�Civil Society and the Politics of Identity ::: International Endowment for Democracy
International Endowment for Democracy
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Civil Society and the Politics of Identity

By Ellen Meiksins Wood
From Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. Cambridge University Press, 1995. Chapter 8, pp. 238-263.

At a time when a critique of capitalism is more urgent than ever, the dominant theoretical trends on the left are busy conceptualizing away the very idea of capitalism. The 'post-modern' world, we are told, is a pastiche of fragments and 'difference'. The systemic unity of capitalism, its 'objective structures' and totalizing imperatives, have given way (if they ever existed) to a bricolage of multiple social realities, a pluralistic structure so diverse and flexible that it can be rearranged by discursive construction. The traditional capitalist economy has been replaced by a 'post-Fordist' fragmentation, where every fragment opens up a space for emancipatory struggles. The constitutive class relations of capitalism represent only one personal 'identity' among many others, no longer 'privileged' by its historic centrality. And so on.

However diverse the methods of conceptually dissolving capitalism¡ªincluding everything from the theory of post-Fordism to post-modern 'cultural studies' and the 'politics of identity'¡ªthey often share one especially serviceable concept: 'civil society'. After a long and somewhat tortuous history, after a series of milestones in the works of Hegel, Marx and Gramsci, this versatile idea has become an all-purpose catchword for the left, embracing a wide range of emancipatory aspirations, as well¡ªit must be said¡ªas a whole set of excuses for political retreat. However constructive this idea may be 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.


There has been a long intellectual tradition in the West, even reaching back to classical antiquity, which has in various ways delineated a terrain of human association, some notion of 'society', distinct from the body politic and with moral claims independent of, and sometimes opposed to, the state's authority. Whatever other factors have been at work in producing such concepts, their evolution has been from the beginning bound up with the development of private property as a distinct and autonomous locus of social power. For example, although the ancient Romans, like the Greeks, still tended to identify the state with the community of citizens, the 'Roman people', they did produce some major advances in the conceptual separation of state and 'society', especially in the Roman Law which distinguished between public and private spheres and gave private property a legal status and clarity it had never enjoyed before.1

In that sense, although the modern concept of 'civil society' is associated with the specific property relations of capitalism, it is a variation on an old theme. Nevertheless, the variation is a critical one; and any attempt to dilute the specificity of this 'civil society', to obscure its differentiation from earlier conceptions of 'society', risks disguising the particularity of capitalism itself as a distinct social form with its own characteristic social relations, its own modes of appropriation and exploitation, its own rules of reproduction, its own systemic imperatives.2

The very particular modern conception of 'civil society'¡ªa conception that appeared systematically for the first time in the eighteenth century¡ªis something quite distinct from earlier notions of 'society': civil society represents a separate sphere of human relations and activity, differentiated from the state but neither public nor private or perhaps both at once, embodying not only a whole range of social interactions apart from the private sphere of the household and the public sphere of the state, but more specifically a network of distinctively economic relations, the sphere of the market place, the arena of production, distribution and exchange. A necessary but not sufficient pre-condition for this conception of civil society was the modern idea of the state as an abstract entity with its own corporate identity, which evolved with the rise of European absolutism; but the full conceptual differentiation of 'civil society' required the emergence of an autonomous 'economy', separated out from the unity of the 'political' and 'economic' which still characterized the absolutist state.

Paradoxically¡ªor perhaps not so paradoxically¡ªthe early usages of the term 'civil society' in the birthplace of capitalism, in early modern England, far from establishing an opposition between civil society and the state, conflated the two. In sixteenth and seventeenth century English political thought, 'civil society' was typically synonymous with the 'commonwealth' or 'political society'. This conflation of state and 'society' represented the subordination of the state to the community of private-property holders (as against both monarch and 'multitude') which constituted the political nation. It reflected a unique political dispensation, in which the dominant class depended for its wealth and power increasingly on purely 'economic' modes of appropriation, instead of on directly coercive 'extra-economic' modes of accumulation by political and military means, like feudal rent taking or absolutist taxation and office holding as primary instruments of private appropriation.

But if English usage tended to blur the distinction between state and civil society, it was English conditions¡ªthe very same system of property relations and capitalist appropriation, but now more advanced and with a more highly developed market mechanism¡ªthat made possible the modern conceptual opposition between the two. When Hegel constructed his conceptual dichotomy, Napoleon was his inspiration for the 'modern' state; but it was primarily the capitalist economy of England¡ªthrough the medium of classical political economists like Smith and Steuart¡ªthat provided the model of 'civil society' (with certain distinctively Hegelian corrections and improvements).

Hegel's identification of 'civil' with 'bourgeois' society was more than just a fluke of the German language. The phenomenon which he designated by the term burgerliche Gesellschaft was a historically specific social form. Although this 'civil society' did not refer exclusively to purely 'economic' institutions (it was, for example, supplemented by Hegel's modern adaptation of medieval corporate principles), the modern 'economy' was its essential condition. For Hegel, the possibility of preserving both individual freedom and the 'universality' of the state, instead of subordinating one to the other as earlier societies had done, rested on the emergence of a new class and a whole new sphere of social existence: a distinct and autonomous 'economy'. It was in this new sphere that private and public, particular and universal, could meet through the interaction of private interests, on a terrain that was neither household nor state but a mediation between the two.

Marx, of course, transformed Hegel's distinction between the state and civil society by denying the universality of the state and insisting that the state expressed the particularities of 'civil society' and its class relations, a discovery that compelled him to devote his life's work to exploring the anatomy of 'civil society' in the form of a critique of political economy. The conceptual differentiation of state and civil society was thus a pre-condition to Marx's analysis of capitalism, but the effect of that analysis was to deprive the Hegelian distinction of its rationale. The state-civil society dualism more or less disappeared from the mainstream of political discourse.

It required Gramsci's reformulation to revive the concept of civil society as a central organizing principle of socialist theory. The object of this new formulation was to acknowledge both the complexity of political power in the parliamentary or constitutional states of the West, in contrast to more openly coercive autocracies, and the difficulty of supplanting a system of class domination in which class power has no clearly visible point of concentration in the state but is diffused throughout society and its cultural practices. Gramsci thus appropriated the concept of civil society to mark out the terrain of a new kind of struggle which would take the battle against capitalism not only to its economic foundations but to its cultural and ideological roots in everyday life.


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 contemporary social theories of the left, the concept in its current usage no longer has this unequivocally anti-capitalist 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 defence 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.

The concept of 'civil society' is being mobilized to serve so many varied purposes that it is impossible to isolate a single school of thought associated with it; but some common themes have emerged. 'Civil society' is generally intended to identify an arena of (at least potential) freedom outside the state, a space for autonomy, voluntary association and plurality or even conflict, guaranteed by the kind of 'formal democracy' that has evolved in the West. The concept is also meant to reduce the capitalist system (or the 'economy') to one of many spheres in the plural and heterogeneous complexity of modern society. The concept of 'civil society' can achieve this effect in one of two principal ways. It can be made to designate that multiplicity itself as against the coercions of both state and capitalist economy; or, more commonly, it can encompass the 'economy' within a larger sphere of multiple non-state institutions and relations.3 In either case, the emphasis is on the plurality of social relations and practices among which the capitalist economy takes its place as one of many.

The principal current usages proceed from the distinction between civil society and state. 'Civil society' is defined by the advocates of this distinction in terms of a few simple oppositions: for example, 'the state (and its military, policing, legal, administrative, productive, and cultural organs) and the non-state (market-regulated, privately controlled or voluntarily organized) realm of civil society';4 or 'political' versus 'social' power, 'public' versus 'private' law, 'state-sanctioned (dis)information and propaganda' versus 'freely circulated public opinion'.5 In this definition, 'civil society' encompasses a very wide range of institutions and relations, from households, trade unions, voluntary associations, hospitals, churches, to the market, capitalist enterprises, indeed the whole capitalist economy. The significant antitheses are simply state and non-state, or perhaps political and social.

This dichotomy apparently corresponds to the opposition between coercion, as embodied in the state, and freedom or voluntary action, which belongs in principle, if not necessarily in practice, to civil society. Civil society may be in various ways and degrees submerged or eclipsed by the state, and different political systems or whole 'historical regions' may vary according to the degree of 'autonomy' which they accord to the non-state sphere. It is a special characteristic of the West, for example, that it has given rise to a uniquely well-developed separation of state and civil society, and hence a particularly advanced form of political freedom.

The advocates of this state-civil society distinction generally ascribe to it two principal benefits. First, it focuses our attention on the dangers of state oppression and on the need to set proper limits on the actions of the state, by organizing and reinforcing the pressures against it within society. In other words, it revives the liberal concern with the limitation and legitimation of political power, and especially the control of such power by freedom of association and autonomous organization within society, too often neglected by the left in theory and practice. Second, the concept of civil society recognizes and celebrates difference and diversity. Its advocates make pluralism a primary good, in contrast, it is claimed, to Marxism, which is, they say, essentially monistic, reductionist, economistic.6 This new pluralism invites us to appreciate a whole range of institutions and relations neglected by traditional socialism in its preoccupation with the economy and class.

The impetus to the revival of this conceptual dichotomy has come from several directions. The strongest impulse undoubtedly came from Eastern Europe, where 'civil society' was a major weapon in the ideological arsenal of opposition forces against state oppression. Here, the issues were fairly clear: the state¡ªincluding both its political and economic apparatuses of domination¡ªcould be more or less unambiguously set against a (potentially) free space outside the state. The civil society/state antithesis could, for example, be said to correspond neatly to the opposition of Solidarity to Party and State.7

The crisis of the Communist states has, needless to say, also left a deep impression on the Western left, converging with other influences: the limitations of social democracy, with its unbounded faith in the state as the agent of social improvement, as well as the emergence of emancipatory struggles by social movements not based on class, with a sensitivity to dimensions of human experience all too often neglected by the traditional socialist left. These heightened sensitivities to the dangers posed by the state and to the complexities of human experience have been associated with a wide range of activisms, taking in everything from feminism, ecology and peace, to constitutional reform. Each of these projects has often drawn upon the concept of civil society.

No socialist can doubt the value of these new sensitivities, but there must be serious misgivings about this particular method of focusing our attention on them. We are being asked to pay a heavy price for the all-embracing concept of 'civil society'. This conceptual portmanteau, which indiscriminately lumps together everything from households and voluntary associations to the economic system of capitalism, confuses and disguises as much as it reveals. In Eastern Europe, it can be made to apprehend everything from the defence of political rights and cultural freedoms to the marketization of post-Communist economies and the restoration of capitalism. 'Civil society' can serve as a code word or cover for capitalism, and the market can be lumped together with other less ambiguous goods, like political and intellectual liberties, as an unequivocally desirable goal.

But if the dangers of this conceptual strategy and of assigning the market to the free space of 'civil society' appear to pale before the enormity of Stalinist oppression in the East, problems of an altogether different order arise in the West, where a fully developed capitalism does actually exist and where state oppression is not an immediate and massive evil which overwhelms all other social ills. Since in this case 'civil society' is made to encompass a whole layer of social reality that did not exist in Communist societies, the implications of its usage are in some important respects even more problematic.

Here, the danger lies in the fact that the totalizing logic and the coercive power of capitalism become invisible, when the whole social system of capitalism is reduced to one set of institutions and relations among many others, on a conceptual par with households or voluntary associations. Such a reduction is, in fact, the principal distinctive feature of 'civil society' in its new incarnation. Its effect is to conceptualize away the problem of capitalism, by disaggregating society into fragments, with no overarching power structure, no totalizing unity, no systemic coercions¡ªin other words, no capitalist system, with its expansionary drive and its capacity to penetrate every aspect of social life.

It is a typical strategy of the 'civil society' argument¡ªindeed, its raison d'être¡ªto attack Marxist 'reductionism' or 'economism'. Marxism, it is said, reduces civil society to the 'mode of production', the capitalist economy. 'The importance of other institutions of civil society¡ªsuch as households, churches, scientific and literary associations, prisons and hospitals¡ªis devalued'.8

Whether or not Marxists have habitually paid too little attention to these 'other' institutions, the weakness of this juxtaposition (the capitalist economy and 'other institutions' like hospitals?) should be immediately apparent. It must surely be possible even for non-Marxists to acknowledge, for example, the very simple truth that in the West hospitals are situated within a capitalist economy which has profoundly affected the organization of health care and the nature of medical institutions. But is it possible to conceive of an analogous proposition about the effects of hospitals on capitalism? Does this observation about 'other institutions' mean that Marx did not value households and hospitals, or is it rather that he did not attribute to them the same historically determinative force? Is there no basis for distinguishing among these various 'institutions' on all sorts of quantitative and qualitative grounds, from size and scope to social power and historical efficacy? Typically, the current usage of 'civil society' evades questions like this. It also has the effect of confusing the moral claims of 'other' institutions with their determinative power, or rather of dismissing altogether the essentially empirical question of historical and social determinations.

There is another version of the argument which, instead of simply evading the systemic totality of capitalism, explicitly denies it. The very existence of other modes of domination than class relations. other principles of stratification than class inequality, other social struggles than class struggle, is taken to demonstrate that capitalism. whose constitutive relation is class, is not a totalizing system. The Marxist preoccupation with 'economic' relations and class at the expense of other social relations and identities is understood to demonstrate that the attempt to 'totalize all society from the standpoint of one sphere, the economy or the mode of production', is misconceived for the simple reason that other 'spheres' self-evidently exist.9

This argument is circular and question begging. To deny the totalizing logic of capitalism, it is not enough merely to indicate the plurality of social identities and relations. The class relation that constitutes capitalism is not, after all, just a personal identity, nor even just a principle of 'stratification' or inequality. It is not only a specific system of power relations but also the constitutive relation of a distinctive social process, the dynamic of accumulation and the self-expansion of capital. Of course it can be easily¡ªself-evidently¡ªshown that class is not the only principle of 'stratification', the only form of inequality and domination. But this tells us virtually nothing about the totalizing logic of capitalism.

To deny the totalizing logic of capitalism, it would have to be convincingly demonstrated that these other spheres and identities do not come¡ªor not in any significant way¡ªwithin the determinative force of capitalism, its system of social property relations, its expansionary imperatives, its drive for accumulation, its commodification of all social life, its creation of the market as a necessity, a compulsive mechanism of competition and self-sustaining 'growth'. and so on. But 'civil society' arguments (or, indeed, 'post-Marxist' arguments in general) do not typically take the form of historically and empirically refuting the determinative effects of capitalist relations. Instead (when they do not take the simple circular form: capitalism is not a totalizing system because spheres other than the economy exist) they tend to proceed as abstract philosophical arguments, as internal critiques of Marxist theory, or, most commonly, as moral prescriptions about the dangers of devaluing 'other' spheres of human experience.

In one form or another, capitalism is cut down to the size and weight of 'other' singular and specific institutions and disappears into a conceptual night where all cats are grey. The strategy of dissolving capitalism into an unstructured and undifferentiated plurality of social institutions and relations cannot help but weaken both the analytic and the normative force of 'civil society', its capacity to deal with the limitation and legitimation of power, as well as its usefulness in guiding emancipatory projects. The current theories occlude 'civil society' in its distinctive sense as a social form specific to capitalism, a systemic totality within which all 'other' institutions are situated and all social forces must find their way, a specific and unprecedented sphere of social power, which poses wholly new problems of legitimation and control, problems not addressed by traditional theories of the state nor by contemporary liberalism.


One of the principal charges levelled against Marxism by the advocates of 'civil society' is that it endangers democratic freedoms by identifying Western 'formal democracy'¡ªthe legal and political forms that guarantee a free space for 'civil society'¡ªwith capitalism: 'civil' equals 'bourgeois' society. The danger, they claim, is that we might be tempted to throw out the baby with the bath water, to reject liberal democracy together with capitalism)10 We should instead, they argue, acknowledge the benefits of formal democracy, while expanding its principles of individual freedom and equality by dissociating them from capitalism in order to deny that capitalism is the sole or best means of advancing these principles.

It must be said that criticism of contemporary Western Marxism on these grounds must disregard the bulk of Marxist political theory since the sixties, and especially since the theory of the state was revived by the 'Miliband-Poulantzas' debate. Certainly civil liberties were a major preoccupation of both the principals in that controversy, and of many others who have followed in their train. Even the contention that 'classical' Marxism¡ªin the person of Marx or Engels¡ªwas too indifferent to civil liberties is open to question. But without reducing this discussion to a merely textual debate about the Marxist ('classical' or contemporary) attitude to 'bourgeois' liberties, let us accept that all socialists, Marxist or otherwise, must uphold civil liberties (now commonly, if somewhat vaguely, called 'human rights'), principles of legality, freedom of speech and association, and the protection of a 'non-state' sphere against incursions by the state. We must acknowledge that some institutional protections of this kind are necessary conditions of any democracy, even though we may not accept the identification of democracy with, or its confinement to, the formal safeguards of 'liberalism', and even if we may believe that 'liberal' protections will have to take a different institutional form in socialist democracy than under capitalism.11

Difficulties nevertheless remain in the 'civil society' argument. There are other ways (indeed the principal ways in Marxist theory of associating 'formal democracy' with capitalism than by rejecting the one with the other. We can recognize the historical and structural connections without denying the value of civil liberties. An understanding of these connections does not compel us to devalue civil liberties, but nor does it oblige us to accept capitalism as the sole or best means of maintaining individual autonomy; and it leaves us perfectly free also to acknowledge that capitalism, while in certain historical conditions conducive to 'formal democracy', can easily do without it¡ªas it has done more than once in recent history. At any rate, not to see the connections, or to mistake their character, limits our understanding of both democracy and capitalism.

The historical and structural connection between formal democracy and capitalism can certainly be formulated with reference to the separation of the state from civil society. Much depends, however, on how we interpret that separation and the historical process that brought it about. There is a view of history, and a concomitant interpretation of the state-civil society separation, which cannot see the evolution of capitalism as anything but progressive. It is a view of history commonly associated with liberalism or 'bourgeois' ideology, but one that seems increasingly to underlie conceptions of democracy on the left.

The historical presuppositions underlying the advocacy of 'civil society' are seldom explicitly spelled out. There is, however, a particularly useful and sophisticated account by a Hungarian scholar, published in English translation in a volume devoted to reviving 'civil society' (East and West), which may serve as a model of the relevant historical interpretation. In an attempt to characterize three different 'historical regions of Europe'¡ªWestern and Eastern Europe and something in between -Jeno Szücs (following Istvan Bibo) offers the following account of the 'Western' model, in 'a search for the deepest roots of a "democratic way of organizing society"'.12 The most distinctive 'characteristic of the West is the structural¡ªand theoretical¡ªseparation of "society" from the "state"', a unique development which lies at the heart of Western democracy, while its corresponding absence in the East accounts for an evolution from autocracy to totalitarianism.13 The roots of this development, according to Szücs, lie in Western feudalism.

The uniqueness of Western history lay, according to this argument, in 'an entirely unusual "take-off" in the rise of civilizations. This take-off took place amidst disintegration instead of integration, and amidst declining civilization, re-agrarianization and mounting political anarchy'.14 This fragmentation and disintegration were the preconditions of the separation of 'society' and 'state'. In the high civilizations of the East, where no such separation took place, the political function continued to be exercised 'downwards from above'.

In the process of feudal 'fragmentation' in the West, the old political relations of states and subjects were replaced by new social ties, of a contractual nature, between lords and vassals. This substitution of social-contractual relations for political relations had among its major consequences a new principle of human dignity, freedom and the 'honour' of the individual. And the territorial disintegration into small units each with its own customary law produced a decentralization of law which could resist '"descending" mechanisms of exercising power'.15 When sovereignty was later reconstructed by the Western monarchies, the new state was essentially constituted 'vertically from below'.16 It was a 'unity in plurality' that made 'freedoms' the 'internal organizing principles' of Western social structure 'and led to something which drew the line so sharply between the medieval West and many other civilizations: the birth of "society" as an autonomous entity'.17

There is much in this argument that is truly illuminating, but equally instructive is the bias in its angle of vision. Here, in fact, are all the staples of liberal history: the progress of civilization (at least in the West) as an unambiguous ascent of individual 'freedom' and 'dignity' (if there is a critical difference between Szücs's account and the traditional liberal view, it is that the latter is more frank about the identification of individuality with private property); the prime focus on the tension between individual or 'society' and the state as the moving force of history; even¡ªand perhaps especially¡ªthe tendency to associate the advance of civilization, and democracy itself, with milestones in the ascent of the propertied classes. Although there was nothing democratic about the medieval West. Szücs concedes, this is where the 'deepest roots' of democracy are to be found. Although Szücs does not say it in so many words, it appears that the 'constitutive idea' of modern democracy was lordship.

Suppose we look at the same sequence of events from a different angle. Seen from another vantage point, the same 'fragmentation', the same replacement of political relations by social and contractual bonds, the same 'parcellization' of sovereignty, the same 'autonomy of society', even while their uniqueness and importance in the trajectory of Western development are acknowledged, can have very different consequences for our appreciation of 'civil society' and the development of Western democracy.The divergence of the 'West' from the 'Eastern' pattern of state formation began, of course, much earlier than medieval feudalism. It could be traced as far back as early Greek antiquity, but for our purposes a critical benchmark can be identified in ancient Rome. This divergence, it needs to be stressed, had to do not only with political forms but above all with modes of appropriation¡ªand here developments in the Roman system of private property were decisive. (It is a curious but 'symptomatic' feature of Szücs's argument that modes of appropriation and exploitation do not figure centrally, if at all, in his differentiation of the three historical regions of Europe¡ªwhich may also explain his insistence on a radical break between antiquity and feudalism. At the very least, the survival of Roman law, the quintessential symbol of the Roman property regime, should have signalled to Szücs some fundamental continuity between the Western 'autonomy' of civil society and the Roman system of appropriation.)Rome represents a striking contrast to other 'high' civilizations¡ªboth in the ancient world and centuries later¡ªwhere access to great wealth, to the surplus labour of others on a large scale, was typically achieved through the medium of the state (for example, late Imperial China, which had a highly developed system of private property but where great wealth and power resided not in land so much as in the state, in the bureaucratic hierarchy whose pinnacle was the court and imperial officialdom). Rome was distinctive in its emphasis on private property, on the acquisition of massive land holdings, as a means of appropriation. The Roman aristocracy had an insatiable appetite for land which created unprecedented concentrations of wealth and a predatory imperial power unrivalled by any other ancient empire in its hunger not simply for tribute but for territory. And it was Rome which extended its regime of private property throughout a vast and diverse empire, governed without a massive bureaucracy but instead through a 'municipal' system which effectively constituted a federation of local aristocracies. The result was a very specific combination of a strong imperial state and a dominant propertied class autonomous from it, a strong state which at the same time encouraged, instead of impeding, the autonomous development of private property. It was Rome, in short, that firmly and self-consciously established private property as an autonomous locus of social power, detached from, while supported by, the state.The 'fragmentation' of feudalism must be seen in this light, as rooted in the privatization of power already inherent in the Roman property system and in the Empire's fragmented 'municipal' administration. When the tensions between the Roman imperial state and the autonomous power of private property were finally resolved by the disintegration of the central state, the autonomous power of property remained. The old political relations of rulers and subjects were gradually dissolved into the 'social' relations between lords and vassals, and more particularly, lords and peasants. In the institution of lordship, political and economic powers were united as they had been where the state was a major source of private wealth; but this time, that unity existed in a fragmented and privatized form.Seen from this perspective, the development of the West can hardly be viewed as simply the rise of individuality, the rule of law, the progress of freedom or power from 'below'; and the autonomy of 'civil society' acquires a different meaning. The very developments described by Szücs in these terms are also, and at the same time, the evolution of new forms of exploitation and domination (the constitutive 'power from below' is, after all, the power of lordship), new relations of personal dependence and bondage, the privatization of surplus extraction and the transfer of ancient oppressions from the state to 'society'¡ªthat is, a transfer of power relations and domination from the state to private property. This new division of labour between state and 'society' also laid a foundation (as a necessary though not sufficient condition) for the increasing separation of private appropriation from public responsibilities which came to fruition in capitalism.Capitalism then represents the culmination of a long development, but it also constitutes a qualitative break (which occurred 'spontaneously' only in the particular historical conditions of England). Not only is it characterized by a transformation of social power, a new division of labour between state and private property or class, but it also marks the creation of a completely new form of coercion, the market¡ªthe market not simply as a sphere of opportunity, freedom and choice, but as a compulsion, a necessity, a social discipline, capable of subjecting all human activities and relationships to its requirements.


It is not, then, enough to say that democracy can be expanded by detaching the principles of 'formal democracy' from any association with capitalism. Nor is it enough to say that capitalist democracy is incomplete, one stage in an unambiguously progressive development which must be perfected by socialism and advanced beyond the limitations of 'formal democracy'. The point is rather that the association of capitalism with 'formal democracy' represents a contradictory unity of advance and retreat, both an enhancement and a devaluation of democracy. 'Formal democracy' certainly is an improvement on political forms lacking civil liberties, the rule of law and the principle of representation. But it is also, equally and at the same time, a subtraction from the substance of the democratic idea, and one which is historically and structurally associated with capitalism.18

I have already elaborated on some of these themes in previous chapters. Here, it is enough to note a certain paradox in the insistence that we should not allow our conception of human emancipation to be constrained by the identification of 'formal democracy' with capitalism. If we think of human emancipation as little more than an extension of liberal democracy, then we may in the end be persuaded to believe that capitalism is after all its surest guarantee.

The separation of the state and civil society in the West has certainly given rise to new forms of freedom and equality, but it has also created new modes of domination and coercion. One way of characterizing the specificity of 'civil society' as a particular social form unique to the modern world¡ªthe particular historical conditions that made possible the modern distinction between state and civil society¡ªis to say that it constituted a new form of social power, in which many coercive functions that once belonged to the state were relocated in the 'private' sphere, in private property, class exploitation, and market imperatives. It is, in a sense, this 'privatization' of public power that has created the historically novel realm of 'civil society'.

'Civil society' constitutes not only a wholly new relation between 'public' and 'private' but more precisely a wholly new 'private' realm, with a distinctive 'public' presence and oppressions of its own, a unique structure of power and domination, and a ruthless systemic logic. It represents a particular network of social relations which does not simply stand in opposition to the coercive, 'policing' and 'administrative' functions of the state but represents the relocation of these functions, or at least some significant part of them. It entails a new division of labour between the 'public' sphere of the state and the 'private' sphere of capitalist property and the imperatives of the market, in which appropriation, exploitation and domination are detached from public authority and social responsibility¡ªwhile these new private powers rely on the state to sustain them, by means of a more thoroughly concentrated power of enforcement than has ever existed before.

'Civil society' has given private property and its possessors a command over people and their daily lives, a power enforced by the state but accountable to no one, which many an old tyrannical state would have envied. Even those activities and experiences that fall outside the immediate command structure of the capitalist enterprise, or outside the very great 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 multi-national 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¡ªtheir life chances, choices, preferences, opinions and relationships¡ªin the same comprehensive and minute detail, not only in the workplace but in every corner of their lives. And the market has created new instruments of power to be manipulated not only by multi-national capital but by advanced capitalist states, which can act to impose draconian 'market disciplines' on other economies while often sheltering their own domestic capital. Coercion, in other words, has been not just a disorder of 'civil society' but one of its constitutive principles. For that matter, the coercive functions of the state have in large part been occupied with the enforcement of domination in civil society.

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. It is certainly true that in capitalist society, with its separation of 'political' and 'economic' spheres, or the state and civil society, coercive public power is centralized and concentrated to a greater degree than ever before, but this simply means that one of the principal functions of 'public' coercion by the state is to sustain 'private' power in civil society.

One of the most obvious examples of the distorted vision produced by the simple dichotomy between the state as the site of coercion and 'civil society' as a free space is the extent to which civil liberties like freedom of expression or the press in capitalist societies are measured not by the breadth of opinion and debate available in the media but the extent to which the media are private property and capital is free to profit from them. The press is 'free' when it is private, however much it may 'manufacture consent'.

The current theories of civil society 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. In fact, at least in advanced capitalist societies, such oppressions have become the main focus of struggle, as 'politics' in the old-fashioned sense, having to do with state power, parties and opposition to them, has become increasingly unfashionable. Yet these oppressions are treated not as constitutive of civil society but as dysfunctions in it. 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¡ªand which also determines the coercive functions of the state.


The rediscovery of liberalism in the revival of civil society thus has two sides. It is admirable in its intention of making the left more sensitive to civil liberties and the dangers of state oppression. But the cult of civil society also tends to reproduce the mystifications of liberalism, disguising the coercions of civil society and obscuring the ways in which state oppression itself is rooted in the exploitative and coercive relations of civil society. What, then, of its dedication to pluralism? How does the concept of civil society fare in dealing with the diversity of social relations and 'identities'?

It is here that the cult of civil society, its representation of civil society as the sphere of difference and diversity, speaks most directly to the dominant preoccupations of the new new left. If anything unites the various 'new revisionisms'¡ªfrom the most abstruse 'post-Marxist' and 'post-modernist' theories to the activisms of the 'new social movements'¡ªit is an emphasis on diversity, 'difference'. pluralism. The new pluralism goes beyond the traditional liberal recognition of diverse interests and the toleration (in principle) of diverse opinions in three major ways: 1) its conception of diversity probes beneath the externalities of 'interest' to the psychic depths of 'subjectivity' or 'identity' and extends beyond political 'behaviour' or 'opinion' to the totality of 'life styles'; 2) it no longer assumes that some universal and undifferentiated principles of right can accommodate all diverse identities and life styles (women, for example, require different rights from men in order to be free and equal); 3) the new pluralism rests on a view that the essential characteristic, the historical differentia specifica, of the contemporary world¡ªor, more specifically, the contemporary capitalist world¡ªis not the totalizing, homogenizing drive of capitalism but the unique heterogeneity of 'post-modern' society, its unprecedented degree of diversity, even fragmentation, requiring new, more complex pluralistic principles.

The arguments run something like this: contemporary society is characterized by an increasing fragmentation, a diversification of social relations and experiences, a plurality of life styles, a multiplication of personal identities. In other words, we are living in a 'post-modern' world, a world in which diversity and difference have dissolved all the old certainties and all the old universalities. (Here, some post-Marxist theories offer an alternative to the concept of civil society by insisting that it is no longer possible to speak of society at all, because that concept suggests a closed and unified totality.19) Old solidarities¡ªand this, of course, means especially class solidarities¡ªhave broken down, and social movements based on other identities and against other oppressions have proliferated, having to do with gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on. At the same time, these developments have vastly extended the scope of individual choice, in consumption patterns and life styles. This is what some people have called a tremendous expansion of 'civil society'.20 The left, the argument goes, needs to acknowledge these developments and build on them. It needs to construct a politics based on this diversity and difference. It needs both to celebrate difference and to recognize the plurality of oppressions or forms of domination, the multiplicity of emancipatory struggles. The left needs to respond to this multiplicity of social relations with complex concepts of equality, which acknowledge people's different needs and experiences.21

There are variations on these themes, but, in broad outline, this is a fair summary of what has become a substantial current on the left. The general direction in which it is pushing us is to give up the idea of socialism and replace it with¡ªor at least subsume it under¡ªwhat is supposed to be a more inclusive category, democracy, a concept that does not 'privilege' class, as traditional socialism does, but treats all oppressions equally. Now as a very general statement of principle, there are some admirable things here. No socialist can doubt the importance of diversity, or the multiplicity of oppressions that need to be abolished. And democracy is¡ªor ought to be¡ªwhat socialism is about. But it is not at all clear that the new pluralism¡ªor what has come to be called the 'politics of identity'¡ªgets us much beyond a statement of general principles and good intentions.

The limits of the new pluralism can be tested by exploring the implications of its constitutive principle, the concept of 'identity'. This concept claims the virtue that, unlike 'reductionist' or 'essentialist' notions such as class, it can encompass¡ªequally and without prejudice or privilege¡ªeverything from gender to class, from ethnicity or race to sexual preference. The 'politics of identity', then. purports to be both more fine-tuned in its sensitivity to the complexity of human experience and more inclusive in its emancipatory sweep than the old politics of socialism.

What, then, if anything, is lost by seeing the world through the prism of this all-embracing concept (or any analogous one)? The new pluralism aspires to a democratic community which acknowledges all kinds of difference, of gender, culture, sexuality, which encourages and celebrates these differences, but without allowing them to become relations of domination and oppression. Its ideal democratic community unites diverse human beings, all free and equal, without suppressing their differences or denying their special needs. But the 'politics of identity' reveals its limitations, both theoretical and political, the moment we try to situate class differences within its democratic vision.

Is it possible to imagine class differences without exploitation and domination? The 'difference' that constitutes class as an 'identity' is, by definition, a relationship of inequality and power, in a way that sexual or cultural 'difference' need not be. A truly democratic society can celebrate diversities of life styles, culture, or sexual preference; but in what sense would it be 'democratic' to celebrate class differences? If a conception of freedom or equality adapted to sexual or cultural differences is intended to extend the reach of human liberation, can the same be said of a conception of freedom or equality that accommodates class differences? There are no doubt many serious weaknesses in the concept of 'identity' as applied to social relations, and this applies not only to class; but if emancipation and democracy require celebration of 'identity' in one case and suppression in another, that is surely enough to suggest that some important differences are being concealed in a catch-all category which is meant to cover very diverse social phenomena like class, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. At the very least, class equality means something different and requires different conditions from sexual or racial equality. In particular, the abolition of class inequality would by definition mean the end of capitalism. But is the same necessarily true about the abolition of sexual or racial inequality? Sexual and racial equality, as I shall argue in the next chapter, are not in principle incompatible with capitalism. The disappearance of class inequalities, on the other hand, is by definition incompatible with capitalism. At the same time, although class exploitation is constitutive of capitalism as sexual or racial inequality are not, capitalism subjects all social relations to its requirements. It can co-opt and reinforce inequalities and oppressions that it did not create and adapt them to the interests of class exploitation.

The old liberal concept of formal legal and political equality, or some notion of so-called 'equality of opportunity', is, of course, capable of accommodating class inequalities¡ªand for that reason, it presents no fundamental challenge to capitalism and its system of class relations. It is, in fact, a specific feature of capitalism that a particular kind of universal equality is possible which does not extend to class relations¡ªthat is, precisely, a formal equality, having to do with political and legal principles and procedures rather than with the disposition of social or class power. Formal equality in this sense would have been impossible in pre-capitalist societies where appropriation and exploitation were inextricably bound up with juridical, political and military power.

For these very reasons, the old conception of formal equality satisfies the most fundamental criterion of the new pluralism, namely that it gives no privileged status to class. It may even have radical implications for gender or race, because in respect to these differences, no capitalist society has yet reached the limits even of the restricted kind of equality that capitalism allows. Nor is it clear that the new pluralism has found a better way of dealing with diverse inequalities in a capitalist society, something that goes consistently beyond the old liberal accommodation with capitalism.

Efforts have been made to construct new 'complex' or 'pluralist' conceptions of equality which acknowledge diverse oppressions without 'privileging' class. These differ from the liberal-democratic idea in that they explicitly challenge the universality of traditional liberalism, its application of uniform standards of freedom and equality which are blind to differences of identity and social condition. Acknowledging the complexities of social experience, these new conceptions of equality are meant to apply different criteria to different circumstances and relations. In this respect, pluralist notions claim certain advantages over more universalistic principles, even if they may lose some of the benefits of universal standards.22 It might be objected here that the dissociation of the new pluralism, from any universal values may permit it to serve as an excuse for suppressing the old pluralist principles of civil liberty, free speech and toleration, and that we are in danger now of coming full circle, as respect for diversity turns into its opposite. Yet even if we leave that objection aside, and whatever advantages 'complex' or 'pluralist' conceptions of equality may claim over traditional liberalism, they have left intact the liberal accommodation with capitalism, if only by evading the issue; for at the very heart of the new pluralism is a failure to confront (and often an explicit denial of) the overarching totality of capitalism as a social system, which is constituted by class exploitation but which shapes all 'identities' and social relations.

The capitalist system, its totalizing unity, has effectively been conceptualized away by diffuse conceptions of civil society and by the submersion of class in catch-all categories like 'identity' which disaggregate the social world into particular and separate realities. The social relations of capitalism have been dissolved into an unstructured and fragmented plurality of identities and differences. Questions about historical causality or political efficacy can be evaded, and there is no need to ask how various identities are situated in the prevailing social structure because the very existence of the social structure has been conceptualized away altogether.

In these respects, the new pluralism has much in common with another old pluralism, the one that used to prevail in conventional political science¡ªpluralism not simply as an ethical principle of toleration but as a theory about the distribution of social power. The concept of 'identity' has replaced 'interest groups', and these two pluralisms may differ in that the old acknowledges an inclusive political totality¡ªlike the 'political system', the nation, or the body of citizens¡ªwhile the new insists on the irreducibility of fragmentation and 'difference'. But both deny the importance of class in capitalist democracies, or at least submerge it in a multiplicity of 'interests' or 'identities'. Both have the effect of denying the systemic unity of capitalism, or its very existence as a social system. Both insist on the heterogeneity of capitalist society, while losing sight of its increasingly global power of homogenization. The new pluralism claims a unique sensitivity to the complexities of power and diverse oppressions; but like the old variety, it has the effect of making invisible the power relations that constitute capitalism, the dominant structure of coercion which reaches into every corner of our lives, public and private. In their failure to acknowledge that various identities or interest groups are differently situated in relation to that dominant structure, both pluralisms recognize not so much difference as simple plurality.

This latest denial of capitalism's systemic and totalizing logic is, paradoxically, a reflection of the very thing it seeks to deny. The current preoccupation with 'post-modern' diversity and fragmentation undoubtedly expresses a reality in contemporary capitalism, but it is a reality seen through the distorting lens of ideology. It represents the ultimate 'commodity fetishism', the triumph of 'consumer society', in which the diversity of 'life styles', measured in the sheer quantity of commodities and varied patterns of consumption, disguises the underlying systemic unity, the imperatives which create that diversity itself while at the same time imposing a deeper and more global homogeneity.

What is alarming about these theoretical developments is not that they violate some doctrinaire Marxist prejudice concerning the privileged status of class. The problem is that theories which do not differentiate¡ªand, yes, 'privilege', if that means ascribing causal or explanatory priorities¡ªamong various social institutions and 'identities' cannot deal critically with capitalism at all. Capitalism, as a specific social form, simply disappears from view, buried under a welter of fragments and 'difference'.

And whither capitalism, so goes the socialist idea. Socialism is the specific alternative to capitalism. Without capitalism, we have no need of socialism; we can make do with very diffuse and indeterminate concepts of democracy which are not specifically opposed to any identifiable system of social relations, in fact do not even recognize any such system. Nothing remains but a fragmented plurality of oppressions and emancipatory struggles. What claims to be a more inclusive project than traditional socialism is actually less so. Instead of the universalist aspirations of socialism and the integrative politics of the struggle against class exploitation, we have a plurality of essentially disconnected particular struggles, which ends in a submission to capitalism.

It is possible that the new pluralism is indeed leaning toward the acceptance of capitalism, at least as the best social order we are likely to get. The collapse of Communism has undoubtedly done more than anything else to encourage the spread of this view. But in the left's responses to these developments, it is often difficult to distinguish between a panglossian optimism and the deepest despair. On the one hand, it has become increasingly common to argue that, however pervasive capitalism may be, its old rigid structures have more or less disintegrated, or become so permeable, opened up so many large spaces, that people are free to construct their own social realities in unprecedented ways. This is precisely what some people mean when they talk about the vast expansion of civil society in modern ('post-Fordist'?) capitalism. On the other hand, and sometimes in the same breath, we hear a counsel of despair: whatever the evils of a triumphant capitalism, there is little hope for any challenge to it beyond the most local and particular resistances.

This may not be the moment for optimism, but a critical confrontation with capitalism is, at the very least, a useful start. We may then be obliged to differentiate not less but much more radically among various kinds of inequality and oppression than even the new pluralism allows. We can, for example, acknowledge that, while all oppressions may have equal moral claims, class exploitation has a different historical status, a more strategic location at the heart of capitalism; and class struggle may have a more universal reach, a greater potential for advancing not only class emancipation but other emancipatory struggles too.

Capitalism is constituted by class exploitation, but capitalism is more than just a system of class oppression. It is a ruthless totalizing process which shapes our lives in every conceivable aspect, and everywhere, not just in the relative opulence of the capitalist North. Among other things, and even leaving aside the direct power wielded by capitalist wealth both in the economy and in the political sphere, it subjects all social life to the abstract requirements of the market, through the commodification of life in all its aspects, determining the allocation of labour, leisure, resources, patterns of production, consumption and the disposition of time. This makes a mockery of all our aspirations to autonomy, freedom of choice, and democratic self-government.

Socialism is the antithesis of capitalism; and the replacement of socialism by an indeterminate concept of democracy, or the dilution of diverse and different social relations into catch-all categories like 'identity' or 'difference', or loose conceptions of 'civil society', represents a surrender to capitalism and its ideological mystifications. By all means let us have diversity, difference, and pluralism; but not an undifferentiated and unstructured pluralism. What is needed is a pluralism that does indeed acknowledge diversity and difference, not merely plurality or multiplicity. This means a pluralism that recognizes the systemic unity of capitalism and can distinguish the constitutive relations of capitalism from other inequalities and oppressions. The socialist project should be enriched by the resources and insights of the (now not so new) 'new social movements', not impoverished by resorting to them as an excuse for disintegrating the resistance to capitalism. We should not confuse respect for the plurality of human experience and social struggles with a complete dissolution of historical causality, where there is nothing but diversity, difference and contingency, no unifying structures, no logic of process, no capitalism and therefore no negation of it, no universal project of human emancipation.


  1. For an argument that the Romans, specifically in the person of Cicero, had a concept of 'society', see Neal Wood, Cicero's Social and Political Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988) esp. pp. 136-42.

  2. Much of John Keane's argument in Democracy and Civil Society (London, 1988) is, for example, predicated on a criticism of Marxism for its identification of 'civil society' with capitalism, which he opposes by invoking the long tradition of conceptions of 'society' in the West, reaching much further back than the advent of capitalism.

  3. Something like the first conception can, for example, he extracted from Jean L. Cohen, Class and Civil Society: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory (Amherst, 1982). The second view is elaborated by John Keane in Democracy and Civil Society. (For his criticism of Cohen's conception, see p. 86n.).

  4. John Keane, ed., Civil Society and the State (London, 1988) p. 1.

  5. Ibid., p. 2.

  6. Norman Geras debunks such myths about Marxism in 'Seven Types of Obliquy: Travesties of Marxism', in Socialist Register (1990).

  7. For the application of 'civil society' to events in Poland, see Andrew Arato, 'Civil Society Against the State: Poland 1980-81', Telos, 47 (1981) and 'Empire versus Civil Society: Poland 1981-82', Telos, 50 (1982).

  8. Keane, Democracy and Civil Society, p. 32.

  9. Cohen, Class and Civil Society, p. 192.

  10. See, for example, ibid., p. 49; Keane, Democracy and Civil Society, p. 59; Agnes Heller, 'On Formal Democracy', in Keane, Civil Society and the State, p. 132.

  11. I have discussed these points at greater length in my The Retreat from Class: A New'True' Socialism (London, 1986) chap. 10.

  12. Jeno Szücs, 'Three Historical Regions of Europe', in Keane, Civil Society and the State , p. 294.

  13. Ibid., p. 295.

  14. Ibid., p. 296.

  15. Ibid., p. 302.

  16. Ibid., p. 304.

  17. Ibid., p. 306.

  18. The defence of formal democracy is sometimes explicitly accompanied by an attack on 'substantive' democracy. Agnes Heller, in 'On Formal Democracy', writes: 'The statement of Aristotle, a highly realistic analyst, that all democracies are immediately transformed into anarchy, the latter into tyranny, was a statement of fact, not an aristocratic slandering by an anti-democrat. The Roman republic was not for a moment democratic. And I should like to add to all that that even if the degradation of modern democracies into tyrannies is far from being excluded (we were witness to it in the cases of German and Italian Fascism), the endurance of modern democracies is due precisely to their formal character' (p. 130). Let us take each sentence in turn. The denunciation of ancient democracy as the inevitable forerunner of anarchy and tyranny (which is, incidentally, more typical of Plato or Polybius than Aristotle) is, precisely, an anti-democratic slander. For one thing, it hears no relation to real historical sequences, causal or even chronological. Athenian democracy brought an end to the institution of tyranny, and went on to survive nearly two centuries, only to be defeated not by anarchy but by a superior military power. During those centuries, of course, Athens produced an astonishingly fruitful and influential culture which survived its defeat and also laid the foundation for Western conceptions of citizenship and the rule of law. The Roman republic was indeed 'not for a moment democratic', and the most notable result of its aristocratic regime was the demise of the republic and its replacement by autocratic imperial rule. (That undemocratic Republic was, incidentally, a major inspiration for what Heller calls a 'constitutive' document of modern democracy, the US Constitution.) To say that the 'degradation of modern democracies into tyrannies is far from being excluded' seems a bit coy in conjunction with a (parenthetical) reference to Fascism¡ªnot to mention the history of war and imperialism which has been inextricably associated with the regime of 'formal democracy'. As for endurance, it is surely worth mentioning that there does not yet exist a 'formal democracy' whose life span equals, let alone exceeds, the duration of the Athenian democracy. No European 'democracy', by Heller's criteria, is even a century old (in Britain, for example, plural voting survived until I94~8); and the American republic, which she credits with the 'constitutive idea' of formal democracy, took a long time to improve on the Athenian exclusion of women and slaves, while free working men¡ªfull citizens in the Athenian democracy¡ªcannot he said to have gained full admission even to 'formal' citizenship until the last state property qualifications were removed in the nineteenth century (not to mention the variety of stratagems to discourage voting by the poor in general and blacks in particular, which have not been exhausted to this day). Thus, at best (and for white men only), an endurance record of perhaps one century and a half exists for modern 'formal democracies'.

  19. This is, for example, the view of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London, 1985).

  20. See, for example, Stuart Hall in Marxism Today, October 1988.

  21. The notion of complex equality is primarily the work of Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality (London, 1983). See also Keane, Democracy and Civil Society, p. 12.

  22. For a discussion of both the advantages and disadvantages in Walzer's conception ofcomplex equality, see Michael Rustin, For a Pluralist Socialism (London, 1985) pp.70-95.

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