John Keane | Civil Society: Berlin Perspectives
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Civil Society: Berlin Perspectives

Edited by John Keane

At the moment, no other European city attracts so much fascination as the city of Berlin. An unrivalled symbol of modern urban life, Berlin is a dynamic city whose inhabitants, in the course of the past two centuries, have lived through both the rapid growth and the violent destruction of the institutions of civil society, several times over. This volume situates itself within these developments by presenting, for the first time in English, a sample of the best, recently written essays on contemporary civil societies, their structural problems, and their uncertain future, written by scholars with a close, long-standing relationship with the city. They are pre-occupied with a broad sweep of substantive themes, but in each case they focus upon one or other of the key trends that are shaping actually existing civil societies.

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Read the Introduction: Cities and Civil Society


Below is a review by Ryusaku Yamada Nihon University College of International Relations Japan.
The review was published in: Perspectives on European Politics and Society, Volume 9, Issue 2 June 2008 , pages 256 – 264

John Keane’s discussions about civil society have continued since the 1980s, and it seems that his interest in the 1980s was in rethinking the relationship between the state and civil society both in Eastern and Western Europe. His analysis in that decade should be the basis of the development of his arguments on democracy in the 1990s and after, e. g., fear and democracy, violence and democracy, or even empire and democracy. Especially, since the latter half of the 1990s, Keane has often commented on ‘incivility’ or ‘uncivil society’, and he repeatedly discusses social and political situations which are not’civil’ and challenges simple and idealised understanding of civil society.

Now, in the context of the research project ‘Toward a European Civil Society’, he has provided an excellent service to students of politics, sociology and European history with his new edited volume on civil society from the particular perspectives of a city, Berlin. Civil Society: Berlin Perspectives comes from Berghahn Books’ ambitious series of ‘European Civil Society’ edited by Jurgen Kocka and Dieter Gosewinkel.

As one of leading theorists about civil society around the world, Keane correctly points out the fact that recent discussions on civil society tend to neglect its connection with city or urban life. In his long Introduction to the volume, Keane not only provides the history and usage of the language of ‘civil society’ (as he has done in his previous books about civil society and democracy) but also significantly pays attention to the importance of the actual history of European cities for situating them in the context of civil society arguments.

The uniqueness of his discussion here lies in his mention of sociological ideas, Georg Simmel’s in particular, about urban civil societies, as well as typical philosophical arguments about civil society by Hegel. Both Simmel and Hegel were intellectuals who had strong connections with Berlin, and their approach to civil society depended upon the historical reality of the city. In general, it seems that recent political scientists often concentrate their interests in civil society on its theoretical aspects. Through researching briefly the bitter experience of the city of Berlin, Keane reminds us of the fact that so-called civil societies are not only heavens of self-government, market freedom, and religious equality and solidarity, but also spaces of injustice and destruction with social conflict and violence. The book is a great example of the collection of essays written by first-rate contributors who are concerned with the subject of contemporary civil societies and who have been strongly related with Berlin.

Jurgen Kocka provides a careful consideration of historical meanings and uses of buumlrgerliche Gesellschaft in Germany and calls our attention to the tension between markets and civil society. Susanne-Sophia Spiliotis argues the significance of shared memories of past injustices in civil society, illustrating the case of the 1999 German Business Foundation Initiative for the compensation of former forced and slave labourers during the Nazi regime. Paul Nolte attempts to redefine civil society beyond both Marxian notions of a class-divided society and the Scottish Enlightenment’s ideal of market societies, in order to take seriously recent new forms of social inequality defined by new class structures or by cultural segregation. Herfried Muumlnkler is interested in the ‘good citizen’ and the cultivation of civic spirit under the situation of restructuring the Keynesian welfare state, while Hans Joas and Frank Adloff are very doubtful of the so-called ‘communitarian’ critiques about the decline of community and community spirit among German citizens. Discussions about civic or community spirit raise a question of how to retain civility, and Sven Reichardt rather talks about incivility through explaining the historical (and even paradoxical) relationships of violence with civil societies. Meanwhile, Claus Offe, regarding European violence as a feature of European civilisation, considers the thinkability and possibility of a European civil society. Whereas the prospects for developing a European-wide society are obscure for Offe, Dieter Rucht makes the point that various social movements at multiple levels against neo-liberalism are nurturers of cross-border civil society relations (and even the identity of ‘global citizens’). Shalini Randeria criticises the fact that the language of civil society can carry pre-supposed European domination over the non-western world, and tries to show that western modernist view of civil society (with the tradition/modernity divide) misunderstands Indian society. Finally, Ralf Dahrendorf mentions the so-called ‘Erasmus intellectuals’ (Raymond Aron, Hannah Arendt, Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin) who rejected totalitarianism: They share several virtues that are significant and relevant for creating and nurturing civil society.

Here, it is easy for us to find that this volume covers almost all major topics on civil society: Civil society and the state, civil society and market, civil society and class structure, civil society and violence, global civil society and social movements, civil society in the non-western world and so on.

Civil Society: Berlin Perspectives provides a sample of discussions about civil society and one particular city in central Europe, and in so doing it excites our interest in further investigations of civil society in other European cities, e.g. Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade as well as in comparative studies of civil society in non-European cities like Tokyo, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta etc., which are in the dynamic processes of various economic, social and cultural changes. This book also makes political theorists who are friends of civil society notice the importance of the reconsideration of classical sociological arguments about modern society and community. After the ‘rediscovery of civil society’ in the latter half of the 20th century, although discussions about communitarianism, social capital, or association have been vigorous, it seems that they are not adequately situated in the contemporary history of urban society since the early 20th century. Through mention of Simmel (by Keane) and Arendt et al. (by Dahrendorf), we are also reminded of the necessity of dialogue between political theories of civil society and sociological ideas by, say, Ferdinand Toumlnnies, Erich Fromm or Karl Mannheim.

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