Civil Society: The art of uniting in order to defend free association

By J Brooks Spector 12 September 2019

Civil society is much more than a gathering of passionate folks having tea to save the whales. There is a rich historical legacy of thinking about what it means and how it operates.

For many, perhaps most people, the term and the very idea of civil society came along recently, a function of the globalisation of ideas, spontaneous mass movements, the internet, and even the greater democratisation of Eastern Europe, post-Soviet domination. Instead, the tendrils stretch back much further, and the intellectual foundations reach back to the beginnings of Western civilisation. Let’s examine this tradition.

The very term civil society goes back to Aristotle’s phrase “koinōnía politikḗ”, in his volume, Politics, where it refers to a “political community”, such as a Greek city-state, with its shared set of norms and an ethos, in which free citizens were on an equal footing and lived under the rule of law. The goal of civil society, therefore, was “eudaimonia”, the human flourishing or common well-being, as in the commonly expressed idea that man was uniquely a “political animal”. Later Roman writers, such as Cicero, spoke to the notion of a republic, or “res publica”, as the ideal.

With the rise of a distinction between monarchical autonomy and public law, civil society then gained currency in describing the powers and rights of a feudal elite of landholders, as opposed to the powers exercised by the prince or other absolute ruler. By the rise of civil society movements in our own time in Eastern Europe, just as Soviet domination began to fail, dissidents such as Václav Havel had employed it to describe the sphere of civic associations still threatened by the state-dominated regimes of Communist Eastern Europe. Still, the term had not yet come into general use with the rise of the independent Polish Solidarity laboUr union in 1980-81, only coming into general use post-1989.

For political scientists and political philosophers, the more contemporary connections between the concepts of civil society and democratic political society have their roots in the writings of GWF Hegel, and those ideas were adapted by such writers as Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Ferdinand Tönnies. Later, in the 20th century, these themes were examined by researchers looking into the underpinnings of democratic values, such as Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, who saw a vibrant political culture (including certain civil society organisations) in a democratic order as key to its success. More recently, Robert Putnam has argued that even the non-political organisations of civil society are vital for democracy because they build social capital, trust and shared values that are, in turn, transferred into the political sphere and help to hold society together.

But let us go to that “Ur moment” in discovering the principle of civic organisations as key to building democratic states and institutions, and thus turn to Alexis de Tocqueville. In 1835, he had been tasked by his government to undertake a fact-finding visit to the United States to examine that country’s judicial and prison system, in order to recommend improvements and reforms for France’s own criminal justice system – in effect to figure out how to do away with that Jean Valjean-style of correctional treatment we’ve all come to know through the novel, film, television series, and Broadway musical, Les Miserables.

De Tocqueville finished his assigned task quickly and wrote up his report, but he became so intrigued with the expansion of democratic practice in the US that he stayed for six months, travelled the entire country, and then wrote a two-volume treatise, Democracy in America, that became an instant classic in Europe, the UK, and America, even though his sympathetic depiction of the country included all the warts, including the most obvious one – the iniquities of still-extant slavery in half the country.

He identified a key element of American society – outside of government – that was one of the critical elements of this new democratic experiment. This was the many nongovernmental, voluntary efforts to do something, to fix something, to build something, and to change something, carried out by citizens without direct reference to any government diktats.

As De Tocqueville described it:

When citizens can associate only in certain cases, they regard association as a rare and singular process, and they hardly think of it. When you allow them to associate freely in everything, they end up seeing in association the universal and, so to speak, unique means that men can use to attain the various ends that they propose. Each new need immediately awakens the idea of association. The art of association then becomes, as I said above, the mother science; everyone studies it and applies it.”

Still, more specifically about free associations (what we often call civil society), De Tocqueville added:

I do not wish to speak of those political associations with the aid of which men seek to defend themselves against the despotic action of a majority or against the encroachments of royal power. I have already treated this subject elsewhere. It is clear that if each citizen, as he becomes individually weaker and consequently more incapable in isolation of preserving his freedom, does not learn the art of uniting with those like him to defend it, tyranny will necessarily grow with equality.

Here it is a question only of the associations that are formed in civil life and which have an object that is in no way political. The political associations that exist in the United States form only a detail in the midst of the immense picture that the sum of associations presents there.

Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the Antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

In America I encountered sorts of associations of which, I confess, I had no idea, and I often admired the infinite art with which the inhabitants of the United States managed to fix a common goal to the efforts of many men and to get them to advance to it freely.”

Here De Tocqueville had identified a critical difference between the formal machinery of government and the actions of individuals in groups, acting beyond the formal political mechanisms of society, and without directly or necessarily attempting to achieve a particular partisan political advance, but often to make political systems take notice and change their ways. Beyond the eventual success of a 19th century cause such as slavery abolitionists, an appreciation of De Tocqueville’s insight helps illuminate some of the great civil society movements of the American 20th and 21st centuries. These would include the civil rights struggle, the anti-Vietnam War and anti-apartheid movements, feminist and gay rights efforts, and, now, most recently, the ecological and environmental protection movements.

The earliest years of the civil rights revolution did not spring automatically as an effort to address the great wrong of entrenched segregation and legal discrimination. Organisers studied tactics, techniques, and strategies carefully, trying to come to grips with the best methods to encourage broad social participation and popular support to move public opinion and government. Although the popular mythology of Rosa Parks and the segregated bus is one of a black woman too tired to move to the back of the bus, the truth is rather different, and this truth helps illuminate the nature and potentials of civil society movements.

Civil rights history chronicler Fred Powledge, in his study of the origins of civil rights resistance, Free At Last? – The civil rights movement and the people who made it, described a Rosa Parks, the woman who had helped breathe life into a nascent civil rights movement, who, instead of simply being a weary woman trudging home from work one day, was actually a savvy organiser, already skilled in the techniques of civil society mobilisation. She was no naif, no accidental heroine.

As Powledge described her:

Rosa Parks was not, as some versions of civil rights history would have it, just a simple black woman whose feet were tired from working all day for the white folks. Parks, who was an assistant tailor at a Montgomery department store, had been the secretary of the local NAACP chapter since 1943, and in the late Fifties she became the first secretary for the Alabama State Conference of NAACP Branches. Also in the Forties, she organised an NAACP Youth Council chapter in Montgomery, and she had been ejected from a bus for refusing an order to move by the same driver whom she defied in 1955. In the Fifties, members of the youth council had engaged in some direct action by attempting unsuccessfully to borrow books from the ‘white’ library. Parks was an active member of St Paul AME Church, and in the summer prior to her arrest, she had attended an interracial meeting at Highlander Folk School, in Tennessee. Highlander, run by Myles and Zilphia Horton, was a well-known center for education in the fields of labor organising and antidiscrimation work.”

Parks’ own experiences, together with her Highlander School exposure, point to key elements in civil society efforts in many societies. Socially activist religious figures like the Hortons draw on lessons from their religious vocation, as well as on the experiences of union organisers or similarly experienced activist tacticians in forging a cogent methodology of action. These are skills that continue to be relevant to activists everywhere.

By the 1960s and ’70s, social and community organisers like the legendary Saul Alinsky and his volume, Rules for Radicals, among other organisers and their works, provided much of the template for the anti-Vietnam War activists’ efforts, who often drew upon a reach back through to the ideas of disciplined civil disobedience as earlier refined by Rev Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Henry David Thoreau. Alinsky’s activism and ideas animated the efforts, for example, of the young Barack Obama, as a community organiser in the Chicago lower income housing projects where he had worked after university study. (And it was similarly true for this writer in a community voter registration drive in 1969, an effort with a distinctly anti-Vietnam War aspect to it.)

More recently, several powerful new tools have become available for would-be civil society activists and leaders. Central to much civil society effort these days, almost universally, has been the use, effectiveness, and sense of connectedness achieved through the internet, emails, social media, and even the lowly cellphone text message, rather than through snail mail, street posters, and leaflets and flyers.

One of the early uses of mass electronic messaging took place in the Philippines in 2001, as anti-corruption activists rallied hundreds of thousands of those opposed to the continued presidency of Joseph Estrada to join in a vast rally against him through the use of a simple text message that called for his opponents to come to a central square, dressed in black, on a certain time and date; and then for each message recipient to forward the same message on to 10 more friends, and so on. They did, and he eventually resigned.

Now, of course, electronic media has become that much more ubiquitous and sophisticated, so that civil society communications can reach millions in a virtual heartbeat. It has allowed for much broader international communication and coalition building, even as it can also make effective leadership and coordination problematic. The question of who is actually the centre for a wide-ranging, multinational movement on the environment, say, or who really speaks for such a movement, can become a contentious issue. To see these questions in action, all we need do perhaps is watch TV news channels as the now-routine flash mobs break out in Hong Kong, even as the movement’s goals are varied.

Meanwhile, by the end of the Cold War era and on into the post-Soviet period, new forms of financing civil society efforts have come into play, rather than the informal catch-as-catch-can methods of earlier efforts. (In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet system, governments such as the US-made considerable funds available to newly empowered civil society bodies and media in the former USSR republics and the former Eastern European satellites. Later there were charges by some in the governments of those countries that such grant-making had had the fingerprints of plots to weaken those former Soviet republics.)

A number of international foundations and civil society-supporting institutions have become increasingly important, such as the George Soros family of funds, providing money to many groups, especially in East and Central Europe. But this targeted largesse has encouraged some governments such as the one in Hungary to allege that any opposition to the populist, but near-authoritarian leadership of Jerzy Orbán is some kind of sinister plot by dark forces aligned with Soros and his financial allies. Of course, the question of the aims of funding organisations does need to be considered by recipients. Civil society activists are becoming more conscious, however, of the need to understand the motivations of funders and would-be funders, to ensure their respective values are in alignment as funding agreements take place.

Moreover, civil society organisations now face new challenges globally, especially when so many of the causes they may be espousing are beyond the remit of individual nations or nationally operating civil society groups. Going forward, one challenge may be how the many groups focused on, say, the global environmental crisis can co-ordinate their efforts, or indeed determine that their efforts must necessarily trump the development goals of the countries they operate in, as they are presently defined. Energy generation for economic growth is a key priority for most nations, but for many of those countries, fossil fuels remain central to those efforts.

Yet for many civil society groups in this area, the greenhouse gas emissions from all those coal-fired power generating stations are an even more urgent issue than economic growth.

As civil society becomes an increasingly potent sector in the public arena in many nations, the constituent members of this rapidly expanding universe will face challenges – not least the questions of who they really represent, and what goals they may actually serve. DM


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