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Defining the Role of Civil Society

Keynote Speech by Prof. Dr. Arnd Bauerkämper, Free Universuity of Berlin, at the International Conference: Civil Society in Europe and the Arab World – Towards a Sustainable Dialogue in Potsdam on June 3, 2010

Civil society has become a buzz word, not only in public debates, but also in academia. In re­cent debates on ‘globalization’ as well as in discussions about the more specific topics of ‘global governance’ and ‘global civil society’ the historical perspective has increasingly received atten­tion. In particular, it has been emphasized that elements of civil society which transcend both, geographical and social boundaries are not entirely new. John Keane, for example, has suggested that networks between the local communities of the expanding medieval towns in Europe con­tained seeds of an interconnected civil society free from political rule by the territorial authori­ties. 1 More commonly, the emergence of a transnational civil society has been traced to the liter­ary circles and Masonic Lodges of the European Enlightenment. 2 These groups were encouraged by promises of universal citizenship, and the shared conception of basic human law led their net­working to establishing links between them. Several decades later, the goals of the offspring of these philanthropic societies were narrower and focused on particular issues. In order to mobilize support for their specific concerns they agreed on cross-border cooperation.

            These processes of concentration and cooperation ultimately led to the emergence of International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs). The British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, which was founded in 1839 and deeply rooted in the European Enlightenment and the culture of Quakerism, is widely seen as the first organization of this type. According to the established narrative, this event triggered the development towards a global civil society. As awareness for economic and social problems rose, international solidarity and the formation of cross-border networks of civil society gained momentum. Simultaneously, the formation of modern nation-states and the emer­gence of territorially-bound political governments also furthered activities by actors of civil soci­ety across political borders.

Thus, the number of registered NGOs increased from 32 in 1874 to as many as 1,083 in 1914. 3 It was only after the Second World War, however, when the number of INGOs under the umbrella of the Union of International Organizations (established in 1909) exploded. In the pe­riod from 1960 to 1988 this growth amounted to 230 percent. And the number of INGOs grew even more in the 1990s. As many as one quarter of the 13,000 INGOs registered in 2000 had been founded in the preceding decade. This development went hand in hand with the emergence of new fields of INGO activity. Whereas demands for female suffrage and temperance, for in­stance, are – at least in Europe – no longer viable issues, the concern for human and citizens’ rights, disarmament, and the problems of environmental damage, the enduring poverty of the "Third World", and migration have increasingly received political attention.

I would like to start my talk with some considerations on the concept of ‘civil society’. The following section is devoted to the European roots of civil society, before I will deal with its expansion beyond the western hemisphere and conclude. Let me now start with some conceptual remarks.

1. The Concept of ‘Civil Society’: Dimensions, Approaches and Problems in Cross-Border Perspective

In general, historians have conceptualized civil society by emphasizing three dimensions. First, ‘civil society’ is seen as a project and a vision, which encompasses a strong normative dimension. 4 According to this perspective, ‘civil society’ remains a goal to be achieved. As such, the concept can always be used as a yardstick, as it contains an inbuilt critical potential. Second, ’civil society’ designates specific pockets of society, a dynamic ensemble of non-governmental institutions that tends to be non-violent, self-organizing, self-reflexive and cultivates values like civility, tolerance and mutual respect. They are permanently in tension with governmental institutions that both restrict and enable their activities. Thus, ‘civil society’ has been conceived as a social sphere and as a specific type of social action characterized by self-organization, free speech, plurality of institutions, a culture of civility, and the freedom to associate. Third, ‘civil society’ is to be conceived as a process. It is by no means a static and geographically bound concept, but has expanded in the course of its development. Moreover, its meaning has undergone profound change. Civil society rose in the European Enlightenment, before the concept markedly declined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet the global expansion of modern industrial and financial capitalism as well as the demise and collapse of the communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union have revived the debate surrounding it.

Altogether, ‘civil society’ encompasses two analytical dimensions. It is a sphere separate from the family, the state, and the economy and it designates a type of social action based on specific values: respect for individual independence, allowance for and encouragement of collective self-representation, recognition of plurality, difference and conflict, strife for goals beyond vested interests, and individual gain. These modes of action are assumed to be related to the sphere of civil society.

Yet these definitional approaches raise some problems. To begin with, it is obvious and unavoidable that normative and analytical dimensions overlap in definitions of ‘civil society’. Second, the relationship between civil society and the state needs further clarification. In general, civil society is separate from the state. I particular, however, civil society needs state protection. The rule of law (German Rechtsstaat, which is not the same) is a central prerequisite of any civil society. Third, definitions of ‘civil society’ as a space or sphere on the one hand, and a mode of social action on the other, largely co-exist and may enrich or even influence one another. Fourth, recent investigations have demonstrated that civil society needs the resources of the family and the protection of the state. On the other hand, scholars have convincingly argued that civil society should be analytically separated from these spheres. 5 The distinction between civil society and the economy or the market has been even more contested. On the one hand, market exchange and interaction in civil societies (conceived as cores or pockets of entire societies) are based on similar values, particularly civility. On the other hand, the quest for individual gain and the pursuit of vested interests are constitutive of economic exchange. The ambivalent status and potential of social inequality vis-à-vis civil society exemplifies the ambivalent relationship between the economy and civil society (as certain types of social action, respectively). Markets create inequality and make actors pursue individual gains instead of common interests.  Fifth, ‘civil society’ cannot be restricted to some specific space, as it has shown a considerable mobility and flexibility.

The concept did not originate in the Enlightenment, although it was obviously taken up by its proponents. On the contrary, the idea of civil society is deeply rooted in antiquity, particularly in Aristotelian philosophy. More recently, the concept of ‘civil society’ has been taken up in the debates about the ‘public sphere’ as well as by the Marxists of the 1960s. This expansion, which has demonstrated the ‘travelling potential’ of civil society, has been due to specific demands and needs. In short, the emergence and transformation of ‘civil society’ in different contexts have been influenced by the available resources which its structures require. Not least, the evolution of civil society and the debate about it has been shaped for certain purposes. For instance, the concept has been used as glue in order to establish political and social coalitions. Adaptations of the concept have been flexible, even fluid. It has also become clear that it is extremely difficult to follow the paths that the concept of ‘civil society’ has taken, as they have been continuously interwoven and consequently have transcended geographical, cultural and national barriers, and borders. Undoubtedly, ‘civil society’ emerged in Europe. Yet some of its norms, values and structures have taken root in non-European spaces. Thus, scholars can at least trace and investigate functional equivalents of civil society. Moreover, the social and political groups which have taken up the concept of civil society have interacted in flexible spaces created by adaptations of civil society as an idea, concept, and vision. This insight justifies the assumption that Europeans have created a specific, identifiable space for a transnational civil society. However, it has not been identical to the geographical or political boundaries of Europe.

2. European Roots of Civil Society:

Following the emergence of clerics and court consultants in the Middle Ages as well as the rise of humanist scholars in the 15th and 16th centuries, European Enlightenment was taken up and at the same time promoted by a new group of intellectuals in the late 18th century. These hommes de lettres were mostly no longer tied to state administration and assembled in scholarly or literary associations. Freemasons, too, adopted enlightened ideas and founded lodges throughout Europe. In the early 1780s, about 700 lodges had been established in Europe and North America. Free masons associations counted 100.000 members in France alone in 1793.

Apart from associations and clubs, new publications like encyclopaedia also contributed to the rise of public spheres. In the early nineteenth century, civil society was largely a vision of free deliberation. Beyond the realm of ideas, concepts, values and norms, civil society was increasingly an ensemble of social groups and values mainly directed against state control. As a social formation, it was initially represented by urban citizens as well as the emerging intelligentsia and bourgeoisie. In the latter half of the 19th century, however, the middle classes as well as skilled labourers increasingly adopted the ideas and values of civil society, such as self-reliance, individual independence, tolerance, mutual trust and political freedom. Yet this set of values was marred by contradictions, as universalistic ideals coalesced with the vested interests of the bourgeoisie and intelligentsia. Social equality, for instance, largely remained a promise throughout the 19th century, as the marginal role of the working classes and the subordination of women in the expanding pockets of civil society clearly demonstrate. Altogether, civil society was carried and supported by social groups that were united by their opposition to state control and supervision. They also adhered to common cultural values, cultivated a particular lifestyle centred on the family and shared an often strong distain for the lower classes. Its foundation of property and education (Bildung) lent civil society its exclusive character, apart from the persistence of the ancien regime and semi-feudal rule, particularly in Eastern Europe.

Not least, associations and clubs proved to be ambivalent and even ambiguous with regard to civil society. Although contemporary observers like Alexis de Tocqueville who published his two-volume travelogue on the United States in 1835 and 1840, respectively, contended that associations were the indispensable pillars of American democracy, they were by no means universally inclusive. On the contrary, some clubs and organisations like the Freemasons strictly controlled the entry of new members. In a similar vein, not all associations promoted or even shared the basic tenets and values of civil society. As chauvinism spread in the late 19th century, for instance, nationalist pressure groups rejected political freedom and tolerance in favour of a strong state. Even liberal elites, which fundamentally supported democratisation, upheld social demarcations, reinforced ethnic cleavages and fuelled nationalism.   

Nevertheless, the social foundations of civil society expanded. Beyond the educated, professional bourgeoisie (Bildungsbürgertum, i.e. educated persons like doctors, professors and lawyers) and the economic bourgeoisie (Wirtschaftsbürgertum, i. e. entrepreneurs and managers), the universalistic values of civil society was also adopted by middle and lower classes in the late 19th century. Bourgeois culture also proved to be attractive beyond the realms of particular social groups. In Western and Central Europe, in particular, skilled labourers imitated bourgeois family life, respect for work and education, the values of personal autonomy, individual achievement and success as well as a style of life that was strongly influenced by clubs, associations and communication in public spheres. The working classes, however, selectively appropriated this particular culture, as they fused it with their traditional life-styles.

As a social formation, civil society was by no means homogeneous. Social differences and cultural distinctions separated the economic and educated bourgeoisie, professionals and the middle classes of the artisans, clerks and civil servants. Moreover the gulf between males and females closed only gradually at the end of the 19th century. The geographical divide between Western and Eastern Europe has to be taken into account, as well. However, civil society gradually had reached global dimensions by the end of the nineteenth century, although it did not spread evenly and continuously. Economic and social problems enhanced international solidarity and cooperation. Thus, cross-border networks of civil society expanded. The formation of modern nation-states and territorially-bound political governments also propelled actors of civil society to extend their activities beyond borders. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the formation of the workers’ movement, the demand for peace and the advocacy of women’s rights, in particular, became important pillars of civil society. Yet this process was halted by the First World War, which largely destroyed the vibrant civil society networks.

Despite organisations like the League of Nations and the pan-European movement of the interwar years, civil society suffered another setback with the rise of fascism, Nazism and authoritarian dictatorships in the interwar years and in the Second World War. After 1945, however, the legal and social foundations of civil societies have broadened substantially. While this process was most pronounced in western democracies during the Cold War, it also reached the Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, where civil society advanced to a crucial normative platform for dissidents and protest movements. This dynamics marked a new stage in the development of transnational networks. It was the foundation of the United Nations, above all, which marked the final institutionalisation of INGOs as political actors transcending the confines of the nation-states. In its Article 71, the Charta of the UN granted them the legal status as consultative institutions of United Nations Economical and Social Council (ECOSOC). The creation of the European Union finally provided an important framework for the rise of INGOs on a European-wide scale.  Their activities have been supported by an emerging transnational public sphere which has gradually evolved in Europe, the United States and beyond as a framework for dealing with national issues.

3. The Rise of Civil Society in the Non-Western World:

Beyond the western world, however, the demise of the colonial empires – which ultimately gave rise to the new paradigm of "postcolonial" history – has also considerably contributed to the global expansion of civil society. As the former colonies shackled off European and American hegemony, increasingly dense cross-border networks of migrants have involved. Yet the inhabitants of "Third World" states have simultaneously accepted and subverted the hegemonic West European and North American political culture in processes of hybridization and diffusion. This transformation underpins the subversive, normative aspects of the emerging transnational culture.

The values, structures and social bases of civil society have varied according to specific contexts. In India, for instance, actors of civil society have not primarily opposed state authorities (contrary to the European Continent), as power had never been highly centralised and not reached absolutist rule. On the contrary, political authority has been segmented. Moreover, post-colonial elites that had been educated in western states have taken up concepts of civil society and initiated associations. These orientations and activities, however, have not intruded into the countryside and reached peasants. As they live in a "world of more complete commitments", they do not appreciate social individuation. Moreover, they lack the skills of association. Nevertheless, the imposition of civil society "from above" has contributed to the gradual dissolution of caste barriers and begun to break up the isolation ob the "untouchables". The varied nature of global civil society has been demonstrated in studies which have concretely reconstructed the social practices of specific actors in particular constellations, including their world-views, interpretations and appropriations of civil society. In the Arab states, for instance, networks of civil society advocates that have emerged from the nineteenth century onwards have been strongly tied to the changing triangular relationship between the nation-state, secular institutions and the Muslim community, the umma.  

Like in India, civil society in China lacks an uncompromising stance towards state authorities. On the contrary, political rulers have alternatively furthered or restricted the emergence and expansion of public spheres and civil society, the gongmin shehui ("society of public people"). The term accentuates the responsibility of citizens for public goods and obliges them to decent behaviour. After the movement for "self-empowerment" (ziqiang) had encouraged civic mobilization and the demand for „self-administration" (zishi) had spread in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the profound transformation of the Communist regime after Mao Zedong’s death (1976) has resulted in the emergence of new civic associations that initially took root in the cities. Yet these groups have largely remained linked to state authorities. The violent suppression of the students’ protest movement in June 1989 has even reinforced these bonds. In this political and cultural context, leaders and members of civic associations increasingly strive for self-organization and at least partial individual autonomy. Not least, they pursue goals transcending vested interests. As such, these groups advocate and promote civil society. Yet its independent institutional base is still weak, although the internet has provided new opportunities to voice demands for a civil society and also given rise to a critical public sphere. Moreover, the prevailing ideal of "harmony" has restricted pluralism and banned conflicts. It has also safeguarded the control of the mighty bureaucracy. Under these conditions, the scope of action for the proponents of an autonomous civil society has remained limited in China. Not least, the non-governmental organizations operating in the country have themselves preferred professionalism and planned campaigns at the expense of spontaneous grass-roots activity. 

In the contemporary world, civil society has largely emerged as an antidote to a global economy and to omniscient political power. It has also been furthered as a palliative against failed states. In a world, in which nation-states are increasingly losing control over global actors like Transnational Cooperations (TNCs), organized crime, terrorism and threats like environmental pollution and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, only a "transnational society" seems nowadays capable of solving these problems. "Civil society" as a panacea for almost all global problems has assumed almost utopian qualities, especially in times of financial turbulences and anxieties of economic slump. It serves as a catch-all-phrase for answers to a new political reality. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether civil society is the much-desired "’middle way’ between sole reliance on the market and sole reliance on the state …"

 4. Conclusion:

Since late eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the concept of civil society has increasingly as­sumed a transnational dimension that has given rise to political debates and attracted scholarly interest. As I have argued in my talk, studies of transnational civil society should relate its groups and activists to specific contexts and conditions. Further research also needs to pay particular attention to the actors of transnational civil society, their performance and representations. Not least, static conceptions of transnational civil society should be superseded by approaches that take its flexibility and changeability into account. Civil society has assumed and will assume different variants in specific cultural contexts. Yet we should agree on incontestable values and norms like tolerance, mutual respect, plurality and civility. This encompasses a commitment to the peaceful solution of conflicts. A concept that understands and conceives civil society as a mode of action based on these values, however, presupposes a core condition of civil society: individual autonomy. We all know that we are embedded into our very specific social and cultural contexts. We are also aware that we need the enabling state. Citizens do only "negative liberty" (freedom from interference), but also "positive freedom" (the freedom of action), as social philosopher Isaiah Berlin once put it. Ultimately, there is no civil society without freedom and liberty.

1 John Keane, "A New Cosmology", Helmut Anheier / M. Gladius / M. Caldor (eds.), Global Civil Society 2001 (Oxford 2002), 23-47, 27f.

2 For an excellent bibliography, see S.-L. Hoffmann, Geselligkeit und Demokratie: Vereine und zivile Gesellschaft  im transnationalen Vergleich, 1750-1914 (Göttingen 2003).

3 J. Keane, Global Civil Society? (Cambridge 2003), 44-50; Anheier / Gladius / Kaldor, "Introducing Civil Society", 4.

4 This is even more obvious in recent attempts at defining a so-called "progressive transnational civil society." See, for example Srilatah Batliwala, "Why Transnational Civil Society Matters", idem (eds.), Transnational Civil Society. An Introduction (Bloomfield, CT 2006), 1-15, esp. 3.

5 K. Hagemann et al. (eds.), Civil Society and Gender Justice. Historical and Comparative Perspectives (New York 2008); G.-F. Budde, "Das Öffentliche des Privaten. Die Familie als zivilgesellschaftliche Kerninstitution", Arnd Bauerkämper (ed.), Die Praxis der Zivilgesellschaft. Akteure, Handeln und Strukturen im internationalen Vergleich (Frankfurt am Main 2003), 57-75.

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