Civil Society

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As a term, civil society is the source of much confusion and contestation, yet it continues to hold a great deal of interest for the practice of ethical politics. Originally it was used by Aristotle to describe the ideal, self-governed society of Ancient Greece. After the Enlightenment and the French and American Revolutions, it became attached to the world of voluntary associations which defended individuals from government abuses of their newly-found rights and freedoms. And over the last 100 years or so, a third tradition arose from the writings of Antonio Gramsci, Jurgen Habermas and others who defined civil society as the ‘public sphere’ – the places where ideas are tested, consensus is negotiated, and, at least potentially, power relations are challenged and reformed.

All three of these definitions are reflected in present-day debates about civil society and politics. The ideal or ‘good’ society can be seen as the outcome of ethical politics. The world of voluntary associations provides one mechanism through which they can be practiced – informally but increasingly important as democracy is reshaped to provide more routes to direct participation. And the public sphere provides the forums in which different visions of the good society are debated towards some sense of a common or public interest. Therefore, civil society is simultaneously a goal to aim for, a means to achieve it, and an arena for engaging with each-other about ends and means. In this sense, civil society and ethical politics are inseparable.

Inseparable they may be, but exactly how civil society and politics combine is the source of continuing controversy. When voluntary associations or public spheres are captured by politically-partisan interests, they cannot exercise their functions effectively and public policy problems become embedded – even frozen – in polities that cannot solve them (think health care in the US). On the other hand, when civil society fails to engage with politics it can become irrelevant to large-scale social progress, distanced from the venues and processes where key decisions are made. One way through this dilemma is to recognize that the health of democracy is determined by the depth of its roots in pre-political processes and formations – in the everyday engagement of ordinary people’s voices, not their votes, at the community and other levels.

After all, this is what citizens are doing in millions of settings across the world through advocacy, organizing, movement-building, monitoring, and other forms of participation that promote accountability in society, diffuse political power, and fill out the formal processes of politics. Many observers see these roles growing in the future because traditional, representative democracy cannot satisfy the twin demands for autonomy and participation that characterize contemporary societies. In this sense, civil society will be central to the practice of ethical politics.

Additional resources

Civil Society - short and accessible overview by Michael Edwards (Second Edition, Polity Press, 2009).

See also

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Author: Michael Edwards