Civil society and Enlightenment ideals

Uladzimir Matskevich

Excerpt from the book “Freedom and Thinking. Essays on Civil Society”

Civil society is the realisation of Enlightenment ideals, their modern embodiment.

Ideals are ideals because they are valid only when they are followed, when they are turned into reality.

Ideals vary. Communism is also a set of ideals. Fascism is a set of ideals, and so is Nazism. The ideals are different, and they are shared by different people. People realise their ideals in a shared reality. The ideals of family and love are first realised by two people, then children and family – their togetherness – add up. A village community is a totality of neighbours who own some resources communally, where people make joint decisions within the limits of their togetherness. There can be large communities: cities, nations, and they share the same characteristics. Just on a larger scale and with a wider range of problems.

Village or church community and traditional society are characterised by great homogeneity of ideals. There, everyone (or at least the majority) shares the same ideals.

However, modern big cities and nations cultivate various – sometimes antagonistic – sets of ideals. Aristotle described the ancient city as a unity of the distinct. Even more so, modern nations are made up of totally dissimilar communities. The achievement of unity of the distinct is the essence of politics.

We can have different ideals, but we have only one city. Similarly, the sovereignty of a nation extends to a one shared territory. The constitution and the state institutions are the same for the whole nation. All this is somehow organised and structured. It is organized according to certain rules, norms, principles, standards, and laws. All these norms, standards, and laws trace back to some ideals: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Justice, and respect for human rights.

But each of the ideals can be contrasted with another ideal.

Freedom can be contrasted with order or security. Equality of one type can be contrasted with equality of another. Justice can be contrasted with the “letter of the law”. Human rights are challenged by the rights of the community.

The nation consists of different minorities professing various ideals and communicating with each over which ideals are to be realised in a particular city or state.

It is possible to do without communication. One can impose laws, standards, and principles by force, without engaging in discussions about ideals. Might goes before discussions. The dictate of the majority is another forceful option.

Totalitarianism is based on the fact that the whole society, all people share the same ideals and values. Any questioning of the dominant ideals and values is regarded as a crime. The holders of other ideals and values are subject to correction and re-education, and up to a certain time, to isolation. In extreme cases, they must be annihilated.

Civil society exists when all values and ideals are discussed and debated. Upon reaching at least some compromise on ideals in society, a discussion is ignited about the principles and laws that should govern the realisation of those ideals.

Once the principles have been worked out, laws have been passed and norms have been standardised, a struggle and competition emerge over who can do a better job in implementing these principles, enforcing laws, implementing standards, etc.

Civil society is a daily plebiscite, a constant debate and continuous communication.

When would people find time to work then? Would there be time to create material values and conditions for endless discussions and continuous communication?

It is a serious problem.

In the 18th century, the problem was solved very simply: there was slavery, serfdom, and the urban poor. While some worked, others debated, discussed, and made decisions on behalf of everyone that would influence everyone. Civil society was represented by a limited circle of rich, educated citizens who had a lot of free time. The entire civil society fit into several city clubs.

In the 19th century, the secular society and members of clubs who had a lot of free time and did not have to earn their bread and material wealth began to be considered a parasitic class, and the existence of that class was seen as a flagrant injustice. The emancipation of the proletariat began. The ideals of the French Revolution implied equality for all. But people who worked hard from dawn to dusk simply did not have the physical opportunity to participate in the communication of civil society. So first the struggle for economic rights, wages and reduction of working hours emerged, and then the right to vote and participate in the life of the society.

In the 20th century, material problems in developed countries were largely solved. With the introduction of the 8-hour day, almost everyone had the opportunity to participate in society, and a person could choose whether to become an active citizen or have a strictly private life. Every adult, irrespective of race, religion, property, gender or even education, gained the right to vote (i.e. to participate in public decision-making) and to be elected (i.e. to participate in communication about public affairs at the expense of society itself).

Nowadays, we have to look for our own solution to this problem, and it is already being sought; options are being discussed and debated.

In the 18th century, members of civil society could be visually identified by starched wigs, doublets, knee-breeches and stockings. Sanctimonious people wearing long trousers and boots were not allowed to communicate with the public.

In the turbulent 19th century, even workers aspiring to be citizens wore top hats and frock coats.

In the 20th century, it became a bad form to differ in appearance; workers fundamentally refused to imitate the clothing of the upper parasitic classes, who had to come to terms with it, and by the end of the millennium everyone indiscriminately wore jeans and rejected ties. The dress code was only preserved for employees during working hours, whether in a private firm or parliament. But these are trifles.

The main challenge to civil society in the postmodern era was the rejection of Enlightenment ideals.

Since the era of powdered wigs and doublets of the enlighteners of the 18th century, civil society has been inextricably linked with education and critical thinking.

Where there is no critical thinking – there is no civil society. Nineteenth-century workers studied intensively. The capitalists taught them literacy and special skills, while the workers themselves studied Marxist and social theory, law and humanities. “To study communism well and truly” was not Lenin’s idea. It is a legacy of the revolutionary age. To be able to participate in public communication you had to reach out to thought leaders, and learn and master the language of such communication.

The upper classes enlightened and pulled everyone else up to their level, in full accordance with the ideals of the Enlightenment philosophers and thinkers. The Age of Enlightenment is also called the Modern Age. “Modern age” translates as “modernity”. Until the very end of the 20th century, it is following the Enlightenment ideals that was called the modern age, or modernity.

The Russian intelligentzia – the Narodniks – were the first to abandon the ideals of the Enlightenment. Instead of elevating the lower classes to their level, the Narodniks began to idealise the people, their “inherent wisdom” and sense of justice. A radical change of ideals took place. Rather than the refined critical thinking of the Enlighteners, the irrational “popular wisdom” became the ideal. The Bolsheviks then began to rely on the “class instinct” inherent in the proletariat, in much the same way that the Nazis idealised the “call of the Aryan blood”.

In Europe, the rejection of the Modern Age/Enlightenment ideals was facilitated by postmodernism. This rejection is linked to a re-interpretation of the concept and category of “critical thinking”.

Participation in the discussion of social issues is impossible without appropriate education, competence, and training. This competence is achieved by mastering the current level of knowledge about social problems, while training manifests itself in developing a critical attitude towards all versions, hypotheses and proposals. In other words, one has to KNOW what one knows, one has to UNDERSTAND it, and what one understands is subject to ANALYSIS and CRITICISM.

It is only with knowledge, understanding, analysis and criticism that evaluation and decision-making can take place.

The totalitarian ideals of the Nazis and Bolsheviks absolutized “direct action”, i.e. assessment and decision-making without KNOWLEDGE, UNDERSTANDING, ANALYSIS and CRITICISM, but rather immediate based on the “call of the blood” or “class instinct”. The hasty assessments and decisions had to be followed by the immediate implementation of the decisions.

That is why totalitarian regimes hate democracy. They see it as a hindrance to quick assessments, decisions and actions. They also hate parliamentarism, which, for them, is “all talk and no action”.

Postmodernism has nothing to do with Nazism and Communism, although most postmodern thinkers hold left-wing views.

Postmodernism rejects knowledge, understanding, analysis and criticism in favour of the ideals of political correctness and the equality of all and any opinions.

At the same time, postmodernists declare critical thinking to be one of their basic principles. But by critical thinking they mean somewhat different from definitions developed by Kant and the Enlighteners – specifically, questioning of the ideals of modernity and the Enlightenment and a search for ideals opposed to them. Postmodernist criticism is directed against any absolutes; to every positive statement, they must offer an antinomy. Whatever the judgement, there may be a contrary one.

In the postmodern era, critical thinking once again becomes the specific skill of a narrow stratum of intellectuals who do not wear wigs but dress like sansculottes.

Why do workers, engineers, and civil servants need critical thinking? Why would a plumber or a tractor driver need critical thinking?

The difference in the interpretation of critical thinking is seen in what the criticism is aimed at.

The leftist postmodernist intellectual is critical of the traditional values and conservative attitudes of plumbers, tractor drivers and farmers – and of all traditional and conservative values, attitudes and ideals in general.

The modern age intellectual (enlightener) directs their criticism first of all to their own judgment and ideas, to the ontological essences of pure reason and the practical conclusions of mundane and professional consciousness.

The intellectual needs critical thinking to question the ideals and values of their time. Not of the past, ancient and traditional – although that too – but first of all doubting the opinions and perceptions of their time, the attitudes of their contemporaries, i.e. their own.

It is precisely this quality, this ability that is universal in an open and civil society, i.e. necessary for both the philosophy professor and the plumber – doubting what one knows and thinks.

The postmodernist criticises the ideals of the Modern Age, but not their own, and the plumber suggests the same – do not criticise your own opinion, you are perfectly within your rights, all opinions are equally valuable and so is yours. Unless, of course, the plumber’s opinion differs greatly from that of the postmodernist professor.

In the genre and form I chose for this text, I can confine myself to a slightly exaggerated statement of the juxtaposition of the ideals of the modern and the postmodern age.

This contrast is particularly evident in public practice, in politics and citizens’ movements, rather than in academic works.

While philosophers, intellectuals, journalists, popularisers of science and opinion leaders in the first half of the 20th century were still elevating the opinions of ordinary people to the highest achievements of their time, by the end of the century they were doing exactly the opposite. Every writer, whether in literature, philosophy or politics, was advised to listen to “what the people think”.

That is, instead of pulling public opinion up to the understanding of the leaders, they began to relegate the leaders to the average and the opinion of the majority.

The Modern Age enlighteners were dealing for a rise. Not only did they focus on the highest achievements in science, philosophy and politics, but oriented and guided public opinion, raising mainstream culture from the middle to the highest level.

Postmodern intellectuals themselves aspire to descend to the middle level and shun anyone who tries to rise above it. This is evident in all areas of culture, from popular music and box office cinema to political teachings and philosophy.

In politics, it has caused populism to prevail in all the developed countries of Europe and America.

In science and philosophy, it leads to the isolation of intellectuals in an academic ghetto.

For civil society, the ideals of the postmodern age mean complete degradation and the reduction of public communication to local activism and grassroots rigorism.