Although the concept of civil society is ancient, it became popular with academic, media and political circles during the late 1980-early1990s, especially in the US, a period that coincided with the fall of Communism and the simultaneous rise of globalization under the neo-liberal model. For the most part, Western analysts of 'civil society' equated the concept with globalization under the neo-liberal ideology with the intent of applying the concept to the former Communist bloc and non-Western countries targeted for economic integration and geopolitical alliances.
That civil society became one that the World Bank and UN embraced signaled the co-optation and narrow definition of the concept by mainstream institutions; thus the interest in the subject by think tanks, academics, journalists, politicians, and other advocates of the status quo parading as 'reformers', always from within the system. In July 2005, the UN established a General Trust Fund, "supported by 36 Member States, its chief function is funding projects that strengthen the voice of civil society in democratic processes around the world. The large majority of UNDEF funds go to local civil society organizations -- both in the transition and consolidation phases of democratization."
The assumption on the part of Westerner analysts was that they lived in 'civil societies', while Africa, much of Asia, Eurasia and Latin America were transitioning from authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regime to a pluralistic one. Therefore, the latter needed to operate under a Western-style 'civil society' model. In essence, this was merely a veneer to present the West as operating under civil society as narrowly defined under globalization and neo-liberalism, and to argue in favor of a global integration model that the rest of the world must accept in order to lift itself ideologically and politically to the level of the West, especially the US, but northwest Europe as well.
While few would argue against the socially-just goals of civil society, the question is whether the concept as narrowly defined by Westerners and pro-Westerners is simply intended to serve the goals of the ideological, political economic and social institutional structure. Moreover, there is the question of the degree to which the US as the backbone behind pro-West 'civil society' projects is itself a violator of civil liberties and human rights as many organizations and individual lawyers and scholars have argued in the last decade. Considering that the US has been operating under the Patriot Act since 2001, there is a debate about the degree to which the US is a 'democracy' (comparable to Norway) or more of a quasi-police state with a Constitution. If the latter is closer to the truth, there is a serious credibility issue regarding 'American exceptionalism' invoked once again even in the civil society debate.
Does civil society exist only to serve ideological/political/economic/social agendas; is it real only in theoretical frameworks where the subjective mind loses itself in utopian thought; has 'civil society' ever existed and can it be possible in the absence of social justice, civil rights and human rights? In the early 21st century, is civil society possible across much of the world, from the US to EU, from the Islamic world to East Asia and Eurasia; in all cases where the evidence clearly illustrates that there is substantial socioeconomic polarization, reflected in the political arena, both legitimate and underground? To answer this question, we need to examine from a synoptic perspective some aspects of the issue, from philosophical and historical to political and sociological.
DEFINING 'CIVIL SOCIETY'
One definition of 'civil society' is the activity of the organized public domain (NGOs) operating separately from both the state and the market. Before answering the question of NGO funding that reveals who is really behind causes allegedly representing the 'public interest', it should be noted that civil society assumes a non-governmental organization (s) has as its goal to protect and promote people's welfare (interests) as well as promoting fundamental civil and human rights.
It is futile to search for a single definition of 'civil society' for it has changed from ancient Greek times to the modern period. Short of various descriptions and characterizations, there is no coherent definition, thus permitting the analyst to determine the boundaries of the concept to suit the desired goals. For example, does the concept of 'civil society' mean the same thing to an American politician as it does to an Iranian college student or a Chinese dissident? And does it mean the same thing today in France as it did during the Revolution of 1848 when Marx and Engels published the Communist Manifesto?
As political ideology changes to reflect societal changes, so does the definition of civil society. It is appropriate to ask if one equates civil society with Western-style political regimes (parliamentary democracy) and within that model whether Norway is a more just society than the US. Does Cuba qualify as a country where civil society can operate toward greater social justice, given that it is one-party state with a command economy, or is it the goal of civil society groups to destroy Cuba's institutions and replace them with American-style ones? With a parliamentary system, Israel would presumably qualify as a civil society, except that it has systematically violated the human rights of the Palestinians who are an occupied people in the Territories.
If civil society could not possibly operate under Nazi and Fascist regimes, nor military or hereditary dictatorships, then there is the assumption that civil society can only operate under a pluralistic system that respects and does not repress the rights of its citizens. But is it not also the case that parliamentary regimes violate civil and human rights? Finally, if civil society is a Western political/ideological instrument to oppose regimes selectively in the rest of the world, in the manner that human rights was in the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter, can the concept have any credibility as anything other than a propaganda instrument?
Various NGO's have adopted the term 'civil society' to promote their specific agendas, everything from 'sustainable development' to environmental justice, from charitable works to faith-based works. Even the World Bank has a definition of 'civil society' that entails: "non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations that have a presence in public life, expressing the interests and values of their members or others, based on ethical, cultural, political, scientific, religious or philanthropic considerations."
Even by its own definition, the question is whether the World Bank and mainstream Western national and international institutions advance of obstruct 'civil society' in practice while using the concept alone to promote globalization under neo-liberalism. Former president George W. Bush argued that civil society demands "good will and respect, fair dealing and forgiveness". The noble rhetoric sounds great, but in domestic and foreign policies he adopted, the principles of 'civil society' that he advocated were absent, replaced by specific narrow interests of small groups of people comprising the political and socioeconomic elites.
A more idealistic definition of 'civil society is that individual sacrifice for the common good and disparate groups of people at the grassroots level can converge to prevent politically and socially unjust acts by governments that adopt coercive measures as a means of social conformity. The reason I call this idealistic is because it is a never ending process never attained. One reason may be that: "Once the state has been founded, there can no longer be any heroes. They come on the scene only in uncivilized conditions," as Hegel argued. This is not to say that those outside the corridors of power can have much impact on imposing change and creating a 'civil society', but only in the case of social revolution that will result in systemic institutional change, rather than endeavoring to reform the system from within and in essence strengthening the system needing reform.
PHILOSOPHICAL AND POLITICAL ASPECTS OF CIVIL SOCIETY
Athenian philosophers and statesmen from Solon to Aristotle debated the issue of convergence between individual interests and the harmony of the city-state's general welfare. Only through civic virtue and the containment of hubris could there be a civil society as opposed to a barbaric, or a chaotic one where disharmony prevailed and where citizens are neither good nor just, argued ancient Greek thinkers. This argument that begins with Solon and ends with Aristotle assumes that citizens will act rationally because they crave social harmony that reflects nature. In 17th century England, Thomas Hobbes, who lived during the Civil War, assumed that human beings are not rational, they do not crave harmony for the state of nature is one of perpetual conflict and chaos rooted in irrational atomistic proclivities. Order can only be imposed on society by force from the strong ruler (Leviathan), thus civil society is not possible from the bottom up.
From John Locke to Karl Marx, and 18th century Enlightenment thinkers in between, the rationalist tradition dominated social and political thought. The assumption that humans are rational and wish to live in harmony rather than a perpetual state of conflict and chaos, found expression throughout the Western world from England's Glorious Revolution to the French Revolution, leaving a rich legacy in the 19th century when there were a number of sociopolitical revolutions. The concept of civil society by the rationalist tradition was equated with classical Liberalism inspired by Locke as well as varieties of Socialism inspired by a number of thinkers from the French Revolution of 1789 to the European revolutions of 1848. Marx and Engels essentially argued 'civil society' is an integral part of the socioeconomic base of state as an instrument representing the capitalist class.
New Left thinkers from Antonio Gramsci to the present rejected classical Marxian view of civil society, arguing that it can be a catalyst to defending people's interests against the capitalist state and market-dominated society. However, the largest impact on the civil society movement globally has been by neo-liberals who use it as a means of spreading their ideology and defending globalization against any progressive or statist oriented (nationalist) regime or movement. Neo-liberals have also used the concept of civil society against social welfare, while all along promoting corporate welfare. Clearly, there has been a vast difference of how civil society organizations have operated in the West versus non-Western countries, but the institutional support in terms of money and political backing emanates from the West trying to superimpose globalization under the neo-liberal model across the entire world.
Civil society as a concept and movement played a role in the US-EU backed Arab Spring uprisings intended to remove authoritarian regimes that were either not enthusiastic supporters of the West or they were not as well integrated economically by refusing to permit open access to Western capital. Civil society also played a role in the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as in the grassroots protests across southern Europe. Clearly, the way that a young Muslim in the streets of Cairo sees civil society is very different from a neo-liberal professional in Washington, or even a protester against Wall Street.
Under the large umbrella of civil society, we continue to have elements ranging from reactionary to progressive seeking systemic change. The ones with institutional backing will continue to prevail, until such point as the institutional structure is so decadent that civil society movements play a role in undermining it. Given that under hegemonic integration systems, such as the EU where the strong creditor nations impose policy on the debtor EU members, thus undercutting the latter's national sovereignty, is civil society possible in an uneven playing field across the world? For all nations, however, the question remains if civil society is indeed possible against the reality of downward socioeconomic mobility in an increasingly polarized society across the Western world.