Blessed Be the Ties That Bind (continued)

Civil society as we know it today, then, rests upon the double achievements of individual emancipation and institutional differentiation. But in describing these as achievements, I certainly do not mean to endorse wholesale the manner in which they were historically realized. Indeed, the point of my hasty narrative is not to baptize but to problematize these developments...
November 1 st 2004

Continued from part 1...

As civil society discourse began to re-enter the currency of political debate a decade or two ago, historians of political thought reminded protagonists that the term in its modern sense goes back at least to the eighteenth century. Before then—up to early modern thinkers such as Locke—when the term civil society was employed, it characteristically referred to the whole of a politically organized society. In classical, medieval, and early modern times, this whole was characterized variously as polis, civitas, respublica, commonwealth, body politic, or political society. These were not synonyms; they suggested different understandings of the relation between the institutions we now call political and those that were referred to as their parts or members or organs. But none seemed to permit the isolation of a sphere of social reality that was not political.

By contrast, the modern usages of the term presuppose the formulation of exactly such a sphere. They proceeded from a sharp distinction between state and society, making possible the identification of a sphere of social reality other than the state, though not necessarily wholly separate from or antagonistic to it.

How was that sphere to be characterized? John Ehrenberg in Civil Society (1999), traces two contrasting emphases emerging in parallel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I will term these an individualist account, oriented especially to a notion of spontaneously harmonizing economic activity among free individuals (originating with Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith and critically developed by Marx and Hegel), and an associationist account, viewing society as a network of associations or communities intermediate between individual and state (originating with Montesquieu and de Tocqueville). It is various versions of the latter that now predominate contemporary discourse (across all three perspectives).

Now it is vital to note that both accounts presuppose some essential components of modernity, most notably the appearance of a vastly expanded sphere of personal and institutional freedom, a sphere characterized by a widening realm of inter-individual and inter-institutional activity, now "liberated" from pre-modern customary, religious, and political constraints, and ushering in hitherto unavailable possibilities for novel forms of social interaction among emancipated individuals and institutions. On the one hand, the growth of individual freedom occurred as the restrictive ties that bound people within inherited social ranks—proprietarian (feudal) or territorial bonds, kinship loyalties, guild memberships, religious affiliations, and so forth—began to loosen, leaving individuals much freer than before to choose where and how to live, act, believe, or seek employment. For many individuals, this was experienced as a genuine emancipation.

On the other hand, the growth of institutional freedom occurred initially through the slackening of ecclesial power over other social bodies in the aftermath of the Reformation. Political thought in the Reformation (both magisterial and radical) asserted both the freedom of individual conscience (under Scripture) and the spiritual equality of all callings, undermining medieval social hierarchies and opening the way for the appearance of a wide range of legally equal institutions.

(By legally equal, I mean enjoying the status of independent legal subject in a common legal order. The position of the state, of course, is unique here, since it is responsible for determining the content of that common legal order. Non-state institutions are legally subject to it, in a way in which it is not legally subject to them. The state is, however, obliged to respect the independent legal rights and powers of other institutions. Pace the dominant modern doctrine of legal sovereignty, it does not create such rights and powers.)

But ultimately more important than this seismic shift in church-state relationships were the unstoppable advances of both the centralized territorial nation-state and the capitalist system. From these three converging movements there emerged a process of institutional differentiation in which political, economic, kinship, cultural, educational, and other institutions came to enjoy vastly expanded realms of jurisdictional and moral autonomy.

Civil society as we know it today, then, rests upon the double achievements of individual emancipation and institutional differentiation. But in describing these as achievements, I certainly do not mean to endorse wholesale the manner in which they were historically realized. Indeed, the point of my hasty narrative is not to baptize but to problematize these developments, to point to the need for a normative critical assessment of those very processes.

The most influential interpreter of modern differentiation, Max Weber, famously documented the progressive realization of what he called "the internal and lawful autonomy of the individual spheres" in the modern world. But he also claimed that this process was necessarily accompanied by the secularization of the non-religious spheres (political, economic, intellectual, etc.). Such spheres mark themselves out, he argued, as essentially incompatible with the imperatives of religious beliefs and ethics; the state, for example, cannot be defined, as it was in pre-modern societies, in terms of the pursuit of religious or moral ends, but solely in terms of its possession of unique means, the "legitimate monopoly of violence." Parallel conclusions, he suggested, apply equally to other differentiating social spheres.

Now an alternative Christian reading would need to show that, while secularization certainly did progressively occur in all differentiated social spheres under the spreading influence of secular humanism (itself partly a reaction against excessive and often obscurantist ecclesial control), this was never a necessary feature or condition of institutional differentiation. The secularization of many modern social spheres was the outcome, not of the structural process of differentiation itself, but of a contingent ideological process accompanying it: the repudiation of Christianity as an authoritative source of public truth and the consequent proclamation of the "emancipation" of ascendant social spheres such as politics, business, and the academy from subjection to (what were taken to be) Christian norms of justice and solidarity.

This repudiation was (so the argument would go) a profoundly important—though evidently not the only—cause of the subsequent gross abuse of modern freedom in many spheres. This occurred at the expense of those who suffered from the consequences of various manifestations of individualism, and, in due course, of various expressions of its dialectical counterpart, statism.

Individualism abruptly severed the ties that provided material protection and a sense of belonging to pre-modern people. Its economic manifestation, liberal capitalism, unleashed the power of enterprise and capital, generating enormous economic growth, but in the process forced many formally emancipated workers into what Weber called an "iron cage," and it still does. (I am not suggesting that capitalism, per se, in all its manifestations, is illegitimate. I broadly concur with John Paul II's nuanced acceptance of a certain definition of capitalism in his encyclical Centesimus Annus).

Statism, in its turn, imposed new forms of (often oppressive) bureaucratic ties, which only increased the social fragmentation they were intended to remedy. Whatever historical responsibility Christianity may have for these aberrations, it is arguable that its overthrow as an authoritative source of public morality left modernity with a deeply inadequate foundation for the public reassertion of norms of justice and solidarity. As a result, creeping institutional secularization allowed the process of differentiation to generate new forms of enslavement and oppression.

In response to these emerging distortions, some nostalgic nineteenth-century Christian social thinkers (partly under the influence of Romanticism) hankered after a revival of the organic ties of the pre-modern period. But not only was such a revival historically impossible by then, the very desire for such ties also revealed a failure to appreciate both the constrictive or oppressive features of certain pre-modern structures and the positive potentials of modern freedom for Christian faithfulness.

It can be argued that, at their best, emancipation and differentiation allow much greater scope than did many pre-modern structures for the flourishing of the many callings arising from the created social nature of human beings. If so, then we can speak of emancipation and differentiation as inherently positive developments, indeed even as historical norms for the unfolding of early modern Western societies.

But here must follow a crucial qualification: such norms would promote genuine flourishing only if the freedom they secure was exercised in tandem with a respect for those norms of justice and solidarity that earlier organic forms sought, at their best, to embody. We might say that the norms of emancipation and differentiation needed to be realized alongside an equally important historical norm of societal reintegration: as early modern individuals and institutions dispersed to enjoy enhanced independence from the former ties that had bound them too tightly, there was a pressing historical imperative to put in place new kinds of ties which reconnected them once again in bonds of justice and solidarity.

Emancipation and differentiation were indeed spectacular cultural achievements, but, in the absence of corresponding new solidaristic ties, they carried enormous risks of personal isolation, social fragmentation, and economic injustice. The great achievement of modernity, then, was not the "liberation" of autonomous, self-determining individuals from any necessary communal or moral bonds but rather the creation of a new social space for the establishment of novel forms of solidarity among emancipated individuals and differentiated institutions. Such free expressions of solidarity can be construed as normative responses to the awesome historical calling to establish new integrative ties to replace the organic linkages that had held pre-modern societies together. (This, of course, is an important Tocquevillian theme: voluntary associations in an egalitarian society serve as replacements for the secondary powers that supplied status and protection in the ancien regime.)

I propose to designate these new forms of relationship called for by modern emancipation and differentiation as interdependencies. By using this term, I indicate both that they are relationships between genuinely autonomous units (emancipated individuals and differentiated institutions) but that they nevertheless stand toward each other as mutually dependent, if each is to flourish.

My intention is not to seek a mere balance between (modern) individualism and (pre-modern) organicism but to transcend that misleading polarity, replacing it with an integrally relational model of persons and institutions in which individuality and community are seen as mutually constitutive.

I also emphasize that, by referring to these relationships as norms, I do not construe them as divorced from or merely supervening upon empirical states of affairs. As I am using the term, a norm is not an ideal but rather a real imperative operating with at least partial effectiveness within such states of affairs and disclosed only through critical reflection on them. Thus, even though many social processes driving modernity fall far short, to say the least, of the normative requirements of justice and solidarity, they have never fallen entirely short. The human need, desire, and capacity for social justice and solidarity inescapably make themselves felt within the concrete social forms humans produce, even under conditions of modernity. And this is the case even when a modernistic ideology of autonomous freedom militates against their adequate realization—an ideology aptly summed up as the view that human beings are "bound together by the inalienable right not to be bound together" (Christopher Lasch).

Modern societies still continue to generate and sustain multiple communities, and multiple interdependencies between them (between families and schools, businesses and labour unions, governments and markets, political movements and churches, and so on). They do so even in the face of the regnant individualist model of society, a model that cannot properly account either for communities or for interdependencies and so persistently obscures their significance—even to those actually participating in and benefiting from them. An excellent account of the way in which the norm of solidarity is both already partially realized in, but also demands much fuller expression within, modern economic structures, is Jonathan Boswell, Community and the Economy: The Theory of Public Cooperation (1990).

Interdependencies, then, are already pervasively with us. But we need a fuller account of the reality, a clearer normative assessment of their existing forms, and a better diagnosis of their current pathologies. But, of course, they are no panacea: interdependencies can easily degenerate into unhealthy dependencies. Indeed, the normative assessment I just mentioned will consist in large part of exposing unhealthy dependencies and identifying and promoting healthy interdependencies.

Let me make clear that I am far from suggesting that all relations of dependence are unhealthy: children's dependence on parents, pupils on teachers, the disabled on the able-bodied, the elderly on the young (and vice versa), the dying and the yet-to-be-born on the living, and so on, are all necessary and potentially deeply enriching kinds of dependence. By contrast, an unhealthy dependence arises when the profoundly unequal power or resources commanded by one or more interrelated parties are deployed by the stronger at the expense of the legitimate interests of the weaker, mocking their formal legal equality of status. A prime example of this kind of distortion was the unregulated labour market of the nineteenth-century; the deregulated global financial markets today dramatically exemplify it in our own day. I specifically include market relationships within the category of interdependencies in order to insist that they, too, are subject to the controlling norms of justice and solidarity among formally equal contracting parties.

It is easy to see how the newly liberated individuals and institutions of the modern world could so easily have thought of themselves as essentially self-sufficient, autonomous agents, able to navigate their own way into the brave new world of foreign adventure, reason, science, and progress and collaborating with others only on instrumental, contractual,—and so transient—terms. We now know at what cost this assertion of radical individual and institutional autonomy has been made. Christian social thought has always known that such an assertion was illusory. And it still proclaims today that, notwithstanding their legitimate sphere of independence, the free individuals and institutions of modernity stand before a vision of human community in which all are members one of another. They need the ties that bind them to norms of justice and solidarity. But the older language of organic harmony is no longer available to us as we seek to articulate this vision in the context of modern differentiation. A notion such as interdependencies might, perhaps, serve us better.

A different definition of civil society emerges from this (Christian-inspired) re-reading of its historical origins. Civil society can helpfully be conceived, I suggest, as the realm of differentiated interdependencies. The task of a critical Christian theory of civil society can then be stated as the elucidation of the normative requirements of such interdependencies: of the moral shape of the ties of justice and solidarity that should bind emancipated individuals and differentiated institutions in a modern society.

A particular strength of Christian social thought, notably of the two traditions introduced earlier, has been its focus on the unique moral significance and structural identity of particular types of institution: family, marriage, school, business, labour union, state, and so forth. Rich resources of insight into their perduring nature and evolving purposes are available in these and other traditions of social thought. This focus on institutional identity can serve as an important reminder to civil society theorists to avoid conflating different types of institution or attributing to them moral purposes that do not belong to them, such as by looking to families to function primarily as schools for civic virtue or looking to trades unions or churches to function primarily as supplying foot soldiers for political campaigns.

Yet Christian—and especially Protestant—social thought has been less forthcoming in analyzing the complex and multilateral interdependencies existing between those institutions and in diagnosing the many ways in which such interdependencies have been disfigured, sometimes with oppressive consequences, in modern society. Christian social thought has been notably stronger on micro-social institutional analysis (for example, the norms of marriage) than on macro-social systemic analysis (for example, the dynamics of the market).

My proposal, then, is that the definitive focus of (Christian) investigations of civil society should not be the investigation of the distinct identities of institutions—that project must remain central to the larger enterprise of Christian social thought—but of the labyrinthine interconnectedness of distinct institutions and individuals: the sinews of a modern society, rather than its muscles.

This approach contrasts with most contemporary definitions of civil society by shifting the focus of attention away from particular institutional spheres or sectors of society. Such a focus typically generates the dilemma of deciding which sectors to include or exclude from the definition. While almost every definition seems to include voluntary associations and exclude the state, beyond that much disagreement follows, especially over whether the household and the market should be included in civil society. As noted, for Eberly, civil society embraces the familiar American triumvirate of family, church, and neighbourhood, plus voluntary associations, but it excludes the market. Many writers exclude both household and market.

Christopher Bryant, in John Hall's Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison (1995), is representative of many in stipulating that civil society is composed of "the association of citizens—social self-organization—between household and state and aside from the market." In the same vein, John Ehrenberg defines it as "the social relations and structures that lie between the state and the market." Civil society "delineates a sphere that is formally distinct from the body politic and state authority on one hand, and from the immediate pursuit of self-interest and the imperatives of the market on the other." My definition concentrates instead on the interactions between any or all of these differentiated spheres (and emancipated individuals). A theory of civil society, on my construal, would conceive its task as the analysis of the normative relationships that do and should subsist between such spheres .

An important advantage of this definition over most contemporary ones is that it brings the market within its purview. On the view I'm proposing, the market falls fully within the realm of differentiated interdependencies, and a theory of civil society would set itself critically to explore their normative requirements. For example, workers obviously need businesses to supply jobs, and consumers need businesses to supply products, but businesses are equally dependent on families, schools, health-care institutions, and many other bodies (not least the state) to provide responsible and able-bodied workers. The notion of the social embeddedness of markets (of which I am here citing merely one instance) captures well my general claim about interdependencies.

Indeed, the market becomes a central instance of civil society since it is pre-eminently a (sub)realm of interactions (exchanges) between formally independent units (firms and individuals). It is true that the reason why most civil society theorists draw a sharp distinction between the market and civil society is in order to safeguard the integrity of the latter as a space of free initiative not subordinate to market forces. But they do so, perhaps, at the cost of drawing attention away from the intricate and pervasive interdependencies between the market and the institutions occupying this space. Building the market into a definition of civil society encourages analysts explicitly to confront those interdependencies and to critically assess their health: where illicit market forces compromise the integrity of institutions such as families, neighbourhoods, universities, etc., civil society theorists will want to urge a reining in of such forces rather than simply a carving out of spaces of immunity from them.


Dr. Jonathan Chaplin is former Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, a position he took up in 2006. From Fall 2017 he will work as an independent scholar and writer. He is a Member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University, has served as a faculty member of the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS), Toronto and as a visiting lecturer at the VU University, Amsterdam. He is a specialist in Christian political thought, and has authored or edited ten books and reports in the field, and published many articles, including “Liberté, Laïcité, Pluralité: Towards a Theology of Principled Pluralism” (International Journal of Public Theology, 2016). His latest book is God and the EU: Faith in the European Project (Routledge, 2016), co-edited with Gary Wilton.