Review: The Importance of Being Civil

In his stimulating book The Importance of Being Civil, John A. Hall tears a leaf from the street-fighter’s handbook and gets his retaliation in first. To those who will say that concepts such as decency have no place in a work of sociology, he insists that ‘civility is not sugary froth but an ideal of visceral importance’ and that ‘the narrative thrust of [his] argument is neither vapid nor effete but wholly practical’. Accordingly, I feel obliged to warn readers seeking to make sense of the nasty tone that has recently descended on Australian politics that this is not the book for them. Hall’s subject is not political etiquette but the nature – the essence – of civil society.

Defining civility as ‘a form of societal self-organisation that allows for cooperation with the state while permitting individuation’, Hall suggests that civil society ‘only “makes sense” when it contains a heavy dose of civility’. In order to be truly civil, the groups that make up ‘civil society’ – groups that exist independently of the state – must grant their members individual autonomy. Similarly, for a society to be truly civil the state must allow these groups their autonomy and ensure that they respect each others’ autonomy. Civility is thus to civil society what petroleum is to the internal combustion engine; it is the fuel without which the machine breaks down.

In allowing disagreement to take place without violence, civility also regularises conflict in such a way as to make it productive. In this sense, it is very nearly synonymous with the idea of toleration as put forward by John Locke and, more recently, Frank Furedi. That’s to say, it invites us to agree to disagree and to agree upon rules about how to disagree. There is thus a ‘soft relativism’ at the heart of civil society – a commitment to hearing each other out and recognising that we may be in the wrong; but this relativism is a world away from the kind of multiculturalism (or multi-monoculturalism) that turns tolerance into a synonym for indifference and, in so doing, condemns individuals to racial or religious enclaves. Indeed, what Hall calls ‘social cages’ are ultimately corrosive of civil society; disagreement is better than disengagement.

Other challenges to civil society have a longer and more terrifying pedigree. Hall is very interesting on what he calls ‘the dangers of authenticity’ as revealed in radical nationalism (which urges us to ‘think with the blood’) and in those forms of leftwing collectivism that assume a natural state of freedom to which capitalism is the main obstacle. Indeed, Hall suggests not only that liberal democracy is the ‘least bad’ option from the point of view of civility (here he seems to be channelling Winston Churchill, who suggested that democracy was the worst form of government, apart from all the others that have been tried) but also that economic competition is a key component of political decency. The Big Three thinkers of sociology – Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber – were all in their own way anti-capitalist intellectuals; but Hall suggests that Adam Smith also deserves a place at the table. In particular, Smith’s view of human beings as both sociable and self-interested provides a cool Enlightenment tonic to the fiery, destructive romanticism of thinkers in the revolutionary tradition.

Hall wants to challenge the leftwing notion that the biggest cause of incivility (and of social instability more broadly) is economic inequality. For him, the behaviour of the state is decisive. Certainly it’s a major factor, and Hall’s assertion, which he makes a number of times, that ‘softer political rule deradicalises’ will strike many readers as uncontroversial and even as slightly tautologous. But his blunt declaration that ‘it is not capitalism that occasions violent conflict from below’ is more than a little overstated, downplaying as it does the intimate relationship between political and economic power. No doubt a more representative government than the one currently sitting in Washington D. C. could have mitigated the social unrest that swept the US in 2011; but then, a more representative government – one less beholden to corporate patronage – would not have so assiduously created the conditions from which that unrest emerged in the first place. Similarly, the situation in Europe is a crisis of both economics and governance. Inequality and the growing democratic deficit are two sides of the same, now rather tarnished, euro.

In his conclusion, Hall quotes Oscar Wilde: ‘selfishness is not living as one wishes to live; it is asking others to live as one wishes to live’. That seems to me to describe the balance implicit in civility perfectly: due respect must be given to both self and society. The question is whether our economic arrangements are a help or a hindrance in this regard, and on that I find Hall unconvincing. That the above quotation is from Wilde’s great essay ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ is by no means deadly to Hall’s (fascinating) case, but nor is it without significance.

John A. Hall, The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency
Princeton University Press; $42.95; 266pp

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First published in The Australian.