Love, reason and the future of civil society

About the author

Michael Edwards is a writer and activist based in upstate New York. He is the editor of the Transformation section of openDemocracy and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos in New York. Mike’s latest books include Civil Society, Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World , and the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society. His website is futurepositive.org.


The foundation of a healthy civil society, reflects Michael Edwards, is a marriage of two human faculties often undervalued or misunderstood: reason and love.

What does it mean to “build a civil society?” Given the frequency with which these words are thrown around these days (even appearing as a rationale for war in Iraq), one might think they signify something clear and unambiguous. Yet “civil society” has been appropriated by politicians on all sides of the spectrum to suit their own, very different agendas.

For conservatives, these words mean free markets and individual liberty; for those on the left they represent an alternative to the market based around greater solidarity and democratic participation; and for those in the middle ground of politics they highlight the importance of the voluntary sector in animating a successful social-market economy.

It is easy to become lost in the complexities of this debate, or captured by the assumptions of one side or another. One way out of this impasse is to look beyond the clash of ideologies to the underlying capacities that are necessary to fashion a civil society worthy of the name, even if we continue to disagree on what it would look like at any level of detail.

For me, the most important of these capacities are love and reason, each essential both in and of itself and as a counterweight to an excess of the other. Love and reason make possible a principled negotiation of our differences, and although rarely described in these terms, I believe that civil society is best understood not as a “thing” to be created by outsiders but as a constantly-unfolding marriage between these two sets of capacities. The importance of reason to democracy has been central to public debate since the Enlightenment, love much less so. Talk of love, at least in public, is considered embarrassing, flaky, and even ridiculous. Nevertheless, I want to make the case that love should be a central topic of our conversation. The absence of love from the public sphere has become a terrible, defining characteristic of contemporary society.

Michael Edwards is director of the Governance & Civil Society Unit at the Ford Foundation. He is the author of Civil Society (Polity Press, 2003) and Future Positive: International Co-operation in the 21st Century (James & James, 2004). For more information visit www.futurepositive.org.

Reason and public life

The concept of a “public” – a whole polity that cares about the common good and has the capacity to deliberate about it democratically – is central to civil-society thinking. The development of shared interests, a willingness to cede some territory to others, the ability to see something of oneself in those who are different and work together more effectively as a result – all these are crucial attributes for effective governance, practical problem-solving, and the peaceful resolution of our differences.

All life, one might say, is negotiation, and the price of entry into civil society is the willingness to change one’s mind through an encounter with the views of others. Like rocks in a stream, the sharp edges of our differences are softened over time as they knock against each other. A healthy civil society depends on the development of our collective capacities to talk, argue, innovate, learn and ultimately solve our problems together through a process of social reason. Harry Boyte calls this the “politics of freedom”, in which no one has a monopoly of truth and everyone shares an obligation to negotiate their interests with each other.

The health of civil society in this sense depends on the cultivation of critical thinking, social energy, and “active citizenship” among the populace. These words roll comfortably off the tongue but they belie an exceptionally challenging reality, given the demands that are placed on us by the modern capitalist economy in which time is so constrained, citizenship is eroded, and public monitoring, or even authentic public conversation, are actively opposed by increasingly powerful interests.

I recently read of a test that is given to all potential employees by the Walmart supermarket chain in America. “Do you agree”, asks the test, “that rules have to be followed to the letter at all times?” The only acceptable answer, surprise, surprise, is “very strongly”. So, while social reason may be the foundation of civil society there are many forces urging complicity, conformity, and silence.

For example, official versions of the truth are penetrating ever more deeply into the public imagination. “The new game”, writes journalist Nicholas Confessore, “is to dominate the entire intellectual environment in which officials make policy decisions, which means funding everything from think tanks to issues ads to phony grassroots pressure groups.” (“Meet the Press”, Washington Monthly, December 2003). Reality can then be manufactured in the public mindset to suit the interests of those in power. Regardless of whether you were “for” or “against” the war in Iraq for example, the absence of a full and transparent discussion of the rights and wrongs of the case for war should be of great concern to all good citizens.

There is even increasing scepticism about reason as the basis for public policy-making, marked out by a tendency to look to external rather than internal sources of authority, revealed rather than negotiated truths, and ideology rather than a moving policy consensus obtained through rational disagreement. Blogs replace journalism, stripped of the need to check facts and be held accountable. Complexity, nuance, choice and judgment are diminished in the face of supposedly god-given certainties. Politicians openly mock the reality or fact-based universe of their opponents. In modern politics, facts are for losers.

As rationality is eroded, polarisation and intolerance increase, whipped up by unscrupulous politicians and their servants in the media, the pulpit, and the world of public relations. Politics has become a zero-sum game in which winning at all costs is the only goal. Once more in history, difference is something to be feared, controlled or suppressed, rather than celebrated and protected. A survey by Public Agenda in 2005 showed conclusively that Americans were less likely to compromise their views on hot-button issues like abortion, gay rights and the death penalty if they approached these subjects from a religious grounding. So much for civil society as the place where we can, as the writer John Keane puts it, “meet as strangers and not draw the knife”.

Publics are becoming more and more fragmented, and less and less willing to negotiate the interests they hold in common. As scholars like Theda Skocpol have pointed out, the atomisation of civil society in America is destroying the bridges between interest groups that underlay all great social reforms in the post-second-world-war era. Reforms like these (think health care and social security today) depend on the development of more independent patterns of thinking among voters so that they can escape the cage in which the traditional party system has imprisoned them, and signal their support for new solutions that cut across the divisions of Democrat and Republican, religious and secular, immigrant and non-immigrant groups. That is only possible if people are prepared to reason their way to a new common ground.

Love and social practice

It would be a dry world indeed if reason ruled unchecked by the life of the spirit, the imagination, the artist and the lover. It would also be unrealistic to expect a resolution of deep-rooted social problems through the application of reason alone. When reason grows hubristic, it becomes another form of irrationality, even a form of insanity, leading in a direct line to the death camps of the Third Reich or the massacres of more recent memory in the Rwanda, the Balkans or Darfur. “Reason”, as Terry Eagleton argues in a book review on the Enlightenment, “must somehow keep faith with the irrational forces from which it springs, acknowledging their power as the ancient Athenian State paid its dues to the terrible power of the Furies” (“The Enlightenment is Dead! Long live the Enlightenment!”, Harper’s Magazine, March 2005)

What is this power that counterbalances the influence of reason in civil society? Some would say it is religion or faith, but these things are usually particularistic, attached to defined sub-sectors of humankind and agendas that are privileged, resulting in the divisions I talked about earlier, and beset by the prejudice that one still finds in many religious communities – the consistent attacks on women’s rights, the homophobia, the narrow-mindedness and reluctance to enter into community-wide activities and concerns rather than intra-congregational commitments, and the substitution of individual acts of charity or service for a full and complete understanding of the structural factors that lead to oppression. Social conservatism is rarely more dangerous than when it cloaks itself in religious garb that cannot adequately be challenged by rationalist arguments for social justice because it assumes an other-worldly authority.

A much more promising power is love. I’m not talking here about romantic love, or love in the infantile sense of being made happy, but what Martin Luther King called “the love that does justice”, signifying the deliberate cultivation of mutually reinforcing cycles of personal and systemic change.

“The essence of love”, says the “Institute for the Study of Unlimited Love” at Case Western University, “is to affectively affirm as well as unselfishly delight in the well being of others, and to engage in acts of care and service on their behalf, without exception, in an enduring and constant way.”

This is universal love, unconditional love, attached only to the equal and general welfare of the whole.

This is love that contains a radical equality-consciousness, a force that breaks down all distance and hierarchy.

This is a love that respects the necessary self-empowerment of others, eschewing paternalism and romanticism for relationships of truth and authenticity, even where they move through phases of conflict and disagreement, as all do.

This is a love that encourages us to live up to our social obligations as well our individual moral values, connect our interior life worlds to public spaces, encourage collective judgments and create open networks of self-reflective and critical communication.

This love is active, not passive, explicitly considering the effects of oppressive and exploitative systems and structures on the welfare of others, and not just focused on the immediate circle of family and friends – a deep and abiding commitment to the liberation of all.

This is a love that seeks not to accumulate power, even in the face of oppression, but to transform it so that ‘victory’ means more than a game of revolving chairs among narrow political interests.

This love forms an essential counterbalance to an excess of reason, adding in the discrimination, humility, intuition, ethical commitments and emotional intelligence that are essential ingredients of wisdom.

This love helps us to understand when and how to uphold and apply rationality even in the toughest of circumstances – by increasing self-awareness of our biases, prejudices and blind spots, sustaining our objectivity about our own strengths and shortcomings.

This love releases us from fear and insecurity, and our diminished sense of self.

This love gives us optimism and hope, an expansion rather than contraction of our critical faculties, openness instead of closure.

Michael Edwards’s essay is also published in the January-February 2006 edition of the magazine Resurgence. openDemocracy would like to thank the editor of Resurgence, Satish Kumar, for his kindness in facilitating this cooperation

Resurgence, founded in 1966, is a “leading international forum for ecological and spiritual thinking. It is a life-line to the heart of the environmental movement, connecting readers to a world of ideas, tools and resources that are needed to create positive change”

This love does not generate readymade answers to deep-rooted and intractable problems of economic and social life, codified according to the conventional logics of left or right, Jewish, Muslim or Christian. Instead, it provides a different set of motivations from which alternatives can grow, eventually producing a “social science of love” that can demonstrate how politics, economics, organisational development, social and international relations can be transformed through this radically-different form of rationality. Marrying a rich inner life dedicated to the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion with the practice of new forms of politics, economics and public policy is the key to social transformation.

We may never share a common vision of ends and means in politics and economics, but we can all be committed to a process that allows everyone to share in defining how these differences are reconciled. That, in essence, is the meaning of civil society as the marriage of love and reason. Making this marriage work requires will require all of us to practice “critical friendship” – the loving but forceful encounters between equals who journey together towards the land of the true and the beautiful.

It is the combination of those two qualities – love, and forcefulness, rigour or reason – that defines the relationships that are central to the democratic resolution of social problems. Thinking of civil society as both the process and the outcome of lives lived in critical friendship may not satisfy the scholars or the politicians, but it does represent a challenge we can all understand and respond to in very practical ways. And that’s good enough for me.