State, Civil Society and Democratization in the Third World

A Course Report

Essay, 2008
11 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 Liberal conceptualizations of Civil Society

3 The concept of statehood

4 Democratic transition by civil society?

5 Global Civil Society

6 Civil Society in weak and failed states



1 Introduction

In the last ten to fifteen years, accompanied by the contemporary issue of globalisation and several civil movements in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there has been an increasing interest and body of literature related to the term of “civil society”.

Civil society develops and acts within a certain context and environment. Because of that, concepts of civil society facilitating democracy can’t be applied on developing countries in general but have to take into account the level of statehood and existing democratic structures in which civil society acts. It is not all about the structure of civil society but also about the existing level of statehood.

In this course report I will focus on the relationship between civil society and democracy on the national and global level. The discussion is based upon the hypothesis that civil society can only constitute itself and act within democratic structures and will address the problem of the civil society in failed states which is not able to facilitate democratization there due to a lack of statehood and on the global level where democratic structures can’t be found.

2 Liberal conceptualizations of Civil Society

Two major concepts of civil society and its role imprint the debate of today: the liberal and radical ideal types as well as there have emerged two major views on civil society, the structural and functional one. There are various notions of the term “civil society” and a lack of single, unified definition or in Gordon Whites’ words: “It is used in a variety of ways for a variety of purposes” (White 2004: p.8). We should keep in mind that every concept of civil society emerged within a specific social reality and posits the inclusion and exclusion of different corporate and collective entities according to this context (Whitehead 2004: p. 27).

Civil society is among others understood as an associational sector and, in a normative way, as bearer of norms and values (Elliott 2003: pp. 7-22). Jenny Pearce, for instance, sees the ideal concept of civil society as “a network of self-regulating and mutually restraining associations” (Pearce 2004: p. 113).

In this first part of my course report I will focus on the structural concepts of Gordon White and Laurence Whitehead as representatives of the liberal conception of civil society which assumes civil society being democratic per se due to their autonomy related to the state. Gordon White agrees with the common definition of civil society as a sphere of intermediate social associations, separated from the state, being autonomous from the state and voluntarily formed by members of society and which differentiates between civil society, political society and society as different sectors to get a complete picture of the social forces of democratization. He distinguishes civil society as an ideal type concept and the empirical world of civil society which includes associations which embody these principles to varying degrees. To identify the several roles for democratization one has to focus on the particular sector of civil society but within the context of a society that contains anti-democratic, undemocratic and non-political entities (White 2004: pp. 11-13)

Laurence Whitehead speaks about this exclusivity of civil society in terms of “civility” and “incivility” and contrasts this with the inclusive universality of political citizenship. He categorizes political society, civil society and uncivil society. The gap or “interstices” between the social forms of civil and political society according to an uneven development of political and civil society produce multiple variants of “uncivil citizens”, individuals who enjoy political rights but are not constrained by norms of civil society. (Whitehead 2004: pp. 22-25). For the definition of civil society, Laurence Whitehead appoints a recent formulation by Philippe Schmitter: civil society is a “set or system of self-organized intermediary groups” (Whitehead 2004: p. 28) which has to fulfil four preconditions: dual autonomy, collective action, non-usurpation and civility in form of appropriate interpersonal behaviour (Whitehead 2004: pp. 28-29).

There are several sources of threats for civil society from the state and the uncivil society which applies encroachments on the dual autonomy, subvert the capacity for deliberation what may encourage usurpation and incivility. According to Whitehead, “this implies that civil society will always be under pressure from multiple sources and in any modern polity it is always likely to coexist with substantial and persisting sources of incivility” (Whitehead 2004: p. 33).

The lack of congruence between “civil” and “political” society is caused by the uneven distribution of voluntary associative organizations across the modern territorial state (Whitehead 2004: p. 30). As a quick establishment of new inclusionary political societies may clash with any pre-existing maps of dense associative life, Whitehead proposes for different ways which, transferred on failed states, can only be successful to a certain limit: A slow growing civil society can’t create conditions for an implantation of political democracy without a minimum of state structures. In this case it is recommendable to implant a political regime that civil society can gradually mature in the following (Whitehead 2004: p. 31).

Here Somalia could serve as a “protectorate experience”. Whitehead rejects the existence of only one strongly determinate relationship between civil society and political democracy. Both, White and Whitehead exclude from their liberal view the “uncivil” parts of society due to their hierarchic structure, for instance the church.

3 The concept of statehood

As it is considered the most influential approach to understand the state I will use Max Weber’s definition of the modern state. For him “a society is organized as a state where there is a successful monopolization of the exercise of legitimate violence. What distinguishes a state from a “political association” is on the one hand, that “rules constituting the order of a state are imposed on all the members of some designated groups of people” and on the other hand, the “monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercion” (Geuss 1999: pp. 15-30)

Since the “Allgemeine Staatslehre” from Georg Jellinek (1895) there are three general acknowledged elements of modern statehood: national territory, national people and national authority. That means the modern state is constituted, on a basis of central authority and its apparatus, by political – institutional control over a specific territory and the population within its boarders. As those are only minimum criteria for statehood and don’t contain requirements for democratic statehood there have to be added other dimensions which developed in the OECD – world during the middle of the 20th century. Besides the monopoly of authority the constitutional state, the state under the law, the administrative state and the welfare state are among these dimensions (Schneckener 2004: pp. 9-10)

4 Democratic transition by civil society?

“How has civil society be organised to facilitate democratization and what is the “right” type of civil society which leads to democracy?”, “Do movements in civil society contest or support democratization?” – Those are raised questions in conceptualizations of a democracy facilitating civil society both on a national and the global level.

Alexis de Toqueville was the first major theorist to present that civil society (voluntary associations) and democracy are connected. Gordon White’s concept of civil society improving the quality of governance within democracy contains four possible ways: First, civil society can have influence on the balance of power between state and society for its own advantage. Civil society can, secondly, play a disciplinary role by enforcing moral standards and improving accountability of politicians and administrators. Third, civil society is an “intermediary or transmission-belt between state and society” (White 2004: p. 14) by expressing demands and interests of sectors of the population and functioning as an alternative principle of representation complementary to periodic elections and as an additional mechanism for strengthening democratic accountability (White 2004: pp. 14-15)

Besides this optimistic view on civil society the relation between state and civil society can be negative for governability of a state, if civil society polarizes conflicts (White 2004: p. 15), as it is the case in Somalia where the clan system is contributing to political instability due to the conflicts about scarce resources between the different warlords. According to Gordon White, civil society plays a constitutive role by redefining the rules along democratic lines. With “Along democratic lines” White comes out as a real liberal in assuming that civil society is democratic per se. The argument by Dwayne Woods, the African civil society is fighting for the principle of political accountability of the state elite (White 2004: p. 15) can be contested by the example of Somalia where the civil society is far away from being democratic only because they are autonomous, like the liberal concepts of civil society claim. According to White it is not about a “strong” or “weak” civil society. As only those with greater capacity and access related to the socio-economic context find it easier to organize effectively, only certain types of civil society can perform social empowerment and democratization (White 2004: 12)

For White a constitutive effect of civil society on democracy depends on the constellation of the three dimensions of the political impact (interest, norms, power) between the constituent parts of civil society (White 2004: 16). Even in his hypothesis of “a transition from a previous political situation characterized by state dominance and “traditional” social relations (pre-modern or pre-capitalist) to an emergent situation in which new forms of civil society, reflecting a new pattern of socio-economic relations and institutions, serve to transform the state and their relations with it” (White 2004: pp. 18-19) he presumes already existing institutions reflected by civil society when “transforming” the state. He totally misses out the case of failed states where no institutions exist which can be reflected by civil society.

According to Laurence Whitehead incivility in modern democracies steers the course of democratic government which can lead to conflicts due to the claims for allegiance of both the civil society and political democracy. But Schmitter sees a positive effect on democracy in the long run even if he acknowledges the separateness of the both societies. But there can be negative effects on democracy as well: the unequal distribution of power in the policy process can induce an abstruse process of compromise upon political life and may prove existence of several civil societies (Whitehead 2004: pp. 33-34).

Civil society as “bearer of liberty” is threatened in its autonomy by the overbearing state but can be a threat as well in weakening the state. Like for Gordon White, for Laurence Whitehead it is not only about “strong” civil society but depends on the form if civil society is contributing to consolidation of high quality democracy. Civil society has to be tested and evaluated according to the quality of its potential positive or negative contribution to democracy and can be characterized by its capacity for deliberation and for collective action (Whitehead 2004: pp. 34-36)

In stating that some forms of discussion within civil society are not illegal in a democracy but nevertheless “uncivil” and giving religious topics as example, Whitehead comes out as a strong liberal as well, who exclude hierarchic parts like the church as uncivil. He states that precise boundary between civil and uncivil hard to define but that “uncivil interstices between civil and political society” are of “great significance for quality and stability of democracy as a whole” (Whitehead 2004: pp. 35- 36). Whiteheads conclusion is that “those forms of civil society which can cope best with the pressures of uncivil majoritarianism have best prospects to organize themselves against threats of coherently, intrusive state, inertia of unthinking tradition and insecurity, rootlessness, arbitrariness and “social cannibalism” associated with many post-transition liberalized societies”. (Whitehead 2004: p. 39)


Excerpt out of 11 pages


State, Civil Society and Democratization in the Third World
A Course Report
Stockholm University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
state, civil, society, democratization, third, world, course, report
Quote paper
Dipl.-Pol. Sylvia Stützer (Author), 2008, State, Civil Society and Democratization in the Third World, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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