Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy group. A healthy civil society (NGOs, unions, academia, human rights organisations) are considered by some theorists to be important for democratization, as they give people a unity and a common purpose. World Bank uses the term Governance as the exercise of political authority and the use of institutional resources to manage society's problems and affairs, which puts adequate emphasis on the involvement of civil society in development.
Before the work of Hegel, the term civil society was roughly equivalent to state. In using this term, Hegel was alluding to the social domain of market exchange [in Smith’s (1976) sense] in which individual civil agents freely engage in the pursuit of financial wealth, and the ownership and exchange of goods. Later on many social thinkers have developed their own brand of theories of civil society.
Compared to the concepts of the public sphere and communicative action, the concept of civil society is deﬁnitely less prominent in Habermas’ writings. It was only in his book Faktizita¨t und Geltung (1992) that he sketched his ideas on civil society in a chapter entitled ‘‘On the role of civil society and the political public sphere’’. Yet the foundation for these reﬂections on civil society can be found in his earlier work, in particular his opus magnum Theory of Communicative Action (1981). Here he provides some hints on how to deﬁne the public sphere against the backdrop of his general theory of society. In discussing the exchange processes between the functionally integrated subsystems and the life-world, Habermas attributes to the lifeworld two ‘‘institutional orders’’ (1981: 473): ﬁrst, the private sphere which primarily rests on the core family, specialises in the task of socialization and, in the modern capitalist system, is discharged from economic functions; second, the public sphere based on networks of communication which are intensiﬁed by cultural institutions and, in the later stages of modernity, the mass media. In terms of material or monetary exchanges, the state (or administrative system) provides organizational services (e.g., infrastructures) by taking taxes. In terms of power exchange, the state offers political decisions by expecting mass loyalty. Thus, from the perspective of the state, the public sphere is able to procure legitimacy. Strikingly, the category of civil society is absent in this conceptualization. This gap is at least partially ﬁlled in some of Habermas’ later publications.
His conceptualization of civil society and the political public sphere in Faktizita¨t und Geltung is inspired by two lines of thought. First, regarding the structure and processes of politics, Habermas draws on a model developed by Bernhard Peters (1993). Accordingly, democratic constitutional systems are characterized by the dissociation between the political center and its periphery. The center, institutionally represented by administrations, judiciaries, election processes and parliamentary bodies, has the formal authority to make decisions. The periphery is broadly divided into an internal and external segment. The former consists of a range of quasi-statist institutions (e.g., universities, social security organizations) which closely interact with administrations or perform functions that the state has delegated to them. The outer periphery, in turn, is divided into two parts. On one hand, there exists a host of organizations with whom state authorities coordinate in order to secure smooth implementation of their policies. This coordination occurs mainly in informal and non-transparent ways, as exempliﬁed by the tripartite neo-corporatist arrangement that exists in some countries. On the other hand, there is a vast array of associations, private and public interest groups, social movements, and citizen initiatives that seek to inﬂuence the state. It appears that Habermas considers this outer periphery to be the stronghold of a politically attentive civil society that, in extraordinary situations, has the will and capacity to challenge the political center by the ‘‘mode of besiege’’ (1989: 475). In such a situation, the political decision-makers are forced to justify their decisions, to engage in a public discourse, and probably to make concessions or even to fundamentally change their position.
Second, in specifying the role and quality of civil society, Habermas draws on the work of Cohen and Arato (1992). According to them, civil society is marked by the principles of plurality, publicity and legality. Habermas also adopts their idea that civil society could serve as a mediator between the political system and the lifeworld. Through this idea, he seems to re-deﬁne the status of the public sphere. While in 1981 he deﬁned the public sphere, along with the private sphere, as an ‘‘institutional order of lifeworld’’, he now understands the public sphere to be a structure that ‘‘mediates between the private sectors of lifeworld on the one hand and the functionally speciﬁed action systems on the other hand’’ (1992: 451) and, in other terminology, as a resonance board for those problems which have to be solved by the political system (1992: 435).
In a recent article Habermas (2008) further speciﬁes his understanding of the public sphere and civil society. The public sphere is deﬁned as a space between the formally organized consultations and negotiations within the center and the activities and informal talks of civil society at the margins of the political center (2008: 164). More importantly, Habermas elaborates on the role of the public sphere and its relationship with civil society in both descriptive and normative terms. All participants, whether from the center, the functional systems or civil society, engage in political communication to inﬂuence the formation of public opinion. Even when operating in a strategic manner (as opposed to the spirit of seeking mutual understanding), these participants have to respect certain rules in order to become effective: ‘‘They must contribute to the mobilization of important themes, provable facts and convincing arguments which, in turn, are submitted to critical examination’’ (2008: 177). This very much resembles Immanuel Kant’s thoughts on how to establish public reason.
Habermas’s relevance to the study of civil society theory lies in several of his theoretical building blocks support or complement the idea of civil society, most importantly the concepts of the (political) public sphere, the role of morality, law and civil liberties as a precondition for a thriving civil society, and the relevance of discourse with its central element of the ‘‘forceless force of the better argument’’ (1971: 131). At the same time, Habermas warns us against an idealization of the role and the potential of civil society. To him, civil society is not the heart of society at large. Nor does he agree with attempts to reintegrate the economy into the concept of civil society attempts primarily promoted by neo-liberal strategists and transnational corporations. After all, according to him, modern societies are a web of various systems and spheres which should maintain their relative autonomy. Civil society can only unfold its complementary and critical potential under certain conditions and in interaction with more formalized institutions of the political center under the rule of law.
While some commentators blame Habermas for idealizing the power of discourse and deliberation, they fail to recognize his distinction between a highly conditional potential and empirical reality. Habermas has only slightly softened his sceptical view of the structures and processes of political communication (Habermas, 1990). And to the extent that political communication is shaped, if not distorted, by the use of power and money, the civil society, which has to pass the public sphere to inﬂuence the political decision-makers, generally remains a weak participant. There is a lesson, then, for the passionate promoters of civil society: It is more important to reduce the obstacles for a deliberative communicative praxis within the public political sphere than it is to strengthen the associational web of civil society. Also in taking a look at transnational public spheres and the use of the Internet, Habermas is not overly optimistic that civil society will be able to strongly inﬂuence, via the public sphere, the political decision-making processes.
Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937), an Italian journalist and the leader of the Italian Communist party who died in the Fascist prison, is considered one of the major theoreticians of civil society. Gramsci’s concept of civil society, like much of his notions and conceptions, isn’t summed up in a single place in his writing, but rather develops gradually from early remarks in his pre-prison writings through fragmentary and seemingly haphazard formulations in several of his prison notebooks. While there are a few passages in the Prison Notebooks where Gramsci addresses the concept of civil society in a more formal and systematic way, much of his observations on civil society are intertwined with his analyses of a wide variety of topics.
For Gramsci, civil society is located within society’s superstructure (in Marxist and Neo-Marxist thought the base is equivalent to the mode of production and the social order enforcing it, while the superstructure is the culture, technology, institutions, etc. which emerge from the material conditions and circumstances of production and support it), which in Gramsci’s works, pertains to institutions, forms of consciousness and political and cultural practices (Williams, 1978). The superstructure is the sphere of mass cultural and ideological reproduction, and it consists of two major levels:
[O]ne that can be called civil society, that is the ensemble of organisms commonly called private, and that of political society, or the State. (Gramsci, 1971: 12)
Since the superstructure is distinct from the base, which consists of social relations of production of a predominately economic character, and following Gramsci’s critique of Marxist economism, it is often argued that Gramsci developed a three-way distinction between the economy (the market), civil society, and the state or government. And indeed, elsewhere Gramsci writes that ‘‘between the economic structure and the state with its legislation and coercion stands civil society’’ (Gramsci, 1971: 209).
However, it is important to note that for Gramsci these distinctions are only analytic or theoretical.
As Joseph Buttigieg explains: "Gramsci’s enlarged concept of the modern State is, therefore, triadic; its three elements, political society, civil society, and the economic sphere, are inextricably intertwined— they are separable only for methodological or heuristic purposes. (Buttigieg, 2005: 43)
The concept of Hegemony is central to Gramsci’s idea of civil society. Gramsci’s idea of hegemony is based on Marx’s notion of ‘‘false consciousness,’’ which is a state in which the members of the dominated classes are ideologically blinded to their subordinate position in the social structure. Thanks to false consciousness, true class consciousness is hindered by the ideology of the ruling class, and the masses are made to identify with a system which exploits them and its underlying ideology. Gramsci used the term ‘‘hegemony’’ to name the process of political domination through ideological domination. He showed how dominant elites use the state as well as the popular culture, mass media, education, and religion to reinforce an ideology which supports their position in the relations of force. Gramsci deﬁnes hegemony as a form of control exercised by a dominant class over subaltern groups in society. Although in his prison writings Gramsci typically is careful not to use Marxist terminology such as ‘‘class,’’ and ‘‘proletariat’’ (because his work was read by a Fascist censor), his class distinctions reﬂect the reality of his place and time. Gramsci’s dominant class was the bourgeoisie, the modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of waged labor; and the central subordinate class was the proletariat, but also other subaltern groups. Gramsci’s hegemony refers to a process of moral and intellectual leadership through which dominated or subordinate classes succumb to their own domination by ruling classes, as opposed to being simply forced or coerced into accepting inferior positions. Hegemony, thus, refers to a sociopolitical situation or as Gramsci calls it ‘‘a moment,’’ in which there is an alignment of the superstructure (the dominant ideology) with the base (class divisions and the economic and political practices that support them). In hegemony, a certain way of life and thought is dominant, and is diffused throughout society to inform norms, values and tastes, political practices, and social relations (Showstack-Sassoon, 1982). Hegemony thus saturates the society to such an extent that it corresponds to the reality of social experience. In this way, people contribute to the continued dominance of the ruling class, by accepting the dominant culture’s values and assumptions as their own: repression is replaced by inculcation (Moen, 1998).
Class dominance, as theorized by Gramsci, results from a combination of coercion and consent. The dominant class becomes hegemonic and promotes it own ideology as the commonsensical way of thinking through leadership and persuasion, so that instead of imposing itself on the subaltern classes, it acquires their consensus. Naturally, coercion is never completely missing from arrangements of power, but in hegemonic arrangements what matters is the power of ideas and the politics of consent, while force and coercion are less visible (Rupert, 2005). Since hegemony is not a result of imposition but rather of consent, this leadership is not exercised primarily through the mechanisms of government, rather it is acquired chieﬂy in the sphere of civil society where consensus is generated. In order for the hegemonic groups to control political society with the consent of the governed, that is for them to be ‘‘hegemonic,’’ they must allow for a space where free association and action (or a belief of free association and action) is allowed. When the ideas and worldviews formed in this ‘‘free’’ space buttress existing social, economic, and political arrangements, they are thought of as doing so willingly and spontaneously. In this, the action within civil society, directed by hegemonic elites and the forma mentis they engender, serves to legitimize existing arrangements and relations of power.
Achieving a hegemonic position in civil society is resolutely more important to the ruling classes than gaining control over government. Controlling government allows hegemonic groups to use the legitimate force of the state to protect their interests, if they must. However, relying only on brute force as their only source of power would make them vulnerable to a simple straight-on challenge on the control of legitimate force such as in a coup d’´etat. Contrastingly, hegemony causes potential opposing groups to consent with the dominant groups’ control and identify with its ideology, and this is likely to prevent a coup d’e´tat from occurring in the ﬁrst place.
Therefore, civil society is the arena where the prevailing hegemony in the modern state is constantly being reinforced, but also the only arena where it can be truly contested. Since in Gramsci’s thought civil society, and not the state as in Hegel, is the active and positive element in historical developments, it is the locus of impending change. It is the creative space, where subaltern groups can coalesce and engage in a counter-hegemonic effort to alter society (Showstack-Sassoon, 1982). Actually, hegemony necessitates counter-hegemony, since it creates contradictions that cause unrest among subaltern groups. Hegemony and counter-hegemony are best seen as ‘‘simultaneous double movements’’ that reciprocally shape one another – hegemony informs counter-hegemony, and counter-hegemonic efforts cause hegemonic forces to realign and reorganize themselves (Persaud, 2001: 49).
Gramsci’s use of hegemony cannot be understood apart from other concepts he developed, including those of ‘‘State’’ and ‘‘Civil Society.’’ Actually, what sets hegemony apart from domination is the symbiosis between government and civil society. This can only be analyzed in a meaningful way when one understands that civil society is not separate from or exclusively opposed to the state (Buttigieg, 2005). He saw civil society as a part of his notion of the ‘‘integral state’’ (Gramsci, 1971: 267). In fact, although political society is the most immediately visible aspect of the state, civil society is its most resilient constitutive element. The intricate, organic relationships between civil society and political society is what produces hegemony, and thus makes it possible for certain classes of society to dominate the state and maintain their dominance, perpetuating the subalternity of other classes. Political society and civil society mutually reinforce each other to the advantage of certain classes, groups, and institutions. Control of the state is accomplished through hegemony in civil society, hegemony that is achieved through consent. But consent of the subaltern groups to hegemonic ideology is not a truly free choice; it is manufactured and manipulated by the dominant classes who control certain institutions of civil society, co-opt others, and infuse the rest with the forma mentis that they desire.
Gramsci’s elaboration of the concept of civil society is not just a theoretical or philosophical project. It is set up expressly to develop a revolutionary strategy that would disable the coercive apparatus of the state, allow subaltern groups to gain access to political power, and create the conditions that could give rise to a consensual society wherein no individual or group is reduced to a subaltern status (Anderson, 1976). Gramsci’s transformation of society starts in civil society, and ideally ends with the complete extension of civil society so that it no longer needs a coercive apparatus to protect it. The existence of civil society and the necessity of hegemonic elites to permit some freedom of action within it (otherwise they rely on force alone, and cannot achieve hegemony) provide the space and opportunity for counter-hegemonic mobilization. The subaltern state provides the incentive. The reliance of the modern liberal state on acquiring dominance through hegemony (that is, through generating consent in civil society) brings about the very cultural, social, and political formations that challenge hegemony. Hegemony in Gramsci’s view is not a ﬁnal and unchangeable state, but rather an unstable result of an ongoing process of political and ideological altercation, which he called ‘‘war of position’’ and which takes the form of a ‘‘reciprocal siege’’ between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic actors.
Cohen and Arato have made valuable contribution to the theory of civil society, especially in their collaborative publication in 1992 – “Civil society and political theory.” 
Cohen and Arato have referred to many notable scholars of the civil society theory, of which mentioning a few is necessary.
Hannah Arend’s politics, which sees politics as decaying because of looming expansion of plurality leading towards a blurred boundary of publics and privateness.
Carl Schmitt argues that continued political democratization leads to the loss of state neutrality and to actions by the state affected by private interests. In addition to the overlapping of government actions and private interest, the private sphere is politicized because of expanding state activities.
Habermas shares with Schmitt the diagnosis that state interventionism is expanding and that the political space is occupied by corporatism of private interests and adds the culturally and theoretically pessimistic thesis of manipulated mass culture, which leads to the disintegration of the public as mediating agent between civil society and state.
However, Cohen and Arato rejected the idea of decaying politics. They reject the differentiation of state and society and contrary to Habermas’s thesis of decay of public sphere they refer to associations of society as an issuer of public processes.
Michel Foucault’s discussion on the theory of power, which analyses society as a network of relationships of power, lead Cohen and Arato discuss the scope and outlines of the concept of power in civil society theory.
Systems theory has left significant impact on Cohen & Arato’s theory. Luhmann’s system-theoretical analysis of societal differentiation processes denies further theoretical value to the basic distinction between state and society: According to Luhmann, the variety of externally differentiated societal subsystems, the internal differentiation of the political system and the many speciﬁc intersystem connections cannot be sufﬁciently analyzed any more by such dichotomic theory concepts.
Cohen and Arato give an overview of the development of the concept of civil society in the twentieth century. The starting point for this development is the categorical differentiation between economy, civil society and state. In order to avoid such conceptual weaknesses, where, Gamsci with a Marxian perspective reduces civil society to a form of cultural domination in capitalism and Talcott Persons’s reduction of civil society towards “societal community” Cohen and Arato resort back to the differentiation of systems (state/economy) and the living world (civil society) introduced by Ju¨rgen Habermas.
They discuss societal framework conditions and civil societal actors, framed by thoughts on political ethics at the beginning and a discussion of civil disobedience at the end. At the center of the argument are the ethics of discourse and the theory of law. It is evident, that in connection with the conception of political ethics the term politics is deﬁned based on the concept of civil society. The concept of politics championed by Cohen and Arato speciﬁcally take into consideration the cultural aspects of political action and what effect they have in processes of articulation of interests and interpretation of needs. In that sense, politics is not a process reduced to negotiating and aggregating interests; not the existing interests of individuals, but the formation of interests of civil societal actors while networking in a coordinated way. This developed grown political knowledge moves quite far from politics as a pursuit of conﬂicting interests and as a negotiation of interests and focuses on the legitimizing sensible side of political action in political society.
Cohen and Arato follow Habermas’social theory. Using the concept of institutional intermediation, they would like to discuss options and scope of democratizing the question of differentiation – increasing the weight of Habermasian thoughts. Institutional ‘‘sensors’’ and ‘‘receptors’’ in societal subsystems are supposed to keep the system integration sensitive to the requirements of social integration. They do not orient themselves defensively to the Habermasian thesis of ‘‘colonialization of the living world’’ in the sense of looking for barriers against the escalating dynamic of system integration. In fact, Cohen and Arato aggressively look for possible forms of ‘‘self-limiting’’ inﬂuence of civil society on the state and economy through institutional intermediation (Habermas has followed them later on this point). With that institutional intermediation, the democratization of differentiated societies without the price of external differentiation and subsequent loss of effectiveness in connection should become possible. Unfortunately, substantiating this theoretically promising goal is one of the weaker parts of their main work.
In social movements, a phenomenon especially prominent in the 1970s and 1980s, Cohen and Arato see the self-limiting radicalism at work they themselves demanded which connects defending and democratizing civil society to forms of influence on state and economy, which does not call into question the complexity level of structural differentiation as such.
The argument proceeds in two steps: At ﬁrst, Cohen and Arato carve out the alternate unilateralism of the American research on movements (Resource-Mobilization-Approach, RMA) and European research on movements (New Social Movements approach, NSB-approach). RMA methodically assumes social movements to be strategic actors, particularly, through Rational Choice. A look at structures of political opportunities of movement organizations complements the RMA paradigm, which concentrates on their contribution to the formation of interest organizations. Here, RMA’s analytic framework also works for Cohen and Arato. What the approach cannot do is to analyze collective actions below the threshold of interest conﬂict and strategic actions. Civil society’s actors use political public processes to influence political society and forms of ‘‘politics of identity’’ in civil society that aim to form (group) identities but do not tackle the democratization of social relationships. In this area the analytical power of the NSB approach can be used with its attention to cultural processes, development of social identities or normative changes and relationships between associations.
Through differentiation between civil society and political society, Cohen and Arato’s concept of civil society isable to assign both approaches to the research on movement an appropriate place and to support their alternate emphasis for political theory. Concerning the two paradigms of research on movements, the authors distinguish between different forms of politics: Civil societal actors emerge through politics of identity; civil societal actors enter the sphere of activity of political society in forms of inclusive politics; through politics of inﬂuence civil societal actors participate in public political discourse and inﬂuence political societal actors; reform politics is the institutional establishing of discursive elements as ‘‘sensors’’ and ‘‘receptors’’ in the societal subsystems, also establishing the political and economic society. According to Cohen and Arato, social movements are found in the whole broad scale of different forms of politics and act in civil society as well as in the political society. Movement politics are a normal part of self-democratizing civil societies.
Although Ernest Gellner was an erudite polymath whose expertise covered such diverse research ﬁelds as kinship studies, nationalism, civil society, Islam, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, state socialism, analytical philosophy and historical sociology, his intellectual preoccupation was focused on one central puzzle: how the modern social form came into being and in particular to what extent modernity is unique relative to all other social orders? The key to unlock this puzzle was to be found in comparing and contrasting two historically dominant forms of social organization: the agrarian and industrial world.
For Gellner (1994) civil society is more than a cluster of nongovernmental institutions and associations which are independent and strong enough to counterbalance the state. Although civil society requires the existence of autonomous and powerful nongovernmental bodies which can keep the state authority in check without paralyzing its role as an arbitrator between group interests and an essential keeper of internal peace these characteristics are insufﬁcient for the existence of a fully ﬂedged civil society. In Gellner’s view the indispensable ingredient of civil society is an individual autonomy. Any concept of civil society that does not incorporate an emphasis on the personal liberty, in Gellner’s view, cannot differentiate between civil society proper and the premodern segmentary communities. In other words many traditional patrimonial collectivities such as clans, lineages, bands, or tribes were characterized by a substantial degree of autonomy vis-`a-vis central authorities, often being in position to strongly challenge the will of the rulers. However as these collectivities clearly lacked a sense of individual freedom and were governed by the strict ritualistic practices they had little, if anything, in common with the civil society. Rather, as Gellner (1994: 7) puts it one could escape the tyranny of kings at the expense of living under the tyranny of cousins. That is, the only way one could evade the oppression of the central authority in premodern world is through the obedience to a particular social subgroup. Hence in his theory civil society is conceptualized in wider and historically speciﬁc terms as a distinctly modern social order amiable to proliferation of independent associations which do not stiﬂe one’s personal liberty.
Since the emergence of civil society is firmly tied to modernity Gellner argues that one of the key preconditions for it to happen involves the structural transformation in human relations: from the rigidities of social status to ﬂexibilities of contractual arrangements. Consequently Gellner (1995) depicts modern individuals as ‘‘modular’’ creatures who, just like modular furniture units, are variable and adaptable to ever changing conditions and opportunities of the modern world. In his view modularity is the precondition of civil society as under modern conditions one has the freedom to change memberships in various associations, to switch allegiances and loyalties to distinct subgroupings without being automatically ostracized from the society. Unlike the agrarian world where one’s social status and communal membership were inscribed on birth and regularly reinforced through ritual and coercion and thus were not particularly efﬁcient, the human relationships in the industrial world derive their efﬁciency from their ﬂexibility, instrumentality, and temporary character. In Gellner’s (1994: 103) witty and colorful language one can join a modern political party ‘‘without slaughtering a sheep’’ and one can leave it ‘‘without incurring the death penalty for apostasy.’’
In Gellner’s view liberal individualism is a distinct feature of civil society and as such it was bound to ﬁnd itself on the collision course with the stringent collectivist ethos of nationalism. Hence much of the twentieth century saw nationalist movements as hostile opponents of civil society.
Contemporary relevance of Gellner’s theory of civil society can be summarized in three main points. Firstly, Gellner proposes that civil society can only ﬂourish in modern context where the separation of political and socioeconomic spheres clearly exists. If this precondition is to be met, a balance of power between market regulators and state authorities is essential to ensure scope for actions and relationships that transcend both kinship ties and extreme individualism.
Secondly, Gellner suggests that civil society requires modular persons who are engaged in a whole set of relationships but free to leave any associations without fear of stigmatization. Modularity is another precondition for a functional civil society since allegiance to a speciﬁc group is transferable within conditions of modernity.
Finally, Gellner’s concept of civil society offers a broader understanding of the conditions of modern life than most standard liberal democratic models. While context of liberal democracy may be conducive to extreme individualism, atomization, social isolation and formal recognition (but possibly poor implementation) of political freedoms and human rights, Gellner’s idea of civil society is focused on the institutional preconditions necessary for the emergence and persistence of a thriving civil society.
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