Civil society

Civil society

Civil society is composed of the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state's political system) and commercial institutions.


The concept of civil society in its pre-modern classical republican understanding is usually connected to the period of Enlightenment in the 18th century. However, it has much older history in the realm of political thought.

Pre-modern history

In the classical period, the concept was used as a synonym to good society, and seen as indistinguishable from the state. Generally, civil society has been referred to a political association governing social conflict through the imposition of rules that restrained citizens from harming one another (Edwards 2004:6). For instance, Socrates admonished that conflicts within society should be resolved through public argument using ‘dialectic’, a form of rational dialogue to uncover truth. According to Socrates, public argument through ‘dialectic’ was imperative to ensure ‘civility’ in the polis and ‘good life’ of the people (O'Connell 1999).

For Plato, the ideal state was a just society in which people dedicate themselves to the common good, practice civic virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice, and perform the occupational role to which they were best suited. It was the duty of the ‘Philosopher king’ to look after people in civility (Ibid). As far as Aristotle was concerned, polis was an ‘association of associations’ that enables citizens to share in the virtuous task of ruling and being ruled (Edwards 2004:6). His koinonia politike as political community was preceding societas civilis introduced later by Cicero. If we analyze the political discourse in the classical period, we can see the importance of a ‘good society’ in ensuring peace and order among the people. The philosophers in the classical period did not make any distinction between state and society. Rather they held that state represented the civil form of society and ‘civility’ represented the requirement of good citizenship (Ibid). Moreover, they held that human beings are inherently rational so that they can collectively shape the nature of society they belong to. In addition to that, the human beings have the capacity to voluntarily gather for the common cause and maintain peace in society. By holding this view, we can say that the classical political thinkers had endorsed the genesis of civil society in its original sense.

Due to unique political arrangements of medieval feudalism the works of the classical thinkers were swept under the carpet during this period. It was a time when the domination of the church and feudalism got the momentum. Nevertheless, the developments in some parts of Europe since the fourteenth century further stimulated the revival of the concept of ‘human rationalism.’ This was to a great extent influencing the shaping of political relations until the end of renaissance.

The Thirty Years' War and the subsequent Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 heralded the birth of modern state system. The Treaty endorsed the state as the territorially based political units having sovereignty. As a result, the monarchs were able to extent control domestically by emasculating the feudal lords and to stop rely on the latter for living of armed troops (Brown 2001:70). Therefore, monarchs could form national army, deploy professional bureaucracy and fiscal departments. In this way, monarchs maintained direct control and supreme authority over their subjects. In order to meet the administrative expenditure, monarchs used to control the economy. This gave birth to absolutism (Knutsen 1997:80-118). Until the mid-eighteenth century absolutism was the hallmark of Europe (Ibid).

The absolutist nature of the state was disputed in the Enlightenment period (Chandhoke 1995:88). As a natural consequence of renaissance, humanism and scientific revolution, the Enlightenment thinkers raised fundamental questions such as “what legitimacy does hereditary confer”, “why are government instituted”, “why should some human beings have more basic rights than others”, and so on. These questions led them to make certain assumptions about the nature of the human mind, the then political and moral authority, reason behind absolutism, and a better way to get out of it. The Enlightenment thinkers believed in the inherent goodness of the human mind. They opposed the alliance between the state and the Church as the enemy of human progress and well-being because the coercive apparatus of the state curbed individual liberty and the Church legitimated monarchs by posting the theory of divine origin. Therefore, both were deemed to be against the will of the people.

Strongly influenced by the atrocities of Thirty Years' War, the political philosophers of the time held that social relations should be ordered in different way than in natural law conditions. Some of their attempts led to the emergence of the social contract theory that contested social relations existing in accordance with human nature. They held that human nature can be understood by analyzing objective realities and natural laws conditions. Thus they endorsed that the nature of human beings should be encompassed by the contours of state and established positive laws. Alarmed by the devastating effects of Thirty Years' War and Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Thomas Hobbes underlined the need of a powerful state to maintain civility in society. For Hobbes, human beings are motivated by self-interests (Graham 1997:23). Moreover, these self-interests are often contradictory in nature. Therefore, in state of nature, there was a condition of a war of all against all. In such a situation, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (Ibid: 25). Upon realizing the danger of the anarchy, human beings became aware about the need of a mechanism to protect them. As far as Hobbes was concerned, rationality and self-interests persuaded human beings to combine in agreement, to surrender sovereignty to a common power (Kaviraj 2001:289). Hobbes called this common power, state, Leviathan.

Social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes set forth two types of relationship. One was vertical, between the Leviathan and the people; therefore, the latter submitted themselves to the former. The second system was the realm of horizontal relationship among the people. In that system, people, under the surveillance of Leviathan, were compelled to limit their natural rights in a way that it did not harm others’ rights. The first system denotes the state and the second represents civil society in the present meaning. Hobbes’ paradigm shows that the formation of the state conduced to the formation of civil society. Therefore, in his view, the state is imperative to sustain civility in society. Thus, Hobbes’ account of ‘state of nature’ and the ‘sovereignty of the state’ conduced to the germination of realism in later period that defined the nature and relationship between the state and civil society.

Apart from Hobbes, John Locke had a different experience about the political condition in England. It was the period of Glorious Revolution marked by the struggle between the divine right of the Crown and the political rights of Parliament. This influenced Locke to forge a social contract theory of a limited state and a powerful society. In Locke’s view, human beings led a peaceful life in state of nature. However, it could be maintained at the sub-optimal level in the absence of a sufficient system (Brown 2001:73). From that major concern, people gathered together to sign a contract and constituted a common public authority. Nevertheless, Locke held that the consolidation of political power can be turned into autocracy, if it was not brought under reliable restrictions (Kaviraj 2001:291). Therefore, Locke set forth two treaties on government with reciprocal obligations. In the first treaty, people submit themselves to the common public authority. This authority has the power to enact and maintain laws. The second treaty contains the limitations of the authority ie., the state has no power to threaten the basic rights of the human beings. As far as Locke was concerned, the basic rights of human beings denote the preservation of life, liberty and property. Moreover, he held that the state must operate within the bounds of civil and natural laws.

According to Locke, the ‘civility’ in social life was prior to the birth of the state. Because, in his view, people led a peaceful life in the state of nature. Therefore, Locke advocated the primacy of society over the state. Lockean account of state of nature, basic rights, primacy of society and limits of the state were later conduced to the formation of liberal tradition that has a distinct notion about state-civil society relations.

Both Hobbes and Locke had set forth a system, in which peaceful coexistence among human beings could be ensured through social contract. They considered civil society as a sphere that maintained civil life, the realm where civic virtues and rights were derived from natural laws. However, they did not hold that civil society was a separate realm from the state. Rather, they underlined the co-existence between the state and civil society. The systematic approaches of Hobbes and Locke (in their analysis of social relations) were largely influenced by the experiences in their period. Their attempts to explain human nature, natural laws, social contract and the formation of the government had challenged the divine right theory. Apart from divine right, Hobbes and Locke claimed that human intellect can design its political order. This idea had a great impact on the thinkers in the Enlightenment period.

The Enlightenment thinkers argued that human beings are so rational to determine their destiny. Hence, no need of an absolute authority to control them. Both Jean Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant argued that people are peace lovers and the wars are the creation of absolute regimes (Burchill 2001:33). As far as he was concerned, this system was effective to guard against the domination of a single interest and check the tyranny of the majority (Alagappa 2004:30).

Modern history

With G.W.F. Hegel, who completely changed the meaning of the idea, modern liberal understanding of civil society as a form of market society appears . Apart from their ancestors, the leading thinker of the Romanticism considered civil society as a separate realm, "system of needs", that stood for the satisfaction of individual interests and private property. Conceiving this idea, Hegel held that civil society had emerged at the particular epoch of capitalism, therefore, it serves its interests: individual rights and private property (Dhanagare 2001:169). Hence, he used the German term "bürgerliche Gesellschaft" (civilian society) to denote civil society (Baynes 2002:124). For Hegel, civil society manifests contradictory behaviour. At the same time, being the realm of capitalist interest, there is a possibility of conflicts and inequalities within civil society. Therefore, the constant surveillance of the state is imperative to sustain the ‘civility’ in society. Hegel considered the state as the highest form of ethical life. Therefore, the political state has the capacity and authority to correct the fault points in civil society (Ibid). Having compared the despotic France and democratic America, Alexis de Tocqueville contested Hegel putting weightage to the system of a limited state with voluntary associations as counterbalance to liberal individualism. However, Hegel's perception of social reality was followed in general by Tocqueville who distinguished political society and civil society.

This was the theme taken further by Karl Marx. For Marx, civil society was the ‘base’ where productive forces and social relations were taking place, whereas political society was the 'superstructure'. Agreeing with the link between capitalism and civil society, Marx held that the latter represents the interests of the bourgeoisie (Edwards 2004:10). Therefore, the state as superstructure also represents the interests of the dominant class; under capitalism it maintains the domination of the bourgeoisie. Hence, Marx rejected the positive role of state put forth by Hegel. Marx argued that the state cannot be a neutral problem solver. Rather, he depicted the state as the defender of the interests of the bourgeoisie. He considered the state and civil society as the executive arms of the bourgeoisie, therefore, both should be withered away (Brown 2001:74). This negative impression about civil society was rectified by Antonio Gramsci (Edwards 2004:10).

Departing greatly from Marx, Gramsci did not consider civil society as coterminous with the socio-economic base of the state. Rather, Gramsci located civil society in the political superstructure. He underlined the crucial role of civil society as the contributor of the cultural and ideological capital for the survival of the hegemony of capitalism (Ehrenberg 1999:208). Gramsci used the term ‘hegemony’ to denote the predominance of one social class over others. This represents not only political and economic control, but also the ability of the dominant class to project its own way of seeing the world as good so that those who are subordinated by it accept it as natural. It is a way to keep the subordinate class in undying subordination with their consent, cooperation and collaboration. According to Gramsci, the hegemony of the capitalism in the West was maintained by its deep-rooted influence in every spheres of society.

Analyzing the realities in the capitalist West and the Russian Revolution, Gramsci endorsed the importance of shaping the cultural and ideological contours of civil society. He depicted civil society as the site for challenging the existing values and inculcating new ones in the counter-hegemonic struggle against capitalism (Edwards 2004:8). Gramsci’s conception of civil society includes all social institutions that are non-production related, non-governmental, and non-familial that ranging from recreational groups to trade unions and political parties (Alagappa 2004:29).

Rather than posing as a problem, as in the earlier Marxist account, Gramsci viewed civil society as the site for problem-solving. Agreeing with this view, the New Left assigns civil society a key role in defending people against the state and market and in formulating democratic will to influence the state (Ibid:30). At the same time, the neoliberals consider civil society as a site for struggle to subvert communist and authoritarian regimes (Ibid: 33). Thus, the term civil society appropriated an important place in the political discourses of the New Left and neoliberals.

Post-modern history

Post-modern way of understanding civil society was first developed by political opposition in former Soviet block East European countries in 1980s. From that time stems a practice within political field of using the idea of civil society instead of political society. However, in 1990s with the emergence of the nongovernmental organizations and the New Social Movements (NSMs) on a global scale, civil society as a third sector became a key terrain of strategic action to construct ‘an alternative social and world order.’ Henceforth, postmodern usage of idea of civil society became divided into two main ways: as a political society and as the third sector - apart from plethora of definitions.

The `Washington' consensus of the 1990s, which involved conditionality by the World Bank and IMF on loans to debt-laden developing states, also created pressures for states in poorer countries to shrink. This in turn led to practical changes for civil society that went on to influence the theoretical debate. Initially the new conditionality led to an even greater emphasis on `civil society' as a panacea, replacing the state in service provision and social care, Hulme and Edward suggested that it was now seen as `the magic bullet.' Some development political scientists cauattioned that this view created new dangers; in `Let's get Civil Society Straight' Whaites argued that the often politicized and potentially divisive nature of civil society was being ignored by some policy makers.

By the end of the 1990s civil society was seen less as a panacea amid the growth of the anti-globalization movement and the transition of many countries to democracy; instead it was increasingly civil society that was called on to justify its legitimacy and democratic credentials, this led to the UN creating a high level panel on civil society Post-modern civil society theory has now largely returned to a more neutral stance, but with marked differences between the study of the phenomena in richer societies as opposed to writing on civil society in developing states. Civil society in both areas is, however, often viewed in relation to the state, remaining a counter-poise and complement rather than an alternative, or as Whaites stated in his 1996 article, `the state is seen as a precondition of civil society'


There are myriad of definitions of civil society in post-modern sense. The London School of Economics Centre for Civil Society working definition is illustrative:


The literature on links between civil society and democracy have their root in early liberal writings like those of Alexis de Tocqueville. However they were developed in significant ways by 20th century theorists like Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, who identified the role of civil society in a democratic order as vital.

They argued that the political element of many civil society organizations facilitates better awareness and a more informed citizenry, who make better voting choices, participate in politics, and hold government more accountable as a result. The statutes of these organizations have often been considered micro-constitutions because they accustom participants to the formalities of democratic decision making.

More recently, Robert D. Putnam has argued that even non-political organizations in civil society are vital for democracy. This is because they build social capital, trust and shared values, which are transferred into the political sphere and help to hold society together, facilitating an understanding of the interconnectedness of society and interests within it.

Others, however, have questioned how democratic civil society actually is. Some have noted that the civil society actors have now obtained a remarkable amount of political power without anyone directly electing or appointing them. Finally, other scholars have argued that, since the concept of civil society is closely related to democracy and representation, it should in turn be linked with ideas of nationality and nationalism.


The term civil society is currently often used by critics and activists as a reference to sources of resistance to and the domain of social life which needs to be protected against globalization. This is because it is seen as acting beyond boundaries and across different territories. However, as civil society can, under many definitions, include and be funded and directed by those businesses and institutions (especially donors linked to European and Northern states) who support globalization, this is a contested use.

On the other hand, others see globalization as a social phenomenon bringing classical liberal values, which inevitably lead to a larger role for civil society at the expense of politically derived state institutions.

Examples of civil society institutions

  • non-profit organizations (NPOs)
  • policy institutions
  • private voluntary organizations (PVOs)
  • professional associations
  • religious organizations
  • support groups
  • trade unions
  • women's groups

Not every institution of civil society is a 'countervailing power' to the state.

See also

Civil society scholars



  • Alagappa, Muthiah. Civil Society and Political Change in Asia. Stanford: Standford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8047-5097-1
  • Edwards, Michael. Civil Society. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 2004. ISBN 0-7456-3133-9.
  • Hemmati, Minu. Dodds, Felix. Enayati, Jasmin. and McHarry,Jan downloadable copy of Multistakeholder Processes for Governance and Sustainability:Beyond Deadlock and Conflict
  • O'Connell, Brian. Civil Society: The Underpinnings of American Democracy. Medford, Mass: Tufts University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-87451-924-1.
  • Perlas, Nicolas, Shaping Globalization - Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding. ISBN 0-95838858X .
  • Pollock, Graham. 'Civil Society Theory and Euro-Nationalism' , Studies In Social & Political Thought, Issue 4, March 2001, pp. 31-56
  • Whaites, Alan `Let's get civil society straight: NGOs and Political Theory,' Development in Practice, 1996,
  • Whaites, Alan, `NGOs, Civil Society and the State: Avoiding theoretical extremes in real world issues,' Development in Practice 1998

External links

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