Thursday 1 January 2004

Civil Society

Michael Edwards

The perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre had spent the morning bowling with their victims-to-be. Timothy McVeigh and his fellow bombers were similarly intent on strikes of a recreational character before they eventually unleashed themselves on Oklahoma City.

Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s thesis on the ‘decline of civic engagement’ is flawed says Michael Edwards, director of the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society Programme. The ills of society cannot be arrested at the level of voluntary association. So much for social capital, he suggests.

But the ‘associational model’, of which Putnam is the most prominent of advocates, does offer up some useful insights. Despite the rise of ‘self-help’ groups, for instance, traditional mass-based organisations, from the trades unions to the Catholic Church, are apparently in free-fall. Those that have found a footing have done so at the expense of a distancing from their ‘social base’, as Edwards puts it.

The author complains that ‘dilemmas remain embedded in polities that cannot resolve them’. True, but instead of radical solutions Edwards’ are of a kind with the Third Way ethos of ‘enforcing the civil’. His proposals for revitalising public life are already adopted by governing elites desperate to engage with their electorates. Indeed, ‘civic education’ and obsessing over political finances and voting procedure are already de rigueur both sides of the Atlantic.

Despite alluding to the vacuity of public debate, Edwards fails to address the problem head on. ‘Associational life was radically reshaped in the West at the end of the nineteenth century’, he says, and ‘it can be reshaped again’. But in the absence of the intellectual or political contestation that so characterised this earlier period, the revival of such a salon sensibility is surely a long way off.

David Clements is organising Commuting: the life sentence? at the Museum of London on 20 May 2004.

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