Civic Gifts: Voluntarism and the Making of the American Nation-State, Elisabeth S. Clemens

Reviewed by Michael J. Illuzzi


In an age when people are searching for an alternative to powerful populist nationalist stories, Elisabeth S. Clemens in Civic Gifts gives us a novel place to look for one in U.S. history. Rather than looking at U.S. state building as a battle of rival ideologies or stories, she argues that we should look to the processes and infrastructures that associations have built and see how these efforts—especially during times of acute crisis—have forged “imagined community in enacted relationships” (p. 232). In particular, she highlights the role that mass fundraising plays. “[T]he process of fund-raising… [b]y mobilizing large numbers of volunteers who would engage their personal and professional networks… constituted the nation as a moral and emotional collectivity” (p. 232).

Clemens says that in the United States, voluntarism and, more specifically, the infrastructural power built by organized gift giving forged a novel “path to state capacity that bypassed both the strict constraints of electoral democracy and the dangerous powers of a centralized bureaucratic state” (p. 50). Using a rich set of archival sources, Clemens's analysis illustrates the central importance of associations in many of the most important moments of crisis in U.S. history: the United States Sanitary Commission mobilizing and supplying the Union Army during the Civil War, the Community Chests operating through the First World War, and the Red Cross, philanthropic foundations, and Block Aid that helped the United States deal with recessions, natural disasters, and war mobilizations. Through the navigation of these crises, organizations ushered in new innovations that built infrastructural power and capacity.

While the recombination and models changed in every period, Clemens focuses on the consistent power of the “logic of the gift,” in which the mass mobilization of donating translates into people becoming invested in aiding anonymous others and creating a bond tying these anonymous others together. Paradoxically, Clemens argues, when the federal government and organized benevolence fused their activities after World War II (e.g., government raised funds that flowed to the nonprofits providing services), “these exchanges no longer effectively enact[ed] the model of civic benevolence that had been such a powerful force” (p. 255). Throughout the book, Clemens consistently points out the dual edge of benevolence that “often reinforced the influence of privilege and the operation of inequalities,” but she also insists “that a government depended not only on popular consent but popular contribution” and that “[t]o recover such a possibility in the present” requires “innovative combination and recombination” (p. 275).

Civic Gifts highlights the role associations played in the construction of national identity formation, yet the definitions of voluntarism, benevolence, and gift giving used are narrowed in ways that obscure important parts of the story. The emphasis on the “logic of the gift” in the construction of identity and state building makes the largely white male wealthy business owners at the head of the Community Chests, Charity Organization Societies, and philanthropic organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation the lead actors in the construction of U.S. national identity. Clemens's choice of focus comes at a cost of obscuring the role played by other communities struggling for a more equitable infrastructural power. The voluntarism and associations of the abolitionists, the suffragette movement, the Catholic Worker movement, and the Black Freedom Struggle (and so many others) undoubtedly left their mark on the construction of U.S. nation and state building (often in opposition to the actors featured in this book), but they are missing from Clemens's story.

Despite these limitations, the book should be of great interest and value to political sociologists, those interested in American political development, political theorists, and anyone interested in voluntarism, benevolence, associational life, and state building in the United States.

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