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Friday, November 26, 2010

Civil society

Civil society is composed of the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state's political system) and commercial institutions of the market There are myriad definitions of civil society in the post-modern sense. The London School of Economics Centre for Civil Society's working definition is illustrative:Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organizations, community groups, women's organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.

Modern history

G.W.F. Hegel completely changed the meaning of civil society, giving rise to a modern liberal understanding of it as a form of market society as opposed to institutions of modern nation-state Unlike his predecessors, the leading thinker of the Romanticism considered civil society as a separate realm, a "system of needs", that stood for the satisfaction of individual interests and private property. Hegel held that civil society had emerged at the particular period of capitalism and served its interests: individual rights and private property (Dhanagare 2001:169). Hence, he used the German term "b├╝rgerliche Gesellschaft" to denote civil society as "civilian society" - a sphere regulated by the civil code. For Hegel, civil society manifests contradictory forces. Being the realm of capitalist interests, there is a possibility of conflicts and inequalities within it. Therefore, the constant surveillance of the state is imperative to sustain moral order in society. Hegel considered the state as the highest form of ethical life. Therefore, the political state has the capacity and authority to correct the faults of civil society. Alexis de Tocqueville, after comparing despotic France and democratic America, contested Hegel, putting weight on the system of civilian and political associations as a counterbalance to both liberal individualism and centralization of the state. Hence, Hegel's perception of social reality was followed in general by Tocqueville who distinguished between political society and civil society.

This was the theme taken further by Karl Marx. For Marx, civil society was the ‘base’ where productive forces and social relations were taking place, whereas political society was the 'superstructure'. Agreeing with the link between capitalism and civil society, Marx held that the latter represents the interests of the bourgeoisie (Edwards 2004:10). Therefore, the state as superstructure also represents the interests of the dominant class; under capitalism, it maintains the domination of the bourgeoisie. Hence, Marx rejected the positive role of state put forth by Hegel. Marx argued that the state cannot be a neutral problem solver. Rather, he depicted the state as the defender of the interests of the bourgeoisie. He considered the state and civil society as the executive arms of the bourgeoisie; therefore, both should wither away .

This negative view about civil society was rectified by Antonio Gramsci (Edwards 2004:10). Departing somehow from Marx, Gramsci did not consider civil society as coterminous with the socio-economic base of the state. Rather, Gramsci located civil society in the political superstructure. He underlined the crucial role of civil society as the contributor of the cultural and ideological capital required for the survival of the hegemony of capitalism (Ehrenberg 1999:208). Rather than posing it as a problem, as in earlier Marxist conceptions, Gramsci viewed civil society as the site for problem-solving. Agreeing with Gramsci, the New Left assigned civil society a key role in defending people against the state and the market and in asserting the democratic will to influence the state ( At the same time, Neo-liberal thinkers consider civil society as a site for struggle to subvert Communist and authoritarian regimes (Ibid: 33). Thus, the term civil society occupies an important place in the political discourses of the New Left and Neo-liberals.

Post-modern history

The post-modern way of understanding civil society was first developed by political opposition in the former Soviet block East European countries in the 1980s. From that time stems a practice within the political field of using the idea of civil society instead of political society. However, in the 1990s with the emergence of the nongovernmental organizations and the New Social Movements (NSMs) on a global scale, civil society as a third sector became a key terrain of strategic action to construct ‘an alternative social and world order.’ Henceforth, postmodern usage of the idea of civil society became divided into two main : as political society and as the third sector - apart from plethora of definitions.

The Washington consensus of the 1990s, which involved conditioned loans by the World Bank and IMF to debt-laden developing states, also created pressures for states in poorer countries to shrink. This in turn led to practical changes for civil society that went on to influence the theoretical debate. Initially the new conditionality led to an even greater emphasis on `civil society' as a panacea, replacing the state's service provision and social care, Hulme and Edward suggested that it was now seen as `the magic bullet.' Some development political scientists cautioned that this view created new dangers. For instance, in `Let's get Civil Society Straight' Whaites argued that the often politicized and potentially divisive nature of civil society was being ignored by some policy makers.

By the end of the 1990s civil society was seen less as a panacea amid the growth of the anti-globalization movement and the transition of many countries to democracy; instead, civil society was increasingly called on to justify its legitimacy and democratic credentials. This led to the creation by the UN of a high level panel on civil society . Post-modern civil society theory has now largely returned to a more neutral stance, but with marked differences between the study of the phenomena in richer societies and writing on civil society in developing states. Civil society in both areas is, however, often viewed as a counter-poise and complement rather than an alternative in relation to the state or as Whaites stated in his 1996 article, `the state is seen as a precondition of civil society'


The literature on relations between civil society and democratic political society have their roots in early liberal writings like those of Alexis de Tocqueville However they were developed in significant ways by 20th century theorists like Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, who identified the role of political culture in a democratic order as vital.They argued that the political element of many voluntary organizations facilitates better awareness and a more informed citizenry, who make better voting choices, participate in politics, and hold government more accountable as a result. The statutes of these organizations have often been considered micro-constitutions because they accustom participants to the formalities of democratic decision making.More recently, Robert D. Putnam has argued that even non-political organizations in civil society are vital for democracy. This is because they build social capital, trust and shared values, which are transferred into the political sphere and help to hold society together, facilitating an understanding of the interconnectedness of society and interests within it.

Others, however, have questioned how democratic civil society actually is. Some have noted that the civil society actors have now obtained a remarkable amount of political power without anyone directly electing or appointing them. Finally, other scholars have argued that, since the concept of civil society is closely related to democracy and representation, it should in turn be linked with ideas of nationality and nationalism.


The term civil society is currently often used by critics and activists as a reference to sources of resistance to, and the domain of social life which needs to be protected against, globalization. This is because it is seen as acting beyond boundaries and across different territories. However, as civil society can, under many definitions, include and be funded and directed by those businesses and institutions (especially donors linked to European and Northern states) who support globalization, this is a contested use. Rapid development of civil society on the global scale after the fall of the communist system was a part of neo-liberal strategies linked to the Washington consensus. Some studies have also been published, which deal with unresolved issues regarding the use of the term in connection with the impact and conceptual power of the international aid system .

On the other hand, others see globalization as a social phenomenon expanding the sphere of classical liberal values, which inevitably led to a larger role for civil society at the expense of politically derived state institutions.

Examples of civil society institutions

· academia

· activist groups

· charities

·citizens' militia

· civic groups

· clubs (sports, social, etc.)



· community organizations

· consumers/consumer organizations

· cooperatives

· cultural groups

· environmental groups

· foundations

· intermediary organizations for the voluntary and non-profit sector

· men's groups

· non-governmental organizations (NGOs)

· non-profit organizations (NPOs)

· policy institutions

· private voluntary organizations (PVOs)

· professional associations

· religious organizations

· support groups

· trade unions

· voluntary associations

· women's groups

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