You may have heard people talking about ‘civil society’ and wondered what it means. The talk is of exporting this idea to places which formerly lacked it, namely the communist zones of eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and China. You will certainly be aware that many people talk of defending the values of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’, an ‘open and tolerant society’ against those who attack it. Yet in all this discussion there is seldom any explanation or questioning of where these strange commodities, that is freedom and openness, came from.
‘Civil society’ usually refers to the world of associations and organizations which lie between the State and the individual. In many societies it is the family group and sometimes the religious caste which inhabits this space. Yet in the modern west these are less important.
Instead there is a multitude of organizations to which people belong, but which are not run by the State. Schools, universities, trades unions, political clubs, sporting clubs, religious groups, scientific and literary clubs, economic institutions, these and many others enable someone to belong to an organization. This can provide strength through numbers and the pooling of resources.
In most civilizations in the past, and in Fascist and Communist nations in the last century, all these institutions were banned, or controlled by the State. Individuals owed their allegiance to the State or Party, not to other organizations. Civil Society was prohibited. How is it, then, that these associations and groups now flourish in such a lively way in much of the world? And what effect does this have?
Where did an open society come from?
The revival of Roman law, which spread over all of continental Europe between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, brought with it a homogenizing, flattening, tendency. This set almost all of Europe along a new path. Yet during this important period England retained its Common (Germanic) Law system.
At this time, a legal accident occurred in England that was to change the world we live in. Lawyers were, as ever, trying to find a way round a tax regime. When a wealthy man died, his landed property, held in the strict feudal system directly of the King, was forfeited back to the Crown. In order for his heirs to re-claim it, they had to pay a heavy death duty on their estates. Naturally the rich did not like this. Their legal advisors saw that the problem could be avoided if they made the man at his death no longer the owner of the property. If he did not hold the property at death, the Crown could not seize it and insist on a tax before it passed on to his heirs.
So the lawyers invented the device of the Trust. A group of friends of the property holder were chosen and the estate was legally conveyed to them. They held it ‘in trust for the use of another’. It was legally theirs to do what they liked with, but the owner trusted them to pass it on at his death to his heirs and to carry out his wishes in whatever way he had privately told them.
The Trust created a strange and anomalous thing. Trustees were appointed to work together to hold and administer property and to take collective decisions. The Trust had a name, a separate existence, a body that existed through time. So it was technically a ‘corporation’, a ‘body’. Yet it had not been set up by the State, it had not been ‘incorporated’ or licensed by the State with a formal document. It had been set up by a group of private citizens, yet it was recognized by national law.
Such entities were threatening to the State if they became powerful since trustees could make their own rules. It also allowed citizens to work together and create alternative loyalties. Consequently trusts were banned during the French, Russian and Chinese revolutionary periods, and by Mussolini and Hitler. In England, Henry VIII tried to destroy them but it was too late. Abolished for a few years, the Trusts were restored by a technical legal trick.
How did we get freedom?
From very early on the Trust idea spread beyond the simple avoiding of death duties. The idea provided a device which could be used for any need. In the field of economics, any group that wished to set up a mutually-supportive, private, non-State, entity could now do so. Whether it was a great trading organization such as the East India Company, a bank or insurance company such as Lloyds, or even the Stock Exchange, the device of the Trust was ready at hand. Much of the success of Britain came from this form of organization. The United States has widely used the same idea as the foundation of the mighty trusts and corporations which now rule the world.
In religion, the Trust sheltered the growing independence of the Protestant Christian sects. Without the ability to set up meeting places and independent organizations provided by the Trust, the Quakers, Baptists, Methodists and other religious nonconformists could never have flourished. Much of what we call religious liberty was made possible by this device. Without it, in certain Catholic countries, the Jews, Masons, Lutherans and others were persecuted almost to extinction.
When the State becomes more powerful it does not usually tolerate rivals. The growth of parties, of political clubs and organizations, grew out of the Trust concept. The early clubs of the Whigs and Tories, the later clubs and associations of working men, the Trades Union movement, all were based on the legal device of the Trust.
Likewise, the whole system of devolved government, the shires with their magistrates and local power, the parish councils and many other local and regional bodies were given strength by the concept. Local educational and church organizations, grammar schools and vestries, all were trust-based.
Normally rulers come to believe that power is their private property, they own it. The strange thing in Democracy is that power is held in trust for the people. The present rulers are trustees, they have been entrusted with temporary power, which is not theirs but has to be passed on to their successors. When they are felt no longer to be performing adequately, they are replaced by another ‘board of trustees’, or as they are called, the Government. The corruption of power is held in check by the limited period for which it can be held.
In international politics, the Trust idea formed the core of an extraordinary Empire. All other Empires in history have been held, usually through force of conquest, by the imperial country entirely for its own purposes. Rome, Spain and France ‘owned’ their Empire. In the British Empire, however greatly the ideal became tarnished in practice, the concept grew that the imperial territories were held ‘in trust’ for the people who inhabited them.
In theory, at least, Britain held its vast dominions in trust. When the children or grand-children of the people from whom the land had been appropriated had grown to ‘adulthood’, that is to a position where they could assume responsibility, the Trust would be ended. Thus wealth raised from different parts of the Empire should, as in a Trust, be put back into the Trust for the future welfare of those on whose behalf it was held. There was, in other words, responsibility as well as power. Even if it is largely a a myth, and some would say hypocricy and humbug, it is a powerful and inhibiting one. Nationalists such as the lawyer Gandhi could use the rhetoric to gain freedom for India.
How did we get social and intellectual freedom?
The Trust gave the British two of their most famous institutions. There were the social and philanthropic clubs and associations; the Women’s Institute, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides, Oxfam, Amnesty, the Samaritans, the Salvation Army, the National Trust, the Royal Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for the Protection of Birds, for the Protection of Children, the Lions, the Rotarians. There were numerous working class clubs and organizations, funeral societies, pigeon-fancying, leek growing, discussion groups, sports groups. Many of the clubs and institutions which have spread around the world were invented in Britain on the basis of the idea of non-governmental clubs.
Secondly there are the team games, cricket, football, rugby football, hockey which are now the world’s great passion. Many of the team games played in the world were invented in Britain and others like baseball and American football developed in the other land of associations. They all revolve round the club and the club-house (as did golf from Scotland and tennis originally from France). Some of the clubs were famous, such as the Marylebone Cricket Club or M.C.C., or the institution which was described as the most powerful political body in nineteenth century Britain, the Jockey Club. Many others were local and small. The concept of the club run by trustees formed the shell within which team games could be nurtured and enjoyed.
The Universities and learned societies, whether of the elite (the Royal Society, British Academy) or the masses (working men’s clubs, local libraries and institutions such as the London Lending Library) were based on the trust idea. Without these, the meetings of engineers, philosophers and others in the coffee clubs and hundreds of small groupings would not have occurred. These clubs had an incalculable effect on the development of scientific and industrial knowledge.
What happens if we don’t trust people?
The Trust idea encouraged that rare commodity ‘trust’ to develop. Without this, the economic, political and social foundations of modern Democracies could not exist. The hybrid device of the Trust runs counter to most of the powerful tendencies in the development of civilizations. Almost always any advance in wealth or power in a society has, after a short while, been gobbled up by the central power. Knowledge is power, so it must be incorporated into the centre. Social status is power, so it must be harnessed. Economic wealth must be absorbed. Religious loyalty must be channelled towards the State in alliance with the clergy. The State demands all of this. If the State is threatened, or pretends to be threatened, its demands are almost impossible to reject.
Other threatening institutions are systematically extinguished or enfeebled, until in the later periods of every Empire, whether in Rome, China, the Habsburgs, the Ottomans or France, the peripheral powers are weak. There develops a central power which aspires to be all-powerful and which is supported by an ever-growing bureaucracy and standing army. When the absolutisms of the twentieth century emerged, with their superior forms of surveillance and advanced technologies of control, even the family group was shattered. Nothing stands between the individual and Joseph Stalin, Chairman Mao or Pol Pot.
The State is like a machine for cutting grass, a lawn-mower with its blade fixed at the maximum setting so it is very close to the earth. It cuts off and absorbs into itself anything that sticks up more than a tiny way. If the universities, the monasteries, the cities, the traders and merchants, the industrial producers or anyone else starts to accumulate visible wealth and power, especially if they start to proclaim their own rules and independent government, the State officials savagely prune or eliminate them. Only two types of organization can survive such a system which confiscates any conspicuous wealth and destroys all alternative power structures.
One is the secret, banned, organization whose members hide from the State. The mafia, yakuza, triads and even, in a somewhat different way, the Masons, are forced into a negative existence as a black or inverted Civil Society. These are outlawed groups which provide services to the individual, often with the partial complicity of some State officials.
The other survivor is the thick, flat, entangled, low level cover of strong family ties. Through most of history, all that seems able to give ordinary people some protection, to provide an area of safety against the predations of the State, are the natural bonds of birth, or the constructed bonds of kinship through such institutions as blood brotherhood or god-parenthood. Only in the family can we trust. A world of suspicion and tight family groups usually emerges, as we find from Italy to China or South America.
How are trust and democracy linked?
Through an accident, Civil Society, that is the thick layer of organizations which lies between the State and the individual Subject or Citizen, continued and flourished and the civil liberties and rights of free thought and free association became increasingly valued.
Such a flourishing of Civil Society and alternative centres of power has, of course, happened before in history, as in Athens in its great period, or for a time in the Italian city states. Yet in most cases the experiment had been small and short-lived. Only when the trust coincided with two other developments (which it also helped to bring into being) could a new type of civilization be established.
One of these was a new way of obtaining reliable knowledge about the natural world (the scientific revolution). The other was a new way of harnessing that knowledge to generate new power and wealth for humans (the industrial revolution). When these two were joined with the Trust, there developed a powerful form of political and social system, which we often term ‘the open society’.
Yet it is well to remember that the creation of an open society was an accident, an unintended consequence of many other forces. It was not the result of superior virtues or intelligence on the part of people living in one part of the world. We should also remember that it is constantly under pressure from forces from both the left and right.
The danger of the lawn-mower blades being set too low and stifling all independent power (communism) is matched by an equal danger from rampant capitalism. In several parts of the world at present the blades are set so high that vast wealth is accumulated in private hands and the whole nation suffers from overgrown corporations and obscenely inflated private fortunes.
So there is nothing to suggest that a vibrant civil society will continue indefinitely. It does not take a great deal to erode it, or even to snuff it out entirely. Throughout history we have seen strong tendencies towards centralization and the erosion of lower level liberties. Some see it today behind the activities of the advocates of increasing European centralization and integration.
Even more ironically, those who appear to be most vociferous in their condemnation of assaults on the open society by terrorists and others often slip into an attack on the very civil institutions, such as the media or the due legal process, which they claim to be defending. They can act unwittingly as the very agents of the enemies of the open society.