What Is Civil Society?

Bruce Sievers

In The Place of the Arts in Multi-focus Foundations, Bruce Sievers writes that the rationale for supporting both the arts and the nonprofit sector as a whole is integrally linked to their capacity to advance pluralism, promote voluntary action, accommodate diversity, and champion individual visions of the public good. “Civil society,” Sievers notes, is increasingly the accepted concept to describe this sphere of social action.

As Sievers reported, the group of foundation leaders who gathered in June 2008 found that civil society was a useful conceptual framework for their discussion of the place of the arts in their institutions. Strengths of nonprofit arts activity were seen to be essential features of a healthy civil society. Especially today, with civil society so closely linked with themes in Barack Obama's administration, a familiarity with the many meanings of civil society becomes a valuable underpinning for understanding and promoting the role of arts and culture.

The concept of civil society, like that of democracy, has come to have worldwide resonance. But what exactly is “civil society?”

The idea has ancient roots. From the earliest times, human communities required cooperative behavior for survival, and it is clear that ancient patterns of social coordination imprinted institutional practices and beliefs that still shape our contemporary world. Recent decades have witnessed a great surge of new interest in civil society. Scholars, commentators, and political actors of all stripes have debated the concept, universally acknowledging its centrality to the rise of modern democracy while disputing its definition and function. It remains a contested and elusive idea, simultaneously animating and complicating contemporary debates about the nature of political life and the best paths toward solutions to social problems.

One fact is given. We are all members of civil society. Just as citizens relate to the state and family members relate to domestic life, we all connect to each other in society through a network of values and institutions that define us as actors in the civil sphere. The quality of our participation in private and public life is in fact closely intertwined with the character of our actions in civil society.

The term “civil society” evokes many meanings in the modern era—a mediating realm between the individual and the state, the worlds of nonprofit associations and philanthropy, the network of international NGOs, social relations of mutual respect, and, many others. Common to all of these meanings, however, are two central ideas: pluralism and social benefit. Together these ideas reflect the myriad interests and identities present in contemporary society and the task of working to improve conditions in the world. In a social environment increasingly beset by intolerance, threats to freedom of belief and action, and an inability to pursue common goods, the prospect of strengthening civil society suggests a ray of hope in an otherwise dishearteningly bleak picture.

This hope is justified, I believe, not just because the mores of civility suggest an aspiration toward more harmonious social relations, but also because the historical development of civil society has been a vital force in the creation of modern liberal democracy and continues to play that role today. Civil society's complex framework of freedoms, rights, common commitments, and procedures for peaceful dispute resolution is the source of its promise for the future.

While civil society provides an enabling framework for democracy, it contains at the same time an intrinsic tension, a fragile balance between private and public interests. Maintaining this balance is essential to finding solutions to vital challenges in modern democracies that demand public resolution, challenges such as environmental degradation, fundamental educational needs, ethnic and religious strife, and deterioration of public decision-making processes. These are often described as issues of the commons, the resolution of which will determine the future of humankind.

The concept of the “commons” is key to understanding civil society. It refers to a central tradition in Western thought: the shared sphere of communal life where collective goods reside. These goods include not only air and water, but also such public benefit ideals as social justice and civic commitment, and they cannot be achieved by individual decision-making alone. Rather, they are created and sustained by common action and by the frameworks of institutions and norms that make such action possible. The commons are critical to the well-being and ultimately the survival of the community.

Defining Civil Society—Seven Key Concepts

The modern evolution of the civil society idea is an extraordinarily complex story. It is a story that has profound importance for the future of social and political change and, ultimately, for democracy itself. The story emerges from the gradual intermingling of seven threads of historical development in the world of ideas and the evolution of institutions that surfaced in early modern Europe. Roughly from the beginning of the 16th century, these threads became woven into the fabric of a new social form that spanned national and intellectual frontiers.

Each of the seven strands in this story is complex in its own right and has its own theoretical justification. Four reflect institutional structures that have evolved through the course of Western history to form the structural framework of modern civil society. Two of these organizational structures—legal and philanthropic institutions—have existed through the past two millennia, while the other two—private associations and a system of free expression—evolved in later eras. The other three strands reflect social norms—commitments to the common good, to individual rights, and to tolerance—that appeared sequentially through a long developmental process.

This conception of civil society, as a constellation of seven defining elements, draws upon the work of many contemporary scholars and theorists. These thinkers reflect diverse cultural and philosophical traditions, and their analyses of the nature and dynamics of civil society draw on distinct traditions of social thought. Although among them we find broad agreement on the idea of civil society at an abstract level, when we probe further into their content we find significant differences. Nevertheless, it is useful to explore the areas of intersection among diverse theoretical perspectives and to understand them in relationship to historical developments. What follows, then, is a brief summary of the seven strands as identified by contemporary theorists.

Nonprofit and voluntary institutions. A widely shared view identifies civil society with the set of nonprofit (in the United States) or nongovernmental (worldwide) organizations. As suggested by Lester Salamon and Brian O'Connell, this tradition reflects a long history of social theory viewed in institutional terms. 1 Private voluntary associations have, since ancient times, played a vital role in achieving social purposes. The contemporary “nonprofit sector” refers to the realm of society inhabited by such voluntary organizations, in contrast to both public sector governmental entities and for-profit sector businesses. Especially in the United States and western Europe, there is a well-grounded body of law that establishes the status of entities in each of these three sectors, and the structure and behavior of nonprofit organizations can be described in terms that are specific and comparable. Despite the clarity and concreteness of this definition of civil society, however, its descriptive and analytical power is limited. Equating civil society with the nonprofit sector excludes important institutional and normative dimensions that are of fundamental importance to understanding its central role in political and social life.

Individual rights. A second thread of broad agreement among contemporary theorists focuses on the rise of the individual and of individual rights as a distinctive characteristic of civil society. For example, John Keane, Ernest Gellner, and Adam Seligman anchor civil society primarily in the growth of a sphere of private action and individual rights that is defended against the state. Keane, in particular, emphasizes the gradual separation of civil society from the state in a classic study of the development of civil society thinking since the 17th century. Seligman describes the emergence of “the autonomous and agentic individual upon which the idea of civil society rests in the West.” 2

The common good. A parallel and, in fact, more ancient stream of thought is the conceptual tradition of the “common good.” Among modern theorists who stress the significance of this component are Helmut Anheier, Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, and Amatai Etzioni, all of whom emphasize the central importance of civic norms aimed at achieving communal ends. Anheier's definition of civil society adopted by CIVICUS 3 places central emphasis on the “advance of common interests.” Walzer views the various civil society traditions as sharing a commitment toward the solution of problems in the public realm. Taylor describes the importance of the “Montesquieu stream” of civil society thinking that views civil society as an extension of the public realm and a complement to the state versus the “Locke stream” that emphasizes the protection of individual rights.

The rule of law. Inextricably connected to both the defense of individual rights and the pursuit of the common good is the “rule of law.” Ralf Dahrendorf, in particular, has emphasized the rule of law as a defining characteristic of civil society in its capacity to establish fair and predictable rules for the exercise of public authority. Although laws are set and enforced by governmental bodies, they require a pre-political legitimacy that inheres in civil society and transcends the authority of a given regime. As Dahrendorf and others suggest, the rule of law is essential to guarantee other elements of civil society, especially the protection of individual rights, from the arbitrary exercise of power. 4

Philanthropy. Robert Payton and Kathleen McCarthy argue, from quite different theoretical perspectives, the critical significance of philanthropic values and practices to the constitution of civil society. Closely related to the tradition emphasizing individual action on behalf of the common good, philanthropy becomes an essential vehicle to realize this intention. Payton views philanthropy as the central value of civil society, and McCarthy describes how a wide range of groups animated by a philanthropic impulse shaped the emergence of American civil society in the 18th and 19th centuries. 5

Free expression. The concept of free public communication has flowed into the stream of the development of civil society since the early modern period. This concept, most notably grounded in Jürgen Habermas's notion of the “public sphere,” is a prerequisite for the free formation of public opinion that enables civil society to function effectively, i.e., to create a “reasoning public.” Charles Taylor similarly emphasizes that a definitive characteristic of early modern civil society is the emergence of a system of free expression. 6

Tolerance. Not as frequently invoked, but nevertheless widely understood as essential to the gestation of the civil society idea, is the norm of tolerance. An outcome (albeit unintended) of the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe, this normative element is implicit in the growth of idea of civility. Dominque Colas brings tolerance to center stage in the development of civil society (contrasted with “fanaticism”), describing its emergence in 17th century philosophical theories as “the essential, defining virtue of civil society.” The notion of tolerance is also an essential feature of descriptions of civil society in Ernest Gellner's “modular man,” Edward Shils's concept of civility, and John Hall's explication of cultural adaptation to “multi-polar pluralism.” 7

Synthesizing the Seven Strands

These seven strands appear in various constellations in the work of many contemporary theorists. My central argument is that they are constitutive and interactive components that together create the necessary conditions for the successful functioning of modern civil society. They are mutually supportive and interdependent.

This approach views civil society as a singular social construct, comprising both institutions and norms, that has historically evolved through the seven conceptual streams. The overarching definition that best captures these integrated elements is one proposed by Helmut Anheier as a modification of that employed by CIVICUS in its Global Survey of the State of Civil Society:

Civil society is the arena outside family, government, and market where people voluntarily associate to advance common interests based on civility. 8

The seven constitutive elements complement and reinforce each other in the operation of civil society. For example, private associations depend upon individual rights (specifically the right to associate and to freely advocate points of view), legal protection of those rights, dedication to common purposes, philanthropy, and tolerance of co-existing associations to carry out their purposes. 9 Similarly, a system of free expression requires legally sanctioned individual rights and an ethic of tolerating diverse points of view. Philanthropic institutions rely on a commitment to pursue the common good (albeit interpreted in individualized terms), the right to express that commitment through the contribution of money and/or time, a legal guaranty that a philanthropic purpose will be carried out, tolerance for differing and even opposing philanthropic purposes, and the ability to create a private organization to carry out a philanthropic mission.

What becomes evident in the way the seven elements interact is the centrally important relationship among the three constitutive norms. Given civil society's equally significant commitment to individual rights and to the common good—a dualism that can create fundamental tension between individual and communal impulses—what allows the two value systems to find congruence in a coherent social agenda? The third norm. Tolerance has become the connecting link that allows competing individual visions of the public good to coexist and to reconcile the private and the public in civil society, albeit always provisionally.

Civil Society and Democracy

The development of modern civil society has been inextricably linked to the development of liberal democracy. Robert Post and Nancy Rosenblum describe a consensus among contemporary theorists “that democracy depends on the particularist, self-determining associations of civil society, where independent commitments, interests, and voices, are developed …. Civil society is the precondition for democratic decision making, whether democracy is conceived as deliberation or as interest group pluralism, and this is true even if the goal of democracy is to transcend particularism and arrive at uncoerced agreement or a common will.” 10

This close interconnection between civil society and the democratic state is historically rooted in the fact that the concept of the individual and of individual rights emerged at the very time when the idea of government itself was being radically reconceived in the early tug of war between democratic and the absolutist theories of the state.

In the 17th century, James Harrington famously described this evolving complex of ideas when he advanced an idea of government that was beginning to appear in the works of non-traditional political writers: “Government … is an art whereby a civil society of men is instituted upon the common foundation of common right or interest, or … it is the empire of laws and not of men.” 11 Harrington was in the forefront of those developing the new theory in which government is grounded in “civil society” as defined by the rule of law and an accompanying commitment to individual rights. These, in effect, became the founding pillars of the newly emerging liberal democratic state.

Balancing the Tension between Individual Rights and the Common Good

Contained in the new vision of a rights-based polity, however, is an inherent tension—between the defense of individual rights (in the forms of private association, free expression, and other freedoms), on the one hand, and the power of the state to act in pursuit of its mandate to achieve the well-being of the commonweal, on the other. For Harrington and his contemporaries, civil society was the arena in which this tension played out. It was there that individuals came together through civil interactions based on trust, tolerance, and a shared sense of public purpose, to form a natural community of common interest to pursue collective purposes. Radically differing visions of spiritual or political ideals could co-exist in this arena because it was the realm in which the free play of ideas produced public consensus that then produced the basis for ultimate action by the state. Civil society organizations could propose, but only the state could dispose.

Contemporary theories of liberal democracy have been strongly imprinted by that historically determined structure in which civil society and the modern democratic state became mutually interdependent. To sustain the conditions that support it, civil society requires an anchoring in governmental authority, and, conversely, liberal democratic government requires a balancing of private and public purposes that is the product of a robust civil society.

Theorists have highlighted two essential features of the concept of liberal democracy: that it is a mode of social decision-making that flows from the popular will and that it limits the scope of government by protecting pluralism and individual rights. Contemporary political theorist, William Galston, further defines what is protected by limiting government through three key concepts: “political pluralism” (multiple sources of political authority), “value pluralism”(qualitatively different goods that cannot be rank ordered); and “expressive liberty” (freedom for individuals and groups to lead lives they choose). The challenge for liberal democracy, then, is reconciling these forms of pluralism with the legitimate exercise of public power. The more diverse and differentiated a society is, the greater the challenge. 12

Liberal democracy inevitably gives rise to conflict between the protected realms of private belief and action on the one hand, and the state's need to achieve goods that benefit the entire community on the other. Galston finds that in a society that accepts and even promotes diversity and pluralism, the norm of tolerance is elevated to “a core attribute of liberal pluralist citizenship.” Civil society becomes the primary arena for fostering institutions and values through which these conflicts can be resolved, a place where “a variety of conceptions of the good—including many that deviate widely from the beliefs of the mainstream majority—may be freely enacted.” 13 To perform this task, civil society relies upon the seven elements elaborated above: the norms of rights, common good, and tolerance, and the institutions of free associations, a system of free expression, the rule of law, and philanthropy. 14

A major concern today is that the very impulse to protect and invigorate individual preferences may diminish a broader sense of social bonds and trust necessary for collective action. The growth of exaggerated individualism in civil society becomes clearly one of the preeminent public concerns for liberal democracy. 15 The tendency in Western societies to accentuate want-satisfaction over civic formation threatens the pursuit of public goods. The financier and philanthropist, George Soros, shares this concern over what he expresses as the rising dominance of the self-interest values of the market: “Market values express only what one participant is willing to pay another in free exchange and do not give expression to their collective interests.” 16

To the degree that civil society's ability to balance the pursuit of private interest with public well-being is diminished, to that degree is liberal democracy endangered. The health and evolution of civil society thus has profound importance for the unfolding of political life in the 21st century.

Bruce Sievers is visiting scholar and lecturer at Stanford University and former executive director of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

This article is adapted from extracts from the first two chapters of a forthcoming book by Sievers, Civil Society and the Fate of the Commons, to be published by the University Press of New England.

End notes/references
  1. Lester Salamon and Helmut Anheier, ed., Global Civil Society: Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); and Brian O'Connell, Civil Society: The Underpinnings of American Democracy (University Press of New England, 1999).
  2. Adam Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society (Princeton UP, 1992), p. 202. See also John Keane, “Despotism and Democracy: The Origins and Development of the Distinction between Civil Society and the State 1750-1850” in John Keane, ed., Civil Society and the State (New York: Verso, 1988) and Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1994).
  3. CIVICUS is an international alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.
  4. Ralf Dahrendorf, “Threats to Civil Society East and West” in New Perspectives Quarterly (Spring: 1990) and Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (New York: Transaction Publishers, 2004). See also Seligman's discussion of the origins of the concept of civil society in natural law theory (Seligman, p. 10), Gordon A. Christenson, “World Civil Society and the International Rule of Law” in Human Rights Quarterly (19: 1997), pp. 724-737, and Edward Shils, The Virtue of Civility: Selected Essays on Liberalism, Tradition, and Civil Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997).
  5. Robert Payton, Philanthropy: Voluntary Action for the Public Good (NY: Macmillan, 1988); Kathleen McCarthy, American Creed: Philanthropy and the Rise of Civil Society, 1700-1865 (University of Chicago Press, 2005). See also Robert Payton and Michael Moody, Understanding Philanthropy: Its Meaning and Mission (Indiana UP, 2008) and Peter Halfpenny, “Trust, Charity, and Civil Society” in Fran Tonkiss and Andrew Passey, ed., Trust and Civil Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), pp. 132-150.
  6. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. T. Berger (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989); Charles Taylor, “Modes of Civil Society” in Public Culture (Vol. 3, No. 1: Fall 1990), pp. 95-118).
  7. Dominique Colas, trans. Amy Jacobs, Civil Society and Fanaticism: Conjoined Histories (Stanford UP, 1997), p. xxiii. Ernest Gellner, “The Importance of Being Modular” in John A. Hall, ed., Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison (Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 1995), pp. 32-55; Edward Shils, The Virtue of Civility: Selected Essays on Liberalism, Tradition, and Civil Society, ed. Steven Grosby (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997), pp.320-355; John A. Hall, “In Search of Civil Society” in John A. Hall, ed., Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison, pp. 1-31.
  8. Helmut Anheier, “The CIVICUS Civil Society Index: Proposals for Future Directions” in V. Finn Heinrich and Lorenzo Fioramonti, ed., CIVICUS Global Survey of the Sate of Civil Society Volume 2, Comparative Perspectives (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2008), p. 30. A comprehensive definition that encompasses most of the strands that will be elaborated here is that of Jürgen Kocka who describes the core of the civil society concept as the “space of societal self-organization existing between the state, market, and private sphere, a realm of associations, circles, networks, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that assume and expect it to be a space of public discussion, conflict, and understanding, a sphere of independence of individuals and groups, a realm of dynamic change and innovation and a place for the pursuit of the common good, however differently that may be understood in a pluralistic society.” p. 21 (my translation).
  9. Cf. the description by Passey and Tonkiss of the role of private associations in civil society that invokes the concepts of “trust … contract, confidence, law, loyalty, and rights.” Andrew Passey and Fran Tonkiss, “Trust, Voluntary Association and Civil Society” in Fran Tonkiss and Andrew Passey, ed., Trust and Civil Society (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), p. 32.
  10. Robert C Post and Nancy L. Rosenblum, “Introduction” in Rosenblum and Post, ed., Civil Society and Government (Princeton UP, 2002), p. 16.
  11. James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) in J.G A. Pocock, ed., The Commonwealth of Oceana and a System of Politics (Cambridge UP, 1992), p. 8.
  12. William Galston, The Practice of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge UP, 2005), pp. 1-2.
  13. Galston, p. 4 and p. 122. Galston emphasizes the conditions required for liberal democracy to provide maximum protection for individual expression from “totalizing state power” while maintaining the public's ability to pursue common purposes.
  14. Many scholars who write about the constitutive elements of civil society also connect these elements to the effective functioning of liberal democracy. For example, in relationship to the development of the liberal democratic state, see Galston on the interaction among the normative elements of rights, tolerance, and the common good; Habermas on the coevolution of the sphere of free expression; Dahrendorf on the importance of the rule of law; Michael Edwards on the nature of private, voluntary associations; and Walzer (“Socialism and the Gift Relationship” in Dissent [Fall, 1982], on the role of philanthropy.
  15. Galston, p. 123. Seligman is even more pessimistic in his assessment that “The assumed synthesis of public and private, individual and social concerns and desiderata, upon which the idea of civil society rests, no longer holds.” (Seligman, p. 206).
  16. George Soros, Open Society: Reforming Global Capitalism (New York: Public Affairs, 2000), p. xiii.