Joshua Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (1992), pp. 1-92.

Important Insight: There are three societies: civil, political, and economic. Focussing on civil society, the authors argue that the concept of civil society indicates a terrain in the West that is endangered by the logic of administrative and economic mechanisms but is also the primary locus for the potential expansion of democracy under ‘really existing’ liberal-democratic regimes. Only a concept of civil society that is properly differentiated from the economy (and therefore from ‘bourgeois society’) could become the centre of a critical political and social theory in societies where the market economy has already developed, or is the process of developing, its own autonomous logic.


Method: theoretical discussion.




*what is at stake is not simply the defence of society against the state or the economy, but which version of civil society is to prevail.

*definition: civil society: a sphere of social interaction between economy and state, composed above all of the intimate sphere (especially family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary associations), social movements, and forms of public communication. Modern civil society is created through forms of self-constitution and self-mobilization.

*it is distinct from political (parties, parliaments, etc) and economic society (firms, corporations, etc), although they arise from civil society.

*the political role of civil society is not conquest of power but the generation of influence

*without active participation on the part of citizens in egalitarian institutions and civil associations, as well as in politically relevant organizations, there will be no way to maintain the democratic character of the political culture of social and political institutions.

*against the pluralists, they reject the view that the ‘civic culture’ most appropriate to a modern civil society is one based on civil privatism and political apathy.

*against participation theorists, they argue for more, not less, structural differentiation. The genesis of democratic legitimacy and the chances for direct participation are located not in some idealized, de-differentiated polity but within a highly differentiated model of civil society itself. There are variety of channels of influence between civil and political society and between the state and civil society (e.g. social movements, political parties, etc. are all legitimate and relevant).

*against the neoconservatives, they argue that simple claims of “society against the state” are often based on a conception of society as bourgeois society. The real task is to guarantee the autonomy of the modern state and economy while simultaneously protecting civil society from the destructive penetration and functionalization by the imperatives of the two spheres.

*three central debates:

*elite vs participatory democracy:

*the empirical theories of democracy (elite, pluralist, corporatist, and rational choice models) tend quite openly to reduce the normative meaning of the term to a set of minimums modelled on a conception of bargaining, competition, access, and accountability derived more from the market than from earlier models of citizenship.

*by contrast, the participatory model of democracy maintains that what makes for good leaders also makes for good citizens – active participation and in ruling and being ruled (i.e. in the exercise of power) and also in public will and opinion formation.

*it is through political experience that one develops a conception of civic virtue, learns to tolerate diversity, to temper fundamentalism and egoism, and to become able and willing to compromise.

*rights-oriented liberalism vs communitarianism:

*both rights-oriented liberals and communitarians reject the antinormative, empiricist, utilitarian strains in the empirical theories of democracy, but they differ in their formulation of a convincing normative theory of democratic legitimacy or justice.

*liberals: respect of individual  rights and the principle of political neutrality is the standard for legitimacy in constitutional democracies.

*communitarians: the social order should have primacy over the individual, and duties arise from the community level on the basis of membership in social orders.

*critics (neoconservatives) and defenders of the welfare state:

*either we choose more social engineering, paternalism, and levelling (in short, more statism) in the name of egalitarianism and social rights or we opt for the free market an/or the refurbishing of authoritarian social and political forms of organization and relinquish the democratic, egalitarian components of our political culture in order to block further bureaucratization of everyday life.

*it seems that liberal democratic market societies cannot coexist with nor without the welfare state.