Riots and Civil Society

Peggy Noonon asks the critical question in the aftermath of the London riots and the Philadelphia flash mobs.

When the riot begins or the flash mob arrives, the best the government can do is control the streets, enforce the law, maintain the peace.

After that, then what? Britain is about to face that question. We'll likely have to face it, too, in the US.

The next step, she writes, is usually: "The government has to do something. We must start a program, create an agency to address juvenile delinquency." Only that seems to be a joke these days. After all, the youth of London have been programmed, agencied, and social worked to death in the last half century.  And still we get riots?

The conservative answer to the failure of the authoritarian welfare state with its programs, its agencies, and its social science experts is "civil society."  That notion goes back to Edmund Burke and his "little platoons."  Berger and Neuhaus addressed it in To Empower People where they argued for "mediating structures," of family, church, association between the individual and the state.

Recently I have been reading the work of Lawrence Cahoone. His Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics is a profound critique of the failure of "neutralist liberalism" and an argument for civil society. Of course, his book is not a font of policy prescriptions, ammo for politicians eager to "do something" in the present crisis. It does little more than describe civil society: What it is, what it means, and what it does.

Even in the chaos of the London riots we can see civil society at work. From the Daily Mail.

In Dalston and Hackney, north-east London, Turkish shopkeepers and their families fought back against looting youths, before spending the night standing shoulder-to-shoulder in an attempt to deter further attacks.

When the chips are down, civil society means, at a minimum, that the men get together to defend their neighborhood.

Cahoone describes civil society in two major chapters of his book. The first, "Civil Society," describes civil society institutionally; the second, "Civility, Neighborhood, and Culture," describes it as culture.

The key point is that civil society is informal, a "quasi-independent association of households." It is not community, for it is not unified.  It is not government, but it is an association that relates to government. In detail, Cahoone describes five characteristics of civil society:

Society is autonomous, for "Society gets its norms from the inside rather than from institutions outside it."

There are no subjects, only citizens. Aristocrat and commoner are united in their "Frenchness" or "Englishness."

Civil society is a spontaneous order, not ordered up by political will.

No "single agency dominates social life." There are different types of institutions competing in society and many competing within each type.

Civil "societies must have market economies." But civil society is not the same as the market; it abuts the market economy and "the rules of civility are not the rules of the market."

At the cultural level, writes Cahoone, it is important to remember that civil society is not politics. It is primarily "living-with, not talking-with;" It is  "membership, freedom, civility, and dignity." Dignity here means "recognizable worthiness," a rough equality in which banker and laborer take care to relate as equals.

The essential core of the civil society is its "dialectic of civility and culture."  There cannot be a pure civility; it "must be informed by some cultural tradition."  But not just one tradition.  Civil society implies a diversity, a competition of cultural narratives, but a competition that minimizes cultural coercion.

The modern world is a mix of "market, civil society, and nationalism," writes Cahoone.  These are fighting words, for when you think about it, our liberal friends are at war with all three. They want to control the market with their regulations and subsidies; they want to marginalize civil society with their political hegemony, and they want to neuter national identity with their elite cosmopolitanism.

Radio host Dennis Prager always says: "I prefer clarity over agreement."  The more that I learn about civil society, the more I reach clarity about what that city on a hill will look like.

When we conservatives reach clarity on civil society we will be ready to hammer out a new social contract with the American people.  It will be based on the simple idea that civil society is at the heart of America.  Civil society is the solvent that can soften the endless "creative destruction" of the market and the "civil war by other means" of national politics. 

And it will deflate the thugs of the flash mobs.

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his and also  At he is blogging and writing An American Manifesto: Life After Liberalism.