On civil society

Lee Corbett, University of New South Wales

John Keane Global Civil Society?, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2003 (234 pp). ISBN 0-5128-9462-X (paperback) RRP $49.95.

Michael Edwards Civil Society, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2004 (138 pp). ISBN 0-7456-3133-9 (paperback) RRP $57.95.

A brief history of the rise, fall, and return of ‘civil society’ reads like a brief history of western political philosophy. Its origins in Aristotle, apogee in natural law philosophy, denunciation by Marx, abandonment in the age of economic criticism, and more recent return suggest more than intellectual fashion. The end of this path signals a renewed interest in law, and in the relationship between civil rights and democracy, justice and freedom.

Natural law philosophers (such as Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant) used the term civil society as an antonym for natural society. In natural society each person had only the rights they could defend for themselves. Civil society, by contrast, equipped each person with such rights as the state defended for them. For Kant, civil society was a higher form of social life because it transformed what each had only by force into theirs by right. In this phase of its life, civil society was synonymous with the existence of a state.

G.W.F. Hegel broke with this tradition by identifying civil society as pre-state society. Influenced by British writers Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, Hegel accepted that prior to the state there was some natural order to social life within the sphere of mutual dependence known as the economy. Hegel used the term civil society to refer to this sphere of life, between the family and state, which brought individuals into relationships of cooperation with others on the basis of their own inclinations to work and live. For Hegel the state stood above civil society, ensuring that the negative aspects of its organisation, such as pauperisation, were eradicated.

Karl Marx brought the end of the first life of the idea of civil society, replacing it with the more politically charged term ‘bourgeois society’. He was sure that civil society as Hegel defined it was where the real action was, but argued that civil society was so strongly shaped by class antagonism that it was more accurately described bourgeois. For the next century and a half, political philosophers and sociologists, both liberal and socialist, emphasised economic relations as the principle factor shaping society in general.

Karl Marx brought the end of the first life of the idea of civil society.

It is no coincidence that the term civil society re-entered the vocabulary of political science through the struggles against those states that had repudiated its existence. Marxism’s denunciation of civil society as ideological mystification of the real social relations of exploitation was in a large measure responsible for the denial of any autonomous role for either law or society against the state in communist societies. The fact that Marx identified civil society as the place where the real action of history occurred did not prevent the state in communist societies from dominating civil society in the name of civil society’s freedom. Soviet societies, characterised by what Fehér, Heller, and Márkus called a ‘dictatorship over needs’ (1984), had denied society any autonomy from the party-state in the formation of opinions, needs, and so forth. Pushing back the state and establishing democracy became the project of social movements such as Poland’s Solidarity.

With this historical revival, civil society has again come to be associated with non-state society. However, it is not the entirety of non-state society. A natural law approach like this defines civil society by the existence of laws that make natural rights into positive rights; rights protected by laws backed by a state. However, no one but the most hardened libertarian accepts that civil society is defined purely by the existence of basic laws. This juridical approach emphasises the important role law plays in civil society, but ignores the equally significant role of an autonomous social space where citizens can form opinions dealing with important social questions. Renewed interest in civil society reflects a renewed interest in the role that individuals can play collectively in linking law and society together, or, in other words, making democracy work through the efforts of citizens themselves.

A second point of interest is the debate within the literature on civil society over whether or not to include the economy within the definition. Does defining civil society as all of non-state society mean ignoring the different functions distinct parts of society play in modern liberal democracies? Or does excluding the economy from civil society imply a Marxist disdain for private economic liberty? This debate is significant for several reasons. Those who define civil society as distinct from the state accept the argument that the set of characteristics people expect to find in a particular civil society are not given by the state. The state may be required for their existence, but they exist outside the sphere of formal relations of power that define the state. In other words they are a quality of the relationships between individuals in a society, and those individuals and the state, not of the way the state itself is organised.

Whether the concept of civil society should include or be distinct from the economy raises the same questions. In the end, the decision to employ a term such as civil society implies that you believe there is something distinct to be studied under that name. Civil society lacks the analytical specificity of the concepts of ‘economy’ and ‘the state’, both of which identify processes and can be used to identify parts of society. Civil society is the same, insofar as it names a process associated with individuals acting in certain ways with certain goals in mind. However, it remains moot exactly what those means and ends are.

Global civil society?

Keane attempts to flesh out what kinds of relationships constitute global civil society.

John Keane has contributed significantly to the study of civil society. His latest book, Global Civil Society?, aims to clarify the concept of a global civil society and to contribute his own perspective on what is positive in the developments he outlines. The first section of the book, called ‘a new cosmology’ begins by outlining the emerging interest in studying a new socio-political environment: the global. From this emerging political landscape Keane discerns a set of relationships, institutions and processes that he names global civil society. He writes that global civil society

properly refers to a dynamic non-governmental system of interconnected socio-economic institutions that straddle the whole earth, and that have complex effects that are felt in its four corners … These non-governmental institutions and actors tend to pluralise power and to problematise violence’ (p. 8, his emphasis).

Reviving the idea of civil society in nation states reflected renewed interest in citizens’ role in making society democratic, just and peaceful. Similarly, the developing literature on global civil society reflects the emergence both of efforts towards justice and democracy among people and peoples, and of social scientific interest in understanding the sources and nature of these efforts. To this end, Keane attempts to flesh out what kinds of relationships constitute global civil society—who makes the rules, which norms dominate, and what sorts of institutions and processes are operating. Keane takes on three tasks: defining the relationship between formal power and people; sorting out what institutions make up global civil society; and defining the values that characterise and give a coherence to its participants.

With respect to the first task, the issue is the status of people within global civil society and the status of the power that regulates their interactions. Global civil society can only refer to non-state society, because there is no global state. Yet consistent with the tradition that defines civil society in terms of laws that transform power into right, Keane develops an idea of global political organisation that accords with his conception of global civil society. He uses the term cosmocracy to name the emerging form of global rule, which works through ‘multiplying, highly mobile and intersecting lines of governmental powers’ (p. 98) that aim to deal with emergent global issues.

Cosmocracy is not the same as what Keane calls ‘cosmopolitan democracy’. That model of a democracy of world-citizens misses what he takes to be the uniqueness of a world polity that is above and below the nation state. For Keane, cosmopolitan democracy’s model of a comity of nations and world citizenship is too normative and teleological. Keane seems eager to avoid either claiming or endorsing the existence of a polity on a global scale. Cosmocracy is messy, usefully inefficient, entropic and partial; its citizens are partisan, not cosmopolitan, and so global civil society contains much less normative or value consensus than would a polity of world citizens. Yet how can we be sure global civil society is more than a society of domestic élites operating a global level? Citizenship has always been a tool for levelling the playing field of political participation—one vote for every citizen and so on. The lack of such developments may not be as salutary as Keane believes it is, because it may mean that already empowered national actors take the stage and expand their influence.

Global civil society is ethically committed to non-violence and pluralism.

Keane’s second task addresses the question of what institutions and processes define global civil society. He includes the economy, giving three reasons. His first is an argument against excluding the economy, because ‘normatively speaking’ excluding the economy ‘implies that global civil society could in future survive without money or monetary exchanges’ (p. 75). For Keane, this communist fantasy ignores the reality that ‘markets are a necessary organising principle of all durable civil societies’ (p. 76). But this is true of the state as well, and so no credible grounds can be given for including the economy simply because civil society needs a market economy and the private rights that go along with it. Civil society also requires democracy; as Martin Krygier (1997) has pointed out, citizens must understand themselves as responsible for the law, as being the actual and legitimate authors of the law through their elected representatives. The state is not however, of civil society; both states and private economies are the necessary but not sufficient conditions of civil society.

His second argument is that there is an affinity between markets and civil societies; markets encourage the self-reliance and self-organisation that civil society relies upon. Again, this argument is unconvincing. Max Weber described what he called the elective affinity between capitalism and law; the same affinity holds for civil society and law. Civil society requires that the law, in Martin Krygier’s term, counts; the absence of fear, and trust that non-intimates will respect your civil rights, are preconditions for a flourishing civil society. Again, the institutions that make and uphold positive law are not of civil society. Their existence is necessary, but this does not convince Keane, or me, to include them in its definition. The same goes then for the economy. Laws, markets, and civil society have an affinity (which is why we tend to have all three), yet this does not mean they cannot and should not be held conceptually apart.

Finally, he argues, ‘if the aim is to strengthen global civil society by displacing market forces, then anything relating to the market … cannot by definition be useful in struggles to achieve that civilizing goal (p. 76).’ This is a restatement in political terms of his first two points, and I maintain my objection to its coherence If excluding the economy requires the politics of civil society to ‘“push back” all things capitalist’, the same is true of excluding the state. As the struggles of Solidarity demonstrated, the politics of civil society are both against total state domination of society, and, as Polányi (1957) showed, also against turning society into one great market. These struggles do not reject the existence of either the state or economy; just their domination of society. Thus Keane’s argument that civil society relies on and so includes economic action is not warranted.

His third main claim is that global civil society is ethically committed to non-violence and pluralism. Empirically this claim is warranted, yet what really matters is why people embrace this ethic. Keane surveys some approaches to this problem with a rather cavalier attitude; labelling each approach with an epithet such as the ‘School of Cantankerousness’ or the ‘Club of Believers in First Principles’. It seems only his ‘Ethic of global civil society’ avoids the naïveté of other approaches, in which he often discerns totalitarian impulses. Besides the ‘curmudgeons’ who deny the possibility of ethical consensus for various reasons, Keane most vigorously upbraids the neo-Kantians, whom he accuses of a moral universalism ‘that is anathema to civility’ (p. 200). Kant’s famous dictum of morality—that we should treat others as ends not means—has sustained a rich tradition of political philosophy which is in no sense exhausted. Whether or not you subscribe to the Kantian justification of morality, social science requires some account to be given of the motivations or forces that hold together polities such as ‘global civil society’.

Cultural sensitivity must not disarm us of the tools of social criticism.

For his part, Keane conceives of civil society ‘as a condition of possibility of multiple moralities’ (p. 196, his emphasis). Civil society is based on tolerance of moral pluralism, which means that ‘those who live within its bounds are duty-bound to enjoy and protect some of its moral ground rules’ (p. 197). The immediate question is why? Keane seems to hold onto a mix of empiricism—that is, people do observe these rules; and realism—that is, that civil society is the institutional precondition of morality (p. 201). For Keane, the universality of his ethics of moral pluralism is secured by its ability to deal with all moralities. However, it is difficult to avoid first principles, and saying that you do avoid them is not enough. In the end Keane is committed to a principled moral pluralism for reasons; reasons he defends on the basis that civil society is good, or at least better than the alternatives of ‘fear and blood.’

Why should we want, or tolerate multiple moralities? Is it because if we do not others will impose theirs on us? This Hobbesian civil society where we all agree to limit our claims out of fear of others’ malefactions would be precarious indeed. A fearful concord is not the same as a reasoned agreement. Take religious moralities for instance. Religious toleration, which Keane cites as evidence that religious moralities are compatible with civil society, is not internal to religious thought; it is a consequence of the modernisation of religion and the secular pressures exerted by civil society itself. Religious moral systems do not preclude toleration, but it is also consistent with religious morality to violate the human rights of non-believers in the name of ‘legitimate’ objectives. The question, ‘is it compatible with my religious beliefs to tolerate others’ beliefs?’ is not the same as, ‘is it right to tolerate others’ beliefs?’ It is the difference between simply agreeing out of expediency and agreeing ‘for the right reasons’ that sets apart a neo-Kantian justification of civil society from Keane’s. Keane’s argument that civil society is plural and ‘for that reason is a good thing’ (p. 202) gives no cause to suppose that individuals are committed to its existence out of anything other than fear; a social version of the ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD) policy pursued during the cold war. The fact of global political, economic, and social interdependence means that people are very often asked to judge other ways of life; oppressed minorities often ask for support against an oppressive majority’s way of life. If moral independence requires us to refrain from judging other ways of life, the potential of global civil society to advance justice and democracy is lost. Keane sacrifices the critical thrust of the concept of civil society in pursuit of realist claims, which in the end act as a cover for not engaging with the hard issues of global cultural change. Cultural sensitivity must not disarm us of the tools of social criticism.

What is to be done?

Michael Edwards’ slim volume Civil Society is less scholarly and pretentious yet more satisfying than Keane’s. It is both about civil society and for civil society; Edwards surveys with economy some main approaches to civil society and concludes with Lenin’s question ‘what is to be done?’ His main argument is that social equality underpins a healthy ‘associational ecosystem (p. 94).’ (It seems that de Tocqueville’s legacy is still alive and well in America.) He surveys various justifications of civil society, which he classifies as focusing on associational life, the public sphere, and the good society, usefully drawing out the main currents in the renewed American focus on civil society. The benefits of associational life, notably extolled by Robert Putnam, are often linked with the production of ‘social capital’; trust, reciprocity, and civic mindedness. Edwards points out that although social capital usefully highlights the resources that community groups rely on, associations by themselves can accomplish relatively little. This is his argument against the libertarian trend in American politics that advocates giving as much back to civil society as possible. For Edwards this localism naturally leads to an unequal and ghettoised society. Civil society as the good society does not just develop social capital, but solves social problems in ways that are considered good by the majority of citizens. According to Edwards, this requires the state to play a role in mediating the interests of associations. This mediating role naturally points us toward civil society as the public sphere; the space where particular interests are generalised and consensus on issues is worked up. If citizens acting in civil society are to abide by its norms, a public sphere must function to give access to as broad a range of voices as possible.

Civil society is about more than just non-violence and pluralism.

What then of Lenin’s question? The virtue of Edwards’ book is that he approaches civil society from the perspective of how to make it more effective in securing its objectives. Much as economists enquire into the conditions of an effective economy, Edwards pays attention to the conditions of effective civil society. He draws two conclusions; first that inequality and discrimination are not simply uncivil, but that they subvert the effective functioning of civil society; second, that the state must support ‘innovations in associational life’ (p. 96). The liberal insight that people who are left to their own devices are often best at solving their own problems must be coupled with the insight that, just as in the economy, impediments to the effective operation of a civil society build up over time and have solutions best delivered by the state.

This constructive approach to civil society is a function of Edwards’ willingness to offer normative standards against which we can assess the operation of actual civil societies. This does not imply a lack of realism that blithely ignores the actual understanding of people in civil society. Rather it means reconstructing social behaviour within a framework of theoretical knowledge that critically examines what people say they do. Civil society is about more than just non-violence and pluralism; or at least it ought to be. Its ethical commitments have purposes, such as justice and democracy. If a link can be forged between civil society and increases in justice and democracy, then we can inquire not just whether civil society exists as a plurality of institutions, but whether it does its job well and what determines its success or failure. Pursuing these objectives on a global scale is more difficult, yet arguably more pressing, now that the major threats to civility move below and above the nation-state.


Fehér, F., Heller, A. & Márkus, G. 1984, Dictatorship Over Needs: An Analysis of Soviet Societies, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.

Krygier, M. 1997, ‘Virtuous circles: Antipodean reflections on power, institutions, and civil society’, East European Politics and Societies, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 36–88.

Polányi, K. 1957, The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, Boston.

Lee Corbett is a doctoral researcher in sociology at the University of New South Wales. His research interests are in political sociology, including civil society, postcolonial politics and democracy.

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