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Civil society can be understood as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business, and including the family and the private sphere. By other authors, "civil society" is used in the sense of 1) the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens or 2) individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government.
Sometimes the term civil society is used in the more general sense of "the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society" (Collins English Dictionary). Especially in the discussions among thinkers of Eastern and Central Europe, civil society is seen also as a normative concept of civic values.
The term civil society goes back to Aristotle's phrase koinōnía politikḗ (κοινωνία πολιτική), occurring in his Politics, where it refers to a ‘political community’, commensurate with the Greek city-state (polis) characterized by a shared set of norms and ethos, in which free citizens on an equal footing lived under the rule of law. The telos or end of civil society, thus defined, was eudaimonia (τὸ εὖ ζῆν tò eu zēn) (often translated as human flourishing or common well-being), in as man was defined as a ‘political (social) animal’ (ζῷον πολιτικόν zōon politikón). The concept was used by Roman writers, such as Cicero, where it referred to the ancient notion of a republic (res publica). It re-entered into Western political discourse following one of the late medieval translations of Aristotle’s Politics into Latin by Leonardo Bruni who as a first translated koinōnía politikḗ into societas civilis. With the rise of a distinction between monarchical autonomy and public law, the term then gained currency to denote the corporate estates (Ständestaat) of a feudal elite of land-holders as opposed to the powers exercised by the prince. It had a long history in state theory, and was revived with particular force in recent times, in Eastern Europe, where dissidents such as Václav Havel as late as in 1990's employed it to denote the sphere of civic associations threatened by the intrusive holistic state-dominated regimes of Communist Eastern Europe. The first post-modern usage of civil society as denoting political opposition stems from writings of Aleksander Smolar in 1978-79. However the term was not in use by Solidarity labor union in 1980-1981 and was popularized on a global scale by communist propaganda only in 1989 as a tool of legitimation of neoliberal transformation. 
The literature on relations between civil society and democratic political society have their roots in classical liberal writings of G.W.F. Hegel from whom they were adapted by Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Ferdinand Tönnies. They were developed in significant ways by 20th century researchers Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, who identified the role of political culture in a democratic order as vital.
They argued that the political element of political organizations facilitates better awareness and a more informed citizenry, who make better voting choices, participate in politics, and hold government more accountable as a result. The statutes of these political organizations have been considered micro-constitutions because they accustom participants to the formalities of democratic decision making.
More recently, Robert D. Putnam has argued that even non-political organizations in civil society are vital for democracy. This is because they build social capital, trust and shared values, which are transferred into the political sphere and help to hold society together, facilitating an understanding of the interconnectedness of society and interests within it.
Others, however, have questioned how democratic civil society actually is. Some have noted that the civil society actors have now obtained a remarkable amount of political power without anyone directly electing or appointing them. It has also been argued that civil society is biased towards the global north. Partha Chatterjee has argued that, in most of the world, "civil society is demographically limited." For Jai Sen civil society is a neo-colonial project driven by global elites in their own interests. Finally, other scholars have argued that, since the concept of civil society is closely related to democracy and representation, it should in turn be linked with ideas of nationality and nationalism. Latest analyses suggest that civil society is a neoliberal ideology legitimizing antidemocratic attack of economic elites on institutions of the welfare state through the development of the third sector as its substitute.
Constitutional economics is a field of economics and constitutionalism which describes and analyzes the specific interrelationships between constitutional issues and functioning of the economy including budget process. The term "constitutional economics" was used by American economist James M. Buchanan as a name for a new budget planning and the latter's transparency to the civil society, are of the primary guiding importance to the implementation of the rule of law. Also, the availability of an effective court system, to be used by the civil society in situations of unfair government spending and executive impoundment of any previously authorized appropriations, becomes a key element for the success of any influential civil society.
Critics and activists currently often apply the term civil society to the domain of social life which needs to be protected against globalization, and to the sources of resistance thereto, because it is seen as acting beyond boundaries and across different territories. However, as civil society can, under many definitions, include and be funded and directed by those businesses and institutions (especially donors linked to European and Northern states) who support globalization, this is a contested use. Rapid development of civil society on the global scale after the fall of the communist system was a part of neo-liberal strategies linked to the Washington Consensus. Some studies have also been published, which deal with unresolved issues regarding the use of the term in connection with the impact and conceptual power of the international aid system (see for example Tvedt 1998).
On the other hand, others see globalization as a social phenomenon expanding the sphere of classical liberal values, which inevitably led to a larger role for civil society at the expense of politically derived state institutions.
The integrated Civil Society Organizations (iCSO) System, developed by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), facilitates interactions between civil society organizations and DESA.
Civil Societies also have become involved in the environmental policy making process. These groups impact the environmental policies by setting an agenda on fixing the harms done to the environment. They also get the public informed about environmental issues, which increases the public demand for environmental change.
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From a historical perspective, the actual meaning of the concept of civil society has changed twice from its original, classical form. The first change occurred after the French Revolution, the second during the fall of communism in Europe.
The concept of civil society in its pre-modern classical republican understanding is usually connected to the early-modern thought of Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. However, it has much older history in the realm of political thought. Generally, civil society has been referred to as a political association governing social conflict through the imposition of rules that restrain citizens from harming one another. In the classical period, the concept was used as a synonym for the good society, and seen as indistinguishable from the state. For instance, Socrates taught that conflicts within society should be resolved through public argument using ‘dialectic’, a form of rational dialogue to uncover truth. According to Socrates, public argument through ‘dialectic’ was imperative to ensure ‘civility’ in the polis and ‘good life’ of the people. For Plato, the ideal state was a just society in which people dedicate themselves to the common good, practice civic virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice, and perform the occupational role to which they were best suited. It was the duty of the ‘philosopher king’ to look after people in civility. Aristotle thought the polis was an ‘association of associations’ that enables citizens to share in the virtuous task of ruling and being ruled. His koinonia politike as political community.
The concept of societas civilis is Roman and was introduced by Cicero. The political discourse in the classical period, places importance on the idea of a ‘good society’ in ensuring peace and order among the people. The philosophers in the classical period did not make any distinction between the state and society. Rather they held that the state represented the civil form of society and ‘civility’ represented the requirement of good citizenship. Moreover, they held that human beings are inherently rational so that they can collectively shape the nature of the society they belong to. In addition, human beings have the capacity to voluntarily gather for the common cause and maintain peace in society. By holding this view, we can say that classical political thinkers endorsed the genesis of civil society in its original sense.
The Middle Ages saw major changes in the topics discussed by political philosophers. Due to the unique political arrangements of feudalism, the concept of classical civil society practically disappeared from mainstream discussion. Instead conversation was dominated by problems of just war, a preoccupation that would last until the end of Renaissance.
The Thirty Years' War and the subsequent Treaty of Westphalia heralded the birth of the sovereign states system. The Treaty endorsed states as territorially-based political units having sovereignty. As a result, the monarchs were able to exert domestic control by emasculating the feudal lords and to stop relying on the latter for armed troops. Henceforth, monarchs could form national armies and deploy a professional bureaucracy and fiscal departments, which enabled them to maintain direct control and supreme authority over their subjects. In order to meet administrative expenditures, monarchs controlled the economy. This gave birth to absolutism. Until the mid-eighteenth century, absolutism was the hallmark of Europe.
The absolutist concept of the state was disputed in the Enlightenment period. As a natural consequence of Renaissance, Humanism, and the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment thinkers raised fundamental questions such as "What legitimacy does heredity confer?", "Why are governments instituted?", "Why should some human beings have more basic rights than others?", and so on. These questions led them to make certain assumptions about the nature of the human mind, the sources of political and moral authority, the reasons behind absolutism, and how to move beyond absolutism. The Enlightenment thinkers believed in the inherent goodness of the human mind. They opposed the alliance between the state and the Church as the enemy of human progress and well-being because the coercive apparatus of the state curbed individual liberty and the Church legitimated monarchs by positing the theory of divine origin. Therefore, both were deemed to be against the will of the people.
Strongly influenced by the atrocities of Thirty Years' War, the political philosophers of the time held that social relations should be ordered in a different way from natural law conditions. Some of their attempts led to the emergence of social contract theory that contested social relations existing in accordance with human nature. They held that human nature can be understood by analyzing objective realities and natural law conditions. Thus they endorsed that the nature of human beings should be encompassed by the contours of state and established positive laws. Thomas Hobbes underlined the need of a powerful state to maintain civility in society. For Hobbes, human beings are motivated by self-interests (Graham 1997:23). Moreover, these self-interests are often contradictory in nature. Therefore, in state of nature, there was a condition of a war of all against all. In such a situation, life was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" (Ibid: 25). Upon realizing the danger of anarchy, human beings became aware of the need of a mechanism to protect them. As far as Hobbes was concerned, rationality and self-interests persuaded human beings to combine in agreement, to surrender sovereignty to a common power (Kaviraj 2001:289).[full citation needed] Hobbes called this common power, state, Leviathan.
John Locke had a similar concept to Hobbes about the political condition in England. It was the period of the Glorious Revolution, marked by the struggle between the divine right of the Crown and the political rights of Parliament. This influenced Locke to forge a social contract theory of a limited state and a powerful society. In Locke’s view, human beings led also an unpeaceful life in the state of nature. However, it could be maintained at the sub-optimal level in the absence of a sufficient system (Brown 2001:73). From that major concern, people gathered together to sign a contract and constituted a common public authority. Nevertheless, Locke held that the consolidation of political power can be turned into autocracy, if it is not brought under reliable restrictions (Kaviraj 2001:291). Therefore, Locke set forth two treaties on government with reciprocal obligations. In the first treaty, people submit themselves to the common public authority. This authority has the power to enact and maintain laws. The second treaty contains the limitations of authority, i. e., the state has no power to threaten the basic rights of human beings. As far as Locke was concerned, the basic rights of human beings are the preservation of life, liberty and property. Moreover, he held that the state must operate within the bounds of civil and natural laws.
Both Hobbes and Locke had set forth a system, in which peaceful coexistence among human beings could be ensured through social pacts or contracts. They considered civil society as a community that maintained civil life, the realm where civic virtues and rights were derived from natural laws. However, they did not hold that civil society was a separate realm from the state. Rather, they underlined the co-existence of the state and civil society. The systematic approaches of Hobbes and Locke (in their analysis of social relations) were largely influenced by the experiences in their period. Their attempts to explain human nature, natural laws, the social contract and the formation of government had challenged the divine right theory. In contrast to divine right, Hobbes and Locke claimed that humans can design their political order. This idea had a great impact on the thinkers in the Enlightenment period.
The Enlightenment thinkers argued that human beings are rational and can shape their destiny. Hence, no need of an absolute authority to control them. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a critic of civil society, and Immanuel Kant argued that people are peace lovers and that wars are the creation of absolute regimes (Burchill 2001:33). As far as Kant was concerned, this system was effective to guard against the domination of a single interest and check the tyranny of the majority (Alagappa 2004:30).
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G. W. F. Hegel completely changed the meaning of civil society, giving rise to a modern liberal understanding of it as a form of market society as opposed to institutions of modern nation state. While in classical republicanism civil society where synonymous with political society, Hegel distinguished political state and civil society, what was followed by Tocqueville's distinction between civil and political societies and associations, repeated by Marx and Tönnies.
Unlike his predecessors, Hegel considered civil society (German: bürgerliche Gesellschaft) as a separate realm, a "system of needs", that is the, "[stage of] difference which intervenes between the family and the state." Civil society is the realm of economic relationships as it exists in the modern industrial capitalist society, for it had emerged at the particular period of capitalism and served its interests: individual rights and private property. Hence, he used the German term "bürgerliche Gesellschaft" to denote civil society as "civilian society" – a sphere regulated by the civil code. This new way of thinking about civil society was followed by Alexis de Tocqueville and Karl Marx as well. For Hegel, civil society manifested contradictory forces. Being the realm of capitalist interests, there is a possibility of conflicts and inequalities within it (ex: mental and physical aptitude, talents and financial circumstances). He argued that these inequalities influence the choices that members are able to make in relation to the type of work they will do. The diverse positions in Civil Society fall into three estates: the substantial estate (agriculture), the formal estate (trade and industry), and the universal estate (civil society). A man is able to choose his estate, though his choice is limited by the aforementioned inequalities. However, Hegel argues that these inequalities enable all estates in Civil Society to be filled, which leads to a more efficient system on the whole.
Karl Marx followed the Hegelian way of using the concept of civil society. For Marx, the emergence of the modern state created a realm of civil society that reduced society to private interests competing against each other. Political society was autonomised into the state, which was in turn ruled by the bourgeois class (consider also that suffrage only belonged, then, to propertied men). Marx, in his early writings, anticipated the abolition of the separation between state and civil society, and looked forward to the reunification of private and public/political realms (Colletti, 1975). Hence, Marx rejected the positive role of state put forth by Hegel. Marx argued that the state cannot be a neutral problem solver. Rather, he depicted the state as the defender of the interests of the bourgeoisie. He considered the state to be the executive arm of the bourgeoisie, which would wither away once the working class took democratic control of society.
The above view about civil society was criticised by Antonio Gramsci (Edwards 2004:10). Departing somewhat from Marx, Gramsci did not consider civil society as a realm of private and alienated relationships. Rather, Gramsci viewed civil society as the vehicle for bourgeois hegemony, when it just represents a particular class. He underlined the crucial role of civil society as the contributor of the cultural and ideological capital required for the survival of the hegemony of capitalism. Rather than posing it as a problem, as in earlier Marxist conceptions, Gramsci viewed civil society as the site for problem-solving. Misunderstanding Gramsci, the New Left assigned civil society a key role in defending people against the state and the market and in asserting the democratic will to influence the state. At the same time, neo-liberal thinkers consider civil society as a site for struggle to subvert Communist and authoritarian regimes. Thus, the term civil society occupies an important place in the political discourses of the New Left and neo-liberals.
It is commonly believed[by whom?] that the post-modern way of understanding civil society was first developed by political opposition in the former Soviet bloc East European countries in the 1980s. However, research shows that communist propaganda had the most important influence on the development and popularization of the idea instead, in an effort to legitimize neoliberal transformation in 1989. According to theory of restructurization of welfare systems, a new way of using the concept of civil society became a neoliberal ideology legitimizing development of the third sector as a substitute for the welfare state. The recent development of the third sector is a result of this welfare systems restructuring, rather than of democratization.
From that time stems a political practice of using the idea of civil society instead of political society. Henceforth, postmodern usage of the idea of civil society became divided into two main ones: as political society and as the third sector – apart from plethora of definitions. The Washington Consensus of the 1990s, which involved conditioned loans by the World Bank and IMF to debt-laden developing states, also created pressures for states in poorer countries to shrink. This in turn led to practical changes for civil society that went on to influence the theoretical debate. Initially the new conditionality led to an even greater emphasis on "civil society" as a panacea, replacing the state's service provision and social care, Hulme and Edwards suggested that it was now seen as "the magic bullet."
By the end of the 1990s civil society was seen less as a panacea amid the growth of the anti-globalization movement and the transition of many countries to democracy; instead, civil society was increasingly called on to justify its legitimacy and democratic credentials. This led to the creation by the UN of a high level panel on civil society. However, in the 1990s with the emergence of the nongovernmental organizations and the new social movements (NSMs) on a global scale, civil society as a third sector became treated as a key terrain of strategic action to construct ‘an alternative social and world order.’ Post-modern civil society theory has now largely returned to a more neutral stance, but with marked differences between the study of the phenomena in richer societies and writing on civil society in developing states.
Jürgen Habermas said that the public sphere encourages rational will-formation; it is a sphere of rational and democratic social interaction. Habermas analyzes civil society as a sphere of "commodity exchange and social labor" and public sphere as a part of political realm. Habermas argues that even though society was representative of capitalist society, there are some institutions that were part of political society. Transformations in economy brought transformations to the public sphere. Though these transformations happen, a civil society develops into political society when it emerges as non-economic and has a populous aspect, and when the state is not represented by just one political party. There needs to be a locus of authority, and this is where society can begin to challenge authority. Jillian Schwedler points out that civil society emerges with the resurrection of the public sphere when individuals and groups begin to challenge boundaries of permissible behaviour – for example, by speaking out against the regime or demanding a government response to social needs – civil society begins to take shape.
Civil society organizations, also known as civic organizations, include among others: