Off the Playground of Civil Society

Such ideas may seem academic. But in fact the idea of civil society illustrates the power of framing concepts to structure resources, define the meaning of citizenship, and organize education.
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In future blogs I will describe stories that "integrate the three C's" -- college, career, and citizenship -- as I recently proposed. But it's useful to begin by describing some of the blinders.

The western intellectual tradition conceives of public life as democratization of aristocratic leisure, contrasting civic activity with work. As Benjamin Barber, a leading participatory democracy theorist, puts it, "To the Greeks, labor by itself defined only mere animal existence, while leisure was the condition for freedom, politics, and truly 'human' forms of being."

In his book, A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, Barber translates the Greek view into modern times. Civil society, he argues, is the alternative to work. He sees the voluntary sector as home for democracy, unlike the constraints of work and the workplace. He advances community service with civic reflection as a way to cultivate the identity of citizen, as alternative to "producer" and "consumer."

Similarly, the great political theorist Hannah Arendt viewed work as had the Greeks, part of the apolitical world. While she valued "work" more than menial jobs, she believed that work did not belong in the public arena of "deeds and action," and specifically of politics. Producers remain private: "homo faber, the builder of the world and the producer of things, can find his proper relationship to other people only by exchanging his products with theirs because these products themselves are always produced in isolation."

Theorists of civil society join Arendt and Barber in separating work from public life. Thus in Civil Society and Political Theory, Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato revise the classical notion of civil society as it descended from Hegel and the Scottish Enlightenment, which had included large institutions and commerce. Cohen and Arato argue for "a reconstruction [of the concept] involving a three-part model distinguishing civil society from both state and economy." They see this definition as the way to "underwrite the dramatic oppositional role of this concept under authoritarian regimes and to renew its critical potential under liberal democracies."

For Cohen and Arato, civil society, the arena of citizenship, is "a sphere of social interaction between economy and state, composed above all of the intimate sphere (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary associations), social movements, and forms of public communication."

Such ideas may seem academic. But in fact the idea of civil society illustrates the power of framing concepts to structure resources, define the meaning of citizenship, and organize education.

Major foundations allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to voluntarism. The congressionally mandated National Conference on Citizenship uses indicators from civil society to define America's "civic health," with nothing about work. Beyond civics courses, civic education largely emphasizes service and service-learning in both K-12 and higher education.

Bringing work back in

Yet work has a way of coming back in. In John Steinbeck's 1930s classic In Dubious Battle, a union organizer is asked what he gets from organizing farm laborers despite low pay and constant danger. "It's an important job," he replies. "The thing that takes the heart out of a man is work that doesn't lead any place."

In her book, Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy, New York University law professor Cynthia Estlund shows that work and workplaces create opportunities to bridge differences and build civic ties often missing in community and associational life.

Estlund brings together theoretical perspectives, social science research, and examples from popular culture in order to remedy what she sees as the neglect of work and the workplace by civil society theorists. Estlund makes a compelling case that, despite continuing patterns of hierarchy and discrimination, workplaces are the only environments where most people are likely to have sustained encounters with people of differing racial, cultural, and ideological backgrounds. They engage in such experiences with relative civility, and around practical, goal-directed tasks, making them relatively conducive to sustained experiences of collaboration.

She shows that these features of work and workplaces enable people to develop respect for others, reduce prejudices and stereotypes, build trust, develop civic skills, and create cross-group networks. "It is not just the friendship potential of workplace relations that makes it a promising source of interracial contact," she argues. The work process itself "is generally cooperative and directed toward shared objectives; much of it is sustained, personal, informal, and one-to-one."

Workplaces further democratic equality by "convening strangers from diverse backgrounds and inducing them to work together toward shared objectives under the aegis of the societally imposed equality principle."

Estlund also shows how social movements such as union organizing efforts in the 1930s, the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement made the workplace more public. Thus, Section 7 of the Wagner Act, growing from New Deal organizing, created "a kind of rudimentary system of civil liberties within the workplace" which in turn allowed further action by workers. Though the effort is not completed, it advanced democratic purposes.

Focusing on the public possibilities of work generates hope for change. As the intellectual historian Thomas Bender has described in a recent study, "Historians in Public," we may be seeing the reemergence of locally grounded public intellectuals who act as citizens, joining with other citizens on matters of concern. "With the collapse of the mass communications model of the public sphere," writes Bender, "the historian who wishes to influence the public sphere need not long for acceptance on the op-ed page of the New York Times. She can go on the local radio station or contribute a column to the still remaining local papers or even start up a local web site."

New developments like the Scholars Strategy Network, encouraging scholars to use their knowledge in public, clearly point in this direction.

As George Mehaffy, vice president of leadership for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities puts it, "once you start looking at work with citizenship in mind, many things start becoming visible."

Harry Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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