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Civil society

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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.


From an historical perspective, the actual meaning of the concept of civil society has changed twice from its original, classical form. The first change occurred after the French Revolution, the second during the fall of communism in Europe.

Pre-modern history

The concept of civil society in its pre-modern classical republican understanding is usually connected to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. However, it has much older history in the realm of political thought. Generally, civil society has been referred to as a political association governing social conflict through the imposition of rules that restrain citizens from harming one another. In the classical period, the concept was used as a synonym for the good society, and seen as indistinguishable from the state. For instance, Socrates taught that conflicts within society should be resolved through public argument using ‘ dialectic’, a form of rational dialogue to uncover truth. According to Socrates, public argument through ‘dialectic’ was imperative to ensure ‘civility’ in the polis and ‘good life’ of the people. For Plato, the ideal state was a just society in which people dedicate themselves to the common good, practice civic virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice, and perform the occupational role to which they were best suited. It was the duty of the ‘ Philosopher king’ to look after people in civility. Aristotle thought the polis was an ‘association of associations’ that enables citizens to share in the virtuous task of ruling and being ruled. His koinonia politike as political community.

The concept of societas civilis is Roman and was introduced by Cicero. The political discourse in the classical period, places importance on the idea of a ‘good society’ in ensuring peace and order among the people. The philosophers in the classical period did not make any distinction between the state and society. Rather they held that the state represented the civil form of society and ‘civility’ represented the requirement of good citizenship. Moreover, they held that human beings are inherently rational so that they can collectively shape the nature of the society they belong to. In addition, human beings have the capacity to voluntarily gather for the common cause and maintain peace in society. By holding this view, we can say that classical political thinkers endorsed the genesis of civil society in its original sense.

The Middle Ages saw major changes in the topics discussed by political philosophers. Due to the unique political arrangements of feudalism, the concept of classical civil society practically disappeared from mainstream discussion. Instead conversation was dominated by problems of just war, a preoccupation that would last until the end of Renaissance.

The Thirty Years' War and the subsequent Treaty of Westphalia heralded the birth of the sovereign states system. The Treaty endorsed states as territorially-based political units having sovereignty. As a result, the monarchs were able to exert control domestically by emasculating the feudal lords and to stop relying on the latter for armed troops. Hencefore, monarchs could form national armies and deploy a professional bureaucracy and fiscal departments, which enabled them to maintain direct control and supreme authority over their subjects. In order to meet administrative expenditures, monarchs controlled the economy. This gave birth to absolutism. Until the mid-eighteenth century, absolutism was the hallmark of Europe.

The absolutist nature of the state was disputed in the Enlightenment period. As a natural consequence of Renaissance, Humanism, and the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment thinkers raised fundamental questions such as “What legitimacy does heredity confer?”, “Why are governments instituted?”, “Why should some human beings have more basic rights than others?”, and so on. These questions led them to make certain assumptions about the nature of the human mind, the sources of political and moral authority, the reasons behind absolutism, and how to move beyond absolutism. The Enlightenment thinkers believed in the inherent goodness of the human mind. They opposed the alliance between the state and the Church as the enemy of human progress and well-being because the coercive apparatus of the state curbed individual liberty and the Church legitimated monarchs by positing the theory of divine origin. Therefore, both were deemed to be against the will of the people.

Strongly influenced by the atrocities of Thirty Years' War, the political philosophers of the time held that social relations should be ordered in a different way from natural law conditions. Some of their attempts led to the emergence of social contract theory that contested social relations existing in accordance with human nature. They held that human nature can be understood by analyzing objective realities and natural law conditions. Thus they endorsed that the nature of human beings should be encompassed by the contours of state and established positive laws. Thomas Hobbes underlined the need of a powerful state to maintain civility in society. For Hobbes, human beings are motivated by self-interests (Graham 1997:23). Moreover, these self-interests are often contradictory in nature. Therefore, in state of nature, there was a condition of a war of all against all. In such a situation, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Ibid: 25). Upon realizing the danger of anarchy, human beings became aware of the need of a mechanism to protect them. As far as Hobbes was concerned, rationality and self-interests persuaded human beings to combine in agreement, to surrender sovereignty to a common power (Kaviraj 2001:289). Hobbes called this common power, state, Leviathan.

The social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes set forth two types of relationship. One was vertical, between the Leviathan and the people; therefore, the latter submitted themselves to the former. The second system was the realm of horizontal relationship among the people. In that system, people, under the surveillance of Leviathan, were compelled to limit their natural rights in a way that would not harm the rights of others. The first system denotes the state and the second represents civil society. In Hobbes’s paradigm, the formation of the civil society led to the formation of government, state, and laws. Therefore, in his view, the state is imperative to sustain civility among men. Thus, Hobbes’s concepts of the ‘state of nature’ and the ‘sovereignty of the state’ led to the later germination of realism that defined the nature of the relationship between the state and civil society.

John Locke had a similar concept to Hobbes about the political condition in England. It was the period of the Glorious Revolution, marked by the struggle between the divine right of the Crown and the political rights of Parliament. This influenced Locke to forge a social contract theory of a limited state and a powerful society. In Locke’s view, human beings led also an unpeaceful life in the state of nature. However, it could be maintained at the sub-optimal level in the absence of a sufficient system (Brown 2001:73). From that major concern, people gathered together to sign a contract and constituted a common public authority. Nevertheless, Locke held that the consolidation of political power can be turned into autocracy, if it is not brought under reliable restrictions (Kaviraj 2001:291). Therefore, Locke set forth two treaties on government with reciprocal obligations. In the first treaty, people submit themselves to the common public authority. This authority has the power to enact and maintain laws. The second treaty contains the limitations of authority, i. e., the state has no power to threaten the basic rights of human beings. As far as Locke was concerned, the basic rights of human beings are the preservation of life, liberty and property. Moreover, he held that the state must operate within the bounds of civil and natural laws.

Both Hobbes and Locke had set forth a system, in which peaceful coexistence among human beings could be ensured through social pacts or contracts. They considered civil society as a community that maintained civil life, the realm where civic virtues and rights were derived from natural laws. However, they did not hold that civil society was a separate realm from the state. Rather, they underlined the co-existence of the state and civil society. The systematic approaches of Hobbes and Locke (in their analysis of social relations) were largely influenced by the experiences in their period. Their attempts to explain human nature, natural laws, the social contract and the formation of government had challenged the divine right theory. In contrast to divine right, Hobbes and Locke claimed that humans can design their political order. This idea had a great impact on the thinkers in the Enlightenment period.

The Enlightenment thinkers argued that human beings are rational and can shape their destiny. Hence, no need of an absolute authority to control them. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant argued that people are peace lovers and that wars are the creation of absolute regimes (Burchill 2001:33). As far as Kant was concerned, this system was effective to guard against the domination of a single interest and check the tyranny of the majority (Alagappa 2004:30).

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 "bürgerliche 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 (Brown 2001:74).

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 (Ibid:30). 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 (see for example Tvedt 1998).

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 foundations
  • 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)

Not every institution of civil society is a 'countervailing power' to the state.

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