Juliana Pilon is director of programs for Europe and Asia at the International Foundation for Election Systems and the author of The Bloody Flag: Post-Communist Nationalism in East-Central Europe—Spotlight on Romania.
It is heartening that a fashionable new field known as “civil society studies” has recently emerged. It is surely a symptom of concern over whether modern society as we know it is sufficiently civil to foster the growth of Western liberalism. But however distinct the problems of modernity may be, and they surely are, revisiting the original texts of the Enlightenment that first established the field by defining “civil society” seems particularly salutary.
Credit for this renewed interest dating back more than two decades must go to those who most felt its absence. Notes sociologist John A. Hall, “civil society was placed at the forefront of public attention by attempts to establish decency in societies where it had most conspicuously been absent,” particularly by Solidarity in Poland. The term emerged however mainly in a nebulous negative sense, as “the opposite of despotism.” The lack of a clear definition is only one reason for the floundering that has characterized efforts to create a genuine civil society in the post-Soviet era.
The nineties have seen a similar resurgence of interest in the idea of civil society in the United States, for reasons that are in some ways similar to what inspired Solidarity: a sense that government is quite powerful and at the same time palpably ill equipped to deal with some of the most pressing problems of our time. The question of how to invigorate a healthy civil society is thus preoccupying pundits and scholars, though not always with felicitous results.
The ambiguity that surrounds the topic of “civil society,” as Hall correctly points out, is due to the fact that the concept is “at one and the same time a social value and a set of social institutions.” The temptation to address both at once, to judge the social value of a particular type of civil society while defining the set of social institutions that make it up, renders an objective evaluation almost impossible. Hall is correct to attempt to differentiate the two. He offers the following definition: “Civil society is a particular form of society, appreciating social diversity and able to limit the depredations of political power, that was born in Europe; it may, with some luck, skill and imagination, spread to some other regions of the world.”
But even this definition does not seem fully capable of shedding normative connotations, for “social diversity” is evidently presented as a value worth “appreciating” while “the depredation of political power” has clearly pejorative connotations. Hall admits to being enthusiastically in favor of civil society, to the point that he “would gladly embrace social tendencies sure to establish civil society even though this would diminish any conception of social agency and human responsibility.” Unfortunately, this leaves the reader to wonder just how those “social tendencies” could be, how they are to be “fostered,” and whether, if indeed they emerge at the expense of “human responsibility,” in what way a society where such “tendencies” are exhibited can still be deemed “civil.”
The main point, however, is that Hall requires “civil” society to include an “appreciation” of pluralism. This is not true of all definitions. As Adam Seligman notes in his popular book The Idea of Civil Society, written immediately after the fall of the Iron Curtain in Hungary and published in 1992, the concept of civil society “has come to mean different things to different people.” Yet he observes that the concept “embodies for many an ethical ideal of the social order, one that, if not overcomes, at least harmonizes, the conflicting demands of individual interest and social good.” The concept, in other words, seems to imply that society, to qualify as “civil,” should seek “the social good” while permitting (“appreciating”?) the need for some “diversity,” some notion of “individual interest.”
Squaring the Circle
Not wishing to appear libertarian in any way, Seligman is quick to point out that “the problem of liberal-individualist ideology . . . is, how to constitute a sense of community among and between social actors who are conceived of in terms of autonomous individuals.” In brief, “civil society” seems to require an internal squaring of what appears to be a vicious circle encompassing “autonomous” individual interests and the (logically and empirically presumed opposite) social good and “a sense of community.” How that circle is supposed to be squared while preserving freedom seems to elude Seligman no less than Hall.
It is time therefore to take more seriously the separation between the normative and the descriptive elements of the term, while at the same time resurrecting the elegant discussion of the original idea as presented in the eighteenth century, notably by Adam Ferguson in his still eminently readable Essay on the History of Civil Society, published in 1767. It is important to note that the alleged conflict between individual interests and the social good was originally never perceived to be a conflict at all.
Ferguson firmly believed in man’s ability—and right—to conduct his affairs as he sees fit. And unlike some of his more misanthropic contemporaries—particularly Edmund Burke, in his brilliant Vindication of Natural Society, published in 1756—Ferguson trusts at least some of man’s passions, notably “benevolence,” which he defines as “no more than a species of self-love.” Far from denying that animosity and narrow self-interest are among man’s less honorable passions, Ferguson nevertheless finds that man is happiest in the company of others, not only because he is safer in a civil society but also because he finds the presence of others rewarding. Thus “if courage be the gift of society to man, we have reason to consider his union with his species as the noblest part of his fortune.”
Interestingly, the term “civil society” as such appears only once in Ferguson’s long essay. But that one definition is sufficient to indicate that Ferguson’s conception is directly counter to Seligman’s contention that “civil society” seeks to reconcile necessarily opposite concepts, namely individual interests and the goals of society. Writes Ferguson: “The happiness of individuals is the great end of civil society: for in what sense can a public enjoy any good, if its members, considered apart, be unhappy?” Society is the sum of its members; a “sum” of their happiness therefore defines the good of all.
In brief, Ferguson’s original conception of the civil society defines its end as permitting the exercise of individual freedom, the pursuit of individual goals that are perceived to be good to those who pursue them. At the same time, Ferguson is convinced that men are—or at least can be—naturally benevolent, and believes the feeling of benevolence can be nurtured by underscoring its rational and emotional basis. Not only did Ferguson not see a contradiction between individual and social ends; he saw such a contradiction to be meaningless. Any “public interest” that is opposed to the interests of members of that public cannot possibly be any good.
Ferguson has thus defined the civil society as the “total” of the goals pursued by individuals seeking their own happiness (and one may add, in full conformity with the spirit of his lengthy essay, at the same time respecting everyone else’s right to do the same). What is more, these goals are pursued outside the political realm, or as Burke might have put it, in “Natural Society.”
Benevolence as a Form of Self-Love
The normative element that Ferguson clearly adds to this descriptive definition is that a society which makes possible the pursuit of individual goals will also be a desirable, truly “civil” society (in the honorific sense of the term) if its members are benevolent. Benevolence is the great virtue that makes human beings take pleasure in one another’s company, desire one another’s happiness, and seek to help others in distress. Benevolence is an eminently rational feeling, entirely consistent with self-interest, indeed is a species of self-love.
Accordingly, a civil society where benevolence is nurtured and ubiquitous is eminently desirable and entirely possible. It is absurd to think that man could ever be forced to be either rational or good. To be good, man has to be free. Anything else is meaningless—or at least does not constitute a genuinely civil society.
This brings us to the main difference between the discussion of civil society at the time of the Enlightenment and today. There appears to be strong distrust, not only in formerly communist countries but also in the West, of purely private initiative, of individual freedom, lest it undermine the sense of “community” and “the social good.” There seems to be a prevailing fear that people will not behave benevolently unless somehow pressured or even forced to do so. Yet forcing people to pursue “the common good” rather than respecting each person’s right to pursue his own happiness as he sees fit (while respecting everyone else’s right to do the same) can only result in a society that may seem civil but is only dubiously free.
Ferguson’s definition of “civil society” as the “total” of individual goals pursued in an atmosphere of mutual respect necessarily implies “an appreciation of social diversity.” It repudiates however the supposed tension between individual interests and the social good. That tension should not exist in a society that nurtures benevolence in a manner that is consistent with the principle of human responsibility. And in any event, a society that dispenses with responsibility cannot be called “civil” in either a descriptive or normative sense of the term.
Civil society is certainly not guaranteed by freedom. Freedom requires stable institutions and the rule of law. Without free-dom, however, society can be called “civil” only at the expense of both semantic honesty and the nature of human action. Community and benevolence should not be seen as antithetical to the pursuit of individual interests; it was not perceived that way by the philosophers who first conceptualized “civil society.”
Adam Ferguson defended the proposition that the interests of the individual and those of society are “easily reconciled” with the following observation: “That is the most happy state, which is most beloved by its subjects; and they are the most happy men, whose hearts are engaged to a community, in which they find every object of generosity and zeal, and a scope to the exercise of every talent, and of every virtuous disposition.” That community will not happen by force. It should not have taken the terrible reality of communism to prove that simple fact.
- John A. Hall, ed., Civil Society: Theory, History, Comparison (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1995), p. 2
- Ibid., p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 25.
- Ibid., p. 3.
- Adam Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society (New York: The Free Press, 1992), p. x.
- Ibid., p. 204.
- Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1991).
- Ibid., p. 14. See Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1982).
- Ferguson, p. 19.
- Ibid., p. 58.