In 1997, in a seedy back alley just off Fond du Lac Avenue in Milwaukee’s inner city, Shameika Carter’s body was found beneath a pile of clothing. She had been beaten and strangled to death. She was not unfamiliar to the police called to the scene, with a record of four arrests on drug charges. 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 people in recovery, 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. As long as they obeyed the rules rigorously enforced by members”no drugs or alcohol, no physical abuse, no weapons, no gambling” everyone could find a home at the Friendship Club.

I was intrigued by Kane’s article, so I visited the Friendship Club. It was precisely as described: a social club, with high“intensity card games, a lively pool table, a blaring jukebox, 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 my hands a maroon“covered volume, The History of Friendship Inc ., an eighty“five“page monograph commissioned on the occasion of the club’s twentieth anniversary in 1994, prepared by member James Miller.

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 resigning”or being fired”en masse. Liquor bottles surreptitiously passed at club events. Rumors about grant funds gone missing.

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

Why would I suggest that the Friendship Club is the wellspring of civil society? As we learn from Alexis de Tocqueville and the other classical theorists of civil society, the 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, which citizens learn only by doing”by 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 times”in our times”is 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 ever”precisely when it seems to be least appropriate, useful, or fashionable”the 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 a life of self“governance. This is true for club members in the most literal and immediate sense, of course. Their lives had become radically, physiologically dependent on drugs or alcohol, and breaking that dependency was the club’s first task. 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 make drugs or alcohol seem necessary. Imust 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 get into that government detox program run by a bunch of MSWs and PhDs.

However powerful these externalities may be, the old hands at the club will tell us in no uncertain terms, they simply are not acceptable excuses for drinking or drugging. Their seemingly iron grip on our fate”their hitherto unchallenged sway over our wills”must be challenged and broken. Only when we succeed in becoming dependent on a higher power (which for most club members is unmistakably the God of Scripture) can we become truly self“governing.

The club cultivates self“governance in another sense by being as much as possible a self“contained and self“governing community. 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 fundraisers, 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, plunged 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. As an intrinsic part of the personal recovery process, members of the Friendship Club acquire the political habits essential to American democracy.

But if this is all true, why, in this time of heightened attention to civil society, are 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 the 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 a good example of this approach. It assumes that there is nothing but desolation and emptiness there, until we wealthy suburbanites bring our brushes, buckets, and shiny faces down to slap a fresh coat of paint on its grimy walls.

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, 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.

Activists on the left are no better. “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, 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 to rationalize addictions, not conquer them. To focus the club’s energies on changing the surrounding conditions”on external transformation”might fatally compromise its essential message of personal responsibility and internal transformation.

In truth, though, today’s discussion of civil society typically focuses neither on suburban volunteers, nor on radical community activists, but 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 PTA”that defies easy categorization in either the conservative or radical frames of reference. Yet the nonprofit sector is not any more likely to welcome the Friendship Club into its midst. For nonprofits have become less and less agents of community self“governance over this century, 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, self“governing local communities. To avoid social chaos, a new order would be needed, but now 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 scientific management taught us how to reorganize ourselves”business, labor, government, and civic sectors alike”into 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 alone could understand, harness, and tame them. Armed with the social sciences, the experts could marshal the turbulent masses into coherent, productive units with a few deft, austere, rational directives.

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 forces. 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 rather as passive, grateful clients of the credentialed experts who would assume the burden of rationally directing public affairs. In short, Tocqueville’s science of association was discarded as a quaint relic of the past, as his nightmare vision for the new age became progressivism’s utopian dream.

Under the sway of this dream, irrespective of the prospects of governmental funding, the nonprofit sector transformed itself along rationalist, progressive lines. Today it is dominated by mammoth associations that are indistinguishable from large government agencies, with centralized, bureaucratic management structures executing directives issued by headquarters in Washington. Would such a sector embrace the Friendship Club? That sector prides itself on its scientific basis, while the club is clearly an organization rooted in ethnicity and faith. A good nonprofit is orderly, rational, and structured, while the club appears to be disorderly, irrational, and unstructured. A good nonprofit hires experts to deliver services to passive clients, while the club insists that its members must be self“governing citizens helping each other, with only the expertise of the streets necessary. The nonprofit sector would more than likely regard the Friendship Club at best as a remote and somewhat disgraceful family relative.

We have arrived, then, at this paradoxical conclusion. The Friendship Club, which I suggest is the wellspring 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 future of civil society. Indeed, pessimism does seem to be in the air, especially in the wake of Robert Putnam’s famous 1995 jeremiad entitled “Bowling Alone.” Putnam fears for the future health of civil society because of the drop“off in the membership of major civic groups in America, including most notably the PTA. But let us not despair too quickly. The PTA, after all, is a typically progressive, modern, nonprofit organization. It is 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 to 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 that they are uninterested in self“governance. Indeed, it might be a sign that they are eager for it, but 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 even greater cause for hope, as the Friendship Club shows. The club was established by individuals who were so radically marginalized that they felt unwelcome even in other inner city recovery groups. They planted it in what seems to be a bleak, civic no“man’s“land, long since abandoned by government, business, and the major nonprofits alike. Indeed, it finds itself in some of the harshest social surroundings imaginable, outside a war zone. This might seem like the last place on earth one would expect to find a thriving civic association. But there it is”and here is the ray of hope”not in spite of its surroundings, but precisely because of its surroundings. Long after the social pathologies of the inner city had baffled and driven out society’s bureaucratic experts, its citizens came to realize that they themselves must establish their own enclave within which those forces no longer hold sway.

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 environment”an environment that by its very nature cultivates dependency and addiction, the negation of human freedom and personal accountability. Only a true civic association like the Friendship Club can break the chains of dependency in the name of genuine self“governance.

So 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.

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.

From this perspective, even some of the apparent institutional vices of a group like the Friendship Club may be seen rather as subtle democratic virtues. The endless multiplication of and turmoil within committees may not be a sign of dysfunction, but rather the joyous clatter of newly self“governing citizens learning first“hand how to run their own affairs. The schisms and secessions of dissident groups perhaps should not be regarded as mission failure, but rather as the way civil society propagates itself, through endless, tumultuous fission. Even the life crisis the Friendship Club faces today, as once again its dues“paying membership list slips dangerously low, may simply be civil society’s way of quietly phasing out groups when they no longer meet the needs of citizens, and replacing them with others that will”an art, incidentally that government and mainstream nonprofits have yet to master. If the Friendship Club should survive this crisis, as I hope it will, it will make for a heartening chapter in the next history of the club’s struggle to bring self“governance into a world of dependency. In the meantime, perhaps, we will learn to read the turbulent history of the Friendship Club not as an alarming tale of chaos and failure, but rather as an inspiring story of a healthy and vital self“governing community”a story of genuine American democracy.

William A. Schambra is Senior Vice President for Programs at the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.

Articles by William A. Schambra