2012, Civil Society

Summing Up and Looking Forward

Summing Up and Looking Forward

Adam Dinham

Thank you for inviting me. This has been an interesting conference and the theme is very topical and important. It’s not always easy to bring this topic to life: there’s a welter of theoretical material on civil society and a lot of contesting and debate about what it means and how to actually do it. There is a serious danger of this being a very dry sort of topic, as a result, but I think we’ve managed to make this a lively and very much current couple of days.

Jonathan Chaplin’s introduction was very helpful in kicking things off by setting out his helpful typology: Oppositional, Protective, Integrative, Transformative. His analysis began of course with the question of the Big Society and whether or not this is the same thing as civil society. One of the problems of Big Society is that it comes precisely at a time when there is so little funding around to support the sorts of civil society activities which are envisaged. Some would suggest that it is precisely because there’s no money that civil society is needed: I think what government has in mind is associations and networks of local people doing things which have for some time otherwise been done by state. In the absence of money, civil society will provide instead. But as Jonathan so helpfully began to unpick, civil society can take a variety of forms and some of those need government and state to be involved – to support civil society actors by providing infrastructure and an economic and social context in which they can flourish. A key challenge in the coming years is how that civil society activity will take place in a context of financial stress and distress, especially in areas which are already very poor. How will people in those areas find the time, let alone the money, to run all those incredibly important services which local areas need – not just libraries and leisure centres, as in Jolanta’s model of ‘leisure civil society’, but also more critical services such as hospital car services for elderly people, homelessness projects, drugs and alcohol addiction drop-ins and the like? It may be easier for people in wealthier areas to fill the gaps – to do their civil society duty. But those in the poorest areas will struggle, and the state is not going to be there to help. Jonathan suggested too that Christianity may have more to offer than money! And I think that is certainly true. In the 1980s the Faith in the City critique went a long way in challenging the political status quo, even if it was arm-twisted to some extent, and mightily complained against by Norman Tebbit and others. But its legacy resonates right down to the present as a moment when the Church of England acted as a civil society body to challenge the state.

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2012, Civil Society, Poland

Civil Society in Postcommunist Poland

Civil Society in Postcommunist Poland

Jolanta Babiuch-Luxmoore

I see a difference beween Anglo-Saxon and Polish understandings of ‘civil society’. The former (derived from Locke and Hume) sees civil society as involving a contract on power-sharing between society and the state. The latter (derived more from Rousseau) sees society as essentially in conflict with the state.

In Poland discussion on civil society started in the 1970s and 1980s. The idea was to build civil society as an environment parallel to the state where citizens could ‘live in truth’, with respect for each other; the context was that nobody knew how long communism was going to last. It was to be a moral but apolitical civil society. Its apogee was the Solidarity movement. This was a very particular phenomenon: it was in fact a kind of ‘negative solidarity’ in that it brought together people who had in common only the fact that they were against the state. This negative nature was later to turn out to be a disadvantage: civil society as it evolved at this time in Poland was basically negative about the state.

Communism collapsed unexpectedly, and there was no Third Way because there was no time: suddenly the only agenda was neo-liberal. Postcommunist Poland has seen the rise of NGOs, which have been set up in order to take action in areas where the state has not been doing well. They have become neo-liberal, oriented towards money, getting grants from the West. They have lost the ethos of civil society, which in Poland was conceived as moral. They have largely become professionalised and cliquish closed shops, fulfilling the programmes of those who are giving them grants.

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2012, Civil Society

The Idea of Civil Society in Gramsci and Havel

The Idea of Civil Society in Gramsci and Havel

David Thomas

Can I stress that this was not originally intended as a full-length paper, but as a short reflection for a 15-minute slot. Accordingly you will have to forgive me for expanding the argument with a number of quotations.

The subject of our conference is ‘civil society’ and my aim is to look at the contributions of two of Europe’s most influential thinkers – Antonio Gramsci and Václav Havel – to our understanding of this concept. It seems to me that the idea of civil society has never been more necessary, as a tool for decoding our cultural practices. But at the same time it is under enormous threat in the current climate. Let me offer three examples from the Guardian newspaper of 4 October 2011.

Hegemony is central to Gramsci’s explanation of the working of civil society. In an article entitled ‘On the world stage, Obama the idealist has taken fright’, Simon Tisdall comments:

At home, Obama is primarily associated with hard times: only 34% of voters approve of his handling of the economy, according to a recent poll. Abroad his presidency has come to stand for impotence and incompetence. He promised new beginnings; what he has delivered, for the most part, is waffle, dither and drift. If this verdict seems harsh, take a quick tour round the globe. Everywhere the pillars of American superpower are crumbling. The old habit of hegemony, formed in the post-war decades and confirmed in 1989 as soviet power imploded, is fading as fast as a Honolulu sunset.

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2012, Civil Society, Russia

Roman Catholic, Anglican and Russian Orthodox Views on Civil Society and Recent Church-Related Civil Society Developments in Russia

Roman Catholic, Anglican and Russian Orthodox Views on Civil Society and Recent Church-Related Civil Society Developments in Russia

Adrian Pabst

Contemporary Perceptions

There is a widespread view that the Russian Orthodox Church is subordinate to the state and that religious authority is complicit with the political authority of the ruling regime – whether the absolutism of the tsars, the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union or the authoritarianism of Putin’s postcommunist Russia. Linked to this charge of caesaro-papism is the claim that the Orthodox East as a whole has failed to overcome the legacy of Byzantium – above all, there is no clear, constitutionally enshrined separation of powers or a robust rule of law. Since 1993 it has also been suggested that church and state in Russia have sought to put in place a neo-Byzantine settlement where individuals and society are ruled by the twin forces of president and patriarch – the representatives of earthly and heavenly powers. Closely connected with this is the common assumption that the East has no or only a weak civil society. Or, to be less general, that only Central European Catholic countries such as Poland or Slovakia have a vibrant civic culture, while the Orthodox East is statist and lacks a constitutional tradition, which would favour the emergence of intermediary institutions.

Elements for an Alternative Theological and Historical Narrative

However, both the theology and the history of the Russian Orthodox Church are rather more complex than this contemporary caricature suggests. Theologically, there is a clear distinction between state and church. St John Chrysostom, a fifth-century Greek theologian, was opposed to the sacralisation of power – a critique that underpins the distinction by Pope Gelasius I of the two swords. For Chrysostom, and for St Augustine who followed and developed St Paul’s teaching, secular rule is confined to the temporal saeculum (destined to pass into God’s Kingdom) and falls inside the church insofar as it concerns justice and the orientation of human existence to the Good.

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2012, Civil Society

Civil Society and Christian Social Thought

Civil Society and Christian Social Thought

Jonathan Chaplin


The idea of civil society has been put firmly back at the centre of British political debate as a result of the coalition government’s commitment to the ‘Big Society’ agenda. The Big Society idea is contrasted with the supposedly Big State tendency of the previous Labour governments. As the government’s website puts it:

the Big Society is about helping people to come together to improve their own lives. It’s about putting more power in people’s hands-a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to local communities.

After eighteen months of the new government it remains somewhat unclear whether Big Society is just another word for civil society. Certainly the engine room of the Big Society is a unit in central government called the ‘Office of Civil Society’. Its site tells us that it

works across government departments to translate the Big Society agenda into practical policies, provides support to voluntary and community organisations and is responsible for delivering a number of key Big Society programmes.

These include the Big Society Bank, the National Citizenship Service Scheme, Community Organizers, and Community First.

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