How to distinguish civic society from the private sector?

We have to remember that historically, civil society actually meant the private sector, but this was a private sector consisting of propertied individuals and some powerful institutions such as the Church; most people, slaves, women, non-propertied workers and farmers, where not part of civil society. This only changed when, through many decades of popular struggles, active citizenship rights were extended , creating a more vibrant civil society, with many new types of social institutions such as nonprofits, parties, but also many informal associations and relationships, now very evident through peer production. Nevertheless despite these gains in rights which insure formal equality in citizenship, civil society remains a deeply divided reality. In many countries, especially in the South, the very notion of civil society is contested because it still retains powerful exclusionary mechanisms.

I think we can adapt two changes to the concept, so that it retains its value, as I think we need a concept that describes what does not belong neither to the collective state nor to private profit maximisation, but describes activities that directly benefit the common good. The first is to use the concept of civiC, rather than civil society, as this clearly links it with equal citizenship and popular sovereignty.

The second change is that we have to imperatively exclude activities for private gain from the realm of civic society.

This then gives us the triarchy:

1) of the state, as representative institution (at least in democracies), that is formally in charge of the overall collective good, though of course in reality we know that it carries out this function for the benefit of ruling oligarchies, which means this function must be reclaimed (and transformed) in the interest of the citizens.

2) that of the private sector, which contains profit-maximising enterprises only concerned with their own private advancement, and therefore, not acting as citizens; these activities need to be transformed, so that they can no longer ignore positive and negative social externalities

3) civic society then, is reserved for all those individual and collective entities which act directly from a perspective of the common good, through self-action and self-expression instead of representation (which distinguishes it from the state), and this can include market actions, on the very important condition that these are subsumed under the common good, i.e. undertaken by mission-oriented entities, for which the market activity is a means to an end, and not an end in itself or a means for profit maximisation.

6 Comments How to distinguish civic society from the private sector?

  1. AvatarRichard C Adler

    A very welcome idea.

    My one hesitation concerning this redefinition of ‘civic society’ is that one’s identity as a citizen typically includes the right to vote and engage in other forms of political engagement that necessarily involve the state. If I follow you properly, in this schema those activities would belong to the first category more than the third?

    If so, it offers the interesting opportunity to define ‘citizen’ exclusively in other, non-state terms. Which, of course, can be done, but the material one has to work with at the start (if one begins with the usual, received definitions of citizenship) seems a bit anemic, at least from an American perspective. This, in itself, is a useful realization.

  2. AvatarPoor Richard


    I’m not to keen on the public-private-civic triarchy because most activities involve two or three in combination. The current state in the US is a hybrid of all three. If you reformed the state in the ways you suggest it might merge with civic. Private could also be reformed to merge into civic.

    In a sustainable, steady-state economy “profit” or surplus would have little role. Resources would best be left in nature until needed because as a highly efficient self-organizing and self-optimizing system nature’s “savings account” would pay better interest than alternative methods of investing any surplus.

    For analyzing organized socio-economic activity my favorite triarchy is 1) objectives & values, 2) organizational structure, and 3) forms of ownership.

    1. Objectives and values define the purpose of an organization and support “management by objectives.” Objectives and values provide the means to measure success and failure and the means for implementing quality control and continuous improvement (concepts perhaps best elaborated by W.E. Deming).

    2. Organizational structure. This is often poorly matched to objectives and values. One of the best introductions to organizational structure I know is “The Limits of Organization” by Ken Arrow. He identifies the real working parts & processes of an organization– things like shared goal setting and decision making, information flow, accountability, and feedback loops.

    3. Forms of ownership. This also is often poorly matched with the objectives and values. It applies to the organization as a whole as well as resources acquired, used, and exchanged. Choices of forms of ownership often reflect the requirements of other entities with which an organization will interact.

    There is a large catalog of “off-the-shelf” forms of organization and ownership as well as exotic forms and infinitely customizable hybrids.

    This is a vast palette of options that can be used to create any organization for any purpose. When I look at organizations this way, the distinctions of public-private-civic seem to dissolve and I see flow charts and schematics on which there can be elements of all three.

    This way of looking at organizations might possibly be useful for gradually merging both public and private into civic because the flow-chart view makes it more obvious where and how the logical “plumbing and wiring” of organizations are compatible and incompatible, how they overlap, where interfaces exist or need to be added, etc.


  3. AvatarMarvin Brown

    Finding the right terms and relations is not easy here. Perhaps the first choice is how to think about it all. I have tried to think contextually, which means to look at how some things are embedded in others. Property ownership, for example, is only possible because of governments that protect property rights. This means that membership precedes ownership, except in situations where might makes right.

    So I think about the civic as the context for the commercial. This civic foundation, of course, has been dominated by the commercial, for the most part, and yet, I think the civic does refer to the basis for market activity, but is not itself subject to market exchanges. This civic is also the foundation of political institutions and practices. My point is that the commercial belongs to or is embedded in the civic, which is now implicitly true but mostly ignored, and needs to be made explicit and recognized as the basis for global citizens working toward democratic practices in all governing institutions.

    These governing organizations and institutions, both commercial and political, should be seen today as belonging to various “systems of provision” that provide us with what we have reason to value. These systems of provision are also finally guided by civic norms, such as reciprocity and moral equality. They can be directed by the three strategies of persuasion, incentives, and regulation (from K Boulding’s triad of integration, exchange, and threat). Now these three strategies may lead us to think of three different types of organizations, but I think they are present in all organizations, There are differences here. Political institutions have laws and the capacity to enforce laws, which give them the power to regulate commercial institutions if they have the will to do so.

    Finally, in the work of “civilizing the economy,” we need to see the economy as a social system. Society, as the location of all the structures of advantage and disadvantage, also needs be to civilized. Now we may point to some institutions, such as religions, that have been involved in such activities for a long time. Whether they actually promote a civic society or not depends on their adherence to civic norms, especially moral equality.

    I think the commons differs from the civic in the sense that the civic emerges from dealing (trading) with strangers. It is what makes us global citizens: members of the city. It is as citizens that we need to protect and to decide how to use what the commons provides us.

    Michael, you use more terms than I have included in this response, but this seems long enough for now.



  4. AvatarMichel Bauwens

    Dear Marvin, thanks for this enlightening reply. If you like to add the other terms in the discussion, I could publish the whole thing as a new blog entry. What do think?


  5. AvatarMarvin Brown

    How we understand the notion of the private and the private sector is central is our thinking here, and one I did not address in the previous response.

    The private, for of all, refers to our duty to respect the autonomy of each individual. Article 12 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights reads in part: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.” In the Anglo-American tradition, this notion of privacy is sometimes connected with ownership of one’s self (John Locke), but it is more accurate to connect it with human dignity and moral equality.

    So what is the meaning of “private property” today? If we look at where we live, for example, we can see the dwelling as a home, a house, and a piece of real estate (property). Privacy belongs to the home, and is not dependent on ownership. The house belongs to both an urban and a natural environment, and needs to fit in with these environments. As real estate, it is a piece of property, and it could be “owned” by the state, a cooperative, or individuals. Let me say that we own our house. I think family ownership is fine as part of a plan to manage a housing system of provision, but that may change as we direct this system toward justice and sustainability. In any case, we can say that the home is the location of privacy, the house must fit urban and environmental standards, and the “property” should be managed for this and future generations.

    So what about a “private sector”? If the commercial belongs to and is dependent on the civic, and if commercial organizations (businesses) belong to systems of provision (such as the food or housing system), then what are we to make of the “private sector”? I am not sure.

    I think a civic economy can embrace different kinds of ownership, including cooperatives, families, and investor owned businesses (public corporations). Ownership does have its privileges, but also its civic and legal obligations. As we know,ownership requires a legal title, so owners have duties to communities. Still, they also have some autonomy to “run their businesses” as they see fit. In this sense, owner autonomy should be protected, which requires enforced property rights. Still, these property rights must be correctly seen as grounded in civic norms and political decisions.

    In Indo-European languages, we think in triads. It is the character and limits of our linguistic structure. There may be other languages that are better at sorting out our life together, but we work with what we have. Plato’s triad was rulers, warriors, and workers: a top-down view. We are trying to craft a bottom-up view, beginning with the common, moving to the civic, and then allowing the civic to serve as the context for the commercial and the political. ‘

    Look forward to your responses.


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