, if, say, there was a thriving set of social democratic third sector institutions that could compete with religious groups to provide services (and perhaps smuggle in a bit of indoctrination along the way?) Not many, I imagine.

is testable, if only we had the energy.

5

John James 07.13.04 at 6:05 pm

Henry

I am very confused. In democracies there are obviously a whole host of non-state voluntary organisations – churches, trade unions, friendly societies, charities, clubs etc – in existence. You seem to imply, however, that these institutions can be classified under ‘right/ ‘left’ labels, and furthermore that in America, at least, a lot more of them are of the right wing variety.

The idea that civil society institutions can be classified in this fashion seems non-sensical to me. What if a religious group supports creationism, but also favours redistribution of income from its wealthier to poorer members? Is it then both right and left at the same time?

If the ‘left’ is to have any meaning, beyond some woolly feeling of universal brotherhood (which the right can also claim), it must surely be a preference for direct state provision over private ordering. If you accept this point, the notion of left-wing non-state institutions seems to me to be an oxymoron. I cannot fathom, therefore, what your PhD supervisor was moaning about.

I don’t, by the way, mean to imply that non-state voluntary associations are by default ‘right wing’. On the contrary, some (e.g. trade unions) can most definitely promote collectivist goals. I just think the idea of voluntarianism as a right/left issue misconceived.

6

Carlos 07.13.04 at 6:08 pm

HF, by the end of the tradition, yes, that’s pretty much right. But in their heyday — which lasted surprisingly late in some areas of the US — you had fraternal organizations do things like place troubled children with member families who would otherwise end up in orphanages or juvenile detention. Scholarships for smart high school students, when going to college was a big deal. Regular banquets, when going to restaurants was a big deal. Some provided loans to their members, paid medical bills, funeral expenses. And so on.

Systematic? The intent wasn’t to duplicate, but to ameliorate. They tended to be not more political than their membership. Some clubs even deliberately fuzzed party, class, and ethnic lines. And some didn’t, of course.

7

Otto 07.13.04 at 7:01 pm

The Casa del Popolo in Fiesole’s pizza is not all that.

But the view from the terrace is unbeatable.

8

Robbo 07.13.04 at 7:41 pm

On your point about religious groups being the primary source of grassroots social organizations, I agree with jroth and carlos that this is largely because American society has become so individualistic in the post-baby boom era that few people (outside of some religious organizations) are altruistic enough to make them work. If you do look at the remnants of a lot of these secular organizations in the USA, most of them are composed of the 70 and over crowd…

As far as it being far and away evangelicals, I’m not so sure. “Evangelical” groups do comprise a large component of them; but how much so is probably at least, in part, a reflection of the regional culture. I used to live in Cincinnati, OH, and Catholic charities FAR outnumbered those of any other ilk (probably had something to do with the fact the town was heavily populated by Catholics, such that almost 50% (yes, half!) of the students in the city went to a Catholic shool.)

And, as jroth said, my impression is that for the most part, the social services offered by religious organizations (homeless shelters, food pantries, used clothing depots, etc) tend to be truly a service offered to all with no strings attached (e.g. I’ve never heard of the Salvation Army ask for a pledge of faith to use their stores… and their roots, at least, are as evangelical as any organization).

I guess that begs the question: if the left produced such a grassroots network of social services, would it have the capacity to be altruistic enough to provide those services with ‘no strings attached.’ Or would the left want to use it as a tool to further their agenda? (e.g. the Marxist entities you referred to…)

9

Robbo 07.13.04 at 7:42 pm

On your point about religious groups being the primary source of grassroots social organizations, I agree with jroth and carlos that this is largely because American society has become so individualistic in the post-baby boom era that few people (outside of some religious organizations) are altruistic enough to make them work. If you do look at the remnants of a lot of these secular organizations in the USA, most of them are composed of the 70 and over crowd…

As far as it being far and away evangelicals, I’m not so sure. “Evangelical” groups do comprise a large component of them; but how much so is probably at least, in part, a reflection of the regional culture. I used to live in Cincinnati, OH, and Catholic charities FAR outnumbered those of any other ilk (probably had something to do with the fact the town was heavily populated by Catholics, such that almost 50% (yes, half!) of the students in the city went to a Catholic shool.)

And, as jroth said, my impression is that for the most part, the social services offered by religious organizations (homeless shelters, food pantries, used clothing depots, etc) tend to be truly a service offered to all with no strings attached (e.g. I’ve never heard of the Salvation Army ask for a pledge of faith to use their stores… and their roots, at least, are as evangelical as any organization).

I guess that begs the question: if the left produced such a grassroots network of social services, would it have the capacity to be altruistic enough to provide those services with ‘no strings attached.’ Or would the left want to use it as a tool to further their agenda? (e.g. the Marxist entities you referred to…)

10

Robbo 07.13.04 at 7:43 pm

On your point about religious groups being the primary source of grassroots social organizations, I agree with jroth and carlos that this is largely because American society has become so individualistic in the post-baby boom era that few people (outside of some religious organizations) are altruistic enough to make them work. If you do look at the remnants of a lot of these secular organizations in the USA, most of them are composed of the 70 and over crowd…

As far as it being far and away evangelicals, I’m not so sure. “Evangelical” groups do comprise a large component of them; but how much so is probably at least, in part, a reflection of the regional culture. I used to live in Cincinnati, OH, and Catholic charities FAR outnumbered those of any other ilk (probably had something to do with the fact the town was heavily populated by Catholics, such that almost 50% (yes, half!) of the students in the city went to a Catholic shool.)

And, as jroth said, my impression is that for the most part, the social services offered by religious organizations (homeless shelters, food pantries, used clothing depots, etc) tend to be truly a service offered to all with no strings attached (e.g. I’ve never heard of the Salvation Army ask for a pledge of faith to use their stores… and their roots, at least, are as evangelical as any organization).

I guess that begs the question: if the left produced such a grassroots network of social services, would it have the capacity to be altruistic enough to provide those services with ‘no strings attached.’ Or would the left want to use it as a tool to further their agenda? (e.g. the Marxist entities you referred to…)

11

h. e. baber 07.13.04 at 8:19 pm

I do remember attempts to get up such projects during my youth when a number of my friends worked as “community organizers.”

A few were viable, like “The People’s Free Medical Clinic” where doctors volunteered and local people whose only alternative option was the hospital emergency room really did come. But most were sooooo middle-class couintercultural, so focused on the preoccupations of their organizers and wrapped up with their stylized, romantic version of “working class culture” that I suspect most people simply felt excluded.

Some of my friends started a chapter of the IWW (International Workers of the World, the “Wobblies”). They discussed Marcuse and sang what they said were “old Union songs. None had ever been gainfully employed.

12

Carlos 07.13.04 at 8:22 pm

Robbo, I’m not sure if American society has gotten more individualistic since the Baby Boom. I do think that there was a break from earlier US social traditions at about that time, but I would worry about ascribing it to a demographic blip.

13

Mrs Tilton 07.13.04 at 9:23 pm

The Casa del Popolo in Fiesole’s pizza is not all that.

But then it couldn’t be, really; a Casa del Popolo needs to be rather small to fit in a pizza.

(‘What is this – a Casa del Popolo for ants?!’)

14

praktike 07.13.04 at 9:23 pm

Henry, this is very wrong history.

There was in fact a long-lasting set of social institutions outside of government, comprised of mainline Protestant Churches, ethnic Catholic parishes, and immigrant mutual aid societies.

But several things happened. One is that many of the functions of these organizations were absorbed by government. Another is cultural assimilation and suburbanization facilitated by public education, television, the automobile, alternating current, and the telephone. A final reason is the declining influence of mainline Protestantism, the reasons for which are less obvious to me.

15

burritoboy 07.14.04 at 12:44 am

Pratike is on the right path, but I don’t think it was quite public education or suburbs that brought about the decline of these institutions. The Shriners / Lions / Elks etc. were very popular throughout the 1950s and sometimes especially popular in suburbia. Electricity, automobiles, telephones and public education had all been in wide use for 40-60 (or more) years by the 1950s, and these organizations remained very strong.

The men’s business & social clubs, especially, were hard-hit as business became both more global and technocratic. Large firms began to move their “up-and-comers” around a great deal, so there was little point in having a network of small-time business contacts outside the company. You would only be in, say, your Peoria or Green Bay posting for a handful of years anyway. Further, those “up-and-comers” by the mid-50s, were being identified as such by their education rather than their lineage (i.e. they were getting hired because they had a BA or MBA and not because their dad was a big wheel somewhere or knew someone somewhere). The young executives increasingly began to view Shriner-land as hopelessly backward, overly rooted, and wedded to personal dealmaking. And these young executives owed their own success to business being viewed conversely as global (or, at least, all across the US), un-rooted (everybody wanted that posting in Paris or London or New York or California and to get out of Toledo or Rochester as fast as possible) and devoted to business as impersonal, technocratic analysis. Or as Neil Fligstein would say, the conception of control shifted from a sales conception to a finance conception.

16

asg 07.14.04 at 3:24 am

Others have mentioned the crowding out of spontaneous social institutions by government. I just thought that the phrase “the overwhelming xenophobia… of the U.S.” was noteworthy, as in it’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever read, even on the internet, and that’s saying a lot.

17

Doug 07.14.04 at 11:25 am

Henry, I’m with praktike and burritoboy here, though it might help to know more if you have a particular period and/or region in mind. The ongoing commitments of mainline Protestants are probably underestimated because the denominations and their leaders are not as stridently partisan as their evangelical counterparts can be. (One of many interesting parts of the early chapters of Clinton’s autobiography is his recollection of liberal Baptist leaders.) The roles of black churches and social organizations are probably another source of rich information that’s hard to classify left-right, especially as you go back to the 1950s and earlier. Jewish groups, immigrant groups and more are probably good places to look for the social services you’re thinking about.

One difference that is probably salient as you do a rough Europe-US comparison is the lack of an established church. As I understand it, much of the European left had an explicit anti-clerical bent, and promoting the left had a lot to do with overcoming the entrenched power of an established church. (Or the union of church and state, as in some of the German Prince-Bishoprics.) Established churches defined the right and to be left was to be anti-clerical. Without established churches (at least in the post-colonial period), the left-right relationship to churches is much more diffuse in the US.

I also suspect profound regional differences, where the ethnic origin of immigrant settlement plays an important role. South Dakota and south Louisiana probably have different structures; four hundred years of settlement on the eastern seaboard probably yields a different character from just over a century in the Great Plains or mountain West.

I hope you’ll write more, because with more specificity this could be a very interesting discussion.

18

praktike 07.14.04 at 2:45 pm

Actually, Henry, now that I think about it, I think you could make the case that immigrant mutual aid societies in the US were actually modelled on similar organizations in their home countries. These groups functioned in many cases like insurance agencies and credit unions on a national level in addition to providing local charitable services.

19

Robbo 07.15.04 at 4:21 am

Carlos: Well, I do think Americans have become less community-oriented in the past 60 years. Some of that is the suburbanization of America; unlike rural viallges and urban ghettos, peoples’ lives are less intimately connected with those they live nearby. Some of it is what burritoboy alluded to–we’ve become much more of a society based upon individual merits, less on family credits; and along the same lines, that long-term connectedness to a community is less common (you take a job with several companies over a career–or even if with one company, you get moved a lot). And some of it is the entertainment. Local dances, plays, small-time sporting events, etc that used to be the focus of a community are less of a draw than they used to be (especially vs. 100 years ago). The Baby Boom comment was just it seems that many of those factors have seemed to accellerate since WWII.

20

Robbo 07.15.04 at 4:28 am

Also, as asg said… the “xenophobia” assertion is a little out of line. I’d argue that the USA (and North America in general) has, over time, been much less xenophobic than many other cultures around the world. And it’s probably even less so now than 50 or 100 years ago. Yes, there are certainly exceptions (laws limiting immigrents at different times, certain groups like the KKK…). But I think the trend, if anything, has been toward more of an openness to the rest of the world over the past half century. And so that isn’t what explains why I’d agree that civil altruism seems to be dying out in the USA…

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