What is Civil Society?
© 2006, Alan Kimball
Table of Contents
How the Circles Overlap in Actual Practice
Other Explanatory "Tropes" (plus definition of Obshchenie)
Three Circles in Relationships Not Conducive to Civil Society
Historically, the concept "Civil Society" has arisen in relatively recent times. Beginning with the 17th century, it has spread very widely over the planet in our time. Among others, Locke, Madison, Hegel, Marx, and more recently Habermas put the concept somewhere near the center of their social-political world views. Almost no one can agree on just what it means, but nearly every conscious contemporary has some idea of it. Consider this simple iconic or schematic representation of that great abstraction "Civil Society" =
Each circle on this Venn diagram [ID] represents a distinct but intertwined realm of private, public and institutional life =
[A] social groups and formations (society itself),
[B] political power (the state), and
[C] production & distribution of commodities & services (the economy).
With wide variations, the dominant meaning of the concept "civil society" comes down to this = A complex network of self-organized subjects or citizens striving for mutual, dependent and reciprocal three-way relationships among (between and within) the three main components of public life represented in the simple set of overlapping circles above.
How the Circles Overlap in Actual Practice
Each circle overlaps with the others to suggest sustained, complex, mutual (multi-directional), dependent and reciprocal relationships among them. No circle is whole without this overlap. Society is not complete without government, the economy does not work without social and political involvement, etc.
Yet the outer edges of each circle suggest a certain realm of distinction. We might be tempted to use the exaggeration "independence". Possibly the notion of the "individual person" and of civil or human rights locate themselves in the upper left-hand area of pure "A". Many political cultures like to think of law courts in the upper right hand area of pure "B". So-called "divine monarchy" always wanted its authority to be thought of as in something like that area. Many cultures defend the idea of "inviolability of property" or "laissez-faire" [hands off, let it be] free-market economics and would thus locate these values in the lowest area of pure "C". However, in practice, "independence" among these circles cannot be absolute. Nor can subordination.
My impression is that political activists and authorities strive to make these relationships more "dependent" when government is weak, and more "independent" when government is strong -- more dependent when the economy is weak and more independent when the economy is strong -- more dependent when society is weak and more independent when society is strong. Thus we discover some of the main differences between US civil society involved in state-building in the 1780s and Russian civil society struggling against tsarist absolutism a century later. [See my essay on Madison and post-Soviet Russia] In the history of some civil societies, the main challenge has been to protect a strong set of distinct social networks from political-institutional intrusion. In most settings, including Russia, the challenge has been nearly the opposite, to create and strengthen distinct social networks from a pre-existing political-institutional dominance over subject populations.
Notice that the description of the simple iconic representation begins with "A" (society), rather than "B" (state) or "C" (economy). One could well begin at any point among the three overlapping circles, but the dominant discussion of "civil society" in the post-17th-century European world tended to privilege "society" by making it the first component. Hobbes [ID] said that original, primitive humans lived lives that were "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Locke [ID] imagined a chaotic primitive world where absolutely independent individuals preyed upon one another, all this until humans discovered the need to surrender some part of their "natural freedoms" and independence in a "social contract" which established legal and institutional mediation of social, political and economic disorder. Both Hobbes and Locke placed a lot of emphasis on the human need for organized "sociability"
The more we consider Russian variations on the abstract notion "civil society", the more we see the need on occasion to privilege "state". Perhaps the radical "laissez-faire" tradition would privilege "economy". Some even identify "political society", and "economic society". In such cases, the reference might be to the point of A-B and A-C overlap.
"Civil society" achieves its most intense expression at the point where all three circles overlap. In any event, the formula "complex, mutual, dependent and reciprocal" implies the need, in the practices associated with authentic civil society, to move in all directions between and among these iconic circles.
Any circle on my crude illustration at the top might be weak or strong in relationship to the others. In any case, the unrestrained, open, back-and-forth, and triangular interplay among (between and within) those overlapping circles serves as an effective abstract definition of civil society in action, and a way of judging its strengths and weaknesses.
But civil society is not abstract. It is not three overlapping circles. It might best be thought of as one living organism whose life depends on three distinct and healthy but inseparable organs.
Other Explanatory Tropes and
The Russian Concept "Obshchenie"
Substituting a biological trope "organ" for the geometric trope "circle" [ID] helps bring the concept "civil society" to life. The phrase "body politic" is revived, and we are reminded that we deal here with what Russians sometimes call zhivaia zhizn' [living life, actual life], not abstractions. The three-part body politic suggested in the flat and immobile display of overlapping circles actually flexes and squirms in a way geometric abstractions are not often thought to behave. "Overlap" can signify unity or conflict. This is a tense, sometimes disorderly, set of relationships. No utopian harmony, no garden of Eden, is implied.
Seeking tropes, we might do best to get beyond either geometry or "whole-animal" biology. We might better look at the emerging science of ecology -- the study of communities of plants and animals in natural competitive, cooperative, but inescapable obshchenie, to use the Russian word so popular in the late 19th century.
Obshchenie implies linkage, personal contact, inter-relationship, and community [obshchestvo]. The same root morpheme ("obshche") forms the Russian word for close cooperative or communal association [obshchina].
Yet the human community is not simply a growth found in a certain "environment", governed solely by physical or genetic laws or instinct. Civil society is constituted by frequently rational and always language-bound, living beings. Obshchenie within, between, and among these political-social-economic organisms, these organs, these spheres, these circles, helps define and relieve points of inevitable tension and disorder. The sort of obshchenie that takes place in civil society is governed by public discourse among, between and within our circles. Obshchenie takes place in a generalized atmosphere of glasnost' [expressed also in that now famous German term, Öffentlichkeit]. The places and arrangements that facilitate obshchenie among, between and within our iconic circles [ID] are often packed together in the (geometry-based) phrase "public sphere". We know that a sphere is a rounded-out and three-dimensional circle. Yet we also know that we are not talking here about geometry but about human interaction.
Three Circles in Environmental Relationships Not Conducive to Civil Society
We could play with other geometric ways of displaying the three circles, representing three abstract political-economies frequently contrasted with "civil society" =
First, there is the totalistic (often aboriginal) environment within which all three circles nest as one. This was the imaginary world of the remote past that inspired Hobbes and Locke.
Second, the big state circle contains only slightly overlapped and smaller social and economic circles. This icon describes one of the standard Russian statist variations on our theme.
Third, the cliché Adam-Smithian or dreamy libertarian or even anarchistic icon in which each circle lies outside the space of the others or in which only the economic or social sphere is taken to be authentic, the others dispensable.
Civil society is more protean and dynamic. It is a complex network of self-organized subjects or citizens striving via open, rational discourse for mutual, dependent and reciprocal three-way relationships among (between and within) the social structure, governmental institutions and economic life.
*--Alan Kimball, "RUSSIAN CIVIL SOCIETY AND POLITICAL CRISIS IN THE EPOCH OF GREAT REFORMS, 1859-1863"
*--CRH:225-43| Christopher Ely, "The Question of Civil Society in Late Imperial Russia"