Civitas and the Future

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I’ve been thinking a lot about civitas.

Civitas was originally a Roman word, denoting the totality of the citizenry, but also the immaterial entity (of laws and mores) which they craft as a group and which holds them together: it is the civic whole, which ends up greater than the sum of the parts. There is no other English word for this concept (the closest would probably be the resurrection of some archaic version of the tribal democratic Althing). The closest words we have are the abstractions of “our democracy” or “the republic”—but these words lack a central point, which is that civitas is irreducibly made of its citizens. Together, they make something greater, but that greater thing is still them, and them only. This is a tricky, but critical, distinction. Civitas, then, describes the thing citizens are together. It transcends identity and mutual self-interest. It is not the form of a republic, but the soul of a republic.

Civitas—I’ve come more and more to think—represents the core (perhaps the only) platform on which groups of people, acting as democratic equals, can confront their largest problems. A healthy civitas enables two essential trusts: helping fellow citizens will help me, at least indirectly, and the risks I take and the work I do to benefit the civitas will be rewarded with security and respect. The definition of a civitas (“us”) allows an extension of self to include both one’s individual fellow citizens and the public purpose. In that greater sense of self are forged the bonds that allow people to resist oppression, create public goods, promote equality among citizens, hold accountable their leaders and invest for the future both of today’s citizens and tomorrow’s.

When the ties are severed between citizens, civitas plummets and civic cohesion is lost: public services collapse, public goods are sold off, corruption spreads, disinvestment ensues. People seek limited, blind self-interest. They short the future. They cheat. Being individually weak, and now disconnected, they become easy to oppress (as Machiavelli notes, tyrants don’t care if they are hated, so long as their subjects do not love one another). Where civitas erodes away, democracy in any meaningful sense becomes impossible.

[Speaking of Machiavelli, it’s worth noting that one reading of his Discourses [link] is as a rambling, looping meditation on civitas, its origins and protection, its ailments and demise and possible restoration. It’s a profound book, if not an easy one; if all you’ve ever read by him is The Prince [link], then you really don’t know his thinking.]

The words city, civic, citizen, civitas and civil all have the same origin. That etymological fact reveals a deeper connection. Cities, as I’ve noted before, are a natural scale for a certain kind of civics, because they’re small enough to get things done, but big enough to matter. They are also now the homes of most of humanity. People thinking about the planetary crisis—including myself—therefore put huge emphasis on cities as epicenters of change, believing the city the best (perhaps even the only) level of government for transformative innovation and action.

This faith in cities is in part a response, though, to the universal sense (at least in large nations) that the nation-state has ceased to be a center of even notional civitas: in a lot of countries, we don’t really even pretend we’re all in this together, anymore. But are cities really home to that lost civitas, either? A huge challenge for metropolitan governance in nations with declining civitas is how to meaningfully recreate it at the local level. To say few cities/counties/regions offer a form of civitas strong enough to encourage profound loyalty is, I think, an understatement. How, then, can they engage big change?

How do we create effective kinds of civitas for the 21st century? How do we create meaningful, cohesive groups of citizens (however we define that concept) that can act together in vital ways, with long-term perspectives? Can this be done in traditionally governmental ways? If not, how? How do we negotiate global interconnection and bounded loyalty? How do we affirm local capacities for action, without regressing into provincialism and zero-sum competition between groups? These are all non-trivial questions, and the only thing I’m sure of as I consider them is that the answers are not to be found in traditional forms, which proved simply unable to meet the pressure put on them by nation-states, modernity and industrialization. Civitas, today, will reveal itself in some new form.

This all sounds rather anemic and technocratic, put in the usual language of civic discourse. I’m sure the opposite holds true. I’m sure that the rebirth of civitas is far more a matter of heart’s love and blood loyalty, the soul’s belonging and the deep hatred of those who would harm our own, shared civic myth and the mystic rapport of lives lived within a story that includes the honored dead and the not-yet-born… it is something that speaks to us on levels so deep as to be not entirely subject to rational discussion, or it is not deep enough.

To live into that, in a new way: that’s a task worth contemplating.