Is Civic Life Dead in the West?

In the middle of Julian Assange’s long diatribe on Google, we have this:

The received wisdom in advanced capitalist societies is that there still exists an organic “civil society sector” in which institutions form autonomously and come together to manifest the interests and will of citizens. The fable has it that the boundaries of this sector are respected by actors from government and the “private sector,” leaving a safe space for NGOs and nonprofits to advocate for things like human rights, free speech and accountable government.

This sounds like a great idea. But if it was ever true, it has not been for decades. Since at least the 1970s, authentic actors like unions and churches have folded under a sustained assault by free-market statism, transforming “civil society” into a buyer’s market for political factions and corporate interests looking to exert influence at arm’s length. The last forty years have seen a huge proliferation of think tanks and political NGOs whose purpose, beneath all the verbiage, is to execute political agendas by proxy.

Following the Hegelian idea, society is said to be divided into three parts: the public/political sphere, the private sphere, and the civic sphere.  The one thing that separates a democratic society from an undemocratic one is the existence of a healthy civic life and the absence of one in the latter.  Assange states, with a good deal of justification, that civic life as we have known it in the west is being crowded out by a corporatist system (and the mentality that goes with it) where our lives are sucked into complete domination by the “system”.  In such a system real dissent is a positive nuisance at best and a dangerously unaffordable luxury at worst.  The demise of a democratic society follows.

As a Christian, I found Assange’s mention of the church as a part of that bygone civic life interesting.  That, in part, explains the growing hostility being drummed from the top towards religion of any kind: when it’s organised, it’s a threat because it dilutes the monopoly of the system being put together.  And technological wonder organisations such as Google are simply being a part of that system.  I don’t think that the techies started out to be that way but have taken necessity and made it into a virtue.

There’s a lot of back and forth these days in Evangelical Christianity (and Roman Catholicism is having this tug of war, as evidenced during the recent synod on the family) about how much of the faith is going to have to be compromised to survive and thrive in the West.  Given the general hostility towards a practical civic life that’s out there (and, as Assange points out, the NGO’s are in large part fronts) I think it should be clear that compromise is a waste of time; it will only stall the inevitable.

What Christianity in the West needs to learn in a hurry is what our counterparts in China know all too well: how to operate the church without the civic society we have had for so long.

4 Replies to “Is Civic Life Dead in the West?”

    1. I’m not really sure what you’re talking about, but I will say this:

      People like Assange and Edward Snowden know that the people they’re up against play for keeps.

      I think it’s reasonable to suppose that others who don’t “get with the program” have found out/will find out the same thing.


      1. Don,

        You write “I’m not really sure what you’re talking about…”

        I would have thought it was pretty plain, but then I remembered that you misconstrued my remark that Gorby should have flooded Russia with Japanese consumer goods, paid for with the return of the Northern Islands. You took this, quite incredibly, to mean you thought I thought Russia could make consumer good superior to the Japanese, and export them to Japan!

        So I know there is almost no limit to your ability to misread a simple English post.

        Now here you have posted a perfectly sensible set of remarks by Julian Assange. You have then go on to agree with his most important point, that the economic sector threatens to crowd out or overwhelm civil society.

        Yet you refer to Assange’s version of what you say as a “diatribe.” This seems odd to me, so I asked why?




      2. From here:

        “diatribe (plural diatribes)

        1. An abusive, bitter, attack, or criticism: denunciation.  [quotations ▼]
        2. A prolonged discourse.
        3. A speech or writing which bitterly denounces something.”

        I was using the word in the sense of #2, which is justified in view of the etymology of the word.


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