The role of the WI in modern society

Civil Society
October 22, 1999

Civil society evokes aspects of life that lie outside the state - things like the Women's Institute, the Methodist church, even the George and Dragon's darts team. Without it, just what about life would be worth living? It is typically defined in opposition to government, being made up,as John Keane says, of that "ensemble of legally protected non-governmental institutions that tend to be non-violent, self-organising,self-reflexive".

The idea of civil society first enjoyed popularity among reformers during the 18th century when autocratic states were the primary problem. When the enemy was monarchs who arbitrarily intervened in life, then the appeal of civil society is easy to understand. However, in the intervening years there developed a strong current of opinion that regarded the state as the solution to problems, and consistent with this was a decline in enthusiasm for the terminology of civil society. A few did continue with it, but these tended to be free-market zealots, who regarded laissez-faire as its embodiment.

It was from the sorry history of east European communism that interest in civil society re-emerged. And this for obvious reasons: the state in Soviet society was every bit as constraining (and more) as the France of Louis XVI. Vaclav Havel most movingly articulated this concern, though in this country Ralf Dahrendorf has written passionately about how a vibrant civil society is a requisite of the open society.

When many people start talking of civil society they seem to equate it with "getting government off our backs". The concept is readily captured by a right wing that regards the state as all things evil, and does not seem much concerned about the vulnerable, for whom circumstances make talk of self-volition risible. This is not the case with Keane, a political philosopher of the front rank who writes in favour of civil society but who comes from the left. This does not mean that he lets off the hook those socialists who might still yearn for more state involvement in our lives. He is quick to emphasise that those days are gone forever. Indeed, he is happy to admit that markets will play a role in any fully democratic society. But what Keane is equally committed to is recognition that governments can and should support civil society - though it will bite the hand that feeds it.

This short book may be read as the third part of a trilogy, the first two volumes of which were Democracy and Civil Society and Civil Society and the State . The third book takes this concern on to a global stage. I was put on guard early on by the author's description of his own "classic" works and habit of self-citation, but was won over by the deftness of touch that combined with concerns of utmost gravity.

Keane is candid about the collapse of the left's vision of utopia, in which sympathetic state planning could produce the full rich life for all. This "myth of collective harmony" is futile. If the left is to survive it has got to think again and embrace pluralism. Who now can confidently insist that there are "universalist" values by which we should live? Yet if no one way of living is inherently superior, then how can Keane advocate a plural civil society? Aware of the contradiction, still Keane is prepared to argue that this is the most favoured way.

There are insightful chapters here on the relationship between nations, nationalism and civil society, where Keane picks at paradoxes like a skilled weaver: the nation state is the cradle of civil society, nationalism the threatening monster. He also addresses the vexed issue of civility and civil society, resisting those who are repelled by its often ill-mannered squabbling. He has much to say about the media today, turning his back on old-style

public-service broadcasting, which spoke to the nation as a whole. Instead, Keane looks forward to multiple realms of public debate, to a mosaic of local, national and global information exchanges. Here Keane envisages a frenetic and diverse public conversation between many different groups.

It does sound terrifically democratic, but still I remain apprehensive: can the full, rich life really be found among such a promiscuity of voices,views and ways of living?

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

Civil Society: Old Images, New Visions

Author - John Keane
ISBN - 0 7456 2070 1 and 2071 X
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 201

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