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The Friendship Club and the Well-Springs of Civil Society

William A. Schambra

The E. F. Schumacher Society, named after the author of Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, is an educational non-profit organization founded in 1980. Its programs demonstrate that both social and environmental sustainability can be achieved by applying the values of human-scale communities and respect for the natural environment to economic issues.

Building on a rich tradition often known as decentralism, the Society initiates practical measures that lead to community revitalization and further the transition toward an economically and ecologically sustainable society.

I am honored to be a part of the 19th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures and particularly pleased to be here with John McClaughry. Some eighteen years ago I was standing very nervously in a conference room at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., about to give my premier presentation as a research scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. It contained the seemingly preposterous suggestion that the notoriously conservative new President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, was in fact a proponent of restoring political emphasis on the value of the small community in America, an emphasis then allegedly the exclusive preserve of the left. Astonishingly, just as I had begun to eye the exit, one of President Reagan’s close advisors materialized at my side. He had read the speech I was about to deliver, and he assured me that I was not in fact delusional, putting into my hands copies of Reagan’s speeches that proved it. This is as close as I have ever come to a divine apparition. That presidential advisor was, of course, John McClaughry. I have always been deeply grateful for that singular act of kindness, and I am pleased that he seems not to have repented of it since.

The story today, though, begins far from the plush conference rooms of the Mayflower, in a seedy back alley just off Fond du Lac Avenue in Milwaukee’s inner city. There, two years ago, Shameika Carter’s body was found beneath a pile of clothing. She had been beaten and strangled to death. With a record of four arrests on drug charges, she was not unfamiliar to the police called to the scene. At her last arrest, three bags of cocaine had been found in her coat pocket.

Her family pointed out that she had recently been seen with a stranger at the nearby Friendship Club, upon which a cloud of suspicion immediately descended. But Eugene Kane, a local journalist familiar with the central city, soon set the record straight. The Friendship Club, he wrote, was a fiercely independent social club for recovering addicts, established in the 1970s by low income African-Americans after it had become clear to them that they were not welcome at other recovery clubs. The club sat in a tough neighborhood, around the corner from a massive, derelict former Sears, right between MJM Liquors and Club Sensations. Yes, it welcomed prostitutes, as well as the shivering addict, the homeless wanderer, and the bleary-eyed, hung-over drunk. Anyone could find a home at the Friendship Club as long as she or he obeyed the rules rigorously enforced by its members no drugs or alcohol, no physical abuse, no weapons, no gambling.

Now, they will tell you in fund-raising school that a well-publicized murder on your doorstep is not the recommended way of catching the attention of potential donors. But something about Kane’s description of the Friendship Club made it intriguing to us at the Bradley Foundation, and so we ventured down to the site on Fond du Lac Avenue. It was precisely as described: a social club with high-intensity card games, a lively pool table, a blaring juke box, and a bar. But behind the bar were to be found only fruit juices and soda. The schedule for the numerous AA, NA, and other twelve-step support groups that rented space upstairs was posted prominently. Before we left, Alex Mitchell, one of the club elders, had proudly thrust into our hands a maroon-covered volume, The History of Friendship, Inc., an 85-page monograph commissioned on the occasion of the Club’s twentieth anniversary in 1994, prepared by member James Miller.

As a rule, I don’t spend much time with the boiler-plates of grant-seekers. The stories they present are, to put it charitably, insufficiently balanced. But this book I read. And I was richly rewarded. Based on the minutes of the club’s board meetings and reminiscences of the elders, it told the real story of the Friendship Club, warts and all: the struggles among various factions and charismatic leaders; the secession of dissident groups to start their own social clubs; the pressure from landlords seeking back rent; committees springing up like weeds but failing to do their work or even to meet; members failing to pay their dues; boards of directors suddenly resigningor being fireden masse; liquor bottles surreptitiously passed at club events; rumors about grant funds disappearing.

The headings of the chapters tell the story: “Hard Times,” “Struggle,” “Conflict,” “Turnover,” “Controversy,” “Crack Down.” This quote from the club’s minutes gives you the flavor of the volume: “On the Board level, arguments broke out between Board members at meetings which caused the Board not to meet on a few occasions. Most of these debates concerned club policy. Some simply involved struggles for power and control. The newly voted in secretary had not been seen for months.”

As I read the history, the realization suddenly came to me that I was staring into the turbulent, murky well-spring of civil society. And then this realization: in spite of all of today’s scholarly and public attention to civil society, a group like the Friendship Club would be completely overlooked.

BR>Why would I suggest that the Friendship Club is the well-spring of civil society? As we learn from Alexis de Tocqueville and the other classical theorists of civil societyand I hasten to promise, no Tocqueville quotesthe indispensable function of civic associations in a free society is instruction in the art of self-governance. Democratic self-government requires a citizenry able to manage its own public affairs. Citizens learn that strenuous art only by doing itby coming together and working on a common public task, with the ends and means settled upon only after slogging through the messy, aggravating. democratic process of argument, debate, bargaining, and compromise. And that occurs most effectively within the small, face-to-face communities sociologists describe as “intermediate associations” or “mediating structures.”

Tocqueville insisted that learning the art of self-government within local civic associations would be particularly critical in the new age of mass democracies, when public life would appear to be dominated by vast, impersonal social forces far beyond the average citizen’s understanding or control. The great temptation in such timesin our timesis to turn public affairs over to an equally vast and impersonal bureaucracy of experts, who will all too readily agree that they and they alone know how to deal with those social forces. Now more than everprecisely when it seems to be least appropriate, useful, or fashionablethe decentralized, self-governing civic association becomes indispensable for the preservation of self-government.

For the addicts of Fond du Lac Avenue the Friendship Club is the first and by far the most difficult step out of a life dominated by external forces and into self-governance. This is true for club members in the most literal and immediate sense, of course. Their lives had become radically and physiologically dependent on drugs or alcohol. The first task of the club is to break the enslaving chains of that tangible chemical dependency. But as anyone who has been around addiction knows, chemical dependency is usually accompanied by all sorts of other real or imagined dependencies on outside forces, which seem to make drugs or alcohol necessary. I must drink because the factory where I used to work closed down or because I’m poor or because my family was dysfunctional or because I live in a cruel, oppressive society. And I can’t stop drinking unless I can get into that government detox program run by a bunch of MSWs and PhDs.

Now, however powerful these externalities may be, the old hands at the club will tell us in no uncertain terms that they simply are not acceptable excuses for drinking or drugging. The seemingly iron grip on their fatethe hitherto unchallenged sway over their willsmust be challenged and broken. Only when they succeed in narrowing their dependency to one objecta higher power, which for most club members is unmistakably the God of the scripturescan they become literally and immediately self-governing.

Self-governance is cultivated in another sense as well. The club struggles to be as much as possible a self-contained and self-governing community. It seeks to be a zone of freedom, a morally fortified enclave, a place where those in recovery can seek shelter in the very heart of an environment that would lure members back into a world dominated by the real or imagined social forces that seem to compel addiction.

In the early days of recovery it is not uncommon for members to show up the moment the doors open and not leave until the early morning hours the next day. As one of them noted, ÒI started coming around this club every day. . . . I was going to meetings three, four, five times a day. I was sitting in this club day in and day out. I was sleeping in the back room. . . . At nighttime when the club closed I’d sleep in the car right out in the parking lot.” For him and for many others the club is the warmest and most welcoming communityalmost a familyhat they have ever found: “This is my club. I live here, I work here, I belong here. I ain’t never belonged nowhere else. I’ve been in all them dope houses and taverns, but I ain’t never belonged nowhere like I belong right here.”

Within this zone of self-governing freedom, new attitudes and virtues are painstakingly cultivated. Dwain Berry noted, “I didn’t know anything about life, and the club gave me the first look at life, real life. Being responsible, learning how to be humble, understanding humility, gratitude, patience, and all those things I learned came from the people down in that club.” Members slowly acquire virtues like personal responsibility and self-possession by hands-on engagement in the day-to-day governance of the club. They elect committees from among themselves to open and close the club, work behind the juice counter, clean up, conduct fund-raisers, and recruit new members.

The picture is not always pretty, as we’ve seen. The habits of self-governance, in both the personal and public sense, do not come easily to individuals who have spent years, perhaps decades, submerged in irresponsibility. The newly elected secretary may indeed not be seen for months. But only by struggling together patiently and humbly through the chaos, confusion, and corruption that seem to be intrinsic to popular self-rule do the members slowly develop the capacity for democratic self-government. Members of the Friendship Club acquire the political habits essential to American democracy as an intrinsic part of their personal recovery process.

But if this is all true, whyin this time of heightened attention to civil societyare we likely to overlook the manifest contributions of the Friendship Club? Consider first the way conservatives tend to regard civil society. For many of them it seems to be the realm of charity, volunteerism, and benevolence of the compassionate rich toward the hapless poor. General Colin Powell’s manifestly well-intentioned mass mobilization of volunteers to do good deeds in the inner city is an example of this approach. It assumes that there is nothing but desolation and emptiness there until we wealthy suburbanites appear with our shiny faces, buckets, and brushes to slap a fresh coat of paint on its grimy walls.

Now, John McClaughry and I would both hasten to point out that this was by no means the way conservative Ronald Reagan spoke about civil society. He was much closer to Tocqueville’s understanding of it, calling for “an end to giantism, for a return to the human scale.” But almost immediately after Reagan became president, that vision deteriorated into quarrels over how much money rich corporations were obligated to give to poverty programs. In spite of the efforts of genuine decentralists like McClaughry, Bob Woodson, and Bob Hawkins, conservatism in the Reagan and Bush years became identified with the noblesse oblige of “a thousand points of light.”

How does the Friendship Club fit into this framework? Not at all. The entire point of the club is that there is something good in the inner city, something started and run by the residents themselves, entirely without the benevolent attentions of suburban do-gooders. The last thing the club needs is the paternalistic condescension of well-meaning volunteers operating from the premise that recovering addicts cannot be expected to manage for themselves. It would directly nullify the club’s efforts to inculcate self-government among its members. It is unlikely that the club would know what to do with such outside “help.” It is certain that most conservatives would not know what to do with the Friendship Club.

But if this is so, then perhaps a place like the Friendship Club would be championed by activists on the opposite end of the political spectrumby community organizers on the left who profess some interest in the empowerment of neighborhood groups. Again, I suspect we would be disappointed. “What can civic ties possibly accomplish if residents of a community have declining incomes and no jobs?” laments Michael Shuman of the Institute for Policy Studies. A great deal, members of the club might reply, for building civic ties is almost exclusively what it does. It does not take on politically the larger economic and social systems that organizers are persuaded dictate conditions in the inner city. Not that those systems and conditions are unimportant or that club members have no involvement individually in changing them. But to suggest that the individual is powerless in the face of seemingly overwhelming social forces is the way addictions are rationalized rather than conquered. To focus the club’s energies on changing the surrounding conditionson external transformationmight well fatally compromise its essential message of personal responsibility and internal transformation. So please do not expect the Friendship Club to be in the vanguard of political advocacy. Likewise, do not expect community organizers to champion the club as a model of citizen action.

In truth, though, today’s discussion of civil society typically focuses neither on suburban volunteers nor on radical community activists. It tends to focus instead on that vast realm of often quite substantial organizations and agencies known as “the nonprofit sector“the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Red Cross, the PTAwhich defies easy categorization in either the conservative or radical frames of reference. In the early days of the Reagan administration, for instance, conservatives clearly assumed that this sector was their natural ally, and so they waited for applause when they suggested that nonprofits might be able to tackle some of the problems government had mishandled. Conservatives were more than a little embarrassed when the sector declined this honor, with prejudice. The nonprofits pointed out that they are no longer models of free voluntary labor. Indeed, large portions of their budgets often come directly from federal coffers in an arrangement that has come to be known as “third-party government.”

In recent discussions of civil society, conservatives have wised up to this state of affairs and are no longer surprised when a representative of Catholic Charities shows up on Capitol Hill to denounce reductions in funding for government social programs. Thus Father John White in 1996: “0ur personnel on the front linethe caseworkers, counselors, therapists, nurses, supervisors, and social workersare angered and frightened. . . . [W]e must insist: Enough is enough! There cannot and must not be more budget cuts to programs that serve poor people.”

While the left was immensely gratified at the nonprofit sector’s refusal to play the role assigned it by Presidents Reagan and Bush, it had its own complaints about the nonprofit sector. Drawing on Saul Alinsky’s critique of the welfare state, Harry Boyte, John McKnight, and others on the left complained that the sector seemed less interested in cultivating active democratic citizens than passive, helpless clients to whom it could lucratively deliver a growing array of social services. As McKnight, a previous Schumacher lecturer, put it, the typical nonprofit no longer sought to build a genuine neighborhood but to replace it altogether with a “comprehensive, multidisciplinary, coordinated, interagency ‘wrap-around’ service system.”

If the nonprofit sector is neither a realm of conservative volunteerism nor of radical activism, then perhaps it would welcome into its midst the Friendship Club. Again, however, we would be disappointed. We see why when we consider what has come to light about the nature of the nonprofit realm from conservative and radical critiques of it: over this century nonprofits have indeed become less and less agents of community self-governance and more and more agencies for the delivery of social services.

To appreciate this transformation it is necessary to understand the larger development of which it is a part, namely, the triumph of the American progressive vision over the course of the twentieth century. At the century’s outset progressive theorists like Herbert Croly, Walter Lippmann, Edward Alsworth Ross, and John Dewey concluded that daunting new social forces like industrialism, urbanism, and immigration were sweeping away the old America of small, selfgoverning local communities. To avoid social chaos a new order would be needed but now one compelling and encompassing enough to tame those forces. Happily, they believed, the new century also brought with it new sciences of society so potent that they would enable us to forge a coherent America on a scale dwarfing the old rural village. Frederick Taylor’s concept of scientific management taught us how to reorganize ourselvesbusiness, labor, government, and civic sectors alikenot towering, efficient, bureaucratic social machines. In the penthouses of these new pyramids sat experts credentialed in the emerging disciplines of economics, sociology, and psychology. Modeled on the omnipotent natural sciences, they gave the new authorities such powerful insights into hitherto inscrutable social forces that they and they aloneso they thoughtcould understand, harness, and tame these forces. Armed with the social sciences, the experts were going to marshall the turbulent masses into coherent, productive units with a few deft, austere, rational directives.

What about democratic self-governance according to this view? It could only be a hindrance to the new science of social control. Ordinary citizens, still immersed in benighted, parochial loyalties to family, faith, ethnicity, and locality were incapable of the detached scientific objectivity necessary to cope with the twentieth century’s new social forcesat least pending indoctrination in John Dewey’s new education for scientific democracy. Their “distorted” and partial views only cluttered up the neat, unified, national vision of the scientific elites. Far better for Americans now to think of themselves not as self-governing citizens but as passive, grateful clients of the credentialed experts, who would assume the burden of rationally directing public affairs. As Andrew Polsky put it, “Social control theory completely depoliticized the social integration of the urban masses. Scientific control left no room for a community to define itself . . . through self-governance and administrative autonomy. Such practices left too much to chance.” In short, Tocqueville’s science of association was discarded as a quaint relic of the past as his nightmare vision of the new age became progressivism’s utopian dream.

Under the sway of this dream the nonprofit sector transformed itself along rationalist, progressive lines. Even aside from the issue of government funding, nothing less seemed to be required by enlightenment and sophistication. So today the nonprofit sector is dominated by mammoth associations that are organized indistinguishably from large government agencies, with centralized, bureaucratic management structures executing directives issued by headquarters in Washington. They mail out annual reports that may cost as much to produce as earlier nonprofits once scraped together for their entire annual budgets. Their offices teem with accountants filling out the paperwork needed to attract and report on federal grants and with public relations specialists insuring that the best spin is put on their efforts. Above all, the nonprofits employ swarms of experts well-credentialed in the century’s powerful new social sciences who dutifully deliver services to their passive, helpless clients. Should well-meaning volunteers threaten to interfere with this smoothly humming machine through their amateurish enthusiasm, they are relegated to stuffing envelopes with the latest fund-raising brochure designed by a slick downtown advertising agency.

In short, today’s nonprofit world is peopled by experts, clients, and volunteersor, as Father White so tellingly put it, “caseworkers, counselors, therapists, nurses, supervisors, and social workers“but not by citizens. Would such a sector embrace the Friendship Club? That sector prides itself on its scientific basis, whereas the club is clearly an organization rooted in ethnicity and faith. A good nonprofit is orderly, rational, and structured, whereas the club appears to be disorderly, irrational, and unstructured. A good nonprofit hires experts to deliver services to passive clients, whereas the club insists that its members must be self-governing citizens helping one another, with only the expertise of the streets necessary. The nonprofit sector would more than likely regard the Friendship Club as at best a remote and somewhat disgraceful family relative.

We have arrived, then, at this paradoxical conclusion: the Friendship Club, which I suggest is the well-spring of civil society, nonetheless does not at all fit the descriptions of civil society championed by conservatives, liberals, or centrist nonprofits. For the club seeks to be a genuinely self-governing community, not the passive object of the attentions of sympathetic volunteers, steely-eyed political organizers, or well-meaning therapeutic experts.

Given this paradox, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the prospects for the future of civil society. Indeed, pessimism does seem to be in the air, especially in the wake of Robert Putnam’s famous jeremiad entitled Bowling Alone. Based on the drop-off in membership of major civic groups in America, including most notably the PTA, Putnam fears for the future health of civil society. But let us not despair too quickly. The PTA, after all, is a typically progressive, modern nonprofit organization intended chiefly to enlist passive parental consent to the dictates of the scientific education elite, usually through a subtle but powerful process of intimidation and indoctrination. The last thing the PTA is designed to do is empower parents to govern their own schools. If there is any doubt about this, one need only ask, When was the last time the local PTA challenged any major decision by the school administration or teachers union? That citizens are beginning to drop out of organizations like the PTA does not prove they are uninterested in self-governance. Indeed, it might be a sign that they are eager for it but are no longer willing to settle for seductive substitutes like the PTA. What some find a reason for pessimism about civil society may in fact be cause for hope.

But there is a yet greater cause for hope for civil society’s future, and it is implied in the founding circumstances of the Friendship Club, which was established by individuals who were so radically marginalized that they felt unwelcome even in other inner-city recovery groups. They located it in what seems to be, in civic terms, a bleak no-man’s-land long since abandoned by government, business, and the major nonprofits alike. Indeed, it finds itself in one of the harshest social surroundings imaginable, other than a war zone. This might seem like the last place on earth one would expect to find a thriving civic association. But there it isand here is the ray of hopenot in spite of its surroundings but precisely because of its surroundings. Long after the social pathologies of the inner city had driven out society’s baffled bureaucratic experts, its citizens came to realize that they themselves must establish their own enclave within which those outside forces no longer hold sway, an island of self-governing independence in the midst of a sea of implacable social causality.

This was not just the last available alternative of desperate people, as it turns out, but the best available alternative all along. For the self-governance the club cultivates is precisely the necessary antidote to a toxic environmentan environment that by its very nature cultivates dependency and addiction as well as negation of human freedom and personal accountability. All the larger society has to offer against dependency on chemical substances is substitute dependencies on well-meaning volunteers or political organizers or therapeutic experts. Only a true civic association like the Friendship Club breaks the chains of dependency in the name of genuine self-governance.

This is the truly good news about civil society: it is not some delicate and rare flower that blossoms only when the social and economic circumstances are ideal; it is, rather, a tough, hardy perennial that springs up in the flintiest soil after fire has burnt off everything else and when circumstances seem to be the worst.

This should not be altogether surprising, of course, given what we know of America’s historical experience with civil society. Civic associations have played their most important roles on the frontiers and the margins of America, well away from centers of elite cosmopolitanism where experts hold sway. Tocqueville suggested that Americans were compelled to learn the science of association when they found themselves facing the daunting challenges of society-building thousands of miles from their familiar and comfortable settings, with no government in sight and among strangers with whom they shared no ties of kinship, ethnicity, or faith. The societies they were trying to build, furthermore, were often based on views of life considered contemptible or dangerous by the orthodox elites, resulting in marginalization, persecution, and exile. Where Americans have found themselves most weak, vulnerable, and exposedat the margins, whether by choice or by expulsionthere they have turned most avidly to civic association for mutual support and sustenance.

It also should come as no surprise that many American civic associations, including the Friendship Club, have roots in the Christian faith, for Christianity as well began as a voice crying in the desolate Judean wilderness, far from the gleaming temples of the metropolitan establishment. It originated as a call for a new kind of community, bringing together publicans, prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans, and other outcasts, disreputables, and marginals who could not or would not find a place within the well-established order of their day. Christianity’s initial form of organizationthe small, tightly knit underground cellwas the Tocquevillian civic association of its time, proving to be powerfully subversive of the established imperial bureaucracies. And we know from Paul’s letters to the early churches that these lively self-governing enclaves were by no means smoothly humming machines but rather were wracked by all the democratic distempers so familiar to us from the Friendship Club. In the words of another Schumacher lecturer and board member, Kirkpatrick Sale, the early Christians “lived in democratic and independent communities, sometimes in secret and sometimes openly but always apart from and hostile to whatever state might claim sovereignty.”

If we seek civil society today in its purest and healthiest form, then we should not be dismayed to find that it is relatively scarce in the most comfortable neighborhoods of America. They remain by and large the unchallenged turf of the progressive regime of expertise. We must search for civil society instead in the most hard-pressed and seemingly desolate sectors at the margins of our national life. There the social sciences have conspicuously and undeniably failed and have fled the field in disarray. There citizens have no choice but to face their own vulnerability, brokenness, and incompleteness. They are compelled to turn to each incomplete other in order to form a mutually supportive civic community.

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