Civil Society in Modern Democracies
Definition, Impact on Democracy and Critical Assessment
This essay tries to find a definition for civil society in its first part and continues by talking about the proclaimed role of it in modern democracies. Several theoretical approaches will be outlined. The already mentioned positive influences will be discussed as well as critically assessed. Afterwards the essay ends with a final conclusion.
Table of Contents
3. Civil Society and Democracy
4. Critical Assessment
The concept of civil society is a controversial and recently often discussed topic in the social sciences. Especially since the end of the socialist regimes in Eastern Europe, in which civil society organizations played an important role, it has been considered as a possible solution for many problems of modern societies and was in the focus of public discussion (Seckinelgin, 2002, p. 1).
This essay tries to find a definition for civil society in its first part and continues by talking about the proclaimed role of it in modern democracies. The already mentioned positive influences will be discussed as well as critically assessed. Afterwards the essay ends with a final conclusion.
It is not ultimately clear where the concept of civil society comes from and it also lacks a clear and sharp interpretation or definition because of its diverse application (Beck/Grande 2007, p. 125). As far as it is a broad concept of a third sector beneath the state and the private sector a lot of things can be considered as part of it.
According to a definition of Schubert and Klein (2006), civil society can be seen as a political philosophical term that tries to avoid both, the growing individualism of Western societies and the politicalisation of almost every dimension of social life that characterized for example the former socialist states in Eastern Europe. There should be a separation between the public/political sphere and the private/society sphere – whereas the areas that lack state intervention are filled and administered by independent civil engagement. Voluntary organizations or NGOs serve as examples for bodies of this “civil” part of society.
The Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences uses the following working definition, which includes civil society in a four sector model adding family as one additional sector:
“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 groups.” (Centre for Civil Society, 2004)
To sum it up civil society can be described as that part of society that isn´t a direct part of the state nor it can be considered as private and thereby serving profit interests. It consists of organizations which are taking care of certain needs of society and which operate in the interest of the common good.
3. Civil Society and Democracy
In addition to this aspect civil society can be seen as a “school of democracy” where people can learn how to act as civilians and feel what democracy actually means. This concept derives from Alexis de Tocqueville who saw civil society as an essential part of a democracy that promotes its concepts and values and actively integrates people into the participation process. By taking part in civic engagement people actually learn that they can have an influence and can make a difference by working together (Merkel/Laut, 1998, p. 5).
Civil society can give a voice to people or social groups that don´t feel represented well in democracy or shed light on issues that the state bodies don´t seem to pay attention to. Some civil society organizations have expert knowledge in many areas of concern and may serve the government as a good counselor. Furthermore they can even try to directly solve problems that the government doesn´t seem to notice. Thereby civil society helps to improve some of the weaknesses of democracy itself and lower dissatisfaction.
Participating in the civil society can be a good experience for every citizen that also helps to bind him to the democratic system. It is a possibility to actively take part in different areas of democratic states and the community. This can help citizens to have a positive identification with their political system.
Putnam (1995) also highlights the positive effects of civil society on democracy. He argues that the growing political dissatisfaction and decreasing political participation in the United States are connected to the decline of civic engagement. Following de Tocqueville´s argument he considers civil society as essential for a successful and well organized society which citizens are more likely to approve (pp. 66-67). He also introduces the concept of social capital that can be summarized as the quantity and quality of the social contacts as person has to add another dimension to this problem. According to his view social capital is eroding as well which also has a negative influence on civic trust and engagement. Summarized he states that this development should be stopped in order to foster or even rescue democracy (Putnam, 1995, p. 76-77).
Civil society can also be an important factor to lower the negative influence of globalization. As far as people have growing problems to identify with a society that is becoming more complex and internationally connected many civil society organizations are based on a local or municipal level which facilitates identification (Reinfrank, 2007).
Using the example of “citizen foundations” (Bürgerstiftungen) in Germany, Reinfrank (2007) tries to illuminate the positive influence they can have on society. Because of the lack of public money and the growing withdrawal of the state from many sectors of welfare work those kinds of foundations can provide an important filling for the gaps left by these developments. In some cases they can provide a better and more effective service than the state. Additionally these citizen foundations can help to maintain or even create a democratic culture in certain regions or cities. Reinfrank mentions in this respect for example the problem of many East-German communities that suffer from a big lack of democratic participation and awareness because its inhabitants feel left behind from the state and don´t identify with the political system anymore. Working civil society structures in those regions can provide a positive identification with society and help to avoid the rise of racism or other radical forms of dissatisfaction canalization.