This is a gem of a book on a massive topic. At barely 50,000 words it can - and should - be read in a day or so, yet it manages to address lucidly and humorously some of the most urgent and compelling issues of the day. Civil society is undoubtedly a "big idea", yet it has been bedevilled by controversy as to its meaning and appropriated by a bewildering range of adherents who are as likely to come from the left as the right.
Michael Edwards, the youthful director of the Ford Foundation, insists that the concept can and must be saved from this confusion. He outlines the variety of meanings of civil society, offers a thoughtful synthesis and ends with the sort of brave advocacy I fear could come only from someone outside the academy.
Civil society prospered as an idea in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet empire and dissatisfaction with the excesses of market fundamentalism. The idea that there were realms of life not beholden to government, essential - but not limited - to economic concerns, and which should be cherished, had an appeal to old-style Tories, who knew there was more to life than pounds and pence, as well as socialists, who yearned for togetherness and mutuality.
Suddenly it seemed that the Women's Institute, the Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army, and even the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews were vital expressions of life beyond politics and the market.
Edwards identifies three strains of thinking on civil society: as associational life, as the good society and as a public sphere. The first sees civil society in voluntary groups outside the market and the state, which come together to get things done. Here, it embraces neo-Tocquevillian themes wide enough to encompass "compassionate conservatism" as well as Robert Putnam's well-known concern for social capital.
As the good society, it offers the promise of service above self: "habits of the heart" that encourage neighbourliness, public involvement and civilised behaviour. As a public sphere, it envisages the Habermasian ideal of an informed and reasoning public that comes together to discuss, debate and resolve differences.
Edwards acknowledges that these strains are frequently incompatible, yet he urges that we hold on to the concept both because it is practically valuable and because it is an essential ideal for progressive politics. He ends by calling for a civil society rich in voluntary associations in the name of democracy itself. But he adds that desire alone is insufficient, since inequalities mean that measures must be taken to enable the poor and disenfranchised to participate and prevent civil society from degenerating into a tool of the privileged. His essay is at once analytically acute and inspirational.
Frank Webster is professor of sociology, City University, London.
Civil Society: Michael Edwards
Publisher - Polity
Pages - 138
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 7456 3132 0 and 3133 9