By Dr. Josef A. Mestenhauser

I was introduced to the concept of the Civil Society during my sabbatical leave in the Philippines in the late sixties where I studied leadership and organizations in the context of social and cultural change. In travels throughout the country, I observed the creation of non-profit organizations and the volunteer spirit that drove their accomplishments, in a society traditionally dominated by a few wealthy families. My interest continued in my work in the post-Soviet Czech Republic, Hungary, Belarus (under extenuating circumstances), and Kyrgyzstan. Sokol is one of the examples I used to demonstrate a society that depends almost entirely on volunteers who have made the organization a bastion of what I want to describe as the Civil Society.

The concept is of course, not new. Theorists trace it, as they do most of Western civilization, to the Greeks and Romans. It became a serious subject of inquiry when Alexis De Tocqueville visited the United States in the middle of the 18th century and glowingly described the “civil society” as a phenomenon typically American that was the hope and basis of its democracy. The turning point for the concept that gave it its present-day momentum came with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Voluntary societies appeared in large numbers to fill the vacuum created by totalitarian regimes that had approved only a few carefully controlled organizations. Membership in voluntary organizations rose dramatically, not only in these post- socialist countries, but in developing countries and in Western societies as well. Charitable giving to these NGOs also increased substantially. Why is it, then, that recently the idea of a Civil Society has been criticized and placed on the defensive?

Most of us who are associated with the Czech and Slovak Republics feel strongly about the values implicit in the concept of the Civil Society and associate it, as does the scholarly world, with the work and life of Vaclav Havel. The Symposium in his name has attempted to popularize the concept and its practices and will do so again this coming fall in an unprecedented year-long series of programs.

The concept of a Civil Society is more complex than has been assumed. According to Michael Edwards in his book Civil Society (2nd Ed., 2009, Polity Press), there are three major schools of thought about Civil Society: the “associational,” the “Good Society,” and the “Public Sphere,” and one’s understanding of it depends on one’s frame of reference. Yet that should not deter us from thinking about it seriously. Recent events in this country and in the rest of the world require that we pay serious attention to it.

The associational view of Civil Societies is traceable to Alexis De Tocqueville, whose writings approved the voluntary spirit in the new world. After World War II, new interpretations of Tocqueville’s work gave rise to the so-called neo-De Tocquevillan perspective practiced globally by the U.S., other Western governments, and the World Bank. The “neons” postulate that non-profit organizations provide a third component to society that supplements government and commerce. The proliferation of non-profits (often called NGOs) provides assurance that neither government nor commerce will dominate or exploit private citizens. The main features of NGOs are individuals’ freedom to join or leave them without compulsion or fear of punishment. Non-government organizations also provide a “safety net” from potentially oppressive regimes.

The rub, however is who is included in or excluded from a Civil Society, and what happens in case a society splits over major differences? For example, is the National Rifle Association included in the Civil Society, despite the fact that it’s staffed by professionals and has a strong lobby? Are labor unions, political parties, or the Tea Party part of Civil Society?

The view of Civil Society as a “Good Society” is the perspective represented by Vaclav Havel and other great thinkers such as Ghandi, Martin Luther King, or, more recently, Auyng Sang Kyi Sun. The idea is that members of Civil Society are only those who stand for civility, tolerance, non-discrimination, freedom, social justice for all, and true democracy. A Ford Foundation study of these criteria as implemented in 22 countries concluded that, while valid and worthwhile, the concept has not contributed to the goals of such “good societies” as much as was expected, despite infusion of substantial financial resources. Even in the U.S., although charitable giving associated with a Civil Society amounted in 1996 to almost 300 billion dollars, such funds did not contribute to the elimination of social inequalities or to a narrowing of the gap between the rich and the poor.

A major criticism of the Civil Society is that it means anything to anybody. For example, the conservative Cato Institute defined Civil Society as “fundamentally reducing the role of politics in society by expanding the free markets and individual liberties.” In other words, non-profit organizations provide services so that the government would not have to. On the other hand, liberal thinkers such as Benjamin Barber (a Havel Society speaker several years ago) suggest that it “gently corrects generations of state and market failures”; others call it “our last best hope” that is “central to hold the society together against the onrush of globalizing markets.”

The third viewpoint is identified by Michael Edwards as the “Public Sphere”, with the Civil Society providing leadership for national policies in the public interest that eliminate barriers hindering development of the Good Society: excessive privatization, commodification of education, promotion of narrow interests, celebrity craze, aggressive media reporting, biased talk shows, exploitation of peoples’ human weaknesses through marketing, and the substitution of false appearances of equal treatment for genuinely equalitarian policies. One of the weaknesses of the Civil Society in the Public Sphere is that associations lack concensus for action and do not possess sufficient strength to reform themselves. Here again, the Czechoslovak example shows how a numerically strong system of NGOs slept at the time of the communist takeover. Germany’s experience was similar in 1933, when Hitler took power in the face of a paralyzed civil sector.

What do we make of this? A sociologist suggested that it takes six months to establish political structures, six years to develop a halfway viable economy, and sixty years to create a Civil Society. Tomas Masaryk gave it fifty years. What does this say about Civil Society in contemporary America? Which of the models do we as a country promote globally? Can these three viewpoints be combined to provide an accelerated solution? What is the status of Civil Society in the Czech and Slovak Republics? And are we part of it, and if so, which kind?

Having worked to promote the concept in several countries, I am concerned not only for Civil Society domestically but globally. I believe that both must be promoted, because there is no other “best hope” to prevent wars and sustain peace and development.