John Keane | Essay | ‘Hopes for Civil Society’, Global Perspectives, 1 (1), August 2020
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Essay | ‘Hopes for Civil Society’, Global Perspectives, 1 (1), August 2020

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Forty years ago, mere mention of the phrase civil society generally caused puzzlement mixed with misunderstanding and confusion.1 The two small words functioned as conversation stoppers. They seemed otherworldly, ghostly, and sterile; they sounded like nonwords. There were exceptions. Talk of civil society had antiquarian value to political thinkers and historians aware that it once meant a well- governed polity structured by laws, as it did for philosophers from Aristotle (koinōnía politikē) to early modern European political writers such as Hobbes and Locke, or that it referred to a space of social associations enjoyed by propertied citizens living within a constitutional monarchy or a republic, which was the later modern meaning figures such as Adam Ferguson, Hegel, and Tocqueville helped to popularize during the revolutionary upheavals of the 1750–1850 period (Keane 1988a, 1988b). Another exception was the way Japanese, Latin American, and other scholars and activists argued the case for keeping alive Antonio Gramsci’s emphasis on the strategic political importance of the cultural “fortresses and earthworks” of società civile. But until four decades ago, these were local exceptions. Any mention of the phrase civil society generally raised eye- brows and triggered confused silence. In some contexts, there was even active dislike and rejection of the phrase, as in Germany, where until the early 1980s bürgerliche Gesellschaft was understood as a term with strong connotations of “bourgeois society,” used for different purposes by Marx and Hegel. The phrase sucked, which is why, on the Berlin political scene, it was eventually replaced by the better-sounding neologism Zivilgesellschaft.

There were also contexts where things were lost in translation and people rendered speechless because they literally had no words in their dictionary to capture the English-language meaning of civil society. Among my most powerful memories from that period were the visits made to Central-Eastern Europe in support of what we called the fly- ing or parallel university. These were dangerous civil society initiatives in everything but name. My first apartment seminar in the early 1980s in Czechoslovakia was typical. It turned out to be a nine-hour marathon encounter with artists, teachers, journalists, and intellectuals who had been forcibly downgraded and were now employed by the partystate as window cleaners, janitors, and hospital orderlies. The smoke-filled room was the site of a group epiphany. There I was, in the company of strangers, well after midnight, in the hands of a brilliant interpreter who did their best to render into Czech my account of the semantic shifts and controversies that gripped the European language of civil society from the middle of the eighteenth century onward. The downtrodden and defiant, partners in underground crime, people willing to defy the laws and risk police interrogation and imprisonment, were all ears and eyes. The encounter that evening was unforgettable. Not only were these brave citizens doing what I was trying to say. These women and men from all walks of life were acutely aware of the political power of language and therefore gripped by the thrill of finding words to make new sense of their lives, in a context where there were simply no words for what all Czechs would later call občanská společnost (civil society) and organizace občanské společnosti (civil society organizations).

Nobody could have guessed that evening that we were helping in a small way to write the poetry of a revolution that within a decade would fell their one-party regime and change many things throughout Europe and beyond. In the Czech context, the first and most influential poets were the banned historian and essayist Jan Tesař, who argued that just as twentieth-century totalitarianism (Stalinism, Nazism) was born of political instability and the “undeveloped structure of civil society,” so the strengthening and defense of civil society might well prove to be the Achilles’ heel of contemporary totalitarianism; and the imprisoned playwright Václav Havel, whose masterful essay on the power of the powerless (written in October 1978) under- scored the existential possibility of subjects transforming themselves into citizens by “living in the truth” through friendship, workplace solidarity, and other forms of social resistance (Tesař [1977] 1981; Havel et al. 1985). Their arguments for civil society were Czech gifts to the world. Thanks to them, and many others, the term civil society, peppered and powered by numerous forces, became what German scholars call a basic concept (Grundbegriff), a term that attracted great attention, stirred up public controversy on the streets and in the world of newspapers, books, and pamphlets, and, most dramatically, helped to spark political resistance and major political upheavals on several continents.

The new talk of civil society was, in one sense, the revival of the old eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century meaning of the term. It preserved the distinction between state institutions and the nonstate realm of civil society. But it had a new potency marked by a definite sense of urgency that crossed borders as never before. Its cramping links with the middle class and private property were broken. Helped by the work of underground activists, public intellectuals, journalists, workers, religious believers, think tanks, philanthropic foundations, and elected representatives on several continents, civil society became the rallying cry and a deadly weapon in the hands of citizens defending them- selves against power exercised arbitrarily. Striking was the way the phrase came dressed in a coat of multiple colors. Each person and group seemed to have their own under- standing of the term and its strategic and normative importance. There were great confusions and high-spirited ten- sions but, paradoxically, for a time, these semantic and political disputes often helped to ensure the popularity of the term in a wide range of different contexts, including Russia and China, Turkey, and the Islamic world. When look- ing back on these years, one sees that civil society nonethe- less had a common meaning for millions of people. Ex- pressed simply and put ecumenically, in condensed language, the term described and prefigured a dynamic web of personal and group interactions comprising businesses, trade unions, households, cities and rural communities, sports clubs, media platforms, places of worship, and other social institutions framed by law, government, and organized flows of information. More abstractly, the phrase civil society referred to a lively mosaic of nongovernmental initiatives, networks, and institutions through which citizens, with a measure of self-awareness and civility and fearless self-confidence, live their lives, “pit themselves against one another,” transform themselves “through mutual interaction” (Lefort 2007, 65) and peacefully resolve their conflicts with each other and with the mechanisms of government that serve to define and constrict and enable their activities.

By the end of the 1980s, in countries otherwise as differ- ent as Chile and Argentina, Nigeria and South Africa, Hungary and Yugoslavia, Spain and the Federal Republic of Germany, India and the People’s Republic of China, the old- new language of civil society in this sense began to enjoy a strong measure of popularity. Why did the phrase catch on? Why did it come to enjoy a definite public magnetism? The reasons aren’t all that straightforward, but in retrospect it’s clear that there were several stings in its tail.

The phrase proved descriptively attractive. The words seemed right when referring to the ensemble of interconnected groups and associations and networks operating in the underground, grass-roots resistance to post-totalitarian rule within the one-party, state socialist regimes of the Soviet Union and China. The birth and fourteen-month flourishing of civil society in Poland showed that it had a reality that could not be dismissed as a “liberal” or middle-class “bourgeois” affair. The phrase plausibly described citizens’ efforts to bring down dictatorships in Latin America and Africa. Civil society was a term that equally resonated with the irruption of new social movements such as feminism, black empowerment, and green politics. The phrase served as well as a reminder of the factual importance of what Karl Polanyi, C. B. Macpherson, and other scholars had taught many years before: that a basic limit of Thatcher-style prop- erty privatization schemes is that we human beings are neither born as commodities nor do we live our lives as price- able objects for sale in market settings. The whole idea of civil society reiterated the elementary point that there is such a thing as society. It represented a descriptive socio- logical challenge to Friedrich von Hayek’s (1976, 78) claim that talk of “society” and “social justice” is “nonsense, like the term ‘moral stone.’” Communities of people, ran the civil society reasoning, are not formed spontaneously, sim- ply from haggling among multitudes of individuals in mutually beneficial market settings protected by law and limit- ed government. The methodological individualism of mar- ket reasoning is a fraud. It failed to grasp the multiple ways in which people, freed from bullying and violent subjugation, gather themselves into groups, associations, and net- works independently of big business and state power.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the descriptive precision of the phrase civil society helps explain why it offered strategic advantages. It had real organizing potential. In Central-Eastern Europe, on the fringes of the Soviet Empire, the phrase was a stanza in the poetry of practical nonviolent resistance to total state power. It was the theme of Charta 77, the core idea of Solidarność in Poland and the language of local resistance to one-party rule in various cities of Yugoslavia; and during the late summer and early autumn months of 1989, it hit the streets, fueling protests that culminated in the so-named velvet revolutions that felled the empire of the Soviet Union. Civil society also became a watchword in the vocabulary of the United Nations, the World Bank, Amnesty International, and other global bodies. Wealthy philanthropic organizations like the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, funded by George Soros, joined in. They helped financially support efforts that aimed at the reduction of violence, greater public accountability and social justice, and the recognition of groups suffering discrimination.

Talk of civil society most definitely changed convention- al thinking about how to achieve democracy. The new field of “transitology,” centered on Latin America, embraced the term civil society (Stepan 1985). Something similar hap- pened in Central-Eastern Europe. Havel told Erica Blair of his deep suspicion of parliamentary democratic strategies based on political party machines aiming to win elections because he was “against anything that serves to cloud personal responsibility, or rewards anyone with privileges for their devotion to a particular power-oriented group” (Blair 1987). From here on, that meant democracy minimally required nonviolent efforts to defend a plurality of associations of citizens against the rule of states and the corrupting effects of markets. As a way of life based on peaceful power sharing, democracy needed much more than struggles for periodic free and fair elections. Its connotations were richer and more “savage” (Lefort 2007). Democracy required strategic efforts designed to stop all forms of arbitrary power in their tracks, to put an end to humiliation, bullying, and violation of citizens in every domain of life.

Fortifying this reasoning was arguably a profound rethinking of the meaning of power and empowerment. Serendipitously, at around the time that Michel Foucault was highlighting the need for political thought and political strategy to “cut off the head of the king,” the friends of civil society in Central-Eastern Europe were, in effect, reimagining the definition of power. As far as I can recall, they had not read Foucault, and yet their sentiments were more or less the same. Stop thinking of power as a fixed entity, as “up there,” as synonymous with an almighty state armed to the teeth, they urged. Political power doesn’t ultimately spring from the barrels of machine guns, tanks, or the pistols of the secret police. Martial law is not as potent as its technicians imagine. Armed states cannot sit on their bayonets. They cannot produce durable government based on the consent of their subjects. Power is no rabbit’s foot, a lucky charm that grants rulers the magical ability to perform wonders, without resistance by others. Claimed monopolies of power are bogus. Power is omnipresent and comes from everywhere. It runs deep inside people. It dwells within them. Since power shapes both the external and the internal lives of its subjects, individuals and groups, in a wide range of settings, are capable of refusals and reversals of their fortunes.

The new way of thinking about power and empowerment dovetailed with talk of civil society as a normative ideal. It was an unwavering refusal of utopias of social harmony and politically enforced order and the consequent death of pub- lic life and politics. Normatively speaking, talk of civil society implied public and private respect for lived disagreements about norms. It called on citizens to abide by the principle of live and let live, of actively giving and taking and seeing the world as if it were “a good play” in which “everyone is right” (to quote the well-known and at the time often-cited words of German playwright Friedrich Hebbel). Civil society implied the desirability of open communications media, freedom of association and assembly, nonviolence, respect for the dignity of individuals and groups, and the right to be different (Ralf Dahrendorf). It pointed to the possibility of empowerment of free and equal citizens act- ing in solidarity in a complex variety of differentiated set- tings. Its support for the political right to be socially different involved a rejection of the old Romantic vision (indulged by the early Marx) of humans living together in un- divided harmony (“Eternally shackled to a single fragment of the whole humanity develops into nothing but a fragment,” complained Friedrich Schiller (1943, 323–25) in his famous sixth epistle of Aesthetische Briefe). The normative vision of a vibrant civil society also put paid to the bad old socialist and communist habit of supposing that equality required the steamrolling of differences and the homogenization of identities. The British-Czech philosopher and anthropologist Ernest Gellner captured the point succinct- ly in an important text from this period, Conditions of Liberty (1994). The great normative advantage of the vision of a civil society, he noted, is that it encouraged individuals, groups, and networks to live as equals peacefully, freed from humiliation, in dignity. By building “so many independent ladders,” a civil society enables “people to believe themselves to be at the top of the ladder” and to suppose that their ladder “is the one that really matters” (Gellner 1994).

Gellner might well have gone on to observe something else of special ethical importance about the civil society reception during this period, but his liberalism blocked the way. For the first time, building on earlier hints by Tocqueville, Durkheim, Dewey, and other writers, philosophical efforts were made to inject the concept of civil society into the idea and ideal of democracy. The consequence was that democracy, at a minimum, came to refer normatively to a polity and a whole way of life in which the potentially abusive power of governments and predatory businesses could be checked and balanced by a civil society whose own pow- er relations were simultaneously subject to checks and balances and scrutiny by governments and civil society–based watchdog institutions. The normative ideal of monitory democracy was among the fruits of this theoretical move (Keane 2009, 2018; see also Trägårdh, Witoszek, and Taylor 2013). But there was more. The phrase civil society forced the whole idea of democracy to come clean about its past metaphysical foundations. Democracy could no longer be conceived as a splendid way of life grounded in beliefs in God, History, Truth, Market, State, and other metaphysical foundations. From here on, democracy was to be considered the condition of possibility of living without metaphysics and the pushing and shoving, subjugation and violence typically associated with belief in Absolutes. That also meant that democratic politics is a form of politics that democratizes the Sovereign People principle. It feels no urge to bow down and worship an imaginary fictional body called “the People.” Democratic politics has regard only for flesh-and-blood people in all their lived heterogeneity. The normative ideal of civil society poses a frontal challenge to dogmatists of all persuasions. Democracy becomes the guardian of diversity and pluralism, humility and heterarchy (Warren McCulloch). It is a whole way of life equipped with sets of government and civil society institutions designed to share power, to protect people from humiliation and exploitation at the hands of a few, and to enable them to live together as equals, without disgrace and degradation.


From around the turn of the millennium, pushed and pulled by a number of intersecting forces, two things happened to talk of civil society: the phrase gradually began to lose its visibility and shrink from public discourse, and (the flip side) the descriptor civil society became a shriveled synonym for the so-named philanthropic “third sector” located outside the boundaries of markets and states.

How come the ideal of civil society was pushed into a corner and turned into a pale shadow of its former self? There were more than a few convergent factors, among them efforts to ban outright public usage of the phrase, as has happened since 2013 in the People’s Republic of China, where a communiqué from the CCP’s General Office (so-called Document 9) denounced the phrase (gōngmín shèhuì) as a political weapon used by various “Western anti-China forces” to “squeeze the Party out of leadership of the masses at the local level, even setting the Party against the masses, to the point that their advocacy is becoming a serious form of political opposition” (Communiqué 2013). There were, as well, strivings to debunk the phrase as flawed or outright nonsense. Michel Foucault (1988, 167–68) alleged that talk of civil society was infected with “a sort of Manichaeism that afflicts the notion of ‘state’ with a pejorative connotation while idealising ‘society’ as a good.” Hard-nosed realists similarly rejected talk of civil society as naive dreaming—imagining it to be the incarnation of social virtue and freedom in opposition to political vice and coercion. Re- publican thinkers concerned with defining and protecting public virtues and the common good charged that the ethic of civil society dodged “the challenge of determining what comprises a good, not merely a civil, society” (Etzioni 1999, 7). There were observers who claimed that civil society was a fancy-sounding phrase that justified Western neocolonial domination. The historian and peace and civil rights activist Edward Thompson, who wrote the first draft of a highly influential “Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament” (1980), told me several times that excessive use of the phrase civil society and taking the side of “dissidents” in Central-Eastern Europe risked calling into question the achievements of “socialism” in the Soviet bloc. The Yugoslav League of Communists officially accused me of being a bourgeois apologist (there was worse: Old Labour supporters in Britain in the early 1980s called me a left-wing Thatcherite, a liberal, a cosmopolitan, a fellow-traveling Islamist, and an anarcho-Foucauldian, or simply an anarchist). Neo-Gramscians rejected what they dubbed “liberal” usages of a phrase they associated with revolutionary struggles to defeat capitalism. Other neo-Marxists said that all the talk of civil society served as an ideology of contemporary capitalism, mere camouflage of the class-dominated political orders of so-named parliamentary democracy.

The disparate critiques arguably got the wrong end of the stick, especially when they carelessly conflated the quite different descriptive, strategic, and normative meanings of the phrase. But in a strange and unintended way, these attacks joined forces with a far more powerful driver of the semantic neutering of civil society: the growing ascendancy of what has loosely come to be called neoliberalism. Slowly but surely, neoliberalism became the enemy of the civil society renaissance. Think tanks, NGOs, corporate executives, academics, journalists, and politicians became persuaded that the privatization of state functions and the strengthening of market processes was necessary and right, and that this, in turn, required a rethinking of how state/civil society relations and public-private partnerships could best be regulated through “governance” arrangements. Governance, usually poorly defined, became the mantra of policymakers in many diverse settings. It described and recommended processes of decision-making undertaken not only by states but also by business firms, professional associations, and networks. “Governance differs from government in that it focuses less on the state and its institutions and more on social practices and activities,” wrote one of its chief analysts, who liked to point to the affinity between the term governance, understood as “all forms of social co- ordination and patterns of rule,” and the neoliberal preoccupation with public sector reform designed to “promote markets, contracting-out, networks, and joined-up government in place of hierarchic bureaucracy” (Bevir 2012; see also Bevir, n.d.). The term was marked by a definite vague- ness and vacuity mixed with strong connotations of the need of governments and businesses and professional bodies peacefully to juggle their competing demands and to work toward the harmonization of the norms, rules, and decision-making procedures governing their interactions. Governance meant problem-solving, stable and harmonious steering, and competent administration. Its variants were referred to by means of watchwords such as “collaborative governance,” “participatory governance,” and “multilevel governance.” In each case, “good governance,” a favorite phrase, referred to “curiously subject-less processes” (Offe 2009, 550). It meant clearheaded and coherent management, workable policies and their smooth and measurable implementation. In consequence, questions to do with the actor-structured and often conflict-ridden processes that decide publicly who gets how much, when and how, and whether they should (politics), as well as matters of power and how publicly to prevent its abuse, all went missing. So did the category of civil society, which at best came to be seen as the mere appendage of government and business cooperation, public-private partnerships among “stake- holders,” market mechanisms, and top-down government bureaucracy guided by “governance analytical frameworks.”

The downgrading of civil society arguably suited the antipolitical age of neoliberalism. For a time, it consolidated the overall trend toward the dismantling of welfare state institutions, the deregulation of markets, the growing power of self-regulated banking and credit sector institutions, and the public emphasis on private provision, moneymaking, self-enrichment, and debt-fueled household consumption. The organized push toward a lightly regulated but highly aggressive capitalism oiled by cheap credit threatened the language of civil society with extinction. The phrase was forced to retreat. Wherever it survived, it did so in scaled-down, diminished form, as a synonym for voluntary, not- for-profit, charitable activities.

When surveying how this shrinkage happened, it is clear, in hindsight, that those champions of civil society who thought of it as equivalent to the “third sector” were willing accomplices of neoliberalism (e.g., Salamon, Anheier, et al. 1999). Implicated as well were the contributions of prominent intellectuals like Jürgen Habermas, who thought of civil society as equivalent to the “lifeworld” (Lebenswelt), a nonstate, nonmarket space of communicative action in which citizens make meaning together and form themselves into deliberative publics. The emphasis on public spheres in this cut-down understanding of civil society was important. It kept alive the ideals of nonviolent politics and citizen participation in public affairs. But, theoretically speaking, the conceptual geography of the systems theory approach was flawed. Too much ground was conceded to bureaucratic state power and money-driven markets steered by commodity production and exchange, as if these “superior” subsystem logics of state-organized capitalism were unbreakable imperatives subject at best to civil society pressures “on- ly indirectly.”3 The public monitoring of power within these sectors by courts, parliaments, anticorruption commissions, trade unions, women’s organizations, environmental net- works, and other watchdog bodies was theoretically dis- missed. What was also lost was the richness and continuing relevance of the early modern description of civil society as inclusive of markets.

The “market experience” (Lane 1991, 2000) and other civil society institutions have certain social rules and habits of the heart in common. The market process of producing, buying and selling, and consuming commodities is embedded in a social habitus anchored in the unpaid work of households. Markets also have certain socializing or “civilizing” effects (as Marx himself noted when analyzing the “socialization of production” under capitalist conditions). Civil societies structured by market processes functionally require nonviolence; money and the capacity for monetary calculation; the self-restraint of actors and their carefully defined self-love (otherwise known as sympathy); and a sense of levelheaded responsibility for one’s actions, even the expectation that failures have penalties, that there is a price to be paid for mistakes. As well, neither civil society nor markets can function without the cultivated ability of actors to negotiate with strangers (as in business deals), to trust others, and to make sense together. Civil societies are marked by a definite impersonality: the stranger is a figure common to markets and to all other civil society institutions.


Intellectual efforts to build descriptive walls between civil society and capitalist markets not only failed to understand the stocks of “social capital” they functionally require and share in common. The attempt to define civil society as a nonmarket sphere of social relations also played into the hands of the neoliberal presumption that markets do not have damaging social and ecological consequences and therefore require minimal government regulation plus dos- es of civil society philanthropy. Especially since the near collapse of the Atlantic region banking and credit sectors in 2008, we now know this presumption is false. Markets are prone to self-paralysis and outright failure and environmental recklessness. They produce chronic uncivil effects: the everyday miseries documented, say, in the films of Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019). Market mechanisms are prone to damage and wreck civil society institutions. Markets are sources of social in- equality and class domination, and they destroy such civil society virtues and practices as civility, mutual recognition, and social equality.

Such uncivil outcomes are today much in evidence in most capitalist democracies. In Central-Eastern Europe, for instance, they help explain why “purist” understandings of civil society crashed against the rocks of market realities soon after the beginning of the political transition from one-party regimes. The ideal of civil society understood as a “third sector” realm of emancipated sociability was no match for the enforced privatization of state property by several means: the influx of foreign capital, the repatriation of property to its former owners (or their successors), and state support for local nouveaux riches capitalists. The up- shot, we now see in retrospect, was the market-driven creation of civil societies slashed and scarred by social inequality, by household debt, and by wealthy “poligarchs” like Sebastian Kulczyk, Viktor Orbán, and Andrej Babiš, current prime minister of the Czech Republic, who plays the neoliberal, populist political game (see Keane 2020b; also see Slačálek 2019).

The ascendancy of the new liberalism also helps explain why there is growing awareness, bitterly contested and un- evenly distributed, that markets require correction, not only through new government “steering” and “governance” arrangements but also by the direct efforts of citizens work- ing and living within civil societies. The struggle to break the grip of neoliberalism and to find new ways of socially taming the power of businesses and re-embedding markets in the fabric of civil societies is an important reason why the quarantining of the old topic of civil society is proving to be temporary, and why it shows signs of making a comeback. During the century-long heyday of discussions about civ- il society that began in the mid-eighteenth century, there were pioneering social innovations such as cooperatives, friendly societies, scientific and literary circles, publishing houses, newspapers, chapels, guilds, craft and trades unions, and political parties. The words socialism and social democracy were born of these innovations. Historically speaking, they together served as levers of empowerment, civil society sites where the powerless, through small works, could achieve bigger things against the power of rapacious business predators.

Today, analogous calls for the decommodification of civil society and the socialization of markets are again on the political agenda. The list of actual or proposed social initiatives is long and growing (see the important Mulgan 2013). It includes crowdsourced public service media platforms and efforts to build a “relational economy” that creates value out of social relationships, as in peer-to-peer collaboration Airbnb-type schemes. The examples extend to social innovation and carbon-neutral cities and support for household care services in such fields as aging and refugee sheltering and settlement. Social campaigns to force businesses to honor their social obligations and to pay attention to the environmental despoliation they cause push in the same direction, as do social housing and citizen income schemes and efforts to strengthen stakeholders’ rights, works councils, trade union rights, the reduction of working time, and the social defense of more just maternity/paternity leave arrangements.


These types of social experiments have helped put the idea of civil society back on the political map. Their efforts to breathe new life into civil society are backed up and strengthened by social conflicts fueled by concerns about where the unfinished communications revolution of our time is taking us. There are worries about its damaging social effects, above all because this digital revolution penetrates more deeply into the intimate lives of citizens than any previous historical transformation of the forces and relations of communication. Marshall McLuhan (1964, 12) once remarked that the amplification and extension of human senses brought about by such upheavals, the advent of electronic broadcasting for instance, resembles “huge collective surgery carried out on the social body with complete disregard for antiseptics.” The unfolding networked digital revolution of our time similarly produces casual- ties—for instance, in the rapid spreading of uncivil plat- forms that circulate materials, such as deepfake mash-ups, bullshit, lies, and bigoted messaging, designed to stir up public confusion and hatred. This digital communications revolution also feeds upon the harvesting and stockpiling for advertising and surveillance purposes of the most intimate visual, audio, and textual materials produced by citizens. Fears are growing that we are drifting into a new age of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff 2019). Yet these dynamics, which threaten to destroy civil society, are not the whole story. The antidemocratic trends are being resisted by citizens whose efforts highlight the point that the unfinished digital communications revolution is marked simultaneously by decadence and, from the point of view of civil societies, strongly enabling effects. Ease of copying and ready spreading of information in multimedia form unrestrained by time-space barriers facilitate the growth of publics in multiple locations, including in the sphere of civil society, where citizen mutinies against arbitrary power are commonplace. The dynamic is felt in Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and other despotisms, where otherwise civil society is harassed or banned outright, as well as in so-named democracies, where calls to defend civil society against bossing and bullying by the powerful are once again on the rise. The spirit and substance of monitory democracy is alive and well (Keane 2013; Arditi 2012; Tufekci 2017; Bang 2018). These digital mutinies, sometimes called “insurgencies” (Arditi 2012) or “everyday making” (Bang 2018), adopt many differ- ent locations and styles, and they are focused on a breathtakingly wide range of issues. But none of them would be thinkable or doable without citizens having access to the tools and structures of digitally networked flows of information within a civil society of self-governing associations and networks.

A strikingly relevant example is the greening of present- day civil societies. The trend is without precedent. Green citizens’ initiatives do more than mobilize civil society values and institutions against the arbitrary wrecking power of predatory corporations and states. They warn of the possible self-destruction of Homo sapiens. They consequently urge people to reimagine themselves as humble beings deeply entangled in the ecosystems in which they dwell, upon which they depend, and for which they need to care, in opposition to the reigning view that humans are the apogee of creation, lords and ladies of the universe, “the people” who are (according to standard definitions of democracy) the ultimate source of sovereign power and authority on earth (Keane 2019). This reimagining of civil society is driven by a plethora of social initiatives, such as citizens’ science projects, rewilding schemes, and green think tanks and green academies. Other initiatives include independent documentary filmmaking and photography (Todd Hido’s images of the “coming darkness” spring to mind) and daring multimedia civic insurgencies such as “Tell the truth, and act like it’s real” campaigns (Extinction Rebellion) and “Don’t be hopeful, feel the fear” (Greta Thunberg) climate strikes by young schoolchildren who are not yet formal citizens. These and other civil society initiatives pave the way, for the first time in the history of democracy, for the active representation of the biosphere in the political life of civil societies by means of hybrid public spaces that Bruno La- tour (1993, 2005) has wisely termed “parliaments of things.”


In matters of political strategy, the design and staging of these parliaments often prove difficult. In practically all so- named democracies, civil society mutinies are met with the force of laws pertaining to public assembly and damage to property. They are confronted, too, by police forces armed with new and more frightening weapons. Gone are the days when protesters were met by unhelmeted officers armed on- ly with loud hailer warnings, shields, truncheons, and hand- cuffs. Protesters are now often treated as the enemy with- in. Officers kitted out in combat gear and armed with stun guns, tear gas cannon, pepper spray, sniper assault rifles, armored trucks, drones, and tanks are becoming the new normal of the policing of civil society. Militaries feed the trend by selling off or transferring their used or surplus weaponry to police agencies, as happens in Mexico and the United States, where the militarization of policing is most advanced. The American data shows that around fifty thou- sand SWAT (special weapons and tactics) raids are carried out annually on household dwellings by teams dressed in military gear and wielding military weapons, including grenades thrown prior to the raids. Military-style police teams are also active during street demonstrations and in urban communities, where disproportionately they are de- ployed against African American communities. (Statistics show that in the United States, a black person is killed by someone employed or protected by the police every twenty-eight hours; that trans and gender-nonconforming people are far more likely to experience police violence than others; and that entire units of police departments are now devoted to the surveillance of Muslim people.) Contrary to claims made by police administrators, SWAT teams do not provide measurable benefits in terms of officer safety or vi- olent crime reduction. The claimed benefits to civil society are equally doubtful. It is often said that there is a necessary trade-off between public safety and civil liberties, yet the evidence is against it. In practice, military-style policing erodes public support for the police and stirs up fears and perceptions that local civil societies are under siege, and that neither safety nor civil liberties are the result. Civil society communities begin to feel like occupied war zones. The result: a strengthened attachment of citizens to the civil society norms of nonviolence, freedom of association and public assembly, respect for difference, and support for the dignity of citizens who consider each other equals (Mummolo 2018; Kappeler and Kraska 2015).


Civil society resistance is much in evidence in Brazil, the United States, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, and other countries plagued by the new populism. The meaning of the term populism is as hotly disputed as its social and political effects, but everywhere there is agreement that it is parasitic upon restless, disaffected, angry civil societies. Populism is much more than a “thin-centred ideology,” as scholars such as Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (2017) have claimed (cf. Keane 2017). It is better under- stood as a pseudodemocratic style of politics that harnesses parts of civil society in order to weaken or destroy it outright. Civil society becomes its own enemy. In the name of an imagined “people” defined as if it were a demiurge, something akin to a metaphysical gift to earthlings from the gods, populism has an “inner logic,” or what Montesquieu called “spirit,” that drives it to rob life from civil society and from power-sharing democracy committed to the principle of equality.

Populism is political ventriloquism. Its metaphysical talk of a people functionally requires big-mouthed demagogues. It strikes a devil’s pact with leaders who play the role of earthly avatars of “the people.” Its consequent hostility to the complexity of things and to the values of pluralism is seen in its encouragement of attacks on journalists and independent media, expertise, rule-of-law judiciaries, and other power-monitoring institutions. It is untrue that election to office slakes the populists’ thirst for power. Gripped by an inner urge to destroy checks, balances, and mechanisms for publicly scrutinizing and restraining power, populist leaders and parties have little or no taste for institutional give-and-take politics. In their drive to amass a fund of power, confronted by opponents, populists typically hit hard against those they define as Other. Populism promotes hostility to “enemies.” It spreads uncivil language and picks political fights with those it defines as deviants, dissenters, and protagonists of disagreement and difference. It comes as no surprise that the new populism is thus gripped by a territorial mentality that favors stricter visa and immigration rules and nation-states border-protected against “foreigners” and “foreign” influences. It is also no surprise that populists are attracted to the dark energy of violence, or that they urge or practice violence against people judged as worthless trash. Local politics always defines who exactly is under the gun, but the expulsion list usually reads like an uncivil society manifesto. Muslims and “foreigners” and unpatriotic people from nowhere are said to be doubtful citizens. So, too, are ethnic minorities, “liberals,” environ- mental activists, and mainstream politicians (Jo Cox, Henriette Reker, Andreas Hollstein, Walter Lübcke). All those outcast marginalia of “the People” are deemed people who are “not even people” (Eric Trump). Hence the resistance of these various groups in defense of a civil society protected by civility, good laws, and representative governments committed to social inclusion.


Antipopulist agitations against sexual harassment, fights for sanctuary cities, police monitoring groups, queer net- works, crowdfunded social media platforms, and public sup- port for mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship are, in their different ways, and with varying degrees of effectiveness, normatively and strategically significant. Not only do they warn of the antidemocratic effects of populism and the way its apologias for incivility, greed, concentrated wealth, and state violence are deeply threatening of civil society institutions. The campaigns in effect also serve as warnings that the new populism may even be nudging, pushing, and pulling us toward a new kind of “phantom democracy” that has more than a few features (explained in my new book on the subject) in common with the new despotisms of Russia, China, Hungary, Turkey, and Singapore (Keane 2020b).

To the considerable surprise of many observers, the resilience of civil society under pressure from despotism has become a publicly pertinent topic since the disruption of the global order by the COVID-19 pestilence (Keane 2020a). As the virus spread, the upper structures of power-sharing, monitory democracy began to be shelved. Emergency rule was imposed. Public gatherings were limited. Whole cities become vast spaces of emptiness. School closures sent more than half a billion children home, according to UNESCO (2020). Parliaments that might otherwise have functioned as early warning detectors and representatives of stressed communities were prorogued. Cinemas, restaurants, bars, clubs, gyms, mosques, synagogues, churches, and temples were also prorogued. Airports became ghost institutions. Public events were canceled. Election rallies didn’t happen. In the skies of Southern California, Chinese-made drones fitted with cameras and loudspeakers ensured that citizens stayed locked inside their homes, except for essential trips. More old-fashioned methods were used in countries such as Italy, France, and Spain, where hundreds of thousands of police and army officers patrolled the streets. India’s Uttar Pradesh government used the colonial-era Epidemic Dis- eases Act to crack down on dissidents. In Kenya, dusk-to- dawn curfews were reinforced with tear gas and batons. The scheduled referendum on changing the dictatorship- era constitution of Chile was postponed. And almost every- where, it seemed that the time had come for unelected crisis-management bodies sporting wartime names. In Australia, whose national parliament was mothballed for five months, the pestilence initially gave birth to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC), an unelected body chaired by a former mining corporation magnate and answerable only to the prime minister. Following political wrangling among political elites, it was replaced by the National Cabinet, a body comprising the head representatives of the federal, state, and territory governments.

The spreading virus lengthened the list of state emergency rule procedures. But it also triggered public agitations against emergency rule. In more than a dozen American states, for instance, protesters, some of them armed, most of them supporters of a populist president promising redemption, took to the streets, bearing placards, blocking roads, and honking car horns in support of “freedom” and “reopening the economy.” Elsewhere, in many different global settings, millions of people were gripped by a strong sense of social solidarity, or what South Africans call ubuntu, an ethic of interdependence (“I am because you are”). Pots and pans were banged, and songs of solidarity were sung by citizens on balconies and sidewalks. The pestilence fostered much social goodness and citizen generosity, which is why the meme phrase social distancing was mis- leading. Physical distancing was indeed the reality, but due to the widespread use of digital networked media, social bridging and bonding happened, in unexpected ways. There was speculation that more robust, less commodity-driven and money-hungry civil societies were waiting in the wings. And there was widespread talk of the need permanently to upgrade remuneration and public respect for the key workers—nurses, doctors, teachers, and cleaners, ambulance and delivery drivers, nightshift toilers in warehouses, call centers, and supermarkets—who ensured that whole civil societies survived the pestilence. Safe was it to say that emergency rule spawned citizen ingenuity. People petitioned governments and crowdsourced funding and support for the hungry and harassed on Twitter, convened social gatherings and drinking parties on Skype, and met and married on Zoom. There were mobilizations against racist bigotry and police violence; calls for a basic citizens’ income; and plenty of talk of the need permanently to slow down everyday life, to cut carbon emissions, to reduce noise, and to let birds carry on singing.


Civic solidarity in pestilent times of emergency rule, antipopulist politics, multimedia mutinies, and citizen efforts to socialize markets and protect biomes: these are among the powerful forces that are working to ensure that the idea and practice of a civil society will not easily pass away, into the forgotten fogs of time past. The practical vision of nonviolent, civil interactions among individuals, house- holds, organized groups, extended networks, and loose associations of people of different persuasions who regard themselves as equally entitled to be protected in common by law and custom against predatory businesses and rapacious governments has staying power. The fact of civil society will continue to be attractive to a wide range of people who out of necessity and choice enjoy daily conversations, fall in love, catch trains, go to work, earn money, raise children, shop, listen to music, share meals, stroll side streets, enjoy country walks, play sports, spend time online, day- dream, and generally hang out. The ideal of a civil society is likely to appeal to disgruntled people who wish for better lives but find themselves exploited by predatory employers, who suffer violent racial abuse, sexual harassment, or religious discrimination, or who are penniless, unemployed, starving, underhoused, or homeless. Civil society happenings will continue to happen: contemporary politics will be salted and peppered by ecological protests, marches on parliaments, electoral upsets, people who kneel or stay silent during the national anthem, and other multimedia mutinies big and small.

This much is clear. Much less certain is whether or to what extent the whole idea of civil society can survive the intense pressures it is currently under. Past experiences tell us that civil societies can be pulverized and wiped out, and that their destruction happens much more easily and many times faster than their slow-motion, step-by-step practical construction. The point contains a warning and a call to action: only citizens and their chosen representatives, helped by socially conscious organizations such as environmental action networks, responsible businesses, trade unions, law courts, and governments, can ensure that civil societies live on. That being so, the survival and blossoming of civil society is ultimately a matter of politics. But what kind of politics does its defense and active flourishing entail?

The whole political idea of civil society is marked by a prospective or forward-looking quality. By pricking the backsides of the rich and powerful, it points to the need to overcome hubris by refusing nonsense, and to scale down the pompous by saying and doing things that in a small way help to shake the world and stop it falling asleep. We could say that among the most important long-term gifts of the revival and reimagining of civil society forty years ago is the stirring up of hopes for a more decent and dignified demo- cratic society. The vision of a civil society protected by law and government no doubt requires hope. Just as important- ly, civil society is the condition of possibility of hope.

Hope is a four-letter word that is often trivialized. Commonly treated as a synonym for wishful thinking, as a folly of the head or the heart, hope has through the ages been given rough treatment. Aristotle thought of hope as a “waking dream” (Diogenes Laërtius 1915, 187). Hope is gullible, out of touch with reality; those who hope, Thucydides re- marked, typically fail to grasp their circumstances, fail to come up with workable plans, so that things go badly for them, especially in war. Nietzsche lampooned hope as an “illusory bridge” and likened it to a “rainbow over the cascading of life.” Jokes are made at its expense (like the old saying that it’s always hard to feel hope with a hangover), but actually hope deserves better than tomfoolery. It is an attitude of people who desire a future outcome that they believe to be possible, which is why it should not be confused with optimism or its opposite, pessimism. Hope lives in the land between absolute certainty and absolute impossibility. Hope is not belief in miracles. It is not rainbows of the mind. It is not acting cheerfully in grim circumstances. Hope has a pragmatic quality. It is prudent, realistic, and active. Hope comes wrapped in possibility, not probability. Hope is both a noun and a verb, but it has no historical guarantees of success. It requires engagement with a possibility that is considered likely, and in this way, hope can be contagious: self-reinforcing because it breeds confidence and courage to overcome obstacles. Hope is generative of the outcomes it wants.

Hope is, of course, a vulnerable disposition. Hope is a gamble. It risks disappointment, melancholia, and the deep sadness that failure brings. Its twin is anxiety; and it can be accompanied by fear. Hope therefore requires a generous measure of patience and endurance. It needs doses of pas- sion—visceral involvement in the changes that are hoped for. To hope is to feel that things as they are can be changed, and to experience joy at the very thought that what is does not equal what could be. Hope flies with swallow’s wings.

Once upon a time, when people’s belief in gods, goddess- es, and God was virtually compulsory, hope was considered a matter of transcendence. Take the example of Christians, for whom hope was thought of as eternal hope. Hope was granted by God. Hope shunned the earthly city. It was anti-political. Hope required believers to have faith in the possibility of reaching eternal happiness. Hope belonged to the heavenly city of God. Strong traces of this metaphysical way of thinking about hope are evident in the recent sermons of Pope Francis. He likes to say that “in Christ Risen we can continue to hope” and that “those who have Christ at their side truly no longer fear anything” (Harris 2017). Robust civil societies are capacious enough to host this way of thinking about hope. But especially in circumstances when millions of people feel confused, or angry, or begin to drown in despair, civil societies need earthly hope. Hope is grace, notes Arundhati Roy (2017). That is well said, for hope lifts people’s spirits by encouraging them to look beyond their present horizons, to expect and to demand improvements. Hope is Nina Simone singing perhaps her greatest tune, “Four Women”: “My skin is black, my arms are long…. My hair is woolly, and my back is strong. Strong enough to take all the pain, been inflicted again and again.” Hope is often the only thing that keeps our hearts from breaking. That is why hope is so needed now, in so many democracies whose citizens are feeling the pinch of pessimism, resentment, cynicism, and hopelessness.

In a rare piece of writing on the subject of democracy and hope, the Indian American anthropologist Arjun Appadurai (2007) interprets hope as the social resource that remains after the twentieth-century collapse of the grand ideologies of fascism and Marxism-Leninism. For the sake of their survival and flourishing, civil societies and democratic practices such as periodic elections functionally require hope, he argues. The observation is wise, but it overlooks the in- verse functional relationship or “elective affinity” between civil society and hope. Put simply, civil societies nurture and nourish hope. They do so in several ways.

Most obviously, the inner pluralism, dynamism, and self- reflexivity of a robust civil society stirs up a sense of possibility among citizens and their representatives that things can be other than they currently are. When subjects are confronted by situations that tempt them to conclude, “Well, that’s the way things are,” they think twice. They are instead encouraged to say: “Actually, things can be different.” The sense of possibility (Robert Musil’s great novel The Man without Qualities called it Möglichkeitsinn) could be defined as the capacity of people to see that what is has no privileged importance, so that the way things are can be challenged by the way things might become. In this sense, civil societies “denature” power relations. They render contingent the way things are, and thus stir public hopes for improvement. In the spirit in which Tocqueville predicted that slavery could not last in the American civil society and its democratic republic, civil societies enable citizens and their representatives to see the Cape of Good Hope through the fogs of the present, to grasp that it can be reached and rounded. They learn that what was thought to be impractical turns out to be possible, that public demands of citizens to be realistic by demanding the impossible turn out to be practicable, wise, and doable.

When they function well, civil societies are more than the friend of possibility, the cultivator of hopes that fill the sails of citizens and their representatives and let them experience longed-for moments when hope and history seem to rhyme. Democracies also enable and protect a diverse pluralism of hopes. They demonstrate that hope is not a single substance. “To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good is to hope,” wrote the Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1995, 249). Note the monism of this formulation. Liberals tend to think in this way as well: while they typically say that the present and the future are open to value pluralism, they suppose that their liberalism is somehow the universal foundation of it all. Within any given democracy, if it has a robust civil society, the principle of the unity or unification of hopes doesn’t apply. Instead, civil society makes available public spaces to enable citizens to cultivate and share their different understandings of hope, both large and small. Longings that the sun will shine, that their morning train will get them to work on time, and that their friends will meet them that evening; yearnings for a decent-paying job, and for a promotion, or a new job; aspirations for a better world for their children; hopes that our planet will somehow survive the marauding of predatory humans. Civil societies have room as well for people of faith who either champion hopes for eternal life or who are ambivalent about attachments to earthly hopes because (say many Buddhists) they personally strive for inner completeness, the absence of craving, and complete happiness in each present moment.

There are other affinities between hope and civil society. Robust civil societies, their refusal of violence and public commitment to identity sharing and the general restraint of arbitrary exercises of power, from the bedroom through the boardroom to the election battlefield, enable peaceful living together and rubbing along and adjudication of differences among often competing and conflicting hopes. Civil societies undoubtedly trigger disagreements among differ- ent types of hope. Sparks fly. Yet civil societies cultivate civility: mutual respect instead of spiteful contempt for people with different views of life and ways of living (Krygier 2019; Bejan 2017). They make possible hopes for agreement and agreements to disagree that can turn out to be mutually beneficial to those who live them.

Civil societies also have the effect of complicating the meaning of hope. In practice, when they work well, civil societies demonstrate that hope is not just the anticipation of a future that is judged to be possible. Hope can also be the active remembering of a past that can be retrieved, resuscitated, brought back to life in much-changed circumstances, with an eye to the future. That means that hope can take the form of restorative justice, a struggle to remember and to deal with past wrongdoings and lives damaged by injustice for the stated aim of acknowledging the dignity of those who have been wronged, and making the future better and more livable for all.

Finally, and of great relevance in our darkening times, vibrant civil societies have built-in early warning systems to detect metaphysical Grand Ideologies that lay claim to comprehensive answers to all our questions about how to live on our planet. Civil societies refuse pompous narratives. They are on bad terms with big talk of the Nation, the People, Socialism, the Market, and God, narratives that com- promise diversity by promising heaven on earth or in the afterlife. From the perspective of any given civil society, ideologies distract us from the here and now, prevent us from appreciating the beauty and complexity of this life; worse, ideologies work against the peaceful acceptance of differences and therefore have potentially bullying, violent, and despotic consequences. Seen in this way, civil societies are the firm opponent of ideology because they unleash the capacity of citizens and their representatives to rub along, despite their differences. And when the going gets really rough, they foster hope against hope. They stir up the sense that it is possible to get things done by building solidarity from differences based on hopes for a better future guided by the principles of more freedom, greater equality, more civility and humility, and less bossing and bullying. In our difficult times, this is perhaps the most important implication of the present-day revival of the idea of civil society: to speak of a civil society is to warn that citizens must be pre- pared for the worst so that they can take advantage of what they have, and what comes their way, in order to build a better future for all people, everywhere.

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