The Rediscovery of Civil Society: Perils and Potentials

Photograph Source: Krugerr – CC BY-SA 4.0

The concept of “civil society” gained epic popularity in the past few decades. The discourse of civil society entered dramatically into the global political and academic scene in the 1970s with the advent of the Polish Solidarity movement. We in the West watched with amazement and tears of joy as the power of the human spirit confronted totalitarian state power in country after country, first in Poland, then spreading to Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, East Germany, and the former Soviet Union (including Russia and her former satellites).

The Polish rebellion has been accurately described as “civil society against the state.” The Solidarity leaders assumed that their own people would not use terror to repress them; in turn, they could not succumb to violent forms of action. To press their claims, they created self-governing associations and publications under the nose of the party-controlled institutional framework to give themselves some breathing room and reflective learning space.

Excitement abounded. A social space influenced by but not completely absorbed into the state and economy appeared to exist, resonant with potential to topple tyrannical states. In this poignant moment, Vaclav Havel affirmed that the powerless have within themselves the power to obstruct normality, to embarrass the authorities, to point to the possibility of living life differently—to live according to the values of trust, openness, responsibility and solidarity. Persons could refuse to do power’s bidding. But they had to agree that some things were worth suffering for and that they had to be prepared to say out loud what others thought in solitude.

This implausible political discourse didn’t take long emigrating into western academia. It is veritable cottage industry these days. During the 1980s the vocabulary of civil society pervaded the social science literature. By the 1990s, the disciplinary study of adult learning had begun to host this conceptual stranger, working its emergent understanding of social learning in terms of this new orientation to understanding the dynamics of social life and struggle. The scholarly world soon recalled that the discourse of civil society had an ancient pedigree. Since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one can see that the idea of a social space, not under direct tutelage of state power, has been emerging in western consciousness and erupting in many different parts of the world. Now, social emancipation could no longer, for historical and philosophical reasons, be understood as an essentially economic question.

To assert this, one only had to look at the plethora of civil society associations engaging in discourse on the many big agenda issues of the day in the late 1990s. Some form of “global governance” seemed possible. Might it be, as Axel Honneth postulates in The Idea of Socialism (2017), that the public sphere itself is the only social sphere that can provide guidance to the tripartite economy, democratic will-formation and personal relationships?

Had we entered a post-Marxist world? The impetus for social change had certainly shifted to the cultural domain. But this acute sense of loss of collective agency registers strongly with Mark Murphy (“The politics of adult education: state, economy and civil society,” International Journal of Lifelong Education, 20, Sept-Oct. 2001) and other orthodox Marxist scholars. Some Marxist critics believe that Habermas has given up too much ground to liberal institutions and values. But others, like Axel Honneth, made a provocative case for returning Critical Theory to the workplace as an emancipatory site.

Simone Chambers (“A critical theory of civil society,” in S. Chambers and W. Kymlicka [Eds.], Alternative conceptions of civil society [2002]) argues compellingly that Habermas believes that one can use “liberal institutions”—the public sphere, equal citizen rights, and constitutions—to break out of authoritarian and bureaucratic modes of domination. One can both identify how the lifeworld (civil society is the lifeworld as it is expressed in institutions) is colonized by power, money, and domination and contains discursive possibilities.

Unless citizens struggle together to understand the world they inhabit, develop an alternative vision of the new world order and begin to lay its foundation, no change in the unjust economic and political order is even conceivable. The new world has to be imagined before it can appear.

Chambers (2002) is admirably clear on the centrality of the public sphere in deliberative democracy. She urges us to consider what elements must be present in cultural and political life for the public sphere to be an “arena of critical autonomous debate.” Ian Angus (Emergent Publics: an essay on social movements and democracy 2001) insists, with considerable gravity and urgency, that the vitality and openness of the public sphere is the basic way we can determine whether a society is authentically democratic. When people are excluded from voice in the public sphere, he contends, their powerlessness and misrecognition breed violence and hatred.

For her part, Chambers (2002) believes that the “malaise of modernity” is rooted in our lack of political efficacy. This assertion emerges out of Chambers’ perceptive discussion of “bad civil society.” Often idealized by its exuberant proponents, civil society can go bad; anti-progressive social movements, full of mean-spirited people, can occupy the (un)civil terrain. Chambers provides some sobering historical illustrations of how a well-organized civil society—she cites the Weimar Republic for illustration—can foster some very bad outcomes. She acknowledges that associations, clubs, churches, and families can be illiberal in outlook and non-democratic in their own internal life.

Too much hatred and anger spills out these days into everyday and political life. We can’t talk with each other anymore. Speechless, we toss firebombs at our enemies. Many of the protests around the world reveal that few are listening to anybody else. Nobody appears to consider the kind of world we want to build after the ruins of Neo-liberalism and smouldering Molotov cocktails. Social movements, for instance, lose their emancipatory potential when they are internally non-democratic.

In rights-based liberal democracies, there is nothing stopping groups from being mean-spirited, patriarchal, and racist. Critical theory’s strategy is to consider what forces are at work breeding intolerance and animosity towards the other. Chambers (2002), Angus (2001) and Welton (Designing the just learning society: a critical perspective [2005]) all argue that the absence of control over one’s life situation—powerlessness and exclusion from decision-making—are at the root of many cases of intolerance to the other. That speaks to our post-modern era. But the idea of “tolerance” was not a part of our vocabulary until the seventeenth century. Ironically, the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries triggered the quest for living tolerably with others, no matter the religious orientation.

A creative, evolving civil society learning infrastructure is challenged to find ways to build a path for those who are vulnerable and least likely to speak strongly to those with privilege and voice. When segments of society are quarantined from others—perhaps the riots in 2005 in the banlieues of Paris and the deep eruptions of the Arab Spring (M. Welton, “Subjects to citizens: adult learning and the challenges of democracy in the twenty-first century, in T. Nesbit and M. Welton, Adult Education and Learning in a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited [2013]) are evident examples selected from hundreds of possible examples—violence may explode, as those refusing to see or listen are targeted for hostile actions.

Civil society is the home ground for learning how to be an active citizen. Gerald Delanty (“Citizenship as a learning process: disciplinary citizenship versus cultural citizenship,” International Journal of lifelong education, 22(6), 2003), a political scientist, offers us a thoughtful reflection on citizenship as a learning process. Delanty argues that individual learning about citizenship must be translated and coordinated into collective learning and ultimately embodied in cultural and social institutions and legal norms.

Delanty considers citizenship an ongoing learning process where individuals name the world, create meaning, and construct viable citizen biographies, largely in the informal activities of everyday life. Delanty’s central argument is contained in his concept of cultural citizenship. He emphasizes the opportunities that persons have to construct meaning about themes pertaining to the common good.

Habermas is the one thinker who consciously considers the learning dynamics of civil society in its multiple interactions with state administrative systems and the economy. But one of the main challenges of the Habermasian framework is how, in the actually existing world of democracies, communicative power can be transformed into administrative power. The works of Zygmunt Bauman (In search of politics [1999]), Darin Barney (Prometheus wired: the hope for democracy in the age of network technology [2000]) and Manuel Castells (The power of identity 1997) provide some of the necessary substantive analysis of what the just learning society paradigm is up against.

Bauman’s “migration of power” stretches the idea of communicative power beyond its nation-state borders to a breaking-point. He wonders if it has the capability of fostering deliberative democratic forms of speech and action. Castells confronts us with the incredible power of the electronic media. In our historic moment, economic globalization appears to be driven by gargantuan transnational corporations wealthier than most of the world’s nation-states and able to subject national state administrative systems to their wishes through manipulation of the media.

Barney’s version of the “foreclosure of the political” presents challenges to us from a different angle. The world’s leading liberal democracies are, he claims, in fact, bound to a mono-focal way of imagining the world. Capitalism, liberalism and technology comprise an unholy trinity that brooks no opposition. For his part, Habermas would not be so despairing. Barney has closed off the political universe prematurely. Constitutional democracies have evolved legal systems that contain hard-fought human rights for citizens. And civil society is not yet shrouded in eternal darkness.

Legal systems in liberal democracies filter universal norms (of tolerance and respect for the other) into the everyday workings of civil society and the system. Though degraded, multiple public spheres do, in fact, function in the liberal democracies. Communicative action theory also confronts the persistent problem of social inequality. But the normative goal that decisions ought to be made that enhance life chances of the worst off and do not simply perpetuate opportunities for those better off to accumulate more wealth and goods is worth holding onto and striving for.

Thinkers as diverse as Havel, Giddens and Habermas himself agree that communicative reason is “history’s stubborn presence” (Jeffrey Isaac). Human beings have moral power to resist tyranny. The powerless have more power than they ever imagine, and moral acts of the person may reach beyond the isolated self—resonating deeply with those who are oppressed. Our oppressive conditions, be they South African apartheid, brutal communist regimes, Middle East and corporate dictatorships, or the soft coercion of consumerism, never totally exhaust us. We always possess the capacity to resist indignities. Take a look at the flames and chaos on many streets in the world: from Paris to Santiago to Barcelona to Beirut. The rage against unfulfilled needs, once bottled up, has exploded everywhere in the world. Who knows where this will lead.

Left to their own devices, governments would remain deaf to these unfulfilled needs (which often are linked to being oppressed behind closed doors). Thus, learning and action in public spheres and social movements help to expand public space, identity formation and social freedom. Social movements remain an integral, controversial, disruptive and conflictual part of civil society infrastructure of late modern societies. And public spheres hold out the most promise because they are intensely and intimately connected to the multitude of problems faced by the people of the world.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.