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The Paradox of Civil Society

Michael W. Foley and Bob Edwards - The Paradox of Civil Society - Journal of Democracy 7:3


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Journal of Democracy 7.3 (1996) 38-52


The Paradox of Civil Society

Michael W. Foley & Bob Edwards



The "civil society argument," as Michael Walzer calls it, is actually a complex set of arguments, not all of which are congruent. 1 In the rough pastiche that has become the commonly accepted version, a "dense network of civil associations" is said to promote the stability and effectiveness of the democratic polity through both the effects of association on citizens' "habits of the heart" and the ability of associations to mobilize citizens on behalf of public causes. Emergent civil societies in Latin America and Eastern Europe are credited with effective resistance to authoritarian regimes, democratizing society from below while pressuring authoritarians for change. Thus civil society, understood as the realm of private voluntary association, from neighborhood committees to interest groups to philanthropic enterprises of all sorts, has come to be seen as an essential ingredient in both democratization and the health of established democracies.

Thus summarized, the argument leaves many questions unanswered. Some of these are definitional, arising from the different ways in which civil society has been applied in various times and places. Does it, for instance, include business ("the market") as well as voluntary organizations, or does the market constitute a separate, "private" sphere? If we exclude the market, should we nevertheless include economic associations--trade groups, professional organizations, labor unions, and the like? What about political organizations? Does it make sense, following Antonio Gramsci, to distinguish "civil" from "political" society? If so, [End Page 38] how are we to distinguish between political associations per se and the political activities of groups in civil society, from interest groups to religious bodies, which are intermittently mobilized in pursuit of political goals? 2 Just when does the "civil" become the "political"?

Beyond such definitional concerns, there is also the elusive character of the relationship between "civil society" and democratic governance. Just how is it that associations formed among individuals produce the large-scale political and social benefits postulated by the civil society argument? Is the cultivation of "habits of the heart" that encourage tolerance, cooperation, and civic engagement the key? If so, under which circumstances and forms of small-scale interaction are these effects likely to appear? If, as some hold, civil society's chief virtue is its ability to act as an organized counterweight to the state, to what extent can this happen without the help of political parties and expressly political movements? Finally, what prevents civil society from splitting into warring factions (a possibility that theorists since Hegel have worried about) or degenerating into a congeries of rent-seeking "special interests"? What is it about civil society, in other words, that produces the benevolent effects posited by the civil society argument?

In attempting to answer these questions, it might be useful to make a rough distinction between two broad versions of the "civil society argument." The first version is crystallized in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, with important antecedents in the work of the eighteenth-century "Scottish moralists," including Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and Francis Hutcheson. This approach puts special emphasis on the ability of associational life in general and the habits of association in particular to foster patterns of civility in the actions of citizens in a democratic polity. We shall call this family of arguments "Civil Society I." The second version, articulated most forcefully by Jacek Kuron, Adam Michnik, and their associates in formulating a strategy for resistance to Poland's communist regime in the 1980s, is also evident in recent literature on processes of "redemocratization" in Latin America. This argument, which we call "Civil Society II," lays special emphasis on civil society as a sphere of action that is independent of the state and that is capable--precisely for this reason--of energizing resistance to a tyrannical regime.

It might already be apparent that there is a degree of contradiction between "Civil Society I" and "Civil Society II," for while the former postulates the positive effects of association for governance (albeit democratic governance), the latter emphasizes the importance of civil association as a counterweight to the state. There is no reason in principle why the "counterweight" of civil society should not become a burden to a democratic as well as an authoritarian state. Indeed, there are those, such as the economist Mancur Olson, who perceive the "dense webs of association" praised by the civil society argument as enduring [End Page 39] threats to the smooth and equitable functioning of modern states and markets alike. 3

Perhaps the most persuasive recent version of "Civil Society I" is that of Robert D. Putnam, formulated in part as an empirically grounded answer to the concerns raised above. Putnam's argument gained particular currency in his January 1995 Journal of Democracy essay, "Bowling Alone." It is more richly elaborated, however, in his study of regional governments in modern Italy, entitled Making Democracy Work. 4 In this book, Putnam attributes the superior effectiveness of northern Italy's regional governments to the dense "networks of civic engagement" fostered by "civil associations" of all kinds. "The denser such networks in a community, the more likely that its citizens will be able to cooperate for mutual benefit," he writes. He continues, with explicit reference to Olson's arguments: "social capital, as embodied in horizontal networks of civic engagement, bolsters the performance of the polity and the economy, rather than the reverse: Strong society, strong economy; strong society, strong state." 5

Putnam's analysis in "Bowling Alone" examines trends in the United States over the last 30 years and argues the obverse: weakening society, weakening economy; weakening society, weakening state. According to Putnam, the basis of "civil community" has been eroding in the United States since the 1960s. We have been depleting our national reserves of social capital, social trust, and generalized reciprocity, he claims, and undercutting our capacity for mutually beneficial collective action. This trend is most evident in the decline of "traditional secondary associations" like the Boy Scouts, parent-teacher associations (PTAs), the League of Women Voters, and even weekly bowling leagues. 6

Putnam's argument is stimulating, and his recourse to empirical evidence is refreshing. Nevertheless, his concerns about the health of U.S. civil society and his account of Italy's experiment in regional government point to significant weaknesses in both forms of the civil society argument. These weaknesses raise important questions that must be examined empirically as well as theoretically before we can properly understand the role of civil society in democracy and democratization.

Our argument is threefold: First, both Putnam's assessment of the state of "civil community" in the United States and his account of regional government in northern Italy underestimate the ability of newer organizations, and of specifically political associations such as social movements and political parties, to foster aspects of civil community and to advance democracy. Second, talk about "networks of civic engagement" glosses over the real, and often sharp, conflicts among groups in civil society. These conflicts, in the absence of specifically political settlements, may spill over into civil disruption and violence. Third, and most important, to understand any polity we must look first at the political settlements that ground it, and to the effects that such [End Page 40] settlements have on social forces and civil society. Taken together, our objections suggest the problematic character of both Putnam's definition of civil society and the larger civil society argument itself.

What Does Civil Society Do?

The broader civil society argument ascribes a variety of functions to civil associations. Putnam's discussion focuses on a narrow, though seemingly powerful, segment of them. For Putnam, the chief virtue of civil associations lies in their capacity to socialize participants into the "norms of generalized reciprocity" and "trust" that are essential components of the "social capital" needed for effective cooperation. Civil associations provide the "networks of civic engagement" within which reciprocity is learned and enforced, trust is generated, and communication and patterns of collective action are facilitated. These are horizontal networks, as opposed to the vertical networks of patron-client arrangements or of traditional hierarchical organizations such as the Catholic Church. The broader their reach, the more effective they are:

Dense but segregated horizontal networks sustain cooperation within each group, but networks of civic engagement that cut across social cleavages nourish wider cooperation. . . . If horizontal networks of civic engagement help participants solve dilemmas of collective action, then the more horizontally structured an organization, the more it should foster institutional success in the broader community. Membership in horizontally ordered groups (like sports clubs, cooperatives, mutual aid societies, cultural associations, and voluntary unions) should be positively associated with good government. 7

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