On Civil Society

Review Notes #1
Mathew Nelson
April 13, 2007

Despite its once-liberating potential, the concept ‘civil society’ - like other ‘cozy’ post-social terms such as ‘social capital,’ ‘social cohesion,’ ‘community,’ and ‘participation’ – might in fact be the very Trojan Horse responsibility for much of the demise of left socialism in recent decades. Particularly in today’s economic climate, the concept is a highly politicized concept simply by virtue of its extraordinary ability to misdirect our attention away from forms of power that exist alongside or ‘outside’ of the immediate, formal, and legalistic boundaries of the state. Ironically, it is ‘political’ in the sense that the use of the concept presupposes a space or domain that is ‘free’ of state intrusion, which is seen as the sole localized site of political power. Civil society, by extension of this logic, is supposedly “non-political,” and therefore, “’free’ from government intervention” (Herbert-Cheshire and Lawrence 2002: 140) – which suggests that radical critics of state power fail to recognize the very power of ‘materiality’ of their own discursive concepts, theory production, and ‘linguistic practices.’

The popularity of the term continues to persist, despite the fact that for a long time feminists, especially through the slogan ‘the personal is political,’ have taken issue with the liberal public-private division, noting that power relations do exist in the private sphere. Consequently, the discourse of ‘civil society’ shapes our world, and our way of seeing and understanding economic relations. This in turn, structures the ability to come up with alternatives, to criticize the present, and to move beyond the arbitrary boundaries of so-called ‘legitimate’ resistance. Moreover, the use of the word ‘ideology’ to describe this politics may, in fact, be a misnomer. Is the discourse of civil society a false rhetoric, an illusion, or tool of propaganda for particular ruling classes? If so, why does this discourse, in very real performative terms, help shape social, economic, political, and ‘material’ processes?

Traditional liberals (more concerned with ‘ideals’ than actual history) are often inclined to demarcate a strict state-society opposition, believing society to be an unproblematic sphere that is separate from the power that emanates from the state. Critical perspectives, on the other hand, point to the hegemonic and ideological character of social relations, particularly in capitalist societies, where certain social classes and groups largely take on both cultural and political dominance. Gramsci, for instance, recognized that power operates by disguising itself through everyday societal actions, as if to appear natural, normal, and legitimate. In an encyclopaedic entry entitled “Civil Society,” Martin Shaw (1999) takes the latter perspective, setting out to through some critical light on the concept, in its relation to global politics, war, and violence.

Shaw starts off with a basic definition of civil society as ‘a sphere of association in society in distinction to the state,’ involving, ‘a network of institutions through which society and groups within it represent themselves in cultural, ideological and political senses.’ Tracing the concept through early political economists, Hegel, Marx, and others, Shaw finds Gramsci’s writings on civil society most relevant to contemporary social analysis, insofar as he provides impetus for resistance to power in the form of instituting an ‘alternative hegemony of the subordinate classes,’ or ‘counter-hegemony.’ In many ways, Gramsci is the precursor to modern understandings of civil society as a space for democracy, rights, and civil institutions, as separate and distinct from the repressive and often violent state.

Not without their dark side, however, the social movements of ‘civil society’ in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were frequently held captive by militarist ideologies – an inseparable component of mass industry and the “civilian economy.” After the Cold War, there arose a major “internationalization” of economy and society, causing a variety of ‘new’ social movements to take on global aspirations (ie. the peace movements) in their fight against genocide, war, and nuclear armament. Certainly, wider civil society played a significant role in the changes brought upon by the unraveling of the Cold War system. Amidst relations of contemporary war and peace, many of today’s theorists of ‘civil society’ continue to take on democratic and pluralist ambitions. Nonetheless, the current global-political crisis is historically novel with respect to the rise of numerous ‘ethnic nationalisms’ that attempt to define civil society in “exclusivist,” racial, ethnic, and biological terms. Moreover, many contemporary social movements remain caught in an ambiguous position in the transition from national to global civil society. In large part they remain complex at best, maintaining a national character, while simultaneously tackling important world issues of global significance. Certainly, globalization is a complicated, multi-scalar process that has yet to entirely escape the confines of the nation-state.

Under this narrative, with the rise of contradictory processes of economic and cultural globalization - and the decline of the nation-state framework - civil society is reinvented on a global scale, oftentimes referred to as ‘global civil society.’ Social movements, NGO’s, civil associations, and other organizations, while maintaining close links to the continued relevancy of the nation-state, are nonetheless, frequently moving beyond the national base for social action. Given the rise of these structural changes, Richard Falk (1995) takes a neo-Gramscian perspective, arguing for a “humane global governance” that encourages the democratic participation of civil associations on an international scale, in the form of a ‘globalization from below.’ In a noticeably optimistic tone, Shaw concludes that ‘civil society,’ as he understands it, ‘is central to the new world politics of peace.’

Shaw’s (1999) handling of the complex notion of ‘civil society’ in his article is worth commending, especially for the critical stance he takes on a concept that is typically taken at face value. He demonstrates both its positive aspects, as a bearer of democratic principles, and its negative relation to economic inequality, modern war, violence, and racism. At the same time, however, the broad generality of Shaw’s account fails to consider some of the specific difficulties that accompany movements in their resistance to ‘globalization from above.’ Emir Sadir (2002) fills this void in an illuminating piece entitled “Beyond Civil Society,” where the author explores some of the difficulties of achieving a participatory culture of civil-society at the World Social Forums in Porte Alegro, Brazil. For instance, Sadir points out that, far from being wholly democratic in character, NGO participants at the forum oftentimes act as “agents of neoliberalism,” especially given the World Bank’s tendency to employ NGO’s in their “social-compensation policies” (3). Further, the notion of organizational ‘partnerships’ with big business blurs the traditional public/private boundary, suggesting that ‘civil society’ is hardly an autonomous sphere in light of the power and control exercised by corporate entities. Largely unable to posit an “alternative hegemonic strategy,” civil society is further internally wrought with class divisions: “multinational corporations, banks and mafia, set next to social movements, trade unions, civic bodies…” etc. (3). Even varieties of ‘social democracy’ have been hijacked by neoliberal interests, as made evident in the rise of local versions of the ‘Third Way’ (between social democracy and the Right) in Western capitalist countries.

Alongside neoliberal critiques of welfare dependency in the 1960s and 70s, the ‘left’ politics of lifestyle and civil society - in their calls for grassroots ‘community’ participation, empowerment, and ‘local’ democracy - were active in facilitating the demise of state socialism in the 1960s and 70s. For critics such as Habermas, this meant opening up a democratic space, or public sphere, who which to challenge the excessive imposition of state, capital, bureaucracy, or instrumental rationality (the ‘system’) in its ruthless colonization of the ‘lifeworld,’ or ‘everydayness.’ The target, on all sides of the political spectrum, seemed to be the oppressive state structures of bureaucratic Fordism, and particularly with respect to social policy: “the ideas of community as lost authenticity and common belonging was initially deployed as a part of the language of critique and opposition against remote bureaucracy” (Rose 1999: 175; my emphasis). Self-help and ‘maximizing participation,’ as Cruikshank (1994), has shown, is a vital aspect of the “political economy of empowerment” which target diverse groups such as the poor, youth, and homeless, as “self-sufficient, active, productive, and participatory citizens,” in turn, drawing marginalized groups into decision-making that involves the subject’s own welfare or ‘self-esteem’ (35). In a re-appraisal of so-called ‘new’ social movements, Kauffman (1990) diagnoses a ‘depoliticization’ of previous principles of solidarity, and with respect to identity politics, appropriately calls this phenomenon, “the anti-politics of identity.” Somewhere along the line, anti-authoritarianism turned into a possessive “hyperindividualism, “ironically, a symptom of the very tyranny of the capitalist mode of production. I fear sometimes that the death of both working-class solidarity and the ethical domain of the social, will give way, soon enough, to a fragmented, factionalized, gated communitarianism.

In our present-day “culture of narcissism” (Lasch 1979), subjectivity is largely constructed through technologies of market consumption. Self-government, self-determination, etc., are powerful normative concepts geared towards enhancing our ‘self-regulating’ capacities as autonomous actors, individuals, collectivities, communities, and firms. This is government ‘at a distance’ – not a ‘safe haven’ from an oppressive, bureaucratic state. While state violence and repression are always a matter to contend with, we cannot neglect the ‘political economy of life’ that civilizes individuals into particular ethical modes that are (conveniently) conducive to market consumerism. In a neoliberal climate characterized by blurred boundaries between state and society in the delivery of ‘social’ services – ‘multi-leveled governance,’ regional blocs, ‘community-based economic development’ (CBED), local democracy, ‘partnerships,’ privatization, deregulation – good ‘self-governing’ citizens, who in choosing to align their conduct with the “socio-political objectives of advanced capitalism,” as Herbert-Cheshire? and Lawrence (2002) point out, “renders the excessive imposition of state power unnecessary” (141). No longer radical, revolutionary, or progressive, it is time for the supposedly ‘new’ left to move on.

Critical theorists should embrace more empirical accounts of historical change, rather than antiquated attempts at forming a ‘working-class’ consciousness that is supposedly ‘outside’ of, or non-complicit in, the reproduction of capitalist social relations. In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx clearly understood that ‘ideals’ of individual rights and universal justice “can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby” (1996: 181). He criticizes the ‘vulgar socialists’ in their dogmatism, suggesting that the notion of equal right, “is still in principle bourgeois right” because the utilitarian ‘good’ of each individual is promoted at the expense of other classes, solidarity, and society as a whole. Reactive in this sense, equal ‘rights’ amount to an imposition of an external fixed standard onto fundamentally unequal people, in terms of the distribution of opportunity and material resources in society. Marx understood traditional philosophy, especially ‘moral individualism,’ as socially and economically embedded in human relations, something that is necessarily intertwined with historically-specific cultural forms of the mode of production. Although it is seriously out of fashion to suggest that everyone deserves a particular material standard of living regardless of ethical constitution, Marx argued (not naively!) that economic processes could be collectively and rationally organized for the ‘free development of each,’ which is a condition of the ‘free development of all.’ On the contrary, it is naïve to suggest that one’s actions (or inactions) have no social implications on other people’s lives. Is poverty, after all, not an always visible, ‘weapon of mass destruction’?

The sovereign power and legitimacy of the state depends on the very power of the micro-social and individual modes of subjectivity, be it ‘discipline’ (Fordism) or ‘entrepreneurialism’ (post-Fordism), etc. There is undoubtedly, a connection between capitalism and ways of acting – popular ‘ethics’ always seem to either mask or support the further accumulation of capital at the expense of others. In this sense, understanding civil society is not about being for or against either the ‘state’ or ‘civil society,’ but analyzing in real historical terms, the implications of this discourse on our present. This involves questioning the latent ethical and epistemological assumptions of the politics of ‘civil society.’ With the notion of ‘civil’ comes an entire set of entrenched cultural judgments that assume a need to ‘civilize,’ ‘tame,’ and pacify. Whether intentional or not, neglecting other, ‘uncivil’ worlds, is a political tactic unto itself, insofar as meanings and values are universalized and homogenized into a perspective that understands globalization as progress towards a singular global civilization – a ‘global market society.’ Hardly something ‘out there,’ globalization includes all of us as critical agents in its history – multiple globalizations ‘from below.’ Any attempt to universalize the human condition necessarily involves a suppression or denial of particular strands of actual history. What are the political consequences of ‘valuing’ universal ideals over history? Is ‘Man’ a universal being, or historical-being? It is easy, after all, for political theorists to philosophize about normative ideals, when the ‘material’ preconditions for doing so are firmly in place. Mainstream political theory, in this respect, suffers from a major lack of historical sense.


Cruikshank, Barbara. “The Will to Empower: Technologies of Citizenship and the War

on Poverty.” Socialist Review 23 (1994): 29-55,

Herbert-Cheshire?, Lynda, and Geoffrey Lawrence. “Political Economy and the Challenge

of Governance.” Journal of Australian Political Economy 50 (2002): 137-145.

Kauffman, L.A. “The Anti-Politics? of Identity.” Socialist Review 21 (1990): 67-80.

Lasch, Christopher. ''Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing

Expectations''. New York: Warner Books, 1979.

Marx, Karl. “’To Each According to His Needs,’ from Critique of the Gotha Program.”

Justice. Ed. Jonathan Westphal. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.

Falk, Richard. On Humane Governance. Cambridge: Polity, 1995.

Rose. Nikolas. Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought. Cambridge:

Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999.

Sadir, Emir. “Beyond Civil Society: The Left After Porte Alegre.” New Left Review 17

(2002): 87-99.

Shaw, Martin. “Civil Society.” Ed. Lester Kurtz. Encyclopedia of Violence,

Peace, and Conflict. San Diego: Academic Press, 1999, 269-278. http://www.sussex.ac.uk/Users/hafa3/cs.htm (external link)