John Keane | Reviews
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Foreign Affairs

Reviewed by G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs, March/April 1999

Civil society is one of the great slogans of the 1990s, linked to phenomena ranging from the decline of the Western welfare state to the transformation of the former Soviet bloc to resistance against authoritarian regimes in the developing world. This book nicely charts the spread of civil society discourse to show why it has fit so many different contexts. Its popularity, Keane argues, stems from the growing realization that a stable democracy rests not only on properly functioning elections and institutions but on the more elusive “civil” qualities in society.

Most scholars consider the state to be civil society’s counterpart, and many activists have used the notion of civil society to resist oppressive regimes. But Keane neatly dissects this approach, noting that no simple relationship between the state and civil society exists. On the subject of national identity, he argues that although the rise of nationalism in early modern Europe helped foster the growth of civil society, today it is more likely to hinder it. The author concludes by asking how citizens can foster civil society through wider political action, but suggests that such a task still has a long road ahead. Although the book does not break new ground, it provides a thoughtful guide to the debate.

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Poltical Studies’ Review

“John Keane was the original civil society theorist – not in the sense that he invented the concept but that it was his books of the 1980s – Democracy and Civil Society and the edited collection Civil Society and the State – that educated most of us in the West in the rediscovered concept of civil society, at that time flourishing mainly among Central and Eastern European dissident intellectuals such as Vaclav Havel, Gyorgy Konrad and Adam Michnik.

It was Keane who made us aware of this revival, and who produced the material for further reflection on a concept that, apart from in a few Gramscian strongholds, had more or less disappeared from the political vocabulary. Now he reflects on his own enterprise, and on the fate of the concept over the past decade. He remains as firmly convinced as he ever was of its worthwhileness, and notes with some satisfaction its astonishing worldwide diffusion in recent years. But that very popularity brings its own problems of confusion and misuse.

As in all his writings Keane is properly alert to the limitations and dangers of the civil society idea, its too easy use as a talismanic device by political rhetoricians and theoreticians of all kinds, Keane chides Earnest Gellner for his Panglossian view of civil society, as an all-embracing all-resolving alternative to authoritarianism; he criticizes those who too readily assume that democracy or nationalism and civil society make natural bed-fellows and he acknowledges that ‘incivility’ – which includes violence and the extremes of poverty and inequality – is a ‘chronic feature’ of civil society. He aims to develop a ‘post-foundationalist’ understanding of civil society that both recognizes these problems and at the same time meets the criticism that the concept is unduly ethnocentric as well as anachronistic.

Against all the enemies, practical and theoretical, that assail civil society, this is a valiant effort, though at times there is a splenetic quality that suggests an overproprietorial attitude. But a father might be forgiven a degree of excessive solicitude towards his own offspring. Certainly there is plenty of rich material here to advance reflection on a concept that seems in no danger of disappearing.”