Civil Society’s Proper Place

Lee Siegel at The Ideas Letter: Consider the recent trend of “The Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting,” which developed in the context of media speculation about a world in which people did not have to work as much, or in an office, or, ideally, at all. “Why should I let the toad work/Squat on my life?” as Philip Larkin put it. It seemed as though the world was on the verge of a revolution in social and economic life similar to the transformations that occurred in the wake of the Second World War, when western European countries evolved into various degrees of social democracy. But that paradigmatic shift occurred as a result of a global economic crash and a world war’s massive devastation, and it was also a concession in the face of the communist threat. “Quiet quitting,” by contrast, was the creation of a bored TikToker playing around online in the most prosperous country on earth. (As for Larkin, he wryly concluded in a letter that “work, paradoxically enough, is a comfort. One wakes up wanting to cut one’s throat; one goes to work, & in 15 minutes one wants to cut someone else’s—complete cure!”)

Or look at the new style of right-wing populist writers, who indignantly beat their chests over corporations’ heedless treatment of workers. Reading them is like being caught in a double warp of time and ideology. The rhetoric dates back to the 1930s radical left, and the political sentiment has existed on the liberal side of things for over a century. Since it is hard to imagine the American political right becoming pro-labor or attempting to diminish the power of corporations, the rhetoric is—leave aside what often feels like a veiled authoritarian purpose behind it— surreal, familiar words whirling unfamiliarly in a bespoke political snow globe. They have no actual place to go.

Like the children in a materially pressed family, these days we dress up our language– as new material conditions leave our language far behind–in the hand-me-down ideas of previous generations. One of the most stubbornly enduring terms is “civil society.” As our politics have failed us, civil society often appears as that revered American chimera: “the solution.” Since the advent of Donald Trump in 2016, use of the term has proliferated.

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