Monday, January 07, 2013

Civil Society

Andrew Arato*

From the mid-1980s to the present, civil society has been a key category of democratic politics, increasingly in a genuinely international setting. Its still undiminished importance is a product of learning experiences first and foremost within the tradition of left politics and social movements, one that certainly involved an opening to liberal democratic and sometimes classical conservative concepts. As all really important political terms, civil society is a highly contested one. There are today many versions, liberal, radical democratic, communitarian and even neo-liberal variants, staunchly secular and “accomodationst” versions along with different ways of drawing on alternative national and religious traditions. But all versions, with the exception of extreme libertarianism and authoritarian communitarianism do have an essential assumption in common. They break with a political theology based on the revolutionary, or populist reoccupation of the symbolic center of society [1], whether by the state, a party or a movement,[2] as well as the rejection of a Freund-Feind definition of the political that would entail dealing with internal opponents as enemies.[3]

The category originates in Latin translations of Aristotle’s definition of the polis, whereby politike koinonia became societas civilis. As Manfred Riedel has shown in several brilliant studies,[4] for a long time the original identity of civil society and state or republic was maintained. Even the dualism of the Staendestaat[5] did not introduce a differentiated civil society. That differentiation emerged under the double impact of the formation of early modern absolutist states, and the emergence of an increasingly autonomous market economy. Civil society could now be seen alternately as identical with the main actors and institutions of the economy, or as an institutional framework different than either state or market, potentially resisting the homogenizing penetration of both. This dual possibility, initially represented by the struggle between liberal and socialist conceptions has been preserved down to our day. Liberalism has tended to operate with a dualistic “society against the state” conception and refused to thematize the “colonizing” effects of self-regulating market on “the social”.[6] Socialism either saw this issue in terms open to state interventionism understood as neutral regulation, or, as anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism rejected both market rationality and the administrative state. Different and alternative concepts of civil society resulted from this political as well as intellectual struggle.

Intellectual Sources

We inherit civil society not only from the general history of concepts, but from some of the major texts in the history of philosophy as well as social and political thought.

The names of authors who have used the term yield a very long list, but among them Hegel, Tocqueville, Marx, Gramsci, Polanyi (“the social”), and Habermas are the classics that remain most informative from the point of view of contemporary usage.[7] After the de-politicized transformation of the classical concept in the Scottish Enlightenment, as civilized society[8] (understanding the referent as the whole of society or even civilization) it was the great merit of Hegel[9] to have introduced, within the framework of liberal differentiation of state and society, the levels of civil society that he saw in terms of an economic “system of needs”, a system of associational life called “corporations” and the public sphere of communication. Thus he already understood the non-reducibility of civil society to merely one of its categories, the economic. But he certainly underestimated the tendencies of the capitalist market economy to instrumentalize the social, and to structure its associational life as class relations that he was on the verge of discovering. Marx was to remedy these oversights, but at the cost of an identification of the civic and the bourgeois, a move facilitated by German translation of societas civilis as bürgerliche Gesellschaft. In his analysis, Hegel’s civil society tended to disappear altogether, and this reduction had major effect on subsequent Marxist thought (with Bernstein’s re-identification of bürger and citizen succesful in the practice of Social Democracy, but not in theory).[10] Thus the further development of the concept had devolved on other major thinkers, in both liberal and socialist traditions. Within the former, it is the work of Alexis de Tocqueville[11] and his followers that is undoubtedly the most significant. Independently of Hegel, Tocqueville stressed the role of associational life as the space of democratic pedagogy. He understood associations in terms of the modern category of „voluntarism“. Armed also with a more modern understanding of politics, Tocqueville has also discovered political parties and distinguished therefore between civil and political society in terms of their different logics and organizational forms. Finally, he thematized the role of public communication, especially the press, as the medium through which the local phenomena of associational life could gain national and even universal significance.

In the Marxist tradition[12] it was Antonio Gramsci who first returned to the Hegelian themes, and throroughly reversed the reduction of the civil to the bourgeois. Gramsci understood civil society, uniquely, on the model of religious institutions (the Catholic Church) capable of manufacturing hegemony for the existing system of domination. While Gramsci understood that differentiation and independence of civil society instituions to be required for the achievement of hegemony, he retained an instrumental relationship to this independence. Unlike in Tocqueville, civil society was not the proper space of democracy, but the location where the agency for the construction of an entirely other kind of democracy, no longer differentiated from the state, could be achieved.[13]

The relationship of Jürgen Habermas to the category of civil society he has helped to recover, the public sphere,[14] was no longer instrumental. Habermas understood the public sphere as the core of democracy, and was to develop this perspective in his discourse ethics and communication theory of modern society, In line with his older Frankfurt school mentors, he initially understood the problem of civil society and public sphere in terms of the decline of all classical bourgeois institutions. This emphasis was reversed in terms of the colonization/de-colonization thesis of his later work.[15] One bridge between Habermas early and Habermas late is supplied by the work of Karl Polanyi.[16] The Hungarian economic theorist has provided an early version of the colonization thesis, understood as the attack on the social by a disembedded supposedly self-regulating market economy. He did not see the process as linear decline, and considered state intervention on behalf of the social as the historical remedy. In a different epoch, during the crisis of the traditional welfare state, Habermas saw not only the economic system, but also the administrative one as agent and source of colonization, of the “lifeworld“ whose major institutions were the same as traditionally civil society.[17] Habermas understood the modernization and democratization of the lifeworld as distancing from, and control over both economic and administrative institutions by associations, movements and „weak publics“. It is this move that led to the most elaborate, and normatively most critical version of the civil society concept. To complete this type of theorizing on the level of political action two important steps still had to follow: the replacement of power by influence, and insurrection by civil disobedience.[18] These conceptual innovations allow the development of models of control and scenarios of struggle that block the transformation of civil society in an authoritarian direction, and allow the sustenance of ist plurality.[19]

Contexts of Revival

The step to contemporary versions was not driven primarily by theory, but by normative learning experiences by political actors, intellectuals and militants.

Whether in Brazil, or in Poland, in the U.S. or South Africa, in the initial phase a post Marxist atmosphere was dominant. This means that figures (thinkers and leaders) brought up on Hegel, Marx and Gramsci like F. Weffort and H. Cardoso in Brazil, or J. Mlynar, Kuron, A. Michnik , M. Vajda and J. Kis in Central Europe played the key roles. They were post Marxist in the sense of rejecting not only economism, and deterministic philosophies of history. Unlike others they did not retreat to the class or popular struggle characterized by radical friend-enemy conceptions. They rejected above all the substitutionism and leadership cults that still characterized other, populist currents within post Marxism. Most importantly, they learned from new movements that they saw operating beyond the rigid dichotomy of reform and revolution. Such movements were the democratic initiatives in Southern Europe under old and new dictatorships, and Latin America, under the Bureaucratic Authoritarian regimes established in the 1970s. In both contexts, activists thematized for the first time the role radical insurrectionary politics aiming at dictatorship of the left, contributing to the formation, consolidation and violence of the dictatorships of the right. In Central Europe and old Soviet Union the rejection of revolutionary mythologies was even easier, since here old regimes legitimated themselves in exactly those terms. Yet the latter had to be fundamentally changed though without recourse to total rupture, violence and political imposition. The new evolutionism and self-limiting revolution championed by Michnik and Kuron in Poland needed a new concept of agency, and this was found with the actors (associations and publics) of a self-constituting civil society. The second public of the Hungarian democratic opposition had the same source. The situation in the West was different, but even here the Marxist turn of the New Left partially incapacitated the various movements that played important roles in civil rights, women’s liberation, pacifism, and cultural expression of youth. When reconstructed as the “new social movements” of the 80s and after, feminism, ecology and peace movements abandoned all revolutionary illusions. Thus a new ideology was needed, and the orientation to civil society often supplied what was missing. Undoubtedly, there was learning from the democratic and human rights movements of the South and the Soviet world, and western intellectuals and initiatives played a role in further disseminating their concepts. These became especially important where radical transformation was on the agenda, but where the dangers of revolutionary answers were particularly obvious. Nowhere was this more true than in South Africa, that became the model case of radical democratic but not revolutionary transformation.[20]

Major Versions

Where civil society in terms of its classical Hegelian or Tocquevillian concepts was not yet established, all the initial movements were for civil society, though not yet of it. This created a certain ideological homogeneity, since all movements and initiatives sought to institutionalize the conditions of their own operation, i.e. civil society. Referring to civil society thus had a strongly performative dimension, the institutions referred to as agents were in part constituted by the politics, not only the discourse but the attempt at self-organization. Creating a free, legal labor union in Poland was emblematic of this operation, seeking to convert civil society as movement to civil society as institution, something that would be possible only on the bases of established and enforceable rights. The rights of institutionalized civil society (speech, press, conscience, personal privacy, association and assembly, freedom to organize), thus became substitutes for the imagined occupation of the symbolic center of society through the state or the party. However successful, the unity of civil society as movement everywhere led to pluralization under civil society as institution. Of the pantheon of rights different ones could be emphasized or neglected. While the tradition of the left was the main context of origins, the very success of the conceptual paradigm shift to civil society implied that many ideological conflicts would have to be carried out in the new terms.

Thus versions of the civil society concept emerged that would combat or at least replace the aim of radical democratization aiming also at the economy (workers or community control and ownership) by other desiderata. First, the classical liberal concept that identified civil society with the economy, in opposition to the modern state was revived in neo-liberal versions. This revival was especially plausible during the crisis of the welfare state, and remained so till the neo-liberal order and consensus themselves entered into crisis. Second, the individualism of the neo-liberal version was balanced by a communitarian response that recovered the critical relation to both economy and state but mostly in the defense of a traditional lifeworld. It remained important that these departures were compatible with democratic politics, and thus could serve as self-representation of associations, movements and publics within a larger now pluralized framework of civil society, even as they neglected to rely on its full categorical framework. Yet by their very existence they have expanded it. Contrary to Gramsci, the revival of the concept of civil society initially neglected religious associations, movements and publics, even as these played important roles in the struggle for and within civil societies, as in Poland (the Catholic Church[21]), the old East Germany (the Lutheran clerics) and in Latin America (liberation theology). With the pluralization of civil society, religious initiatives could be re-integrated and their already real public role could be affirmed.[22] In a world that with the exception of some of Europe remains religious, the inclusion of public religion strengthened the politics of civil society, even as it created new strains. Many remaining dictatorships could now be challenged more effectively, but there was also increasing doubt and radical disagreement concerning what to put in their place. Given the power of comprehensive world views, of religion as well as some secular ideologies, compromise with old rulers seems often an easier matter than the minimum consensus needed to sustain civil society. It is an even greater problem that traditional, without exception patriarchal concepts of civil society presuppose domination, especially gendered based within civil society institutions themselves. Given the importance of modern rights for the stabilization of civil society in its institutionalized phase, it is a serious problem that the pluralization of civil society has also meant the inclusion of institutions and discourses that deny many fundamental rights.

Open Questions

The literature on civil society is now immense, dealing with all regions of the world. There are many important questions that have been raised, and I will select only three.

1- How are we to evaluate non Western, post-colonial and subaltern civil societies? Do these represent entirely different modalities for which one should possibly not even use the same name? While there is no question concerning the significant heterogeneity of traditional societies and polities, noticed already by Aristotle, modern society or societies have undergone very important homogenizing trends in economic life, and due to the importance of the state in political life as well. With respect to civil society, the answer may depend on how seriously we take the concept of multiple modernities. All we can currently say is that in the last thirty or so years, many significant actors in all parts of the world have used the language of a struggle for civil society, and that their forms of organization as well as repertoires of non-violent public action have been astonishingly similar. Whether this is an objective fact, or a function of using common frameworks to schematize different phenomena I cannot tell: probably little of both. It may also be the case that revolutionary possibilities are not everywhere exhausted, thus the post-revolutionary context indicated for the thematization of a genuinely civil society based politics is missing in many contexts. In the Arab world e.g. we have seen the dominance of revolutionary rather than post-revolutionary discourse, in the context of political ruptures that from the legal point of view too can be seen a revolutionary [23]. Yet even here, in Egypt in particular, civil society discourse has appeared, even if, as elsewhere in the Arab world it has been overly linked to the world of NGOs.[24] While civil society based politics no longer can be seen as linked to post revolution, it may still play the role of a corrective to the dictatorial propensities of revolutionary process.

2 - How to interpret the ‘civil” enemies of civil society, and what to do about them? If we understand civil society, as we should, in terms of associations, movements and publics, it is quite obviously true that any of these forms could represent totalitarian, authoritarian or radical populist organizations or initiatives dedicated to destroying the parameters of institutionalized civil society: rights and the rule of law. Do these actors and organizations that generally seek to occupy the place of symbolic power, necessarily empty in democracies (Lefort), belong to civil society? Whereas the founding movements were for but not yet of civil society, it is quite plausible to define anti civil society movements, associations, organizations as of but not for civil society. In this they are similar to anti-democratic parties, that are of but not for a competitive party system. But the definitional solution cannot solve the political question either in the case of parties or civil society actors. In the case of parties, militant democracy[25] has been conceived as democracy’s self-defense against its own self-destructive possibilities that authoritarians always find amusing. But the cure may be as bad as the disease as one can see in Loewenstein’s original article, even if in some countries party closings have not lead to authoritarian outcomes. In others, they did and still do (Turkey). With extending the problem to civil society organizations the authoritarian potential of militant solutions would only grow. Not only organized activity but speech and association would have to come under scrutiny and control. Thus civil society and its political advocates must put up with anti-civil society movements up to a very high threshold and defeat them with the main instruments of civil society: speech and moral witness. The political influence of civil society should not aim at surveillance and repression, at least until and unless organizations clearly abandon their civil status, that would be the case e.g. if militias and vigilante groups emerged that interfered with the rights of others to speak, associate and organize.

3 - Finally, civil society is no longer tied exclusively to the nation state frame, if it ever was. Already during the 18th century Enlightenment, public discussion took an all European form. Today we can reasonably speak of a European and even international public sphere, with the proviso that in many areas national or even local publics may be more important. This state of affairs is only problematic if we rigidly adhere to the national frame of Hegel, or the two term comparative one (the U.S. and France) of Tocqueville. There is no theoretical difficulty also here in defining some associations, organizations, movements and publics as global or international. Politically of course there is a problem. Explicit interventions by the “hard power” of states and international organizations into the lives of weaker states is still a fact of international affairs. Unless however there is the strongest justification, legal and moral, we tend to consider such interventions remnants of imperialism, and thus illegitimate. The soft power of civil society organizations, NGOs and so on, seems to be a more legitimate enterprise, and yet as in the case of human rights organizations, these too have been considered shock troops of empire[26] (Hardt and Negri). When the associations in question are heavily subsidized by powerful states or their dominant political parties, the question arises whether [civil] politics is the continuation of war, by other means. (Foucault)[27] Yet the international circulation of political ideas and even actors cannot be stopped unless by strongly repressive means. Here too the answer must be very high level of tolerance unless specifiable thresholds of interference are clearly transgressed by money or power.


[1]See C. Lefort’s understanding of democracy in Democracy and Political Theory chapters 1 and 11 Minneapolis U. of Minnesota Press 19888

[2]And conversely, the main figures who seek to renew revolutionary or populist politics almost unanimously avoid using the term.

[3]See Carl Schmitt Concept of the Political

[4]See e.g. Gesellschaft, bürgerliche in Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe v. 2(Stuttgart, 1975)

[5]Poggi The Development of the Modern State (Stanford, 1978)

[6]Polanyi The Great Transformation (Boston, 1957)

[7]We have stressed four of these in Cohen and Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge, Mass, 1992), but Tocqueville and Polanyi should not be omitted

[8]Adam Ferguson

[9]Rechtsphilosophie (Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts in werke v.7 (Frankfurt, 1970)

[10]Class and Civil Society (Amherst, 1982)

[11]Especially Democracy in America (Chicago, 2000)

[12]As to other Socialist traditions, I would stress pluralism and syndicalism, a sin the work of G.D.H. Cole and the early Harold Laski, but of whom had the concept if not the term.

[13]E. Laclau On Populist Reason (London, 2007)

[14]Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge, 1989)

[15]Theory of Communicative Action (Cambridge, 1983) 2 volumes

[16]See Great Transformation

[17]See Cohen and Arato Civil Society and Poltical Theory, and following us in this aspect Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge, 1996)

[18]Cohen/Arato op.cit.

[19]The attempt to replace weak by strong, influential by decisional reintegrates civil society or public in a traditional revolutionary discourse, and is not compatible with the democratic and pluralistic thrust of these concepts. Cf. N. Fraser “Rethinking the Public Sphere: Contribution to a Critique of Real Existing Democracy” in C. Calhoun Habermas and the Public Sphere (Cambridge, Mass., 1993)

[20]Arato “Convention, Constituent Assembly, and Round Table” in Global Constituionalism v.1 # 1 (2012)

[21]But see Michnik The Church and the Left (Chicago, 1992)

[22]An especially important analysis of public religions is of course Jose Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago, 1994)

[23]Arato Civil society, Constitution and Legitimacy (Lanham, 2000)

[24]See e.g. Benoit Challand Palestinian Civil Society (London, 2008)

[25]K. Lowenstein’s famous essay in a. Sajo ed. Militant Democracy (Utrecht, 2007)

[26]Empire (Cambridge, Mass., 2001)

[27]Society Must be Defended (New York, 2003) 15ff


Andrew Arato is the Dorothy Hart Hirshon Professor in Political and Social Theory, has taught at Ecole des hautes etudes, and Sciences Po in Paris, and the Central European University in Budapest, had a Fulbright teaching grant to Montevideo in 1991, and was Distinguished Fulbright Professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt/M,Germany.
 Professor Arato has served as a consultant for the Hungarian Parliament on constitutional issues: 1996-1997, and as U.S. State Department Democracy Lecturer and Consultant (on Constitutional issues) Nepal 2007. He has been re-appointed by the State Department in the same capacity for Zimbabwe, during November of 2010 where he had discussions with civil society activists and political leaders in charge of the constitution making process. He was invited Professor at the College de France, Spring 2012. Go to his profile on The New School's website.

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