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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 (1723–1816) 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 (1723–1790), 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 (1770–1831) 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 (1689–1755) and the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), 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 (1712–1778) and the German social theorist and revolutionary Karl Marx (1818–1883), 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 (1891–1937), 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 hegemony—that 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 d’être 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.
- Baker, Gideon. 2002. Civil Society and Democratic Theory: Alternative Voices. London and New York: Routledge.
- Cohen, Jean L., and Andrew Arato. 1994. Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Dahrendorf, Ralf. 1997. After 1989: Morals, Revolution, and Civil Society. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
- Gramsci, Antonio. 2001. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. 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.  1958. On the Jewish Question. 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.  1987. On the Social Contract. and ed. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett. (Orig. pub. as Du Contrat Social, 1762.)
- Seligman, Adam B. 1995. The Idea of Civil Society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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