Civil Society vs. Prime-Divider Society


I include this essay on civil society partly because Liberal Cognitive Egocentrism (LCE) fosters a remarkable naiveté about how difficult and rare it is to establish a civil polity. This failure to appreciate civil society may be the single most dangerous factor in our current inability to recognize and cooperate with its friends on the one hand (the Atlantic Alliance), and to beware its enemies (Eurabia) on the other. For the purposes of the discussion at this website, I define civil society somewhat differently from the (from my perspective) somewhat problematic way political scientists do. The definition most scholars use emphasizes voluntary associations independent of the state, e.g., NGOs. These voluntary organizations that mediate between the state and the individual, are a component, but not the defining element of the definition here proposed.

Civil society as I use it here, arises from a cultural project best described as the systematic substitution of consensual discourse of fairness for violence in dispute settlement. The definition entails a series of interlocking elements:

  • Same rules for all (equality before the law, what the ancient Greeks called isonomia
  • Independent law courts that determine fair judgments and pre-empt private (self-help) justice.
  • Public transparency and accountability of people in power (free press, freedom of speech).
  • Commoner populations empowered by education to assert and protect their own legislated rights
  • Commitment to voluntarism as a principle form of social interaction and political organization, emphasizing, mutual trust, contractual obligations, and moral autonomy.
  • Manual labor is not stigmatized, and manual laborers and their children can participate in public discourse and if sufficiently successful, enter the elite.

It is important to understand that these commitments are neither the norm, nor even a relatively common feature of most civilizations. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of civilized polities for the last 5000 years, from the ancient empires of the iron age to the early modern period in Europe, are structured along a fundamental fissure — a prime divider — between elites and commoners that structures most of the features of political and social life in basic ways. These societies are based on the political axiom “rule or be ruled” and permit even require the use of violence to defend one’s honor. They contain following main features.

  • legal privilege for the elites (including exemption from taxation, lighter sentences for their misdeeds and heavier penalties for offenses against them).
  • self-help justice in which clans defend their members regardless of legal issues like intent (blood revenge, vendetta, feud, duel)
  • mystery surrounding political authority (e.g., monarchy above the law)
  • commoner populations illiterate, controlled by intimidation (Machiavelli’s: a ruler should be feared not loved)
  • manual labor stigmatized, vast majority (masses) excluded from public sphere except on choreographed occasions
  • elites with a monopoly on literacy, weaponry, rapid transportation, and political power

Societies with prime dividers have extremely powerful and wealthy elites (ca. 2-10% of the population) and vast masses of peasants who live close to subsistence levels. They are largely agrarian societies (Gellner called them agro-literate societies), and by the standards of modern civil societies they are poor. They are much stabler than civil societies, replicating patterns and structures from generation to generation. Prime divider societies comply with the hierarchical gravitational pull of most human societies; they contribute to their own poverty in that the elite would rather rule in poverty than share the wealth.

The passage from a prime divider society to a civil society is rare and difficult. It has only happened a few times in history, and the civic experiment in egalitarianism has almost never survived for more than a couple of centuries (ancient Greece, medieval urban communes). In the West, as commitment to the values of civil society reached a significant portion of the population and gained a public voice (free press), entire polities (US, France, Britain) shifted from traditional authoritarian, “top-down” styles of governing to ones based primarily on voluntary participation (social contract and constitutional states). “Conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” such civil polities explicitly adopt civil society’s principles as their founding principles: a discourse of fairness (equality and freedom) replaces violence in dispute settlement.

Civil polities depend on high levels of trust and the commitment to positive-sum outcomes in most transactions. Civil societies place high educational value on moral autonomy and voluntary acceptance of the rules. The dominant civil polities of the last two centuries have been cultures of abundance, using technology and legal egalitarianism to put an end to famines and to allow large numbers of people to raise their living standards and education well above subsistence.

Of course, no society so conceived and so dedicated can live up to such a lofty goal as true equality of justice for all, or a fair share of abundance for all. At this stage at least, such experiments can only hope to change the condition of the large majority of the population, not create an egalitarian utopia. Failing perfection, however, should not be invoked to argue a moral equivalence between civil societies and prime divider societies. Endowed with enough healthy self-criticism, any civil society can continue to improve. But human nature what it is, any culture will have its share of inequalities and injustices. The question is not do they or do they not exist, but how pervasive is the injustice? And how does a society respond to revelations of that injustice?

This praise of “civil society” is not an “ethno-centric” argument, but a cross-cultural one with a great deal of room for variety. Democracies are neither the only, nor even necessarily the optimum, shape that a civil society can take. One can also imagine, for example, affiliated communities governed by judges through whose decisions the public discourse of justice shapes social relations. To each political culture, each religious tradition, falls the ultimate task of finding its passage from violence to fairness. With the emerging global community bringing on exceptional levels of culture contact, our ability to live fairly with ourselves and “others” demands high levels of tolerance. At least democratic civil societies demand that tolerance in insisting that people in positions of authority accept criticism and challenges from highly educated and motivated commoners who speak their mind (public education, meritocracy, freedom of speech and assembly).

4 Responses to Civil Society vs. Prime-Divider Society

  1. howard_coward says:

    There’s another property of civil societies that we must remember: the right of private property ownership. In a civil society you cannot walk into my house and say “I’m stronger than you. This house is now mine.” Well you can but I get to call the cops.

  2. RL says:

    good point. there are actually two points to be made here.
    1) in civil societies commoners have their property (and the fruit of their labors) protected from the more powerful class
    2) in prime divider societies, theft of property (of the more powerful) is punishable by the death of the thief (or the cutting off of his hand), which essentially says: the property of the elites is more valuable than the life of a commoner.

  3. […] ; risking all to feel triumphalism and dominion — is well-nigh universal. Hence, in civil societies, zero-sum games are delegated to sports and ga […]

  4. […] emotions — risking all to feel triumphalism and dominion — is well-nigh universal. Hence, incivil societies, zero-sum games are delegated to sports and gambling. In prime divider societies, they invade the […]

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