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Workers' Education
Civil Society, A Contested Territory - Dan Gallin (2000)

Euro-WEA Seminar on Workers' Education and Civil Society, Budapest, June 16-17, 2000

Civil Society - A Contested Territory

by Dan Gallin


Introduction: The Euro-WEA (European regional organization of the IFWEA) held a seminar on civil society on June 16-17 in conjunction with its Annual General Meeting on June 18, 2000, in Budapest. Speakers included Giampiero Alhadeff, general secretary of SOLIDAR, who introduced a discussion on new social movements and networks in Europe; Dave Spooner, international project coordinator of the WEA (England and Scotland), who spoke on "NGOs, Civil Society and Trade Unions"; Jan Olsson, from the Swedish Koopi, on EU policies with regard to civil society, and Dan Gallin, IFWEA president, whose contribution is given below.


When I was first asked to introduce a historical view of civil society I realized that my starting point was a fairly naive and romantic perception of the subject, a view shared by many. In much of the adult education literature, civil society is conceived of as an arena of popular opposition politics and therefore has positive connotations. We have all been supporting the fight of the dissidents in the former Soviet bloc and, in South Africa, the fight of the ANC and of other opponents of the apartheid State. In both cases civil society was seen as the bedrock of democratic opposition. Today, after Seattle, we look at civil society as the embodiment of popular revolt against global corporate power.

The reality is more complex. Actually, “civil society” as it exists today is contested territory in what for most of us is an old and familiar conflict: the conflict between capital and labour.

The history of the term “civil society” in political philosophy has been described by the Canadian scholar Alison Van Rooy in the book: “Civil Society and the Aid Industry” (1) which she edited, and what I am about to tell you is freely borrowed from her description. The point of tracing the genealogy of the term is to help us understand why it has become a contemporary issue.

There are two phases in the family history of civil society as theory. The first, dating from the Romans, grappled with why and how humankind should be governed, who should govern and under what conditions. The second, beginning with the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, draws a sharp line between the governed and the governors: all of a sudden, there is a State that needs to be defended against, and a civil society that shelters the citizenry and trains them to keep the State at bay.

The Latin notion of civilis societas designated those living in a civilized political community, creating a State to serve the community’s interests. Civil society was therefore different from private, or domestic, society: it was the company of men (literally - women had no public role) who fulfilled their public and social roles. The norms of how to live together in such a society further endowed civilis societas with moral value and authority. In the Roman tradition the State is an instrument of civil society, not its antithesis.

Up until the eighteenth century, civil society and political society were inter-changeable ideas, vested with moral virtue as expressions of a common good. For Kant, Hume, Rousseau, Hobbes and others up to the Scottish Enlightenment, “State”, “civil society” and “political society” were used synonymously. For such thinkers the meaningful division was not between the State and society, but between society and the state of nature.

The philosophical turnover comes in the century between 1750 and 1850, with the writings of Adam Ferguson, Thomas Paine, Hegel and de Tocqueville. From Ferguson, we have the idea that one must guard against authoritarianism by developing independent “societies” within civil society; from Paine, the more radical idea that the State itself (not just bad States) is an obstacle to civil society’s hopes for social equality and liberty; from Hegel, the countervailing idea that a civil society that was too free might be conflict producing, hence needing State control; and from de Tocqueville, the contradictory idea that even a democratically chosen government might suffocate civil society if sufficient vigilance by independent citizen’s associations was not maintained.

All, however, drew a line between the State and civil society that had not existed before.

The first ideological shift in this direction predated the Enlightenment. Locke, writing in the seventeenth century, certainly maintained the idea that the State and civil society were synonymous. But because Locke and other proponents of natural law saw each individual to be naturally free, civil society was a compromise, a contract in which each gave up some liberty to ensure the liberty of others. When individuals gave up the law of nature and subordinated their will under the public will, then civil society was possible, as long as all obeyed the laws under which they voluntarily placed themselves.

Government was, therefore, to be seen as a trust by the people. The State maintained its role as an instrument for public good and was not seen as the antithesis of the public good. Yet, in Locke’s careful theoretical negotiations lie the beginnings of doubt: the State was not necessarily good, but existed in a carefully controlled relationship of trust.

The pre-modern tradition continued with Adam Ferguson, one of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. Ferguson, struggling to counterbalance the unrestricted individualism he and other moral philosophers perceived in the early stages of capitalist development, argued that civil society was an improvement (not a compromise) on the state of nature, which was primitive and brutal. Civil society was less political than social.

With Adam Smith, another element was added to the State/society mix: the economy, where people function as a society potentially quite outside the ambit of politics. The idea that one could talk about anything within the public sphere that was not politics was a novel idea and suggested that self-organization was possible, that is, that the activity of ordinary people could regulate itself without the intervention of government.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Alexis de Tocqueville in his “Democracy in America” described a society of community spirit, volunteerism and incessant association forming. It was this single characteristic, he felt, that was society’s ultimate and best defense against tyranny by the State. His work illustrated a sentiment throughout liberal Europe that political life outside of the official apparatus of the State was both possible and necessary.

There were some, of course, who worried about the implications of a society unrestrained by the State. Hegel, writing in 1821, argued that it was necessary for the State to harmonize competing interests in society. For him, the State was the protector, suggesting that civil society could not remain civil unless it is ordered politically, subjected to “the higher surveillance of the State”. The problem was that freedom gained in economic enterprise allowed individuals to be liberated from feudal relations, family yokes, serfdom and servitude, yet in tearing the individual away from those ties, the marketplace created an atomized and rootless individual. Civil society (associations, clubs, networks, institutions) provided a second home. The danger was that civil society carried with it no guarantee of service to the common good, guarantees only possible through the more ethical laws of the State. For Hegel, and later for Marx, civil society became synonymous with self-interested and egotistical society.

In any event, by the middle of the nineteenth century the late Enlightenment thinkers were entirely overcome by the power of the industrial revolution and social philosophy became dominated by the discourse on class and class struggle. It is in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century that the labour movement generated its own “civil society” through its manifold social, political and cultural organizations (in large part the forerunners of today’s NGOs), at the same time subsuming the notion of civil society under the notion of class. The debate on civil society fell out of favour and disappeared almost without a trace.

Interestingly enough, it was a Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci, who revived it in the 1930s. Trying to analyse power relations in society, he developed the notion of class hegemony - a control exercised at all levels (economic, social, political, cultural), so pervasive as to become almost imperceptible. He then described civil society in a much different sense from his forerunners: as an arena in which battles for class power and against capitalism are fought. That arena is occupied by a struggle for material, ideological and cultural control over all of society, including the State, which is not, as in Hegel, the expression of universal will but, as in Marx, the instrument of class domination. Gramsci’s ideas became very influential with all those concerned with developing a democratic and at the same time radical form of Marxism, not only to combat capitalism but also in the fight against Stalinism.

As pressure for change built up throughout the Soviet bloc in the 1980s, civil society took on yet another meaning. The floating university of Poland’s pre-Solidarity days, the Czechoslovak velvet underground and Hungary’s circles of freedom, represented themselves as the resurgence of civil society. Eastern Europeans had, of course, read Gramsci, and described their movement using his language. Bronislaw Geremek, for example, wrote:

“Moral resistance, though seemingly hopeless against systems that are based on political and military force, functions like a grain of sand in the cogwheels of a vast but vulnerable machine. The idea of civil society, even one that avoids overtly political activities in favour of education, the exchange of information and opinion, or the protection of the basic interests of particular groups, has enormous anti-totalitarian potential.”

By the late twentieth century, civil society had thus been constructed in contrast to the State, whether controlled by a capitalist ruling class or a Stalinist bureaucracy.

Civil society today is most often defined as if it were a collective noun: in practice, it has been made synonymous with the voluntary sector (the so-called Third Sector), and particularly with NGOs, advocacy groups, social movement agents, human rights organizations and other actors explicitly involved in action for social change. Most often, these groups are circumscribed by a definition that excludes those belonging to business and the State (although there is a continuing debate over the exclusion of the business sector and of the lower orders of government) and by according them a positive moral mandate. Most definitions further specify that civil society organizations do not include those groups interested in acquiring political power, hence the usual exclusion of political parties.

These civil society organizations (CSOs) are seen as promoters of democratic ideas, the genuine voices of the oppressed, expressing discontent and revolt, the enemies of autocracies of every ideological description anywhere in the world, and some actually fit that perception.

At the same time, the history of civil society as a sphere of opposition to the centralized and authoritarian State has led to a view that promoting civil society means limiting the State as such. The head of a US funding agency suggests “the end of the Cold War has brought no mere adjustment among States but a novel distribution of power among States, markets and civil society.” Much of that shift in power is attributed to the electronic communications revolution because it “disrupts hierarchies, spreading power among more people and groups”, such that today, “NGOs are able to push around even the largest governments.”

There are several problems with such views. One is the complexity of civil society. As other writers have warned: “Actual civil societies are complex associational universes involving a vast array of specific organizational forms and a wide diversity of institutional motivations. They contain repression as well as democracy, conflict as well as cooperation, vice as well as virtue; they can be motivated by sectional greed as much as social interest. Thus any attempt to compress the ideas of civil society into a homogenous and virtuous stereotype is doomed to fail.”

Conservative and reactionary associations like Nazi skinheads or, in the US, the Ku Klux Klan and the National Rifle Association, are also part of civil society. Religious institutions are also part of civil society, unless one wants to treat them the same as political parties.

But apart from reactionary and even fascist civil society organizations, which are actually a very specific and easily circumscribed problem, there is the wider and more serious problem that many of the progressive and public interest NGOs are themselves not democratic organizations - the problem Giampi mentioned yesterday.

So, whilst "civil society" (the voluntary third sector) is collectively seen as expressing "the people" and the "popular will", the representativity and democratic legitimacy of a number of its components is open to challenge.

Finally, where does this leave democracy itself, in the wider sense of a democratic society? Where does this leave the democratic State?

I mentioned earlier that the social-democratic labour movement had historically generated its own civil society, in the sense of an alternative society to the existing social order and a counterculture.

In this perspective, when social-democracy first came into government, for example in some of the Nordic countries in the 1920s and 1930s, the perception of its supporters - the working class - must have been that here was civil society conquering State power, and this perception led to a strong identification with the democratic State, which had become our State.

In the social-democratic tradition, politics is very much part of civil society: the political struggle involves a process of permeating civil society and organizing it, a concept somewhat akin to the American syndicalist concept of "building the new society within the shell of the old", except that in the social-democratic concept the outcome is gaining State power, which derives its political legitimacy from this process.

As against this, the anti-statist view of civil society is being pushed today by the neo-liberal (or neo-conservative) ideologues, to the extreme of trying to make civil society a replacement of the State, by devolving responsibilities and functions of the State to voluntary associations.

This somewhat complicates our position. We are part of civil society and we want to create alliances within it to advance our agenda, but this agenda does not include weakening the democratic State and much less weakening the democratic process.

In adult education, civil society has a history of its own, and here I want to refer you to another book, by Peter Mayo of the University of Malta. It is called: "Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education".

Mayo's subject is the kinship between the thought of Paulo Freire and Gramsci. Quoting Freire, he notes that Freire was an unconscious Gramscian even before become aware of Gramsci's writings: "I only read Gramsci when I was in exile. I read Gramsci and I discovered that I had been greatly influenced by Gramsci long before I had read him. It is fantastic when we discover that we have been influenced by someone's thought without even being introduced to their intellectual production."

What Mayo does is to show how Gramsci's and Freire's thought converge in a theory of socially committed transformative adult education and in an adult education strategy. Unfortunately time does not allow me to elaborate on this here, but in any case this is probably familiar territory to most of you.

Mayo also addresses the impact of globalization on adult education. A global civil society already exists, and Mayo says: "I would argue that the challenge, in terms of transformative international action, is for the creation of an international historical bloc, characterized by an international alliance of movements ranging from environmental to labour movements."

The "historical bloc" is, of course, a Gramscian concept: it is the outcome of a strategy of alliances pursued by the labour movement within civil society in what Gramsci called a "war of position" waged in and across the entire complex of civil society against the bourgeois State.

Turning back to civil society and to our role within it, what could such an "international historical bloc" look like from our vantage point?

The alliance with human rights movements is perhaps the easiest, since there are no contentious issues between us, at least not in principle.

The alliance with the women's movements is more problematic because of the democratic deficit that exists in the labour movement when it comes to women's participation. Yet it is strategically perhaps the most important because it is only through such an alliance that organization of the informal sector becomes possible.

The informal sector, which represents a majority of the working population of the world, is growing, also at the expense of the formal sector, and unless the labour movement finds an effective way of organizing it, its existence, also in the formal sector, will be increasingly under threat.

Here workers' education can play an important and perhaps irreplaceable bridging and facilitating role.

Alliance with the environmental movements is probably the most difficult because there the cultural gap is widest, but it is not impossible, as various forms of "green/red" political coalitions throughout Europe have demonstrated.

In all these areas workers' education has a strategic role to play and, to a large extent, we are already doing it. We need to keep going, in Paulo Freire's phrase, "creating the path as we walk".


Further Reading:

Alison Van Rooy: Civil Society and the Aid Industry, the North-South Institute, Earthscan Publications Ltd., London, 1998 (ISBN 1 85383 553 6 (paperback)).

Peter Mayo: Gramsci, Freire and Adult Education - Possibilities for Transformative Action, Zed Books, London and New York, 1999 (ISBN 1 85649 614 7 (paperback)).

Alan Fowler: Civil Society, NGDOs and Social Development: Changing the Rules of the Game, UNRISD, Geneva, January 2000 (info@unrisd.org).

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