Keeping society civil: the best of all worlds?

Is civil society the best kind for humanity – or could we do better?

Egyptian supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty

Egyptian supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Photograph: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty

Tue, Sep 3, 2013, 01:00

‘If this is the best of all possible worlds,” asks Voltaire in his 1759 novel Candide, “what then are the others?” Just asking the question got the great French writer into a bundle of trouble: his mini-masterpiece was promptly banned on the grounds of blasphemy, sedition and intellectual hostility.

Whether – and how – social groups can best serve the needs of humanity is a question philosophers have addressed through the ages. So, in more recent centuries, have sociologists, scientists and political theorists. And art, from Voltaire through Jane Austen to Banksy’s subversive graffiti, has played its own shape-shifting role in the creation – and destruction – of socio-cultural memes.

But in our fractured intellectual times, these various viewpoints don’t always communicate with each other – which makes a workshop taking place at UCD’s Newman House this week particularly welcome. Organised jointly by the university’s departments of sociology and philosophy and entitled Is Civil Society the Good Society?, it will focus on the book The Civil Sphere by the US sociologist Jeffrey C Alexander.

“When the book came out in 2006 I found it quite inspirational,” explains Maeve Cooke of UCD’s department of philosophy. “He has a vision of a democratic society as it could be, and he articulates it most vividly.”

Alexander is, she says, unusual among contemporary sociologists in that his work has an ethical aspect. “He wouldn’t use the word ‘vision’,” she says. “But he distinguishes between different models of the civil sphere, and how we envision ourselves as human beings.”


Three models of civil society
Alexander’s analysis of civil society offers three contrasting models. The first, based on the Jewish experience in Europe, is characterised by assimilation, as immigrants seek to become identical with their new neighbours – changing names, clothes, possibly even religion in the process.

The second model finds immigrants asserting their new identity, confident enough to declare themselves Jewish or Irish or Italian or whatever it might be – but with little or no engagement between the various social groups.

The third model is a fluid one in which people can mix and match, so that, as Cooke puts it, “being Jewish, or Irish, or Italian, is just one part of a much richer imagining of one’s own identity – and one is always open to new ways of living and thinking about one’s life”.

It’s the dream scenario for liberal multiculturalism. Human beings being all too human, however, dreams often turn into nightmares. Alexander’s notion of civil society is robust enough to include this darker side of democracy; indeed, he argues that a good society is not something we arrive at, heaving a sigh of relief as we live happily ever after, but something at which we must constantly work, an activity he refers to as “civil repair”.

“Alexander does not believe that humans are inherently good, or that if only left alone would – in almost Rousseau-like fashion – develop the ‘just society’,” writes Andreas Hess, from the department of sociology at UCD in an essay about Alexander’s book called The Glass Half-Full? “The civil sphere is actually a delicate achievement [that] needs the right context and a certain institutional environment to maintain its life.”

This environment encompasses political parties, office holders, legal traditions and constitutions – as well as writers and film-makers. Exclusion is anathema to the working practice of Jeffrey Alexander, who has turned his attention to topics as disparate as the recent upheavals in Egypt and the novels of Philip Roth.

Which doesn’t mean that Alexander has got everything right. “Jeff Alexander’s vision of the good society is not the same as Marx’s, or Habermas’s,” says Cooke (who, along with Hess, a range of visiting speakers and Alexander himself will take part in Friday’s workshop).

“There is a plurality of ideas, and we have to talk publicly about these competing visions, and recognise the ways in which they speak to our imaginations and our emotions as well as our intellect.”


Is Civil Society the Good Society? is at the Iveagh Room, Newman House, St Stephen’s Green, on Friday from 9.30 am to 5.15 pm. Prior registration is a must: contact maeve.cooke@ucd.ie

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