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Civic Dictionary

Civil Society

Prepared by Carmen Sirianni and Lewis Friedland
editor-in-chief and research director of the Civic Practices Network

Civil society refers to that sphere of voluntary associations and informal networks in which individuals and groups engage in activities of public consequence. It is distinguished from the public activities of government because it is voluntary, and from the private activities of markets because it seeks common ground and public goods. It is often described as the "third sector." For democratic societies, it provides an essential link between citizens and the state. Its fundamental appeal since its origin in the Scottish Enlightenment is its attempt to synthesize public and private good.

Civil society includes voluntary associations of all sorts: churches, neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, fraternal and sororal organizations, charities, unions, parties, social movements, interest groups, and families. The inclusion of the family among those forms of social interaction between economy and state yields the broadest definition of civil society. The boundaries are defined variously in the theoretical literature, and there is much elasticity and ambiguity. Reformers in Eastern Europe, who have been key to reviving the use of the term in recent years, use it expansively to define the challenges of a democratic transition from statist regimes. American conservatives are likely to speak of "mediating structures" more narrowly, and focus on the family, neighborhood and local voluntary associations. Left-liberal intellectuals often make the new social movements (women's movement, environmental movement etc.) the heart of their argument for a renewed civil society that places the public sphere on more pluralistic foundations.

The "civil society argument," as Michael Walzer notes, is most useful as a corrective to other accounts of the good life and a democratic society. In particular, it is a corrective to those who see government and formal politics as the primary focus of good citizenship and source of public goods, as well as to those who see the market actions of individual consumers and corporate producers as largely responsible for freedom and the good life. Since these positions are often attached to political ideologies, the civil society argument is directed as a critique of both the left (too wedded to government action in the pursuit of distributive justice) and the right (too unconcerned about the destructive impact of competitive markets on the fabric of associational life). But there are important tendencies within theories of both left and right to recover new vitality by means of an emphasis on civil society.

In the American tradition, Tocqueville's writings on civil society in the early nineteenth century have been central, and are the touchstone for much of the revival of debate. Tocqueville noted the propensity of Americans, who live in a relative equality of conditions compared to their European counterparts, to form associations of all kinds and for all purposes, and in this lay the strength of their democracy. Civic associations reinforced the spirit of collaboration so vital for public affairs, and political associations, in turn, taught habits that could be transferred to nonpolitical forms of cooperation. Through associational life citizens are imbued with an ethic of "self-interest, rightly understood," in which an "enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state."

Recently, social critics have spoken of the decline of civil society in the United States as a result of expansive government and corporate sectors, as well as the narrowing of much of the voluntary sector to service and advocacy. The intrusion of the "therapeutic state," and its assumption of many roles previously performed by families and community institutions, has been targeted as a major factor by critics of the right and the left.

Some Relevant Issues

Civil society has experienced an enormous theoretical rebirth in recent years, which testifies to its pivotal role in modern democratic theory, as well as to a broader crisis of contemporary societies seeking new foundations for citizenship. But much of the writing on civil society is highly abstract, diffuse or hortatory. The challenge in the coming years will be to further concretize these theoretical debates in the context of practical action and innovation. Some issues are the following:

How can the institutions of civil society cultivate robust citizenship?

Civil society is populated with institutions whose role in developing robust citizenship is often weak and one-sided. These include, arguably: public interest groups that cannot mobilize their members beyond a narrow representation of interests; youth organizations that have become primarily recreation service providers; charities that reinforce models of community deficits; media that have forgotten how to help communities deliberate; universities that educate for a narrow professionalism; and new social movements that balkanize identities and proliferate victim statuses. If we have been "deskilled" as citizens, it is not simply the result of the bureaucratic welfare state, but of the erosion of some of the essential citizenship-enhancing functions of our civic institutions themselves. These need to be challenged to develop new capacities for practical civic education and institutional renewal.

How can government and markets be more firmly embedded in civil society?

This question emerges from theoretical critiques that see a steady "disembedding" of institutions in modern societies. We have some models of civic innovation that begin to address this problem, and we need more from which we can learn. "Good neighbor agreements" and similar civic environmental models use community-right-to-know laws to begin to embed market and production calculations of firms in the context of community compacts and advisory boards. Regulatory programs that convene stakeholders and trade associations in resolving disputes or developing cleaner technologies embed government in civil society by making it a catalyst of voluntary efforts that appeal to norms and mobilize networks. Some states fund battered women's shelters in a way that avoids a bureaucratic client model in favor of grassroots empowerment practices, community mobilization of assets, and multicultural dialogue on family violence. Some corporations give social service leaves that encourage employees to develop projects in the voluntary sector.

How can the density of associational life be reconstructed under new conditions of freedom and equality?

The institutions of civil society have often been ones of profound inequalities of power, and have inculcated traits of deference and subordination based on gender and race, rather than independent citizenship. They have often been ethnocentric as well. A heterogeneous society that seeks to devolve greater powers to civil society must do so in the framework of state protections, so that we can continue to secure the benefits of modern, universal citizenship, even as we seek to recover those of closer and more particularistic communities.

What is the role of government in supporting the kind of associational life appropriate to a vibrant democracy of free and equal citizens?

This is clearly a contentious political issue, but one open to a fruitful debate focused on specific kinds of programs and innovations.

Selected Readings

Rebuilding Civil Society, A Symposium from The New Democrat, vol.7, no. 2 (March-April 1995).

This symposium from the publication of the Democratic Leadership Council includes essays by Will Marshall, Benjamin Barber, Harry Boyte and Nancy Kari, as well as short case studies. All the pieces are accessible and nicely written, and engage the question of civil society in terms relevant for contemporary American politics.

William Schambra, "By The People: The Old Values of the New Citizenship," Policy Review (Summer 1994), 32-38.

A concise and powerful statement of the conservative argument that "it's up to civil society" to address our social problems. Schambra argues that the project of the modern progressive liberal state is to eradicate civil society and to transfer its functions to government. It does so in the name of restoring community, understood as national community. The author also poses hard questions for conservatives who utilize the argument that "it's up to civil society" as the conclusion, rather than the beginning of the challenge of how to recreate civil society where it has collapsed, retreated, or never formed.

Don E. Eberly, ed., Building a Community of Citizens: Civil Society in the 21st Century. Lanham, MD: University Press of America and the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, 1994.

Though the contributions are uneven, this volume provides easily accessible essays with practical import from a range of thinkers across the political spectrum, and is thus a useful barometer of political debate. The topics include religion, education, families, the inner city, parties and politics, as well as more general perspectives (libertarian, communitarian, populist, and traditionalist).

Michael Walzer, "The Civil Society Argument," in Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community, ed. Chantal Mouffe. London: Verso, 1992, 89-107.

A clear theoretical argument that looks at civil society as a corrective to four other approaches to the good society in political theory: the political community (Rousseau etc.), the cooperative economy (the utopian Marx), the marketplace, and the nation. Walzer argues from the perspective of one committed to equality and new forms of state action that can support democratic association building.

Sara Evans and Harry Boyte, Free Spaces: The Sources of Democratic Change in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

The best historical overview of those "free spaces" within civil society in America that have served as schools for democracy in repeated waves of popular struggle. Evans and Boyte are feminist and populist in their account, and focus on those forms within civil society that are of specific relevance to expanding the boundaries of democracy and empowering diverse communities.

Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992.

This is the most systematic statement of the theory of civil society and its relation to political theory. It is also one of the most technical and difficult. Cohen and Arato analyze the concept of civil society and attempt to develop a model which is most appropriate to modern democratic societies. The Introduction provides an excellent and reasonably accessible overview of the concept and current debates. The general reader might also look at Chapter 1, "The Contemporary Revival of Civil Society." The authors emphasize discourse ethics and new social movement theory, rather than community building and other forms of civic practice.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. New York: Harper and Row, 1969.

This is the classical work on American civil society, voluntarism, and civic virtue. It's length and style are sometimes forbidding. Tocqueville's central argument is that while America's laws were central to its democratic equality, its mores—by which he meant habits in the realms of religion, politics, and the economy—were more important still. The strong force of individualism was counterbalanced by an equally powerful associational life centered in the independent churches and voluntary associations. A selective reading could begin with: Vol. I, Chapter 9, "The Main Causes Tending to Maintain a Democratic Republic in the United States; Vol. II, Part I, Chapters 5-7 on religion; Vol. II, Part II in its entirety, but especially Chapters 1-9, on individualism, associations, and self interest; Vol. II, Part III, Chapters 1-2 on mores and Chapter 13 on equality.

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