Category Archives: civic theory

cover of Levine What Should We Do?

coming in April: What Should We Do? A Theory of Civic Life

What Should We Do? offers a compelling, thought-provoking, and urgently-needed framework for anyone trying to understand how we can relate to and act with each other to co-create a more just world. I love this book and you will too.” –Hahrie Han, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University

“Peter Levine makes everyone think more clearly about everything. How fortunate for our country that he’s applied this gift to the realm of civic life. In this insightful and wise book, Levine reveals what it truly means to cooperate, deliberate, and activate—and challenges us to do all three more mindfully.” —Eric Liu, CEO of Citizen University, and author Become America 

“Peter Levine is among the leading philosophers of civic life of his generation. What Should We Do? is his magnum opus.  It ranges widely from a masterly review of political philosophy to practical suggestions for addressing issues like the Black Lives Matter movement. For anyone concerned about the state of our democracy and what our role should be, this book is must reading.” –Robert D. Putnam, Research Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, and coauthor of The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again

More information and a link to pre-order the book are here. From the back cover …

People who want to improve the world must ask the fundamental civic question: “What should we do?” Although their specific challenges and topics are enormously diverse, they often encounter problems of collective action (how to get many individuals to act in concert), of discourse (how to talk and think well about contentious matters) and of exclusion. To get things done, they must form or join and sustain functional groups, and through them, develop skills and virtues that help them to be effective and responsible civic actors.

In What Should We Do?, Peter Levine, one of America’s leading scholars and practitioners of civic engagement, identifies the general challenges that confront people who ask the citizens’ question and explores solutions. Ultimately, his goal is to provide a unified theoretical foundation for effective civic engagement and citizen action. Levine draws from three rich traditions: research on collective action by Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues, work on deliberation and discourse by Jürgen Habermas, and the nonviolent social movements led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Using these real-world examples, he develops a theory of citizen action that can effectively wrestle with these problems so that they don’t destabilize movements.

A broad theory of civic life, What Should We Do? turns from the question of what makes a society just to the question of how to relate to our fellow human beings in a context of injustice. And it offers pragmatic guidance for people who seek to improve the world.

civility as equality

Nowadays, the word “civility” is often used to mean politeness or adherence to locally recognized norms that divide appropriate speech from inappropriate speech. You might, for example, be “uncivil” if you are too loud or too angry. Such norms can be helpful, but they risk suppressing authentic and justifiable emotions.

The word has a different origin, closely related to “citizen.” In republican political thought, it it can mean equal standing to participate in politics, rather like the classical Greek word isonomia (roughly: the right to look any fellow citizen in the eye and say what you think). Almost the opposite of etiquette, it connotes a kind of plain, direct, and honest speech.

As Renaissance Florence developed a full-blown ideology of republicanism, the city embraced norms, rules, and customs that were meant to convey the equal standing of all citizen men and to discourage distinctions of caste or power based on military might. Just as one example, no man raised his hat to another Florentine. Professional soldiers were led by paid foreigners, never by Florentines, and these mercenaries had to swear loyalty to the republic’s councilors. The plutocrat banker Cosimo de Medici was wise enough to honor republican norms and manipulated the city’s policies quietly through his networks, without seeking offices or titles or any special personal treatment.

The republic finally ended for good when Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, an heir of Cosimo’s vast fortune, got himself installed as a monarchical ruler and brutally suppressed dissent. A Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Cambi, noted that Lorenzo had been raised in monarchical Rome, where he had learned to expect deference. Lorenzo was surrounded by retainers who called him “padrone” and doffed their hats to him. This was evidence that he knew nothing of “civility”:

Guiliano de Medici, blood brother of Pope Leo X, who had ruled the city of Florence, was living in Rome, and deprived of the city government altogether. He awarded that government to his nephew Lorenzo. Because this Lorenzo had been a child when his father was expelled from Florence, when he returned to Florence he did not know a single citizen, and he was not used to civility (civilta), and instead he aspired to arms and to dominate; and he succeeded in that; for although most citizens were displeased, nevertheless in their ambitiousness and avarice, they pretended to rejoice.

Istorie di Giovanni Cambi cittadino fiorentino, p. 67 (my trans.)

We might assume that doffing hats and using titles exemplifies civility–for better or worse. But the opposite was true in Renaissance Italy. Courtly politeness was a symptom of domination, incompatible with civic virtue and “civility.”

[I am drawing on Richard C. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence, 1991. See also: civility: not too much, not too little; what to do about the guy behind the desk; civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes; what does the word civic mean?]

what to do about the guy behind the desk

A guy sits at a desk, resolving people’s requests and issuing orders. Most people who encounter him think he’s making their lives worse. What do you assume is going on?

  • Maybe it’s capitalism and the profit-motive. The guy is probably corporate, and if he works for the government, that shows that it’s a “neoliberal state” (captured by capital.)
  • Maybe it’s state-backed coercion: a denial of free choice. The guy is probably a state bureaucrat. If he works in the private sector, he still reflects the power of the government, which flows from the mouth of the gun. If free individuals were left alone, they wouldn’t come into a room like this.
  • Maybe it’s colonialism. Rooms with desks arrived with Europeans and replaced other (presumably better) ways of relating that were indigenous and traditional. Even if the guy behind the desk descends from indigenous people, his behavior is colonial.
  • Maybe it’s patriarchy. I intentionally called him a “guy” to suggest that his behavior might be gendered.
  • Maybe it’s a bureaucracy in Weber’s sense, a technology for coordinating specialized labor, which is much more productive than unspecialized labor. It is an unavoidable price of progress.

There can surely be truth to each of these theories, but it interests me how many different kinds of people sit behind desks giving out orders: corporate executives, civil servants, military officers, monsignors, mullahs, associate deans, chiefs of pediatrics, union shop stewards, Soviet commissars, Confucian officials ….

A desk sounds somewhat culturally specific, but with a change of furniture, one might imagine the same behavior from a Sumerian temple scribe, an Aztec huecalpixque (regional tribute manager), an iyase from the Kingdom of Benin, or a Tibetan abbot. Considering the globe as whole, the person behind the desk is probably not white, and quite often, not a man.

I would avoid the kind of root-cause analysis that asks which underlying bad phenomenon explains all such cases. For one thing, that style often implies the possibility of an innocent condition, one without profits, rulers, settlers, or guns. But revolutionary and post-colonial systems often put new people behind the same desks. The myth of innocence can be a cover for new forms of tyranny. Besides–and I realize this is almost unprovable–I think that problems such as limited resources, conflicting interests, and cognitive biases are built into human interaction and cannot be wished away.

I would also avoid a blanket denunciation of everyone who sits at a desk making unpopular decisions. Maybe this is a hard-working, underpaid, front-line public servant, just doing her best.

Here’s a way of thinking about the problem without root-cause analysis. Human beings have a wide range of techniques for organizing complex interactions in the face of endemic problems like scarcity, conflict, and cognitive limitations. These techniques are the ingredients from which we make our social recipes. Examples include officials making discretionary decisions–that person behind the desk–but also secret-ballot votes, lotteries, auctions, exchanges, gifts, public deliberative assemblies, randomly-selected panels, turn-taking, adherence to precedent or original documents, obedience to unseen powers, inheritance, chance (e.g,., flipping a coin), blind peer review, randomized experiments, popularity scores, endurance challenges, romantic partnerships, kinship relations, teacher/pupil pairings, and many more. I have omitted the really awful forms and, of course, failed to list the many tools that have yet to be invented.

We can combine these forms in many ways. Before we assess the guy behind the desk, we should understand which other ingredients are involved in the whole recipe. Maybe he was randomly selected for a short term of service. Maybe he was appointed enthusiastically by a popular assembly. These facts would change our assessment.

The situation might involve domination: arbitrary control over another. That is the case if the guy behind the desk can choose at will and doesn’t have to give reasons or face an appeal. The situation might involve oppression, if the guy belongs to a social group that regularly treats a different group in ways that reduce their human flourishing. But it might involve only one of those things, or neither. The person behind the desk might belong to the same social group as those in front of it and might have no scope for arbitrary decisions.

Yet we shouldn’t be quick to accept a situation that–per the original story–makes most people unhappy. Many actual systems are very bad, and for very bad reasons. They emerged from conquest, subjugation, and cruelty. They manifest both domination and oppression. These systems now enjoy enormous status quo advantages. Organizing to replace them is very hard, especially in the face of powerful incumbents and elaborate justifications. They may inspire fear and awe. For an individual, compliance may be completely rational.

We must challenge domination and oppression and cook up better social recipes. The reason is not to combat capitalism, statism or colonialism, but to free people from oppression and from domination. That requires building better structures, which is as important as disrupting the bad ones. And it means addressing the endemic challenges of flawed creatures who are in (partial) conflict under conditions of scarcity.

See also: both detailed institutional analysis and holistic critique; Complexities of Civic Life; citizens against dominationavoiding arbitrary command; civic education and the science of association;  a template for analyzing an institutionthe legacy of Elinor Ostrom and the Bloomington School; avoiding a sharp distinction between the state and the private sphere; etc.

wicked problems, and excuses

Is the following true for social problems?

Will + resources + planning = a solution

A corollary would hold:

If there isn’t a solution, there must be a lack of will or resources or a bad plan.

I think this logic sometimes holds, and it’s the basis for holding responsible parties accountable. They may not have cared enough, or spent enough, or thought well enough about a problem. If not, they should be called on it.

On the other hand, the formula overlooks the power of sheer chance. Sometimes decision-makers are just lucky or unlucky. And it ignores the possibility that some problems may be really hard: “wicked problems,” in the best-remembered phrase from the famous article by Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4.2 (1973), 155-169. (We discussed this article recently in my introduction to public policy course.)

Rittel and Webber write, “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (p. 162). Yet people disagree about what is good.

“With wicked problems… any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended–virtually an unbounded–period of time” (p. 163). Since change keeps happening, there is no point when you can definitively assess the impact of a policy (p. 163). Also, there is no agreed-upon criterion for a successful policy (p. 162), and therefore, no way to know whether your solution succeeded.

“Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (p. 165). Thus we can endlessly disagree about the center or “locus” of the problem. This is one reason that “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (p. 161).

You can’t learn by trial-and-error, because every time you implement a policy, you change the world permanently (p. 163). You can’t start a social experiment over from scratch and try something different. And because your policy affects real people, you have “no right to be wrong” (p. 165).

There is no way to develop an exhaustive list of all the possible solutions (p. 164). And “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (164)

One upshot of Rittel and Webber’s argument could be humility: do not overestimate one’s own ability to solve social problems. Another would be decentralization, whether to small governing units or to firms in a market. Decentralization is a way of mitigating damage and allowing local solutions to fit local circumstances. A third upshot would be participation: if problems are deeply contestable, maybe everyone should be involved in addressing them.

Yet another takeaway might be defeatism and tolerance for injustice, but that seems the wrong lesson to draw.

See also: Complexities of Civic Life; qualms about Effective Altruism; The truth in Hayek; trying to keep myself honest.

how political talk relates to its context

— Please don’t talk that way in school.

— It’s a free country; I can say what I want.

Both of these speakers describe the context in which they’re speaking in order to support their goals or values. Even if they’re in the same place, both could be making valid points, because we can operate within several contexts at once. For instance, a classroom can be located within the United States.

These speakers are not completely free to describe their contexts as they wish. Unless the first speaker is actually located inside a school in which certain norms are commonly observed, that statement is odd–perhaps a joke or an idiosyncratic remark rather than an effective intervention. The first statement assumes a real, bricks-and-mortar building that has prevalent norms.

However, these statements are not completely determined by their objective context. They reflect choices: speakers can select which contexts to highlight and can identify preferred features of the contexts.

If many speakers make the same choices, they can influence the context. For instance, if teachers consistently say, “You can’t curse here,” the school may become a place where public cursing is rare. Teachers could decide to begin or to stop describing the school’s norms in that way. They are more influential than their students; as in most cases, power in unequally distributed. However, we only get the speech-context we want to the extent that the norms we advocate are actually observed. If teachers say, “We don’t talk that way here,” but everyone does anyway, they will begin to look foolish. In that sense, everyone influences the context, albeit to unequal degrees.

We can sometimes even use speech to create the context for speech, as in performative utterances like these:

— I call the meeting to order.

— Let us bow our heads in prayer.

(The second statement might change a secular gathering into a spiritual one for a time.)

I’ve recently learned that John J. Gumperz (1922-2013), a founder of interactional sociolinguistics, pioneered the idea that language has a dynamic, two-way interaction with social contexts. I look forward to learning more, especially about the political implications.

After all politics requires good conversation. The definition of good political talk is itself a matter of debate. Who must be included in each discussion? Must the discourse be civil? Must it be public-spirited? Must it aim at consensus? Must it be secular? What counts as appropriate evidence for empirical claims? Which emotions are valuable and when?

Contexts influence what forms of speech actually occur and prove effective. Political speech uttered in a church during a faith-based social movement will inevitably be different from political speech uttered in a faculty meeting, a union hall, or a courtroom. I am skeptical that we need just one type of speech. Pluralism is good.

Speech contexts are shaped by:

  1. The implicit norms reflected in typical speech within each context. For example, if it is common to criticize other participants by name, then that is the norm.
  2. Explicit characterizations of the context. “You really shouldn’t keep citing scripture here–most of us are not Christian” would be such a move. It describes the local norm as secular, and if people accept this description, it may affect their speech.
  3. Other aspects of the institution: Who is permitted and/or recruited to participate? What behavior is rewarded? Who makes key decisions? Even literal architecture may matter. For instance, a bricks-and-mortar school probably consists of many rooms that are designed to hold one adult with 15-30 children or youth. Discourse would be different in a stadium, a prison, or along a forest trail.

We should envision speakers as operating in contexts that they may or may not endorse. At one level, they make ordinary points about what they believe or advocate. How they talk either conforms to the norms of the speech-context or violates them to some degree. Widespread violation can change the norms.

At another level, individuals may seek to change the speech-context, either by moving to another context (exit) or by seeking to alter its norms (voice). They can use their voice to advocate directly for different speech-norms, as in statements like, “Everyone is being too politically correct here–we must tolerate uncomfortable opinions.” Or they may use their voice to support changes in the institution that would likely change the norms. For instance, changing the demographic composition of a school or the balance of power between teachers and students might change the frequency of various forms of discourse in the school.

Discourse ethics is then not exhausted by the question: What kind of arguments should individuals make about policies and issues? It also encompasses questions about how to design, create, choose, and influence the contexts of speech, both directly and indirectly.

This is a mild critique of the idea that one kind of speech is desirable in a liberal democracy and that institutions should enact rights, rules, and procedures that encourage such speech. Instead, I am suggesting that people are embedded in diverse speech-contexts, which they also influence; such pluralism is desirable as well as inevitable; and people need ethical forms of voice and exit that they can use to affect their various speech-contexts.

See also: what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; modus vivendi theory; and judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view.