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Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach

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A Failure of Civic Friendship

Posted: 12/10/09 03:04 PM ET

No doubt I was led to the topic of "On Civic Friendship: Including Women in the State" by my years studying abroad. I viewed the American political state from the outside as the Vietnam War had just ended, and I experienced directly the myriad ways in which social and political institutions may be well ordered. Upon returning to the States, I eventually came to the conclusion that what is sorely lacking here is what this book calls "civic friendship."

The American founding fathers had hoped to avoid "injurious faction" and James Madison referred to the defenders of the U.S. Constitution as "friends of mankind". But the gap in the U.S. between the haves and the have-nots only grows larger -- it is already greater than at any point since the Great Depression. Our ruling corporate culture is hierarchical and secretive while the electorate is so apathetic that half of those eligible don't even vote. We are among the most violent of all advanced industrial nations, with gun ownership still enshrined in our Constitution, with one out of every 32 adults behind bars or on probation or parole, and our military expenditures outstrip the rest of the world's military powers combined.

At the same time, despite all our wealth and power, we are shamefully pusillanimous in the public granting of welfare or benefits. We are the only major industrialized democracy without universal health care -- with 48 million uninsured. Our system of family leave plans is inadequate and our short-term welfare benefits punitive. Our public schools are failing and our aid to foreign countries has fallen to 0.1 percent. In sum, our awareness -- let alone positive concern -- for our fellow citizens and the rest of the world is shockingly low.

But what is civic friendship and why is it important? A central mistake repeatedly made by many in the modern West is to think of friendship as merely a personal relation. It actually has important civic analogues. Consider three traits essential (I argue) to genuine friendship: a reciprocal awareness and liking of the other as moral equal, a reciprocal wishing that other well for their sake (and not for our own), and a reciprocal practical "doing" for that other. How can these traits be applicable when dealing with a population of millions?

In civic friendship (unlike in personal) these essential traits don't operate directly but via a society's public laws, social institutions and customs. Thus, my "awareness and liking" of fellow citizens may be revealed, first, in my being informed and educated about how citizens live in other parts of my city or country. Or I can "wish them well" civically by being willing to help them in times of crisis or (at the very least) not begrudging them my tax dollars for basic assistance in education, housing or health care. Even my personal enemies I can treat as civic friends; this means only that I grant them the respect and rights due any American. Clearly, the state plays a critical role in regulating our awareness of the facts of other citizens' lives (through education and other institutions) as well as in stipulating the minimal duties we have towards them.

But why is civic friendship important? This book argues (with Aristotle) that a state in which there is no civic friendship can never be a just one. If there is no institutionalized background of good will in a society, citizens can and inevitably will perceive themselves to be unfairly treated. Again, in a generalized context of enmity and ill will, or in one of pure competition and indifference, given our natural and often unreasonable propensities to favor ourselves, citizens will be unable to accept in practice the "burdens of justice"; the poor will have little motive to follow the laws and the well to do will refuse to yield their unfair advantages. Only a sham justice of the powerful can reign.

Critical to my argument is the fact that women, throughout history and across the globe, have performed the vast majority of reproductive praxis in society: that form of ethical activity that reproduces not merely biological beings but reasoning and mature persons. Thus, in contrast to the (male) model of citizen soldier (who aims to defend against or kill the other) or to that of producer (whose goal is the production of exchange value), there exists a third model (submerged but powerful) of traditional female praxis which aims at the reproduction of human relations: in the best case at friendship relations for their own sake. This book emphasizes and analyzes this forgotten model of activity and reveals its necessary connections to just social, economic, and democratic institutions. With the mass movement of women into the public realm, moreover, a transformation of the aims of the modern political state in the direction of a genuine civic friendship becomes a realistic goal of practice.