Right from the times of scholars like Aristotle and Cicero, until the appearance of John Locke and others on the political scene in the 17th century, the term civil society was used interchangeably with political society and the State. The self-conscious and self-confident bourgeois class was known as civil society. To these classical philosophers, as has been pointed out, “To be a member of a civil society was to be a citizen – a member of the State” (Karlson, 2002).  Originally, civil society was a European phenomenon.  The earliest development of civil society as a non-political identity is associated with complex social and economic forces at work in the 18th century, as the power devolved from monarchs to popular assemblies.  The philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment first articulated the idea of civil society. These philosophers were able to bring out the universality of civil society as a solution to the particularity of the market sphere that was increasingly responsible for redefining the then-estate system of feudal society (Baker, 2002).

Hegel was the first philosopher to develop a recognizably modern notion of civil society in his philosophy of rights. He sought to resolve the contradictions that existed in civil society as a result of its peculiarity by reference to the universal State. It is only at this point that the State and the civil society came to be regarded as separate spheres (ibid.).   To Hegel, however, civil society was identical to the private and the particularistic, and characterized by the conflicting and avaricious striving of individuals and classes for largely materialistic ends, while the State was seen as the embodiment of universal ethical values and rational civilization (Karlson, op.cit.).

It was Antonio Gramsci, who isolated civil society as a category of importance in its own right. Gramsci characterized civil society as the realm of culture and ideology, or more concretely as the ‘associational realm’. Gramsci rejected the dichotomous view in which the State is counterposed to civil society and in which the latter embraces all non-state and non-public relations.  For Gramsci, civil society exists as a kind of intermediary linked both with the economic structure and with the State (Cf Baker, op.cit.)

Various Schools of thought have added to the understanding of the concept of civil society.  The Relative Autonomy approach of Neo-Marxists has underlined the limitations of State-centric theory that has led to a definitive shift from State to civil society.  The other influences have come from Pluralists and Neo-pluralists. Robert Putnam’s Social Capital approach, which will be discussed later in this Unit, and the New Communitarian perspective of Amitai Etzioni and Vincent Ostrom have added immensely to the vast literature on civil society discourse. The New Communitarians seek to restore the ailing institutions by changing people’s values, attitudes, and behavior, thereby rendering major structural reforms less necessary.   They aim to develop a ‘responsive community’, by striking a balance between the community and autonomy and empowering community structures.  The New Communitarian concepts, as has been pointed out by Brathwaite (2001), are said to ‘derive from grassroots activity providing local communist activists with conceptual horizons that reflect cumulative activist wisdom’.

The evolution of the concept of civil society encompassing various perspectives attempts to define its meaning and scope in relation to the State and the market.  Therefore, any discussion on civil society without an analysis of the role of the State and the market and their relationship with civil society is fraught with problems. They all define, limit, and complement each other. The modern meaning of civil society has to take off from here and locate itself broadly within the relationship among the State, market, and civil society in the and ‘governance’, ‘development’ contexts in the backdrop of globalization.

Additional Notes:

The evolution of civil society is a complex and multifaceted process that has unfolded over centuries. Civil society refers to the space and organizations that exist between the government and the private sector, where citizens come together to pursue common interests and goals. It plays a crucial role in promoting democracy, social cohesion, and the protection of individual rights. Here is a brief overview of the evolution of civil society:

1.      Historical Roots:

Civil society has deep historical roots that can be traced back to ancient civilizations. In Greece, for example, the concept of the “polis” represented a form of civic life where citizens participated in governance and public affairs. In the Middle Ages, guilds and religious organizations served as early forms of civil society.

2.      Enlightenment and Modernization:

The Enlightenment era in the 17th and 18th centuries played a pivotal role in shaping modern civil society. Thinkers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau laid the philosophical groundwork for individual rights, democracy, and the social contract. These ideas influenced the American and French Revolutions, which further promoted the idea of civil society.

3.      Emergence of Voluntary Associations:

The 19th century saw the proliferation of voluntary associations and organizations that represented various social, political, and cultural interests. These included trade unions, philanthropic groups, and social reform movements. These associations provided a platform for individuals to come together and address common concerns.

4.      Advocacy and Social Change:

Civil society organizations (CSOs) began to play a more prominent role in advocating for social and political change during the 20th century. They became key players in various social and political movements, such as the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and environmental activism.

5.      Globalization and Technology:

In the contemporary era, civil society has become increasingly globalized and interconnected. Advances in technology, particularly the internet and social media, have facilitated the formation of transnational networks of activists and organizations. These networks can address global issues and mobilize support across borders.

6.      Challenges and Threats:

Civil society has faced various challenges and threats, including government repression, restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression, and the co-optation of some CSOs by governments or corporations. These challenges underscore the ongoing struggle for civil society’s autonomy and effectiveness.

7.      Resilience and Adaptation:

Despite challenges, civil society continues to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. It remains a vital force for promoting human rights, democracy, social justice, and community well-being. Civil society organizations play critical roles in addressing contemporary issues, such as climate change, economic inequality, and social justice.

The evolution of civil society is an ongoing process influenced by historical developments, cultural contexts, and the changing dynamics of society. It continues to be a dynamic and essential component of democratic governance and the protection of human rights.

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