Civil Society: Theory and Practice
by Michael Edwards
Encyclopedia of Informal Education
... civil society is simultaneously a goal to aim for, a means to achieve it, and a framework for engaging with each-other about ends and means. When these three ‘faces’ turn towards each-other and integrate their different perspectives into a mutually-supportive framework, the idea of civil society can explain a great deal about the course of politics and social change, and serve as a practical framework for organizing both resistance and alternative solutions to social , economic and political problems. Many of the difficulties of the civil society debate disappear when we lower our expectations of what each school of thought has to offer in isolation from the others, and abandon all attempts to enforce a single model, consensus or explanation. This may not deter the ideologues from using civil society as a cover for their own agendas, but it should make it easier to expose their claims and challenge the assumptions they often make.
This is one reason why, to answer the question I raised at the outset, getting clearer about civil society does matter in more than the academic sense. When, as recently reported in the press for example, the National Endowment for Democracy claims to be building civil society in Venezuela but is only supporting groups mobilized against President Hugo Chavez, or politicians on both sides of the Atlantic continue to be engaged in a forced march to civil society in the Middle East, it is clear that the ways in which these ideas are interpreted does have a real impact on the lives of real people in the here and the now. As Keynes’s famous dictum reminds us, “practical men in authority who think themselves immune from theoretical influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist”, just as present-day civil society builders are motivated by ideas deeply rooted in different schools of thought, but often unacknowledged, untested and insufficiently interrogated.
The second reason why this debate matters is that lasting solutions to problems of poverty, discrimination and exclusion are impossible to conceive of, at least for me, without a full appreciation of the roles of civil society in this new, threefold sense, especially when we compare these ideas to the failings of their competitors such as neo-liberalism, nationalism resurgent, legalism, centralized planning or continued authoritarian rule.
In all three schools of thought, civil society is essentially collective action – in associations, across society and through the public sphere – and as such it provides an essential counterweight to individualism; as creative action, civil society provides a much-needed antidote to the cynicism that infects so much of contemporary politics; and as values-based action, civil society provides a balance to the otherwise-overbearing influence of state authority and the temptations and incentives of the market, even if those values are contested, as they often are. Warts and all, the idea of civil society remains compelling, I think, but not because it provides the tidiest of explanations or the most coherent of political theories – it doesn’t and probably never will. It remains compelling because it speaks to the best in us – the collective, creative and values-driven core of the active citizen - calling on the best in us to respond in kind to create societies that are just, true and free.
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