Civil Society

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Bob Jessop:

" I define ‘civil society’ analytically as an ensemble of social relations characterized by the primacy of identities, interests, and values that cross-cut the logic of capital accumulation and other system logics — thus it includes ethnic, gender, regional, generational, and many other identities. These provide a site for contestation in the struggle for national-popular hegemony (as Gramsci indicates), a source of resistance to attempts at the colonization of civil society (or, in Habermasian terms, the lifeworld) by the logic(s) of one or another system (capital accumulation, statization, juridification, etc.), and the space for sociability outside specific system logics or even what post-modernists might call the free play of identities." (


"The Inquiry’s definition of civil society includes: civil society as associational life, where people come together voluntarily for actions that lie beyond government or for-private-profit business, including voluntary and community organisations, trade unions, faith-based organisations, co-operatives and informal citizen groups; civil society as a ‘good’ society, grounded in values such as social justice, solidarity, mutuality and sustainability; and civil society as the public sphere, where people and organisations discuss common interests, deliberate solutions to problems, or find ways of reconciling differences." (from the Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society. Geoff Mulgan et al.)


John Restakis (from ch. 6 of Humanizing the Economy):

"The term “civil society” has now entered – or more accurately re-entered – the vocabulary of common political discourse. It is a very ancient idea with roots in the political and moral philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the democratic society in which it was first conceived. The stress on the moral life that was a central part of Greek philosophy was always bound up in the concept of civic duty and the pursuit of the just society. For Plato, the ideal state was one in which people dedicate themselves to the common good, practice civic virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice, and perform the social and occupational role to which they were best suited. Aristotle in turn, held that the “polis” – the city state - was an “association of associations” and the social reality that made political life possible. For these thinkers, there was no distinction between state and society and the idea of civil society as a political concept was profoundly influenced by the democratic institutions of Athens. It was made possible by the fact that individuals were not mere subjects of an absolute power. They were independent actors with the freedom to form horizontal bonds of mutual interest with others and to act in pursuit of this common interest. This was the essence of citizenship. Politics in the modern sense became possible. This link between civil society and democracy was to remain a defining feature of the term.

As the fortunes of democracy rose and fell over the ages, so too was affected the idea of civil society as a conceptual tool to explain the operations of society and ultimately, to change them. In the middle ages, with the rise of church and state absolutism, the classical notion of society as a civic body was suppressed as was political freedom. It was replaced by the authoritarian notion of society as the temporal extension of a sacred order that was eternal and unchangeable. Social relations were fixed. Politics was once again the exclusive prerogative of the powerful. The notion of citizenship was not to revive until the rise of civic humanism in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when the idea of civil society was resurrected and absolutism was once again challenged. The rebirth of civil society accompanied the rise of republican cities like Florence and Sienna that in turn became centres of the Italian Renaissance. The idea then found its modern expression during the Enlightenment when philosophers and political reformers sought once again to limit the powers of state and church, in large part by defining society as the source of political legitimacy. It is no accident that the recent interest in civil society is also linked to resistance against authoritarianism - most dramatically in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Soviet block - and within the global justice movement against the rise of corporate power and the cooptation of the state by corporate interests.

In its narrowest modern sense, civil society refers to social organizations involved in the political process, for example political parties. But in its broadest and most accepted sense, civil society is the social impulse to free and democratic association, to the creation of community, and to the operations of social life, which includes politics. This is the sense of civil society that is used by writers such as Vaclav Havel. Unlike ancient times however, civil society is now distinguished from the state as it is from the operations of the private sector. Some writers also stress a distinction from the family as well.

For Havel and a long line of writers extending back to Aristotle, civil society remains the elementary fact of human existence. It is what makes human life possible. For Aristotle it was both the means and the end of human association as the pursuit of the good life, which is in essence a social life. And in this sense, it is the institutions that arise from civil society (the schools, the voluntary associations, the trade unions, the courts, the political parties, etc.) that provide the individual with the means to realize their own humanity and by so doing to perfect the whole of society in the process. The state is an outgrowth of this impulse.

It is fascinating to read Thomas Paine in this connection, particularly with reference to the raging debate surrounding the proper role of the state and the growing demands on the social economy to fulfill social and public services.

- “The great part of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of government. It has its origins in the principles of society and the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government, and would exist if the formality of government was abolished. The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilized community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. In fine, society performs for itself almost everything which is ascribed to government.” Alex De Toqueville, visiting America in the late seventeen hundreds, famously attributed the vitality of the young democracy to the richness and diversity of its associational life.

Within civil society, a huge portion of civic activities are carried out by organizations created to provide goods and services through collaboration, by people acting together to realize mutual interests. They constitute that sector which is composed of non-profit and voluntary organizations, service groups, cultural organizations such as choral societies, charities, trade unions, and co-operatives. This economic aspect within civil society has also been described as the third sector or the social economy. The value of the economic activity generated by the social economy in the western democracies is huge - and growing. As a percentage of total economic force for example, Canada’s non-profit workforce is the world’s second largest."

A Critique of the Accomodationist Usage of the Concept of Civil Society

by Ellen Meiksins Wood:

"However constructive its uses in defending human liberties against state oppression, or in marking out a terrain of social practices, institutions, and relations neglected by the “old” Marxist left, “civil society” is now in danger of becoming an alibi for capitalism.

Gramsci’s conception of “civil society” was unambiguously intended as a weapon against capitalism, not an accommodation to it. Despite the appeal to his authority which has become a staple of the “new revisionism,” the concept in its current usage no longer has this unequivocally anticapitalist intent. It has now acquired a whole new set of meanings and consequences, some very positive for the emancipatory projects of the Left, others far less so.

The two contrary impulses can be summed up in this way: the new concept of civil society signals that the Left has learned the lessons of liberalism about the dangers of state oppression, but we seem to be forgetting the lessons we once learned from the socialist tradition about the oppressions of civil society. On the one hand, the advocates of civil society are strengthening our defense of non-state institutions and relations against the power of the state; on the other hand, they are tending to weaken our resistance to the coercions of capitalism.

“Civil society” has given private property and its possessors a command over people and their daily lives, a power accountable to no one, which many an old tyrannical state would have envied. Those activities and experiences which fall outside the immediate command structure of the capitalist enterprise, or outside the political power of capital, are regulated by the dictates of the market, the necessities of competition and profitability.

Even when the market is not, as it commonly is in advanced capitalist societies, merely an instrument of power for giant conglomerates and multinational corporations, it is still a coercive force, capable of subjecting all human values, activities, and relationships to its imperatives. No ancient despot could have hoped to penetrate the personal lives of his subjects — their choices, preferences, and relationships — in the same comprehensive and minute detail, not only in the workplace but in every corner of their lives.

Coercion, in other words, has been not just a disorder of “civil society” but one of its constitutive principles. This historical reality tends to undermine the neat distinctions required by current theories which ask us to treat civil society as, at least in principle, the sphere of freedom and voluntary action, the antithesis of the irreducibly coercive principle which intrinsically belongs to the state.

These theories do, of course, acknowledge that civil society is not a realm of perfect freedom or democracy. It is, for example, marred by oppression in the family, in gender relations, in the workplace, by racist attitudes, homophobia, and so on. But these oppressions are treated as dysfunctions in civil society. In principle, coercion belongs to the state while civil society is where freedom is rooted, and human emancipation, according to these arguments, consists in the autonomy of civil society, its expansion and enrichment, its liberation from the state, and its protection by formal democracy.

What tends to disappear from view, again, is the relations of exploitation and domination which irreducibly constitute civil society, not just as some alien and correctible disorder but as its very essence, the particular structure of domination and coercion that is specific to capitalism as a systemic totality.

What is alarming about these theoretical developments is not that they violate some doctrinaire Marxist prejudice concerning the privileged status of class. Of course, the whole object of the exercise is to sideline class, to dissolve it in all-embracing categories which deny it any privileged status, or even any political relevance at all. But that is not the real problem.

The problem is that theories which do not differentiate — and, yes, “privilege,” if that means ascribing causal or explanatory priorities — among various social institutions and “identities” cannot deal critically with capitalism at all. The consequence of these procedures is to sweep the whole question under the rug." (


* Book: Civil Society, 3rd Edition. By: Michael EdwardsPolity


"Civil Society has become a standard work of reference for those who seek to understand the role of voluntary citizen action. Recent global unrest has shown the importance of social movements and street protests in world politics. However, as this lucid book shows, the power that people have to shape their societies is usually channeled through day-to-day participation in voluntary associations and communities: expressions of “normal” civic life beyond the headlines. This is the underlying story of civil society. This new edition explores issues that have developed rapidly in recent years, including the overlaps between civil society and the market in the form of social enterprises and “venture philanthropy,” and the increasing role of social media and information and communication technologies in civic interaction.

Different varieties of civil society in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere are investigated in more detail, and case studies, data, and references have been updated throughout. Colleges, foundations and NGOs, policy-makers, journalists and commissions of inquiry Ð all have used Edwards’s book to understand and strengthen the vital role that civil society can play in deepening democracy, re-building community, and addressing inequality and injustice. This new edition will be required reading for anyone who is interested in creating a better world through voluntary citizen action." (

More Information

  1. Michel Bauwens: Towards a civil society-based ‘Common-ism’?
  2. Neal Gorenflo: Twenty Rules for Civil Networks

Reports and Books:

  1. Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society. Geoff Mulgan et al. Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society. Carnegie UK Trust, 2010
  2. Open Source for Civil Society Organizations: A decision making guide for civil society organizations
  3. Book: Reinventing Civil Society. David Green. 1993


  1. Electronic Civil Disobedience
  2. Civil Regulation: rules created outside the statutory realm
  3. Civil Corporation, see the book: The Civil Corporation. By Simon Zadek.
  4. Civil Societarian
  5. Civil Constitutions: apparatuses which regulate the actions of the civil subjects who operate in a certain sector of activity
  6. Civil Humanism: a highly particular, and brief, period in Italian history, the first half of the fifteenth century
  7. Civil Society Organisations
  8. Civil Associations
  9. Civil Society-centered Socialism
  10. Civil Economy