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Published by: Yamil Assi on Dec 11, 2012
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In a free society people are liable to form all kinds of association with
diverse identities and goals. Recent praise for civil society often
neglects to acknowledge how many of such associations, even when
voluntarily entered, are hierarchical or authoritarian in their rule.
Associations founded with the intention of being democratic, more-
over, are often even more susceptible to autocratic takeover than gov-
ernments. The image of civic associations as free self-organization
without the disciplinary regimes of coercion and bureaucracy is at best
an exaggeration that feeds disenchantment with state institutions.12


164Civil Society and its Limits


Cohen and Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory, 523–32. In a more recent paper
Jean Cohen argues that mainstream American public discourse about civil society today
leaves out the important concept and practices of the public sphere, and by doing so
removes much of the critical force of the idea. See Cohen, American Civil Society Talk,
Working Paper No. 6 (College Park: National Commission on Civic Renewal, University
of Maryland, 1997). See also John J. Rodger, ‘On the Degeneration of the Public Sphere’,
Political Studies, 32 (1985), 203–17.


From a Foucaultian point of view, which is helpful here, practices of ‘governmental-
ity’ operate as much or more in some civic institutions as they do in state institutions. For

great number of voluntary associations, however, are directly demo-
cratic. People form and run them according to rules they collectively
adopt. To this extent even private associations can be schools of self-

Beyond such general virtues of participation, the self-organizing
activities of civil society contribute to self-determination, and, to a
lesser degree, self-development, by supporting identity and voice,
facilitating innovative or minority practices, and providing some
goods and services.
A voice for excluded.In Chapter 1 I noted that in a formally democ-
ratic society where there are structural social and economic injustices,
many of those who suffer such injustices are likely to be excluded,
silenced, or marginalized in the formal democratic political process as
well. This political inequality tends to create conditions in which the
social and economic injustice or marginalization is not likely to be
addressed as a problem by legislators and other public officials.
Civil society offers a way out of this circle, one of the only ways.
However despised or disfranchised, in a liberal society (and even
sometimes in illiberal societies) people who are disadvantaged or mar-
ginalized can find each other and form associations to improve their
lives through mutual aid and articulation of group consciousness.
Although they may lack the money, expertise, and social connections
that others have, poorer or more marginalized people can exploit a
resource which is more equally possessed by everyone: time.13
Activities of self-organization in civil society are the primary prac-
tical means for breaking through the silencing Lyotard calls the differ-
end, which I discussed in Chapter 1. When a group’s suffering or
grievance cannot be expressed, or cannot fully be expressed, in hege-
monic discourses, associational activity can support the development
among those silenced new ways of seeing social relationships or
labelling situations as wrong. In these self-organizing activities disad-
vantaged or marginalized sectors and groups sometimes articulate
affirmative self-conceptions in response to denigrating or devaluing

Civil Society and its Limits165

one powerful analysis of governmentality outside, as well as inside, the state, see Barbara
Cruikshank,The Will to Empower: Technologies of Citizenship, Social Reform, and
Democratic Government(Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999).



positionings from the wider society. In Chapter 3 I suggested that this
is one useful meaning for the label ‘identity politics’ to describe social
movements reflecting on their socially differentiated positions.
Through literature, theatre, song, visual art, social networking and
exchange about civic projects, and critical analysis, relatively silenced
social sectors envision and articulate new experiences and social per-
spectives. Associational life thus serves as a basis of social solidarity,
cultural support, or resistance to domination and oppression.
Social innovation.In voluntary associations where people co-
ordinate their action by discussion, people sometimes reach for new
ideas and practices. Perhaps some people are dissatisfied with the pre-
vailing conventions, or they are simply attracted to saying or doing
something differently. Whether organic farming, herbal healing, evan-
gelical religious worship, or car pooling, people often form associ-
ations in order to develop alternative practices. While some of these
turn out to be crank or idiosyncratic, through their dissemination in
the public sphere some come to be widely adopted, thereby facilitat-
ing social changes outside any legislative or legal mandates.
Goods and services.Associations of civil society provide many goods
and services outside the framework of the state or profit-
oriented economy. Non-profit social services such as tenants’ advoc-
ates, health services, homeless or battered women’s shelters, literacy
centres, immigrant or exile settlement support services, after-school
youth centres, and so on are often democratically organized, con-
nected to their communities, and more empowering for clients than
state-run services. While producer and consumer co-operatives rarely
escape market forces and pressures, they often introduce elements of
democratic decision-making or other substantive non-market values
into the business process. Many experts and activists in less-developed
countries regard civic organizations as important promoters of devel-
opment: they improve the lives of some disadvantaged people by
involving them directly in participatory projects such as small pro-
ducer co-operatives, credit associations, and self-help housing con-
struction. Civic associations worried about the revitalization of
deteriorating inner cities in wealthier societies also aim to meet needs
through non-profit non-governmental associational activity. In the
United States non-profit associations such as Community Land Trusts
or Habitat for Humanity have supplied units of decent affordable
housing when both government and private developers apparently
abandoned the task. Democracy and social justice would be enhanced
in most societies if civic associations provided even more goods and

166Civil Society and its Limits

Not all of the identities, practices, or goods and services that flour-
ish in civil society are necessarily good; nor do they coexist without
conflict. By means of voluntary associations, however, people can take
some control over the conditions under which they live and act,
support affinities, develop practices, and provide goods and services
in ways more under their direct control than activities of state and
economy. In these ways civil society directly realizes the value of self-
determination, and to a lesser extent self-development.

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