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Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea

John Ehrenberg
Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 285
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  • Book Info
    Civil Society
    Book Description:

    In the absence of noble public goals, admired leaders, and compelling issues, many warn of a dangerous erosion of civil society. Are they right? What are the roots and implications of their insistent alarm? How can public life be enriched in a period marked by fraying communities, widespread apathy, and unprecedented levels of contempt for politics? How should we be thinking about civil society? Civil Society examines the historical, political, and theoretical evolution of how civil society has been understood for the past two and a half millennia. From Aristotle and the Enlightenment philosophers to Colin Powell's Volunteers for America, Ehrenberg provides an indispensable analysis of the possibilities-and limits-of what this increasingly important idea can offer to contemporary political affairs. Civil Society is the winner of the Michael J. Harrington Award from the Caucus for a New Political Science of APSA for the best book published during 1999.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-2283-1
    Subjects: Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xviii)

    For three days toward the end of April 1997, the President’s Summit for America’s Future focused national attention on a succession of speeches, workshops, and exhibits in Philadelphia. President Clinton gathered George Bush, Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan, Colin Powell, thirty governors, dozens of corporate executives, and Oprah Winfrey to urge Americans to volunteer for community service. “The campaign, which General Powell is heading, seeks to mobilize volunteers and corporate money to help two million children by the year 2000,” reported theNew York Times. “It hopes to compensate for a retreating federal government—much of the retreating done under Mr....

  5. I The Origins of Civil Society

    • 1 Civil Society and the Classical Heritage
      (pp. 3-27)

      The classical understanding of civil society as a politically organized commonwealth received its first coherent formulation in the cities of ancient Greece. It also revolved around the understanding that men and women lived their lives in separate spheres, and Greek theory considered a wide range of human relations. Love, friendship, teaching, marriage, citizenship, the duties of slaves, the responsibilities of masters, the skills of artisans, and the division of labor—all were studied in their uniqueness and in their connectedness. The observation that people live together in distinct yet related associations stimulated debate about uniqueness and commonality, particularism and universalism....

    • 2 Civil Society and the Christian Commonwealth
      (pp. 28-54)

      The collapse of Roman civilization, which Edward Gibbon attributed to the triumph of barbarism and Christianity, weakened the classical understanding of civil society as a politically organized community. Its disintegration introduced a dualism into Western thought that made it impossible for hundreds of years to theorize politics as the sphere of humanity’s highest values. While the Eastern Empire endured with a centralized state backed by the Byzantine Church and centered in Constantinople, the Germanic conquerors made personal and tribal custom the basis of political life in the West. Given the economic and political decentralization of the Dark Ages, no consolidated...

    • 3 Civil Society and the Transition to Modernity
      (pp. 55-80)

      Transitional periods are never easy, and the passage to modernity was no exception. The disintegration of medieval religious, political, and economic life produced such chaos and instability that it became impossible to conceptualize a coherent theory of civil society. The old categories were plainly inadequate but new ones were not in place; civil society could no longer be understood as a universal political or religious commonwealth, but modern economic and political structures were still in their infancy. The growing power of national markets and national states had been eroding feudalism’s hierarchical structure of grades, ranks, and statuses for some time...

  6. II Civil Society and Modernity

    • 4 The Rise of “Economic Man”
      (pp. 83-108)

      Niccolò Machiavelli broke with the Middle Ages when he subordinated faith to the interests of the prince and the civic republic. Martin Luther’s emphasis on the freedom of individual conscience reserved considerable power to political authorities, who were responsible for organizing civil society around the external needs of a community of faith. Much the same was true of Thomas Hobbes’s demonstration that civil society existed because of the activity of a single point of sovereign power and that it rested on the advantages that flowed to its individual members. None of these three transitional figures had to rely on celestial...

    • 5 Civil Society and the State
      (pp. 109-143)

      Classical notions of civil society recognized that social life was carried on in separate spheres, but theorists did not organize their thinking around individual interests. For the most part, the Greeks and Romans situated private strivings in broader notions of citizenship. As the ancient world collapsed and Christianity directed itself toward faith and good works, medieval theorists sought to explain human actions in light of God’s plan for the universe. All such efforts were suited to hierarchically organized natural economies in which economic life was constrained by other institutions and norms, production was undertaken primarily for reasons of subsistence, and...

    • 6 Civil Society and Intermediate Organizations
      (pp. 144-170)

      When premodern theorists of civil society considered economic affairs, they almost always treated them as threats to civil society. Considered by themselves, commerce and trade were thought to be destructive of the bonds that held social life together. Only when markets began to organize civil society was it possible to differentiate social or economic categories from political or religious ones. As we have seen, the first strand of modern thought concerning civil society conceptualized it as a market-organized sphere of necessity. This view came to a head with Karl Marx and continues to drive the Left’s critique of capitalism. Marx...

  7. III Civil Society in Contemporary Life

    • 7 Civil Society and Communism
      (pp. 173-198)

      The roots of the contemporary interest in civil society lie in the 1980s contention of some Eastern European intellectuals that the accelerating crisis of communism was “the revolt of civil society against the state.” Deeply hostile to the claims of self-described vanguard parties and to their bureaucratized version of politics, a dissident literature slowly took shape that identified “actual existing socialism” with a grasping and intrusive state apparatus, obsolete central planning of heavy industrial production, and pervasive repression of social initiatives originating outside the control of the party-state. Drawing from liberal constitutionalism, Tocqueville, and the Western literature on “totalitarianism,” early...

    • 8 Civil Society and Capitalism
      (pp. 199-232)

      The Eastern European dissidents who deployed the language of civil society in their attack on the socialist state might be excused their failure to appreciate the looming danger of the capitalist market. Whatever combination of naiveté, desperation, and irresponsibility was at work, they had powerful antagonists to contend with, important allies to satisfy, and few indigenous sources of theoretical support or practical activity on which to draw. They may have honestly imagined that a resuscitated “civil society” could coexist with a generous set of social benefits, but the iron logic of the market’s demands for austerity soon disabused them of...

    • 9 Civil Society and Democratic Politics
      (pp. 233-250)

      Contemporary American thinking about civil society is thoroughly dominated by categories drawn from Tocqueville. Individual theorists may differ about where the family belongs or whether the Enlightenment has run its course, but almost all agree that a healthy democracy requires many voluntary associations and much local activity. At first glance, this seems to make eminent sense. Greater engagement, deeper commitment, more participation, and heightened solidarity seem desirable in any social order—particularly one plagued by cheapened politics and civic decline.

      But a closer look might reveal why neo-Tocquevillean orthodoxy has become so attractive in a conservative period—and why some...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 251-270)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 271-280)
  10. Index
    (pp. 281-284)
  11. About the Author
    (pp. 285-286)