The Civil Society Bookshelf

The Dubious Link: Civic Engagement and Democratization

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 4, September 2004

By Ariel C. Armony
Reviewed by Micheline Ishay

With the fall of authoritarianism in Latin America, the global collapse of communism, and the demands of nation building in the aftermath of the Cold War and September 11, the literature on civil society has mushroomed. The commonly held view has been that the sprouting of associations within civil society would create a buffer against the revival of authoritarianism and weave a tighter social fabric for supporting the hard labor of democracy. The information age helped shape dialogues between social agencies in the public sphere, just as the advance of unfettered globalization promised to kindle a new spirit of free enterprise in former tyrannies. The Janus face of globalization, however, would soon point to a darker face of civil society and globalization, as rampant nationalism punctured liberal hopes of rapid global democratization.

That dark side of civic engagement is what Ariel C. Armony, an assistant professor of government at Colby College, captures in his book The Dubious Link: Civic Engagement and Democratization. Rebuffing the often-argued Tocquevellian position that civic activity leads inexorably to democracy, Armony emphasizes a different aspect of the literature on civil society. The spreading of civic associations does not guarantee democracy, he maintains, focusing on the rise of Nazism in the Weimar Republic, the anti-desegregation movement in the United States, and the wave of human rights movements following the end of the Argentinean military regime. Each of these cases showed a high level of political engagement that led to exclusionary policies. It follows that we need to identify the specific context within which civil engagement contributes to democratization. Here, Armony draws on his case study research to suggest that social activism is beneficial for the development of democracy when accompanied by periods of economic stability, minimal social disparity, social trust in transparent institutions, and a healthy synergy between state and civic actors.

With its depiction of the lynch mobs against American Blacks, persecution of Jews in politically vibrant Weimar, and violence in the streets of Buenos Aires after the end of the Argentinean military regime, Dubious Link anchors the discourse of social capital and civil society in its socioeconomic and institutional context, rather than excising civil society from the very structural background that shapes it–as many civil society aficionados tend to do. Both qualitative and quantitative in its methodological presentation, the book is constructed in a systematic fashion.

Yet there are flaws in the design. Its formalist presentation makes an interesting topic unnecessarily dry, and its structure favors a descriptive and static analysis that hampers a deeper understanding of social change. The book draws implicitly on Antonio Gramsci’s contribution on civil society (in hegemonic and non-hegemonic contexts) and could have profited from a more direct engagement with that source. (Armony builds on the work of several authors who are explicitly indebted to Gramsci.) Briefly, what Gramsci helps us understand, beyond the author’s effort here, is the importance of the international context in shaping and influencing the conditions of civil society. While Armony alludes to this important aspect, he fails to develop it. In Weimar, for instance, how could we understand the rise of Nazism and fascism without understanding the broader political and economic currents sweeping through Europe (the Bolshevik Revolution, the punitive peace against Germany, the Great Depression)? Similarly, how can we begin to understand the spread of Islamicist movements without looking at the wider context of globalization?

The author could also have drawn more on another aspect of Gramsci’s contribution: the role of ideology in creating democratic and institutional stability. Armony is not at odds with Gramsci in maintaining that a politically fragmented society, a weak state, and wide economic disparity provide fertile soil for anti-democratic trends. Armony’s account, however, is incomplete, particularly for regimes in transition, in which groups seek hegemonic power amidst social cleavages by promoting an ideology premised on widely shared benefits. Despite these limitations, Armony takes the debate on civil society in a promising direction, toward a more multifaceted inquiry into the implications of social activism.


*Micheline Ishay is Professor and Director of the Human Rights Program at the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver. She is the author most recently of The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era, newly published by the University of California Press.