Civil Society

Civil society is often understood as a defense against excessive state power and atomized individualism, which otherwise threatens to create conditions for authoritarianism. The term can be traced to Roman civil law (jus civile) but its contemporary use to describe contractual relations, the rise of public opinion, representative government, civic freedoms, plurality, and ”civility” first appeared in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political philosophy notably in Hobbes’s theory of a ”social contract” between civil and political branches of the state and then Locke’s theory of natural rights that inhere in civil society.

Civil society is a relatively autonomous sphere separate from and constraining the state. Though initially based on socially exclusive networks (aristocratic men in coffeehouse society) civil society theories envisaged a space for debate and private association at a time when such liberal principles were not widely shared. Ferguson (1966 [1767]) saw the development of civil society as bound to the progress of humanity from simple, clan-based militaristic societies to complex commercial ones. Civil society establishes a new order requiring dispersal of power and office, the rule of law, and liberal (i.e., tolerant) sentiments, in which people’s lives and property are secure. However, civil society does not refer to just any kind of informal or private social relations, which exist in all societies, but to morally guided relations that make possible trust in anonymous social exchanges. Tocqueville, Durkheim, and then contemporary writers such as Putnam (1993) developed these ideas and stressed the importance of active and informal networks for stable democracy. Conversely, societies with weak civil society, low trust, and high levels of corruption for example will be vulnerable to authoritarianism.

Gramsci reintroduced the concept into Marxism in the 1920s when – attempting to combat economic reductionism – he defined civil society as a sphere of cultural struggle against bourgeois hegemony. This formulation was influential among Eurocommunist parties in the 1970 and 1980s, although ironically a significant revival of the concept came with the anti-communist movements of 1989, in which civil society defined social spaces for public discussion, local initiatives, and voluntary citizens’ associations against the state. In the event many commentators view post-communist civil societies with disappointment, in the face of cultures of distrust, informal dealings, and the strengthening of particularistic visions and elements.

Alongside and possibly supplanting national state-civil society relations, some suggest that there is a global civil society made up of international non-governmental organizations, transnational social movements, and digitally mediated social networks. Although this idea has been influential, there is a conflict between the goal of creating transnational cosmopolitan values and the unregulated growth of world markets brought by global neoliberalism that has resulted in heightened levels of social inequality, which neither states nor international organizations have the capacity to address. Global political and corporate institutions are not (yet?) embedded within constraining networks of a global civil society and there is a risk here of an excessively elastic and insufficiently complex concept.



  1. Ferguson, A. (1966) [1767] An Essay on the History of Civil Society. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.
  2. Putnam, R. D. (1993) Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.


Larry Ray