There has been much talk recently in conservative circles about civil society, the set of institutions intermediate between government and the individual. The vagueness of the term is not fortuitous; civil society is defined negatively rather than positively, by the non-authoritative nature of its components in contrast with the organized totalities of government. The church in the United States is part of civil society; the medieval Church was not. Conservatives contend that devolution of influence to this decentralized matrix of institutions will produce a more disciplined, self-reliant, and morally developed citizenry than the liberal panacea of central government. Civil society provides a guarantee against the tyrannical rationalization that prompted Edmund Burke‘s condemnation of the French Revolution.

But there is a difference, even a contradiction, between the contemporary notion of civil society and its origin in Burke’s “small battalions.” Burke opposed a set of tried and true institutions to the totalitarian utopias of ideologues like Robespierre. (In the heroic days of modern rationalism, Descartes drew the contrast between an old city with its maze of streets and a planned city with a grid laid out from scratch–Washington DC, ironically enough, is the most celebrated example of the latter.) The old structures have been shown to work, and their density and redundancy insures that even a disastrous change in one will not bring down the others, whereas a totalitarian system must either work perfectly or collapse in chaos and tyranny, as revolutionary institutions have been doing every since.

Burke’s model is ecological; monoculture is less robust than polyculture. His appeal to conservatives reflects his insistence on tradition as a counterweight to revolutionary rationalism, but his idea of tradition is founded on trial and error rather than divine right. We need only relocate Burke’s model in a more dynamic phase of market society for it to become the social-Darwinist doctrine of competition and survival of the fittest. Today’s paleoconservatives, who rely on revealed truth rather than practice and reject Darwinian evolution even in the biological domain, are disciples of Joseph de Maistre, not Burke.

If Burke’s small battalions were opposed to the revolutionary monolith, what is contemporary civil society opposed to? To “monolithic government,” it might be answered. But modern liberalism, even in its worst moments, has little in common with the dreams of Saint-Just or Mao Zedong/Tse-Tung. What civil society is really supposed to shield us from is the marketplace, which, as Marx well knew, is fundamentally incompatible with traditional relations of any kind. When we evoke civil society as a remedy for pornography, drug abuse, and illegitimacy, we are asking it to do something quite different than protect us from big government, even from big government’s welfare system. The failure of this system is patent, but it would be disingenuous–and unfaithful to the principles of any kind of conservatism–to attribute the ills it fails to correct to its own failed design. If civil society were able to check illegitimacy, welfare payments would not generate it. And if today’s civil society is too weak to encourage moral behavior, the primary blame must be laid at the feet of market exchange itself, not its governmental superstructures. If illegitimacy is the fault of the welfare system, then what government program is to blame for the proliferation of drugs?–unless it be, as some libertarians hold, the attempt to forbid their consumption.

The circulatory nature of the market system breaks down the traditional barriers between moral and immoral forms of consumption. But since a certain level of moral self-discipline is conducive to successful activity in the marketplace, there is an essential tension between the productive and the consumptive operations of the market system.

The role of civil society in the market system is less to defend against big government than to preserve the values of production from the temptations of consumption–temptations which are generated by this very process of production. Civil society both resists and contributes, contributes by resisting, to the operation of the market system. It is the institutional interface between production and consumption, the set of institutions that perform the function that Marx called the reproduction of labor power. There is no way to insure that these institutions all defend the Protestant ethic without an imposition of purpose from above–such as existed in the Soviet Union–that contradicts the very concept of civil society. When we rely on civil society to resolve the moral problems of “capitalism” we make the unwarranted assumption of its own inherent morality.  Inner-city gangs and the Mafia are just as much institutions of civil society as the Salvation Army and the Rotary Club.

In a paradoxical conflation of de Maistre and Burke, it now appears that those civil institutions founded on the sacred deferral of violence in its most immediate forms–that is, in those ritual and doctrinal forms least susceptible to compromise with the ever-circulating values of the market–are the most successful in resisting the temptations of self-destructive consumption. The post-Burkean survival of the fittest leads to the unanticipated result that the most “irrational” institutions are those best suited to the mediating function of civil society in today’s rationalized market system.

Civil society is a name for the human world that political thought cannot thematize. It is equally naive to see it either as a bulwark against market forces or as a mere reflection of these forces. Just as market society includes those institutions that resist it, the market model explains their necessity, their unique ability to survive where rationalistic attempts at moralizing fail. But it also explains why they cannot be imposed on society as a whole. As expected, we reach the paradox that universal moral values can function as such only locally, whereas in the larger society, they must operate within the give and take of the political marketplace. What have been called the cultural contradictions of capitalism are constantly being mediated by the market system itself.

The function attributed to the institutions of civil society by political thought is analogous to that of originary anthropological reflection for the individual within the market system. We cannot determine the effect of our thought on the system because its very enunciation adds a new degree of freedom to the system that makes it more powerful than the model we have constructed of it. But in turn, our awareness of this paradoxical operation strengthens our faith in the durability of our social order and thereby makes us more productive.

This parallel between originary thinking and civil society implies that the institutions of which the latter is composed should be understood as incarnating elements of the former, that is, as expressing anthropological truths inaccessible to the market system as a whole. This is particularly obvious in the case of the major religious institutions, but it is more critically true of the other components of civil society–of New Age cults like Scientology, and even of gangs and the Mafia.