History Of Civil Society Research Paper

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Historically, the idea of civil society takes two very different forms. In the first, civil society is ‘political community’ (societas civilis or koinonia politike) encompassing a state undifferentiated from society (Ellis 2000). Here, civil society is coterminous with the state: that is power relations ordered through law and institutions with the objective of ensuring social harmony. In the second, civil society is a self-regulating, self-governing body outside and often in opposition to the state, represented both as the nexus of societal associations expected to generate civility, social cohesion and morality, and as the site of reciprocal economic relations among individuals engaged in market exchange activity.

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1. Koinonia Politike And Its Historical Modulations

In Greek and Roman political thought the notion of civil society as political community was not limited to the legal category of citizenship. Central to Aristotle’s (384–22 BC) conception of political community was the recognition that people lived in different social spheres and their status varied in terms of property, skills, and abilities. The art of politics was the use of laws and institutions to organize activities within these different spheres with the objective of attaining a harmonious or ‘just’ social environment. Aristotle regarded the citizen as one who shared in the administration of justice and held office to this end (Aristotle 1965). In this sense, citizenship in the Athenian city-state was as much a moral as a legal category (Ehrenberg 1999). The household was not excluded from Aristotle’s moral scheme. Household subsistence production was ‘natural,’ while production for commercial exchange and profit was ‘unnatural’ and subversive of the moral order. The exercise of justice presupposed constraints on commercial activity.

For Cicero (106–43 BC) and the Roman lawyers, civil society (societas civilis) was the equivalent of res publica (commonwealth), or ‘an assemblage of people in large numbers associated in an agreement with respect to justice and a partnership for the common good’ (Cicero 1988). Cicero viewed justice as rooted in man’s natural ‘social spirit’ which was informed by reason and induced individuals to forego a measure of self-interest in the interest of common good (Ehrenberg 1999). Cicero was writing when Rome had ceased to be a harmonious ‘commonwealth’ run by its citizens and their subsistence producing households, but had become an imperial city in which landowners, financiers, and merchants coexisted uneasily with a vast and hungry population of peasants and slaves. Cicero saw the realization of justice as the ‘even balancing of rights, duties and functions’ within the state (Cicero 1988). Societas civilis thus represented groups and individuals united by laws and institutions, which organized their activities and sought to achieve a flexible equilibrium among them.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, the various societies of western Eurasia generally conformed to the Aristotelian model of a politically constituted moral community. In western Europe, however, the idea of koinonia politike virtually disappeared during the Middle Ages when extreme political fragmentation led to the Church assuming a central role in government and social life.

On the other hand, in the Byzantine Empire, the idea of a politically constituted community persisted and the Church was subordinated to the political and moral authority of the emperor. The Ottoman Empire succeeded to this mode of political discourse, but added ideas of bureaucratic and hierarchical organization derived from the political traditions of the agrarian empires farther east, notably Persia. This synthesis, which predated the Ottomans, was formalized in the ninth and tenth centuries by Islamic philosophers well-versed in the works of Plato and Aristotle, as well as by the bureaucratic elites of the Islamic states who were educated in the Persian tradition. It was resisted by some sections of the Islamic establishment on the grounds of the equality of all before God. The ensuing power struggles did not, however, result in an autonomous ‘Islamic Church,’ but rather the religious establishment was subsumed within the political hierarchy.

In the Ottoman Empire, koinonia politike was epitomized by the figure of the just ruler, whose ability to establish ‘good order,’ or shariah in the Islamic sense, predicated upon an absence of social strife, constituted justice. Exercise of justice involved laws and institutions accommodating different interest groups in order to sustain the conditions for household subsistence production and to achieve equitable distribution of resources among power holders. Thus laws and institutions represented negotiated settlements between the ruler and different interest groups.

In western Europe, the idea of community created by God and comprising all mankind (i.e., all Christians) was a challenge to the notion of differentiated community constituted through politics to achieve social harmony and justice. St Augustine’s City of God (De Civitate Dei, 413–26), where men were equal before God and united in the universal church, stood in contrast to the Greek and Roman polis of differentiated spheres of life. The Church and the temporal rulers responsible for its government derived their right to rule from God and stood outside the community.

However, struggles between the Church and temporal rulers, coinciding with the rise of monarchies, resulted in the division of social activities into spiritual and temporal spheres governed, respectively, by the Church and the kings. The concept of koinonia politike found a new foothold in the institution of monarchy. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, European monarchs, endowed with divine right and with absolute powers, nevertheless engaged in constant negotiations with different interest groups. Political society rested on the exchange of entitlements to different groups and individuals in return for their obedience and or services they rendered.

2. Koinonia Politike Transformed

In the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, following a period of religiously-driven civil wars, the idea of a Christian koinonia politike was replaced by the concept of the overriding sovereignty of the secular ruler who subordinated religious claims and restored peace. This was the Hobbesian moment in which the modern state rose to define, limit, and enforce moral alternatives to God’s order (Maier 1987). Competition among European monarchies, warfare, civil war, and peasant uprisings all contributed to centralization of political power. By the end of the seventeenth century, this was reflected in the institution of the sovereign monarch as a site of bureaucratic administration and regulation. Commercial expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries meant that economic activity became a primary target of state regulation. The administrative, regulatory state was represented in discourses on economic administration that combined cameralism, mercantilism, political arithmetic, and bullionism.

Thus political or civil society was no longer the politically constituted community characterized by a diffusion of political power. Instead, political society referred to the sphere of absolute sovereignty. Social harmony, which remained the legitimizing objective of rule, was the product of bureaucratic regulations and no longer the outcome of reciprocal exchanges or negotiated settlements between the ruler and the different sectors of society.

Attempts to formalize the sovereign state also had the effect of pointing to the existence of a sphere outside the political domain. In the latter part of the eighteenth century, a new conception of civil society as the site of self-regulation developed, referring to voluntary associations freed from the corporate grip of the Church and urban institutions and to the sphere of economic activity . This concept of a self-regulatory, self-governing society was often in opposition to the regulatory, political domain of the state.

The dichotomous conception of state and civil society, was, however, preceded by the distinction in Natural Law theory between status civilis and status naturalis (Tribe 1988). The latter was the sphere of discord which the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1674) described as bellum omnium contra omnes—barter society in which individuals contracted with and against one another (Hobbes 1949), and to which his countryman John Locke (1632–1704) assigned the contentious process of the formation of private property. For Hobbes, the state of nature ended when it submitted to the ‘civil union’ ‘called state or civil society.’ For the Prussian Cameralists of the same period, organization of economic activity in political society, or its regulation, ensured the security and prosperity of the commonwealth, including providing the population with subsistence and productive employment. For the English mercantilist, James Steuart (1712–90), self-interest had to be restrained and directed by the ‘reason of state’ if it were not to damage public good, which he defined in terms of England’s increasing commercial success.

Concentration of political power in administrative monarchies had resulted in a decline in the importance of the corporate bodies and deliberative institutions that had earlier served to mediate power. Groups that were excluded from the political process, as well as new bureaucratic elites and commercial classes, sought inclusion through societal associations and political institutions that could provide them with a voice against absolutism. In France, Britain, and Germany respectively, Montesquieu (1689–1755), Ferguson (1723–1816), and Kant (1724–1804) proposed conceptions of civil society focused on delineation of associational spaces, of environments for societal negotiations, of civility, and of publicity (Jacob 1991).

Responding to the despotism of the eighteenth-century French ancient regime, Montesquieu saw in civil society (l’etat civil ) a context for the societal negotiation of the absolute power of the monarch that was not a domain separate from the monarchy. His concept of division of powers addressed a situation in which the monarchy had severed itself from the network of power relations within the political society and had appropriated for itself a separate sphere of power (l’etat politique). It sought to reintroduce the monarch into the l’etat civil by means of institutions that would check the absolute authority of the ruler and balance it against the authority of the landed aristocracy, their advocates in the judiciary, and commercial interests (Richter 1998).

Kant first employed the notion of civil society, or burgerliche Gesellschaft, in the sense of political society inseparable from the Prussian absolutism of Frederick the Great (1712–1786), which he considered indispensable for social stability. Secondly, burgerliche Gesellschaft referred to the public sphere or a domain of literate citizenry that was separate from the arena of political power and action. Kant regarded the political arena as the reserve of the state, or the ruler. Burgerliche Gesellschaft referred to a sphere ‘beyond the political order,’ ‘beyond the particularistic concerns of political action’ where practical issues of governance could be debated on the basis of universal principles of reason. For Kant, the critical practice of exposing actual state policies to the light of universal reason could act to restrain the absolute power of the ruler as well as legitimizing his power (Ellis 2000). Kant’s burgerliche Gesellschaft was composed of individuals from the Prussian bureaucratic and bourgeois elites, educated and trained in state schools and administrative offices, as well as members of social clubs and associations, who could by dint of reason rise beyond the trappings of class or official status.

The thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment who addressed the issue of civil society did not limit themselves to the issue of restraints to centralized state authority. Adam Ferguson pointed to the corrosion of civic spirit in political society, where the successful commercial classes became servile to the administrative state, which provided them with a ‘rule of law’ but deprived them of their traditional rights (Keane 1988, Ferguson 1995). He conceived of civil society as networks of self-governing and self-regulating voluntary associations, such as self-help groups and ‘friendly’ or charitable societies, which had expanded rapidly in the eighteenth century and, in Britain, played an important part in poverty relief efforts. Ferguson pointed to the potential of voluntary associations for engendering civility beyond the special interests of state administration and the commercial classes. The central question facing Ferguson and other eighteenth century European thinkers was how society increasingly differentiated administratively and economically, could remain integrated and harmonious. For Ferguson, as for his compatriot, David Hume (1711–1776), civility was the basis for social cohesion, and he saw it as rooted in sociability or moral and emotional communication among persons ‘that fostered social bonds and friendships and cultivated manners and moral tastes’ (Trentmann 2000). Ferguson did not place civil society in opposition to the state; rather, civil society constituted a protective shield from the uncertainties of social and political life.

3. Civil Society As A Separate Domain

For Adam Smith (1723–1790), also a thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment, civilized society consisted in self-regulating and interdependent networks of economic relations among individuals and groups, originating in the decisions of individuals competing in markets for goods, labor and capital. Economic activities of self-interested individuals were guided by the universal, natural laws of supply and demand. For Smith, the civilizing of economic society and the harmonizing of individual interests presupposed a mode of sociability and reciprocal sympathies among individuals (Trentmann 2000).

Smith proposed a separation between the civilized society of economic activity and the political sphere of the state and insisted on the liberation of labor, capital (including land), and goods from the network of relations of political society. The doctrine of laissez faire, laissez passez, first introduced by the eighteenth-century French Physiocrats and taken up by Smith, was a plea for the removal of regulations that privileged the landed classes through restrictions on the grain trade, merchants through grants of monopolies, and the ‘poor’ through grain subsidies provided by the Poor Laws. Smith was an advocate for the new industrial order and opposed to regulations that represented interventions by the state in the economic process, including the free exchange of labor, capital (including land), and of goods.

Smith argued that if individuals, unimpeded by privilege and state regulation, could act in accordance with their self-interest, markets could be trusted to allocate resources equitably in the form of wages, rents, and profits. This, for Smith, was the key to progress, economic growth, and national prosperity (Smith 1974). On the other hand, he was not entirely indifferent to the dislocations generated by markets and he assigned the civil state the duties of administering justice and providing security, including the protection of private property and correction of severe inequalities created by market forces.

Smith’s civilized society, like Ferguson’s civil society, Kant’s burgerliche Gesellschaft, and Montesquieu’s l’etat civil, represented positive images of civil society, which, in the course of encounters with hitherto unknown regions of Asia and the Americas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, became part of Europe’s definition of itself as the domain of the ‘civilized’ (Kocka 2000). The discourse of civilized Europe created its opposite in images of an uncivilized non-Europe, notably the East, which was perceived as the domain of despotism pace Montesquieu, of chafing regulations over economic activity pace Smith, and of the absence of private property pace Marx. Following the last decade of the eighteenth century, with the onset of revolutionary upheavals against absolutist regimes, the terms burgerliche Gesellschaft and civil society were increasingly equated with bourgeois society and acquired a negative connotation as ‘the reign of dissoluteness, misery and physical and ethical corruption’ (Hegel 1967, Kocka 2000). The European idea of itself as ‘civilized’ was effectively distanced from understandings of civil society as bourgeois society . No matter how ‘barbaric’ Europe became in Europe, it would remain ‘civilized’ vis-a-vis non-Europe, its optimistic image of itself having been fixed in a vocabulary of domination.

Hegel (1770–1831) responded to this situation with the idea of the universal state that was to end the separation between the political and the economic. He subscribed to the political economists’ notion of civil society as a nexus of economic interests and relation- ships that continuously reproduce themselves. He did not, however, share Smith’s utopian faith in the mechanistic operations of the market. Revolutionary upheavals had revealed a discrepancy between models of an orderly economy subject to universal laws of nature and the chaotic reality of contemporary society. Conceptualizations of civil society as an autonomous domain capable of generating order and progress through its own dynamics now appeared dubious. Hegel’s civil society was not the civilized society of Smith, but bourgeois society which manifested extremes of wealth and poverty that threatened to destroy the productivity of individuals pursuing their self-interest (Reidel 1984). The destructive potential of civil society, he felt, could be restrained through redirecting individual self-interest by administrative means, including justice, police, and moral measures.

Marx (1818–1883) subscribed to Hegel’s critique of political economy and his conception of civil society as an arena of self-interest and divisiveness with a potential for self-destruction (Bottomore 1983). But unlike Hegel, Marx was not concerned with the containment of bourgeois society’s destructive potential. Instead he focused on the revolutionary transformation of economic relations in civil society, which he believed was possible through the mobilization of conflicts between different interest groups. For Marx, the state, distinct from civil society or burgerliche Gesellschaft, is largely limited to formalistic and negative activities since in his view, civil society both preceded and determined the state. Civil society required no regulation but was ruled through the contingencies of class struggle.

4. Civil Society And The Liberal State

Political and academic debates of the nineteenth century addressed the question of how to achieve social stability in market societies where the logic of economic activity overrode moral and political concerns regarding equity. Civil, or liberal, society was perceived as a domain shaped by or reformed through the practices of a central state representing the public interest. This constitutes a major departure from eighteenth century thinking. On the one hand, civil society, its actors, its activities, and the economic relations that characterized it, were viewed as inseparable from their legal and administrative formulations. This resulted in the creation of legal entities including trade unions, corporations, and family, and of voluntary and charitable associations, which, while autonomous from the state, remained within the bounds of its administrative–legal vision (Neocleous 1996). On the other hand, the state, ‘objectified’ in its administrative and legal practices, was understood to stand apart from civil society and to mediate divergent interests and needs.

From the perspective of the English utilitarians, most notably Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), and of the German social economist Lorenz von Stein (1815– 1890), civil society, or the market economy of the political economists, needed to be actively constituted. It was not enough simply to remove the obstacles of obsolete privilege and restrictive policies of mercantilism of the ancien regime. For Bentham, the new economic order required positive state intervention, and government was inseparable from an ‘art of directing the national industry to purposes to which it may be directed with greatest advantage.’ Von Stein, agreeing with Hegel’s perception of civil society as a site of conflict and oppression, identified the ‘social problem’ as the main obstacle to economic progress. Progress required a market economy, or civil society; however, the injustices and inequalities it generated must be ameliorated through the state’s administrative activity. The creation of social citizenship and the active participation of the citizen in the state’s decision making were central to this process (Pasquino 1981). Thus, civil society represented an outcome of collective struggles and clashes among divergent interests that were mediated through the state’s administrative practices, so that for von Stein, as for Bentham, the state was not the Rechtsstaat (‘rule of law’ state) that stood outside civil society, but the Sozialstaat (social state) representing a process whereby society was continuously formed and reformed.

Not all observers of nineteenth century Europe saw the centralized administrative state as the liberator of civil society. Conservative Romantics rejected the notion of the state or politics shaping society and assigned self-policing power to society and church. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) in his De la democratie en Amerique (1835–1840) saw the real danger to modern society in the new despotism of the allpervasive state administrations rather than in class conflicts. Anticipating his fellow Frenchman, Michel Foucault (1926–84), de Tocqueville pointed to the administrative suffocation of civil society as evidenced in the state’s monopoly of public education, health care, and social services to the poor and unemployed that subjected all aspects of citizens’ lives to state scrutiny (Keane 1988). De Tocqueville stressed the importance of voluntary associations in placing checks on administrative despotism by providing the services that people expected from government, thus preempting government intervention in civil society. Recalling the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment, de Tocqueville saw voluntary associations as generating and expressing community civic values.

Civil society all but disappeared from political and academic debates in the late nineteenth century and the period following World War I, a time of slackening economic growth, rising working-class activism, imperial rivalries, and wars, which witnessed the displacement of political power from state administrations to major organized groups in society. The European welfare states, heirs to the liberal states, increasingly became sites for centralized and bureaucratic bargaining among political parties, labor unions, and business cartels vying for economic and political power and blurring the distinction between state and civil society, public and private (Maier 1987).

Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), leader of the Italian Communist Party, represented a notable exception to the lack of interest in the notion of civil society in the post-World War I era. He reformulated the Marxist– Hegelian understanding of civil society in terms of the corporatist Zeitgeist of Italy in the 1920s. For Gramsci, civil society was not merely the sphere of individual needs but also of organizations where the hegemony of the ruling class and consent to that rule was negotiated. In this sense, civil society comprised not only all material (economic) but also political and cultural relations. While Marx insisted on separation between state and society, Gramsci held the two were interrelated. Hegemony, which was basic to Gramsci’s notion of civil society, presupposed ‘interpretations’ of the economic structure; that is, the political and cultural mediation of different interests (Bobbio 1988). In that sense, Gramsci had a kindred spirit in Hegel rather than Marx.

5. Late Twentieth Century Understandings Of Civil Society

After World War II, the European political and economic order focused politics on the state with welfare states subsuming civil society to state regulation. As in the late nineteenth century and the post-World War I era, economic growth, distribution, and security represented the core themes of politics. However, now these themes were generalized to regions outside Western Europe, including Eastern Europe and post-colonial societies in the so-called Third World. The different regions varied greatly in terms of how growth was attained and sustained, and the efficiency of realizing their economic and social goals. They also varied in terms of their political institutions and modes of resolution of social and political conflict. From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s sustained economic growth in the capitalist economies of Western Europe and North America made challenges to economic redistribution less urgent, and the internationalization of the security problem (e.g., the formation of NATO) led to a consensus regarding security. Capital transfers from a booming United States economy, including military and economic aid, helped to sustain the developing states of the Third World, while the statist socialist regimes relied on the ideological and political disciplining of their populations to generate surpluses centrally distributed by the state.

During the 1950s and 1960s, some social scientists in Western Europe and the United States predicted that under conditions of long-term growth, political problems could be largely transformed into noncontroversial administrative routines resolvable by experts. Socialist regimes perfected this functionalist perception of politics where government excluded all competing forms of political organization, including political parties, trade unions, and collective bargaining. However, this perspective precluded discussion of civil society. Socialist ideologues identified civil society with bourgeois society and held it was superseded by the advent of socialism.

In the mid-1970s, slowing economic growth in the advanced capitalist societies resulted in constraints on the ability of the state to tax business and distribute assistance to the working class in the form of social welfare benefits. The fiscal crisis was further aggravated by rising costs of welfare provisions, and called into question the validity of ideas that subsumed society to state regulation. Since the 1970s, social and political debates have largely focused on the critique of social statism and the differentiation of civil society from the state.

From a neo-conservative stance, over-politicization of the state and the fusion of political and nonpolitical spheres of social life has eroded political authority, weakened governability, and destroyed the autonomy and authority of non-political spheres, including family, religion, and the market. Neoconservatives proposed the boundaries between state and civil society be redrawn. Civil society, in opposition to the state, represented the depoliticized sphere of market activity and all else, including religion and family. It should be reintegrated through a cultural model that cohered the exchange activities of self-interested individuals. This is a model of the self-regulating civil society of non-profit voluntary associations reminiscent of the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment. During the 1980s and 1990s, social science paradigms based on individual self-interest and rational expectations, presented models for social programming that would render a politicized civil society unnecessary. In the neoconservative view, the state is a lean structure characterized by effective authoritarian forms of action, approximated by its Thatcherite interpretation in 1980s Britain.

For proponents of the voluntary social movements paradigm, statism had disastrous environmental, political, and social consequences. They proposed an understanding of civil society as an autonomous politicized sphere independent of regulation and constraint by bureaucratic political institutions. Social movements such as the environmentalist, anti-nuclear, and women’s and gay movements of the 1970s, were politically motivated by concerns about the environment and quality of life, and issues of equity, authenticity, and participation. Their agendas required ‘spontaneous’ organization and not ‘officially’ sanctioned institutions of political parties and trade unions. Here, civil society referred to an intermediate institutional space between private (personal) and public (the object of official political institutions and actors).

Jurgen Habermas’ (1929) idea of public sphere parallels this understanding of civil society in the context of ideas and communications; it includes the organization of civic or bourgeois opinion as represented by associations and media. Public sphere is a space where communication about collective values takes place. In advanced capitalist societies where political and economic domains merge, the state became a major actor in the market economy and thus no longer able to advance the common good. This, for Habermas, signals the legitimation crisis of advanced capitalist societies and raises the issue of the formulation of a public discourse outside of the spheres of market economy and the welfare state and in doing so, (in the spirit of Kant) subjects both spheres to the critical scrutiny of communicative rationality.

In the mid-1970s, the crises in socialist states, initially Poland, provoked Central and Eastern European intellectuals to address the issue of the politicization of civil society. After failed revolutions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968), the new evolutionism of Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron proposed the bottom-up construction of a civil society to repulse state intrusions into social life. For other dissident socialist intellectuals in the region, most notably Vaclav Havel, civil society represented the domain of anti-politics; it was a vision of society not simply independent of the state but opposed to it.

During the 1980s and 1990s in many parts of the world, including the former socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe, the expansion of the market system, including privatization programs, led to two divergent perceptions of civil society. The first represented civil society in opposition to global capitalism and to the state as the implementor of market reforms. The second emphasizes the centrality in civil society of religion, family, and voluntary associations for generating moral, economic, and cognitive norms.


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