Civic Culture and Modern Philosophy
Philosophy and Civil Society
The postmodern period will be defined by a growing failure of the intelligibility and motivational power of civic moral ideals.
Liberal democracy requires citizens to develop and cultivate identities that involve standpoints intrinsically opposed to one another and that must be distinguished as clearly as possible.
Modernist liberal political theory reversed the actual developmental and anthropological priorities when it represented the standpoint of the free and equal individual as the natural and universal standpoint of all human beings prior to political association.
A civic culture must perform effectively two related tasks: (1) it must provide cultural resources capable of rendering intelligible to citizens the standpoint proper to liberal democratic citizenship, and (2) it must render this standpoint intelligible in such a way as to generate in citizens the motivation to develop the moral capacities required for citizenship. Specifically modernist civic culture is defined by its use of Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge to carry out both of these functions.
In this way, modernist civic culture made the intelligibility and motivational power of civic moral ideals dependent on the credibility of notions derived from foundationalist epistemology -- what I have called the rhetoric of pure theory. We have now entered a period in which Enlightenment conceptions of reason and knowledge are rapidly losing their credibility. Because modernist civic culture made the intelligibility and motivational power of civic moral ideals dependent to some extent on ideas that are losing their credibility, the effectiveness of modernist civic culture is bound to diminish. The postmodern period of Western culture will therefore, in all likelihood, be defined by a growing failure of the intelligibility and motivational power of civic moral ideals.
Making intelligible the tension between civic and communitarian identities
In discussing the problems of intelligibility and motivation we inherit from modernist liberalism, it is important to keep in view the rhetorical task specific to any liberal democratic civic culture.
A civic culture is composed of discourses, narratives, and representations of various sorts invented by and addressed to citizens for the purpose of rendering intelligible and motivating attainment of the normative standpoint of citizenship. A civic culture is necessarily a countervailing and secondary form of culture. Liberal democracy as a form of political association assumes and even requires that citizens adhere to one or more particularistic conceptions of the good life. Liberal democracy assumes that citizens are first and will always remain members of particular ethnic, class, and religious communities. It assumes that the identities of citizens are first defined and will continue to be shaped by the totalizing world views and value systems associated with those primary communities.
On the other hand, in order for liberal democratic political institutions to function properly, citizens, as members of particular ethnic, class, and religious communities, must also internalize the values proper to the encompassing civic community. A liberal democracy is an association of free and equal individuals. In order to qualify as citizens in the full cultural sense, the members of particularistic cultural communities must develop the capacity to view themselves and others as free and equal individuals and to act accordingly -- even as they maintain their primary adherence to the beliefs and practices of the particularistic cultural communities to which they belong.
Attainment of this capacity is the central cultural and moral task that citizenship imposes on all members of the liberal democratic political community. It is a cultural and moral task of great complexity. It requires citizens to develop and cultivate identities that involve standpoints intrinsically opposed to one another and that must be distinguished as clearly as possible. Every citizen must develop and cultivate not only an identity shaped by the values or ranking systems of some particularistic cultural community, but also the identity of a free and equal individual, i.e., an identity defined by a certain kind of independence of any particularistic set of values. Let us call the first type of identity a communitarian identity and the second a civic identity.
To complicate matters further, citizens who have achieved the identity of a free and equal individual exercise that identity primarily through participation in activities related to the public sphere of their particular civic community. The public sphere of any particular liberal democracy is roughly defined by those types of interests, interactions, activities, and discourses in which the norms -- the standards of excellence, the virtue concepts, the obligations -- proper to citizenship apply. This sphere is never defined once and for all. Rather, its parameters are always a matter of dispute and consensus, growing and shrinking as social, cultural, and economic conditions change. Definition of its exact boundaries at any given time is in fact one of the most fundamental issues that citizens enter the public sphere in order to decide.
In the process of participating in the political processes that define the boundaries of the public sphere, citizens must be able to call into play both their civic identities and their communitarian identities. As bearers of a civic identity, they must be concerned to uphold the norms of civic justice wherever they apply. As bearers of a communitarian identity, they must be concerned to defend particularistic cultural beliefs, values, and practices against possible intrusive action by the liberal democratic state in behalf of some transitory electoral majority.
Thus, to develop a capacity for liberal democratic citizenship is to develop a capacity for maintaining, cultivating, distinguishing, and exercising as appropriate both civic and communitarian identities. Citizenship requires persons to strike some kind of precarious balance between these two opposing standpoints. The rhetorical task of any liberal democratic civic culture is to provide resources that can be used to persuade citizens that this precarious cultural balancing act is not only possible, not only desirable, but even obligatory.
To the extent that any particular historical form of civic culture effectively carries out this rhetorical task, a viable liberal democratic public sphere or civil society is established and liberal democratic political institutions can function as intended. Modernist liberal political theory, as a component of modernist civic culture, generated discourses that provided a characteristic set of resources and strategies for carrying out this rhetorical task. It provided a very specific interpretation of the relationship between civic and communitarian identities.
How Lockean political theory explained the standpoint of citizenship
Modernist liberal political theory, presented in foundationalist theoretical discourses, defined the standpoint of citizenship in essentialist terms — i.e., they defined the civic standpoint of free and equal individuality as the essential or natural standpoint proper to every human being. In this essentialist interpretation, modernist liberalism in fact reversed the developmental relationship between the standpoint proper to citizenship and non-civic standpoints, leading to, among other things, the characteristically modernist failure to recognize the importance of a civic culture for the support of liberal democratic political institutions.
Lockean (or social contractarian) varieties of modernist liberal political theory, for example, defined the standpoint proper to citizenship as prior in an historical or anthropological sense. Social contract theories of the liberal state and of political obligation derived their conceptions of civic norms from narratives supposedly describing the first establishment of political association. In social contract narratives, liberal theorists represented individuals, living under natural or pre-political conditions, meeting together to decide upon mutually advantageous conditions of political association.
Such negotiations, of course, would be carried on by free individuals (or at least family heads) subject to no common power, individuals whose identities would therefore be shaped by the natural condition alone rather than by a set of historically contingent political arrangements. The primary question all parties would face in such negotiations would be how much of their natural liberty to relinquish for the sake of maximizing the benefits of association. Such negotiators would of course want to insist upon placing strict limits on governmental authority and on the state’s power to coerce. They certainly would not grant to the state the power to institute any sort of regime that would impose on citizens a particular conception of the good life. In other words, such negotiators would definitely insist on constitutional recognition of their natural liberty to pursue happiness as they saw fit.
The graphic clarity and simplicity of such contract narratives had great rhetorical force. Those narratives gave plausibility to the notion that the natural human condition — the universal condition of all human beings prior to political association — is a condition of liberty, a condition of free individuality unencumbered by limits imposed or obligations incurred by membership in particularistic ethnic, class, or religious communities. However any particular liberal theorist represented the outcomes of this imagined negotiation, the social contract narrative itself gave the general idea of the priority of human liberty an aspect of self-evidence. The social contract narrative licensed claims affirming natural human rights — i.e., claims that certain legal protections and entitlements were mandated by the original or pre-associational condition of human liberty.
As in the earlier tradition of natural law (influenced by classical metaphysical conceptions of nature), the standard of justice or the principle of right was affirmed by modernist liberal political theory as existing prior to the establishment of every particular historical regime. But, in the case of Lockean varieties of modernist liberalism, this priority was conceived of historically rather than metaphysically, in terms of a narrative of cultural and material progress. The principle of right was derived from the purported natural or spontaneous form of life that would be followed by human beings not subject to the power of governments. Since the establishment of a government would then be a voluntary act, it must be represented as an improvement upon the natural condition, as a story of progress. These were the minimal narrative rules imposed upon Lockean or contractarian varieties of liberal political theory.
Thus, Lockean varieties of modernist liberal political theory attributed to the normative standpoint of citizenship — i.e., the standpoint of free and equal individuality — an historical or anthropological priority to other cultural standpoints. Once again, as a rhetorical strategy, this attribution of priority was very effective in the context of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political struggles. It allowed liberals to claim that civic values were grounded in human nature and in nature generally, as opposed to the artificial and arbitrary values of court and Church. But it also interpreted the standpoint of citizenship in a very specific way — as a standpoint that was universally accessible and available to all human beings, provided that certain impediments to its development be removed.
The anthropological essentialism of social contract theories
Properly understood, social contract narratives were educational devices that helped persons formed by various ethnic and religious cultures to imagine what it would be like to be the free and equal individuals who were described as parties to the social contract. Ideally, by imagining themselves in that role, they could imaginatively strike the attitudes and demand the political arrangements compatible with it. But, paradoxically, social contract narratives could have this educational and empowering impact only by denying their rhetorical status as educational devices and by claiming the status of theoretical discourses about the nature and origins of political association.
To admit that the social contract narrative was merely an educational device -- a component of civic culture -- would have been to admit that the standpoint of citizenship was a constructed and an acquired cultural standpoint just like any other. To admit the artificiality of that status would have been to lose the rhetorical edge gained by the claim that civic values, unlike those of court and Church, were grounded in the nature of things.
This successful modernist rhetorical strategy has today become a liability. Our primary task, as citizens of developed North Atlantic liberal democracies, is no longer to fight for the initial establishment of liberal political institutions, using against the entrenched power of court and Church all the ideological weapons available. Rather, our task today is to maintain a supportive liberal democratic civic culture, one capable of strengthening in ourselves and others the dispositions and attitudes proper to citizenship. In short, our task consists in creating cultural means for the effective reproduction of cultural values.
Modernist liberal political theory, to the extent that it attributed to the normative standpoint of citizenship an historical and anthropological priority, does not serve us well in the pursuit of this task. By claiming this sort of priority for the standpoint of free and equal individuality, modernist liberalism suggested that the primary obstacles to the development and reproduction of civic values come from accidental cultural and political circumstances. It suggested that a civic identity is somehow the native and original identity of persons and that civic identity emerges somehow spontaneously once impediments deriving from these accidental cultural and political circumstances are removed. Because it at least implicitly assigned to civic identity a metaphysical status, modernist liberalism systematically discouraged reflection about civic identity as a cultural construction. It also systematically discouraged reflection about the sort of cultural resources that are required for the development and maintenance of civic identities.
Overcoming our social contractarian hangover
This is one way in which modernist liberal political theory, to the extent that it continues to influence our understanding of liberal democratic citizenship, generates for us what I have called problems of intelligibility. An effective civic culture must provide resources for rendering intelligible to citizens the tasks involved in developing the values and attitudes proper to citizenship. With respect to this function, modernist liberal political theory today produces confusion rather than clarity. It produces confusion above all by its denial that the process of developing the capacities proper to citizenship is a particularistic cultural process requiring particularistic cultural support.
By representing the standpoint of citizenship, the standpoint of free and equal individuality, as the universal standpoint of all human beings in their natural or pre-associational condition, modernist liberalism represented the standpoint of citizenship as a standpoint stripped of all particularistic cultural attributes. The process of developing a civic identity was thereby defined as a process of stripping away the culturally accidental in order to arrive at a supposedly culture-neutral, natural, and universal standpoint.
This way of understanding the developmental and anthropological relationship between civic and communitarian identities not only misrepresents our contemporary experience of citizenship, but also positively impedes our efforts to insure the cultural reproduction of civic values and attitudes. Today we encounter regularly in the media the inescapable facts of global cultural diversity. Awareness of this cultural diversity makes it all too clear to us that civic values and civic identities are particularistic cultural constructs that have emerged from and that are still largely local to North Atlantic European traditions.
Modernist liberal political theory reversed the actual developmental and anthropological priorities when it represented the standpoint of the free and equal individual as the natural and universal standpoint of all human beings prior to political association. The civic standpoint of free and equal individuality, where it is widely attained at all, is one that presupposes and emerges from historically specific communitarian cultural standpoints. It can be successfully attained by large numbers of persons only under the most favorable cultural, economic and political conditions.
This understanding of the culturally contingent and particularistic nature of citizenship must be incorporated into the civic culture that succeeds modernist liberal civic culture. If one of the central tasks of any liberal democratic civic culture is to render intelligible liberal democratic citizenship as an ideal to be realized, a postmodern civic culture must represent and affirm citizenship as an ideal that is contingent, particularistic, and culturally constructed.
Page last edited: 01/20/02
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