One popular definition of civil society marks it as the realm of “mediating institutions.” In the modern era, the power of the state and the market have become so large that individuals are powerless against the Leviathan of big government and the Behemoth of big business unless they gather together in the “little platoons” of civic organizations.
But if civil society has in the past existed to empower individuals, giving them institutions with voices strong enough to withstand and counteract the forces of government and big business, today we find that the ability of civil society to “mediate” has disappeared. What ought to be the largest and most potent mediating institution, the church, sat silent through the many trying days of national turmoil and street violence this year. Nonprofits and the philanthropists who support them have become part of the Leviathan and the Behemoth, shock troops for progressive or libertarian politics, not bulwarks against them. Little platoons have indeed arisen—but with guns, clubs, and Molotov cocktails in hand. What has gone wrong?
One aspect of the problem is the “junior partner” mentality. If we really believe that the state and the individual are the primary poles of social existence, then whatever lies in between might be helpful, but it is merely a secondary reality.
The internalization of the “two poles” view eventually leads to two bad outcomes. First, the smart institutions realize that accommodation is the only viable path. It is easier to be left alone by the state, or work alongside it, than to put in the hard work and sacrifice of opposing it. Institutions will range from not criticizing the state, to actively advancing its priorities. It is easier to take a stand as an advocate of big business, perhaps receiving some of its philanthropic money in the process, than to undertake an honest assessment of our economic lay of the land and to risk losing support. It is easier to repeat progressive shibboleths and signal your “virtue” than to oppose a cultural consensus.
Academics perfected this game long ago. For all the supposed existence of free speech, the professors who win are those who make themselves the mouthpieces of institutional opinion and represent the already existing thinking of powerful universities.
The second bad outcome is that institutions take seriously the idea that they are merely “little platoons,” rendering their efforts ineffective. When we picture ourselves as “little platoons” and “mediating institutions,” we have already told ourselves that we are Don Quixote fighting the windmill, the little guys against the big guys. Our efforts cannot amount to anything against those real shaping forces of history, the ones who set the rules and the terms of our engagement. Civil society might have “challenging” things to say to the powerful, but it cannot actually check the power of the Leviathan and the Behemoth, and perhaps would not even have the will to do so if it could. Civil society becomes a grumbling faction.
Tragically, this is true today of many church leaders and religious organizations, who no longer believe they have a prophetic voice to offer society, whether on racial reconciliation, moral decline, social breakdown, or the primacy of religious worship over temporal concerns.
It is time for a reform in self-perception. In past times, the church has not thought of itself as a “little platoon” or a “mediating institution,” but as a “perfect society,” as the City of God on earth, with the power to bring the rulers of this world to heel and to “shatter kings,” in the words of the Psalms. The power of progressive politics comes in its continued ability to conjure up images of a Manichaean struggle against the powers of darkness, one in which we must play a role. If we wish for civil society to become effective once more, we must stretch our imaginations and forge a new idea of its role, one which is not afraid to risk comfortable livelihoods for a higher cause, or declare its aspirations loftier than the rules laid down by the Leviathan and the Behemoth.