Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Thomas Molnar, The Liberal Hegemony: The Rise of Civil Society

From the eleventh to the fifteenth centu­ries, and then increasingly beyond, we wit­ness the incredible growth of civil society, unthinkable in other civilizations. The mea­sure of its growth is its increasing articula­tion and, naturally, its power. Civil society intelligently exploited the conflicts between Church and State, taking generally the side of the king who was struggling against his own rivals, the anti-burgher feudal lords and the similarly feudal lord-bishops. His jurists, a reliable rampart around his power, were mostly of burgher origin themselves, and so were the personnel of his adminis­tration, blocking whenever possible the power of the nobility. The growing bour­geois power can be ascertained even today in every old European city and its architec­ture. Next to beautiful churches (Prague, Florence, Ghent, etc.), one finds magnifi­cent city halls, the private palaces of mer­chants meant to compete (in Brussels, Flo­rence, Bruges, Frankfurt) with the noble families’ chateaux, the feudal fortresses, even the royal and episcopal residences. And what was true of buildings was also true of a whole branch of art, what could be called “bourgeois” or “third-estate” art: the burgher joined the courtier in having his portrait painted, in purchasing relics and having them encased in precious stone, in having magnificent prayer books, organiz­ing splendid burials in churches to which they financially contributed.

These are only the outward manifesta­tions of growing power and wealth. There was more. The vast network of commerce, industry, and banking increased the burghers’ influence on policies. They lent money to the papal court, to the imperial court, they financed huge overseas opera­tions and possessed entire fleets to carry them out with handsome profits. They en­dowed monasteries, sponsored book publishing, and had a hand in new religious movements, wars, and crusades against the Turks. They even had the beginnings of an ideology, starting with the fourteenth century, not surprisingly at a time when the Church was going through a series of crises as a consequence of new battles against the growing royal power. And when royal pow­er proved finally to be the winner in these conflicts with the Church, the burgher class is found on the side of the former. The ideas of a Marsilius of Padua, whom we maycall a disciple of William of Ockham (the nominalist philosopher), display daring novelties about bourgeois power, still dis­simulated, of course, in the rhetoric of faith and doctrine, but revolutionary for the times, the middle of the fourteenth centu­ry. The burghers’ cause was to derive enor­mous as yet theoretical benefits from these ideas: burgher participation at Councils, increase of imperial power at the expense of the Church, the pope’s demotion to the rank of an imperial civil servant! The Gelasian doctrine was all but forgotten.

The ideology of civil society was still far from its later formulation, yet we should understand in advance the decisive role it was to play inside the still-Christian com­monwealth of a Europe at least nominally united in its faith. This is a culminating moment, with the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a first zenith. It is evident that both Church and State had a well-articulat­ed and deepened “ideology.” For the first, it was the admirable edifice of the Christian dogmatic and corpus of doctrine, jurispru­dence, and moral teaching—which had as­similated the best of Hellenic philosophy and Roman law. There is no need here to enter into the details. The State similarly rested on natural and Roman law, on the old tribal custom, and ancient philosophy. Again, the details are documented in the huge literature of statecraft, law, financial policies, and the “wisdom of nations.” The bourgeoisie faced the uncomfort­able situation of not resting on a political theory of its own, of not being able to justify its power and interests. Political philosophy of past ages passed quickly over such chap­ters, such issues, attributing them to alien thought, that of State and Church. Aristotle’s Politics begins typically with the household, but only to establish the truth that the life of the polisobeys altogether different rules and considerations. Even the contemporary political literature took no notice of bour­geois interests, and speculated (Machiavelli, Jean Bodin, the English jurists) on the place that the new Prince must occupy at the head of a well constructed commonwealth. There was only an indirectly orientated literature that took bourgeois interests into account, with writers hiding their preoccupations in a humanistic garb. Only Protestantism was to produce a political literature wherein civil society’s interests and ideological make­up were frankly displayed, and even there we must separate particles of the new polit­ical doctrine from philosophical consider­ations, as in the case of Hobbes and Spinoza. In retrospect, it is important to note the need of civil society to formulate an ideol­ogy of its own, an indispensable instrument to bring about first, its prise de conscience, then, its equality with its age-old rivals, State and Church; and finally, its (at the time unexpected) hegemony. The last four centuries appear then as the gradual acqui­sition of political hegemony by civil society, a historical first which still leaves all con­cerned open-mouthed. Let’s spell it out: modern history is the history of the growth of civil society’s hegemonic position within the framework of Western nations.

I'm not sure if I agree with his conclusions, but his essay is something to mull over.
"Thus a valid point may be made that civil society achieved its century-long, if not historical, objective of neutralizing its two great rivals, and placing its own ideology—liberalism and/or socialism (or various com­binations)—at the center of the common­wealth."

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