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The term “civil society” disappeared from the western political vocabulary during the 20th century, reappearing when the debate over the crisis in representative democracy made it topical again. Its upsurge in popularity is however linked to an important semantic shift from its original “modern” meaning, which itself corresponded to a transformation in politics at that time.
The notion of civil society has its origins in the Aristotelian idea of politike koinonia and in the many Latin translations (societas civilis,communitas civilis,communicatio,communio and coetus) that we owe to Cicero. The ancient world used these terms to define the political unity of the City (polis,civitas). Civil society meant a community of citizens brought together to “live well” (1), since it was recognised that the institutional organisation of the natural inequalities within society and the rights of the head of the household were immediately political; this is where civil society and political society coincided (societas civilis sive politica).
The modern meaning of civil society refers, on the contrary, to the sphere of citizens’ private interests (though it does not limit itself to these). Although this definition of civil society was already used by the 16th century political philosopher Jean Bodin (2), it became established with the rationalist political philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Society was no longer seen as something natural, but the “artificial” product of a social contract, whereby people join forces voluntarily to leave behind the insecurity and violence (bellum omnium contra omnes) that characterises humans in their “state of nature” — by which they submit to sovereign power, expressing and representing a desire for order and unity of the body politic.
“Now union thus made,” said Hobbes, “is called City, or civil society, or also a civil person” (3). So no “civil” society can exist without the institution of a sovereign to build and protect it. The reverse of this “civilisation” of human relations is the depoliticisation of society, where it becomes a collection of citizens preoccupied with their own “private” affairs, whose interest in politics is limited to legal matters and to feeling protected by the sovereign. This was equally the case for those who, like Locke, could already detect “private” social relations (family, property, use of money, market economy), typical of civil society, at work in the “state of nature”.
So if we want to create a “political or civil society”, and make it real and certain, we must establish an agreement between individuals and create the state by artificial means. In short, the state must exist for civil society to exist. “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau (4). So civil society was built “negatively” on the foundations of private property, whose safeguard depends on the construction of political institutions and laws.
Another “modern” interpretation developed in the English-speaking world in this period. For writers such as David Hume and Adam Ferguson, civil society was not the result of a unifying contract between individuals, but more the product of history, the necessary and natural result of the economic organisation of society and its inherent division of labour. The relationship between this social interpretation — which saw huge differences arise in the distribution of wealth — and democratic political institutions, was problematic. “Whether in great or in small States, democracy is preserved with difficulty, under the disparities of condition, and the unequal cultivation of the mind, which attend the variety of pursuits, and applications, that separate mankind in the advanced state of commercial arts,” wrote Ferguson. “In this, however, we do but plead against the form of democracy, after the principle is removed; and see the absurdity of pretensions to equal influence and consideration, after the characters of men have ceased to be similar” (5).
Looked at from this perspective, civil society ceases to be an orderly space and becomes one of social antagonism where “each member is his own end,” as Hegel wrote, and “everything else is nothing to him.” But it is, at the same time, the source of all development and things civil. No one can pursue their selfish ends in isolation, so these ends become the precondition for the well being of others. This “unsocial sociability” (to quote Kant) can exist thanks to the “invisible hand” of the market, as defined by Adam Smith (6), or more often, the mediation of the state, since “despite an excess of wealth, civil society is not rich enough … to check excessive poverty and the creation of a penurious rabble” (7).
The administration of justice and the police are also essential parts of the government of civil society. These two institutions allow society to determine and enforce the rights of individuals, remedying their accidental nature. The “guild”, for its part, confers to civil society — or more specifically the three groups that form the industrial class: artisans, merchants and manufacturers — obligations of solidarity and unity which their economic dynamics obscure, left alone.
This is the starting point for Karl Marx (and by extension Marxism). The anatomy of this civil society,” he wrote, “has to be sought in political economy” (8). In the social production of their lives, people enter into specific relationships that are necessary and independent of their will, “relations of production” which correspond to a specific stage of development of the “material productive forces”. These are matched by “definite forms of social consciousness,” as well as specific legal and political relationships. So civil society — the sphere of economic and social life in which all men are unequal due to their station, profession or education — is not rooted in the state; on the contrary, it is the arena of political conflict, the antagonistic space between different social classes and their visions of the world.
It is this polemical dimension that seems to have appeared in the new use of the concept of civil society. It seems once again to have become, as it was at the beginning of modernity, a smooth unitarian space, unruffled by contradiction or difference, which can therefore set itself against the sphere of isolated and distant political institutions. The same is true for the concept of “global civil society” which has now been appropriated by big neoliberal international bodies such as the IMF or the World Bank, as well as the social movements that fight them.
In both cases civil society ends up becoming confused with the disparate world of non-governmental organisations who promote new forms of direct “bottom up” political participation, considered all the more necessary because of the crisis in democracy. But even in their most radical form, what people call “civil society movements” end up being no more than a merging of global governance, a form of political pressure that, even sui generis, like the economic and financial lobbyists, nation states, new global political players and credit rating agencies, contributes to the “democratic” management of our societies.
(1) Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Politics, 1252 a6.
(2) Jean Bodin (1529-1596) known for both his writings on the theory of money and on sovereignty, which he thought was essential to the state.
(3) Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, 1642.
(4) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men, 1755.
(5) Adam Ferguson, Essay on the History of Civil Society (part 4 section 2), Edinburgh, 1767.
(6) Scottish philosopher and economist (1723-1790), considered to be one of the theorists of economic liberalism.
(7) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, para 245, 1821.
(8) Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859.
Raffaele Laudani (Bologna University), “The meaning of civil society”, Le Monde Diplomatique, September 2012