The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
The practice of civic equality can become a practice of cultural leveling that seeks to "bring down the mighty" and to debunk every form of human greatness and distinction.
The liberation of desire1 realized through the attainment of full cultural citizenship is not an unproblematic good. The liberation of desire required for development of a capacity for civic freedom moves in the direction of a general detachment from every particularistic object of desire and therefore puts the intelligibility of desire itself at risk.
This is because human desire is never desire-in-general. It is always particularistic desire. It is always desire for a particularistic conception of the good whose pursuit can be represented in a totalizing and coherent life narrative. In the same way, the liberation of desire required for development of a capacity for civic justice moves in the direction of a general detachment from every particularistic communitarian ranking system or standard of justice. Such detachment puts desire at risk in a similar way by promoting an attitude of alienation from all particularistic ranking systems -- ranking systems that give direction to human aspiration and generate narrative solidarity with others.
When it produces this alienating effect, the practice of life-narrational equalization2 takes the form of a narrative debunking of every particularistic form of human greatness and distinction, the sort of debunking typically carried on in scandal-mongering tabloid news stories and in unauthorized star biographies. In such news stories and biographies, persons who have been narratively exalted in terms of one ranking system are brought low by the narrative application of either the same or a different ranking system.
The practice of life-narrational equalization in such cases becomes a practice of cultural leveling aimed at revealing every notable human achievement to be the result of chance, conspiracy, or moral failure. But this attempt to bring down the mighty by showing all particularistic human distinction to be illusory can also have the effect of stifling aspiration to distinctive human achievement in general.
Ironically, this misguided
practice of life-narrational equalization can even represent as fraudulent and
ideologically deceived the aspiration to achieve a superlative sense of civic justice --
so that the very practice of narrative imagination that should properly serve to develop a
capacity for civic justice can have the effect of undermining the aspiration to achieve
it. Thus, just as the practice of life-narrational de-centering3 can threaten the narrative coherence and
intelligibility of desire, so also can life-narrational equalization both nullify the
basis of narrative solidarity with others and promote a general sense of the futility of
particularistic desire itself.
The civic good as the narrative liberation of desire
So here, once again, the question of motivation must be raised. The practice of these forms of narrative imagination does not come naturally. Learning to adopt the externalized perspective on life narrative construction is difficult. It is hard to believe that anyone would undertake this project of the narrative liberation of desire without a belief in the goodness or desirability of its outcome.
But what makes the civic good -- i.e., the development and exercise of capacities for civic freedom and civic justice -- desirable? How can this good become an object of desire when the transformation of desire that is required for its attainment can come to cast doubt upon the value of particularistic desire itself?
Let us be sure we understand the full scope of this question. We have taken what Rawls termed the two powers of moral personality as the capacities that define full cultural citizenship. These are the capacity for civic freedom and the capacity for an effective sense of civic justice. The development and exercise of these two capacities constitute the two primary components of the civic good. For those who have fully developed these two capacities, the exercise of these capacities is a highest-order interest. This means that, for such fully-developed citizens, where the civic good attained through the exercise of these two capacities comes in conflict with other goods, the civic good is to be preferred.
The full realization of the normative standpoint of citizenship, then, consists in a modification of the effective ranking systems that persons typically bring to bear in daily decision-making. In daily decision-making, all human beings typically rank alternative courses of action in terms of one or another particularistic conception of the good. Their desire for that particularistic ideal of happiness and the decisions it calls forth are rendered intelligible through the ongoing construction of a coherent life narrative. This life narrative defines a specific identity in terms of the particularistic life ideal or object of desire currently being pursued.
Full cultural citizenship, then, in modifying the ranking systems applied in everyday decision-making, modifies the narrative intelligibility of desire itself. To give highest priority to the civic good is to give highest priority to the adoption of an external perspective on all life narrative construction and therefore an external perspective upon every narrative interpretation of particularistic desire. To desire the civic good is to desire this narrative liberation of desire.
This narrative liberation
of desire can produce a certain detachment or alienation from particularistic ranking
systems and forms of narrative solidarity that are necessary to give particularistic
desire its meaning and direction. Clearly, the civic good cannot consist in this sort of
detachment or alienation. To have a highest-order interest in the attainment of the civic
good is not to desire the attainment of a perspective that undermines all particularistic
desire. The question about the nature of the civic good is therefore the question of how
the narrative modification of desire required for the practice of civic freedom and civic
justice can itself be understood as an object of desire.
The problem of motivating pursuit of the civic good
Further, let us keep in mind that, in a viable liberal democracy, citizens are united by their common pursuit of this civic good. Liberal democracy is a form of political association specifically established in order to provide the conditions under which alone this civic good can be attained by its members. It is a form of political association specifically established in order to make it possible for persons to accomplish this modification in the structure of desire, this narrative liberation of desire, that is the basis of the capacities proper to citizenship.
Further, liberal democracies, i.e., regimes of civic freedom and civic justice, can exist only to the extent that many or most of their members actually develop these capacities and actually desire the civic good. A proper understanding of this civic good, one capable of effectively motivating desire for its attainment, is therefore absolutely essential to the very existence of civic community. The question of motivation is the central cultural question facing any civic community.
The contemporary demise of modernist civic culture raises this question in the most pressing possible way for us. The question of how to motivate pursuit of the civic good is thus not a matter of idle philosophical speculation, but rather of the most immediate and urgent political concern. How are we to answer it? What arguments can we offer to one another as citizens that will both make clear the demands of citizenship and effectively motivate the desire to attain it?
Let us keep in mind also that the required arguments cannot be generated from the cultural resources provided by civic community or the public sphere alone. As Rawls notes, liberal democratic political institutions must be supported by an overlapping cultural consensus. The diverse cultural communities included within a given liberal democracy must identify and cultivate within their own traditions resources supportive of citizenship.
For many cultural traditions, this will be difficult or impossible. Cultural traditions wholly wedded to monocultural forms of desire will find that liberal democratic institutions constitute a relentlessly corrosive and hostile cultural environment. Where communities shaped by such monocultural values predominate, liberal political institutions themselves are not likely to succeed. Liberal political institutions can flourish only where the particularistic cultural communities subject to them can find a basis within their particular traditions for an affirmation of civic freedom and civic equality.
A conception of the civic good, as understood only in terms of the limited cultural perspectives proper to the liberal democratic public sphere, can by itself never provide sufficient motivational resources rich enough to provide a cultural basis of social unity and stability. The civic good is a partial good. Civic culture is a "thin" culture. For citizens in the full cultural sense, attainment of the civic good is a highest-order interest. Yet pursuit of the civic good alone can never provide citizens with the resources for the creation of a comprehensive way of life.
A liberal democracy, then, requires the support of an overlapping consensus among the particularistic cultural communities that comprise it. However, this is not to say that the cultural perspectives proper to the liberal democratic public sphere can offer no supportive cultural resources at all. Arguments motivating desire for the attainment of the civic good can be drawn also from a conception of the liberal democratic public sphere itself.
Modus vivendi arguments supportive of liberal political institutions are a case in point. But modus vivendi liberalism is incapable of providing support for anything more than the most truncated and stunted forms of civic identity. Modus vivendi liberalism appeals only to the local self-interest of citizens as members of particularistic cultural communities. Modus vivendi liberalism argues for the support of liberal democracy only as part of a cultural and political compromise aimed at securing civil peace. What makes this compromise desirable is nothing beyond its promise to provide the conditions under which particular ethnic, class, and religious communities may continue to pursue their diverse conceptions of the good life without the threat of interference from others.
What modus vivendi
arguments do not make clear in what sense citizenship is itself a good to be desired for
its own sake. Such arguments cannot, therefore, generate motivation to undertake the
transformation of desire required for full cultural citizenship. While modus vivendi
arguments may be a permanent and even indispensable part of the rhetorical arsenal
supportive of liberal democracy, taken by themselves in the absence of other means of
cultural support, not only are they insufficient to generate the kind of motivation
required for citizenship, they can actually weaken the cultural foundations of political
Obstacles to aspiration within the sphere of communitarian justice
Beyond modus vivendi arguments, then, what other arguments can be drawn from the perspectives proper to the liberal democratic public sphere alone that can provide cultural support for the pursuit of the civic good? Perhaps such arguments might be discovered by examining another familiar conception of the goal of liberal democratic political association, one identified with modernist metaphysical conceptions of liberal doctrine.
According to this conception, the goal of liberal democratic political association is to secure the natural rights of individuals. If this conception of the civic good is to provide motivational resources for a postmodern civic culture, however, it must be reformulated in such a way as to strip the notion of individual rights of its metaphysical connotations -- of any suggestion that civil and political rights are universal and essential properties of human beings as such. That could be accomplished in the following way.
Let us consider the fact that the criterion of equality proper to civic justice specifies that all citizens, as they enter the public sphere, be treated as equals, regardless of their relative rank or status as measured by the ranking systems applied to them in accordance with communitarian standards of justice. This civic criterion of justice is designed to have a countervailing impact on the hierarchical evaluational frameworks that typically order particularistic cultural communities.
Particularistic cultural communities are governed by totalizing world views and united by narrative solidarity in the pursuit of a shared conception of the good life. As cultural communities that seek to nurture and provide direction to human desire, hierarchical standards of excellence and achievement are necessary. Without such standards, these communities cannot generate and guide the aspirations of their members.
However, often within such communities hierarchical ranking systems and standards of communitarian justice are established that have the effect of stifling rather than nurturing particularistic human desire and aspiration. This occurs when members of particularistic cultural communities are excluded from positions of power, respect, and authority within those communities on the basis of quasi-natural traits such as birth, race, gender, age, and class. The establishment of liberal political institutions -- the establishment of a regime of civic freedom and civic justice -- is designed to free members of particularistic cultural communities from all such quasi-natural constraints on particularistic aspiration and desire. This is the countervailing force and intent of the criterion of equality proper to civic justice.
Let us explore this
countervailing force and intent of civic justice a bit further. As we have seen, the
development of the capacities for civic freedom and civic justice entails a modification
of the structure of desire -- what I have called a narrative liberation of desire -- that
can threaten the narrative intelligibility of desire itself and weaken the sense of
narrative solidarity with others. But this liberation of desire in the name of libertarian
and egalitarian goals constitutes only one sort of threat to narrative solidarity and to
the narrative intelligibility of desire. Another sort of threat to particularistic desire
arises within the sphere of communitarian justice. We can understand the establishment of
a regime of civic freedom and civic justice to be a response to this other threat.
Two ways that civic injustice undermines the narrative intelligibility of desire
Ideally, particularistic cultural communities nurture and direct the desire and aspirations of their members. Human desire flourishes most readily when its objects are clearly identified and narratively represented as attainable. The local culture generated by these communities -- its narrative-embodied ranking systems, standards of excellence, virtue concepts, and so on -- serves these goals, focusing desire and nourishing the hope of its satisfaction.
The bond that unites members of particularistic cultural communities is rooted in the soil of biological life. Human life, like all life, requires hierarchy, ranking, command and obedience, authority, and subordination. Only under these conditions can human desire, as a form of animal desire, flourish. But such communities, rooted as they are in the soil of biological life, can also set up obstacles that are destructive of human desire.
This occurs when such communities assign rank, roles of command and obedience, positions of authority and subordination, to members on the basis of quasi-natural traits such as birth, race, gender, age, and class. Members of a community who are systematically excluded from positions of power, respect and authority on the basis of such quasi-natural qualities -- i.e., qualities that they can neither gain by effort nor lose by human fault -- cannot aspire to those positions.
On the other hand, neither can those who hold such positions as a result of birth, race, gender, age, or class aspire to them -- or at least their aspiration is limited by the fact that the positions are delivered over to them solely by virtue of their possession of such quasi-natural traits. In this way, the establishment of such obstacles to desire has the effect of blocking the aspirations not only of those whose life possibilities are limited by those obstacles, but also of those who benefit from them.
When any particularistic cultural community establishes such quasi-natural obstacles to the aspirations of its members, justification for such limitation is ordinarily incorporated into the official culture of the community -- i.e., into the official world view and community narratives. In some Christian communities, for example, women are excluded from positions of ecclesiastical power and authority by appeal to Biblical precepts and narratives. Again, in modern liberal democracies, racial groups have been excluded from positions of power and respect by appeal to "scientific" genetic theories.
Because the justification for quasi-natural obstacles to desire are incorporated in this way into the official world views and narratives of these communities, community members whose aspirations are blocked by these obstacles and who remain in the community have only two choices: (1) they must incorporate those quasi-natural obstacles into their own identities and narrative self-understanding or (2) they must generate counter-narratives and counter-world views opposed to the official culture of the community. In either case, the capacity of the local community culture to carry out its essential function of nurturing and directing human desire is undermined and diminished.
Thus, in the first case, when community members who are victims of this discrimination incorporate into their own life narratives community beliefs about the disqualifying character of traits such as birth, race, gender, age, and class, then the life narratives of those community members become the internalized mechanism by which desire is stunted and impeded. Under such circumstances, life narratives fail to carry out the function of rendering human desire intelligible to itself. The life stories of those whose birth, race, gender, age, or class constitute obstacles to aspiration are inevitably stories of unjustified desire, forbidden aspiration and repressed hopes.
In the second case, when
persons who are victims of discrimination reject their exclusion from positions of power
and respect and, in this rejection of the official culture of the community, generate
counter-narratives and counter-world views as a response, the basis for the narrative
solidarity of the community is destroyed. When this occurs, the local culture of such a
community becomes a theater of conflict, a distorting mirror of intergroup rivalry rather
than the medium through which a collective desire for attainment of a shared conception of
the good life is made transparent to itself.
The countervailing force of civic justice within particularistic cultural communities
Rather than describing the goal of liberal democratic regimes as the securing of the universal human rights of individuals, we can now describe this countervailing intent of regimes of civic justice in a non-metaphysical way.
We can say that liberal democracy is a form of political association established for the purpose of eliminating all quasi-natural obstacles to human desire and aspiration. Liberal democratic regimes accomplishes this through the creation of a civic culture whose countervailing premise is the freedom and equality of all citizens.
The criterion of civic equality is not intended to subvert or nullify the ranking systems, virtue concepts, or standards of excellence proper to particularistic cultural communities. These ranking systems, functioning properly (i.e., as conceived of by liberal doctrine), are absolutely necessary for the nurturing and direction of human desire. Civic equality is a political and not a metaphysical conception. It applies to the part and not to the whole of life. Human beings are defined as equals only in their relationship to the basic structure of liberal democratic society as a whole, only with respect to their participation in the liberal democratic public sphere.
The criterion of civic equality is properly applied within particularistic cultural communities only to those local ranking systems that assign roles of power and authority on the basis of quasi-natural qualities such as birth, race, gender, age, and class. Such ranking systems apply criteria for evaluation based upon human differences that can be neither gained nor lost. Such ranking systems therefore establish obstacles to particularistic human desire and aspiration that threaten the narrative intelligibility of human desire and the narrative solidarity of communities.
Civic justice requires that all such obstacles be removed. Liberal democracy makes this demand in the name of the narrative intelligibility of desire itself and for the sake of strengthening the narrative solidarity of particularistic cultural communities. Of course, beyond absolutely clear-cut violations of civic equality found in such communities, such as racial segregation and gender discrimination, the principles of civic justice that determine how the criterion of civic equality is to be applied in particular cases can never be specified in advance. In other words, there can be no general "theory" stating the principles of civic justice once and for all.
Application of the
criterion of civic equality is always a matter of political judgment and civic consensus.
In its affirmation of human desire and aspiration, liberal democracy not only establishes
an order of civic equality but also affirms and underwrites orders of inequality
determined by talent and merit. In liberal democratic societies, ongoing political
discussion and conflict has much to do with striking the proper balance between civic
equality and social hierarchy. Determining where that line is to be drawn in any
particular case or for any particular era is a task for public political debate and not
for political philosophy.
The civic good and its paradoxical affirmation of particularistic desire
This way of reformulating the goal of liberal democratic political association can perhaps suggest a way of addressing the issue of motivation in the project of inventing a viable postmodern civic culture.
If citizens are going to be motivated to develop and exercise capacities for civic freedom and civic justice, the desirability of these capacities must be made clear to them. Development of these capacities requires a modification of the structure of particularistic desire, a certain detachment of particularistic desire from its current object that, if taken too far, can become a general alienation from every object of desire, an alienation threatening the narrative intelligibility of desire itself. The civic good -- i.e., the exercise of capacities for civic freedom and civic justice -- can be understood as an object of desire only if this detachment of particularistic desire from its current object can be understood as an object of desire. But how is that possible?
It is possible only if this detachment is subject to the limits defined by the goal of liberal democratic political association. The point of learning to adopt a standpoint of detachment from every object of particularistic desire, an external perspective on all life narrative construction, is, for purposes of attaining the civic good, not to nullify particularistic desire, but rather to affirm it by removing all quasi-natural, socially-imposed obstacles to its fulfillment.
The paradoxical aspect of the pursuit of the civic good is that in order to create and maintain the political institutions capable of removing socially-imposed obstacles to the fulfillment of particularistic desire, a culture is necessary that motivates persons to abandon the standpoint proper to the pursuits of their own particularistic objects of desire. The reason why the civic good can become the highest-order interest of citizens is not because it itself has a specific content over and above the pursuit of one particularistic conception of the good or another, but because it consists in the realization of a standpoint capable of affirming all particularistic desire as particularistic desire.
To put this point in a slightly misleading, but nevertheless perhaps useful way, the civic good consists in the attainment of a standpoint from which the desires proper to "this world," i.e., proper to earthly, natural human life, can be affirmed precisely as desires of "this world," precisely as desires for objects that are contingent, of only relative value and of local significance.
As long as the practices of life-narrational de-centering and life-narrational equalization are undertaken with this purpose clearly in view, they will not produce the general detachment or alienation from all objects of particularistic desire that can produce a sense of the futility of all particularistic desire. Attainment of the civic good is made possible by an abandonment of the standpoint of particularistic desire that nevertheless affirms all particularistic desire as such.
Thus, liberal democracy, as a form of political association, is grounded upon the most complete possible affirmation of particularistic desire, the most complete possible affirmation of earthly, natural human life. Nevertheless, in the service of particularistic desire, in the name of its narrative intelligibility and for the sake of human narrative solidarity, liberal democracy requires particularistic desire to examine itself critically. According to this conception of the civic good, it is the claim of liberalism that the greatest threat to particularistic human desire lies in its being captured by monocultural forms of narrative solidarity.
To attain full cultural citizenship, persons must learn to break open closed cultural worlds and to overturn rigid hierarchies and ranking systems. Persons must learn to do this not in order to destroy those worlds and hierarchies, but rather in order to let them function in the open space of a more encompassing sphere that is free of intrinsic hierarchy and unbounded by any closed narrative horizon.
Is such a conception of the civic good capable of motivating citizens to undertake the uncomfortable work of becoming full cultural citizens? Certainly not. Yet it possibly does provide a basis for such motivation and a framework within which citizens can work, as members of particularistic cultural communities, to discover within their own local traditions richer and more effective sources for motivating the pursuit of the civic good.
Page last edited: January 20, 2002
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Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
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