What the hell is 'civil society'?

About the author
Neera Chandhoke is professor of political science at the University of Delhi. Her books include State and Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory (Delhi, Sage, 1995), Beyond Secularism: The Rights of Religious Minorities (Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1999), and The Conceits of Civil Society (Delhi, Oxford University Press 2003.
Michael Edwards, author of Civil Society and target of criticism in Neera Chandhoke's essay, responds in our forums by noting that she employs "an unfaithful copy of [the book's] argument"
  1. The history of a concept
  2. Michael Edwards’s argument
  3. It’s good to talk
  4. Civil society and open politics

If globalisation has one body at its head it is the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In 2004, on its tenth anniversary, the WTO published a major report on its record and prospects, written by an influential committee chaired by Peter Sutherland (who created the WTO in 1994, and now chairs BP).

In looking forward to how the WTO should seek to shape its next decade, the report does not shirk contentious issues. The chapter on “Sovereignty” advises nation-states on the best way to share sovereignty for mutual benefit; another chapter, entitled “Transparency and dialogue with civil society”, examines the impact of what the authors call the “global associational revolution”.

Neera Chandhoke’s article is part of openDemocracy’s debate “What is open politics?”. For the story so far, see David Hayes’s summary

The authors consider the rise and influence of “civil society” to be irreversible. They advise the WTO on how best to engage with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), raise its own transparency and negotiate with non-state actors, at the same time dealing with their criticisms.

The report is a product of the post-Seattle, post-9/11 environment. It does not advocate free-market “neo-liberalism”; its concern is with the government of global forces and it sees civil society as one of them.

It is hard to imagine the establishment of civil society in such official discourse ten years ago. Even the considerable achievement of the four annual reports edited by Mary Kaldor on Global Civil Society and produced from the London School of Economics still have an air of advocacy about them. But “civil society”, one can now say, is here to stay. In its way this is confirmed by the ex-heads of state who compose the Club de Madrid. Their Madrid Agenda of March 2005 calls for “the creation of a global citizens network, linking the leaders of civil society at the forefront of the fight for democracy from across the world”.

The establishment of civil society also means that it has ceased to be a “hurrah” concept. This is in contrast to the 1990s when scholars, political activists, and some policy-makers hastened to acclaim the notion. Today there is much more restraint, hesitancy, ambiguity and scepticism amongst those who write about it. This, it seems to me, is a welcome development.

The reasons for the attraction of the term are easy to fathom. It is associated with three related developments:

  • the fall of authoritarian states in 1989 and the emergence of an apparently autonomous democratic public in the old Soviet world
  • the demise of state-sponsored development in the post-colonial societies, which attracted intellectuals and social practitioners to the concept as they sought new forces to organise progress
  • the attempts by donor agencies in the same parts of the world to bypass weak and corrupt official agencies, and grant funds to non-governmental organisations, also in the name of strengthening civil society.

Meanwhile the withdrawal of voters from political participation in developed countries, and the generalised feeling of alienation besetting citizens in western Europe and the United States also make the civil society argument attractive: it promises a return to associational life, enabling engagement with the state and fostering solidarity in the public sphere.

But although it has become popular across societies of very different levels and across all ideological hues, the notion of civil society has become confused and confusing. Michael Edwards, in his readable and finely nuanced Civil Society, intends to secure both the idea and the set of practices that constitute civil society. As a scholar and as what can be called a practitioner of civil society politics at the Ford Foundation (where his section has, among other things, helped to support openDemocracy) he sets out to clarify and reconstruct the concept.

He describes three different uses of the term:

  • as a description of varieties of association
  • as a value advocating the advantages of cooperation
  • as democratic ecosystem – a public sphere in which engagement with the whole future and shape of society takes place (or could take place).

“Civil society”, Edwards argues,

“is the story of ordinary people living extraordinary lives through their relationships with each other, driven forward by a vision of the world that is ruled by love and compassion, non-violence and solidarity.”

I share his hopes. But I hesitate to share his more than positive assessment of “civil society”, which by the end of a short but important book, overshadows his initial understanding of the problems it poses. I happen to be a political theorist, but I speak also as a citizen of India, where the politics of intolerance, fundamentalism, and rabid hate for minorities overtook India’s civil society far too easily in the late 1980s and the 1990s.

Citizens and media, pressure groups and political parties in much of the world are worrying over voter apathy, democratic deficits, and crises of representation. openDemocracy contributors analyse what is happening and search for a better way:

Mary Robinson (interview), “Making ‘global’ and ‘ethical’ rhyme” ( December 2003)

George Papandreou (interview), “‘Go ahead, George, change it all’” ( December 2004)

Anthony Barnett, “Parties for everyone?” ( December 2004)

Paul Hilder, “Open parties: a map of 21st century democracy” ( January 2005)

If you find these ideas and arguments valuable, please consider supporting openDemocracy’s work with a donation – and by contributing to our forum discussion

1. The history of a concept

I am more than troubled when Michael Edwards writes that philosophers have employed the concept of civil society since antiquity to help them understand such great issues of the day as:

  • the nature of the good society
  • the rights and responsibilities of citizens
  • the practices of politics and government
  • how to live together peacefully through the reconciliation of individual autonomy with collective aspirations
  • balancing freedom and its boundaries
  • marrying pluralism with conformity so that complex societies can function with both efficiency and justice.

That these great issues have preoccupied much of political philosophy since its inception is undeniable. But that all these issues have been grasped or addressed through the ages via the conceptual prism of “civil society” is highly debatable. By universalising it in this manner Edwards opens the way for it to be regarded as almost the positive side of human nature itself.

Hegel held to the contrary that civil society is a defining feature of the modern world. The Greeks, for example, would not even have recognised the concept. The only mode of organisation that they were familiar with and upheld was what Aristotle called koinonia politike. The Greeks possessed no notion of the inalienable right to individual freedom that is a prominent a feature of theories of civil society. Even if the term was sometimes used in pre-modern societies, only when modernity became the defining feature of the world did it acquire anything like the meaning we are familiar with.

In its modern usage, “civil society” was first developed in the Scottish Enlightenment. For one of its leading thinkers, Adam Ferguson, it was almost interchangeable with commercial society. In his classic text An Essay on the History of Civil Society, the notion is intimately linked to the emergence of the market economy. It is also a distinct domain characterised by moral and cultural accomplishments, the subjection of the government to the rule of law, a sense of public spiritedness, and a complex division of labour.

The division of labour is especially important. For Adam Ferguson, civil society arises when production moves out of the household and strangers become dependent on each other. He, and later classical political economists, regarded civil society as the fulcrum where individual and collective energies come together in a market economy based on the legal recognition of private property as the root of freedom.

Hegel too linked the rise of civil society to the development of the market. In The Philosophy of Right, he defined burgerliche gesellschaft (civil society) in distinction to der staat (the strictly political state) as a set of social practices created by the capitalist economy that reflects the ethos of the market. It is therefore a supremely modern concept, one that comes into being alongside the development of capitalism. It offers possibilities for self-realisation in a way that earlier forms of society did not. But Hegel was also conscious that civil society must suffer from the same problems as the market itself, which stem from self-interested action. For him it is not simply the realm of caring and mutual support, as contemporary theorists of civil society would have us believe.

Instead, Hegel discerns a profound tension between the individualistic ethos that creates civil society and the reproduction of the community as an ethical entity. When individuals are motivated by self-interest and self-aggrandisement, “civil society affords a spectacle of extravagance and want as well as of the physical and ethical degeneration common to both” (The Philosophy of Right). Modernity is restless, self-seeking and self-preserving, searching endlessly for gratification, even though it is emancipated from the pre-given ends and stipulated roles of feudalism.

That is why, for Hegel, civil society – despite being one of the “moments” of ethical life – has ultimately to be controlled; it has to be tamed by the state.

By contrast, the liberal tradition sees civil society as the setting for the associational life of individuals – who carry their rights within them. Governed by the rule of law, it sustains the formation of public opinion which serves in turn to restrain the state.

Liberal democrats, conscious of the propensity of self-interested action to destruct, hail associational life as an aid to resolving the problems of collective action. Today, people have to create shared lives, construct spheres of intimacy, invent areas of solidarity, and assume expectations of trust. A balance has to be found between self-serving individuality and sociability. But because associations are expected to do quite different things – from building moral values to solving the problem of unemployment – associational life is being burdened by too many expectations.

2. Michael Edwards’s argument: association, value, dialogue

The first aspect of Michael Edward’s definition of civil society is as an area of association, particularly connoting the phenomenal rise of non-governmental organisations. But in what sense are NGOs representative? Do they even consult the constituencies they cater for and, above all, who are they responsible to? The work of Helmut Anheier demonstrates that much of the non-governmental sector, far from being spontaneous, is highly professionalised and technical; nor is it always free of corruption, as the case of an environmental NGO in Mexico indicates.

Michael Edwards recognises that it is difficult to isolate the sphere of contemporary associations from the market and the state. But if they cannot be so isolated, what value does the “third sector” argument hold for us? There is such a great variety of associations – including cults and groups that preach violence. Do we place these associations within or outside civil society? And if outside, where do we put them?

What of caste- or religion-based associations? Do they belong to civil society? Many of these associations are not based on voluntary or revocable memberships, but perform the same functions that other civil society organisations do – satisfying the need for sociality, helping resolve the problems of collective action, and acting as vehicles for specific aspirations. Theorising civil society as the realm of associational life is not as easy as it appears at first glance.

The second sense of civil society as defined by Edwards is also full of problems. He insists that civil society is in part a normative concept. Here citizens articulate their vision of a good society: ruled by love and forgiveness, truth and beauty, courage and compassion. But in a morally plural world, visions of a good society will be multiple and may be incommensurate. How do we arbitrate between competing visions of the good? For many in the Islamic community in France, “truth” and perhaps “beauty” lie in women wearing the veil; for the French government they lie in women not wearing the veil.

The problem of moral pluralism has become intractable in large parts of the world simply because each version of the good should be honoured and yet cannot be honoured. Allowing everyone to articulate their own notions of the good life may be relatively simple; the task of ensuring that groups approach in a spirit of compassion and love other groups with different notions of the good may prove impossible.

Civil society can indeed throw up notions of the good life distinct from both the power-driven impulses of the state and the profit-driven impulses of the market. Edwards suggests that global civil society has coalesced around the idea that “another world is possible”. Some scholars claim that “global civil society” means “globalisation from below”. But the sphere remains dominated by western transnational NGOs or loose coalitions which pursue their own agendas. It is largely incoherent. The way that the US has found it perfectly possible to disregard the mammoth, global turnouts protesting the invasion of Iraq, showed that its vision of the good is largely ineffective.

The third definition of civil society which Edwards identifies is the public sphere as a whole polity that has the capacity to deliberate about society in a democratic way. This is the aspect that I will now focus on.

3. It’s good to talk

It seems to me that unless “civil society” is thought of as meaning specifically the public space in which people meet, discuss and engage with politics and public policy, any description of it will tend to look more and more like “society” itself and become indistinguishable from it.

Society can be conceived of as the entirety of social practices in a polity. Civil society can be seen as that part of society where people, as rights-bearing citizens, meet to discuss and enter into dialogue about the polity. It is in this sense that civil society is absolutely indispensable for democracy, in its promise of an engaged citizenry.

However, fine terms such as “engagement” become sticky ones when we test what they really mean. Yes, human beings fashion their worlds in dialogue. Unless we talk to others and familiarise ourselves with their different perspectives, we cannot possess informed judgments. Even though we enter public forums from radically divergent positions, through deliberation our horizons enlarge, our perceptions expand, and our sensitivities and sensibilities deepen. Participants come to realise that what we call impartiality is not a “view from nowhere” but a matter of viewing the world from the perspective of other people alongside our own.

Politically, as we establish our readiness to listen to others with respect, we establish that we regard them as free, equal partners in an ongoing deliberation. It means we do not sign a once-and-for-all contract like Hobbesian individuals. Our signatures are erasable; they will need to be written again in different times and places. In fact, to arrive at one final truth would be to proclaim closure on discussion. Deliberation is a process of open inquiry into the human condition, not a conclusion.

The idea that it is our job as responsible citizens to sustain a moral conversation is attractive. But is it fair and just? The public sphere can exclude certain voices and marginalise others. After all, some people can use words like daggers, and others employ the skills of the surefooted polemicist: considered pauses, oratorical flourishes, a touch of satire here, a touch of mockery there, sonorous delivery and above all the killer instinct. Many more lack such ammunition. Who will “win” in the discussion does not need to be spelt out; it is all too painfully obvious.

Thus Nancy Fraser has condemned Jürgen Habermas’s model of discourse because it demands that participants “bracket” inequalities. Communicating as if we were all equal when in fact we are not, she argues, can amplify the effects of inequality. A radical restructuring of society may even, Fraser seems to suggest, be an essential precondition for fair discourse.

Societies are also multilingual and this too creates problems for the possibility of deliberation itself. What happens when two languages expressing different understandings encounter each other? Certainly many languages reach out to each other. But some languages acquire hegemony in the domain of civil society and a position to either subdue or to ignore other languages.

Think, for example, of legal and bureaucratic languages that penetrate civil society but are embedded in the power of the state. Both lay down standards of what vocabularies are acceptable within the public sphere and what are not.

Edwards starts by recognising there are problems but ends on such a positive note that his scepticism seems abandoned. He says our understanding of civil society requires an integrated approach that unites the three levels he has described. But he does not confront the way civil society can also be a part of the problem. What is needed is a more vigorous engagement with its potentially destructive aspects, as initially identified by Hegel and which later concerned writers like Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci.

4. Civil society and open politics

There is a further problem. The area of society involved in dialogue, far from becoming more effective in relationship to state power and authority, has withered.

Civil society is being asked to bear a much heavier burden than it is able to carry: namely replacing the political party, the traditional mode of representation. Traditionally, civil society organisations and associations were expected to work alongside political parties. They fed the interests of their constituents into party agendas and the party aggregated individual/group interests as well as represented these interests in decision-making forums. Parties were also supposed to ensure that something was done about these interests and needs, by producing appropriate policies. The political party, in other words, acted as an intermediary between the political state and civil society.

By the mid-1960s political parties seemed to have exhausted their capacity to represent the aspirations of their constituencies, becoming hierarchical, bureaucratic and involved in a mediacratic chase for power.

The failure of political parties, and the crisis of representation it creates, does not result in the disappearance of the activity we call politics. Instead, political practices look for other channels. The agents that were supposed to have the capacity to aggregate interests defaulted. New, political mobilisations began to cluster around immediate, single, often localised issues.

It is for these reasons that the attempt of the Greek politician George Papandreou to transform the nature of his Pasok party comes as a much-needed, welcome intervention into the entire debate on the crisis of representative democracy. In his interview with Anthony Barnett on openDemocracy, Papandreou makes it clear that, for two reasons, the way “politics has been done” until now has to be rethought and reconceptualised.

First, the nature of political life has changed irrevocably in the wake of social and economic transformations wrought by globalisation. Traditional class and social cleavages have given way to new identities which can veer between the local and the global at the same time. Any party that seeks to reinvent itself – if it wishes to chart democratic agendas which can meaningfully address these felt but contradictory experiences – must tap these new aspirations, needs, and their accompanying fears.

Second, in order to counteract both public apathy and the closed machine-like structure of the party, citizens need to be invited into new ways of “doing politics”. For example, through open processes of deliberation and participation that serve to include rather than exclude the ordinary human being from the rather specialised processes of decision-making.

More important, the power of the leader has to be replaced by the power of deep and participatory democracy. “What we would like to do as a party”, suggests Papandreou,

“is to develop a culture of debate, dialogue, and critical understanding of issues, where people can set priorities and are not simply told by the experts or their leaders what is right and wrong for them”

All this has to be done even as leaders recognise that the modern individual has far less time for politics than is commonly assumed by democratic theory.

I think Papandreou in undertaking this task has recognised the precise core of the “crisis of representation”. Because political parties have managed to exclude people from decisions that necessarily bear upon their lives, the very same people have lost interest in parties and turned to other associations in order to realise themselves as political beings. But since civil society organisations have considerable limitations people have been left rudderless in a world where the citizen has been reduced to a consumer of decisions arrived at elsewhere.

openDemocracy writers address the ambitions and dilemmas of NGOs, social movements and other civil society organisations:

Charles Secrett, Rebecca Willis, et al, “Coming or going? NGOs in the new political landscape” (August 2001)

Kalypso Nikolaidis, “‘We the peoples of Europe…’” (December 2003)

Christine Moliner, “Between invisibility and dignity: India’s Dalit and globalisation” (March 2004)

Paul Kingsnorth, “The European Social Forum: time to get serious” (October 2004)

If you find this material useful, please consider supporting openDemocracy’s work with a donation – and by contributing to our forum discussion

It is in the same spirit that Paul Hilder in his contribution to the openDemocracy debate on the possibility of open politics suggests that the renewal of parties is fundamental for anyone who cares about public issues. Parties are in a state of collapse with falling memberships, low electoral turnouts, and the replacement of ideologies by managerial spin. Taking up Papandreou’s suggestion of open parties, at least as an aspiration, Hilder works through how to renew and re-energise parties: “(the) challenge is to redesign them into human friendly places, channelling our collective wisdom more than our folly”.

Hilder suggests a fourfold thrust:

  • open up processes of decision-making within parties, thereby transforming closed and highly bureaucratised machines into democratic institutions
  • ensure parties are constantly in touch with the rather elusive public “voice” through referendums on crucial issues, or by providing arenas for public participation – such as the celebrated “participative budgeting” pioneered in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre
  • link parties so that they listen to the many forums of opinion-making and opinion-breaking that exist today, from localised town-hall meetings to websites
  • move parties away from the domination of charismatic leaders and towards procedures that respect public arguments.

All this is not new; Hilder’s aim is to map the issues not redraw them. The dissonance between political parties and the constituencies they are supposed to cater for has been the subject of much anguish among political theorists. An entire academic industry focuses on the regeneration of community out of soulless atomised societies.

Working with colleagues on a research project that investigated the “crisis of representation” through an empirical survey in five cities – Delhi, Bangalore, Coimbatore, São Paulo, and Mexico City – we found that the people we surveyed had lost hope in the political party to represent their interests; nor did they repose much hope in the capacity of civil society organisations to do so.

In Delhi, for example, citizens seeking help in the resolution of their problems would rather approach the state with the help of their informal contacts – like neighbourhood groupings. The crisis of representation runs deep; the informal politics that follows from the inability of either “traditional” or “new” political institutions to bring together diverse interests has rendered political life contingent and unpredictable. The lack of responsive political institutions able to give direction to politics leads to the privileging of all kinds of undesirable political practices, which concentrate not on civic but on ethnic modes of representation.

The task of bringing together our disjointed political voices will necessarily fall upon the political party. But from which vantage-point will it arbitrate among competing and even incommensurable interests? Will the task of aggregating what appear to be increasingly divergent interests not give the party far more power than ever before? Are we ordinary citizens condemned to subordination?

At the heart of the civil society debate is the question of democratic agency. Can “we the people” lead both markets and states towards societies where compassion and cooperation are governing values, as Michael Edwards suggests? I would like to think so. But if the concept of “civil society” is to play a guiding role in this, then it also needs to take a measure of the downsides and the dark sides of democratic life.