Sustaining Civil Society
Economic Change, Democracy, and the Social Construction of Citizenship in Latin America
Sustaining Civil Society
Economic Change, Democracy, and the Social Construction of Citizenship in Latin America
“In this seminal book, Philip Oxhorn proves himself the T. H. Marshall of Latin America. In thoughtful, historically rich detail, Oxhorn shows how and explains why political, economic, and social rights have evolved differently in Chile, Bolivia, and Mexico than in the now-developed democracies. A must-read!”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
“In this seminal book, Philip Oxhorn proves himself the T. H. Marshall of Latin America. In thoughtful, historically rich detail, Oxhorn shows how and explains why political, economic, and social rights have evolved differently in Chile, Bolivia, and Mexico than in the now-developed democracies. A must-read!”
“In this pathbreaking study of the transformation of civil society in late twentieth-century Latin America, Philip Oxhorn explores how market liberalization altered the social landscape and affected the practice of democratic citizenship. The result is a masterful analysis of the interrelated character of social, economic, and political change—and a highly sobering assessment of Latin America’s democratic dilemma. Sustaining Civil Society is essential reading for anyone who is concerned about the inherent tensions among democratic political rights, economic inequality, and social exclusion.”
“Sustaining Civil Society combines a thoughtful, critical theoretical approach to civil society with case studies—informed by extensive fieldwork—of Chile, Bolivia, and Mexico. This book will become the definitive reference for studies of civil society and democracy in Latin America and an essential tool for broader comparative work.”
“Sustaining Civil Society confirms Philip Oxhorn’s intellectual leadership in the field of citizenship and civil society studies. This book probes the construction of citizenship at the intersection of complex economic, sociocultural, and political transformations in societies deeply scarred by egregious inequalities. Oxhorn masterfully weaves together sophisticated theoretical analysis with empirically rich case studies of Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico to establish new benchmarks for research in comparative politics and political sociology.”
Philip Oxhorn is Professor of Political Science and Founding Director of the Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University.
List of Figures
List of Tables
1 Civil Society and the Social Construction of Citizenship
2 Controlled Inclusion and the Elusive Goal of Citizenship as Agency
3 Dictatorship or Democracy: The Rise of Neopluralism and Citizenship as Consumption
4 Testing the Limits of Citizenship: Chile’s Democratic Transition
5 The Failure of Citizenship: Bolivia’s Popular Participation Law
6 The Promise of Citizenship: Civil Society and Mexico’s Transition to Democracy
7 Latin America’s Democratic Crossroads: The Challenge of Making Civil Society Relevant
Civil Society and the Social Construction of Citizenship
At first glance, the events of September–October 2003 in Bolivia seemed reminiscent of a bygone era of military regimes. Mass mobilizations demanding the ouster of a government accused of insensitivity toward the nation’s poor majority and its replacement by a more “democratic” one were met by fierce repression that left dozens dead. Unlike past mobilizations against dictators, particularly in Bolivia, this one saw the protesters got what they wanted relatively quickly: President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned on October 17, just fifteen months after he had assumed office for the second time. Vice President Carlos Mesa took over the presidency, maintaining at least the facade of respect for democratic institutions.
The immediate cause of the wave of protests that led to Sánchez de Lozada’s ouster was a proposed natural gas pipeline through Chile that would allow landlocked Bolivia to export untapped natural gas reserves to the United States. More fundamentally, the project’s imminent approval by the president served as a catalyst for opposition leaders to ignite popular frustrations that, in some cases, literally went back centuries.
Bolivia was one of the first countries in the region to implement a series of far-reaching market-oriented economic reforms in Latin America, beginning in the mid-1980s and continuing during Sánchez de Lozada’s first term as president (1993–97). Yet after almost twenty years of sometimes painful economic reforms, 58 percent of Bolivia’s population still lived in poverty in 2003; indigenous peoples made up the majority of this group. The promised prosperity obviously did not arrive, recalling bitter memories of centuries of exploitation—first by the Spanish during the colonial period, and then later by a small criollo elite also closely tied to international economic interests. In the popular imagination, the international mining consortium behind the natural gas project seemed to be no different from the foreign interests that historically had benefited so handsomely from Bolivia’s rich natural resources. Moreover, the consortium insisted on routing the pipeline through Chile, so the country that had deprived Bolivia of its access to the sea in the aftermath of the 1879 War of the Pacific would also reap the benefits of Bolivia’s natural riches. Compounding matters even more, the most active groups in the protests were indigenous coca growers suffering the consequences of a U.S.-sponsored coca eradication program that, despite years of promises, still had not provided them with alternative sources of livelihood. Once again, the protestors apparently got what they wanted: the project was indefinitely put on hold, and its ultimate fate remains uncertain.
The events of September–October 2003 are full of tragic ironies. The poorest country in South America abandoned a potentially lucrative development project in defense of an ambiguous set of national interests related more to national pride and the settling of old scores than a reasoned assessment of the alternatives. This nationalist fervor was expressed most forcefully by impoverished indigenous communities, even though racism and extreme poverty have historically excluded them from any meaningful integration into Bolivian society. Although democratic institutions survived, the process through which Sánchez de Lozada was removed from power marked the resurgence of a conservative populism that lacked a clear set of policy alternatives for future socioeconomic development and posed a real threat to democracy (Alfredo Navarrete, personal interview, Iquique, July 22, 2001; see also Laserna 2003). Bolivian society, particularly its indigenous majority, had flexed its muscles by removing an unpopular government, and the military had remained subordinated to civilian rule. But is this a victory for Bolivian civil society? How did Bolivia end up in such a dramatic situation and what does it bode for the country, particularly the future of its democracy?
Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation, forced not by the military but by popular repudiation despite the absence of a clear alternative, is not an isolated event. In Argentina, in the space of just over a week in early 2001, more than two dozen people died, and Fernando de la Rúa and three interim presidents were forced to resign as a result of widespread protests against economic policies. Intended to resolve Argentina’s growing economic crisis, the market reforms implemented by de la Rúa’s predecessor, Carlos Menem, failed miserably. Two years after the 1999–2002 economic recession ended, more than 50 percent of the population still remained below the poverty line. Argentina—known as the “richest” country in Latin America—eventually did experience some economic growth. But its road back to prosperity will be a long one. Unfortunately, neither the protests nor Argentina’s politicians were able to produce even a semblance of a coherent long-term plan for traveling that road.
Although markedly less violent than the Bolivian and Argentine experiences, a mass protest by the country’s large indigenous population in Ecuador was joined by a faction of the military led by Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez in January 2000, resulting in a short-lived coup and the assumption of power by the incumbent vice president, Gustavo Noboa. Prolonged economic recession and a rejection of market-oriented economic reforms provided the context for the protests, and the immediate catalyst was the plan to dollarize the economy. The protesters succeeded in removing the unpopular president associated with those policies, but Noboa passed most of them (including dollarization), providing little relief for Ecuador’s poor. Gutiérrez went on to win the presidency in January 2003, largely because of his role in the coup.
Popular mobilizations do not necessarily lead to a change in presidents, as in the case of Paraguayan president Gonzalez Macchi. In July 2002 he declared a state of emergency in response to massive protests demanding his resignation and the end of market reforms; he then won a congressional vote to delay his removal from office until December.
Such a “failure” was most dramatic in Venezuela, where Hugo Chávez achieved political prominence after leading a failed coup attempt in 1992. He was elected president in 1998 on the promise of ending political corruption and reversing the same market-oriented reforms that he had targeted in 1992. Continued economic decline and a conservative backlash against his vague promises of Cuban-style social and economic policies increasingly polarized the country, culminating in a national protest on April 11, 2002. In sharp contrast to the other examples, where the poorest segments of society, with allies from the middle and working classes, led protests against the elected government, Venezuela’s poor supported Chávez while the other classes demanded his resignation. Three days of near-chaos ensued, pitting hundreds of thousands of people from both sides against one another in the streets, leaving at least forty-five people dead and risking serious divisions within the military. The protest was marked by a failed coup attempt that saw Chávez leave the presidential palace in disgrace, only to return triumphantly two days later. Temporarily cowed but not subdued, the opposition regrouped. In a region where national strikes are considered successful if they slow down the economy for even a day, it brought the economy to a virtual standstill for the nine weeks from December 2002 to February 2003. Yet Chávez survived, in part because the opposition was united only in its resistance to him and lacked any clear or coherent vision for the future.
These examples and the violence they frequently entailed recall the struggles between the state and civil society associated with “popular upsurges” (O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986) under authoritarian regimes, yet in each case the mobilizations were against governments elected in free and fair elections. Whereas the mobilizations against dictatorships offered hope and a positive democratic vision for their respective countries after years of authoritarian rule, those against popularly elected presidents reflected the frustration and despair of large groups of people who had lost confidence in their democratic leaders and who increasingly saw themselves as marginalized socially, economically, and politically. While such mobilizations certainly offered a vague promise of a better future for their participants, they are better characterized by their power to paralyze government and exercise a de facto veto over specific policies; presidents were forced to resign because they could no longer govern, not because there was an obvious candidate who could govern better. In striking contrast to democratic transitions, whose success depended on the emergence of a preferable, viable alternative (Przeworski 1986), these mobilizations were marked by a surprising amount of trust in generally unproven, often unknown leaders with few concrete policy alternatives. For this reason, one also cannot escape the conclusion that such mobilizations contain an important cathartic element, especially in a country such as Bolivia, where centuries of accumulated injustices seemed to converge.
In general, these mobilizations represent extreme examples of a principal characteristic of democratic politics in the region today: a plebiscitary quality defining the relationship between citizens and their leaders (Oxhorn 1998a; O’Donnell 1994). Presidential elections are the most important aspect of this, but so too is the “thumbs-up or thumbs-down” (and it is usually thumbs-down) quality of mobilizations. Meaningful elections are more prevalent in the region than ever before, and a majority of Latin Americans prefer democracy over other forms of government, yet their dissatisfaction with their actual elected governments and political parties implies a hollowness to democratic rule.
A number of trends contribute to this situation. Lackluster economic performance has generated growing insecurity, at the same time that poverty and crime continue at unacceptably high levels. Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world, and citizens perceive traditional politicians and political parties as corrupt and self-interested. During most of the 1990s, outsiders such as Chávez in Venezuela, Gutiérrez in Ecuador, and Alberto Fujimori in Peru enjoyed considerable popularity (at least initially) and were able to mobilize support by appealing to these frustrations, even if their solutions were ephemeral at best.
Many of these problems, of course, are not new, although they are assuming new forms and rising in intensity. Poverty, inequality, and self-interested politicians are not unique to the current period. That populist leaders such as Chávez or Gutiérrez emerge because of their ability to take advantage of pent-up frustrations and feelings of marginalization is also not a new phenomenon. What is surprising is that these “durable inequalities” (Tilly 1998) are greater and more enduring in Latin America than anywhere else, despite considerable social progress since the 1930s. As Chilean president Ricardo Lagos noted in his speech inaugurating the Special Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Mexico, in January 2004, “South America is not the poorest continent in the world, but it may very well be the most unjust” (Santiago Times, January 14, 2004).
What is unique to the current period is that all these problems, including the periodic outbursts that enduring inequality is likely to bring, are unfolding in a context in which political democracy is more firmly entrenched than ever before—despite its often poor quality and frequently weak institutions. This is at the heart of the Latin American conundrum: the paradoxical convergence of unprecedented political rights while other rights are precarious at best, and declining at worst.
Today’s paradox of rights did not emerge in a vacuum but is, in many ways, the culmination of historical processes dating back at least to the 1920s, with the Great Depression and the emergence of the developmentalist state. Violent authoritarianism resurged in the 1960s and 1970s, while the exhaustion of the import substitution industrialization (ISI) model in the 1970s dramatically punctuated the course of development. The debt crisis followed in the 1980s, along with the concomitant emergence of a new market-oriented development model, commonly referred to as neoliberalism.
Taking inspiration from the rich political sociology of the 1960s—particularly the classic works by Barrington Moore (1966), Reinhard Bendix (1964), and Fernando Enrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto (1970)—the focus here is on how different groups are (or are not) incorporated into national socioeconomic and political processes. To do so, the book takes as its starting point the nature of civil society and its relationship with the state.
In particular, I reinterpret T. H. Marshall’s (1950) classic work to better understand this decades-long process as a series of distinct struggles over the definition of citizenship: who is or is not included and the rights that citizenship entails. I call this approach the social construction of citizenship, basing it on the simple premise that it matters greatly which organized groups do or do not participate in struggles over the definition of citizenship rights. Today’s paradox of rights represents the most recent turn in a long path in the social construction of citizenship that is markedly distinct from the paths taken in the now developed democracies of the West. The book is an effort to understand how Latin America arrived at this point and to examine the nature of the challenges this paradox poses not only to democratic stability but, more important, to the quality of Latin America’s democratic regimes.
As part of this effort, I develop a theory of civil society that stands in contrast to the current aversion of researchers working on Latin America to building “grand theories” after the polemical 1970s and confusing 1980s. Tentative influential efforts at building grand theories have been offered by non–Latin Americanists. They tend, however, to herald a new liberal triumphalism that explains why “all good things come together” in development (Fukuyama 1989), promotes a new global cultural bipolarity dividing “us” from “them” (Huntington 1996), or describes a universal rationality that ignores difference completely, effectively blinding itself to context, history, culture, and more structural approaches in general (Bates 1981). Such efforts are less grand theories than ideological projects that proclaim, if not the “end of history” itself, the growing irrelevance of economic and other structures in determining the course of human events. In part a counterreaction to these more conservative tendencies and their frequent ethnocentricity, the postmodern perspective rejects the very possibility of generalizable theories (Escobar 1995; Hann and Dunn 1996).
A useful theory of civil society must accomplish several tasks. First, there is the need to define the concept in a way that avoids equating it with a narrow set of historical phenomena found principally in Western Europe, Canada, and the United States. This does not mean that civil society is necessarily found in all societies, only that its possibility is not defined away ex ante by reducing it to a set of values that are culturally determined and not universal. Second, the theory must establish a framework for understanding how civil society emerges that allows for meaningful comparisons between different forms in particular contexts. Finally, such a theory must explain the role that civil society plays within political systems independent of its definition.
In the remainder of this chapter, I develop the basic outlines of a theory of civil society. I use this framework in chapters 2 and 3 to analyze general patterns in the changing modes of interest intermediation in Latin America from the postwar period to the present. I then apply the framework to detailed case studies of three countries: Chile, Bolivia, and Mexico.
Civil Society as a Concept for Comparative Analysis
A surprisingly large amount of theorizing about civil society focuses on the intellectual evolution of the concept and the normative content associated with it. At one extreme, civil society is considered present to greater or lesser degrees in almost all social contexts, both past and present (Chambers and Kymlicka 2002; Ehrenberg 1999). On the other extreme, the concept itself is so normatively and historically determined by the experience of Western Europe and the United States that it is almost impossible to find in other contexts (Hann 1996) and may even be increasingly difficult to maintain in the changing socioeconomic contexts of the countries in which it originates (Seligman 1992). For others somewhere in between, the “bewildering plurality of normative justifications of ‘civil society’” found in the literature deprives the concept of any analytical usefulness (Keane 1998, 53).
This excessive, if not exclusive, focus on the intellectual and normative basis of civil society is, if not ironic, all the more puzzling, given that the authors who are associated with the concept’s modern usage (Ferguson 1966; Tocqueville 1969) explicitly sought to develop a theory for understanding what they felt were the principal socioeconomic developments of their day—the spread of the market economy and the struggle against authoritarian rule. Today the normative biases of authors tend to determine how (or if) empirical studies are incorporated into their understandings of civil society as a concept. This only tends to reinforce the polemical nature of debates about civil society as a concept, raising fundamental questions about its universal applicability.
Despite the obviously contested nature of the concept, debates about civil society are further complicated by the increasing predominance of a particular liberal perspective in the North American social science literature. This has taken place even though conceptions of civil society within Western political thought reflect at least two distinct, if not mutually exclusive, intellectual traditions: a liberal or Lockean perspective and a collectivist perspective associated with the work of Montesquieu and, more recently, communitarians (C. Taylor 1990). While the specific elements of civil society that one perspective focuses on coexist to a greater or lesser degree with the elements emphasized in the other, each highlights different aspects of modern societies in ways that influence both the substance and conclusions of the comparative research they inspire. For a variety of reasons—including the end of the cold war, the diminished role of the state in influencing economic and social processes, and the concomitant rise of market dynamics throughout the world—the liberal/Lockean perspective has become the focal point in civil society debates (Oxhorn 2003a).
The increasingly dominant liberal perspective defines civil society in terms of individual rights and obligations and is characterized as being coterminous with the spread of the market economy. Rational individuals who decide to live together to further private, individual interests create civil society. Individual freedom is valued above all, requiring the rule of law and respect for private property. Membership in any group becomes a function of interest maximization. Groups and group identities lose any sense of intrinsic value. Voluntarism and the absence of coercion, in turn, have historically justified unequal status by restricting citizenship rights for those who are defined as incompetent or dependent (such as women, youths, illiterates, the poor, and the working class). “Liberal” societies, principally the United Kingdom and the United States, have come to represent the ideal of civil society (Seligman 1992).
The increasing tendency in recent years to equate civil society with a very liberal normative framework centered around an exclusive focus on the individual has meant the concomitant marginalization of perspectives focusing more on collectivities and group identities. This tradition is heavily influenced by Alexis de Tocqueville (1969), who saw the rich array of voluntary organizations in the United States as an important bulwark of democracy and a counterbalance to the centralizing and authoritarian tendencies of European states. An important turning point came with the publication of Robert Putnam’s (1993) influential book on democracy in Italy, which put the concept of social capital at the forefront of studies of civil society. But even earlier, important theorists of civil society were emphasizing its normative foundations in terms of norms of “civility” (Shils 1991), “civil spiritness” (Gellner 1991), and the broad set of liberal values of trust, associability, and so on, associated with a liberal “civic culture” (Almond and Verba 1963).
Although it is never very clear how such values become predominant—at the very least, the trust that is generally seen as pivotal for people to organize and form vibrant civil societies—their presence within a society is seen as a prerequisite for civil society’s emergence. Because of the lack, stemming from an exclusive focus on individuals, of any intrinsic value attributed to group and organizational identities, an appropriate political culture in effect becomes synonymous with civil society itself. Its absence is seen as precluding civil society’s emergence while an appropriate political culture presumes its inevitable existence.
From the liberal civil society perspective, the requisites for a highly organized, vibrant civil society are quite high. This is consistent with the historical fact that such civil societies have been relatively rare and have been most closely associated with the development of Western (and now democratic) countries. The problem is not that the “bar” for entering what is a rather exclusive club is so high, but the way in which that bar is set. This perspective deliberately posits a thick notion of the consensual basis for civil society’s emergence that tends to be equated with a narrow set of Western values and unique cultural experiences. For societies that do not share those values and history, such as most Latin American countries, where, for example, the level of societal trust is notoriously low (Lagos 1997), this conception of civil society is extremely alienating. As Chris Hann (1996, 1) notes, “There is something inherently unsatisfactory about the international propagation by western scholars of an ideal of social organization that seems to bear little relation to the current realities of their own countries; an ideal which, furthermore, developed in historical conditions that cannot be replicated in any other part of the world today.”
The individualism inherent in this perspective seriously limits the relevance of such a model to different historical contexts and regions of the world. Many societies do not recognize the centrality of the individual in the public or political realm and instead emphasize communities and larger social networks. In Latin America, this is particularly true of indigenous communities. This view also ignores the important collective dimension of rights in established Western democracies (Oxhorn 2003b). On the one hand, rights—regardless of their legal and normative justification as individual rights of citizenship—are in effect granted to groups of people such as women, the elderly, illiterates, and so on. On the other hand, such rights for disadvantaged groups are frequently the result of collective struggles, as people often must organize to ensure that their rights are respected by the state and other individuals. Moreover, a principal threat to civil society may actually be individuals’ unrestrained pursuit of their own self-interest.
With some notable exceptions (Migdal, Kholi, and Shue 1994; Waltzer 1999; Skocpol 1996), protecting the necessary autonomy of civil society is generally seen to require a virtually impermeable barrier between the state and civil society. This view has been reinforced (if not reified) by the prominent role civil society played in opposing the state during recent transitions to democracy. Cooperation was obviously ruled out for most civil society. This sharp separation between civil society and the state was further accentuated by the shift to a new market-oriented development paradigm beginning in the late 1970s, which has dramatically changed the role of the state in society and the economy. Civil society has concomitantly been called on to play a much more important role, particularly in the provision of social services and, in Latin America at least, in helping people cope with the economic dislocations and instability the shift in development models has entailed.
The banner of “civil society” is increasingly being adopted by a variety of actors around the world, including international organizations (e.g., the Organization of American States, the World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank) and donor governments (including the United States). One would hope for more practical insights from academia, yet basic questions often go begged in the literature: Does civil society as a concept represent a contingent phenomenon that can be expected to emerge only in the unique historical contexts generally limited to Western Europe and the United States? Or does civil society represent an ideal that can allow for the elucidation of fundamental sociopolitical dynamics in a wide array of societal contexts? If the latter, what does such a concept entail?
To begin to answer these questions, in what follows I develop a collectivist perspective that draws on the intellectual tradition associated with Montesquieu and the communitarians (C. Taylor 1990; Waltzer 1992), as well as a more traditional political economy perspective. I define civil society as the social fabric formed by a multiplicity of self-constituted territorially and functionally based units, excluding families and business firms, which peacefully coexist and collectively resist subordination to the state, at the same time that they demand inclusion into national political structures.
This definition shifts the study of civil society away from a focus on civil society’s normative content to an emphasis on power relations within a given society. Power and power resources are understood principally in terms of economic resources and the organizational capacity to autonomously define and defend collective group interests. The latter can be based on a strong sense of collective identity, an ideology, and organizational skill. It can also derive from the availability of selective incentives for members. Coercive power is not relevant here because it is generally used for ends that are antithetical to the development of civil societies.
This emphasis on power relations and the way power is defined stands in stark contrast to more predominant (and liberal) views on civil society that downplay the existence of conflict within civil society and the inherent advantages that dominant groups enjoy, even in democratic regimes. I define “inclusion” much more broadly than as electoral inclusion and the existence of electoral or political rights, although this is an integral part (Oxhorn 2003b). In this way, the approach draws attention to the limits of political democracy in much of Latin America. It also reflects historical problems of inequality that continue to condition the development of civil society throughout the region and the need to understand the obstacles that high levels of inequality create for achieving more equitable societies independently of the existence of the political right to vote (Karl 2003; Guidry and Sawyer 2003). But this ideal of inclusion is not limited to new democracies; the so-called new social movements that emerged throughout Western Europe, Canada, and the United States starting in the 1960s reflect the same dynamic, albeit in the less dramatic circumstances of consolidated political democracies and modern welfare states.
This dual dynamic of demanding inclusion and resisting subordination to the state may be latent or so routinized in established democracies that it is taken for granted. The voluntary organizations that are the hallmark of civil society in countries such as the United States would not generally be expected to either actively demand inclusion (since political inclusion is already firmly established more broadly) or actively resist subordination to the state (given that a variety of institutions exist for negotiating the limits on state action within civil society). On specific policy issues, however, organizations of civil society can be quite active at all levels of government as they attempt to influence policy making and determine the appropriate boundaries of state action within civil society.
Historically, this dynamic was central to the emergence of both civil society and consolidated democratic regimes—and their strength today is a measure of earlier “victories” (Bendix 1964; Keane 1988b). Critical turning points in national histories reflect the emergence of new groups within civil society trying to effect change through demands for inclusion and/or resistance to what are perceived as unacceptably intrusive state policies. In the United States, for example, this was the case with the civil rights and women’s movements in the 1960s, as well as the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era. Moreover, resistance to state subordination has been a historical demand of civil society in the United States, stemming back at least to the War of Independence. One must not forget that the associational tendencies so admired by Tocqueville laid the foundation for successful armed struggle against the distant, closed state of the British Crown. Today, resistance is best reflected in the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association, not to mention various right-wing militia groups and a variety of conservative political groups. In Western Europe—in addition to the rise of women’s movements—environmental, antinuclear, and peace movements have had an important impact on both the state and society, to give just a few examples. And one must not forget that one of the principal impetuses for the emergence of new social movements in Europe was the rejection of the welfare state’s increasing penetration of everyday life (Offe 1984; Melucci 1989). In Latin America, where social inequalities are far greater, the importance of this dual dynamic is more critical, first to the establishment of democratic political regimes and later to their subsequent “deepening” (K. Roberts 1998).
From this perspective, a strong civil society reflects a relative dispersion of political power throughout entire polities. This, in turn, “contributes to the advent of stable democratic regimes supported by already strong, vibrant civil societies whose component elements struggled for democracy in the first place” (Oxhorn 1995a, 253; Keane 1988b; Cohen and Arato 1992). In societies where political power is more concentrated, civil society is weaker and, correspondingly, the prospects for long-term democratic stability are lower.
Civil society has an ambiguous relationship to economic structure. Civil society is characterized more by “institutionalized societal pluralism” (Schmitter 1986, 6) than by the relative strength of class-based functional organizations such as employers’ groups and trade unions. The class struggle that pitted workers against capitalists was perhaps the defining dynamic of civil society in much of Western Europe during the period in which democratic regimes were consolidated there, but even in this sense social class is a contingent concept (Katznelson 1986). “Labor” and “capital” are heuristic concepts whose concrete organizational manifestations are determined by a number of factors that vary from case to case. Moreover, civil society’s roots predate capitalism (Keane 1988b; C. Taylor 1990) and arguably contributed to the demise of feudalism in Western Europe. The primary societal cleavages that initially established the foundations for democratic political systems in Western Europe also were not based on class, although this changed with the advent of the second industrial revolution (Lagos 1997; Lipset and Rokkan 1967). Today, with the emergence of the so-called new social movements in these same countries, class again is not as central to explaining the dynamic of civil society as it was as late as the immediate postwar period (Offe 1987; Melucci 1985; Cohen 1985). In other contexts, nonclass identities have been even more important for organizing subaltern groups demonstrating the potential to form part of a civil society (Bonner 2003; Calhoun 1991; Jaquette and Wolchik 1998; Avritzer 2002).
That said, economic structure does condition civil society in fundamental ways. First, dominant social classes have been key actors in civil society (and in society at large) due to the economic resources at their disposal. This is particularly true under capitalism, since markets by definition create economic resources outside the state’s control. For similar reasons, the working class has often been a key actor after a minimum level of industrialization has been reached, as Karl Marx recognized, albeit in an exaggerated way. Working together in factories, workers were relatively easy to organize compared with peasants in the countryside, and stable employment (when it existed) meant workers could pay dues to maintain organizations. Various ideologies, particularly Marxism and socialism, often served as important resources for identity creation and the mobilization of the rank and file.
These examples underscore how economic structure creates shared interests that can serve as a basis for the emergence of important collective actors (e.g., workers, professionals, businesspeople, and peasants). It also affects the availability of resources for sustaining different forms of organizational activity and may influence the ability of different groups to engage in collective action (for example, the difficulties of organizing workers in the informal sector of the economy compared to the formal sector). As economic structures evolve over time (due, for example, to periods of prolonged economic growth, processes of industrialization or deindustrialization, changes in state development policies, and changes in a particular country’s insertion in the international economy), the potential for civil society to continue to develop is also affected.
In general, different patterns of development affect the distribution of resources in distinct ways (Huber 2002b). The nature of a country’s insertion in the international economy also has important distributional consequences that are relevant to the potential development and contours of civil society (Cardoso and Faletto 1970). To the extent that a given set of economic development policies contributes to a greater dispersal of power resources and increases the capacity of subaltern groups to organize themselves, it should facilitate greater levels of social inclusion and democratization. Conversely, if economic development policies increase the level of economic concentration or are accompanied by the erection of new barriers to collective action on the part of subaltern groups, they tend to undermine civil society and allow for a greater contraction of social inclusion and democratization.
Civil societies vary, not only in terms of the relative strength of their component units, but also in terms of the nature of the units themselves. As a result, the normative content of civil society is necessarily ambiguous. It is in large part a function of the historical specificities of a given society, which in turn reflect which groups are organized. Any societal consensus (or lack thereof) within society is a reflection of conflict, negotiation, and compromise. It is therefore of paramount importance to understand who is and who is not participating in this process of social construction. The autonomy of such groups is reflected in their ability to define and defend their own interests in interactions with other actors, including the state. Civil society itself becomes a realm of conflict and compromise, not consensus—at least initially and certainly not on many issues relevant to a given polity.
This focus on power relations and the importance of multiple, self-constituted collective actors raises important questions about social cohesion and the level of difference a society can tolerate before centrifugal forces tear it apart. This is equally important to a more individual or liberal view, but the thick normative census that this perspective presumes tends to obscure it. The reality in much of Latin America (and, historically at least, in many of the now established democracies) is that such a thick consensus is either utopian or masks forms of exclusion that are inherently undemocratic by their nature and frequently quite coercive. Following the seminal work of Dankwart Rustow (1970), a thin notion of the consensual basis for civil society’s emergence consists of a shared sense of national identity. This may be the basis for a thick notion of societal consensus, but it can also reflect societal stalemate or the practical infeasibility of secessionist alternatives or both. In other words, just as democracy was seen by Rustow as a “second best alternative,” so too might the acceptance of belonging to a given national community on the part of different actors in civil society.
A strong civil society can begin to emerge only on the foundation of such acceptance, however begrudgingly it might be given. Such a thin consensus necessarily requires that civil society actors be self-limiting in terms of their demands and expectations to coexist (even reluctantly) with other civil society actors (Cohen and Arato 1992). Recalling Thomas Jefferson’s famous insight that “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there are twenty Gods or no God,” such a thin consensus is similar to what John Keane refers to as a “higher ‘amorality’: an agreement to disagree about matters of conscience” (1998, 57–58). More specifically, demands for inclusion cannot have as their objective the permanent exclusion of other actors, ruling out both revolutionary movements on the left and reactionary movements on the right, as well as fundamentalist movements and other groups whose objectives are not readily classifiable on a left–right spectrum. The normative ideal is that different actors in civil society ultimately “bond together in difference” (C. Taylor 1998, 153) or, to take the specific example of religious difference, create “a space for continuous dialogue among religious traditions and between the religious and the secular” (Nandy 1997, 333). The precise content and extent of the moral consensus underpinning any strong civil society is a contingent outcome. And for this reason it matters which groups participate in the social construction of that consensus.
The achievement of this ideal is often a tremendous challenge. The violence of ethnic nationalism shows how difficult it can be to achieve if social mobilization escapes the bounds of civil society. The decades-long struggle for Irish independence in the United Kingdom—the other paragon of liberal civil society after the United States—is the most poignant example. In contrast, the recent experience of indigenous mobilization in Latin America is a significant example of the importance of such self-limiting goals. Similarly, the difficulties that revolutionary movements throughout Latin America have faced in trying to integrate themselves into democratic politics after years of exclusion can be understood in these terms. Conversely, it becomes even more apparent why movements such as Peru’s Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) would deliberately target organizations that fall within the realm of civil society: it represents alternative, mutually exclusive forms of organization compared to insurrectionary movements. Indeed, the strength of civil society organizations can help mitigate the centrifugal forces of diversity and inequality through the successful management of conflict, while successful revolutionary movements tend to reflect the weakness of civil society because they represent the only alternative available to subaltern groups after prolonged periods of often violent exclusion by the state.
Two other consequences of this collectivist perspective need to be highlighted. First, in focusing on self-constituted units as the component parts of civil society, the importance of organization in generating political power is emphasized. In particular, the capacity of subaltern groups within a society to organize themselves autonomously from other actors is a key defining characteristic of strong civil societies capable of supporting stable democratic regimes. Whether it be peasant groups organizing to assert their rights vis-à-vis feudal lords in Europe at the end of the Middle Ages (Putnam 1993; Brenner 1976; C. Taylor 1990), the great working-class struggles of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for basic rights of citizenship (Bendix 1964), or the self-help organizations in the shantytowns of Latin America (Eckstein 1989; Escobar and Alvarez 1992), the capacity of disadvantaged groups to organize affords them the potential to define and defend their interests in larger political processes. Contributing to the dispersion of political power in their favor, this clout avoids or lessens the tendency in capitalist societies for the interests of dominant actors to completely subordinate the interests of other less powerful actors.
Conversely, the lack of organization in more or less spontaneous demonstrations of protest suggests that they do not yet constitute civil society, even if they are generally peaceful. Such mobilization could eventually lead to a strengthening of civil society if those involved subsequently begin to organize for the definition and defense of their interests. The lack of organization makes it difficult to maintain the requisite autonomy necessary to participate as collective actors in competition with other actors. Such mobilizations have been quite effective in forcing policy change and, in particular, the resignation of officials; they even caused the collapse of regimes in the former Soviet bloc. Yet to the extent that they are successful, massive demonstrations are double-edged swords that invite manipulation of the crowd by opportunistic leaders at the same time that they establish the undemocratic precedent of extraconstitutional popular vetoes.
The second consequence of adopting the collectivist perspective is somewhat paradoxical: civil society cannot be conceptualized independently of the state. In other words, if there is no state, there cannot be a civil society. Instead, civil society must be understood in terms of its specific relationship with the state. While the autonomy of civil society from the state needs to be stressed, it does not imply isolation. Instead, it refers to the ability of societal units to define their collective interests and act in open pursuit of them, in competition with one another. As part of that competition, societal units seek to influence state policy. Their relationship with the state may be fluid and mutually reinforcing, as is the case in established liberal democratic regimes. But it can also be more selective, with preference given only to certain groups, as is the case in many newly formed democratic governments. It can even be openly antagonistic in countries where civil society is engaged in ongoing struggles against authoritarian regimes. The precise nature of this relationship, however, is best understood in terms of a related concept, the public sphere.
Civil Society, the Public Sphere, and the Social Construction of Citizenship
There are few systematic studies of the relationship between civil society and the public sphere (Keane 1998, 157). The most prominent have focused on deliberation and publicity as the defining characteristics (Cohen and Arato 1992; Avritzer 2002). While the approach taken here is not necessarily incompatible with this work, the focus on power relations and struggle in understanding civil society shifts the emphasis from the potential democratic contributions of publicity and deliberation toward a better understanding of the obstacles and limits to such a contribution.
The public sphere is best understood as the nexus between civil society and the state. As such, the public sphere is shaped by both civil society and the state in a variety of fundamental ways. To appreciate this, I adopt the following definition of the public sphere: “The public sphere denotes a contested participatory site in which actors with overlapping identities as legal subjects, citizens, economic actors and family and community members form a public body and engage in negotiations and contestations over political and social life” (Somers 1993, 589).
The public sphere is characterized according to its inclusiveness in terms of the multiplicity of actors who can actively participate and the capacity of those actors to “alter patterns of integration or the overall exercise of power” (Calhoun 1993, 278). In other words, the public sphere should be evaluated according to who is included and excluded, as well as the ability of those actors to pursue their self-defined interests.
The latter point about the effectiveness of the public sphere needs to be emphasized. As Jürgen Habermas (1992, 452) warns, “discourses do not govern.” The public sphere becomes politically relevant “only to the extent to which it enables the participants in the economy, via their status as citizens, to mutually accommodate or generalize their interests and to assert them so effectively that state power is transformed into a fluid medium of society’s self-organization” (431). Similarly, Charles Taylor (1990, 4) suggests that this public dimension of civil society demonstrates its very existence “whenever the ensemble of associations can significantly determine or inflect the course of state policy.” The proliferation of identity-based groups, defined by gender and ethnicity, for example, which undoubtedly have been very important to their members and the communities in which they have emerged, need to be seen in this light. The existence of such organizational activity is significant and unprecedented given the centuries of oppression that these groups have experienced (Alvarez, Dagnino, and Escobar 1998). Yet their existence is ultimately insufficient unless it is accompanied by meaningful changes in state policies, institutions, and social practices. This is especially true in developing countries like those of Latin America, where the lack of noticeable impact from such movements can feed frustration and, perhaps paradoxically, further shrink the public sphere as people withdraw from it. Moreover, social heterogeneity has historically created collective action problems among Latin America’s lower classes that have served to reinforce social hierarchy rather than empower subaltern groups (Oxhorn 1998b).
Similarly, locally based actors need to be situated in larger national contexts to understand their ultimate impact on the societies in which they emerge (Oxhorn 1999). Unless such actors are able to project their influence onto national agendas and begin to influence larger socioeconomic and political processes that affect their ability to pursue their self-defined interests, their concrete achievements will at best be quite limited. Whether it be to influence the distribution of resources by the central state, seek protection from the negative consequences of globalization, reverse or compensate for discriminatory social practices, pursue environmentally sustainable development with some level of social equity, to name but a few examples, many of the principal objectives of social actors cannot be achieved in isolation from decision-making processes that determine the overall direction of the larger societies of which they form a part. This is particularly true in Latin America, where centuries of national centralizing tendencies still predominate (Véliz 1980), despite recent efforts at state decentralization in many countries.
In conflating the mere existence of civil society with the public sphere, much of the literature ignores important questions about the composition and effectiveness of the public sphere (Calhoun 1993). Social movements and civil society organizations become ends in themselves, regardless of their capacity to effect meaningful changes at the level of the state or society that go beyond the role (however important) such movements and organizations play in their members’ lives. Frequently such activity, particularly activity that positively affirms the identities of disadvantaged or marginalized groups, is only a foundation for achieving social and political change. The challenge that these movements and organizations face is to successfully move beyond this beginning stage in their development. The concept of the public sphere as developed here best captures the complexity of that challenge.
Conversely, by ignoring the public sphere as a separate phenomenon, the literature on civil society sidesteps key issues about the nature of civil society’s relation to the state. This further reinforces the tendency to draw a rigid line of separation between the two, often portraying civil society as confronting an antagonistic state. While this was certainly true during periods of authoritarian rule and may to a lesser degree also characterize relations between some segments of civil society and new democratic regimes, the most successful democratic regimes in terms of inclusion and respect for citizenship rights achieve this because the state works closely with civil society. The arena in which this takes place is the public sphere.
As Calhoun (1993, 273) notes, the public sphere is an “operationalization of civil society’s capacity for self-organization.” In this way, the public sphere is in reality the definitive demand of civil societies, and its creation is one of their principal victories. It is at the level of the public sphere that the dual dynamic of resistance to state subordination and the demand for inclusion plays itself out. The interaction of civil society and the state through the public sphere historically has been responsible for shaping the principal rights of citizenship actually enjoyed by citizens (Somers 1993; Oxhorn 2003b). The public character of the various social actors who compose civil society and drive this dynamic embodies the thin social consensus on which civil society is based. It defines the limits of the competition among them for influence, effectively allowing a peaceful coexistence. Conversely, to the extent that civil society remains weak, the public sphere necessarily excludes large segments of the population.
Just as civil society cannot be understood in isolation from the state, the state also plays an important role in structuring the public sphere. In extreme cases, the public sphere is severely circumscribed as a result of the state’s physical repression of civil society actors. States also play a role in directly creating or strengthening civil society actors, thereby conditioning the nature of the public sphere through the kinds of relations it establishes. This has been the case historically in the United States (Skocpol 1996), and is a hallmark of corporatist modes of interest intermediation in both developed and developing countries (Schmitter 1974). The public sphere reflects this, both through the kinds of actors who are present in it, as well as through the specific channels the state establishes with them.
The state directly structures the public sphere in several important ways that reflect a “state in society” perspective for understanding patterns of social domination (Migdal 1994). First, state institutions create both opportunities and incentives for different groups to organize and attempt to influence policies (Oxhorn 1998a; Skocpol 1985; Tilly 1981). The degree of openness of state institutions determines the kinds of groups that have access and how such access is achieved. The policies a state addresses, the scope of its influence in the economy and society, and the resources the state has at its disposal for distribution are all key variables that help determine the contours of the public sphere. Similarly, state institutions vary in terms of the degree to which they enable citizens to relate to one another in a variety of different ways that can help institutionalize the participation in the public sphere of the myriad social identities present in any society (S. Bickford 1999; L. Bickford 1999).
A second way in which states condition the public sphere is through the provision of legal rights of citizenship. Laws are essential for guaranteeing the gains of civil society (Cohen and Arato 1992), and in fact legislative initiatives are often at the forefront of civil demands. Important formal rights such as the freedom of expression and association, as well as universal suffrage, are obvious prerequisites for any public sphere to function democratically. The effective provision of other rights of citizenship, particularly basic civil rights, is also important for understanding the nature of the public sphere in Latin America. Such rights often are anything but universal and in practice lead to the exclusion of large segments of the population from active participation in the public sphere. Indeed, the effective rule of law is an important “complement to the efforts of less privileged groups to organize themselves” (Evans 1997a, 181).
More fundamentally, the state and civil society frequently must work together to achieve a variety of important outcomes that would otherwise be unattainable. This creates a more fluid relationship between the state and civil society that can be called synergy, or what Keane (1998, 11) labels a “power sharing perspective.” Under these circumstances, the state and civil society are not in competition with one another; a positive rather than zero-sum game is the result. Yet the rigid dichotomy of the state versus civil society found in much of the literature would rule this out, even though reality suggests that some of the most important achievements of the Western European welfare states, for example, would have been impossible without the close cooperation between organized business interests, labor movements, and the state (Goldthorpe 1984; C. Taylor 1990).
This synergistic relation has two principal dimensions. First, there is what could be called the negative or prescriptive dimension. At this level, civil society plays an essential role by insisting on respect for existing rights, including “the new politics of society” intended to ensure that politicians and state officials remain accountable for their actions (Smulovitz and Peruzotti 2000). This is achieved through a variety of means, including resorting to the judiciary, media campaigns, and protests. It is often taken for granted in established Western democracies, but its importance was dramatically demonstrated by the activities of human rights movements throughout the developing world, in democracies and undemocratic regimes alike.
Equally important is a second dimension, which is positive, or proscriptive. States obviously do much more than enforce laws and ensure that basic rights are respected. Civil society can often play a crucial role in many of these activities. First, civil society actors frequently play important roles in setting public agendas, including demanding new laws and new rights. Agency is a crucial question when trying to understand the prospects for socially progressive reforms. Civil society can play a direct role, advocating change in the corridors of power within the state and developing alternative policies. It also plays an indirect role, prodding reformers within the state to act and campaign so that more of them attain positions of authority. As Bendix (1964, 50–51) notes, Tocqueville tended to exaggerated the influence of medieval politics on modern conceptions of the state and society: “The collective pursuit of private ends . . . is not necessarily incompatible with an increase of central government, because today voluntary associations frequently demand more rather than less government action in contrast to the medieval estates whose effort to extend their jurisdiction was often synonymous with resistance to administrative interference from outside.”
Beyond that, civil society can play a critical role by working with the state in the design and implantation of important policies. For example, successful state development policies are dependent on the linkages between state institutions responsible for economic policy and key actors who can provide the state with information and then assist in policy implementation (Evans 1995; Stallings and Peres 2000). The achievement of policy priorities, including effective law enforcement and quality education, actually depend on a close cooperation between relevant state institutions and civil society actors (Oxhorn 2003a). This is particularly true in developing countries where the lack of resources and institutional legitimacy are compounded by the effects of extremes in social inequality. In these contexts, cooperation with civil society can help compensate for the weakness of state institutions in terms of their resources and ability to reach out to all segments of society.
One consequence of these interactions is that the boundaries separating the public and private spheres is constantly contested and in flux (Maier 1987). Indeed, some of the most divisive political issues in many societies reflect competing visions of where that boundary should be drawn. Whether it be calls to keep the state out of individuals’ lives regarding issues of sexuality and reproduction, insistence that formerly private issues of family violence cannot be ignored by the state, or demands that authoritarian regimes respect human rights by publicly insisting that “the personal is political” (Navarro 1989), the boundary separating the public from the private is frequently contested. Such debates only reinforce the inherently contingent nature of the public sphere, again underscoring the importance of which groups are active. Of course, the state and civil society are not the only factors conditioning the nature of the public sphere. In particular, the media and political parties play an important intervening role.
The impact on the public sphere of the mass media is ambiguous. At a minimum, it is difficult to think of a public sphere without free mass media, and restrictions on the media are one way in which states attempt (sometimes violently) to constrain the public sphere. Conversely, a free medium is not the same as an unbiased one, particularly in countries where there is a predominance of conservative social agendas linked to business interests. Yet recent history is rich in examples of candidates winning elections despite mass media opposition, including the dramatic but otherwise disparate elections of Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and Luís Inácio (“Lula”) da Silva in Brazil. Perhaps even more dramatically, opposition to the Augusto Pinochet military regime was able to successfully use the mass media to defeat him in the 1988 national plebiscite and thus begin a transition to democracy. In general, the obviously commercial nature of much of the mass media, particularly television, has to a certain extent neutralized its ability to influence policy debates. Also for commercial reasons, perhaps the most notorious influence exercised by media on the public sphere is through their often powerful impact on popular fears, particularly concerning crime and official corruption. These fears can have the perverse effect of narrowing the public sphere as public opinion shifts in support of authoritarian, nondemocratic remedies.
While it is arguable whether political parties should be considered part of civil society given that they uniquely compete to win control over the state, their influence on the public sphere is determined in important ways by their roots in civil society. This, in turn, has important implications for the public sphere. The weakness and loss of legitimacy that traditional political parties experienced in Venezuela and Peru, for example, were important factors explaining the electoral victories of populists such as Fujimori and Chávez, who successfully campaigned against traditional parties and politicians. Conversely, the strength of political parties in Chile was a principal reason for the opposition’s ultimate victory, at the same time that parties had to overcome years of repression and the direct assault on their legitimacy by the military regime.
The nature of the ties between voters and political parties crystallizes in the public sphere, as part of political parties’ unique representational function in democracies. Parties affect the public sphere directly, through the agendas or platforms that they debate and through the state policies that they advocate or oppose. The weaker the links between political leaders and the grassroots, the more distant and inaccessible the public sphere will appear. Indeed, this is one reason behind the widespread support of populists, both today and in the past: they appear to listen to the common person when traditional elites do not.
From the perspective of understanding the depth and quality of democratic rule, one of the most important processes that take place within the public sphere is the social construction of citizenship. As Charles Tilly (1996, 9) notes, historically, it was the “struggle and bargaining between expanding states and their subjects [that] created citizenship where it had not previously existed.” While today there is perhaps greater consensus than ever before on the normative content of democratic citizenship rights, these rights are still contested in practice as a consequence of their uneven coverage and their ambiguous impact on important aspects of a given society (gender relations, land-owning patterns, indigenous cultures, and the environment, for example). There also is still no consensus on how to implement specific rights of citizenship. In most Latin American democracies, conflicts over basic citizenship rights were central yet unresolved issues in the transition process. The failure of democratic institutions to address these shortcomings after the transition is often the principal source of their fragility. Agency is the key to understanding how citizenship rights actually evolve or stagnate. The pressures for expanding citizenship rights that emerge (or fail to emerge) from within civil society through the public sphere, and how those pressures are dealt with by the state, are central to any causal theory of citizenship. In other words, citizenship reflects which groups participate and how in their social construction through the public sphere.
Viewed from this perspective, the strength of civil society is mirrored in the scope and depth of citizenship rights. As civil society expands to include different collective actors, their ability to define and defend their interests in the public sphere ultimately is reflected in the breadth and depth of the rights enjoyed by citizens in any particular country. Conversely, when civil society is weak or repressed by the state, the result is a more or less severe constriction of the rights people enjoy as citizens. This is clearest in nondemocratic states, but it is also reflected in the evolution of citizenship rights as a result of the historical successful mobilization of different groups.
If an inclusive, socially constructed body of universal citizenship rights is the ideal, its antithesis is represented in populism. As a form of mass mobilization, populism represents the ability of relatively small, privileged groups to gain greater access to state power and resources by capitalizing on disadvantaged groups on the basis of the latter’s perceived socioeconomic or political exclusion (Oxhorn 1998b; K. Roberts 1994). Such disadvantaged groups are characterized by the lack of autonomous, self-constituted organizations, and their interests continue to be defined by and subordinated to the interests of whichever elite groups are able to mobilize them. This is true even though populist mobilization is invariably associated with some short-term distributional benefits and limited citizenship rights in exchange for continued support. Rather than a more complete dispersion of power within a society and the universalization of citizenship rights, power remains concentrated and new forms of inequality are introduced. Civil society itself is tightly constrained, with important negative consequences for citizenship rights, the public sphere, and the prospects for democratic rule.
The state plays a central role in conditioning the nature of both civil society and the public sphere. Changes in state policy and a given country’s insertion in the international economic system interact to create processes of economic change. The social and political consequences of these changes are mediated by the existing nature of the country’s civil society and understood in terms of their ultimate effects on the distribution of power resources within that polity. At the same time, the resultant distribution of power resources affects the nature of civil society itself. To the extent that there is a greater dispersion of power resources, civil society should be strengthened, while social equity and democratization should improve. Conversely, civil society is undermined by increases in the concentration of power resources, with concomitant declines in social equity and a corresponding increase in the long-term threats to democratic stability.
This relationship is expressed through the public sphere, which mediates the interaction between the state and civil society (see figure 1.1). The strength of civil society, in particular, provides for a more inclusionary public sphere, while the state shapes the public sphere through the institutional spaces it creates for participation and the provision of citizenship rights. It is through the struggles (or lack thereof) of different organized groups within civil society vis-à-vis one another and the state that citizenship rights are socially constructed. In societies characterized by weak civil societies, or closed authoritarian regimes that deliberately seek to control (if not destroy) civil society, citizenship rights are severely constrained. Conversely, the strength of civil society is reflected in the breadth and multifaceted content of citizenship rights through civil society’s capacity to expand rights and check authoritarian tendencies at the level of the state.
The mass media also have a clear, albeit ambiguous, effect on the public sphere. Political parties similarly play an important role in shaping the public sphere in a variety of ways. Whether political parties promote or restrict the public sphere is to a large extent determined by the kinds of linkages they have to civil society.
Figure 1.1 is expressed in ideal terms that focus on the dynamic relationships that are central to the social construction of citizenship. It is neither exhaustive of all public sphere activity nor necessarily incompatible with other approaches that emphasize the role of the individual in defining civil society or the deliberative qualities of the public sphere. It is, however, useful for identifying the principal power relations within any polity that ultimately determine its democratic prospects.
A European Excursus
Given the emphasis on the Western European experience for understanding civil society in much of the literature, a brief discussion of that experience offers a particularly useful way to understand some of the implications of the perspective developed here. This excursus also provides a relevant historical backdrop for understanding the particular challenges facing Latin America.
As a starting point, the theory of civil society developed here can be used to reinterpret and contextualize the classic work by T. H. Marshall (1950) on citizenship and social inequality by focusing on the implications of his work for civil society’s role in the social construction of citizenship (Oxhorn 2003b). In what would prove to be a truly virtuous circle over the course of some three hundred years of British and, by extension, European history, Marshall suggests that the evolution of citizenship rights began with the establishment of civil rights. Once civil rights were recognized in eighteenth-century Britain, citizenship then continued to expand to include, first, political rights in the form of universal male suffrage and, later, the social rights of citizenship associated with the modern welfare state. In the process, according to Marshall, the social inequality associated with capitalism was legitimated, at the same time that the social and political foundations on which modern capitalism could thrive were successfully put into place.
Central to Marshall’s argument is the functional necessity of citizenship for modern capitalist development. The emergence of modern, universal rights of citizenship parallels the growth of the market economy. The process began in the eighteenth century, both because the emerging capitalist economy required the institutionalization of property rights through the enforcement of basic civil rights and because the new capitalist society had to legitimate the resultant social inequality with the new principle of citizenship. Civil rights thus became the cornerstone of modern conceptions of citizenship. Over the course of the next century, universal political rights were established and the process, as understood by Marshall, culminated after World War II with the establishment of the universal social rights of citizenship associated with the modern welfare state. For Marshall, decreased economic inequality due to economic development, combined with social integration achieved through universal civil, political, and social rights of citizenship, generated a new societal consensus for the minimization of social inequality.
The criticisms of Marshall’s work from a number of perspectives (Mann 1996; Turner 1992; Walby 1994) reflect the inadequacies of his essay from the perspective of the social construction of citizenship rights. Despite some isolated references, the role of class conflict and social struggle in defining and expanding citizenship rights is largely ignored. Marshall adopts a deterministic, almost functionalist, view of the evolution of citizenship rights from the perspective of capitalist economic development and political stability. There is an implicit assumption that the interests of the working class and capitalists are complementary rather than contradictory and that all actors will act (albeit slowly in the case of Britain) to institutionalize their mutual interest in universal citizenship rights. In the first instance, capitalists required civil rights to protect their interests. This, in turn, was portrayed by Marshall as unleashing a seemingly inevitable teleological process by which economic development created a new societal consensus surrounding universal rights of citizenship. The institutionalization of citizenship rights in Britain was able to keep pace with changing public attitudes in large part because continued economic prosperity raised levels of economic equality independently of state redistributive policies. Ultimately, British economic prosperity and the new social consensus that it created allowed for an increasingly direct attack by the state on any remaining sources of social inequity.
Yet Marshall’s account of the evolution of citizenship rights is not inconsistent with approaches stressing the role of conflict and contingency in the social construction of citizenship. British capitalists may have enjoyed economic prosperity and relative political stability for centuries, but this is better understood as the consequence of concessions brought about as a result of social struggles initiated by workers and other social classes, rather than the outcome of any teleology of capitalist development. In other words, once civil rights for subaltern groups, particularly the working class, were conceded by Britain’s elite, these groups used their new rights to organize and eventually force reluctant elites to grant political rights in the form of universal suffrage, with their ultimate conquest being the creation of modern welfare states. Capitalists elsewhere have done extraordinarily well by following distinct paths of political and economic development in which limited social rights of citizenship were in effect given to workers as a way of co-opting or controlling worker mobilization in the absence of effective political and civil rights (Mann 1996; Oxhorn 1995a, 1998b). This is particularly true for Latin America, and a useful theory must be able to account for these different results.
Rather than the outcome of the functional requirements of capitalism or a consequence of a new social consensus associated with modernity, a causal theory of citizenship rights needs to focus on the development of civil society within particular countries and its interaction with the state. In other words, the expansion of citizenship to include civil, political, and, ultimately, social rights as described by Marshall should be reinterpreted to recognize the conflictual nature of the process and the central role played by civil society. This demonstrates how the contingent outcomes of such struggles are also compatible with a diverse range of rights that Marshall’s more economic perspective would seem to preclude, including gender, ethnicity, ecology, and community. Such rights reflect the diversity of the actors participating in their construction through the public sphere.
Citizenship struggles are also constitutive of the growing strength of civil society. Through struggle, collective identities are created and redefined as new sources of political power. When rights are granted as a result of social struggle, a certain prior distribution of power resources is recognized and institutionalized by the state, contributing to a further relative dispersion of power resources and concomitantly strengthening civil society. From this perspective, the path followed by Britain as described by Marshall may be “ideal,” but it is also unique. In sharp contrast to most recent (and many historical) transitions to democracy, working-class mobilization was deliberately intended to change an existing (according to the standards of the day) democratic regime rather than overthrow a violent authoritarian one. This continuity allows for a progressive accumulation in the strength of different actors in civil society that is much more problematic in cases of a more radical regime change.
However “ideal” the British experience may have been, it also was not unproblematic or lacking in violence, as stressed by Moore (1966). In Moore’s groundbreaking study of the paths to the modern world, the early commercialization of agriculture ensured that “modernity,” which Moore equated with high levels of industrialization and urbanization, would be democratic in Britain. The commercialization of agriculture eliminated the peasantry as a class that could be mobilized either by the forces of reaction or revolution. It also created a bourgeoisie capable of providing a more or less equal ally for the aristocracy in creating an effective counterbalance to the state and curbing the latter’s authoritarian tendencies.
In terms of civil society and the social construction of citizenship, the early introduction of the market with the commercialization of agriculture created new, more widely distributed power resources. As Moore notes, it clearly increased the power of the bourgeoisie. Equally important, these new resources were largely independent of the state (although the state played a critical role in regulating new markets and facilitating Britain’s growing trade relations). This balancing and effective (albeit reluctant) cooperation between the state, the oligarchy, and Britain’s rising capitalist class served as the foundation for democratic governance and represents an early variant of the state-society synergy.
Along with early industrialization, there was also a significant increase in the potential power of the working class in Britain, helping to ensure further democratization in the future. This increased power was reflected in the steadily increasing wage incomes of workers. It also was the result (as Marx appreciated early on) of the relative ease of organizing workers who were concentrated in factories and shared clearly identifiable common interests and whose cooperation was becoming increasingly indispensable for continued capital accumulation.
In sharp contrast to the example in Britain, Moore identifies two alternative paths to modernity: revolution from above, or fascism; and communist revolution from below. Both alternatives, in turn, reflect very distinct patterns in the emergence of civil society and its subsequent relationship to the state. In both paths, the relative weakness of the bourgeoisie and the oligarchy’s resort to “labor-repressive agriculture” were decisive, according to Moore. From the perspective of civil society and the social construction of citizenship, they reflect varying levels of concentration of power resources and a progressive narrowing of the ability of different actors to work with the state through the public sphere.
Labor-repressive agriculture, which Moore defines as the use of political coercion to tie peasants to the land, reflects nothing more than a disproportionate concentration of power in the hands of the oligarchy and its allies in the state. In the extreme case of communist revolution, power was so concentrated in the oligarchy and state that civil society was virtually nonexistent. Indeed, it is the weakness of the bourgeoisie as a potential ally that, according to Moore, left the oligarchy with few alternatives and contributed to a polarization of society that allowed for the emergence of revolutionary movements seeking complete control of the state.
Similarly, the intermediate path of fascism, as exemplified by both Germany and Japan prior to World War II, reflected the consequences of a greater dispersion of power resources than found in the cases of communist revolution, but significantly less than was the case in Britain. In these cases, according to Moore, the relatively late commercialization of agriculture was not sufficient to provide the social base for a bourgeois democratic revolution. Instead, the bourgeoisie became the oligarchy’s junior partner in fostering state-led industrialization. The consequence was that democracy could be installed only after the defeat of the Axis in World War II.
The rich and varied historical experience of Europe further highlights the general implications of the social construction of citizenship perspective developed here. As early as the Middle Ages, civil society’s uneven emergence in Europe demonstrated a variety of different paths to modernity that, grosso modo, laid the foundations for divergent developments between Eastern and Western Europe. It was in the Middle Ages that sharp distinctions were first drawn between the church, political organization, and society in Western Europe. At the same time, the emergence of new collective actors, beginning with the first cities and guilds, contributed to a greater dispersion of power as they competed with traditional feudal institutions, effectively putting important constraints on emerging absolutist states. This process was reinforced by early struggles between organized peasants and the oligarchy as feudalism slowly gave way to the Renaissance and the early emergence of capitalism. In sharp contrast, absolutist states in Eastern Europe generally faced fewer constraints in a socioeconomic context marked by fewer large cities, the slower emergence of market relations, and fewer autonomous actors who could challenge the increasing centralization of power—long before the emergence of the Soviet bloc’s communist regimes.
At the same time, the European experience demonstrates the significance of alternative paths in the development of citizenship. In contrast to Marshall’s idealized sequence of rights, there are important examples of social rights of citizenship preceding political rights, often for the purpose of co-opting middle- and lower-class actors to forestall demands for more effective political rights. For example, Michael Mann (1996) persuasively argues that social rights of citizenship were historically often a substitute for civic and political rights in Germany under Bismarck.
The importance of the sequencing of citizenship rights and the development of civil society is highlighted in a different way by examining the fate of women’s rights in the former Soviet Union and in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. As is well known, the social rights enjoyed by women under Soviet-style communism were often quite significant in terms of their potential for empowering women. Indeed, the communist order claimed to champion many women’s rights (regardless of how effective or genuine such claims actually were), and that is part of the problem. The granting of such rights by the communist state in the absence of any autonomous demands for them from within civil society stymied the development of civil society by preempting the potential for women’s mobilization. When the communist regimes fell, a new stigma was attached to feminist movements because their demands were so closely associated with the now discredited communists. In the face of considerable setbacks in rights that would have been considered major gains for women had they been won in other contexts (access to social services and health care, reproductive rights, to name but a few), one finds a “cultural narrative that reasserts an essentialized sexualized woman, who seeks to reclaim her natural domesticity denied to her under the former regime” (Hobson and Lindholm 1997, 501).
As even this simplified history of Europe attests, both regional and national dynamics condition the emergence of civil society and its interaction with the state through the public sphere in fundamental ways. The admittedly “thick” societal consensus underpinning both democracy and civil society in Western Europe is the culmination of this experience in a select number of states, but it is one of a multiplicity of historically contingent outcomes when looking both at the region as whole or individual countries over time. As we will see in the next chapter, the unique regional and national dynamics in Latin America have produced a different set of experiences that have been far less conducive to such a thick consensus and democracy.
Also of Interest
Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.