The Civil Sphere By Jeffrey C. Alexander
(Oxford University Press, 793 pp., $35)
Can sociology be saved? It ought to be. Not long ago, sociology wasthe most promising of the social sciences. At a time wheneconomists had not yet discovered rational actors and politicalscientists belonged to government departments, sociology was theAmerican social science most in touch with the great minds ofEurope. Inspired by Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, sociologistswrote books that grappled with the contradictions and thepotentialities of the modern condition. Even when it was in thegrip of academic professionalism, sociology was distinctive.America's most famous sociologist during the 1940s and 1950s wasTalcott Parsons of Harvard, a dreadful writer and a builder ofimponderably complex classifications, but for all his abstrusenessParsons addressed many of the salient issues of his time (notablyMcCarthyism) and many of his collaborators and students--EdwardShils, Robert K. Merton, Robert Bellah, Neil Smelser--became giantsin the field.
By the time the 1960s rolled around, radical students were ready forsociology--and sociology was ready for them. Out at Berkeley, NathanGlazer and Seymour Martin Lipset greeted the New Left withsomething less than enthusiasm; for them, the student movementseemed uncomfortably close to European extremism. But then therewas Columbia's C. Wright Mills, a Camus-like figure to the radicalsof his day, whose books were read as holy scripture. And even ifthe radical students did not like what thinkers such as Daniel Bellor David Riesman said about them, their understanding of Americansociety was deepened by The End of Ideology and The Lonely Crowd.In the heady atmosphere of the time, sociology, like left-wingpolitics, looked like a growth industry. The idea that one or theother--let alone both--would enter a steep period of decline simplydid not seem possible.
Sociology is not completely dead, even if some of its formeradherents, such as Peter Berger and Irving Louis Horowitz, havewritten its epitaph. There are figures--William Julius Wilson,Richard Sennett, Orlando Patterson, Paul Starr-- who write for abroad general public. And others--Jerome Karabel, Kristin Luker,James Davison Hunter--have written important books that helpAmericans to understand such contentious issues as universityadmissions policies, abortion, and the culture war. Yet sociologydoes not attract the best and the brightest among college students,and few of its practitioners have become household names. (In 1954,David Riesman was on the cover of Time!) The field no longer hasmuch use for its European originators. Half of the discipline isengaged in number-crunching, while the other half does thinlydisguised (or completely overt) left-wing politics. Meanwhile,academics from all the social sciences, including sociology, turnto economics for models of human behavior, while political scienceattracts significant numbers of undergraduate majors and speaks tothe issues central to the disasters of the Bush years. So sociologyexists, but it does not flourish. Some universities have closedtheir sociology departments down. Others just leave themunderfunded, knowing full well that their poorly paid members havenowhere else to go.
One reason why sociology may be in trouble--the most serious reason,come to think of it--is that it lacks both an agreed-upon subjectmatter and a distinctive methodology. Economists study thingsinvolving money, and even those who apply their skills tonon-economic subjects, including faith and family, are linked totheir disciplinary colleagues by the commitment to a common method.Political scientists have a pretty good idea of what politics is,and while they study power in many locations, including theinternational arena, they typically agree that power involves, inHarold Lasswell's pithy formulation, who gets what, when, and how.But what is sociology's proper area of study? It once was"society," a broad term that includes both economics and politics;but sociologists, given their current troubles, would behard-pressed to be so confident and imperialistic today. Yet if notsociety, what? Unless sociologists can define with some precision asubject and a method unique to them, they will never recover theintellectual prestige that they once enjoyed.
Jeffrey Alexander's new book is the most audacious attempt in recentmemory to establish a turf for the discipline of sociology.Alexander's aim is to offer "a new theory of society by defining anew sphere, its cultural structures, its institutions, and itsboundary relations with discourses and institutions outside it."Sociology, in Alexander's view, does have a distinct subject matterand methodology, and he is going to tell us what they are anddemonstrate what insights they can provide. These are big claims. IfAlexander, who is certainly one of the most significantsociological theorists in the United States, makes good on hisclaims, his discipline has the potential to flourish once again.But if someone with his abilities and his accomplishments fails,then sociology is in worse trouble than we imagined.
The subject matter of sociology, Alexander argues, is civil society.This was once a term in considerable vogue. Theorists of theScottish Enlightenment such as Adam Ferguson had used theexpression to insist on the importance of cooperative relations oftrust and mutual obligation. Hegel borrowed it from Ferguson, andfor that reason Ferguson's ideas came to have an influence on Marx,although Marx would vehemently disagree with the contention of theScottish school that commercial activities encourage peacefulresolutions of conflicts. Rousseau's notions of civil religion, aswell as Tocqueville's discovery of voluntary associations inAmerican life, could be read as endorsements of the importance ofcivil society. Although the idea of civil society lost its waytoward the end of the nineteenth century, there was enough life inthe idea to spark new interest when a series of momentous events inthe late twentieth century seemed to require it for theirexplanation.
The most important of those events was the rebellion againstcommunism led by Eastern European intellectuals. Hating the statefor its repressive proclivities, yet unwilling to turn theircountries into laissez-faire bazaars, these activists turned tocivil society as an alternative to both the market and the state.The term was quickly picked up by social theorists in the West whowere looking for something other than an increasingly dysfunctionalwelfare state and the cold-hearted forms of Thatcher-Reaganism.Eventually the ideas associated with civil society would make theirpresence felt in a social science best-seller, Robert Putnam'sBowling Alone. (Alas for sociology, Putnam is a politicalscientist.) Everything seemed in place for a huge revival. Civilsociety would liberate intellectuals from stale political debatesbetween left and right. It would call attention to the seriousproblems facing families threatened by divorce as well ascommunities facing unemployment. It would remind us thatobligations to others cannot be satisfied by pursuing only ourself-interest, and that duties must not be relegated to indifferentbureaucracies. We would all be communitarians forevermore.
And yet the promised intellectual revolution never came to pass.Newly enfranchised voters in Eastern Europe chose governmentscommitted either to Milton Friedmanism or to ethnic nationalism.Some left-wing thinkers in the West began to realize that religionwas one of the most important components of civil society and thatthe greater reliance upon it might violate their secularistcommitments, while others argued that the loosening of once-strongfamily ties, perhaps a loss for solidarity, was a gain for theautonomy of women. On the right, Ronald Reagan proved to besomething less than a full- throated libertarian; if his form ofconservatism threatened liberal values, it was certainly not bywashing government down the bathtub. And more recently, George W.Bush's policies, far from shrinking government, expanded itsrepressive features.
Under confusing political conditions such as these, it was by nomeans clear that a third path between the market and the statereally did exist, or that, even if it did, it was a fruitful pathto take. Civil society still had a following, but its majoradherents, such as Andrew Arato and Jean Cohen, were writing aboutHegel and Habermas, not about concrete institutions and the rolesthat they do or should perform. By the first years of thetwenty-first century, civil society has lost much of its promise,as an idea and as an ideal.
This is the vacuum that Alexander seeks to fill. Civil society, hewrites, "should be conceived as a solidarity sphere, in which acertain kind of universalizing community comes to be culturallydefined and to some degree institutionally enforced." Thisconception contains a number of important definitional points. With"solidarity," Alexander links back to Durkheim, so as to remind usthat we are collective creatures whose individual well-being isintimately shaped by the communities in which we live. With"sphere," he echoes Michael Walzer, to suggest that our collectiveside is just one aspect of our behavior as human beings, that ithas its own rules of organization, and that it can be threatened byother spheres operating with different rules. "Universalizing"builds upon the fact that while the institutions of civil societyare particularistic--we belong only to certain civic organizationsand adhere to specific religions--through our membership in them webecome full members of the larger communities of which we are apart. "Culturally defined" means that the ways in which we moveback and forth from the particular to the universal are shaped byartifacts of meaning expressed through language and symbolicrepresentations. And "enforced" represents Alexander's conclusionthat civil society, which we shape, in turn shapes us by holdingout ideas of moral obligation, which, if we are to lead full livesas members of society, we ought to fulfill.
Civil society, in sum, is both an empirical reality and a utopiangoal. Like the economic and political spheres of society, it marksout territory that can be studied using empirical methods. Butunlike them, it evokes a normative conception of how society shouldbe organized, which requires deep familiarity with politicaltheory, moral philosophy, and (although Alexander does notemphasize this sufficiently) theology. Through the civil sphere,human beings do not just act; they also aspire. Sociologists whostudy them should do the same. When they study what society is,sociologists have in mind an ideal of what society ought to be.Society is not just about money and power. It is also aboutmeaning. And the search for meaning, unlike the quests associatedwith money and power, brings out what is most fully human aboutus.
There is, then, a distinct methodology that accompanies sociology'sconcern with the civil sphere. To appreciate fully the role thatmeaning plays in the lives of human beings, Alexander continues,"we need to employ semiotic theories of binary codes, literarymodels of rhetoric and narrative, and anthropological concepts ofperformance and myth." Sociology's distinctive methods aredialogical: words are as much a sociological reality as the thingsthat words strive to describe. Far more than economists andpolitical scientists, sociologists are interested in how humanbeings communicate with one another. Such communication is shapedby binary codes, for if we are at one and the same time creaturesoperating in an already existing world and hoping to live in abetter one, we are likely to divide the ways we think and speakinto categories that reflect this duality of our social existence.The particular and the universalistic, the good and the bad, thereal and the imagined--all have to become part of the way we thinkabout how society functions.
Civil society itself is dualistic in nature; it implies theexistence of uncivil society. In the one realm, our motives areactive, calm, and self- controlled, while in the other they aredependent, excitable, and irrational. Our civil relations withothers are characterized by altruism and honesty, while our uncivilones are marked by secrecy and greed. The civil institutions thatbring out the best in us are regulated by laws and seek to beinclusive, while those that bring out the worst are factionalizedand power-hungry. Rather than taking motives, relationships, andinstitutions for granted, as if they fulfilled some function thatthey were put on this earth to perform, sociologists are constantlyengaged in processes of translation, moving between behavior shapedby requirements of power and material gain to forms of behaviorshaped by community-building and collective solidarity. (Although hedoes not say so explicitly, this focus on human communication isAlexander's way of coming to terms with Talcott Parsons, whosecommitments to functionalism owed much to forms of biology thatpaid particular attention to the way human beings change the worldaround them through the ways they talk about it.)
Understood this way, Alexander believes that sociology's emphasis onthe civil sphere broadens our understanding of how modern societiesare organized. There is a tendency in the other social sciences toadopt a posture of hyper- realism. Based ultimately on thecontention of Thrasymachus that justice is nothing but the interestof the stronger, hyper-realism insists that the uncivilsphere--greed in the marketplace, power in politics--is the onlysphere that matters. Yet modern societies tend to be democraticones, and democracy insists on the refinement and growth of civilways of acting and thinking. Thus public opinion and the massmedia, for all their flaws, act as checks on the power-hungry; andvoluntary associations and interest groups teach civic skills; andelections offer accountability; and power resides in the officesthat leaders occupy rather than with those leaders themselves. Thehealth of a democracy is defined as the distance between anautonomous civil sphere and the state. If the distance is great,democracy is vibrant. If the two spheres combine, democracy ceasesto exist.
Much the same can be said for law. It is wrong, Alexander argues, toview law as a set of commands made on high meant to forcecompliance on those below. Law itself is more a way of drawinglines between civil behavior, which society ought to (andfrequently does) reward, and uncivil behavior, which it should (anddoes) punish. Lawyers and judges ask what a "reasonable" personmight do under a particular set of circumstances, and the term"reasonable" is meant to establish a civil standard that is bothideal and achievable. The matters that law seeks to regulate,especially contractual relations, do not need the law if they areregulated well themselves, and when uncivil behavior leads to thebreaking of a contract, it is by no means certain that the law canrestore it. We "see" the law working, especially if we watchtelevision, which cannot get enough judges, lawyers, criminals, andtrials before an insatiable viewing audience. We do not see civilrelations the same way, but without them we cannot have a systemorganized by laws.
The civil realm is simultaneously vibrant and vulnerable. Crucial tothe workings of politics and economics, it is also threatened bythe uncivil behavior of both states and markets. This putssociologists in something of a bind. They must insist on theautonomy of civil society, as a sphere with a logic and method ofits own; but the health of civil society is determined by itsrelationship to other spheres, and so sociologists must payattention to them as well. Alexander is most interested in what hecalls "civil repair." Uncivil motives and behaviors do notnecessarily have to drive out civil ones. On the contrary, newforms of civil relations can challenge uncivil forms of inequalityor immorality and improve them. When this happens, sociology is atits best, for its practitioners can not only claim to haveunderstood something that those committed to more static models ofhuman behavior cannot, they have also helped their own society growby calling attention to what it needs in order to do so.
Sociology, then, is organized by its own binary codes, just likesociety. Against conservatism, which sees no need for socialimprovement, sociology insists that life can be better than it is.But unlike revolutionary Marxists who want to transform societyfrom top to bottom, sociology's concern with the civil sphererecognizes that tomorrow's civil institutions grow out of today'suncivil ones. Civil society is not a blueprint for a utopiansociety, but it is nonetheless utopian. "Civil society," Alexanderobserves, "is a project. It is a restless aspiration that lies deepin the soul of democratic life." Any academic discipline that makescivil society central to its outlook on the world will aimsimultaneously at social understanding and social justice, for oncewe understand what happens in the civil sphere, we begin toappreciate how one cannot take place without the other.
Not content with laying out the elements of a theory, Alexander usesthe concept of civil society to analyze what happens when excludedgroups demand inclusion into society's mainstream. There alreadyexists a huge body of literature on "new social movements," but theanalysis of their dynamics, inspired by various versions of Marxisttheory, looks at the resources that they mobilize and the gains inmaterial benefits that they achieve. We need instead to appreciatethem, Alexander argues, as vehicles of civic repair. Through theirexperiences, we can understand how groups once perceived as uncivilcontribute to the broadening of the civility of the society towhich they belong.
Conflicts in society, Alexander points out, do not take place onlyover matters of money and power. New social movements raisequestions about the distribution of recognition, "about who will bewhat, and for how long." A good example is provided by feminism. Ifwe look at concrete accomplishments, there may be grounds forconcluding that the women's movement failed: the Equal RightsAmendment never passed, and women have not achieved equal wages. Insymbolic terms, however, the women's movement dramaticallytransformed a rigid duality in which women were assigned to theprivate realm of the family while men were allowed access to thepublic realm of politics. That uncivil division no longer exists,and feminism can take credit for its disappearance. Once an uncivilway of dividing women from men is abolished, it is possible to finda civil one in its place, such as the idea, associated with CarolGilligan, that women's way of caring for others is less rule-boundthan men's. Civil society is not repaired by getting rid of binarycodes, for that would be impossible. It is improved when binarycodes that oppress are replaced by ones that liberate.
Alexander devotes four chapters of his book to the ways in whichstruggles on behalf of racial justice contributed to civic repair.It is important to him, as it should be, that the leaders of themovement for civil rights, especially in the early days of theircampaign, acted civilly. This was by no means an easy thing to do.The institutions and the practices of southern racism wereoffensive, degrading, and often violent. Against such uncivilpractices, activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. could easilyhave chosen to react in kind. But they did not. "From Montgomeryon, the movement's success, both locally and nationally, dependedupon its ability to establish a solidaristic relation with thebroader, less racially distorted, civil sphere, which drew itspower from geographic regions outside the South." The goal of thecivil rights movement was not just to develop power in order tochallenge the power of southern officialdom. It was also to changethe very meaning of politics by adding a discursive dimension toarguments about racial justice.
King, in this context, was a brilliant performer who understood hisrole to perfection. A master of symbolic representation, hetranslated a political struggle into a process of sanctification.Evil would be compared to good on terms in which good would becomethe ultimate winner. Once the majority of Americans understood thatthe issue they were facing was whether the United States could liveup to its civic ideals, they would inevitably identify with thehumble nonviolence of the demonstrators rather than with thehate-filled, club-wielding representatives of unjust authority.
Not everything went as smoothly as King had hoped. Alexanderanalyzes not only the victories of the civil rights movement, butalso its defeats. Albany, Georgia was only one place in which thedramaturgy did not work as expected when southern police chiefsrefused to be baited into violent action against demonstrators.When violence did take place--the killing of the young girls in theBirmingham church, the horrors of the march for voting rights inSelma--its sheer brutality sapped much of the movement's idealism.Congress responded by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and theVoting Rights Act of 1965, but the civil rights movement "lost itscentrality to the normative core of American civil society." Blackpower became a rallying cause. King proved unable to bring toIllinois the same moral clarity that he evinced in Mississippi, andthe problems facing the inner-city poor proved too difficult to besolved by his means. Once those developments were locked in place,the language and practice of civic repair gave way to rhetoricalprotest and conservative backlash, neither of which was especiallycivil.
Movements for inclusion demand that society change to accommodatetheir demands. But society also requires that such movements changeif they are to become full members. So how much give should therebe on either side? Alexander has no use for what he calls backlashmovements, which seek to preserve existing society against any andall newcomers. But he also worries about assimilation: demandingthat new groups give up what is distinctive about them as the pricefor membership is as uncivil as rejecting their demands entirely.
In search of an example to demonstrate the ambiguities ofassimilation, Alexander turns to an unlikely place. The leftistsympathies with the oppressed that have inspired many students ofsocial movements have rarely prodded them to pay much attention tothe case of the Jews. People seem to think that Jews are too wellestablished in too many societies to count as victims any longer.Alexander will have none of this. In his view, the story of Jewishassimilation is a mixed blessing. In terms of the societies towhich they aspired, they arrived as citizens, but they did notnecessarily arrive as Jews.
To tell the story of how this took place, Alexander adds Europe tohis American focus, and to the eighteenth and nineteenth centurieshe adds the twentieth and twenty-first. The problem, as he sees it(and he is relying here on a rich historical literature), beginswith the Enlightenment. Gentiles such as Christian Wilhelm von Dohmwere willing to accept Jews if Jews abandoned their Jewishness, andJews such as Moses Mendelssohn, while rejecting Dohm's anti-Semiticviews, prepared the ground for Jewish assimilation into moderncivil society by emphasizing the ethical and universal side ofJudaism more than its status as a revealed religion. From there itwas an inevitable and rather swift step to Reform Judaism and itsrude modernizing of the liturgy and the halachic tradition--andeventually to even purely secular movements led by intellectuals ofJewish background.
By the time Jews started fleeing to the United States, the bargainwas sealed. In this country Jews would eventually have access toall major social institutions, but not on terms established bythemselves. Symbolic of the situation they faced, Alexander notes,was the fact that the Barbie doll, the quintessential expression ofWASP womanhood, was developed by Ruth Handler, a Los Angeles Jew.Even in what seems like a great success story, incorporation hasnot take place, Alexander believes, "in a truly effective andegalitarian manner." Jews, he oddly concludes, remain at leastmarginally outsiders in America, no matter how inside they seem.The whole idea of Jewishness is being threatened, he says, not byanti-Semitism but by Jewish success.
The Civil Sphere is a long, deeply researched, and--despiteoccasional lapses into jargon--well-written book. It covers a verybroad range of topics and brings fresh perception to many of them.There is an intellectually curious, eclectic, and engaging mind ondisplay throughout these many pages. Yet on the crucial question ofwhether Jeffrey Alexander provides the materials that would enablesociology to lay claim to its own intellectual turf, the answer mustbe no. Nearly everything he writes about can be just as easilyanalyzed without the concept of civil society; and even when theconcept proves useful, it does so in ways different from howAlexander thinks it should.
Of the many issues discussed by Alexander, the one that least fitswith his ideas about civil society is the issue of the Jews. Thisis not to suggest that the subject of Jewish assimilation isunimportant. I simply do not see what is gained by adding the ideaof civil society to a debate that has gone on, as Alexander rightlypoints out, since the eighteenth century. Non-Jews determined tooppose the incorporation of Jews into public life said very uncivilthings about them. Christians who welcomed them often hadambivalent motives for doing so. Jews who accepted the termsoffered to them had (as signers to any imperfect contract wouldhave) reservations. These are topics that have engaged philosophersand historians for centuries, and all have written about themwithout having developed a theory of civil society.
Is there any particular reason for making the incorporation of Jewscentral to the story of civil society? Alexander thinks so. "In thehistory of Western societies," he writes, "no issue has loomedlarger for the civil sphere than the incorporation of the Jews." Ifind the lack of qualification in this sentence troubling. I wouldlike to believe that my people may be the West's most importantpeople, but I am afraid (and a little glad) that this is not thecase. Surely, given their greater numbers, we ought to recognizethat the incorporation of Catholics into once-Protestant countriessuch as the United States is a historical phenomenon of greatimportance. I cannot imagine a more pressing issue right now thanthe question of whether Muslims will be successfully incorporatedinto the primarily Christian countries of western Europe and theUnited States. The fact is that the story of Jewish incorporationis one significant story among many, and calling it the mostsignificant one either requires an argument to that effect orbetrays a blindness to the experience of others.
Alexander not only wants to add the idea of civil society to adiscussion where it sheds little light, he also claims that civilsociety can explain what nothing else can. "Considering theHolocaust in the framework of the theory of fragmented civilsociety," he remarks, "demonstrates how misleading it is to insiston the uniqueness of German resistance to Jewish incorporation,much less of German anti-Semitism?. It was the collapse of thecivil sphere in Germany, not German anti-Semitism, that allowed theHolocaust to proceed." This is theory-building gone wild. There aretimes when a theorist should stop, when he should admit that, muchas he loves his theory, some events in the real world are sotragic, so beyond the capacity of the meager tools we develop tounderstand them, that a bit of theoretical modesty is the onlyappropriate response. I am willing to blame the rise in parkingtickets or in public rudeness on the collapse of civil society; butthe mass extermination of a people suggests darker and more primalforces at work.
Yet Alexander does not stop there. How can we be sure that theHolocaust was caused not by capitalism or by modernity, but by thecollapse of civil society? The proof, according to Alexander, liesin what he calls "the uneven but increasingly substantial Jewishincorporation into the modern, capitalist, and often deeplyanti-Semitic United States in the latter half of the twentiethcentury." Now, I lived the greater part of my life in the UnitedStates in the latter half of the twentieth century, and I canrecognize neither the time nor the place to which Alexander refers.To be sure, Alexander does offer a few caveats: we did not haveghettos here, and our demography and geography gave Jews someprotections. "Still," he continues, "the Jews' formal status inAmerican civil society was counteracted, more forcefully even thanin many European civil societies, by the deep and pervasiveChristianity of the American core group." I do not doubt that thereare anti-Semites in this country, and maybe even a few of them,especially those who love the Jews on behalf of their own Christianeschatology, have undue political influence. But we turn to atheory of society not only to understand how it works, but todistinguish one society from another. Alexander's decision to open achapter on Jewish incorporation in the United States, where Jewshave flourished, by tying the subject to the fate of the Jews inEurope, where they were murdered en masse, makes no sense to me,empirically or normatively.
Finally, Alexander's discussion of the Jews does not prove what hewants it to prove, which is that the story of incorporation is atragic one. Assimilation is by its very nature "uncivil," if wemean that it forces changes upon people. But if the result is thatsociety becomes more "civil" because people of different faithshave learned ways to live together, then every loss of civility inone place becomes a gain for civility somewhere else. Alexanderbegins his discussion of this issue by pointing out, correctly, thatto understand what happens when outside forces confront a society,we must consider "the variable internal structure of the socialsystem responding to such outside forces." But it is precisely theinternal structure of the United States that drops out ofAlexander's discussion of Jewish incorporation into America; we aretold a great deal about Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, but almostnothing about the customers, many of them presumably non-Jewish, whoturned them into best-selling authors. Had Alexander focused asmuch on the United States that was doing the incorporating as hedoes upon the Jews that were being incorporated, he might havenoticed that a society that is more open to non-Christians than itused to be is a society that has met some of its aspirations, andin that way undergone significant civic repair.
Alexander's treatment of the civil rights movement is moredefensible than his discussion of anti-Semitism, but once again hedoes not demonstrate that adding a theory of civil society offersstartlingly new insights. Martin Luther King Jr. was indeed aninspiring figure, but his story can be told using already existingterms associated with religion and politics. He was a man of Godsteeped in both the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible and theturn- the-other-cheek pacifism of the New Testament. He knew whento call out demonstrators, how to speak to followers, how to treatenemies, and how to deal with politicians. Of course he relied uponsymbols, but that is because symbols were his most effectivepolitical resource. King was a realist as well as an idealist.Especially in the great years of his movement, he knew the weaknessand the strength of the cards he was dealt, and was able to minimizethe one and to maximize the other. To be sure, the movement he ledwas an unusual one. But if the means used were inspirational, theends sought were, in a political sense, conventional: power,including the power to vote, for those who had been denied it.
Even if the means used to bring issues of racial justice to the forewere distinct during the early years of the civil rights movement,they lost that distinctiveness when the issues became national inscope. John F. Kennedy realized that black votes could help himdefeat Richard Nixon in 1960s, which they did, but once in officehe also knew that he had to strengthen his ties with racistsouthern whites in his own party. His ambivalence on the issue ofracial justice reflected conflicting political pressures, not theneed to translate back and forth from a civil sphere to a politicalsphere. Alexander argues otherwise. "Kennedy had to gainrecognition as a worthy representative of the civil sphere," hewrites. "Only by gaining this recognition could he be trusted withcontrol of the state's coercive power, and only if voters believedthat he could be trusted in this way could he win the right torepresent the civil sphere inside the state." Yet Kennedy wasalready president and already had control of the state's coercivepower. The passage of laws outlawing discrimination and protectingthe right to vote had little to do with representing the civilsphere inside the state, and much to do with the aftermath ofKennedy's assassination and the brilliance of Lyndon Johnson'squite conventional arm-twisting.
Alexander's aim, a worthy one, is to remind us that some forms ofpolitics are different from others; that achieving civil rights fora long-oppressed minority improves the moral life of a society morethan, say, passing a bill pleasing to the sugar lobby. But even ifwe need a new theory to explain high politics rather than lowpolitics--and it is by no means clear that we do-- Alexander doesnot offer it. Instead he shows an unfortunate tendency to put theadjective "civil" before as many nouns as he can. At one point inhis book, in the span of just ten pages, "civil" modifies power,figures, virtue, audience, drama, traumas, community, indignation,encounters, life, rights, sphere, opinion, and effect. In nearlyall those cases, the word "public" would convey just as muchsignificance, if not more, than the word "civil." We know whatpublic opinion is, but I doubt we can agree on what civil opinionis. Calling something civil does not make it so.
There are also problems with the cases that Alexander selects toillustrate particularly civil forms of politics. To be sure, thecivil rights movement was especially ennobling. Is the movement tooverturn Roe v. Wade equally so? Not for me, and certainly not forAlexander, but it is most definitely ennobling for those who makeit central to their lives. Try convincing them that they are notengaged in civic repair! They have strong moral and ethicalconvictions that are guided by their faith. They understand and canwield the power of symbols. They have a strong sense of good andevil, and they know who is on which side. They say that theybelieve in democracy, and they argue that the majority's will isbeing thwarted by an arrogant and unrepresentative elite. They movefrom particular cases--an abortion clinic here, a pharmacydispensing birth control there--to a universalistic theory of whatlife is and how it should be sanctified. They develop movementintellectuals who take to the pages of influential magazines tospell out the ideals that move them. They are not especially civiltoward feminists who oppose them, but then again, neither are thosefeminists civil to them.
How, then, do they fit Alexander's categories? Should he view themas friends or enemies of the civil sphere? The truth is that, asidefrom a few comments about backlash, he never discusses them. Inpart, Alexander is reflecting the biases of the field herepresents: sociologists who write about the new social movementsare typically leftists who either once participated in them or moregenerally admire them. But the absence of the new-right movementsfrom Alexander's book also suggests a problem with the way hedefines civil society. In his discussion of binary codes, he arguesthat civil movements are committed to such virtues as equality andautonomy, while uncivil ones are not. Yet this defines civility asan end rather than as a process of moving toward that end.According to this way of thinking, even a movement that respectedits opponents, engaged in no financial corruption, and builtcommunity among its followers would be engaged in uncivil behaviorso long as its political objective was to further inequality or theacceptance of authority.
But who is to decide what is inegalitarian or oppressive? Pro-lifeactivists claim that the rights of the fetus are equal to therights of the mother and that someone needs to protect the futureautonomy of a living creature lacking decision-making capacity now.These claims may be right or they may be wrong. But such claimscannot be judged by consigning those who disagree with the goals offeminists or egalitarians to the dreaded precincts of backlashmovements. Identifying civility with left-leaning causes, whichimplicitly means asserting that right-wing ones are uncivil, is nota very civil thing to do.
'Nothing is more practical than a good theory," Alexander writes inhis conclusion. The search for justice, in his view, is not someversion of woolly- headed idealism, but is built into thedemocratic societies in which we modern individuals live. Ittherefore follows that any theory of human behavior that fails tohold it up to its own constitutive ideas is anything but realistic.This is Alexander at his boldest. I admire his ambition, and Isympathize with his purpose. At a time when the social sciences tryto narrow their vision as much as possible in order to appearscientific, Alexander should be congratulated for trying to broadenit as much as possible, so as to make the disciplines morehumanistic.
It may be asking too much of the author of a work of this sort totighten his argument and exercise better discretion over the casesthat he selects for inclusion. After all, Alexander is trying tosweep away a lot of accumulated dust, and for that he needssomething of a free hand with the broom. Still, I wish he hadexercised a bit more control. Civil society is a powerful idea, andit ought not to be collapsed into purely selfinterested action onthe one hand or coercive power on the other. But the term is not acure for everything that ails us. To bring out the best in civilsociety requires a modesty in assertion and a respect for evidencethat economics and political science too frequently lack.Alexander's case is a strong one, but not strong enough. It wouldhave been stronger if he had acknowledged also the limits oftalking about solidarity and inclusion.
Jeffrey Alexander is not a new Talcott Parsons; his theoreticalambition, fortunately, is not that great. Nor is he a new NathanGlazer or a new Daniel Bell; he lacks their capacity for clearwriting and their gift for the critical application of large ideasto real situations. Nor is he a new Seymour Martin Lipset; his booklacks both data and sensible interpretations of what the datasignifies. Still, he is a gifted sociologist for a time in whichEuropean social theory is once again being taken seriously in theUnited States. His book will not by itself resurrect hisdiscipline, but it does demonstrate by example that sociologistsare by no means irrelevant to the dilemmas of contemporary society.Human beings really do live in a world that too frequently asks theworst of us while too infrequently demanding the best. For all itsflaws, The Civil Society offers grand theorizing in ways that remindus of both what we are and what we can be. Jeffrey Alexander offerssociology at least a place from which it may begin again.
By Alan Wolfe