Civil Society, Democracy and Democratization

by Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves (Author)
©2016 Monographs 208 Pages


The book contributes to the ongoing discussion and research on civil society in the context of democracy and democratization. It provides a theoretical analysis of civil society, participation, the public sphere and democratic consolidation in light of normative democratic theory and the challenges of democratic transformation in Central and Eastern Europe. It also offers a novel approach to some of the key issues in that debate including corruption and democratic consolidation, active citizenship, civic unity and the rule of law as well as theories of democratization. Finally, it asks the question as to whether a properly functioning democracy must be complemented with civil society and the numerous roles it plays in a political community of free citizens.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part I: Civil Society and Democracy
  • 1. Civil Society As a Normative Concept
  • 2. Anti-communist Opposition and Civil Society
  • 3. Democracy, Democratization and the Importance of Civil Society
  • Part II: Democratic Theory and Participation
  • 4. Normative Democratic Theories: Concepts and Questions
  • 5. Deliberative Democracy and Citizenship
  • 6. The Public Sphere and Democratic Participation
  • Part III: Challenges of Post-communist Democratization and Civil Society
  • 7. Corruption and Democratization
  • 8. Weak Civic Participation and Democratic Consolidation
  • 9. Habituation to Democracy in a Divided Society
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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This book is the result of over ten years of research which concentrated on three interconnected phenomena: civil society, democracy and democratization. These three topics are of such significance that they should not be purely confined to academic interest. The aim of this book is to contribute to the ongoing discussion on civil society in the context of democracy and democratization. The theoretical perspective presented here combines my interests in political philosophy, normative democratic theory and the concepts and practice of civil society, as well as the recent processes of democratization in post-communist Europe. A normative rather than purely descriptive approach is the common ground from which my analysis in different chapters advances.

My major goal in this book is a conceptualization of civil society, democracy and democratization in the light of normative political theory on the one hand, and the challenges of democratic transformation in post-communist Europe on the other. The first objective is to provide a justification for the continued usefulness of the term ‘civil society’, its normative and explanatory potential, and a contribution to the ongoing discussion on the role of civil society in the processes of post-communist democratization in East-Central Europe. My second objective, pursued in the second part of the book, is to make a contribution to normative democratic theory which has recently developed a strong focus on the participatory and deliberative models of democracy. In chapter four I examine the problem of citizenship in deliberative democracy, and in chapter five the meaning of the public sphere as an arena for political participation. Both chapters provide a solid ground for further discussion of the very applicability of normative democratic models in the post-communist context. In the last part of the book, my objective is to examine some of the challenges that post-communist European societies had to face after the collapse of the former system, and along with their struggle for the attainment of democratic consolidation. These include the problem of corruption, participation and accountability, the problem of democratic consolidation, as well as the role of civic unity and the rule of law during the process of democratization.

In recent decades we have witnessed radical political, economic and social changes in many parts of the world, including the heart of Europe. They have been a fascinating, but at the same time a very difficult object of research and reflection for many scholars who have tried to come to terms with the changing social, political and economic reality, and the new opportunities that suddenly became ← 7 | 8 → open to many previously closed societies which regained freedom and political independence. The concept of civil society proved extremely powerful in the debates on democratic transformation and the future of democracy. At the same time, new developments in political philosophy that were animated by John Rawls’s Theory of Justice contributed to the renewed interest in normative democratic theory. One of the crucial goals of post-communist societies, often simply prescribed by theorists of democracy, seemed to be the renewal of civil society, which can be seen as one of the main conditions of a properly functioning democratic order. Careful evaluation of these processes provided sociologists and political scientists with an indication of how ‘mature’ post-communist democracies were. At present, what is at stake in the debates animating political and social theory in both the East and the West is the question of whether a formal, institutional approach to democracy and democratization, similar to the one which served as the starting point for the so called ‘transition paradigm’ is sufficient or whether it needs to be supplanted or even replaced by a more substantive approach, and a more substantive understanding of democracy itself. This question will be fully addressed in chapters two and three.

When the discourse of civil society was revived in Central Europe in the early 1980s, it was both the opposition leaders and their academic advisers who spoke the language of a society independent from the state. But it was only after the collapse of communism that the concept of civil society acquired the meaning which goes back at least to Alexis de Tocqueville and his observation that without active civic groups, associations, civic and political organizations, liberal democracy would not be free of oppression and would not be resistant to the new type of despotism. Many scholars after 1989, including Jürgen Habermas, Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, followed this line of reasoning, admitting that the art of association is crucial for democracy to function well. They started to elaborate an adequate theory of civil society that would respond to our current concerns about the quality of democratic politics and democratic political culture.1 Despite the very ambiguity of the term of civil society, it has become extremely attractive to many of ← 8 | 9 → today’s social thinkers. To put it in Arato’s words, ‘civil society not only helps to describe at least some of the transitions from soviet type system but provides a perspective from which an immanent critique can be and should be undertaken’.2 The aim of such a critique is to indicate the choices available in the creation and development of new democratic and liberal institutions. Ironically, while the idea of civil society has been taken up by mainstream Western intellectuals as the new cause célèbre, in the belief that it was the new analytic key to the understanding of the social order, in East-Central Europe some thinkers begin to doubt the efficacy of the whole principle of civil society when it came to dealing with the problems facing societies in the midst of the transition to a free-market economy and liberal democracy. Those who are less sceptical, however, find an important insight in Ernest Gellner’s thesis that civil society is a ‘natural condition of human freedom’ that protects from the abuses of the state.3 Seen as a sphere of pluralism independent from the state, civil society, as Gellner argues, becomes extremely powerful when it is strengthened with ‘civic spirit’ on the one hand and economic growth on the other.4 What makes society ‘civil’ is the fact that it is the locus where citizens can freely organize themselves into groups and associations at various levels in order to make the formal bodies of the state authority adopt policies consonant with their perceived interests. At the same time, civil society cannot by definition be viewed as opposed to the state and economy for these three spheres of a liberal democracy are strictly interconnected. Free exchange of goods and services and the state based on the rule of law are the preconditions of liberty and thus civil society. But at the same time both a corrupt state and a corrupt economy can be the greatest danger for a political community to prosper.

The contemporary revival of the concept of civil society raises questions about its current condition, relevance and usefulness. At the same time it is a question of the usefulness of political ideas in changing the social and political world and their applicability in specific social conditions. The concept of civil society has ← 9 | 10 → great explanatory potential for the theory of the political as well as for the theories of democratization. On the one hand, it refers to an attempt to theorize about a specific historical experience of Western societies. On the other hand, it refers to the new experience of post-communist societies in Eastern and Central Europe, where, after its absence, civil society has been placed as one of the main issues for public attention, and as a goal of the struggle against the authoritarian state. The events in Central and Eastern Europe that resulted in the collapse of communism brought the notion of civil society to the fore in the social sciences, and subsequently its position as a separate concept was confirmed by numerous theoretical and empirical studies. Yet it can be argued that when applied to the analysis of democratization in post-communist Europe, the concept of civil society proved less helpful than was assumed. Despite expectations, it did not become an important issue in public debates in the region, and subsequently a myth of civil society – that it was a desirable yet not wholly achieved common good – emerged. The reasons why the development of civil societies in new post-communist democracies was needed have been clearly expressed by researchers, political actors and intellectuals, but the question what makes civil society flourish in a given context has only been partly addressed. This book argues that when the social dimension, which comprises civic and political culture, associations, and social self-organization, is underdeveloped the institutional (governmental and administrative) level becomes dominant and limits the potential of civil society to an even greater degree. Further analysis of the development of civil society in the region, however, should be more realistic and focus on the conditions which in a given context are necessary for the advancement of the civic sphere and for its greater role in public life, as well as in society as such.

It seems to be evident, especially when we look from the perspective of the post-communist transformation, that a properly functioning democracy must be complemented with robust civil society and the numerous roles it plays in a political community of free citizens. The reconstruction of democratic institutions and political society does not provide all the necessary conditions for a truly liberal and democratic society. The movement from civil society against the state to civil society in a constructive relationship with the democratic state in Central and Eastern Europe proved to be a slow process, which affected the social perception of transformation, institutional trust, democratic accountability and the overall habituation to democracy. The adoption of democratic and liberal institutions and new constitutions calls for civil society, its norms, habits, and activities from within which they should find support. However, although it seems to be a vicious circle and the process of the development of civil society might last many generations, the very fact of both the theoretical and practical ← 10 | 11 → mutuality of democracy and civil society needs to be emphasized. The Western model of civil society is not necessarily suitable for post-communist societies, but at the same time, without further exploration of the theory and practice of Western liberal democracies, the adaptation of their institutions without the practices that should follow them might lead to the whole project being frustrated.

Does normative democratic theory provide a fruitful ground for such examination or is it totally unsuitable for post-communist democratization? What then are the merits of the new developments in democratic theory? These questions are addressed in the second part of the book. It brings to the fore the importance of active citizenship in deliberative democracy and examines different visions of the public sphere which can be seen as a necessary space for civic involvement and public opinion formation in democracy. The aim here is twofold. On the one hand normative democratic theory has engaged many proponents of more substantive and participatory models of democracy, which is an important development itself. On the other hand, these developments, in my view, have not inspired enough debates in new, post-communist democracies on the meaning and the role of active civic participation and the public sphere as the loci of democratic citizenship. Seen solely in terms of a procedural, minimalist model, post-communist democracies of Central Europe, despite their formal consolidation, left the civic aspirations of their citizens unfulfilled or even undermined such an aspiration, providing lasting and solid ground for political alienation.

Zygmunt Bauman noted in his book In Search of Politics that in our times the agora– the space where the private and the public meet and where such ideals as the ‘public good’ may be born – ‘have been taken over and recycled into theme parks, while powerful forces conspire with political apathy to refuse building permits for new ones’.5 Democratic politics makes citizens free but in order to let them act within a limited sphere of their own interests and concerns. The result of this process, as Bauman illuminates, is the insignificance of politics and growing insecurity in individuals’ everyday lives. Thus it can be argued along with Adam Ferguson and Alexis de Tocqueville that despite our disillusionment with politics citizens’ life cannot be meaningful outside the public space. Individual liberty should not stand in opposition to political liberty which can be practised only within a realm broader than the sphere of family and friends. On the other hand, political establishments themselves – as often argued by Ferguson – when indifferent to citizens, may easily deepen the gap between the public and the private: ‘The political indifference and apathy of the citizens and the state retreating on ← 11 | 12 → its obligation to promote the common good are civil society’s unpleasant, yet legitimate children’.6 If modern times transformed the individual from a political citizen into a market consumer depriving him or her of the vision of a space transcending their own concerns, perhaps a new theory of civil society and political education can offer us a better understanding of our own condition.

A complete institutionalization of politics is neither possible nor desirable, as it deprives people of any sense of a political community and creates a sharp division between the society and the state, and separates the individual from the public realm. This division is too well known in former communist societies to be further reinforced. Its consequence is anti-politics of a new type driven by political apathy. A narrow understanding of politics as power relations gives us a false account of political education and the political role of citizens. This is why I believe that the public philosophy of our democratic societies requires the revival of a classical understanding of politics and with it a new vision of political education. It is particularly needed in new democracies, especially those which claim to be consolidated democracies, but are under-endowed in the resources of civic culture and habituation to democratic norms. Political education is a necessary remedy to political alienation in both old and new democracies and it can only take place in a free society or at least a reasonably free society.7 But it can also contribute to the very preservation of a free society. Political self-education is always present and available in democracy, but is hardly ever conceived as such.

The collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe brought civil society to the fore in the social sciences, and studies of democratization. Yet this book argues that the concept of civil society, or the way it has been applied to the analysis of democratization processes in post-communist Central Europe, has proved less helpful than is usually assumed. Instead of becoming the centre of attention of societies and an important issue in public debate, civil society has become a myth, a desirable yet not wholly achieved common good. The reasons why it was needed have been clearly expressed by researchers, political actors and intellectuals, but the question as to what makes civil society flourish in a given context has only been partly addressed.

Some parts of this work appeared in my articles published in professional journals although in most cases they have been largely rewritten to fit the scope and purpose of the analysis presented here.

1 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. T. Burger (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1993); Jürgen Habermas, Between facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. by W. Regh (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1996); Jean Cohen, Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory, MIT Press, Cambridge Mass., 1992; Neera Chandhoke, State and Civil Society. Explanations in Political Theory (London: Sage Publications, 1995); John Keane, ed., Civil Society and the State. New European Perspectives (London: Verso, 1988); John Keane, Civil Society. Old Images, New Visions (Oxford: Polity Press, 1998); John Keane Democracy and Civil Society (London: Verso, 1988).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
post-communism public sphere anti-communist opposition democratic consolidation
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 208 pp.

Biographical notes

Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves (Author)

Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves is Associate Professor of political philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. She held numerous research and visiting positions including Nuffield College, Oxford and the Central European University. Her research interests include democratic theory and democratization, classical republican tradition, and political education.


Title: Civil Society, Democracy and Democratization
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210 pages