In the third chapter of the book “Democratization: theory and experience,” Laurence Whitehead looks at the concept of civil society and its relationship to democratization. If democracy is to be viewed as a complex and open-ended process, a more explanatory account is needed to describe it more effectively. Before a democratic transition can begin, there must exist a political community receptive to such change and willing to participate in a democratic system. The ideas of civil society and social capital provide condensed analogies to explain the structure of and simplify the ideas regarding the long-term changes that stem from democratization. Instead of focusing on political actors and what they seek to accomplish, political theorists should instead focus on the large-scale and broadly-based features of the entire political community.
Laurence Whitehead then goes on to highlight the factors that help to define the idea of civil society. Theorists of civil society have seen more success in erasing its highly specific origins and have converted it into a free-standing category of thought that comes to mind when Westerners make comparative statements about the density of associative life in diverse political communities. Additionally, most non-Western discourses tend to lack an equivalent concept to the idea of civil society. Even though some argue that non-governmental organizations can be considered to be civil societies, they tend to lack the surrounding ethos, authenticity, and autonomy that are considered to be hallmarks of civil societies. Moreover, non-governmental organizations also lack the well-structured support from the larger community that civil societies often have. The definition of civil society also excludes associations such as households, religious institutions, and hierarchical institutions such as conscripted military forces and the bureaucracy of national government. Between such extremes, there may be an independent sphere of voluntary association in which interactions are governed by the principles of autonomy and self-respect.
Laurence Whitehead also considers the factors that characterize stronger civil societies. Strong civil societies are characterized by a wider set of boundaries for interaction between individuals in society and by a larger acceptance of personal freedom and individual rights. As such, a strong civil society will allow for a greater chance for democracy to be successful and long-lasting despite challenges. Even if people reach an agreement on the factors that allow for the successful implementation of civil society, the results of their agreement will not be quantitative and more descriptive in nature. The idea of a descriptive category, according to Whitehead, is akin to an “empty box,” as there are not previously existing theories within it. As such, people can apply their own theories in interpretations regarding the political process. Additionally, such factors raise the question of how an “empty box” descriptive category shape such dynamic and long-term political process such as democratization. Any linkage between both factors would require both a description and an explanation of how the norms of civility can be compelling enough to reproduce over generations and override the loyalty demands of the state and the primary descriptive groups.
After going over some of the theoretical approaches to the idea of civil society, Laurence Whitehead goes over what would be a tentative definition of the concept of civil society. If groups such as terrorist organizations, armed paramilitary groups, and criminal organizations are not to be defined as being members of civil society, Whitehead highlights the need to stipulate a general definition of civil society that highlights the importance of civility. According to Whitehead, civil society is defined as a set of self-organized intermediary groups that are relatively independent of both public authorities and private units of reproduction and production, can discuss collective actions in the defense and promotion of their interests, do not seek to replace state agents or private reproducers or to accept responsibility for governing the polity as a whole, and agree to act within pre-established legal guidelines. Additionally, Whitehead states that civil society rests on four different conditions. The first two conditions are that of dual autonomy and collective action. The next two conditions are non-usurpation and civility. The definition of civil society tends to exclude criminal organizations and paramilitary groups and any organizations that threaten individual rights.
Laurence Whitehead next looks at the idea of civility and incivility. Following such a definition of civil society, it is unlikely that political scientists will find forms of voluntary associative organizations distributed evenly throughout the geographical and social terrain that is covered by the modern nation-state. Whitehead argues that neither the market or the state can be effectively used to even out the uneven social geography that is present throughout the world. The reason why the market is ineffective in evening out social geography because it obeys consumer sovereignty. Additionally, the state cannot solve such issues because its policies are skewed towards societal groups with the highest level of influence. Such factors lead to the question of what mechanism can be used to address the issue of uneven social geography, as civil society will eventually become out of sync with democratic citizenship. The weaknesses of civil society are often evident in many of the newer democracies. For example, efforts at democratization in many post-authoritarian countries are often overshadowed by antisocial forms of individualism that substitute the forms of civil associationalism favored by civil society theorists. Thus, the main advantages of civil society tend to be highly concentrated among a minority of the people in many of the new democracies.
The dynamic between civil society and democratic citizenship is also addressed by Laurence Whitehead. Civil society tends to develop unevenly over time in a logic distinct from state formation. The resulting patterns of associative life and social communication typically emerge as highly structured with insiders, traditional favored sectors, and excluded sectors. Additionally, new democracies often only work effectively if they can restrain such exclusionary tendencies and indulge the people with the most social capital to adapt to a broader and longer-term view of their civic engagement in society. Even though civil society developed incrementally, modern political regimes are often created quickly and with short notice. Examples of political regimes created abruptly include the new nations created Europe after World War One, Asia and Africa during the 1950s and 1960s, and the democracies created in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union during the late 1980s. In all cases, formal political equality was established at a specific moment and the citizens earned a full set of democratic rights even though the creation of exclusionary political societies did not coincide with pre-existing maps of associative life between the citizenry.
Civil society may also experience slow growth that eventually allows for the creation of the conditions favorable to democracy. Examples of the gradual development of civil society include Great Britain during the 17th Century and Spain during the 1970s. Additionally, it is also the case that the implementation of a democratic government will foster the development of civil society and create the conditions necessary for its success. Examples include many of the former communist countries and to the experience of many of the former territories of countries such as the US and Great Britain. There also exists the possibility that a civil society attains a high level of development, but never produce a democratic political regime, as in the case of Hong Kong. Moreover, a civil society may develop on the basis that its freedoms and rights can only be secured if there exists a series of exclusionary measures that prevent some members form full participation. Examples include the Palestinian population in Israel, the Cypriot population in Turkey, and African Americans in the Southern part of the US up until the 1960s.
In conclusion, Laurence Whitehead explores the concept of civil society and its role in democratic transitions in “On Civil Society.” Whitehead underscores the importance of political theorists examining the factors that result in the development of strong civil societies that allow for the long-term stability of democratic governments. Additionally, Whitehead goes on to characterize the factors that characterize an effective civil society and the dynamic between civil societies and the expectations of democratic citizenship. An in-depth understanding of the idea of civil society will allow political scientists and political theorists to more effectively understand the factors that allow democratic governments to succeed in certain countries but ultimately fail in others. Moreover, the concept of civil society can be applied to explain potential democratic transitions in countries that a presently authoritarian.