Economic, cultural and political developments over the last five years do not bode well for the theory and practice of civil society. In most parts of the world, communities are increasingly divided and fragmented. Violence, intolerance and inequality are on the rise. Authoritarians and populists of different stripes have gained a foothold even in advanced democracies. Restrictions on freedom of speech and association are increasingly common. Trust in charities has declined as a result of well-publicized recent scandals. And public spheres—privatized, commercialized, hollowed out and distorted by ‘filter bubbles’ on social media and accusations of ‘fake news’—seem thoroughly incapable of addressing these problems and concerns. As the writer Amanda Ripley put it in a 2018 article for the Solutions Journalism Network, “In the present era of tribalism it feels like we’ve reached our collective limitations.”
Does this mean that civil society no longer serves any purpose as a framework for understanding the world and changing it for the better? My answer is no: as this new edition aims to show, ideas about associational life, the good society and the public sphere can shed a great deal of light on what is happening, why, and how we might respond. Images of civil society as a sphere of peace and harmony were always somewhat limiting and romantic; perhaps what has brought them into sharper focus is the fact that this romance is being challenged in the USA and Europe – the home of much civic thinking and innovation – and not just in China or Venezuela or Egypt. So it is certainly legitimate to question the relevance of civil society theories in the light of contemporary developments, and to critique the ways in which these theories have been applied in practice by governments, politicians, voluntary associations, donor agencies and the media.
Therefore, mounting threats to civil society and how to meet them—with polarization front and center—form the overriding theme of my revisions to the fourth edition of this book. As in previous editions, my approach is not to look to civil society to solve problems in and of itself (except in very limited circumstances); instead, we should look to it for frameworks through which we can understand what is happening and explore what might be done.
Over the last five years four inter-related trends have emerged to shape responses to these questions: the spread of authoritarian populism, rising cultural and political polarization, the deepening privatization and commercialization of the public sphere, and the bureaucratization of the nonprofit world. Taken together, these trends pose a serious threat to the health and vitality of civil societies and to the values, principles and mechanisms that underpin them.
The widespread resurgence of authoritarianism has curtailed civic space and freedom of expression in many parts of the world, including in countries like Brazil, Egypt, India and the USA which were previously seen as sites of great promise for civil society development. ICNL and CIVICUS, two NGOs that monitor this situation, report that more than 120 laws constraining freedoms of association and assembly have been proposed or enacted in 60 countries since 2012, with just three per cent of the world’s population now living in countries where civic space is defined as “fully open.” The criminalization of dissent and the imprisonment or murder of activists and journalists such as the Saudi-American Adnan Kashoggi, Kateryna Handzyuk in Ukraine and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta (all in 2018) are especially chilling examples of this curtailment, but there are many ‘softer’ strategies like the imposition of restrictions on the registration and receipt of foreign funding by NGOs, the rise of state surveillance under the guise of fighting terrorism, and attacks on the press as “enemies of the people.” The end result is to erect higher barriers to civic participation, independent advocacy, activism and accountability – precisely the opposite of what’s required to promote a healthy and democratic civic life.
Authoritarianism both encourages and thrives on polarization and fear-mongering as a way of stoking up support for leaders who claim to be defending ‘the nation’ or ‘national values’ against inside or outside threats and enemies – most notably in the contemporary context, immigrants. The apparent depth of this polarization in the US after the election of President Donald Trump, in the UK around the BREXIT vote to leave the European Union, and in the nationalist agendas of politicians in countries like Hungary, Italy and France has taken many people by surprise, but the signs of such schisms were visible well before 2016 for those who were open enough to see them. For example, Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol’s careful analysis of the US Tea Party found that much of this movement was an authentic expression of disaffection among conservatives, especially white rural Americans who began to mobilize against what they saw as disdainful liberal elites in the cities.Other research uncovered a consistent pattern of resentment that was making its way into politics as the Republican Party moved rightwards though the ‘culture wars’ that divide ‘red’ and ‘blue’ America go back at least to President Bill Clinton’s battles with House Speaker Newt Gingrich in the 1990s. These divisions have since grown to seemingly unbridgeable levels, morphing into the rise of right-wing hate groups and networks of white nationalists on the right, and the arrival of sometimes-violent counter-protests on the left.
Many commentators have lamented the erosion of civility and the breakdown of public consciousness as a result of these developments. Senator John McCain’s funeral in 2018, for example, was full of eulogies to a man who seemed to embody the virtues of America’s unifying ‘civic religion’ under threat from partisans, captured beautifully in McCain’s own posthumously-published ‘farewell letter.’ But the low-grade civil wars that are unfolding in the US and other countries can also be read as an incomplete process of civil society development in which certain visions of the good society have been marginalised while others have been privileged. This has always been the case with minorities and other non-dominant communities; the difference now is that groups that are in some ways privileged are organizing around their own resentments. Either way, sorting through these divisions to build a civil society that is both genuinely diverse and holds together sufficiently to prevent a slide into permanent conflict is an urgent and crucial task. Easier said than done of course, but as the examples given in Chapter Six show, the most powerful way to get people to stop demonizing each other is to encourage them to meet, talk and work together. Just as a weak democracy can only be strengthened through more democracy, the answer to problems in civil society lies through more civil society.
Traditionally, civil society theorists have seen polarization as something that can be managed through an active and democratic public sphere which enables common ground to be negotiated across the lines of difference, but when the structures of communication are themselves privatized and fractured this is obviously more difficult. One of most alarming features of politics and organizing in the US today (and to a lesser extent elsewhere) is that public spheres have ceased to operate, or perhaps even exist, as people of different views imprison themselves in mutually-exclusive social media bubbles and sources of information – or ‘fake news’ depending on your point of view. Traditionally-independent and citizen-controlled media have also been out-competed by much larger and wealthier commercial platforms such as Facebook which have contributed to the problem.
In the third edition of this book I took the view that the ‘digital age’ was both a threat and an opportunity for civil society in equal measure, but during the last five years I think the ‘negatives’ have started to outweigh the ‘positives.’ The rise of authoritarianism and state surveillance, increasing polarization and the widespread closing of open minds, and the speed and superficiality that seem to go along with digital cultures are in danger of closing off the opportunities that exist to use information technology and the internet to promote greater unity, equality and thoughtfulness in civic interaction as well as greater innovation in modes of organizing and association. The revisions to this edition therefore take a more critical view, arguing for a rediscovery of face-to-face engagement while remaining open to the advantages that virtual connections can bring with them.
Face-to-face engagement is important for another reason too: the need to re-democratize the world of associational life so that it becomes less dominated by technocrats and bureaucrats, and more responsive to the concerns and priorities of ordinary citizens. The decline of membership-based organizations and the rise of professional advocacy and service-providing groups has been an important feature of recent civil society history. This trend has produced mixed results in the struggle against inequality and discrimination, but one development is clear and unambiguously damaging: the disappearance of opportunities within civil society for people of different political views and identities to debate, strategize and organize with one another. This is a significant factor behind the rise of cultural and political polarization.
It would be unfair to say that this problem has been caused by the ‘professionalization’ of the non-profit sector and the rise of billionaire philanthropists with unprecedented spending power like Bill Gates and the Koch Brothers, but it is certainly true that popular influence over the direction of the voluntary sector has waned over the last thirty years, and that the ecosystems of the non-profit sector in most countries have become increasingly unbalanced as resources have flowed overwhelmingly to larger charities and more established causes. There is a pressing need to rebuild broad-based, nationally-federated, independent and internally-democratic networks and associations that can act as meeting grounds and conduits for grassroots voices, leadership and accountability from the bottom up.
The furor surrounding alleged sexual harassment and abuse at Oxfam, Save the Children and other international charities that exploded in the UK in the spring of 2018 was seen by some commentators as evidence that large non-profit bureaucracies cannot be trusted to live out their values just because they claim the mantle of civil society rather than government or business, especially when they see themselves as competitors in a global market for humanitarian assistance. Any human endeavor that is commercialized will lose its ability to reshape human beings and their relationships in terms other than money, growth and organizational self-interest. As with social media in chapter four therefore, I have revised the treatment of civil society and the market in chapter three to take account of the growing body of research and experience which suggests that the costs of internalizing market values and practices outweigh the benefits.
Taken together, these four trends pose major challenges to the theory and practice of civil society in all of its guises, though they also open up some new and important opportunities in the shape, for example, of new social movements that arise in response to the strengthening of nationalist political forces, or the increasing dissatisfaction with the condition of associational life that one sees among younger activists. I explore these opportunities in chapter two. It is also clear that these trends feed off each other: authoritarianism and polarization are natural bedfellows which both benefit from and accentuate the fracturing of the public sphere. The decline of voluntary associations which bring people of different views and backgrounds together is a consequence of that fracturing but also another cause. The more civil society is eroded the less it can do its job; and the less it does its job the weaker it becomes. Faced by these inter-locking and deeply-entrenched problems and developments what can be done?
If civil society isn’t ‘the problem’ it can’t be ‘the solution,’ at least in any simple or straightforward sense. But all of the issues outlined above contain an important civil society dimension, whether rooted in seemingly-irreconcilable visions of the ‘good society,’ or the changing structures of associational life, or the decline and fragmentation of the public sphere. So there are clearly things to be accomplished within the rubric of civil society itself even if much broader action is required in the state and the economy to get at root causes. Chapter six explores these options, and each of my other chapters has been adjusted to take account of contemporary developments. As in previous editions I have also updated the examples and references used throughout.
Carried over from 2003 however, when the first edition of the book was written, is a strong element of advocacy for civil society as something that is philosophically and practically distinct from government and business. Indeed it is this difference that makes the difference to democracy and social change. There must be places, spaces and opportunities that are not dedicated to making money or accumulating power if civic values and relationships are to take root and flourish – places where we can meet each-other for conversation and shape a collective course of action in line with our own democratically-derived priorities. That possibility, at root, is what is threatened by current trends.
It may seem a truism to say that the future of civil society in this sense depends on us – on the members or constituent parts of the civil sphere and not on wealthy donors or politicians. But this observation is important: prioritizing democracy and mass participation over bureaucracy and oligarchy is a vital step in recovering a more powerful vision of civil society and its possibilities. This doesn’t mean standing still or pretending that we can go back in time, but it does require that we hold onto some foundational principles while finding new ways to put them into practice. Reviving civil society in the face of repression, polarization and inequality is both a personal and a political (or institutional) challenge. Do we want to build an authentic civil society or not? If we disagree on what that means, do we want to be part of a democratic dialogue to find out or an ongoing war of words? And since dialogues at present are neither civil nor democratic, are we at least committed to building the conditions in which everyone can participate – to start a different conversation instead of staying in our bunkers?
Anything that brings people closer together rather than forcing them apart will help; anything that generates honest conversation instead of fake news and propaganda can move us forward; anything that enriches the quality of life rather than attention. These are all ways to build a civil society that’s worthy of the name. The rest is up to us.