Nancy Bermeo and Philip Nord, (eds.) Civil Society Before Democracy: Lessons from nineteenth century Europe. (2000).

‘Summary:  examines the development and emergence of civil society in 19th century Europe (examines the period between 1815 and 1918). The focus here is on the evolution of autonomous social actors in Western Europe beginning with the emergence of 19th century liberalism. The main question considered in the essays is how the emergence of civil society affected the transformation of liberalism into mass democracy; the cases are divided according to whether the transition to mass democracy was successful (UK, France, Belgium and the Netherlands) or initially failed (Portugal, Russia, Italy and Germany).

 

Method: a series of individual case studies.

 

Important Insight: there are three main variables that emerge from the essays: integration of the countryside, religion, and institutional strength. Several broad lessons emerge from the essays:

*first, civil society is not inexorably linked to democracy, but historically has emerged in concert with several other forms of regime including monarchy, oligarchic liberalism, and mild or enfeebled types of authoritarianism.

*second, civil society is not always good for democracy. Sometimes, in fact, its best organized elements may be ambivalent or even antithetic to democracy. Elements within civil society are often major players in its breakdown (e.g. Germany and Italy).

*third, the essays on the cases of failure all point out the difficulties in incorporating rural and traditional social formations into civil society. This observation both confirms and expands on the well-established insight that social formations with labour repressive and non-commercialized agriculture pose particular problems for democracy.

*fourth, the essays that discuss cases of democratic success show very diverse patterns. Clearly, there is no single pattern by which civil society successfully connects with a democratic regime and/or promotes it.

*fifth, the connection between state and civil society emerges as a key variable in whether civil society plays a constructive role in building democracy.

 

 

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Notes

 

*why did democratic institutions take root in certain locales and not others, despite the flourishing of civil society? There are three main variables pointed to by the essays:

*the stable integration of the countryside into the civil life of the nation, since it affected whether small-town and small-owning constituencies could be called on to support the regime.

*religion played a role as well, with (despite the notable exception of Belgium) the new Catholic associationism at the fin de siècle standing in ambiguous and often hostile relations to the democratizing trends of the period – relations which were in large part reciprocated by the era’s liberals and democrats.

*it made a huge but not always decisive difference whether liberals and democrats bargained from a position of institutional strength. If they did, the challenge of mass politics proved that much less difficult to assimilate.

**several broad lessons emerge from the essays:

*first, civil society is not inexorably linked to democracy, but historically has emerged in concert with several other forms of regime including monarchy, oligarchic liberalism, and mild or enfeebled types of authoritarianism.

*in certain European cases civil society emerged or held its own during the age of reaction in the first part of the 19th century, thrived in concert with liberal hegemony, and re-emerged and challenged communism in its post-totalitarian phase.

*second, civil society is not always good for democracy. Sometimes, in fact, its best organized elements may be ambivalent or even antithetic to democracy. Elements within civil society are often major players in its breakdown (e.g. Germany and Italy).

*third, the essays on the cases of failure all point out the difficulties in incorporating rural and traditional social formations into civil society. This observation both confirms and expands on the well-established insight that social formations with labour repressive and non-commercialized agriculture pose particular problems for democracy.

*in Portugal, although liberalism and associational networks developed relatively early, subsequent popular mobilization against liberalism, combined with elite dependency on the state, had antidemocratic effects.

*in Russia, there was a weak development of association, related to the failure to free religion from state tutelage.

*in Italy, associations formed against the early liberal movement (Catholic, socialist, clientelist) undermined democratic potential.

*in Germany, a dense associational life, embedded in fractured subcultures, impeded democracy.

*fourth, the essays that discuss cases of democratic success show very diverse patterns. Clearly, there is no single pattern by which civil society successfully connects with a democratic regime and/or promotes it.

*Britain represents one of the classic cases of how an associational culture developed and expanded in a slow fashion.

*in France, civil society eventually thrived despite the periodic attempts of the upper and middle classes to impede the ability of other social actors to organize and the relatively late institutionalization of freedom of association.

*in Belgium and the Netherlands, democracy succeeded through the process of the ‘pillarization’ of civil society, which overcame potentially strong social division and impediments to democracy and a robust civil society.

*fifth, the connection between state and civil society emerges as a key variable in whether civil society plays a constructive role in building democracy.

 

*civil activism seems to come in bursts, and with each burst the mix of organizational forms mutates.

*the experience of 19th century Europe suggests that pressures to expand public participation and democratize public life sprang almost always from civic sources.

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