A "civil society" for an authentic liberal welfare community

Article Highlights

  • Policy is only one of many orders that an open society is called upon to deal with.

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  • Political policy has no monopoly on the “civil bond”.

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  • We should be more attentive to expressions such as civil society and civic culture, and not use them in such a rhetorical way.

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In an open society, in which bonds are inevitably - and in some respects, positively - partially dissolved, political policy has no monopoly on the “civil bond”, or on the “social bond,” as they say.  Policy, if any, plays a key role within its own order, as in it are institutions dedicated to the definition of the rules of the game. However, it is only one of many orders that an open society is called upon to deal with. In an “open society”, a “great society”, or a “big society”, we are dealing with a wide variety of orders and thus the political link is one of many necessary links, but it does not exhaust the scope of civil society; neither can politics claim to homogenize society by law. Political order, ultimately, relates to other orders.

In this sense the term "civil solution" rather than “political solution”, becomes relevant if, of course, we also include the political moment in the civil. I think, for example, that the oft-cited principle of subsidiarity which seems to haunt every debate and is sometimes called, liberal, recalls exactly, in its horizontal and vertical dimensions, a need for connection of civil orders.  Moreover, it is articulated in such a way that no one can lay claim to have a monopoly on civil society. I am referring to that particular formalization of the public decision-making moment that Professor Stefano Zamagni calls "circular subsidiarity", i.e., the continuous call for coordination of systems which operates in civil society and among the actors who are protagonists in it: in short, an open polyarchycal society, articulated according to the principle of subsidiarity, requires a lot more than government governance.

We should be more attentive to expressions such as civil society and civic culture, and not use them in such a rhetorical way. Think, for example, how many political parties, even in the last Italian election, are presented with a term that refers to the concept of "civil" and how many times we hear our politicians speak of civil society, with the sole aim of presenting themselves as unique and, ça va sans dire, its most authoritative interpreters. We should seriously commit ourselves to reflecting on what the notion of "civilian" is –  to understand what we really mean by "civil". Now, considering the history of ideas, we know that all in some way have appealed to the notion of "civil society." But we know that the understanding of “civil” according to Hobbes was not the same “civil” according to De Mandeville or Smith or Marx or Hegel and so on. So, what do we really mean by civil society? If we mean a reality in which the strongest necessarily prevail over the weak and thereby assume a Hobbesian type anthropology and perspective, which welfare society or community, could we ever imagine? The answer is obvious, none. We can only imagine an imposing welfare state: rigid, all-encompassing and engulfing everything. I want to emphasize that with regard to the comparison between the “welfare state” and “welfare society” there isn’t a difference of degree. A slight “welfare state” is still something different from the model of “welfare society”: it is a difference of "kind", not of degree.

On the other hand, while excluding the "Hobbesian solution," we can imagine a society equally distant from that which is described by the principle of subsidiarity: an idea of civil society in which the "civil" actually resolves itself in the alliance among the cliques. In this case, the civic culture would be the basis of political legitimacy: "we need civil society to legitimate the political order." If we continue to consider viable options in the two models set out above, and if we persist in the theorizing of a welfare community as an expression of a slightly more free welfare state, but still the son of the ideal-typical models of civil societies mentioned above, it is clear that there will never be space for civil society, for a civil economy and for a welfare community.

There will be no room for subsidiarity and polyarchy will be denied. We will always need an intrusive political system that will not only regulate the processes, but also advise, as its essential mission and vocation to homogenize cultures, values, interests and engulf the freedom of non homogenizeable intermediate bodies. The idea, however, which I think is the foundation of an authentic order of subsidiarity in classical liberal tone, is a civil society understood as a critical levee to political order: an insurmountable limit whose importance and need no one seeks to challenge, so that it doesn’t absorb everything else.

Regarding this aspect, I would like to conclude with an eloquent quote from the Italian sociologist, Professor Pierpaolo Donati, who says that "civil society understood as a plurality of coexisting autonomous social formations collaborating for the common good has been wasting away, especially in legitimacy, in ability and in organizational resources. In our country, it translates into a tragicomedy. Civil society is enhanced only to be used as a tool of a power play for the conquest of the State." Here, then, if our civil society has slowly become all this, then there is no link that holds: there may be only either cliques or the Leviathan.

The fact remains that civil society as a civil culture, in order to be a welfare society or a welfare community consistent with an open and polyarchycal society according to the principle of subsidiarity, would need all of the others and not of this.

Flavio Felice is an Adjunct Scholar at American Enterprise Institute and President of Tocqueville-Acton Centre Studies (Milan-Rome)

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