What constitutes civil Society as a crucial cornerstone of liberal Democracy?
Why civil society matters for democracy
If we enquire into the fact that a vibrant civil society is a necessary condition for the formation of a liberal democracy, we will first of all require a clear notion of the key elements that constitute the vibrancy of a civil society. Apart from this initial clarification, one need to disprove that a flourishing civil society can undermine or even prevent the emergence of liberal democracy. Can we really form such a categorical thesis? Above all, a vibrant civil society has to promote developments which one characterizes as fundamentally democratic since otherwise it would be inappropriate to speak of an interrelation between civil society and liberal democracy. In the course of this work, I aim both to illustrate the necessity of a vibrant civil society and to show that there are other indispensable factors which a state has to fulfil in order to become a genuine liberal democracy. Considering the diversity of notions of a civil society, I will mainly focus on the distinction between the three models proposed by Michael Edwards, which are civil society as “associational life”, as the “good society” and as the “public sphere” (Edwards, 2009). At the same time, this clarification serves to contrast the idea of civil society to the more universal term of social capital which comprises social interaction in its totality and is employed to give it a measurable value. So what are the integral parts of a civil society that we could consider favourable to liberal democracy?
When Benjamin Barber speaks about civil society as “a third and independent domain” (Barber, 1998, p. 47), he alludes to the importance of a vibrant civil society in its role as an opposition force to a country’s ruling powers of market and government. But does such an opposite pole necessarily entail reinforcement or even formation of values that characterize a liberal democracy? Although this claim might convey, at its core, a correct message, the general formulation makes it certainly inaccurate. Hence, we should rather concentrate on analysing the underlying principles and ideas of a civil society in its significance for a liberal democracy. Now the time has come to substantiate the term liberal democracy which refers to “a political system marked not only by free and fair elections but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property” (Zakaria, 2007, p.17). This distinguished definition of liberal democracy will serve us as a model in order to establish a precise interrelationship between a vibrant civil society and a liberal democracy. Thus, we will examine certain characteristic aspects of civil society that directly provoke a country’s being a liberal democracy.
To take up the initial point, one can note that most basically individuals get engaged in two opposite spheres, the public and the private. The public sphere comprises the citizen’s
political participation by means of election of representatives or public expression, whereas
the private sphere mirrors the person’s activity as an economic subject, perhaps most notably as a consumer. In this context, we can neglect the person’s individual boundaries, for which family is the most striking example since we aim to consider the individual in its role as a democratically determining agent. Let us imagine the situation that a citizen feels alienated in its role both as a consumer and a voter. There seems to be no platform for him to express his views, to share both knowledge and interest with like-minded people or to protect his fundamental rights. In short, he is deprived of any power and thereby doesn’t even know how to exercise it. Such a citizen necessarily feels “homeless, suspended between big bureaucratic governments…and private markets…] (Barber, 1998, p.45). With this regard, the citizen is either unwilling or incapable to fulfil any democratic role that he is entitled to in principle. The result of this passivity and indifference to the protection of his rights is hardly surprising. Rulers in all fashions may exercise without the person’s approval unlimited authority over him. The thesis this example underscores is that the lack of a functioning civil society leads to the very opposite of a democratic regime, namely despotic authoritarianism. In illustration, we should have a look at a concrete case, namely the recent institutional situation in Russia. During his presidency Vladimir Putin constituted himself as an almost autocrat leader who drastically undermined the cornerstones of a civil society. It appears necessary to outline that even though he had the proposition to liberalize Russia, he still was a leader who “crushes the opposition, stifles the media, bans political parties” (Zakaria, 2007, p.95). In this way, he eliminated all the opposition poles we have already referred to and hence made the presence of a vibrant civil society practically impossible. Whereas the negative effects of a lack of a vibrant civil society have now been shown, we keep looking for immediate effects of such a society regarding a consolidation of a liberal democracy. In contrast, the presence of a civil society empowers the individual to find his own sphere that is independent of his role as either economic subject or political decision-maker. This independent, civic sphere “offers a space for public work, civic business, and other common activities that are focused neither on profit nor on a welfare bureaucracy’s client services” (Barber, 1998, p.44). That is the transitory aspect about civil society that establishes a linkage between private and public sphere and most importantly constitutes the cosmos in which citizens can ideally interact in a peaceful, productive and mutually enriching manner.