civil society

Jon Beasley-Murray jpb8 at
Thu Jun 6 12:15:29 MDT 1996

On Thu, 6 Jun 1996 owner-marxism-digest at jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU wrote:

> From: dhenwood at (Doug Henwood)
> Date: Thu, 6 Jun 1996 13:11:00 -0500
> Subject: Re: YA BASTA! - and French & German strikes & other musings
> This "civil society" thing needs some serious critical analysis. It's
> everydamnwhere now. Didn't it gain currency from the Havelites in the late
> 1980s, who were using it in a consciously anti-socialist sense? Yet now you
> hear lefties using the word with abandon. On the first page of the
> Grundrisse, Marx defined civil society as the "society of free competition,
> [in which] the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc.
> which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite
> and limited human conglomerate." Now, it seems, c.s. is being used in
> exactly the opposite sense - to represent some "community." But the
> community of c.s. is the community of the market, no?

I agree absolutely that the concept of civil society deserves critical
thought.  I think it's been especially popular in Eastern Europe and
Latin America, and is allied to new social movements theory.

The original concept, of course, comes from Hegel.  But it's mostly
understood now, I think via the filtes of both Marx and Gramsci.
Norberto Bobbio has a very interesting piece somewhere on Gramsci's use
of the term, and how it differs from both Marx's and Hegel's.  This links
into the thread on cultural studies, which has basically appropriated
Gramsci's concept of civil society (understood by him as part of a
tripartite structure of society, whose other parts were the economy and
the state), called it "culture" and forgotten about everything else.

But I think at least this demonstrates the complexity of the term and of
the concept: I don't think it's just the society of the market.  Clearly
it's also about mediating between labor and the state--something the
market also accomplishes no doubt (?) but which is also accomplished by
regulatory institutions and organizations (such as unions) that "channel"
the forces of labor in opposition or contradistinction to the way labor is
shaped by the market.

Michael Hardt's "The Withering of Civil Society" in a recent _Social
Text_ devoted to civil society is interesting, I think, and usefully
outlines the origins of the concept in Hegel.

Me, I think the trend--in Latin American perhaps particularly--to think
that the goal of political mobilization should be "the expansion of civil
society" (here in a formulation indirectly taken from Laclau and Mouffe)
is extremely worrying and counterproductive.  On the other hand, many in
Latin America (as also Eastern Europe) believe the end of the
dictatorships came about as a result of the strength of civil society.

> Doug

Take care


Jon Beasley-Murray
Literature Program
Duke University
jpb8 at

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