Politics: Rebuilding Civil Society

My last two Archdruid Report posts argued that the American political system has wedged itself into the impossible position of trying to sustain an unsustainable empire, along with the even more unsustainable standards of living that the now-departing age of empire fooled Americans into seeing as their birthright. Like the bread and circuses of ancient Rome, the petroleum-fueled prosperity of 20th century America fostered a culture of entitlement in which most citizens believed that they deserved to get whatever they wanted without having to pay the full price for it. One consequence of this cultural shift has been the collapse of democratic politics in the United States.

It’s popular these days to blame this consequence on the machinations of some nefarious elite group or other, but the real responsibility lies elsewhere. Democracy takes work. Casting a ballot in elections once every year or so is not enough to keep it going, though even this minimal investment of time and effort is apparently too much for something like six-tenths of adult Americans. What makes a democratic system operate is personal involvement in the political process on the part of most citizens. Precinct organizations and caucuses, town meetings, and other political activities at the local level formed the indispensible foundation of democratic politics in the days when the United States was not yet an elective oligarchy.

These activities drew on a broader base of local community organizations – churches, civic societies, fraternal orders such as the Freemasons and the Grange, and many others – that rarely engaged in explicit political discussion and activism, but taught skills and made connections that inevitably found their way into a political context. These institutions of civil society created a context in which individuals could orient their lives to the politics of the day, and act in ways that could influence policy all the way up to the national level. People who wrestled with the nuts and bolts of the democratic process in community organizations needed no further education when time came for the precinct caucuses that chose candidates and evolved party platforms.

It’s often claimed by modern writers that these institutions of civil society thrived as they did because people didn’t have anything else to do with their time, but this says more about our own fantasies about the past than it does about historical reality. Most people a century ago worked longer hours than their descendants do today, and the popular media of their time was less technologically complex but no less widely distributed or eagerly sought than ours. The difference lay, rather, in prevailing attitudes. Alexis de Tocqueville famously described early 19th century America as a land of associations, where the needs of society were met, not by government programs or aristocratic largesse, but by voluntary organizations of common people. The civil society of pre-imperial America thrived because people recognized that the social and personal benefits they wanted could only be bought with the coin of their own time and money.

One example worth remembering is the way that fraternal orders, rather than government bureaucracies, provided the social safety net of 19th century America. The Odd Fellows, a fraternal order founded originally in Britain, launched this process shortly after its arrival in the United States in 1819. Odd Fellows lodges in Britain had the useful habit of taking up collections for members in need, especially to cover the living costs of those who had fallen sick – remember, this was long before employers offered sick pay – and to pay the burial costs of those who died. In the American branch of the order, this quickly evolved into a system of weekly assessments and defined benefits.

The way it worked was simple enough. Each member paid in weekly dues – 25 cents a week, roughly the equivalent of $20 a week today, was average – and the money went into a common fund. When a member in good standing became too sick to work, he received regular sick pay and, in most lodges, visits from a physician who received a fixed monthly sum from the lodge in exchange for providing care to all its members. When a member died, his funeral costs were covered by the lodge, and his dependents could count on the support of the lodge in hard cash as well as the less tangible currency of the nationwide Odd Fellows network. By 1900, as a result of this system Odd Fellowship was the largest fraternal order in the world. In that same year more than two thousand American fraternal orders had copied this model, and nearly half of all adult Americans – counting both genders and all ethnic groups, by the way – belonged to at least one fraternal order.

This effective and sustainable system, though, depended on the willingness of very large numbers of Americans to support their local lodges by attending meetings and paying weekly dues. Its equivalents throughout civil society had the same requirements, and with the coming of empire, these turned into a fatal vulnerability. As the profits of American empire made it possible for governments to buy the loyalty of the middle class with unearned largesse, the old system of voluntary organizations lost its support base and withered on the vine. With it perished the local politics of precinct caucuses and town meetings. When participation in the political system stopped being seen as an opportunity to be heard, and turned into an annoyance to be shirked, America’s democracy mutated into today’s system of elective oligarchy.

What happened, in effect, was that most Americans made the consumer economy their model for political participation. A consumer’s role in the economic process is limited to choosing among a selection of lavishly advertised and colorfully marketed products provided by industry. In the same way, most Americans embraced a political system in which all they had to do was choose among a selection of lavishly advertised and colorfully marketed candidates provided by the major parties. It’s not accidental that when people today complain about the low caliber of candidates offered for their vote, their tone and language aren’t noticeably different from those they use when they complain about the low quality of consumer products offered for their purchase. Absent in both cases, too, is any recognition that there might be an alternative to choosing among products somebody else made for them.

Until this attitude changes, nothing will bring back democracy to America. No institutional change, however drastic, will create a democratic nation unless the people of that nation are willing to invest the time, effort, forbearance, and resources that a democratic system needs. Nor, it probably has to be said, will throwing one set of rascals out of office, and replacing them with another set of rascals more to one’s taste, have any noticeable effect on the character of the system as a whole. Until the American people come to the conclusion that the costs of democracy are less burdensome than the costs of doing without it, America will continue to have a government of the people in name only – not because some elite group has taken it away from the people, but because the people themselves have turned their backs on it.

Nor, I think, is there much hope that peak oil, global warming, or any other aspect of our current predicament will induce them to do otherwise. Combine any of these factors with the decline of American empire, and the result you get is a future in which Americans of all classes must get by with a great deal less wealth and leisure than they think they deserve. It seems unlikely that they will respond by giving up even more of their wealth and leisure to renew a dimly remembered democratic system that, despite its many other virtues, offers no hope of regaining these things.

Instead, my guess is that the focus of the next century or so of American politics will be attempts to hang onto as much of the prosperity of empire as possible. Not all these attempts may be as hamfisted as current American foreign policy might suggest, and people of other nations might do well to be wary of proposals for some sort of “world community” emanating from American soil, no matter how apparently liberal the language in which they are phrased. The American people have already faced a choice between democracy and the profits of empire, and we know which one they chose. The fact that they will end up with neither is one of the ironies of history, but I doubt many will see it that way.

What, though, can those who value democracy do within the constraints of a collapsing empire and a declining industrial civilization? The one workable strategy, it seems to me, is rebuilding the foundations of civil society that made American democracy work in the first place. Though it’s unfashionable (and politically incorrect) to suggest this, and doubtless new forms will also need to be evolved, I think that much value remains in the old institutions of American civil society, and in particular in the handful of surviving fraternal orders – the Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Grange, and their equivalents. Behind lodge doors, all but forgotten even by the retirees who keep the old lodges going, lies a rich history and a wealth of proven methods that weathered every challenge except that of unearned prosperity.

Those approaches could readily be put to use again. Equally, other dimensions of civil society wait to be rebuilt or reinvented. A great many of the common assumptions of our imperial age will have to go by the boards in this process, however. In particular, the notion of entitlement needs to be an early casualty of the approaching changes. The Odd Fellows and their many equivalents did not dispense charity; they provided a means for those willing to contribute to the common welfare to spread out the risks and share the benefits of life in an uncertain world. Those who did not help others did not get help in their own times of need. This may seem harsh, but in a time of unbending ecological limits, it’s also necessary.

The 19th century was such a time and, given the realities of peak oil, global warming, and the other elements of the predicament of industrial civilization, the 21st century will be no better – and it may be worse. The one question is whether enough people will embrace the challenge of rebuilding civil society in time to make a difference on a community scale, or whether – as in the decline of so many past empires – it will be left up to small groups on the fringes of society to embrace a path of mutual aid and preserve today’s legacies for the future.