Civil Society and the Spirit of Revolt

Civil Society and the Spirit of Revolt

The idea of civil society has a long history in Western political thought. Developed by such Enlightenment thinkers as Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine, and taken up in systematic form by Hegel, it refers to those human networks that exist independently of, if not anterior to, the political state.

In liberal theory such networks are considered to have moral priority, and the state is seen as a means of protecting them. Even those nineteenth-century liberal theorists who did not postulate a state of nature anterior to politics— Benjamin Constant, Alexis de Tocqueville, Alexander Herzen— saw civil society as the realm of freedom, and considered the state a dangerous means of preserving freedom that always threatened to exceed its proper function. For these thinkers it was above all revolution that threatens freedom, by unleashing popular radicalism and consolidating political power in the hands of revolutionary elites. The great virtue of civil society, in this view, is that it inhibits such revolutionary tendencies, encouraging what Tocqueville called “self interest rightly understood,” thus helping to sustain orderly social life and the rule of law.

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