The term civil society refers to a form of society characterized by independent socially and politically engaged citizens (see Duden 2020). This includes, for example, activity in clubs, associations and churches or the assumption of offices.
Civil society is the cornerstone of a vibrant democracy. Civil society draws attention to current social challenges that it believes are not being given sufficient attention at the political level. The „dark side“ of civil society can also have an anti-democratic effect through exclusion, inhumane behavior, etc. Responsible citizens are essential for a functioning and critical civil society.
The term can also be viewed from three perspectives: a normative, an action-oriented and an actor-centered one.
1 The normative perspective here means a civil society that fights for a better future or a more just society; this perspective can be found especially in the struggle against authoritarian or dictatorial systems.
2 The action-oriented perspective, on the other hand, refers to social interaction within society. For example, civil society should be non-violent, helpful and compromise-oriented. This basic attitude within civil society is supported by the politically created, legal framework, such as human and fundamental rights. It is thus part of a political culture that shares and represents the same values.
3 In the actor-centered perspective of civil society, the focus is on individuals or organizations that operate independently outside of family or corporate structures. This happens detached from social categories such as market, state and private sphere in associations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), circles, networks, federations or similar structures (cf. Bpb 2020).
Civil society and hegemony
The not infrequently normatively charged concept of civil society, società civile, receives an important critical-analytical twist from the Italian Marxist intellectual Antonio Gramsci (1891-1837): In a socioeconomically divided capitalist society, the sphere of civil society does not necessarily represent a haven of democratic and social participation neatly separated from the economy and politics, but can also function – as in the revolutionary period at the end of World War I – as a „robust chain of fortresses and casemates“ (Gramsci 1999, 874), which, in cooperation with state power, stabilizes the existing relations of domination and cushions and weakens emancipative aspirations.
Accordingly, civil society, like the political sphere, is not a neutral space, but a significant one, connected to the conflictual reproduction of society as a whole and necessarily contested, in which social forces struggle for cultural hegemony: Hegemony, in contrast to coercion-based politics, denotes a „power rooted in people’s beliefs that not only legitimizes domination in the abstract, but embeds it in the consensus of the ruled“ (Haug/Davidson 2004, 1-29). According to this understanding, the decisive factor for real democratization is not the mere formal existence of civil society, but its – hegemonic or counter-hegemonic, resistant – function in society.
Federal Agency for Civic Education (2012): The different dimensions of civil society, online at: https://www.bpb.de/politik/grundfragen/deutsche-verhaeltnisse-eine-sozialkunde/138713/dimensionen (retrieved 18.09.2020).
Gramsci, Antonio (1999): Gefängnishefte. Vol. 4, Hamburg: Argument, p. 874.
Haug,Wolfgang Fritz/ Davidson, Alastair (2004): Hegemony. In: Institute for Critical Theory Inkrit (ed.): Historisch-kritisches Wörterbuch des Marxismus. Vol. 6/I. Hegemony to imperialism. Hamburg: Argument, sp. 1-29.