Can the sense of "civic responsibility" (i.e. the individual sense of participation and duty towards the construction and maintenance of a public order, and its enactment), be traced historically as the product of a culture?

In a discussion I had, an argument was proposed that, in Western Europe, the sense of civic responsibility was the cultural product of nationalism, from the post revolutionary / Napoleonian society and culminating with fascism.

Even this proposition might seem reductionist, it makes some sense. It seems that for nationalism to function it requires a participation of the civilian, taking part in the national project. On the contrary, the pre-modern, absolutist or feudal society seems to exclude the common man from the conscious participation in the construction of the state (even though the state may in fact still depend on the common man for its economical or political existence).

So is this proposition true and to what extent? Can the sense of "civic responsibility" be traced in the history of ideas?

My background is in South Asian studies, so I am not familiar with European history, even though I followed a curriculum in Europe.

  • 1
    Difficult argument to make, given that there is very clear evidence of civic responsibility (Aedile, Quaestor) in Rome, long before Napoleonic nationalism. I'm not sure that "the common man" is necessary for civic responsibility, unless you redefine one of the two terms.
    – MCW
    Mar 19, 2013 at 11:21
  • I am interested here in societies where the idea of civic duties and participation in the construction of a state / public common is wide spread and includes all levels of society. For instance--and you may disagree--we accept and follow traffic rules because we know that an ordered traffic will contribute to our own ease of transport. Also I will not dump my trash in the middle of the street because I know it will disturb my neighbours and my relationship with them. These behaviours are not everywhere observable: can we trace ideas underlying them historically / regionally? Mar 19, 2013 at 11:36
  • Also it is important to distinguish the existence of ideas in literature and their actual enactment in society. Even the idea of civic responsibility exists in Rome, did it exist in practice continuously from then till now, or was it interrupted and then re-introduced? Mar 19, 2013 at 11:38
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    "civic responsibility" is simply another word for "herd mentality" and goes as far back as when proto-humans roamed the African savanna in search of food. You can see it in flocking birds, schooling fish, herds of bison or reindeer, packs of wolves or baboons, etc. etc.
    – jwenting
    Mar 20, 2013 at 6:56
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    @jwenting. Absolutely!!! "Civic responsibility" (respect of the common wealth) and "nationalism" (defense of the group) are two facets of a far more global set of instincts: social instincts. They occur in various species, especially "superior" mammals. The evolutionary advantage is obvious: these instincts benefit the society which protects the individuals. For this very same reason they are also well regarded among fellow group members which explains why these feelings are genetically dominant as they can confer leadership and therefore procreational advantages to their bearers. Mar 20, 2013 at 17:55

2 Answers 2


Thanks for the question. "Civic responsibility" is bound up with the concept of the separation of society (the mass of persons) from the state (the armed body of men, monopolised by the bourgeoisie). (Gramsci).

The separation of individual subjectivities from the state apparatus, as if they should be connected, arises in the French revolution with the development of the state as an institution justified by the "mass participation" of newly created subjects with rights. Prior to the French revolution, the body of the nation existed merely as the passive object of the attention of the absolute monarch. After the revolution the subjectivity, the capacity for individual action by the monarch became possessed by the entire body of society, and the state became the passive object of the body of subjectivities of the nation.

In other words: before civic responsibility—the state acted on pre-society through bureaucracy, after civic responsibility the society enacts the state as a parliament representing society's interest.

(Similar processes are visible in the slow British revolution towards general parliamentary representation, the Dutch revolution towards mass social participation, and the US revolution—all early bourgeois revolutions show a measure of this change.)

Attempts to describe early relationships as "civic responsibility" will be anachronistic, our version of civic responsibility is thoroughly mired in modernity, the nation state, and the problem of the state adequately representing the general interest. There was no nation for the Quaestor, no "common man," of modernity as a subjectivity in a power relationship.

The earliest this can be pushed is into the period of the individuation of moral conscience in Europe—ie, protestant and anti-protestant reforms. And the Dutch revolution remarkably begins in this period, and the English begins at the height of controversy over personal moral responsibility.

Sources for theory:

  • Can't strongly suggest Gramsci enough here

  • Foucault would also be worth your while

  • "monopolised by the bourgeoisie" - woe to Louis XIV!
    – DVK
    Mar 20, 2013 at 18:14
  • Brilliant and concise answer! Thank you :) Any specific titles of Gramsci and Foucault I should look into? Mar 21, 2013 at 12:44
  • Gramsci's prison diaries is typically the go to. He was unfortunately imprisoned so it is all over the place. Gramsci's reacting to the failure of the Italian state, and the Italian revolution. Hegemony is what he comes up with. WRT Foucault, isn't this discipline and punish territory? Mar 22, 2013 at 3:08

It was the Romans who came up with the idea of "citizenship." (civus) From there, it was a short step to "civic responsibility." http://www.learningtogive.org/papers/paper11.html

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