Civics Against Politics: A Pre-Revolutionary Situation?

“They also serve who only stand and wait” — (John Milton, On His Blindness)

It seems to me that there have been an increasing number of articles of late on the democratic deficit, the crisis of politics and the emergence of what is being called “post-democratic society“. Such problems were anticipated decades ago but nothing was done to address them. However, this current crisis of politics may not be such a bad thing in the long run.

The most recent article from The Observer’s Peter Beaumont raises the issue again, and is the occasion for this post on politics and civics. It is revealing, I think, how these two categories of “politics” and “civics” have become estranged from one another. At one time, civics and politics were virtually synonymous. To be civically engaged was to also be politically engaged at a time when “public service” still had some meaning. Where “civics” was taught in public school it was as preparation for the student’s future role as a full citizen of the country.

Lately, though, a major breech has emerged between “the political class” (or the power elite, in C. Wright Mills’ phrase) and what is now called “civil society” which attests to their increasing mutual estrangement. This, today, seems to me the chief feature of the crisis of politics and electoral democracy. In the social discourse of the day “civil society” has come to mean a distinct and separate entity from the state and its institutions.

One aspect of this growing crisis of politics and the democratic state is the mass disengagement, principally of the young, from electoral politics. In Canada recently the participation rate has plummeted, which has occasioned a good deal of hand-wringing amongst the members of the fifth estate. Pollsters who have undertaken to discover why the young (principally) do not participate in the formal system of governance selection have reported nothing more enlightening than that the majority response was simply “not interested”. Well, “not interested” can mean many things. It’s about as vague an answer as one could expect. It’s a non-answer, really. “Not interested” could just as well mean “bugger off!” We have to wonder what question was asked and what range of responses were allowed. Yet the pundits jumped all over this vague majority response of “not interested” as if they knew exactly what it meant — apathy — and that the primary fault for the growing dysfunctionality of electoral democracy and the system of governance selection lay with those who were merely “not interested” enough to participate in the collective political ceremony of voting.

They didn’t ask whether “not interested” might signal a growing crisis of legitimacy of the entire political order and of the system of governance selection. They didn’t ask, for example, whether those who were “not interested” responded that way not so much from apathy but from antipathy. They didn’t ask either whether those who responded with “not interested” might be engaged and invested otherwise in civics — politics by other means, as it were — through membership or simple support of what is now called “civil society” groups, because civil society is now a parallel politics competing with the official party-based political system. None of those pertinent questions seem to have been asked.

My sense is that a good deal of those “not interested” respondents are not disengaged from community and civic life, and may well participate and contribute to the public welfare in ways that the pundits and pollsters don’t recognise as “politics” in the formal and habitual way they understand. The crisis of party politics and of electoral democracy may be, instead, the rise and assertion of civil society and civil society groups which, far from forming new political parties, come together in coalitions for specific tasks which then disband once those political and social tasks are accomplished.

This, in fact, may be the incipient form that politics and public life will take in the planetary era. Far from forming established national political parties around defined ideologies, the politics of civil society may be — and presently are, in fact — temporary arrangements and alliances designed to accomplish certain social and political tasks that even transcend ideology and other borders, but which never come to form a “system” or ideology as such. There are already many groups like this, and the whole global Occupy movement was also an interesting (some say unprecedented) model of this.

In effect, “civil society,” as it is now called, constitutes a parallel extra-parliamentary opposition to the conduct of business- or politics-as-usual and which, by its very existence, and by its estrangement and alienation from state institutions and partisan politics, suggests a pre-revolutionary situation. Classical authors never made a distinction between civic, or public, life and formal political service to the nation. The only time such a distinction has been made is during revolutionary times. Whenever there has emerged such a sharp distinction between “politics” and “civics” in history — and by whatever other terms they might have been known — it suggested a growing dissatisfaction with, and delegitimisation of, the political classes and political institutions of the day.

“Not interested” may not be what it seems.

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14 responses to “Civics Against Politics: A Pre-Revolutionary Situation?”

  1. Scott says :

    I haven’t yet read Paul Hawkins’ book Blessed Unrest, but I suspect that it covers more of the same territory than what I’ve covered here. You can read something about Hawkins’ book at
    http://blessedunrest.com/

    It’s probably the next thing to read on my list.

    In the meantime, if you’re one of those “not interested” types who is simply estranged from the political process, join a civil society group instead, even if it’s just the SPCA. I know a woman (my ex in fact) who joined the SPCA and, through them, arranged to contribute a substantial amount of money to “donkey hospitals” in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. For a lot of Palestinian farmers, their donkeys are critical to their livelihood, and keeping them healthy — and teaching how to care for them — is important for their livelihood. That’s the kind of “globalism” and global impact that can be achieved through participation in local civil society groups.

    • Scott says :

      By the way, here’s a touching article on that charity called “Safe Haven for Donkeys” which is run by some very dedicated Palestinian vets. And even that gesture of empathy for the animals is a political gesture of defiance against the occupation, too.

    • misterdirk says :

      This observation certainly describes my own trajectory. My wife and I have always been very engaged citizens, especially in community activities, but the political aspect of it has dwindled away to practically nothing. Honestly, it’s all I can do to continue voting sometimes. Whereas our civil engagement has become increasingly important and satisfying, even necessary, I reckon.

      I grabbed a copy of Blessed Unrest when it came out, but my wife started reading it first and it got away from me in the meanwhile. I’ll have to push it back towards the top of my bedside pile.

      • Scott says :

        This appeared in my inbox along with your comment, and given your interest in William Irwin Thompson I thought I would pass it along: http://evolutionarylandscapes.com/bridging-worlds-of-myth-and-science-the-poeti

        If you read some of the Wikipedia article on “civil society” you’ll probably note that classical authors make no distinction between a formal political life and civic/civil life. But the article does mention those times when politics and civics go their separate ways, as today. Those are revolutionary times. Although I haven’t read Hawken’s book yet, Blessed Unrest sounds to me like he may be mapping out this pre-revolutionary phase in which “civil society” and the “establishment” part company. This rupture within public life was also raised by Rosenstock-Huessy in his book Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man and especially in his essay “Farewell to Descartes”, which is the concluding chapter to the book.

        That we may be closer to Rosenstock’s revolutionary situation than we might think — a socially divided state of “haughty Egos” and stone-like “Its” — was brought home for me when I read a statement by a former Wall Street banker who suggested that Wall Street doesn’t see people as citizens or even as in some sense human, but as “revenue streams”. A most interesting way of putting it.

        • misterdirk says :

          Thanks for that Bill Thompson link. It’s a good overview of his work, which is not easy to summarize in brief. His current commentary on Wild River Review is very cogent: http://www.wildriverreview.com/COLUMN/Thinking-Otherwise/The-Digital-Economy-of-Brian-Arthur/William-Irwin-Thompson

          Re: “revenue streams” — I’ve long chafed as the word “consumer” came to replace “citizen” as the preferred moniker for we the people. It’s insulting to my sensibilities, but maybe I should have accepted it as information rather than resisting it. Because when you see a crowd of people shuffling through a mall or shopping center in that eerie trance that happens, it’s hard to remember that this is citizenry.

        • Scott says :

          That ex-investment banker, whose expressed his support for OWS and who mentioned this particular attitude on Wall St towards “citizens” as being merely “revenue streams” in their eyes, really did me a favour by showing in what way the “tax revolt” and the “consumer revolt” (or revolt against consumerism) are connected at a more fundamental, less overtly ideological level. It allowed me to see the greater pertinence of Rosenstock’s essay “Farewell to Descartes”. So, you never know from what direction new insight will come from.

          It’s parasitism, of course. And parasites tend to destroy the host upon which they feed — that is to say, the continuing destruction of the middle classes which is also leading to “the hourglass society”, and what is termed “polarisation” consequently. And the most interesting thing about it all is how people can be led to enthusiastically participate in the their own self-destruction in the name of “austerity” and “sacrifice” or “loyalty” (in some ways, noble truths until they become debased self-serving economic or political ones).

          Rosenstock once criticised the conservative philosopher Josiah Royce for extolling “loyalty” as the highest virtue of citizenship. I much prefer his own definition of citizenship which emphasises creativity rather than obedience — a free citizen is someone who can potentially found a new city. Loyalty or obedience to authority is renovative, rather than innovative, and that also characterises the emerging radical split between the political classes and civil society. This is what the Occupy movement is all about. It should become “Occupy the Future”.

          Lovely article in today’s Guardian by Egyptian activist Asmaa Mahfouz on this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/nov/15/from-tahrir-square-to-liberty-plaza

      • Scott says :

        I might add, that once you see the situation from the perspective of the corporation or the investment bankers in this way — that what we call “the public” or “citizen” is, for them, reduced only to a “revenue stream” — corporate conduct becomes quite intelligible. It becomes a severe problem, though, when these capture the state, or when the state adopts this corporate attitude and perspective itself. So, I think groups like the Tea Party are blindly barking up the wrong tree (but what can you expect when the Koch Bros are its big backers? In fact, from what I’ve read of them, the Koch Bros are the epitome of that haughty attitude mentioned by the former investment banker)

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          It becomes a severe problem, though, when these capture the state, or when the state adopts this corporate attitude and perspective itself.

          OWS apparently has captured the attention of the banking lobby here.

          CLGC’s memo proposes that the ABA pay CLGC $850,000 to conduct “opposition research” on Occupy Wall Street in order to construct “negative narratives” about the protests and allied politicians.

          Hardly necessary as you are quite correct that the Tea Party and its financial backers have been doing an excellent job of that from OWS’ inception. Enough so that, with only a few exceptions, politicians are reluctant to be “allied” with OWS or, in other words, the American public.

          I think groups like the Tea Party are blindly barking up the wrong tree

          In fact, a good portion of OWS supporters are as well, more or less reinforcing negative public perceptions of the movement. The danger that OWS’ energy may be co-opted by the system is still present despite the fervent hopes of Chris Hedges, et al. It will, no doubt, be exploited by the Democratic party to a degree (over the objections of OWS itself, which is determined not be co-opted by any established, partisan institution).

          There is another potential possibility, however, that certainly isn’t lost on CLGC.

          The CLGC memo raises another issue that it says should be of concern to the financial industry — that OWS might find common cause with the Tea Party…. “This combination has the potential to be explosive later in the year….”

          If “demos” among the public do recognize their shared human(e)ity, perhaps the true potential of a “global uprising / from the heart / of the world” (to quote the “bat signal“) will be realized sooner rather than later.

        • Scott says :

          Interesting msnbc article. Perception management is a profitable business, if they can reasonably expect to charge those kinds of rates. I don’t suppose it has ever once occurred to these well-connected gentlemen that they’re part of the problem, rather than the solution (as they see it)?

          The Tea Partiers complain that they are just a revenue stream for Big Government, while the OWS complains that the people are just a revenue stream for Big Money (those, indeed, to Big to fail). You’ld think someone could put the picture together, wouldn’t you? But there, exactly, you have a fine example of what Gebser called deficient perspectivisation — the nook-and- corner perspectivism (which, forming an “angle” also induces Angst, which then generates paranoia, which then produces conspiracy theories, etc, etc).

          So, you see the strategy of those folks in the CLGC — the perception of the bigger picture in which the OWS and the Tea Partiers might actually concur on this point must be prevented at all costs because, well, they need people as a revenue stream, too. As they say, “they know who butters their bread”.

  2. Scott says :

    Well… this is a little uncanny. Seems someone else is thinking along the same lines as presented in this post. From tomdispatch.com

    http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175471/tomgram%3A_rebecca_solnit%2C_ms._civil_society_v._mr._unaccountable/#more

    Yes, I suppose Civil Society versus Mr. Unaccountable also describes the same situation, one that was, in fact, highlighted in Rosenstock-Huessy’s big book Out of Revolution (with its concluding essay “Farewell to Descartes” linked to in an earlier comment) in which he summarises everything he learned from the study of the European Revolutions. Mr. Unaccountable was what he called “the haughty Ego”, which connects nicely — if that’s the proper word — with what Christopher Lasch called “the culture of narcissism”. Haughty Egos (as well as narcissists) never feel that they are accountable or answerable to others, and especially not mere “revenue streams”.

    (InfiniteWarrior informs me just moments ago via email that Rebecca Solnit’s article also appears in The Los Angeles Times today as an op-ed piece: “Occupy Wall Street: Civil Society’s Awakening”)

  3. Scott says :

    A new study on youth abstention from the formal system of governance selection tends to confirm what I wrote here — that it is not so much apathy as anti-pathy towards present politics that is driving the young away. http://www.themarknews.com/articles/7709-canada-s-political-outsiders

    Coincident with this, however, is the tendency of the present government, elected with only 39% of the popular vote, to drift toward something resembling fascism: selective observance of the laws of the land (while it itself insists on “law & order”), disinformation and black-ops campaigns against political opponents, prevarication and perception management, express contempt for Parliament and the rule of law, militarism, indifference to torture and a tendency to engage in the political theatre of witch-hunt and scapegoating. All of which, far from “remedies” for national malaise, are symptoms of its decadence. (Journalist Lawrence Martin has even compared Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Mussolini). Is the “new right” government of Stephen Harper crypto-fascist in orientation? Perhaps comparisons to Egypt’s late Hosni Mubarak are more apt than Mussolini.

    Some recent commentaries on the problem: “Usurping the Democratic Process”; Lawrence Martin on Canada’s “banana republic” and “elected dictatorship”.

    Harper’s “anti-democratic impulses” have been noted for some time, but it is, at the same time, a general trend towards post-democratic, post-Enlightenment politics to which all Western nations are now succumbing. Harper and his party like to portray themselves as libertarians bucking the trend, but the dissonance between the rhetoric and the reality is rather blatant to everyone but the most blindly partisan and politically myopic (that is, Jean Gebser’s “deficient perspectivisation”, which Gebser highlighted as one prime feature of the breakdown of the mental-rational structure of consciousness, typifying the reactionary).

  4. misterdirk says :

    It’s amazing to me how vulnerable a democratic society can be to this sort of predatory lunge from the wolf pack within.

    • Scott says :

      Yes, not a pretty picture. I’m always reminded of a famous quote from Hermann Goering at the Nuremberg Trials, though. It’s chilling how people can be brought about to act self-destructively, and even against their own interests.

      “Naturally the common people don’t want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell the they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

      These kinds of direct appeals to the most base and primitive anxieties and fears of a population — the Shadow as Jung called it — are always effective, despite the attempts of the Enlightenment to discipline them to reason. So, if we are indeed in a post-Enlightenment condition… Mr. Hyde will have his way.

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