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Civil Society and Community Organizations

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    Jurgen Kocka’s “Civil Society from a Historical Perspective” gives a very detailed definition of the term ‘civil society’, a complex, ambiguous concept whose meaning oscillates between cultures and, at times, refers more broadly to a social sphere. Kocka achieves this by not only providing the historical context of the term but also illustrating its relationship to the market as well as to the state. Kocka further defines the term ‘civil society’ as three interconnected parts that comprises a whole; 1) a social action, 2) a social sphere that is simultaneously “connected to but separate from economy, state, and the private sector” (p. 68), and 3) a project, akin to the rough draft of an unfinished manuscript, with some utopian elements that have not yet been entirely fulfilled.

    According to Kocka, social action takes on many forms and is present in government administration, politics, commercial businesses, and family relations. Key characteristics of ‘civil society’ include 1) an emphasis on individual independence and social self-organization, 2) proceeds non-violently and peacefully, and 3) “works actively toward the common good based on the particular experience and interests of each individual” (p. 69) among other things. One prime example of the civil society type of social action that Kocka refers to, from other readings, would be the bowling clubs of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”. In “Bowling Alone”, Putnam posits that sturdier networks of civic engagement and social connectedness have a powerful influence on the quality of public life and performance of social institutions, and communities with an abundance of said social capital tend be more successful. Furthermore, Putnam suggests that the declining participation of civic and fraternal organizations correlates with the decline in civic engagements among Americans. Specifically, Putnam highlights the decline influence of bowling clubs in America. On a micro level, bowling clubs serves as a social space for people to participate in a mutual hobby and, as Putnam points out, allows for “social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo”. (Putnam, p. 6)

    Historically, during the Enlightenment period, the term ‘civil society’ referred to a utopian plan for future people to live together peacefully, free, and independently cooperative under rule of law. It was over time that the concept came to be a contrast to the concept of ‘the state’, or specifically an absolutist state. Capitalism and the market economy, at this time, had not yet gained its currently recognized influence on governmental administration and politics. It was, in part, due to the structures of civil society that allowed the market economy to succeed and its influence to grow. Thus, despite the emphasis on the independent individual and the contrast between civil society and the state, there is a great deal of parallel between civil society, the market economy, and the state. As Kocka mentioned, this parallelism is best illustrated by the fact that early in the 19th century merchants and manufacturers were most involved in civil society as both private individuals and in their roles within commerce.

    Across New York City, buildings and landmarks serve as reminders of those wealthy patronages. Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, for an example, used her influence as former First Lady of the United States and wealth through her marriage to Aristotle Onassis, a wealthy shipping magnate, to save various famous landmarks across New York City—one of which was Grand Central Station. The David H. Koch Theatre, affiliated with the Lincoln Center of Performing Arts, became so after the Koch family pledged $100 million over ten years for renovations and maintenance endowment. Wealthy patrons also fund grants as well for individual scholarships and nonprofit organizations. In fact, while nonprofit organizations do receive various forms of public grants, many organizations rely heavily on private donations from wealthy patrons. As Kocka points out, that is not to say we should celebrate all forms of patronages from the ultra-wealthy as civil social engagement, but it would be just as false to dismiss every act of corporate citizenship since they are equally as important within the structures of civil society.

    Lastly, Kocka refers to civil society as a project with complex, moving parts that have not yet been entirely fulfilled. It is akin to the draft of working manuscript which contains the skeletons of a future completed book. As such, civil society remains the utopian concept of the Enlightenment period; a plan for future people to live together peacefully, free, and independently cooperative under of law.

    In “Citizenship and Social Class”, T.H. Marshall outlined three dimensions of citizenship illustrated in an evolutionary sequence spanning approximately three centuries, starting first in the late seventeenth century. According to Marshall, these three dimensions were inexplicably linked to one another; the rights of each one subsequently leading to the development of the one that followed after it, forming the notion of modern ‘citizenship’. Marshall posited that modern citizenship and, by extension, modern social rights were at odds (or, in his words, “at war”) with the inequalities built into a capitalist system. Furthermore, Marshall argued that social citizenship at its core served to mitigate the inequalities for which capitalist society was built upon. Thus, the vitality of civil society is dependent upon the expansion and strengthening of social citizenship.

    Within Marshall’s evolution of modern citizenship, civil citizenship developed first as early as the seventeenth century. Civil citizenship more plainly referred to the rule of law, the consolidation of the rule of law, and equality of man before the law. The rights imbued in civil citizenship include the right to liberty, speech, property. In its early form, civil citizenship grew alongside capitalist society “as allies” according to Marshall. At this point in time, civil citizenship was not a threat to capitalist society and was “necessary in the maintenance of that particular form of inequality”. (p.150) The core principle of civil citizenship, however, served as the catalyst for the development of political citizenship; if every citizen was indeed equal before the law, then suffrage was only natural and inevitable. Political citizenship was accomplished subsequently through various reforms that granted suffrage to women and later people of color.

    Once more, the principle of political citizenship served as the catalyst for the final dimension of Marshall’s evolutionary sequence: social citizenship. It implied that if every citizen was indeed equal before the law and able to choose their legislative representation, then they should also be equipped with the proper knowledge to conduct their civic responsibilities and enjoy their rights as citizens. Therefore, a decent education, in theory, should be a natural born right of all citizens. An uneducated citizenry would not be in the best position to choose their legislative representation. If we were to draw from contemporary history, it was popularly referenced in the 2016 election US general election that the average supporter for Donald Trump had only a high school diploma. President Trump was largely popular in rural, economically depressed areas of the United States hit hardest by the 2008 recession and low-income Caucasian voters who felt marginalized by neo-liberal, urban Democrats because he played into their xenophobia and distrust of the Democratic Party.

    In theory, providing a decent education to all citizens would allow them to more intelligent choices when voting. Without an education, citizens might otherwise disregard logic and vote against their best interest.

    Some scholars might argue that the expansion of social citizenship undermines civil society. However, I believe the expansion of social citizenship only enhances the vitality of civil society. A decent education, for an example, not only equips citizens with the knowledge to conduct their civic duties, it enables citizens to better exercise their individual rights to liberty, free speech, religion, and property. An educated citizenry is also needed to sustain the market economy which is the foundation of capitalist society. Social citizenship, when combined with the other elements of citizenship, allows civil society flourish and its citizens to then thrive.

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    Civil Society and Community Organizations. (2021, Aug 30). Retrieved from

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