Civil Society: What for?

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for

Civil society has become an extraordinary expedient term in political discourse. From extreme left to extreme right positions passing through social-democrats, centrists, neo-conservatives and libertarians, all appeal to the virtue of civil society as a crucial component of public life. Of course, they deploy very different notion of civil society, and even more importantly, they envisage (at times radically) different patterns of relationship between public institutions, primarily the national government but also international institutions, and civil society organizations (CSOs).

The standard definition of civil society identifies it as the space outside of the government, the family, and the market in which individuals and collective organizations advance allegedly common interests in a competitive environment. Such standard understanding is however highly contentious. Many would argue that the family is the building block of the civil society and should therefore not be excluded from it. Other would hold that the market is an integral part of the complex world of civil society and taking it out would deprive civil society of its ultimate engine.

A more encompassing definition understands civil society as referring to the sphere in which citizens and social initiatives organize themselves around objectives, constituencies and thematic interests with a public nature, be it local, national or transnational. Accordingly, civil society organizations would include community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social movements, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, media operators, academia, diaspora groups, lobby and consultancy groups, think tanks and research centers, professional associations, and foundations (with political parties and private companies still remaining the most controversial cases). An even wider definition of non-state actors would also include criminal networks, terrorists, and combatant groups.

Civil society organizations can be differentiated according to their nature in voluntarist or ascriptive groups. These two types of organizations tend to be present and coexist in any society.

A liberal, voluntarist perspective would normatively delimit the contours of civil society on the phenomenon of voluntary organizations. According to this perspective, membership should be consensual, freely chosen by the individual, exit should always be allowed without any loss of rights, and multiple membership and a fortiori multiple identities should be allowed, even encouraged in the name of the widening of the possibility of free choice for the individual.

Such individualist account of civil society is however challenged by all those perspectives that prioritize collective identities. From this angle, usually civil society is not considered fluid. On the contrary, civil society tends to be seen as segmented and compartmentalized without possibilities for overlapping identities, i.e., memberships tend to be mutually exclusive. Accordingly, affiliations tend to be linked to objective (rather than subjective and personal choice) characteristics that create a permanent link between the individual and his collective identity.

In understanding the relation between government and civil society, we need to acknowledge from the beginning that the boundaries between the two counterparts are drawn differently in diverse political regimes and may ultimately depend on the kind of civil society organization (either voluntarist or ascriptive) that is most present on the territory.

In general terms, it may be argued that seen from the perspective of the government, civil society constitutes the realm of diversity, pluralism and heterogeneity of identities. Seen from the angle of civil society, conversely, the government represents the reduction (or indeed compromise) of the different projects stemming from society: it is the domain of public norms, common purpose, and rule of law.

At times civil society organizations are viewed as legitimacy enhancer for governmental action. At times, as a source of resistance against arbitrary and oppressive governments. At times, civil society is understood as the product of spontaneous growth, other times as the byproduct of governmental decision in terms of legal accreditation, financial support, or political recognition. The state may educate, patron, sponsor, employ or even own civil society organizations. And yet, despite these risks, civil society still engages with the government because it needs a public institution to survive. A common legal framework based on the rule of law, financial support and other good provided by public institutions are essential elements for the flourishing of civil society organizations.

At times, the relation with the government is seen in terms of cooperation and partnership because the government needs the inputs from civil society to effectively reflect the political aspirations and needs from its society. Other times the relation with the government is seen in terms of antagonism, or in terms of substitution especially within the overall trend of privatization of public functions in the name of subsidiarity and devolution. Whatever interpretative option we take, the interaction between government and civil society remains indeed a crucial element for the stability and sustainability of any political regime.

On the overall, three are the key functions attributed to civil society organizations in relation to public institutions. 1) Civil society may be an instrument for organizing people for political participation (individuals, uti singuli, may lack the organizational resources to enter into the political realm). 2) Civil society may help in the socialization of political values and for the implementation of public policies. This way, social capital is considered by many a byproduct of the activities of civil society organizations. And 3) Civil society may act as opposition to the authoritarian ambitions of the government.

Groups belonging to civil society tend to use the state to impose their vision of society, in a way their truth of public life. However, if they manage to do that completely, the risk for other civil society organizations to perish and be reduced in captivity is very high. A balance should consequently be stroke between the aspirations of every single group to influence public law and the hard fact of pluralism in any society.

If civil society organizations are too strong, the government may be minimized or even collapse in civil disorder. Intermediate associations may under certain circumstances lead to a compartmentalization of public life and to a disempowerment of public rules. To counter this possibility, government advocates call for an implementation of state law all the way down into civil society organizations. This way, for instance, the application of anti-discrimination law is invoked within religious community or the application of the principle of equality within the vast arrays of the family domain.

If the government is too strong, conversely, civil society may disappear and go underground. The state may lead to a weakening of the pluralism in society in a number of ways. By depriving of legal accreditation, by cutting the public funding, or by actually persecuting civil society organizations, the state may block their activity in the name of public order or simply common good. To counter this possibility, civil society advocates call for the recognition of certain limits beyond which state action should not go in the interaction with civil society, in parallel to the limits of state action on individual human rights.

It is up to each political community to find its own balance between these two extreme and dangerous positions.