Let’s agree to dif­fer, civilly

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

TO those who would say con­cepts such as de­cency have no place in a work of so­ci­ol­ogy, John A. Hall tears a leaf from the streetfighter’s hand­book and gets his re­tal­i­a­tion in first. In this ab­sorb­ing book, he in­sists ‘‘ ci­vil­ity is not sug­ary froth but an ideal of vis­ceral im­por­tance’’ and that ‘‘ the nar­ra­tive thrust of [his] ar­gu­ment is nei­ther va­pid nor ef­fete but wholly prac­ti­cal’’. Ac­cord­ingly, I feel obliged to warn read­ers seek­ing to make sense of the nasty tone that has de­scended on Aus­tralian pol­i­tics re­cently that this is not the book for them. Hall’s sub­ject is not po­lit­i­cal eti­quette but the na­ture — the essence — of civil so­ci­ety.

Defin­ing ci­vil­ity as ‘‘ a form of so­ci­etal self­or­gan­i­sa­tion that al­lows for co-op­er­a­tion with the state while per­mit­ting in­di­vid­u­a­tion’’, Hall sug­gests civil so­ci­ety ‘‘ only ‘ makes sense’ when it con­tains a heavy dose of ci­vil­ity’’. In or­der to be truly civil, the groups that make up ‘‘ civil so­ci­ety’’ — groups that ex­ist in­de­pen­dently of the state — must grant their mem­bers in­di­vid­ual au­ton­omy. Sim­i­larly, for a so­ci­ety to be truly civil the state must al­low th­ese groups their au­ton­omy and en­sure they re­spect each other’s au­ton­omy. Ci­vil­ity is thus to civil so­ci­ety what pe­tro­leum is to the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion engine; it is the fuel with­out which the ma­chine does not run.

In al­low­ing dis­agree­ment to take place with­out vi­o­lence, ci­vil­ity also reg­u­larises con­flict in such a way as to make it pro­duc­tive. In this sense, it is very nearly syn­ony­mous with the idea of toleration as put for­ward by John Locke and, more re­cently, Frank Furedi. That’s to say, it in­vites us to agree to dis­agree and to agree on rules about how to dis­agree. There is thus a ‘‘ soft rel­a­tivism’’ at the heart of civil so­ci­ety — a com­mit­ment to hear­ing each other out and recog­nis­ing that we may be in the wrong; but this rel­a­tivism is a world away from the kind of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism (or mul­ti­mono­cul­tur­al­ism) that turns tol­er­ance into a synonym for in­dif­fer­ence and, in so do­ing, con­demns in­di­vid­u­als to racial or re­li­gious en­claves. In­deed, what Hall calls ‘‘ so­cial cages’’ are ul­ti­mately cor­ro­sive of civil so­ci­ety; dis­agree­ment is bet­ter than dis­en­gage­ment.

Other chal­lenges to civil so­ci­ety have a longer and more ter­ri­fy­ing pedi­gree. Hall is very in­ter­est­ing on what he calls ‘‘ the dangers of au­then­tic­ity’’ as re­vealed in rad­i­cal na­tion­al­ism (which urges us to ‘‘ think with the blood’’) and in those forms of leftwing col­lec­tivism that as­sume a nat­u­ral state of freedom to which cap­i­tal­ism is the main ob­sta­cle.

In­deed, Hall sug­gests not only that lib­eral democ­racy is the ‘‘ least bad’’ op­tion from the point of view of ci­vil­ity (here he seems to be chan­nelling Win­ston Churchill, who sug­gested that democ­racy was the worst form of govern­ment, apart from all the oth­ers that had been tried) but also that eco­nomic com­pe­ti­tion is a key com­po­nent of po­lit­i­cal de­cency.

The big three thinkers of so­ci­ol­ogy — Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max We­ber — were all in their own way anti-cap­i­tal­ist in­tel­lec­tu­als; but Hall sug­gests Adam Smith also deserves a place at the ta­ble. In par­tic­u­lar, Smith’s view of hu­man be­ings as both so­cia­ble and self-in­ter­ested pro­vides a cool En­light­en­ment tonic to the fiery, de­struc­tive ro­manti- cism of thinkers in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary tra­di­tion.

Hall wants to chal­lenge the left-wing no­tion that the big­gest cause of in­ci­vil­ity (and of so­cial in­sta­bil­ity more broadly) is eco­nomic in­equal­ity. For him, the be­hav­iour of the state is de­ci­sive. Cer­tainly it’s a ma­jor fac­tor, and Hall’s as­ser­tion, which he makes a num­ber of times, that ‘‘ softer po­lit­i­cal rule de­rad­i­calises’’, will strike many read­ers as un­con­tro­ver­sial and even as slightly tau­to­log­i­cal.

But his blunt dec­la­ra­tion that ‘‘ it is not cap­i­tal­ism that oc­ca­sions vi­o­lent con­flict from be­low’’ is more than a lit­tle over­stated, down­play­ing as it does the in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship be­tween po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic power. No doubt a more rep­re­sen­ta­tive govern­ment than the one at present sit­ting in Wash­ing­ton, DC, could have mit­i­gated the so­cial un­rest that swept the US in 2011 with the Oc­cupy move­ment; but then a more rep­re­sen­ta­tive govern­ment — one less be­holden to cor­po­rate pa­tron­age — would not have so as­sid­u­ously cre­ated the con­di­tions from which that un­rest emerged in the first place. Sim­i­larly, the sit­u­a­tion in Europe is a cri­sis of both economics and gov­er­nance. In­equal­ity and the grow­ing demo­cratic deficit are two sides of the same, now rather tar­nished, euro.

In his con­clu­sion, Hall quotes Os­car Wilde: ‘‘ Self­ish­ness is not liv­ing as one wishes to live; it is ask­ing oth­ers to live as one wishes to live.’’ That seems to de­scribe per­fectly the bal­ance im­plicit in ci­vil­ity: due re­spect must be given to both self and so­ci­ety.

The ques­tion is whether our eco­nomic ar­range­ments are a help or a hin­drance in this re­gard, and on that I find Hall un­con­vinc­ing. That the above quo­ta­tion is from Wilde’s great es­say The Soul of Man un­der So­cial­ism is by no means deadly to Hall’s (fas­ci­nat­ing) case, but nor is it with­out sig­nif­i­cance.

An Oc­cupy Wall Street pro­tester in New York in March last year

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.