On Mediating Institutions
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, a young woman living under a theocratic totalitarian state called The Republic of Gilead. In Atwood’s fictional universe The Republic of Gilead exercises its dominion over the continental United States after having overthrown that government. At first glance it may seem preposterous that such an illiberal regime could install itself in power over a land and people so closely associated historically with liberal norms and values. A close reading of the text of The Handmaid’s Tale, however, may suggest a reason why Gilead found it so easy to take over. That reason, I believe, is that the civil society of the United States had so far deteriorated, had so much disaffiliated itself, had so hollowed itself out and fragilized itself that it was ripe to be toppled.
Indeed, the robustness of a society depends so much upon what Burke calls the “little platoons”: churches, families, neighborhood associations, unions, civic orders, or any grouping of individuals brought together in community to achieve goals or express politics. These little platoons are what the 19th century French observer of American life Alexis de Tocqueville called associations which he described as the mother of science and progress in a democracy. More recently Richard John Neuhaus described these associations as mediating structures: “those institutions standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.” All three thinkers considered these mediating institutions to be vitally important in maintaining a robust and strong civil society, the type that could mount a defense against something like The Republic of Gilead.
But in the pre-Gilead flashback portions of The Handmaid’s Tale such institutions are totally absent. And that, I believe, is the major reason why Offred’s America was so easily toppled.
In an entirely different fictional universe, that of War and Peace, Pierre Bezukhov’s Russia stands on the precipice of disaster as the French, led by Napoleon, ready themselves to invade. Lucky for Pierre, the mediating institutions of his Russia seem rather more stable and prosperous than those found in Atwood’s America.
We’ve already been introduced to the central role the family plays in Russian society. Who, after all, can forget the Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, the Kuragins? The Church also plays a large role in the character’s lives. Then there’s Anna Pavlovna’s soirees which act as a civic order of sorts.
Today Pierre joins an international mediating institution, the Freemasons. It’s clear that this, at least for now, is a positive development in his life. Whereas just a few chapters before he was miserable, he ends today’s reading with “a refreshing source of blessedness which now flooded his heart with glad emotion.” This feeling is due to his newfound sense of community and brotherhood. In addition, in terms of building a stronger civil society, it is told that one of the objectives of the Freemasons is “to improve the whole human race.” So this is a mediating institution with the explicit goal of social improvement.
There is a cynical reading of this chapter to be made. This reading has to do with why Pierre is asked to join the order “before the usual term” and why so quickly after his introduction to the order? I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that Pierre is one of the richest men in Russia? We’ll ignore that discussion, however, and focus on the positive, community building outcomes of participation in a mediating institution such as the Freemasons. Because I think, in large part, it’s the Russian civil society that helps them endure the onslaughts of the French later in the novel.
More than a few of our readings have focused on the importance of community and cosmopolitanism. This is an important topic because the body politic, in the end, is composed of individual bodies and if those individual bodies fall ill or no longer work in conjunction with others then the larger body politic falls apart.
Do you not know that, just as the foot in detachment is no longer a foot, so you in detachment are no longer a man? For what is a man? A part of a city, first, of that made up by gods and men; and next, of that to which you immediately belong, which is a miniature of the universal city.
Epictetus, The Discourses