Monday, May 22, 2006

Civic Energies

Within a few hours of my last posting I started to wonder what the heck I was thinking of. I was half tempted to delete the entry altogether.

Now that Chris has commented on it though, I suppose I ought to think it through a bit. What do I mean by "civic energies"?
Before I get to that, let me clarify that I think of that passage from Rousseau when I hit a low point in my feeling about the future of this country. Rousseau was basically a pessimist about civil society. Even at his best, in The Social Contract, he couldn't shake off his earlier belief that we were all better off in the state of nature where, because we never wanted more than we could get for ourselves, and because we never had an abstract thought in our heads, we could live happily under Nature's tender care.

In The Social Contract, Rousseau famously observes that people are born free, but everywhere we are in chains. Oh well, he says, we may as well figure out how at least to make these chains legitimate. The social order he constructs is, in his view, pretty good: it is at least second to the state of nature in offering a chance at human happiness. This order is, however, very fragile and prone to corruption.

His dictum that "liberty can be gained but never regained" is a reflection of this basic pessimism. When I'm in a dark mood, listening to news about one more step toward secrecy, one more step away from accountability on the part of the current administration, Rousseau comes to mind all unbidden.

The reason civil society is fragile, according to Rousseau, has to do with his morally thick understanding of liberty and democracy. While Hobbes was satisfied with a mechanical understanding of liberty (i.e., movement without hindrance) and Locke was satisfied with a liberal understanding of liberty (i.e., leave me alone to do more or less what I want), Rousseau thought of liberty as autonomy. To be free, for Rousseau, is to be subject to a law one makes for oneself.

It follows that, to be free in civil society, the laws to which we are subject have to be laws that we have collectively made for ourselves. In Rousseau's terms, they have to embody "the general will", which is something like a societal consensus on what is really good for each of us and for the republic as a whole, when all of our individual desires for ourselves are filtered out. This is what democratic processes are supposed to do, he thinks: filter out individual desires so that the body politic can speak with a single voice.

This is a very demanding form of democracy: in order to be coherent, a civil society must be united by a single vision of the common good. Rousseau thought it could only work in a small republic, like the Geneva of his dreams. (The real Geneva fell somewhat short of his vision.)

On Rousseau's account, civil society is corrupted when partial wills begin to assert themselves, seeking to attain arbitrary power over others for their own ends, the very antithesis of liberty. These may be individual wills or the corporate wills of various groups - including, I suppose, political parties.

(This suggests one of the measures I was looking for yesterday: our liberty is inversely proportional to the amount of money that changes hands through bribes or influence peddling.)

I suppose, then, that what Rousseau meant by "civic energies" was the energy of citizens to be engaged in the work of the republic - the work on "the public thing" - including the direct act of legislation regarding the common good.

Now, I do need to distance myself from Rousseau somewhat. I doubt that any civil society can attain - or should try to attain - the kind of moral consensus he envisions. It's the skeptic in me.

What I take from Rousseau is the idea that, in order to remain free in the most robust sense of the term, citizens of a republic should engage as directly as possible in reasoned deliberation - though I would say that the deliberation should be about how we can live together even if we have different visions of a good life. This takes effort; it requires "civic energy".

To the extent that we are too busy, or too distracted, or too tired, or too despondent, or too bamboozled, or too frightened, or too dogmatic, or too cynical, or too weak, or too ignorant, or too polarized, or too corrupt, or too self-righteous, or too surveilled, or too co-opted to do this work, to that extent we are not free.

Then the question is: Once we give up some of this essential freedom, can we get it back? Can we the people, who do not speak with a single voice, revive ourselves and carry on with this daft experiment of working things out among ourselves?

I don't know.

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