A critique of the concept of ‘civil society’

Excerpted from the recently deceased Ellen Meiksins Wood:

“However constructive its uses in defending human liberties against state oppression, or in marking out a terrain of social practices, institutions, and relations neglected by the “old” Marxist left, “civil society” is now in danger of becoming an alibi for capitalism.

Gramsci’s conception of “civil society” was unambiguously intended as a weapon against capitalism, not an accommodation to it. Despite the appeal to his authority which has become a staple of the “new revisionism,” the concept in its current usage no longer has this unequivocally anticapitalist intent. It has now acquired a whole new set of meanings and consequences, some very positive for the emancipatory projects of the Left, others far less so.

The two contrary impulses can be summed up in this way: the new concept of civil society signals that the Left has learned the lessons of liberalism about the dangers of state oppression, but we seem to be forgetting the lessons we once learned from the socialist tradition about the oppressions of civil society. On the one hand, the advocates of civil society are strengthening our defense of non-state institutions and relations against the power of the state; on the other hand, they are tending to weaken our resistance to the coercions of capitalism.

“Civil society” has given private property and its possessors a command over people and their daily lives, a power accountable to no one, which many an old tyrannical state would have envied. Those activities and experiences which fall outside the immediate command structure of the capitalist enterprise, or outside the political power of capital, are regulated by the dictates of the market, the necessities of competition and profitability.

Even when the market is not, as it commonly is in advanced capitalist societies, merely an instrument of power for giant conglomerates and multinational corporations, it is still a coercive force, capable of subjecting all human values, activities, and relationships to its imperatives. No ancient despot could have hoped to penetrate the personal lives of his subjects — their choices, preferences, and relationships — in the same comprehensive and minute detail, not only in the workplace but in every corner of their lives.

Coercion, in other words, has been not just a disorder of “civil society” but one of its constitutive principles. This historical reality tends to undermine the neat distinctions required by current theories which ask us to treat civil society as, at least in principle, the sphere of freedom and voluntary action, the antithesis of the irreducibly coercive principle which intrinsically belongs to the state.

These theories do, of course, acknowledge that civil society is not a realm of perfect freedom or democracy. It is, for example, marred by oppression in the family, in gender relations, in the workplace, by racist attitudes, homophobia, and so on. But these oppressions are treated as dysfunctions in civil society. In principle, coercion belongs to the state while civil society is where freedom is rooted, and human emancipation, according to these arguments, consists in the autonomy of civil society, its expansion and enrichment, its liberation from the state, and its protection by formal democracy.

What tends to disappear from view, again, is the relations of exploitation and domination which irreducibly constitute civil society, not just as some alien and correctible disorder but as its very essence, the particular structure of domination and coercion that is specific to capitalism as a systemic totality.

What is alarming about these theoretical developments is not that they violate some doctrinaire Marxist prejudice concerning the privileged status of class. Of course, the whole object of the exercise is to sideline class, to dissolve it in all-embracing categories which deny it any privileged status, or even any political relevance at all. But that is not the real problem.

The problem is that theories which do not differentiate — and, yes, “privilege,” if that means ascribing causal or explanatory priorities — among various social institutions and “identities” cannot deal critically with capitalism at all. The consequence of these procedures is to sweep the whole question under the rug.”