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Civil Society: Responses in Africa and the Middle East

Civil Society: Responses in Africa and the Middle Eas

"All vogue words tend to share a similar fate," observes Zygmunt Bauman. "The more experiences they pretend to make apparent, the more they themselves become opaque. The more numerous are the orthodox truths they elbow out and supplant, the faster they turn into no-questions-asked canons" (p. 1). Bauman's specific subject was globalization, but he may well have been alluding to civil society. Ever since it made a blazing entry into mainstream political theory in the mid 1980s, civil society has had a quite remarkable career as a buzzword, both in policy and scholarly circles. Rare is that academic without a perspective on civil society. For all this analytic intensity however, civil society continues to evade the critical gaze, and seemingly definitive statements about its meaning or origin have merely given rise to even knottier dilemmas.

Ironically, history has been of little help. In most cases, historical excursion has only complicated the riddle, for civil society has not one but many genealogies. Its complex story traces back to a tangle of understandings, and scholars generally tend to privilege whatever genealogy best suits their purposes.

Apparently, many of the hurdles encountered in grappling with the idea of civil society could be scaled easily. One is the problem of definition, which, Iris Marion Young contends, has persisted simply because many scholars stubbornly hanker after a one-sentence definition. The implicit suggestion here is that deeper understanding of civil society might be gained if the inquirer were to take for granted its conceptual diversity. This may not be the vehicle that transports one to definitional nirvana, but there is at least the precognition of the inherent plurality of the subject. A second problem is the popular conflation of civil society as an idea, an ideal, and a device for the attainment of a vaguely defined "good society." Again, as Michael Edwards suggests, the problem comes not from this trifurcation, but rather from imagining that civil society cannot be all three at the same time.

Different Understandings

This definitional problem is not new, and one way of illustrating this is to briefly explore some of the several ways in which civil society has been historically understood. We deal with a dense and richly conflicted narrative, and the distinctions made here are, of necessity, a guide. The first understanding is that of civil society as the opposite of the state of nature. In this view, civil society points to a condition of refinement, a departure from a state in which humanity was slave to its instincts and passions, to one in which it is governed by reason and rationality. This is a mere prototype of course, as many who have sadly contemplated the horrors of the past century might readily attest, but it should help in underscoring the point that most times, civil society is merely that to which groups or peoples aspire. Even more important, implicit in this definition is an undeniable gender bias, especially given that women were often described as being closer to a state of nature than men. Therefore, civil society, at least within the framework of this understanding, is profoundly patriarchal. However, scholars like Adam Seligman have provided a more historically rooted picture. For him, the state of nature could be taken as the immediate post-Enlightenment seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Europe in which there was a clear need to tame the demon of unfeeling individuation, which had been an unexpected concomitant of the new era of rapid industrialization. According to this account, the accent on rationality as opposed to feelings that was the immediate by-product of the European Enlightenment, and the emergence of the market as the arena where the new individual could realize his newly found "freedom" had to be checked by something much larger than the private individual himself, hence "civil" society; a society, in Keith Tester's words, of "less barbarous manners." If nothing at all, it is this "civil" or "polite" society that defines and imposes the parameters of social conduct, "reestablishing some public (and perforce communal) space to mediate what are seen as the adverse effects of the ideology of individualism" (p. 28).

A second understanding is the envisioning of civil society as connoting the possession of certain values (privacy, individualism, and the market, say) that are present in and actually define the West but are, alas, in short supply or completely absent from other societies. Scholars generally trace the intellectual pedigree of this controversial formulation to Adam Ferguson (17231816) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831), but its most forceful affirmation could be seen in the writings of Ernest Gellner. According to this view, civil society is what his "Atlantic society" has that "others" do not; "others" here signifies either other cultures or sociopolitical systems, or a combination of both. Thus, civil society becomes, "like human rights, what authoritarian regimes lack by definition. It is what the Greeks, the Enlightenment and we today have; it is what despotic governments, whether in the past or the present, the here or the elsewhere, do not have" (Goody, p. 150).

Other conceptualizations certainly exist, and admittedly, it is well nigh impossible to scour the fastnesses of the history of political thought and philosophy for every analysis of the subject of civil society. One of the more influential formulations, in reality a conceptual first, has been the Hegelian delineation of civil society as that which is separate from the state. Drawing partly on the work of the Scottish chaplain Adam Ferguson, Hegel defines civil society as "the realm of difference, intermediate between the family and the state." His conception of civil society makes clearer sense within the ambit of his rather abstruse philosophy of history, which, mindful of the risks inherent in simplification, can be articulated thus: History is the evolution of consciousness and the modern world is the highest demonstration of that evolution. For Hegel then, civil society is "the achievement of modernity," one moment (the other two being the family and the state), in which the movement of the objective spirit (Geist ) can be analyzed (Schecter, 2000). Even though in sharp contrast to Ferguson he insisted on the ontological integrity of the state as having a "concrete existence" (Schecter, p. 38) of its own, Hegel shared Ferguson's derision for the state-of-nature construct. His case for its rejection is based on his appreciation of historical developments, particularly in the economic sphere. While the dichotomy that the state of nature/state of civilization presumed might have possibly made some sense at a historical moment, Hegel believed that profound changes in the economic realm had made this binary otiose, or useless. The indelible consequences of this economic revolution, he thought, were to be seen in the specific transformation of what was regarded as the private sphere. More specifically, the expansion of the economy, Hegel argued, had incorporated and dominated civil society, leaving the state to emerge more clearly as a "separate political sphere." The family, for its own part, is relegated to what is left of the by now "emaciated" public sphere.

Skeptics usually seize on this extensive mesh of meanings and nuances to assert that civil society is nothing more than a "plastic concept," one whose shelf life will come to an abrupt halt sooner rather than later. Optimists disagree. Indeed, they argue that the hermeneutic elasticity of civil society is good both for the subject and for the various political projects in whose cause it is usually invoked. Mary Kaldor, for example, thinks that the changing meaning arises from several factors: "the changing content and coverage of the termwhat it was not; the tension between normative and descriptive, idealistic and empiricist, subjective and objective implications of the concept; and the relative emphasis on the private and the public or the individual and the social" (p. 16).

Be that as it may, policy and scholarly infatuation with civil society has shown little sign of waning. To be sure, the immediate backcloth for the contemporary revival was lent by events in former Eastern Europe, where the idea inspired dissident groups intent on rolling back the authoritarian communist state. In this specific context, civil society was the social culture, one framed by the rule of law and an institutional civility that was lacking from the social system that the dissidents sought to destabilize and disestablish. Particular inspiration for the dissidents' challenge to the state had come from the prison writings of Antonio Gramsci (18911937), the atypical Italian Marxist who posited, contra Karl Marx, that civil society, being the sphere of culture, ideology, and associations, is equally that of contestation. While Marx reduces civil society to the market economy, arguing that it is basically a bourgeois lie, Gramsci contends that it (that is, civil society) "offers the popular classes an opportunity to deny the ruling classes hegemony in the realm of ideas, values and culture, as a basis for the ultimate seizure of power and the transformation of capitalist property relations and the state" (quoted in Bangura, pp. 4546). This, together with the work of Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), who had speculated on the bountiful social capital accruing from Americans' "habit of association," had informed the quite successful invocation of the idea in Eastern Europe.

From Eastern Europe, the idea diffused to the rest of the world, where, fortuitously, it fed into the existing disenchantment with the welfare state across the Western world, the search for an ethical force in the wake of the perceived global slide into moral decay, the explosion in the number of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), and the anticipation of greater civility amid the rampant surge of religious and other kinds of fundamentalism. Outside the West, particularly in the developing countries, the idea of civil society emerged in the thick of the struggle for democratic liberalization and social inclusion for marginalized groups. To be sure, this idea of civil society as a useful tool in the resistance to hegemony by dispossessed groups owes much to early feminist and suffragist movements in Britain. These movements drew heavily on the postulations of John Stuart Mill (among others) regarding civil society, while at the same time seeking to make the concept more inclusive. Across Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the association of civil society with democracy, or at least the possibility of its achievement, was common indeed. Many freely conflated the two, and the popular media treated them as though they were synonyms.

Alternative Genealogies

The embrace of the idea of civil society in non-Western contexts was always going to be difficult. First, there was the problem posed by the specifically Western origin of the idea, one that automatically generated the poser: Is civil society applicable or "thinkable" outside its specific Western cultural and geographic provenance, and might it be compatible with societies denounced by Gellner as "non-modular," "ritual-pervaded," and "segmentary"? Second, if civil society actually exists outside the West, in places like Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, what might it mean, and with what unit will scholars analyze it? Contrary to general belief, these dilemmas have not been raised by scholars in the West alone. Both Africans and Africanists, like Mahmood Mamdani, Peter Ekeh, Emmanuel Gyimah-Boadi, Eboe Hutchful, Thomas Callaghy, and Stephen Orvis, have expressed deep skepticism about the usefulness of the idea of civil society ("a vague, often confusing and ever-shifting concept") in explicating non-Western or, specifically African, realities; although in the process they have generated insights that have enriched the relevant literature considerably. This has also been the case in the Middle East and Asia, where thinkers like Sudipta Kaviraj, Sunil Khilnani, Neera Chandhoke, Farhad Kazemi, and Masoud Kamali have picked up the gauntlet.

As a result, issues surrounding the so-called alien nativity of civil society have led to the emergence of a critical and fascinating oeuvre. So powerful and diverse is this emergent corpus that Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce think that it forms the core of what might well be called an "alternative genealogy" of civil society. But what are its arguments? The first is to stress the crucial fact that, its Western origins notwithstanding, civil society has over the past decade become a useful tool in the resistance to hegemony by dispossessed groups. Howell and Pearce note that if there is a common thread in the non-Western application of civil society, it is its use to legitimize citizens' right to resist the prevailing development paradigm, thus showing how truly contested the liberal meanings of the concept are. In the process, "civil society has enabled critical voices to occupy an intellectual space where an alternative set of values and propositions on how societies ought to develop and change can be put forward, challenging those that would otherwise dominate" (Howell and Pearce, p. 36).

A second argument of the emergent alternative genealogy is to say that it does not serve any purpose to lay emphasis on the rash of possible meanings of civil society outside the West, especially as even in the West itself, it is impossible to point to a single coherent narrative of civil society. This position has been seemingly corroborated by the plethora of meanings of civil society advanced by different Western scholars. Examples are the imagination of civil society as: "the natural condition of freedom" (Keane); "a condition of education, refinement and sophistication as opposed to a condition of barbarism" (Tester); a "point of refuge from the dangerous totalising systems of state and economy that threatened the life-world" (Habermas); a "metaphor for Western liberalism" (Seckinelgin), and "the anchorage of liberty" (Dahrendorf).

Afro-Arab Discourses

For obvious reasons, the debate on the possibility and meanings of civil society outside the West has elicited a more spirited discourse in Africa and the Islamic world. Gellner, we recall, had vilified Islamic societies for "exemplifying a social order which seems to lack much capacity to provide political countervailing institutions, which is atomised without much individualism, and operates effectively without pluralism" (p. 29). The denial of civil society in Africa is inspired by a similar characterization.

In both cases, the challenge has been to postulate a theory of civil society that simultaneously recognizes the idea's Western origin and usefulness to the Afro-Arab world. This cannot be done without redefining the term, a cause that has been helped by its unique lack of a commonly agreed definition. Thus, formulating civil society as the "values of mutual support and solidarity [which] exist in the history of human sociability" (Howell and Pearce, p. 36), scholars in Africa and the Middle East argue that civil society has always existed in different forms in other societies. Not surprisingly, a wealth of literature has emerged on African and Islamic civil societies.

One outcome of these attempts, coupled with the ever-increasing policy focus on civil society is the emergence of the idea in a form that is not "civilizationally circumscribed" (Hefner, p. 221). There may be some residual skepticism about the applicability of civil society outside the West, but at least nobody seems to be saying that anymore. The global "professionalization of the third sector," to borrow the words of Michael Edwards, has led to the increased popularity of civil society, and these days the international aid industry seems to be more bothered about empowering civil society than defining it. While this ought to give cause for a pause, it seems more important to observe that in tandem with the "professionalization" of civil society, different local meanings are being created around the concept as part of an increasingly universal negotiation between citizens, states, and markets. This is the real future of the idea, and it would seem to be the next subject for scholarly research.

See also Civil Society: Europe and the United States ; Democracy ; Third World .


Bangura, Yusuf. "Authoritarian Rule and Democracy in Africa: A Theoretical Discourse." In Authoritarianism, Democracy, and Adjustment: The Politics of Economic Reform in Africa, edited by Peter Gibbon, Yusuf Bangura, and Arve Ofstad. Uppsala: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1992.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Globalization: The Human Consequences. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Dahrendorf, Ralf. Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: In a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Warsaw. London: Chatto and Windus, 1990.

Edwards, Michael. Civil Society. Malden, Mass.: Polity, 2004.

Gellner, Ernest. Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals. New York: Lane, 1994.

Goody, J. R. "Civil Society in an Extra-European Perspective." In Civil Society History and Possibilities, edited by Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Translated by William Rehg. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.

Hefner, Robert W. Civil Islam: Muslims and Democratization in Indonesia. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Howell, Jude, and Jenny Pearce. Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2001.

Kaldor, Mary. Global Civil Society: An Answer to War. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2003.

Keane, John. Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Lewis, David. "Civil Society in African Contexts: Reflections on the Usefulness of a Concept." Development and Change 33, no. 4 (2002): 569586.

Seckinelgin, Hakan. Civil Society as a Metaphor for Western Liberalism. London: London School of Economics and Political Science, 2002.

Seligman, Adam B. The Idea of Civil Society. New York: Free Press, 1992

Schecter, Darrow. Sovereign States or Political Communities?: Civil Society and Contemporary Politics. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Tester, Keith. Civil Society. London and New York: Routledge, 1992.

Ebenezer Obadare

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Civil Society: Europe and the United States

Civil Society: Europe and the United States

An ancient term of Western political and social theory, civil society has enjoyed enormous popularity in recent years and has outstripped its geographic origins to spread all over the world. Public leaders, newspaper writers, religious figures, social theorists, political activists, and commentators from many different perspectives now use the term on a regular basis. The term's meaning has shifted dramatically over the centuries, and different historical periods have understood it in distinct ways.

Three distinct usages can be delineated. Civil society first appears in classical Greek and Roman thought, which considered it to be synonymous with a politically organized commonwealtha view that was modified by the medieval church's distaste for purely political categories and came to describe a society organized around the primacy of religion. As powerful markets and centralized states began to erode medieval institutions, a second, and characteristically modern, liberal understanding arose that conceived of civil society as the arena of economic relations and institutions. Frightened by the consequences of the French Revolution and the advent of mass political activity, a third conception developed during the middle of the nineteenth century to describe civil society as a sphere of voluntary intermediate organizations that stand between the state and the citizen. Pioneered by Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), this is the way civil society is understood in contemporary usage. Although chronologically distinct, each of these understandings contributes important insights to political and social life and sheds light on contemporary issues of democracy and equality.

Political and Religious Commonwealths

When Cicero (10643 b.c.e.) equated civil society with a politically constituted commonwealth, he expressed a powerful tendency to understand "civility" as the requirements of citizenship. His effort represented the most complete development of classical thinking about civil society. Plato (c. 428348 or 347 b.c.e.) had attempted to articulate an invariant ethical center for public life, an effort that Aristotle (c. 384322 b.c.e.) tried to correct by recognizing that people live their lives in different spheres and in multiple associations. Aristotle's respect for variation and distinction underlay a political theory that understood civil society as a moral-political association that improved the life of its citizens, but the Roman recognition of a legally protected private realm made it possible to equate civil society with republican virtues and political life. Imperial collapse led to St. Augustine of Hippo's (354430 c.e.) devastating attack on the classical tradition's effort to organize a self-reliant public sphere, but Christian insistence that civil society could be understood only in terms of the requirements of faith and church made it difficult to organize human affairs with such depraved material as fallen man. St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 12241274) was more willing than Augustine to recognize that politics could sustain a measure of moral action and constitute civil society, but the corrosive effects of markets and the pressure of centralizing kings brought the first period of theorizing to a halt.

Markets, Individuals, and Interests

Niccolò Machiavelli's (14691527) rediscovery of classical republicanism and Thomas Hobbes's (15881679) insistence that only a single point of sovereign power could protect the calculating individual and his interests pointed the way toward a fully modern conception of civil society. It was not long before those interests became expressed as property, production, and acquisition. John Locke's (16321704) civil society was made possible by the sovereign power of states, but it was really the pursuit of private interest that made political liberty worthwhile. Locke's clear preference for economic activity anchored many later conceptions, and Adam Smith (17231790) articulated the first fully bourgeois theory of civil society as a sphere of production and competition that was driven by the self-interested calculations of isolated individuals. The state played an organizing and protecting role, but Smith's conviction that economic processes could organize social life expressed liberalism's suspicion of centralized political power and its assumption that civil society is constituted by the market. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), Immanuel Kant (17241804), and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) would try to infuse civil societynow equated with "civilization"with solidarity and moral purpose, but it was plain that this tradition of thought understood civil society as a law-governed sphere where property, civil liberties, and political equality would enable self-serving individuals to make private decisions in conditions of freedom and security. If the classical view of civil society had been shaped by the ancient traditions of civil republicanism and came to an end with the fall of the Roman Empire, the second view was clearly related to the early framework of capitalism. Karl Marx's (18181883) desire to overcome civil society's foundation in the class relations of bourgeois society looked to a socialist state to democratize civil society itself and seemed to recapture a moment of the classical heritage. It also shed light on an important weakness in liberal theory by calling for democratic supervision of civil society's chaos and instability.

Intermediate Associations and the State

Drawing on Aristotle, Cicero, and Machiavelli for the theory of the mixed constitution, Baron de Montesquieu (16891755) located intermediate bodies at the heart of his aristocratic theory of civil society. His fear of royal power fed Edmund Burke's (17291797) defense of local privilege against the leveling and centralizing French Revolution, but it was Tocqueville's claim that voluntary activity connected individualistic, self-serving Americans to the common good that proved particularly powerful. Tocqueville's insight has fed most of the contemporary interest in civil society, in large measure because of his desire to limit the thrust of the democratic state by preserving local freedom, protecting pockets of local privilege, and nurturing traditions of self-organization. His assumption of widespread equality of condition meant that he did not have to examine how inequality and voluntary activity might reinforce one anothera matter that has become vitally important, given contemporary economic and political trends. Nevertheless, powerful American traditions of suspicion of the state and a history of local volunteerism have all but guaranteed that Tocqueville finds a ready audience in this countryparticularly in politically conservative periods.

Contemporary Issues

Interest in civil society was largely confined to academic circles until the early 1980s, when dissident Polish intellectuals and journalists began talking of "the rebellion of civil society against the state." It wasn't long before an influential body of Eastern European thought began to understand civil society as constitutional republics and intermediate associations. As Soviet-style socialism continued to be hostile to almost all spontaneous social initiatives, it made sense that dissidents would be interested in limiting state power and would be indifferent to the market's threat to freedom and equality. But their sunny optimism would soon fade away. As the East European civic forums, underground newspapers, student leagues, "flying universities," and other groupings began to yield to the logic of economics and the imperatives of politics, it became practically and theoretically imperative to understand how civil society can serve democracy in conditions of powerful markets and bureaucratized states. Voluntary organizations and social movements have contributed to freedom and equality in important ways, but the naive assumption that they constitute a democratic sphere of action in their own right has begun to yield to more sober questions of how local voluntary activity can serve democracy in an environment that is constituted by widening inequality and dominated by large, powerful institutions. It is important to understand how the local and the small can serve freedom and democracy with, not against, the universal and the large. Further intellectual and practical activity will be compelled to investigate how inequality and bureaucracy affect the ability to organize on the one hand, and how local activity can mitigate the effects of inequality and hold political structures to account on the other.

See also Citizenship ; Democracy ; Equality ; Society .


Eberly, Don E., ed. The Essential Civil Society Reader: Classic Essays in the American Civil Society Debate. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Ehrenberg, John. Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Seligman, Adam. The Idea of Civil Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Skocpol, Theda, and Morris P. Fiorina, eds. Civic Engagement in American Democracy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1999. Verba, Sidney, Kay Lehman Schlozman, and Henry E. Brady. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

John Ehrenberg

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Civil Society

Civil Society


Civil society (from the Latin civilis societas ) is the realm of independent activity and voluntary association that is not organized by the state. The origin of the term is often traced to the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Adam Ferguson (17231816) and his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). Ferguson saw the new commercial civilization then displacing the older clan-based feudal order of the Scottish Highlands as enhancing individual liberty through the introduction of civil society, civil life, and economic society. In the same intellectual tradition, another Scottish Enlightenment philosopher and social theorist, Adam Smith (17231790), referred to the notion of civil society as the capacity of human communities for autonomous self-organization. For both Ferguson and Smith, the example of the free, self-regulating economic market demonstrated the possibility of social organization without the heavy-handed supervision of the state.

But it was the German idealist philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (17701831) who first drew the boundary between the spheres of state and society in his Elements of the Philosophy of Right (1820). For Hegel, civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft ) was the realm of the particular counterpoised to the state. It occupied the mesolevel (or intermediate stage) between the dialectical opposites of the macrocommunity of the state and the microcommunity of the family. In his view, civil society was a temporary mode of relations interposed between the individual (or the family) and the state, which was to be transcended when particular and common interests combined.

There are several competing definitions of what the concept of civil society involves. For some writers, like the French Enlightenment philosopher Charles Louis de Montesquieu (16891755) and the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville (18051859), civil society was the realm of intermediate associations that stood between the individual and the state. It includes social and economic arrangements, ethical and legal codes, contractual obligations, and institutions apart from the state, but its key attribute is that it refers to public life rather than private or household-based activities. Civil society is juxtaposed to the family and the state and exists within the framework of the rule of law, accepting a certain commitment to the political community and the rules of the game established by the state. Most writers in this tradition seem to have in mind the domain of public participation in voluntary organizations, the mass media, professional associations, labor unions, social movements, and the like. In their writings, civil society becomes a description for all nonstate aspects of society, including the economy, culture, social structures, and even politics.

Other thinkers, like the Swiss-born Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) and the German social theorist and revolutionary Karl Marx (18181883), tended to be more critical of civil society, which they saw as an economic and social order, developing in accordance with its own rules and independently of the state. In this conceptualization, civil society meant the social, economic, legal, and ethical arrangements of modern, industrial-capitalist society considered apart from the state. The concept generally referred to the specific mode of relations between the state and self-organized social groups which was first attained by the modern European nations, although its seeds can be found in earlier periods. While praising civil society, which is voluntarily formed by the citizens as a sphere of social self-organization between the private realm of the domestic and the state, Rousseau (1762) recognized that civil society can be plagued by evils such as social injustice, elitism, and economic inequality that contradicted his idea of the general will of the entire citizenry (volonté générale ). While Marx stressed the economic character of civil society in the fashion of Ferguson and Smith, he viewed it as an expression of crass materialism, brutal exploitation, anarchic competition, and economic inefficiency (Marx 1843). According to him, civil society was a morally decadent, oligarchic society rife with greed, egoism, individualism, and alienation that benefited only the privileged class of the bourgeoisie (that is, the wealthy owners of productive capital) who lived off the labor of the rest of society, especially the industrial working class (the proletariat).

For the prominent Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci (18911937), civil society was the bastion of hegemony by the economically dominant bourgeois class. In contrast to Marx, he defined civil society as a predominantly cultural and ideological sphere rather than an exclusively economic domain. He argued that in the developed capitalist countries, the state has close institutional and ideological links with civil society, in which the active consent of the mass public is manufactured on a daily basis. Public consent is not achieved through political democracy but through ideological hegemonythat is, propaganda, indoctrination, public education, and the inculcation of a worldview biased in favor of the socially and politically dominant class. Therefore, civil society is ultimately supportive of the bourgeois state, which uses it to shape popular beliefs and aspirations in its own ideological image (Gramsci 2001).

Today the study of civil society focuses on the causal link between democratization and the nonpolitical aspects of the contemporary social order, leaving open to debate the question of whether or not there is incongruence and conflict between civil society and the state. The existence of a self-organized, vibrant, and fully developed civil society that is free of the state and has numerous autonomous public arenas within which various voluntary associations regulate their own activities and govern their own members is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a viable democracy and the transition from an authoritatrian or totalitarian regime to a democratic one. Civil society discourse has more recently drawn on the experience of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, where the anticommunist opposition embraced the revival of civil society as its raison dêtre during the years leading up to the revolutions of 1989. In fact the downfall of communism has often been linked theoretically to the revolt of residual or nascent civil society against the political intolerance and ideological rigidity of the communist state.

SEE ALSO Associations, Voluntary; Authoritarianism; Capitalism; Communism; Democratization; Gramsci, Antonio; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Hegemony; Ideology; Marx, Karl; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Smith, Adam; Society; State, The; Tocqueville, Alexis de


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Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. 1994. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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Gramsci, Antonio. 2001. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey N. Smith. London: Electric Book.

Keane, John. 1998. Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Marx, Karl. [1843] 1958. On the Jewish Question. Trans. Helen Lederer. Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College. (Orig. pub. as Zur Judenfrage, 1843.)

Rosenblum, Nancy L., and Robert C. Post, eds. 2002. Civil Society and Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. [1762] 1987. On the Social Contract. Trans. and ed. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett. (Orig. pub. as Du Contrat Social, 1762.)

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Rossen Vassilev

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civil society

civil society There are several competing definitions of what this concept involves. However, its key attributes are that it refers to public life rather than private or household-based activities; it is juxtaposed to the family and the state; and it exists within the framework of the rule of law. Most authorities seem to have in mind the realm of public participation in voluntary associations, the mass media, professional associations, trade unions, and the like.

Interposed between the individual (or family) and the state for some thinkers (such as Hegel), it was a temporary phenomenon, to be transcended when particular and common interests combined. For others it was the realm of the particular counterpoised to the state, whereas for Antonio Gramsci it was the bastion of class hegemony, and ultimately (though not unequivocally) supportive of the state. More recent usage has drawn on the experience of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the apparent atrophy or non-existence of the meso level of social relations, the sphere of social self-organization, and of that level in the articulation of interests that is to be found between the private realm of the domestic and the totalizing state.

Civil society is always seen as dynamic and embraces the notion of social movements. It can also be seen as the dynamic side of citizenship, which, combining as it does achieved rights and obligations, finds them practised, scrutinized, revamped, and redefined at the level of civil society. Thus, freedom of speech as an essential civil right depends on the culture and organization of publishers, journalists, and the reading public at large, both for the manner in which it is legitimized and for its scope and intensity. An excellent edited collection on this topic is Z. A. Pelczynski , The State and Civil Society (1984)

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Civil Society


This entry includes two subentries:

Europe and the United States
Responses in Africa and the Middle East

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