Beyond Civil Society

John Ehrenberg

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 24, Winter 1998]


THE CONTEMPORARY OBSESSION WITH "CIVIL SOCIETY" began with the attempt of dissident East European intellectuals to develop a credible theoretical grounding in the early 1980s. As they began to describe the crisis of Soviet-style communism as "the revolt of civil society against the state," it became clear that they understood "civil society" as the anti-communist opposition organized in forums, associations and similar bodies. Two sets of claims came to characterize the period, both of which drew on classical liberalism and were indebted to the Cold War's literature on mass society and totalitarianism:

  • 1. "Actual existing socialism" has degenerated into a bureaucratically-driven commitment to central economic planning for its own sake, systematic stifling of initiative, hypocritical claims of service to the working class, and a grasping state apparatus which crushes all authentic movement emerging spontaneously from "society." Socialism in power is little more than a state-driven strategy of industrializing backward societies according to the requirements of iron and steel.
  • 2. At a more basic level, Marxism's stated intention to "transform" civil society expresses an inherent disposition toward statist totalitarianism. Its claim that the state can represent the general good stands behind its voluntarism, lack of limits, tendency to politicize everything, indifference to the content of socialist democracy, contempt for privacy, and suspicious disposition to crush, direct or absorb democratic initiatives which originate in "civil society."

This anti-statist skepticism about politics spread to Western Europe and then to the United States, where it has now achieved near-canonical status. Marxism, we are assured, is an outmoded ideology, socialism a dangerous fantasy, and the centrality of the working class a remnant of a vanished "Fordist" past. The coalition politics of local struggles define the practical and theoretical boundaries of contemporary democratic politics.

Two conceptions of civil society dominate modern social and political thought, and both are rooted in liberal democratic theory. It was Adam Smith who first articulated the classical bourgeois understanding of it as a market-organized sphere of necessity which is driven by the self-interested motion of individual proprietors, but Smith drew heavily on Locke's earlier position that civil society is constituted by property, labor, exchange and consumption. The rapid development of markets soon encouraged bourgeois political economists to theorize civil society as an autonomous self-governing sphere which can transform individual strivings for particular advantage into the public good. Hegel built his theory of the state and civil society on this understanding, and Marx's development of Hegel continues to inform the thinking of much of the left.

The second, and related, strand of liberal thinking is Tocqueville's notion that civil society is an intermediate sphere of voluntary association sustained by an informal culture of self-organization and cooperation. His finding that Americans are uniquely disposed to associate in defense of local interests has rested at the heart of the effort to reconcile liberty with equality for some time. This view informed a good deal of the civil society literature of Eastern Europe and, supplemented by Madison, has become integrated with pluralism and communitarianism in the United States.

These two intellectual currents interact with a third, which at its most vulgar and simple-minded suggests that "we" should be nice to each other. Politicians should get some training in "civil discourse," local television stations shouldn't lead off every newscast with lurid talk about crime and violence, political campaigns shouldn't be so "negative," and we shouldn't reach for a gun after being cut off on the highway. After 15 years of telling the lower orders how to behave, the language of civil society is now available to teach us manners.

After all is said and done, though, the central proposition animating the contemporary American fascination with civil society is the Tocquevillian claim that an intermediate sphere of voluntary associations, local activity and mediating institutions provides the only durable grounding for democratic activity. The state is the most important threat to freedom and the left's desire to subject the market to democratic supervision continues its retrograde tendency to dance with the devil. If contemporary life teaches us anything, it is that democratizing civil society has become more central to coherent progressive politics than it has been for some time, and Marx's and Engels's notion that it is constituted by market and class explains why The Communist Manifesto is as important today as it was a century and a half ago. Following their path toward social democracy will illuminate some central questions of contemporary politics.

"Real, Practical Emancipation"

HEGEL UNDERSTOOD CIVIL SOCIETY AS THE NETWORK of market relations which was constituted by necessity and mediated between family and state. But its moral content was always compromised because its root in competitive private acquisitiveness threatened to dissolve into universal chaos. Unable to overcome the pull of particularism or solve its chronic pauperism, civil society required the ethical moment of the state.

Like many social thinkers of the period, Marx shared a common desire to mitigate civil society's chaotic destructiveness; his crucial step was to wonder whether the state could do the job which Hegel had assigned it. His early experience with the Prussian censors suggested that the state was a false universal and that the network of material interests centered in property-shaped politics rather than the other way around.

The French Revolution had emptied religion, craft, residence, property, and the like of formal political meaning and made them characteristics of private individuals. But the persistence of the 19th century's "social question" made it clear that formally freeing the state from society simultaneously liberated society from the state. If public affairs were no longer explicitly determined by religion or property, then religion and property could develop free of political restrictions. Their hold over man was not weakened by their formal separation from politics; on the contrary, emptying them of formal political content had strengthened them. The apparent independence of civil society means that "the state can free itself from a restriction without man being really free from this restriction, that the state can be a free state without man being a free man." ["On the Jewish Question," (OJQ) Collected Works 3:152] As important as it was, political emancipation did not go far enough; "man was not freed from religion, he received religious freedom. He was not freed from property, he received freedom of property. He was not freed from the egoism of business, he received freedom to engage in business."(OJQ 167)

More is required for freedom than changes in politics or religiosity. "Political emancipation is, of course, a big step forward. True, it is not the final form of human emancipation in general, but it is the final form of human emancipation within the hitherto existing world order. It goes without saying that we are speaking here of real, practical emancipation." (OJQ 155) As important as it was, bourgeois political democracy did not touch the social foundations of the market. Private property was the heart of the problem, and Marx and Engels soon turned their attention to the social force capable of abolishing it and bring "the hitherto existing world order" to a close.

Earlier social critics had tended to focus on the poorest, hardest working, largest, or most exploited part of the laboring population. Marx and Engels changed socialism's view of agency forever because they directed their attention to a propertyless proletariat which lived at the heart of modern life. Furthermore, they were interested in it precisely because it was the living negation of civil society. Marx's early criticism of Hegel's state became the criticism of bourgeois society and "merely political" revolution yielded to radical social transformation. This is what the Tenth Thesis on Feuerbach meant when it observed that "the standpoint of the old materialism is 'civil' society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or associated humanity."["Theses on Feuerbach" 5:8]

To say that the "ultimate result" of the communist movement is the abolition of classes is to summarize the Marxist theory of social revolution. But the criticism of "merely political" revolutions did not lead to the abandonment of all political activity, and it remained for The Communist Manifesto to clarify the role of political affairs in a proletarian revolution whose raison d'etre was social transformation. Driven by the position that the bourgeoisie can be defeated economically only if it is first defeated politically, Marx and Engels made it clear that "the immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat." ["Communist Manifesto" 6:498] In so doing, they articulated the orientation toward politics which the contemporary left so badly needs.

The Leading Role of Politics

The Communist Manifesto'S CALL FOR ABOLISHING EXISTING PROPERTY RELATIONS was not unique; indeed, the bourgeoisie had demanded the same thing in its struggle against the feudal aristocracy. It was the attack on all private property in the means of production which set the proletarian revolution apart from its predecessors. The workers' initial demand for the regulation or abolition of specifically bourgeois property was simple enough. "But modern bourgeois property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense, the theory of the communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." [CM, 498] The proletariat is the only class whose revolution must move beyond the replacement of one form of private property by another:

All the preceding classes that got the upper hand, sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurance of, individual property.

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian revolution is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air. [CM, 495]

His insistence on the leading role of politics in social transformation characterized Marx's claim that the proletarian revolution would be different from its predecessors. Bourgeois revolutions had broken out after the more or less finished forms of the capitalist order had slowly grown within the structures of feudal society. Bourgeois property and bourgeois production had largely supplanted feudal property and feudal production prior to the outbreak of the "open" revolutionary assault on the feudal state. The basic task of the democratic revolutions was reduced to breaking the political supremacy of the aristocracy, a supremacy which had already been undermined by the lengthy crisis of feudal economy. Since the basic structures of bourgeois social relations were largely in place before political power passed to the bourgeoisie itself, the "open" political revolution did little more than adjust an obsolete superstructure to an already-transformed base. This is why The Manifesto described bourgeois revolutions as the last in a series of political transformations which replaced one form of private property in the means of production with another, more highly developed, form. The very real incompatibility between them notwithstanding, their common root in private ownership explains why feudalism grew out of slavery and why capitalism had its material and social roots in the feudal order.

But it is because the finished forms of the socialist order cannot be spontaneously generated within the boundaries of private property that the tasks and historical rhythm of the socialist revolution differ so markedly from those of its predecessors. The deepest contradiction of Marxist politics is that socialist revolution begins before the social and material conditions for its completion are in place. Karl Kautsky may have described Leninism as "Tartar Marxism," but the difficulties which the Bolsheviks faced are endemic to the socialist project as such. This is why Marx and Engels suggested that the proletarian revolution would become more radical even after its apparent "victory":

. . . the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.

The working class will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionizing the mode of production. [CM, 504]

The "ultimate results" of the workers' revolution might be social in character but its "immediate goal" is a political one. As important as the proletarian state was to Marx, it must be remembered how much he hated the institution on which he placed such emphasis. The whole point of the use of state power is to set the conditions for its disappearance, but this has proven to be the most profound difficulty faced by socialist theory and practice. The use of state power "against" the state is one of the most deeply contradictory aspects of Marx's understanding of socialism, but it has long been a contradiction of real life.

Beyond Civil Society

IT IS PRECISELY The Communist Manifesto'S CALL FOR comprehensive state-oriented political activity which is lost in the current fascination with civil society. It is doubtless true that intermediate associations and voluntary organizations constrain state power and perform many vital democratic tasks. We wouldn't know much about the plight of the whales or the danger of land mines without them. The problem is that the theorists of civil society have overplayed their hand. One doesn't have to be a Marxist to understand Tocqueville's limits, and a critique of civil society has become the most important project for the democratic and socialist left alike. Consider some findings of some of the more insightful American social scientists:

  • Grant McConnell's Private Power and American Democracy makes the classic claim that local units are not necessarily more democratic than larger ones. Localism and decentralization often tend to strengthen pre-existing inequality and work to the advantage of local elites. The more local the politics, the more discriminatory they frequently are. There is nothing to support the pluralist fantasy that the existence of a center of power will automatically call forth a center of countervailing power, since many interests do not get represented or organized. Citizens' ability to organize and be heard is heavily constituted by class. The real danger to democracy is private power, and only public power can control it.
  • Jane Mansbridge's Beyond Adversary Democracy suggests that localism has powerful tendencies which work against conflict. A close analysis of Tocqueville's town meetings demonstrate that the male, wealthy, educated and powerful are assumed to be the most capable of discovering, articulating, and organizing the common interest. Locally-based face-to-face democracies do not protect individuality or tend toward the democratization of power just because they are local.
  • More recently, Sidney Verba's, Kay Schlozman's, and Henry Brady's acclaimed Voice and Equality demonstrates that the factors (money, time, and "civic skills") that foster political participation originate in "civil society" (families, schools, jobs, voluntary organizations, churches). At the same time, almost all the deep structural factors in civil society work to reinforce and multiply already-existing inequality. The common factor of them all is class, the most salient explanation for the wide differences in political participation which mark American politics.

A conservative political climate has stimulated the recent interest in "civil society" and the accompanying faith in the market. Increasingly marked by diversity, fragmentation, and differentiation, capitalism is characterized by sharpening divisions between classes, the rapid reorganization of work and marginalization of large sections of the population, fierce competition between "leaner" and more specialized enterprises, a weakened labor movement, and an enervated political left.

It's also characterized by a historically unprecedented concentration and centralization of wealth. Top Heavy, Edward Wolff's much-discussed study for the Brookings Institution, demonstrates what we already know: the United States is the most unequal industrialized society on earth. The top 1 percent of the social pyramid controlled about 20 percent of the country's net worth in 1970 but now owns 42 percent. In 1989, this top 1 percent -- 834,000 households with about $5.7 trillion of net worth -- was worth more than the bottom 90 percent of Americans -- 84 million households with about $4.8 trillion of net worth. A 1996 University of Michigan study revealed the same thing: inequality in the distribution o wealth in America has reached a 70-year high. It is greater than at any time since the end of the 1920s, before the introduction of progressive taxation.

What's the response of the left to all this?

Aping the anti-statist orientation of the right, communitarianism asks us to embrace a romanticized 19th-century vision of a small-town rural social order constituted by localism and particular interest. Postmodernism continues its subversive posturing with a "cultural" critique of capitalism and a hostility to history, politics, the Enlightenment, reason, and all "metanarratives." Almost all parties to the civil society debate agree that knowledge is local, identity and "difference" are the key categories in modern social life, human relations are constituted by language and "discourse," "culture" is the site of struggle, and no single agent of human liberation can even be theorized. Fragmentation and discontinuity mean that there is no objective basis for collective action toward a common end which cuts across the multiple, shifting and self-defined "identities" constituting the social world. The best one can hope for are the coalition politics of a moderate pluralism. "Civil society," populated by voluntary organizations, the family, press, political parties, social movements, and forms of communication whose structure and content are not shaped by the imperatives of class or oriented toward the state, is now the arena of "post-Marxist" and "post-Fordist" democratic theory and action. There are no more collective agents, class no longer drives politics, and isolated individuals and eclectically-organized groups struggle to find and create meaning for themselves. Mutualism, localism, self-limitation and solidarity are the new public values of democratic practice; theorists of civil society mimic the right's claim that culture has replaced work as the decisive locus of modern life and that the left's traditional emphasis on the use of state power to limit the market is a dangerous fantasy which leads straight to the Gulag. A marked tendency to exempt the market from democratic struggle or public control reflects the hostility of "civil society" theories to the breadth of view and comprehensiveness of scope which only politics can provide.

Given recent history's dramatic demonstration of how political power can be used by a highly organized and conscious ruling class, it is an odd time to be claiming that the state and the politics of social class are no longer relevant to the left. In a time of an unprecedented and unrelenting state-led assault on living standards and the imposition of an accelerating austerity program which is well into its second decade, it's rather odd to hear the "left" say that the traditional political orientation of socialism is obsolete. The penetration of the market into ever-wider spheres of life and their subjugation to the totalizing logic of accumulation make it clearer than ever that the state's separation from civil society throws people back on a market whose destructiveness increases as democratic supervision recedes. It's as if it were 1848 all over again. There is no way to avoid the intractable problem that, however dangerous it is, the state is the only weapon by which a democratic social order is even a vague possibility. A period which relentlessly glorifies private strivings and denigrates public action needs to be reminded of the Greek discovery that it is politics which makes us more than idiots. If the history of modern democracy teaches us anything, it is that "socialism in one neighborhood" is not an adequate slogan for the left.

The gradual revival of the labor movement will shatter the left intelligentsia's fascination with culture, identity and civil society soon enough, but in the meantime it is essential to reassert the generality and comprehensiveness of political struggle against -- and for -- the state. Whether conceived of as Tocqueville's mediating associations or as Hegel's "system of needs," the most important issue with which the left should be concerned is he extension of democracy into civil society. The political core of The Communist Manifesto remains as central to human emancipation as it was a century and a half ago.


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