Australia Crawls Closer to Reform of the Definition of Charity
Consultations Toward Legal Reform in Tuvalu
James Duckworth and Mose Saitala
Social Capital and Philanthropy in Maori Society
Tuwhakairiora Williams and David Robinson
The Challenges Facing American Nonprofits
A Needless Silence: American Nonprofits and the Right to Lobby
Jeffrey M. Berry
The Nonprofit Paradox: For-Profit Business Models in the Third Sector
Bill E. Landsberg
Survival Strategies for Civil Society Organizations in China
Julia Greenwood Bentley
"Organized" Civil Society and Its Limits
Antonio Itriago and Miguel Angel Itriago
Defining Characteristics of Civil Society
Timothy J. Peterson and Jon Van Til
Civil Society at the Movies
The Civil Society Reader
Edited by Virginia A. Hodgkinson and Michael W. Foley
Reviewed by Morgan Meis
The Perfect Gift: The Philanthropic Imagination in
Poetry and Prose
Edited by Amy A. Kass
Does Civil Society Matter?: Governance in Contemporary India
Edited by Rajesh Tandon and Ranjita Mohanty
The State of Civil Society in Japan
Edited by Frank J. Schwartz and Susan J. Pharr
Paved With Good Intentions: The NGO Experience in North Korea
Edited by L. Gordon Flake and Scott Snyder
The Legal and Regulatory Framework for CSO Self-Financing in Colombia;
The Legal and Regulatory Framework for CSO Self-Financing in Chile
By Nicole Etchart, Brian Milder, Maria Cecilia Jara, and Lee Davis
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Civil society has at least one thing in common with obscenity: we have trouble defining it, but we know it when we see it. Virginia Hodgkinson and Michael Foley’s The Civil Society Reader seeks to alleviate this predicament. The opening line of the introduction declares that “the notion of civil society is more than just the vague but often powerful slogan of the last several years,” a sentence that captures two crucial aspects of the phenomenon: civil society has held widely different connotations for different thinkers; and it has stimulated considerable excitement, especially over the last decade or so.
Hodgkinson and Foley begin with selections from Aristotle, Kant, and the theoretical godfather of modern civil society discussions, Adam Ferguson, an assemblage suggesting that civil society has the august pedigree of an important subject. The Reader thereby does what every Reader seeks to do: situate its subject within a broadly acceptable intellectual milieu where serious scholarly work can occur. Selections from Paine, Madison, Hegel, Marx, Tocqueville, Dewey, Truman, Almond & Verba, and Gramsci all serve that general purpose. And the selections are effective--one recognizes the rich historical lineage of the current debates.
The editors acknowledge that the book builds momentum as it goes along: “The volume’s real engagement with the idea of civil society thus starts with two thinkers of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant and Adam Ferguson, because the modern notion of civil society was born in the late eighteenth century, at the dawn of the modern condition.” There is truth to this claim; and the idea that the modern condition and discussions of civil society go hand in hand makes intuitive sense. In some respects, civil society and modern subjectivity are different ways of talking about the same thing. Indeed, the approach one takes to civil society is often broadly indicative of the way one views contemporary issues in modern Western societies.
So, broadly speaking, we have a right-leaning analysis of civil society and a left-leaning one. The right-leaning analysis tends to stress either civil society as the social space for individual actors to meet and negotiate contracts of one form or another, a kind of free market of ideas and interests; or civil society as the place where family, religion, and the like provide grounding in terms of values and world view. Left-leaning analysis tends to be more suspicious, offering either a critique of civil society as a background for atomized, bourgeois, and inauthentic human relations, or seeing in civil society the opportunity for richer and more complex citizenship that allows for greater participation in society as a whole.
But the ideological boundary isn't all that stable, which is one of the things that makes the civil society discussion so vibrant. Peter L. Berger and Richard John Neuhaus, for instance, argue in their important work To Empower People (1977): “The contradiction between wanting more government services and less government may be only apparent. More precisely, we suggest that the modern welfare state is here to stay, indeed that it ought to expand the benefits it provides—but that alternative mechanisms are possible to provide welfare-state services.” Right-leaning thinkers can read such sentences as a call for privatization and other alternatives to big government. But left-leaning analysts can view civil society as a means, in Michael Walzer's words, "(1) to decentralize the state so that there are more opportunities for citizens to take responsibility for (some of) its activities; (2) to socialize the economy so that there is a greater diversity of market agents, communal as well as private; and (3) to pluralize and domesticate nationalism, on the religious model, so that there are different ways to realize and sustain historical identities.”
Despite the right- and left-leaning variants of analysis, civil society does not fit comfortably within traditional political categories. This may stem in part from its roles in Eastern European resistance against communism and, more recently, in democratization movements in Middle Eastern and Islamic societies. In the sentences immediately preceding the one quoted above, Walzer notes: “In Central and Eastern Europe, civil society is still a battle cry, for it requires a dismantling of the totalitarian state and it brings with it the exhilarating experience of associational independence. Among ourselves what is required is nothing so grand; nor does it lend itself to a singular description (but this is what lies ahead in the East too).” Those lines were written in 1990. The prognostication about what lies ahead for the East has largely come to pass.
Walzer touches on an interesting issue. The concept of civil society fuels a revolutionary-sounding debate about spreading liberal democracy beyond the West, and a more banal, reformist debate within liberal democracies of the West. The contrast brings to mind Francis Fukuyama’s thesis about the end of history, as well as Samuel Huntington’s thesis about the clash of civilizations. For Huntington, whom Foley and Hodgkinson mention in their introduction, the emergence of civil society in the developing world opens up a dangerous and destabilizing space. Owing to what Huntington deems competing and incompatible civilizational forms, civil society fits our type of society but not theirs.
Is Huntington right, or does civil society hold potentially universal appeal? The selection from Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato’s Civil Society and Political Theory (1992) considers the normative questions, and perhaps the normative standards:
We are truly impressed by the importance in East Europe and Latin America, as well as in the advanced capitalist democracies, of the struggle for rights and their expansion, of the establishment of grass roots associations and initiatives and the ever renewed construction of institutions and forums of critical publics. No interpretation can do these aspirations justice without recognizing both common orientations that transcend geography and even social-political systems and a common normative fabric linking rights, associations, and publics together. We believe that civil society ... is the best hermeneutic key to these two complexes of commonality.
For Cohen and Arato, civil society is the basic social institution that best allows any society to adjudicate between state and individual, between the needs of the individual and the associational frameworks in which individuals participate. This viewpoint is fully anti-Huntingtonian, as well as, to some, an expression of the basic imperialism of liberalism. As Cohen and Arato posit, “Even if cultural modernity itself is just one tradition among many, its universal thrust is the reflexive, nonauthoritarian relation toward tradition—an orientation that can be applied to itself and that implies autonomy ... rather than heteronomy.” This perspective is adverse to Fukuyama’s idea about the end of history, too, in that it combines the radical, revolutionary thrust of civil society in authoritarian or illiberal societies with the continued transformation and renewal of societies that already have a thriving civil society. Cohen and Arato write:
In our view this synthetic project should be described not only in Habermas’s term, "the reflexive continuation of the welfare state," but also by the complementary idea of the "reflexive continuation of the democratic revolution." The former arises in the context of Western welfare states, the latter in that of the democratization of authoritarian regimes. The two ideas can and should be combined.
From this perspective, the arguably neo-imperialistic project of extending the basic conditions for civil society is complemented by the continuing democratization and transformation of advanced liberal democracies. A version of globalization emerges, thus, in which a normative background of civil society at the global level allows various societies, traditions, practices, and beliefs to interact and form associations across civilizational lines. Such a project is grand and revolutionary and yet profoundly modest: grand in suggesting a global transformation of social and political forms; modest in saying nothing about what the content of those social and political forms might ultimately be. Articulating the contents will be the work of a history that is far from over, and in which we have not yet begun to dream about what human beings can be and do. Or so the civil society debate suggests at its most soaring moments.
* Morgan Meis is President of Flux Factory Inc., an arts organization and think tank in New York City.