A term frequently used in modern political discourse often meaning little more than PLURALISM. Originally the term had a very specific meaning. In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville delineated three realms of society: 1) the STATE, which comprises the system of formal political representation, courts, bureaucracies, police and army; 2) CIVIL SOCIETY, which essentially comprises the system of private and economic interests; and 3) political society with its political associations such as local government, juries, and political parties and its civil associations such as churches, schools and commercial organisations. In recent times de Tocqueville’s third category, political society, has become the basis for a newly constructed concept of CIVIL SOCIETY.
The tendency has been for ex-Marxists and non-Marxists alike to stress the specifically non-economic and non-state dimensions of CIVIL SOCIETY and to focus attention on civic, cultural, educational, religious, and other organisations operating autonomously from the STATE itself. There is, hence, no single correct definition of what CIVIL SOCIETY is. Liberals tend to see CIVIL SOCIETY as the realm in which individuals act and interact independently of government and the STATE. The STATE assumes tasks only when individuals – by themselves or in co-operation with others – cannot (see SUBSIDIARITY). The liberal concept of CIVIL SOCIETY presupposes limited government.
Liberals see CIVIL SOCIETY as the counterpart of government. The STATE is subservient to CIVIL SOCIETY. The vision of a CIVIL SOCIETY is one in which society is tolerant of diversity, religious and political, and in which the STATE does not impose any comprehensive doctrine. A characteristic of this vision is RULE OF LAW – an institution that restrains both government and individual citizens in their conduct.
CIVIL SOCIETY is characterised by the institution of private property. Private property is seen as an “enabling device” allowing individuals with different goals to pursue such goals without recourse to a collective decision-making procedure.