John Keane | Can Civil Societies Become More Civil?
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Can Civil Societies Become More Civil?

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A Place for All? Comparing Civil Societies in Scotland and Northern Ireland , Wednesday 8th September 2004

Some months ago, atop a red double-decker bus near my home in north London, I overheard a mother reprimand her young teenage son, who was grumping about money, or the lack of it. ‘Civility doesn’t cost a penny’, the mother snapped. The two then sat, staring out through the window in different directions, bathed in well-spring of silence….a deep silence, one could say, that extended down, through the ground of time, to a period when the norm ‘civility’ was invented and figures like Dr Johnson could use new words like civilness and civilization and (in 1768) define civility with some care : ‘Civility [from civil]…Freedom from barbarity; the state of being civilised…Politeness; complaisance; elegance of Behaviour…Rule of decency; practice of politeness…’.

We are living through times in which, in all four corners of the earth, talk of civil society is once again flourishing, and has been so for some two decades. It may be that there are cycles of interest in civil society, and that from time to time, especially after large-scale traumas, modern civil societies become acutely aware that their own institutions are a precious ingredient of freedom from cruelty and injustice. If that is so, then these cycles of ‘rediscovery’ are not simply exercises in repetition or efforts at renewing old traditions. Certain new things are learned, for instance that civil society institutions can self-destruct or be wilfully destroyed – and that their form and content can self-reflexively be altered.

It is this existence of civil society traditions that makes possible the asking of an intelligible question : can civil societies become more civil? In the current renaissance of concern with civil society, the question has so far been badly neglected, in no small measure because of the influence of a certain style of activist thinking about civil society that I have called ‘civil society purism’. Campaigners who understand civil society in this way sometimes draw implicitly upon scholarly definitions of civil society. They start with a strongly voluntarist picture of civil society as a ‘public ethical-political community’ based on a common ethos. Or they understand civil society as ‘an intermediate associational realm between state and family, populated by organisations enjoying some autonomy in relation to the state and formed voluntarily by members of society to protect their interests or values’ [1]

Civil society is seen as an autonomous social space within which individuals, groups and movements can effectively organize and manoeuvre, even on a world scale, to undo and transform existing power relations, especially that of big business. This society is conceived as ‘a certain kind of universalizing community’ marked by ‘public opinion’, cultural codes and narratives ‘in a democratic idiom’ and ‘interactional practices like civility, equality, criticism, and respect.’ [2]

Some activist species of this purist theory of civil society tread in Gramsci’s footsteps, often without knowing it. They define civil society more narrowly, as the non-economic space of social interaction ‘located between the family, the state, and the market and operating beyond the confines of national societies, polities, and economies’. [3] Scholarly advocates of such definitions tend to be more cautious. They hasten to add that while the concept has normative connotations, any attempt to ‘operationalise’ the concept is risky, essentially because the term itself is ‘too contested’ [4] .

They give the impression that civil society is a loosely-woven net which can be used to catch various fish – so long as the fishing is restricted to non-governmental, not-for-profit ponds. There is some disingenuity here, because the very definition that is proposed has an identifiable normative bias. It tacitly favours the view that civil society, narrowly defined, is an untrammelled good because it harbours all kinds of ‘citizens groups, social movements, and individuals’ who ‘engage in dialogue, debate, confrontation, and negotiation with each other and with various governmental actors – international, national, and local – as well as the business world.’ [5]

Other scholars, especially those with an eye trained on the concept’s political potential, speak more openly of civil society, with all its blurred self-images and ambiguities, as a dynamic zone of cross-border relations and activities that keep an arm’s distance from states and markets. Civil society is a force for ‘globalisation from below’. It is potentially the champion of ‘widely shared world order values : minimising violence, maximising economic well-being, realising social and political justice, and upholding environmental quality.’ [6]

Other radical champions of civil society are more fulsome still in their support for its political potential. These civil society purists speak, rather romantically, of civil society as a realm of actual or potential freedom, as a ‘third sector’ opposed to the impersonal power of government and the greedy profiteering of the market (households typically disappear from the analysis at this point). ‘Civil society participates alongside – not replaces – state and market institutions’, write Naidoo and Tandon. Civil society ‘is the network of autonomous associations that rights-bearing and responsibility-laden citizens voluntarily create to address common problems, advance shared interests and promote collective aspirations.’ [7]

Another scholar repeats much the same point : ‘like its domestic counterpart,’ civil society ‘is that domain in which people voluntarily associate to express themselves and pursue various noneconomic aims in common, and it is in the practice of such association that one can look for progressive political activity.’ [8]

Among the difficulties of purist accounts of civil society is that they cannot account for the incivilities that are regularly produced by civil societies themselves. This paradox – that civil societies nurture incivilities – is highlighted by different forms of civility politics : civilian initiatives that specialize in repairing the torn fabric of civil societies. One could speak of a direct correlation between civility politics and the degree of civility of a civil society. A hallmark of a civil society is its explicit recognition of, and willingness to do something about, its own incivilities. Civility politics not only targets the violence of governmental institutions. They also seek to name and root out the violence within actually existing civil societies. All actually existing civil societies contain examples of these civilian initiatives, which have their roots in the older social traditions that date back to the nineteenth-century campaigns against the trafficking of women, slaves and children. Civility politics today encompasses such diverse themes as campaigns against homicide and the rape and stalking of women; road raging and violence projected onto children; racial abuse and bullying in schools; cruelty to animals; and the more or less concealed violence that infects disciplinary institutions like prisons, asylums, and hospitals.

Among the ironic effects of these social campaigns against incivility is that they heighten the perception of many citizens that civil societies as we know and experience them are in fact riddled with pockets of violence, some of them dangerous –  and that they are in urgent need of  more and better surveillance and policing, as well as new forms of legal regulation, social policy or outright repression. In practice, this sense that violence is omnipresent is reinforced by many other factors, ranging from the risk and safety requirements of insurance companies to government ‘law and order’ campaigns and citizens’ willingness to use their mobile phones to report violence to the authorities. Their combined long-term effect is to highlight to the members of civil society their own propensities to violence – and to flag the need to do something about them. These forces not only ensure that statistical ‘facts’ about violence are always and necessarily ‘fictitious’ (a point well-noted by criminologists). These factors also cast doubt upon the claim of Elias and others that ‘civilized’ societies forget their historical origins, that they take for granted their own civility, as if it were ‘natural’.

This last point can be toughened, for all known forms of civil society are plagued by endogenous sources of incivility. On empirical grounds alone, it is imperative to reject simple-minded, ‘purist’ accounts of civil society as havens of sub-tropical calm. True, civil societies as we know them generate socialising conflicts. Antagonisms and co-operation tend to form a durable helix, in that through their disagreements civilians learn that social life consists in reciprocal concessions. Civilians rub along together by learning more about each other; they cotton on to the arts of mutual adjustment and of harmonising expectations. When civil societies function well, they cultivate possibilities of complex and richly conflicted identities. They ensure that individuals, acting within group contexts, live many lives on earth by exercising their abilities to perceive and identify with others, to step into their shoes and to become like them, if only for a minute, now and then, so not possessing them, but letting others be in order better to live their lives in the company of others. Yet despite these socialising trends, all known civil societies chronically produce incivility. It is one of their limits and, hence, a permanent thorn in the side of the goal of creating a fully ‘civilized’ civil society. ‘Gradually violence on the part of the existing powers will diminish and obedience to the laws will increase’, predicted Kant when reflecting on the advantages of republican government and civil society. ‘There will arise in the body politic perhaps more charity and less strife in legal disputes, more reliability in keeping one’s word, and so on, partly due to love of honour, partly out of well-understood self-interest.’ [9]

The presumed or implied positively teleological relationship between civil societies and violence in this formulation is unwarranted. Civil societies, contrary to Kant, are not necessarily synonymous with the drift towards ‘perpetual peace’. Highly developed civil societies can and do contain violent tendencies. Sometimes these ‘uncivil’ propensities accumulate and combine, through feed-back and feed-forward loops, to the point where a civil society can or does commit something like sociocide. It then degenerates into an uncivil society, a more or less legally-framed ensemble of social institutions that are dominated by ‘uncivil’ forms of interaction, ranging from everyday rudeness tinged with veiled threats of bodily harm to others, through to ugly forms of systematically organized violence that rip the guts out of all remaining civil society institutions.

This inner contradiction within the workings of civil society – that it tends to produce its own antithesis – has been poorly analysed. It has been obscured by the originally eighteenth-century, Scottish theory of the upward spiral towards civilization and, more recently, by the strange silence about violence within purist accounts of civil society. A key question has been ignored : what exactly is the source of this troubling contradiction?

The most common explanation of incivility resorts to ontological considerations. ‘We see even in well-governed states, where there are laws and punishments appointed for offenders,’ wrote Hobbes, ‘particular men travel not without their sword by their sides for their defences; neither sleep they without shutting not only their doors against fellow subjects, but also their trunks and coffers for fear of domestics.’ Incivility is here treated as a primeval energy : ‘the condition of Man….is a condition of Warre of every one against every one; in which case every one is governed by his own Reason; and there is nothing he can make use of, that may not be a help unto him, in preserving his life against his enemies; It followeth that in such a condition, every man has a Right to every thing; even to one anothers body.’ [10]

Three-and-a-half centuries later, Hobbes’s reasoning still enjoys a reputation. Partly this is because we have not yet shaken off the old bourgeois fascination with neo-Hobbesian themes – Peter Gay’s compelling study has shown just how strong was this fascination during the past century [11]

– and partly because the view of human nature as violent has a certain intuitive appeal, especially when ‘the facts’ seem to speak for themselves. What else but dastardly human nature is behind such evil acts as government soldiers who chop off their victims’ ears or genitals, and force them at gunpoint to chew them, before suffering execution? Surely the willingness of soldiers to force mothers at gunpoint to shoot their own terrified children through the head before an assembled crowd, only then to shoot the killers and the crowd itself, proves that we have an inborn need to be violent? What else explains the perversely sadistic pleasure of the torturer who places a rat inside his victim, so beginning the slow process of death by cruel humiliation? Or the cold-blooded character of men who are prepared to kill thousands of innocent civilians using bolt-cutters and mobile phones to turn civilian aircraft into Cruise missiles?

There can be no doubt – as traditions of psychoanalysis have emphasised – that in order to understand such acts of violence it is vital to have an understanding of the character structure or personality formation of the individual perpetrator, who, although he or she often acts in concert with a wider group of perpetrators, is at some point caught in the act of violence alone with the victim, pushed along by inner instincts and thoughts. Armies or gangs alone do not kill, not even when violence is administered by war machines that physically or visually distance the violent from the violated. And yet when seeking to understand why individuals are violent it is clear that a distinction needs to be drawn between two different types of micro-level or ‘human nature’ explanations. Stretching from St. Augustine to Freud, each seeks to trace the causes of violence to human nature itself.

There are first of all those ahistorical ‘hard’ ontologies that suppose that Man is essentially wicked (as in Machiavelli’s claim that all men at all times are ‘ungrateful, changeable, simulators and dissimulators, runaways in danger, eager for gain’ [12] . Such ontologies have difficulty side-stepping institutionally-based explanations that help to account for why and how individuals and, indeed, whole societies are from time to time pacific, sometimes for extended periods. Then, secondly, there are those ‘softer’ ontologies that admit that although ‘human nature’ tends to be perverted, or even naturally bloodthirsty, it can, under certain institutional circumstances, be diverted or harnessed into pacific ways. William James’s proposal that the world would become a safer place if its youth were drafted into mining coal, manning ships, building skyscrapers, washing dishes and laundering clothes, is an example of this ‘soft’ form of ontology. So too is the eighteenth-century (but originally pre-modern) formulation that civil societies are handcuffed (as Mirabeau put it) to a tragic ‘natural cycle from barbarism to decadence by way of civilization and wealth.’

The trouble with ‘human nature’ approaches to violence is not only that they tend to paralyse policy innovations by implying, ultimately, that little or nothing can be done to stem the floods of violence that periodically sweep away the protective walls of civility that maintain peace among citizens; it is also difficult to substantiate them in either theoretical or empirical/interpretative terms. In both their ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ forms, attempts to explain violence with sole reference to the meanness of ‘human nature’ is forced to admit of the explanatory importance of socio-institutional factors. Broadly speaking, two different types of explanations are available. [14]

One of them (already examined in the discussion of the legacy of the work of Elias and Bauman) points to the exogenous factors – the world’s system of armed territorial government – that stir up violence and produce the implosion and breakdown of civil societies. The other type of explanation insists that violence on a limited or extended scale derives primarily from the historically specific organizing principles of civil society itself. Here another important distinction should be drawn : between capitalism-centred explanations and more comprehensive civil society-centred explanations of why these societies tend to generate from within themselves various types of threatening violence.

The most influential example of the former is Marx’s emphasis on the conflict potential of the wage-labour/capital relationship. The modern bourgeois era, Marx pointed out, is unique because it effects a separation of government from social forms of stratification. It sub-divides the human species for the first time into social classes; divorces individuals’ legal status from their socio-economic role within civil society (bürgerliche Gesellschaft); and sunders each individual into private egoist and public-spirited citizen. By contrast, feudal society had a directly ‘political’ character. The main elements of civil life (property, the household, forms of labour) assumed the form of landlordism, estates, and corporations. The individual members of feudal society enjoyed no ‘private sphere’; their fate was bound up inextricably with the network of interlocking ‘public’ organizations to which they belonged. The ‘throwing off of the political yoke’ is a distinguishing mark of modern bourgeois orders, according to Marx. Civil society, the realm of private needs and interests, waged labour and private right, is emancipated from political control; it becomes the basis and presupposition of the modern state.

Civil society is represented by Marx – correctly – as a contingent historical phenomenon, and not as a naturally given state of affairs. Modern, state-guaranteed civil societies do not conform to eternal laws of nature, and they certainly do not arise from their members’ propensity for ‘society’. They are historically determinate entities, characterized by particular forms and relations of production, class divisions and struggles, and protected for a time by ‘corresponding’ political-legal mechanisms. Not only are bourgeois civil societies products of modern times. Their life expectancy is limited, inasmuch as they give birth to the proletariat, the class with radical chains, the class in civil society that is not of civil society, the potentially universal class that signals the dissolution of all classes, if need be through violence. Although he was not alone in this conviction, Marx was right to pinpoint the wage-labour/capital relationship as a potential point of violent antagonism within modern civil societies. The Marxian theses on civil society are nevertheless riddled with problems[15] , among which are Marx’s mistaken assumption that lumpen-proletarian and proletarian mugging and murder would give way to the organized militancy of the working class, and especially his poor grasp of both the violence-producing and shock-absorbing potential of non-market institutions within civil society.

In well-established civil societies, there is a comparatively limited scope for the display of strong feelings, of strong antipathies towards people, let alone heated anger, wild hatred, or the urge to belt someone over the head. Wherever stress- or humiliation-induced tensions develop, they tend to be absorbed or sublimated into the social structures, and civility prevails, or so Elias argues. ‘Most human societies,’ he writes, ‘as far as one can see, develop some counter-measures against stress-tensions they themselves generate. In the case of societies at a relatively late level of civilization, that is with relatively stable, even and temperate restraints all round and with strong sublimatory demands, one can usually observe a considerable variety of leisure activities with that function of which sport is one.’ [16] .

If that is so, then a fundamental question remains unanswered : why is it that the rules of taken-for-granted niceness do not always apply in actually existing civil societies? Why are their members unable to live comfortably on Pleasant Street, in Friendly Town, in the County of Civility, in the Country of Charitable Works? Why do the ‘shock-absorbing’ institutions of civil societies tend to be overburdened, such that they generate from within their own structures patterns of violence that contradict the freedom, solidarity, and civility which otherwise makes them so attractive?

A distinctive feature of civil societies is that they provide various – contestable – answers to these questions, and it is on balance a good thing that they do so. By cultivating the sense that violence has social roots, and that it is therefore contingent and removable, explanatory controversies about violence keep civil societies on their toes. Perhaps that is why boredom has often been cited as the key cause of incivility. According to this interpretation, the bored are well-fed victims of the bland homogeneity produced by civil societies, particularly in the field of consumption. The consumer society – note the unconvincing stereotype – produces two kinds of people, the bores and the bored. The latter may still go through the motions of civility, but stuck in their boredom they begin to feel constricted and to crave variety and release. They are constantly on the lookout for the strange, the exotic, the dangerous. Not surprisingly, they take their revenge by committing acts of ‘anomic’ violence that are rarely experienced as loss, or as a lapse into nothingness. The hard fact, say the analysts of boredom, is that violence is experienced as pleasure, as fulfilment, as a form of excitement that tickles the fancy of not only the violated – expressed in masochistic pleasure – but also the violent and the witnesses of acts of violence. Individuals who are violent, alone with their victims, sometimes treat their actions as entertainment, as in the case (described by Arthur Miller) of the young misfit ‘stuck with his boredom, stuck inside it, stuck to it, until for two or three minutes he “lives”; he goes on a raid around the corner and feels the thrill of risking his skin or his life as he smashes a bottle filled with gasoline on some other kid’s head. It is life … standing around with nothing coming up is as close to dying as you can get.’ [17]

Boredom theories of violence are interesting, but given their symptomatic quality – they ignore the dynamics of both psyches and social institutions – they turn out to be rather more provocative than persuasive. Explanations that trace violence to the openness and pluralism that is characteristic of civil societies get closer to the mark. In effect, the argument is that these societies’ nurturing of a plurality of forms of life that are themselves experienced as contingent is at the root of their tendency to violence. Various – potentially conflicting – examples are cited. According to some observers, the well-recognized fact that they enable groups to organize for the pursuit of wealth and power has made their capitalist economies and political institutions not only restlessly dynamic at home, but also prone to expansion on a global scale, one consequence of which has been the widespread exporting of violence to tribes, regions, nations, and whole civilizations considered ‘rude’ or savage’. Modern civil societies have indeed provided handsome opportunities for certain power groups tempted by dreams of expansionism. This has ensured in turn that the whole modern history of colonization and bullying of the ‘uncivilized’ has been riddled with violence, to the point where it may be said, with a touch of bitter irony, that the current world-wide appeal of civil society is the bastard child of the violence of metropolitan civility.

The legal or informal freedom to associate in complex ways afforded the members of any civil society evidently also makes them prone – despite generous reserves of civility – to violence at home. It is not simply that civil societies provide convenient hideouts and stalking grounds for psychopaths, who take advantage of civility in order better to maim it. Nor is it just because of the increasing availability and cheapness of weapons of violence within actually existing civil societies. These societies no doubt facilitate the free flow of cheap arms, although the degree to which they do so remains uncertain, which is why half-hysterical media claims about ‘gun crime’ and the need for ‘gun control’ should be tempered with sober reflection on both the multiple roots and forms of violence, together with the ways in which the resort to arms is symptomatic of the deeper tendency of civil societies to disorientate and discriminate against their members.

Civil societies, ideal-typically conceived, are complex and dynamic webs of social institutions in which the opacity of the social ensemble – citizens’ inability to conceive and to grasp the horizons of social life – combined with the chronic uncertainty of key aspects of life (employment and investment patterns, who will govern after the next elections, the contingent identity of one’s self and one’s household) makes their members prone to stress, anxiety, humiliation and revenge. All modern civil societies are more or less caught in the grip of what Heinrich von Kleist called the ‘fragile constitution of the world’ (die gebrechliche Einrichtung der Welt). Such fragility increases the probability that the customary moral sanctions and restraints upon the resort to violence can be rejected or avoided by some of their members. Especially when combined with social discrimination, say in the form of racial prejudice and joblessness, this amoral anxiety and frustration – the perception of being ‘diss’d’ – adds to the ranks of the losers.

Losing against others is a chronic problem within civil societies. They no doubt encourage their members to perform successfully – and to believe in the chances of successful performance. Choices that are never hard to make, excellent health, an undamageable body, illimitable energies, unshakeable self-confidence, fabulous unbroken luck, fully realizable ambitions, inexhaustible sexual vitality and continuous erotic gratification – which members of actually existing civil societies in their right minds would ever pass up acceptance of these gifts if they were offered them, with no strings attached? The question is of course self-answering, but the reply veils a troubling difficulty. It is the impossibility of every mortal member of a civil society getting their way and realising their dreams that can and does breed loathing, or something much worse. Hannah Arendt has pointed out that if we examine the historical cases in which the engagés were transformed into enragés, then hypocrisy much more than injustice has been the driving force. [18]

Profound hatred for ‘bourgeois’ society and its double-standards is certainly evident in the writings of those authors – Pareto, Sorel, Céline, Fanon – who glorify violence for violence’s sake. The same burning desire to tear the mask of hypocrisy from civil society is common among those who tear in to its structures with knives and guns and bombs. Their response is not ‘irrational’ since the failure of civil societies to live up to their own standards of openness, freedom and justice for all – their inability to prevent the humiliation of some of their members – makes them vulnerable to those who become hell-bent on revealing hypocrisy’s conceits. That is probably one reason why – shamefully – the homicide rate among black Americans is seven times higher than for whites; why nearly two-thirds of persons arrested for murder and violent robbery are black; why half the population of US gaols is black; and why one black man in five is incarcerated – even though black people represent only around 12 per cent of the overall population.

The creation and humiliation of losers should worry the friends of civil society because there is plenty of psychoanalytic evidence that in certain circumstances humiliation encourages violent responses, sometimes directed by the downtrodden against themselves. [19] Murderers, for instance, feel themselves to be garbage, losers. Their selves had long ago died – an experience so intolerable that they preferred their own and others’ physical death to the humiliation they had experienced as ‘life’.

The dynamics linked to cases like Starkweather’s are often bizarre, and tragic. Broken object relations with parents during early childhood, especially the experience of neglectful mothers or fathers who are absent, sometimes produces a condition far worse than emotional sadness : it results in the failure of subjects to mentalise their own selves or the mental selves of those around them. Those who fail to mentalise themselves and their surrounding world feel as if they are nothing, and that nothingness makes them prone to act violently. Violence is a desperate effort to shore up their weak or absent selves, either through self-harm (‘if I kill myself then I won’t have to think about what I think’) or through the violation of others (‘if I kill you I won’t have to think about what you think’). The violence may be deluded, but that very delusion, paradoxically, provides a safe refuge against the battering that has been taken by the self, with the help of others, who subsequently come to feel asphyxiating, choking whatever remains of a self that barely resembles a self.

Civility Politics

The practical upshot of these assorted violence-producing dynamics within actually existing civil societies is to create archipelagos of incivility within their midst. A murder here, a rape or battering there. Then serial murders, even pockets of violence in whole geographic areas that have strongly ‘medieval’ qualities. What if anything can be done about such incivilities Can their incidence be reduced, or even eliminated outright? Given that a civil society, like a hive of bees moving busily and freely in all directions, can only survive and thrive if it has adequate supplies of the propolis of civility, can it become more civil?

It surely can. But the difficulties facing efforts to build or re-build or nurture civil society should not be underestimated. New constitutions and some rudiments of government can be created within a few months. Standing armies take longer to form, perhaps two or three years, but not quite as long as viable market institutions, which take at least a decade. The most arduous task, which can take many decades, is the creation of other trust-producing civil society institutions, like professional associations, trades unions, neighbourhood organisations and self-help and civil liberties networks – none of which resemble naturally occurring substances. The delicate resource called civility can neither be agreed and written by means of round-table meetings, constitutional conventions, truth commissions or covenants. Civility can neither be planned nor legislated from above, nor produced through rational agreement and public controversy. Nor can it be produced like pizzas and fast foods, or like automobiles or microchips, on assembly lines. It takes time to grow.

Like other democratic mechanisms, the institutional rules and organisations of a civil society are deeply contingent. They presuppose the emotional willingness of actors to get involved with others, to talk with them, to form groups, to change or pluralise their loyalties. Especially in a civil society, the propensity of women and men to associate freely and to interact fearlessly with others is not (and should not be) linked to any one particular identity or group, whether based on blood, geography, class, tradition or religion. Contrary to Marx and others, the middle classes are not the ‘natural’ carriers of the sentiments of civil society. The effort to foster greater civility requires that support and encouragement be given to any group or project capable of engendering the spirit of pluralism and free association. Civil sentiments best hatch and grow in compact milieux like urban areas, through a variety of apparently ‘non-political’ strategies : architectural design and landscaping schemes; local health and environmental and archaeological programmes; and through a whole range of cultural initiatives, from the performing arts, competitive sports and university seminars. The qualities produced by such initiatives can never be the offspring of ideological groups, movements and parties driven by nationalism or xenophobic racism or re-tribalisation. A civil society rather supposes that women and men can be mavericks – makari [21] who can live with a variety of others in complex ways. It demands, in other words, that they can control their vengeful impulses, that they are capable of sociability and therefore have in their hearts the ability to trust and be loyal to others – to be so loyal, in fact, that they feel strong enough to stand up to others and to organise against them.

But how can such civility be generated? The arsenals of civil society can be stocked with various defensive means. Broadly speaking, they are of two types. Political, legal and police-military means emanate from within governmental institutions and they are by definition ‘external’ to the institutions of civil society. These ‘harder’ means can powerfully function as enabling devices for the non-governmental sphere, for instance by providing military and police protection, legal representation of social grievances through the courts, and the disbursement of financial resources in support of the infrastructures of civil society. These governmental sources of protection of civility can in principle be supplemented by non-governmental means that arise from within civil society itself.

With the clear exception of money-mediated market relations, these ‘softer’ social mechanisms have in general been poorly researched and for reasons of space can only be mentioned here. They include lots of different and interesting practices that sometimes have enigmatic effects. Many living within a civil society sense in their own way the truth of Oscar Wilde’s one-liner : ‘Any preoccupation with ideas of what is right or wrong in conduct shows an arrested intellectual development.’

That is to say, a well-developed sense of humour, especially of the kind that pricks the pride of the pompous, is an important social lubricant, if only because it encourages a healthy appreciation of the ironies of life. Then there are other non-governmental weapons in defense of civility : the learned art of learning through exposure to otherness – ‘imparative’ reasoning (Latin : imparare : learning through interaction with others who are different ) – and of negotiating and striking compromises that are mutually agreeable, for instance through conferences and parallel summits; the persuasion of others through the force of better arguments, or what Jürgen Habermas has famously called ‘communicative action orientated to reaching consensus’ (Verständigungsorientiertenhandlung); the exercise of civil virtues like charity, meekness, and humility[23]; the ostracism of uncivil offenders through shame campaigns; and cultivating the ability to live according to the standard that there can be no future for civil society unless there is forgiveness of others who have wronged.

My Violence and Democracy outlines ten rules for bringing greater civility. I shall not rehearse these here, except to list them and to emphasise their prudential and not providential character. Always try to understand the motives and context of those who are uncivil. Wherever possible, exercise caution and heap doubt upon the schemes and plans of those who talk of ‘necessity’ and call for the harshest possible remedies – ‘crackdowns’ and ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘war’ – against those whose incivility is often dismissed as ‘evil’ or ‘pathological’. Resist the drift towards authoritarian ‘law and order’ strategies by firmly reminding politicians, judges, the police and military that governmental efforts to reduce incivility cannot succeed unless civility is cultivated at the level of civil society. Wherever and whenever possible, make efforts to repeal or prevent the ‘privatisation’ of the means of violence. In the search for ‘peace’ among civilians, be constantly on the look out for impractical proposals and unworkable solutions dogged by means-ends discrepancies. Cultivate public awareness of political dilemmas, including the most fundamental dilemma of all : that there are times, when faced with organised incivility, when governments and civil societies must be prepared to use measured quantities of violence if and when non-violent strategies fail, or seem inappropriate – even though the generalised use of violence contradicts the spirit and substance of civil society. Partly to ameliorate this dilemma, use every available means of communication to publicise acts of incivility so that their causes and effects are subject to public debate and publicly accountable remedies. Keep alive the problem of how and when symbolic representations of incivility are legitimate, and query the commonsense view that actually existing civil societies turn incivility into pure entertainment. For the sake of civil society, canvass support everywhere for the civil virtues, the greatest of which is humility. Shun guilt and instead be prepared publicly to experience shame for the incivility produced by governmental and non-governmental forces.

Exactly what is best and most effectively done to bring greater civility to civil societies is of course difficult to decide in particular contexts. Every effort to reduce or rid the world of incivility must do everything it can to prevent its fetish or ‘aestheticisation’. Careful attention must be paid to the degree of compatibility between the chosen means and the end in sight. The possible or probable unintended consequences of a chosen course of action must also be taken into account. Nietzsche’s wise advice should be heeded : ‘Whoever fights monsters, should see to it that in the process they do not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.’[24] Efforts to reduce incivility in the world around us additionally require great sensitivity to the wide repertoire of available strategies. Their type and number is bewilderingly broad.

Towards the non-violent end of the spectrum are all those ‘soft’ means, including civil disobedience, truth and reconciliation tribunals, psychotherapy and the due process of law backed by the threat of punishment. Harder means include the police use of pepper spray and rubber bullets, secret surveillance and government-enforced amnesties for handing in weapons. The toughest means – the calculated use of violence, sometimes in ferocious quantities, to repel violence through warfare – are the most life-threatening, both for people and civil society institutions. Decisions about whether and when any of these methods of ‘pacification’ are compatible with the norms of civil society are controversial. In various times and places, ‘softer’ or ‘harder’ means may be considered as legitimate and effective ways of defending or promoting civil society. By definition, their appropriateness depends upon circumstances, and so it cannot be the job of political reflection to legislate in advance the ‘right’ or ‘proper’ way of ‘civilising’ civil societies. In matters of incivility, simple-minded morality plays should be avoided. Far more can be learned (to stick to literary analogies) from the espionage novels of Graham Greene : especially the way they probe complex situations in which appearances are deceptive, ready-made formulae don’t work, and judgements are as necessary as they are fraught with potentially uncivil consequences.

While detailed policy proposals and political tactics remain ineluctably context-dependent, careful reflection upon the subject of civility and civil society can usefully clarify and highlight their probable advantages and disadvantages. In the dirty business of incivility, given just how threatening it can be for a civil society, political thinking should especially concentrate on defining what counts as civility and what should not be done – and on sketching the corresponding ways of thinking and acting that tend to ensure that such mistakes are avoided. For this purpose, efforts by politicians, policy makers and citizens to bring greater civility to civil society need to be clear about what exactly a civil society means.

What does it mean to say that a civil society can become more civil? Any attempted reply to this question must note that the moral language of civility has an ambiguous history with ambiguous effects. During the early modern period in Europe, and especially in the Atlantic region between the time of the American and French Revolutions, ‘civility’ and ‘civilised’ typically referred to bodily manners and speech that gave others the positive impression of being ‘polite’, ‘polished’, ‘cultivated’ – in contradistinction to the ‘rude’, ‘uncivill’, ‘impolite’, ‘bellicose’, ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’ habits of the great unwashed majority of the population living at home and abroad.

Civility was a privileged discourse of the privileged; it supposed and required the exclusion of whole categories of the world’s population because of such ‘inferior’ characteristics as skin colour, gender, religion or lack of upbringing.

Most of these old meanings of civility – with the exception of ‘bellicose’ or ‘violent’ – understandably grate on the conscience of today’s friends of civil society. For them, civility’ has quite different connotations : it means not only ‘non-violent’, but also ‘respectful of others’, ‘polite towards strangers’, ‘tolerant’, even ‘generous’. The connotative change is immense. It dovetails with my reflections on civil society, and could be summarised in the following formula : civil are those individuals and groups who demonstrate their commitment, in speech and action and bodily manners, to the worldly principle of a peaceful plurality of morals.

Civility in this sense implies that civil society is marked permanently by moral ambivalence. ‘Morality is incurably aporetic‘, observes Bauman. ‘Few choices (and only those which are relatively trivial and of minor existential importance) are unambiguously good. The majority of moral choices are made between contradictory impulses….The moral self moves, feels and acts in the context of ambivalence and is shot through with uncertainty.’ [26]

Seen from inside this society, moral purity is an existential impossibility. Living a morality is always an ambiguous and trying saga, in that it involves the visceral recognition that the morals of some are an affront to others, or that they simply leave them cold. That is why it entails as well the recognition that the price of sticking to one’s morals through thick and thin (vividly highlighted in Nick Hornby’s novel How To Be Good) is the loss of a sense of humour, and of what is called common sense. Naturally, morals require moral judgements. Navigating through daily life and social relations more generally requires constant efforts at explaining differences, forging agreements, pretending that we tolerate differences, criticising excesses, telling others off, being diplomatic, making compromises, avoiding clashes, patching up differences, saying nothing, turning a blind eye. None of this adds up to moral consistency. It certainly has nothing to do with moral universals, which do not and cannot exist so long as a civil society remains a civil society. Moral algebra – trying like Procrustes to fling morals onto a rack and to stretch and reshape them so that they fit a regularised grid of certainties, so that life can be lived ‘according to proper morals’ – is anathema to civility.

So can we still speak of civility as a normative ideal? There are at least two overlapping or interdependent ways of responding effectively to this question. Both are necessary ingredients of a new theory of democratic ethics. One possible answer to the question is to understand civil society, in both a theoretical and practical sense, as a condition of possibility of multiple moralities – in other words, as a universe of freedom from a singular Universal Ethic. The members of every past and present civil society – and, by definition, every imaginable civil society of the future – are tangled in self-spun webs of normative meanings. Civil society so conceived contains many and varied, often competing sets of values and valued ways of living that exist side by side, or pass through, each other. Moral harmony does not come naturally to a civil society. Within its spaces of interaction, instances of what Kant called ‘asocial sociability’ are commonplace. This follows from the fact that individuals’ moral identities are the product of functional differentiation : people participate in various groups and associations, and they therefore do so only with part of themselves. In this way, common ethical bonds are snapped and broken into many separate links of morality. Civil society makes possible, in principle at least, an infinite variety of different morals. This of course sharpens the knives of cynics and critics alike, especially those who highlight its moral incoherence (Etzioni) and unflagging inner capacities for criticising its own power relations.

The objections of these cynics and critics – to put it politely – are to be expected and welcomed within any civil society, exactly because the tendencies towards moral pluralism (‘moral incoherence’) and self-criticism that they highlight are in fact the normative stuff of which any properly functioning civil society is made. A civil society is full of moral fibres. It comprises many social spaces within which morals of many different varieties can and do seek refuge. Derrida’s recent appeal for establishing ‘cities of refuge’ may be re-interpreted more broadly as a metaphor for imagining what a civil society is and does best : it provides worldly protection for the right and duty of hospitality for refugees from every part of the globe. [27]

Within a world otherwise riddled by violence, great imbalances of wealth, and nasty prejudice, civil society is a safe haven that guarantees the right to asylum for many different and potentially or actually conflicting morals. It provides permanent sanctuary for those who do not necessarily agree. In respect of this permanency, it goes beyond what Kant had in mind when he spoke of civil society – using the classical rather than the modern understanding of this term – as a place where universal peace can reign because strangers, exercising their natural right of visitation (Besuchsrecht), can enter and reside there temporarily. [28]

Civil society rather guarantees the right of permanent residence (Gastrecht) for moralities of all kinds. This is why those who live within its bounds are duty-bound to enjoy and protect some of its moral ground rules.

These rules are today most often summarised, rather too glibly, in the phrase ‘social capital’. ‘By the term “social capital”, one of its best analysts writes succinctly, ‘we refer to a syndrome of cognitive and moral dispositions of citizens that lead them to extend trust to anonymous fellow citizens (as well as the political authorities that, after all, one’s fellow citizens have endowed with political power), to practise the “art of association”, and to be attentive to public (as opposed to their own narrowly circumscribed group-specific) affairs and problems.’ [29]

If a civil society is rich in social capital in this sense, then what are its moral attributes, we might ask? To begin with, a civil society is equipped with what might be called -ism-shields. Its members cultivate the understanding – traceable to eighteenth-century figures like Thomas Paine, the inventor of the modern term ‘civilised society’ – that few things have brought greater harm to the world than the belief on the part of individuals or groups or parties, states, churches or whole nations that they are in sole possession of ‘the truth’, and that therefore those who differ from them must be not merely wrong-headed, but depraved, mad or wicked. The morals of a civil society stand guard against presumption and arrogance and hatred. Its morals are humble morals. Thereby they ensure as well deep suspicion of stereotypes – unfounded rumours and claims that others are stupid, or inferior, or downright evil. [30]

Civil societies undoubtedly nurture stereotypes. The public freedoms they cultivate enable individuals and groups to clown around (send the old out into snowstorms, send all men to the moon, especially since they’ve already been there) but also to say serious things with greater consequence, like : blacks are good at sport and bad at honesty, the Irish are romantic drunks, the Jews are calculating money grubbers, and Moslem men are religious fundamentalists who maltreat women. But the fact that civil societies harbour many moralities means that they also enable the heaping of profound public suspicion upon such stereotypes – and resistance to social complacency as well. Civil society can cultivate social mediocrity, a general lack of adventurousness about life. Its members can smugly come to believe in their own good-natured tolerance and acceptance of the ‘other’ : the ‘good’ other, of course, the citizen who favours all the things we favour, like parliamentary democracy, free-markets, caring for the environment, feminism, and freedom of opinion, of course. Philosophers of ethics sometimes reinforce such smugness by giving the impression that ‘being good’ is natural.

Not only is that conclusion historically naïve. It also understates the dynamics of civil societies, their tendency to stimulate their members’ sensitivity to the language in which differences are described. They institute a learning process that by definition cannot come to an end : a process of recognising that it is possible to lead lives very different than our own, and that coming to understand that accepting or compromising with others whom we know little about, or do not understand, or for whom we have little or no sympathy, is the mark of civility – the standard for bringing greater civility to civil society as we know them.

3 September 2004


[1] Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge, Ma. 1992), p.84; Gordon White, Civil Society, democratisation and development (Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, 1994), p. 6 (my emphasis).

[2] Jeffrey C. Alexander, ‘Introduction’ to Jeffrey C. Alexander, Real Civil Societies. Dilemmas of Institutionalization (London 1998), p. 7.

[3] See the editors’ introduction to Helmut Anheier et. al., Global Civil Society 2001 (Oxford 2001), p. 17. The reliance upon Gramsci in some of the recent literature is sometimes explicit, for instance in Paul Harvey, Rehabilitation in Complex Political Emergencies : Is Rebuilding Civil Society The Answer?  IDS Working Paper 60 (Brighton 2000), p. 10, where an appeal is made ‘for a more Gramscian view of civil society which acknowledges questions of power, sees civil society as a contested arena and acknowledges attempts by the state to penetrate and control civil society.’ Such appeals to the dead spirit of Gramsci are astonishing in their naivete. (see my ‘Introduction’ to Civil Society and the State : New European Perspectives [London 1998], especially pp. 24-25.) It does not occur to the neo-Gramscians and to assorted fellow travellers of Gramsci that their master’s (rather inchoate) account of civil society was bound up with all sorts of communist presumptions : about the ability of the Party-led proletariat to dismantle the ‘bourgeois state’ and institute a new social order (‘regulated society’) in which ‘civil society’ would become merely a word from the bourgeois past. Gramsci’s interest in civil society was wholly opportunistic. Its reverie of using civil society to abolish civil society supposed that modern societies are riven by a central – class – contradiction and that there is a privileged subject capable of acting out the telos of history. None of this belongs within a sophisticated and democratic theory of civil society and its globalising potential.

[4] Loc. Cit.

[5] Ibid., p. 4.

[6] Richard Falk, Predatory Globalization : A Critique (Cambridge 1999), p. 130. [check]

2. Kumi Naidoo and Rajesh Tandon, ‘The Promise of Civil Society’, in the Civicus publication Civil Society at the Millenium (West Hartford, Conn. 1999), pp. 6-7. The more recent campaign writings of Kumi Naidoo develop less romantic and more sophisticated images of global civil society, which however continues to be understood as the space wedged between global market forces and various forms of government; see for example his ‘The New Civic Globalism’, The Nation, May 8 2000, pp. 34-36.

[8] Paul Wapner, ‘The Normative Promise of Nonstate Actors : A Theoretical Account of Global Civil Society’, in Paul Wapner and Lester Edwin J. Ruiz (eds.), Principled World Politics. The Challenge of Normative International Relations (Lanham, Maryland, 2000), pp. 261-262.

[9] Immanuel Kant, ‘Welchen Ertrag wird der Fortschritt zum besseren dem
Menschengeschiecht abwerfen?’ (1798), in Der Streit der FacuIt

Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Pedagogik (Darmstadt, 1975), part 2, section 2, p. 365.

[10] Thomas Hobbes, ‘Preface to the Reader’, Philosophical Rudiments concerning Government and Society (London,1651) and Leviathan, or The Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civill (London, 1651), part 1, chapter 14.

[11] Peter Gay, The Cultivation of Hatred. The Bourgeois Experience Victoria to Freud (London, 1994).

[12] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, in Machiavelli The Chief Works and Others, translated by Alan Gilbert, 3 volumes (Durham, North Carolina, 1965), volume I, p. 62.

[13] William James, ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’, in Memories and Studies (New York 1912), pp. 262-272, 290; Honoré-Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau, L’Ami des hommes ou Traité de la population (Paris 1756), p. 176.

[14] Compare the differently formulated account of these types of explanation in Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State and War: a theoretical analysis (New York, 1959).

[15] See my Democracy and Civil Society. On the Predicaments of European Socialism, the Prospects for Democracy, and the Problem of Controlling Social and Political Power (London and New York, 1988 [1998]), pp. 57-64, 215-228

[16] Norbert Elias, ‘Introduction’, in Norbert Elias and Eric Dunning, Quest for Excitement. Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1993), p. 41.

[17] Arthur Miller, The Misfits (London, 1961), p. 51; cf. his ‘The Bored and the Violent’, in Shalom Endleman (ed.), Violence in the Streets (London 1969), pp. 270-279. A different version of the boredom theory is suggested in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland 1958), p. 82, where late nineteenth-century Parisian high society developed a fascination with ‘underworlds’, the bizarre, the dangerous.

[18] Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York and London), pp. 65-66.

[19] The literature is vast, and contested. A sample of the best includes James Gilligan, Violence… ; and his Preventing Violence (London 2000) ; Adam Jukes… ; and Rosine Perelberg (ed.), Psychoanalytic Understanding of Violence and Suicide (London 1999).

[20] James M. Reinhardt, The Murderous Trail of Charles Starkweather (Springfield, Ill., 1960), pp. 49-50 : ‘The people I murdered had murdered me. They murdered me slow like. I was better to them. I killed them in a hurry.’

[21] Through a striking and hopeful image, Samir Khalaf’s account of the difficulties of regenerating civil society institutions (Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon [New York 2002], p. 323) points to the metaphorical importance of the traditional figure of the Lebanese makari, the wandering peddler known locally for the tales and tidbits that he brings back from the wider world.

[22] Oscar Wilde, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Leicester 1987), p. 1113. The ‘democratisation’ of humour, a specifically modern development, contrasts with the treatment of humour as bad taste among the early modern European upper classes. ‘Jesters, satyrs, peasants, drunks, bagpipe-players’, comments Johan Verberckmoes, ‘were all presumed to be the opposite of what a civilized person was supposed to be’ ([Schertsen, schimpen en schateren : Geschiedenis van het lachen in de zuidelijke Nederlanden, zestiende en zeventiende eeuw (Nijmegen 1998), p. 47, cited in Benjamin Roberts, ‘Humor’, in Peter N. Stearns (ed.), Encyclopedia of European Social History. From 1350 to 2000 [Detroit 2001], volume 5, p. 132). Only later, roughly around the time of the eighteenth-century modernisation of the old language of civil society, did ‘civilised’ people come to value humour as a substitute for fighting duels, as a technique for resolving differences with the witty tongue rather than the sword.  The role of humour in this civilising process deserves much greater attention from researchers.

[23] See my remarks on Norberto Bobbio, In Praise of Meekness. Essays on Ethics and Politics (Cambridge and London 2000).

[24] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York 1966), p. 89 (translation altered)

[25] See Jean Starobinski, ‘Le mot civilisation’, Le temps de la réflexion (Paris 1983), part 4, pp. 13 ff.; Jörg Fisch, ‘Zivilisation, Kultur’, in Otto Brunner et. al. (eds.), Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland (Stuttgart 1992), volume 7, pp. 679 – 774; and Robert Hefner (ed.), Democratic Civility : The History and Cross-Cultural Possibility of a Modern Political Ideal (New Brunswick, N.J., 1998).

[26] From the stimulating reflections on morality of Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics (Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1994), p. 11. The following paragraph draws upon Bauman, but it strongly rejects, by way of an immanent critique, what elsewhere I have called his dogmatic pessimism in matters of politics and (in this work) his moral melancholia. It is significant that Bauman’s account of ‘modernity’ is silent about either civil society or public spheres or representative-legal-democratic norms and institutions. The silence leads him to equate modernity with the essentially genocidal search for ‘an ethics that is universal and “objectively founded”. Post-modernism is then linked with the struggle to recognise a plurality of morals and the moral ambivalence of meaning-creating, self-responsible subjects. Bauman does not see that this universalising prescription contradicts itself. Nor does he ask after the tu quoque institutional preconditions – civil societies, public spheres, representative-legal-democratic institutions – of moral ambivalence. He leaves us only with a species of existentialism that could be said to resemble either the  former ‘dissident’ stance in central-eastern Europe (the anti-political ‘living in the truth’) or a version of Michel Foucault’s morality of ‘souci de soi’, ‘self-concern’, the self-realisation of the individual against any generally valid ethics. The genealogy and limits of the former are discussed in my Václav Havel : A Political Tragedy in Six Acts (London and New York 1999), pp.. My previous comments on Bauman’s dogmatic pessimism are found in Civil Society : Old Images, New Visions (Oxford and Stanford 1998), pp. 127-129.

[27] Jacques Derrida, Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort! (Paris 1997). See also the meditation on refuge and hospitality in Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Les Villes-refuges’, in L’Au-delà du verset (Paris 1982).

[28] Immanuel Kant, Zum ewigen Frieden….

[29] Claus Offe, ‘Civil society and social order : demarcating and combining market, state and community’, Archives européennes de sociologie, XLI, 1 (2000), p. 94.

[30] See Isaiah Berlin, ‘Notes on Prejudice’, The New York Review of Books (October 18, 2001), p. 12.

[31] An example is found in Simon Blackburn, Being Good. A Short Introduction to Ethics (Oxford 2001), p…: ‘Gratitude to those who have done us good, sympathy with those in pain or in trouble, and dislike of those who delight in causing pain and trouble, are natural to us, and are good things. Almost any ethic will encourage them..these are just features of how most of us are, and how all of us are at our best.’ Note the hesitation – rather characteristic of life in a civil society – about whether to speak of ‘us’ or ‘most of us’ (and one should add ‘some of us’) in matters of morals.

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