Materials of an International Seminar
Civil society and social development

Patrick Lekont
Historical Construction of Society's Political Representation

Let us imagine civil society as a space and time entity within which potentials of a human being are comprehensively developed. Here, we have to recognise that it exists not because of the fact that these potentials are not connected entirely with the political section of society, which is historically associated with the state. Civil society (as a possible reality), first and foremost, refers to a difference between the terms ‘to be together’ civilly and ‘to be together’ politically, i.e. to the difference and disjunction of two forms and methods of conceptual representation (and specific realisation?) of a human life in a human community. The community is thought as space that absorbs social ties as well as space where political ties form a structure.

Does this social dichotomy represent any reality of a historically specific community or does it represent society through itself? Does it give a possible social outline or produce a concept of an ideal society? In any case, it tries to reach one goal – to define logic and dynamic characteristics of society to better guide and control it. At any rate, the dichotomy needs historical and theoretical validation.

The understanding of civil society first of all requires an understanding of ‘living together’ dichotomy representation, i.e. presentation of dialectic relations between the two poles, defined by the following ties: civil society/political society. Civil society originally linked directly to political society by society formation philosophy later begins gaining differences, with a certain delay, of course. Historical processes characteristic of the Western modernisation, cultural secularisation and political differentiation used to lead to feudalism crisis, followed by democratic revolutions and law-rational type states (Veberlen, analytical model); thus, the formation of civil society is rooted from institutionalisation, followed by modernisation and expansion of ‘stated’ political society. As political society was losing grounds as authority and its vote of confidence was going down, as the role of ‘any state’ was revised, civil society was gaining momentum, being the only entity, in which frames the real human development is possible.

The term ‘civil society’ emerged in the French language in the 16th century as a translation of the Latin “Societas Civilis”, which approximately means ‘political society’ in the political philosophy of antique Greece, namely Aristotelian philosophy. A synonym for political society is a city state. Under Aristotelian philosophy, which served as a basis for M. Finley’s ‘invention of politics’ and democracy in a number of Greek city states (about the 5th century B.C.), civil society is political society – the only form and method of common living. It provides development of a human being as a man is zoon politicon. Though not everybody lives in cities (some live in ethnas, i.e. within tribal or ethnical communities without any difference between political and social areas), it is the city that provides the social minority of its citizens with society space, separated from clan, domestic and economic relations where the law of ‘necessity’ sets the rules. This space incorporates relations developing on the basis of freedom and reason, relations guaranteed by recognising the equal right of each citizen to build the common future. Civil society shapes out very clearly in an original political form of the state city or Polis where Politela combined with Filia and encouraged by Logos organises production and collective control over Politica, through which a social group becomes a real human community.

This original authentication of civil society and the ideal of political society, in a specific historic form of the Athenian state city, were also used in the Middle Ages in Augustinian political philosophy. This philosophy represents the above authentication by displaying the difference between God’s City and People’s City, presented as a circumstance of the original sin. The authentication is shown within the frames of discrimination, conditioned by various forms of political society organisation depending on whether these forms restrict the ruler’s Libido Dominandi and guarantee subjects’ Pax Civilis.

The great movement of philosophy goes from Humanism of the Renaissance, from the Reformation to the trinity of the Individual, Subject of Mind, and Personality of the Age of Enlightenment, from Gobbs to Lokk and Russou. Being idealised, the concept of civil society has been derived from necessity and violence, characteristic of a ‘natural state’. It has been derived from obedience and estrangement and despotism directly connected with that. The concept of civil society based on the ‘free agreement’ between all citizens and mutual guarantee of ‘natural rights’, converts historical reality of modern state institutionalisation, France as the best example, into a new ideal of a political institute.

From the antique times to the Age of Enlightenment, the political idea of civil society consequently became firmly established. It is seen as a frame and form of organisation and a means to control public life. They are different; they seem to be an ideal type of political society – that may differ in various periods of time. It is based on various innovations and specific historical political experiments.

Following the new stage of political modernisation, (the democratic revolutions in England, America and France) Hegel’s political philosophy will decisively reduce functions of civil society to a set of institutions designed to meet economic demands of members of a human community through the division of labour, controlling private interests, reducing the role of the state as a sovereign power authority, the only rational institution that can guarantee the proper functioning of civil society, which is always under a threat of centrifugal forces, caused by non-equality of positions and struggle of interests among its members.

It was the division made by Hegel and identified as the modern rational state that Marx put in the core of his historic theory. However, he placed it upside down beginning with interpretation of Bonaparte’s experience (from the 1st to the 2nd Empire), which opposes Hegel’s philosophy. Marx pays great attention to civil society. He defines it as an organisation of material relations, built by members of a community around a certain mode of production, with the latter depending on the development stage of productive forces. Considering the economic and social basis in contrast with the political and ideological superstructure, which is no more than a “reflection” of the basis, Marx actually analyses the historic development of the political sphere differentiation and institutionalisation as an inevitable process of defective division of the basis and superstructure. This happens due to the inappropriate division of labour and distribution of its results. Marx also views the historic development of the kind as a process leading to a “parasitic” outgrowth of the superstructure at the expense of the basis. This, in turn, leads to the establishment of a repressive state featuring antagonistic relations and relations of superiority of some social classes over others as a result of such division. Marx regards an “uprising” of Civil Society against the State as the only way to resolve the problem, which at the same time can be viewed as a required condition for reconciliation and consolidation of society within the framework of the existing mode of production meeting the requirements of harmonious development of all potential abilities of a human being.

Even if up-to-date approaches to the problems of civil society do not claim any connexion with Marx’s theory, nonetheless they inherit his idea as to a distinction between Civil Society and Political Society, with the latter associated with the State. They are also for sure connected with the definition of Civil Society as certain space without the framework of Political Society whose “social life is organised in accordance with its own logic, for example the logic of associations neither controlled nor patronised by the state” (D.Colas, Le Glaive et le Fléau. Généalogie de la Société Civile et Fanatisme, 1992). Sticking to this understanding of Civil Society, we may assume that, first and foremost, it is regulated by an array of positive values, like self-sufficiency, responsibility, freedom to independently solve one’s problems, etc.  Being collective in nature and promoting solidarity, Civil Society is free of individualism. Owing to its civil nature Civil Society embodies freedom from the state control and promotes emotional and sensible values, intimate and personal relations ensuring affinity between people. This explains the revival of the Civil Society-State binomial today (F.Rangeon, La Société Civile. Histoire d’un mot, 1986).

The current revival of social and political thought prompted by keen attention to the first element of the aforementioned binomial can be explained only in the light of the recent revision (and even crisis) of the legitimacy of social life’s political and state regulation present both in developed and developing democracies, as well as countries at the transition stage.

From the 1970s to 1990s, critics of “real socialism” in the East used to define a totalitarian regime as the absorption of Civil Society by the “state-vampire”, while the collapse of such a state used to be associated with the revival of Civil Society. At the same time, search for feasible self-government alternatives to the doctrines of official leftist forces promoting a greater role of the state in the West, renewal of liberalism in Britain and the United States, revision of the European “State-the-Saviour” model, as well as economic and cultural market globalisation, build of new trans- and supra-state political regulation systems led to the fall of “all-encompassing state” historic hegemony.

Despite the fact that today’s dynamic processes indeed contribute to the freedom of civil society from the state and “re-investment” of values, which were first accumulated and later wasted by the state in the course of historic development, in civil society, we must not forget that the current society representation concept stems from the same historic process. Being human in nature, society, at the same time, preserves its political character, too.

About the author
Patrick Lekont, professor, Lion University, Lion Institute For Political Studies