Language of Rights July 04, 2021

Civil Society: A Force for Liberation or the Status Quo?

Chris Stone
Principal Moderator

Advocates for human rights are pushing back seemingly everywhere against government restrictions on civil society activism.  At the same time, many social movements are critical of civil society organizations that seem to be dependent on, and overly cozy with, various ruling elites.  What is civil society?  Is it a force for liberation or is it helping to preserve the status quo?

At a recent Symposium Dialogue* a small group of rights advocates and activists from Egypt, South Africa, Brazil, Hungary, Nigeria, and Bangladesh explored these questions together, and our starting point was Antonio Gramsci’s account of civil society in his Prison Notebooks from the 1930s.  We quickly discovered that the first thing we needed to discuss was our understanding of what exactly we mean by civil society.

What Is Civil Society?

Many activists at first assume that civil society refers to formal organizations such as think tanks, public interest legal groups, or government reform associations, all focused on politics, public policy, and rights.  Some assume it is even narrower than this: referring only to those groups that criticize the government of the day and seek political change.  Veteran activists come to understand that the term is much wider than this, embracing all associations of people apart from the state.  Labor unions, religious groups, artists’ collectives, theatres, publishers, museums, universities, community improvement societies, and much more all comprise civil society.  Some might include informal associations and social movements.  Others might even include private businesses.

Gramsci’s first insight about civil society is that it is the vehicle through which ruling elites maintain their dominance over the vast majority of people in any polity.  Yes, the military, the police, and the courts use coercion to enforce the will of the rulers, but in many societies the hegemony of those elites is mostly maintained through a multitude of non-coercive structures that reinforce the norms and understandings of the elites.  As Joseph Buttigieg, who translated the Prison Notebooks, explains, for Gramsci, “civil society is the arena wherein the ruling class extends and reinforces its power by non-violent means.”  We can see that happening rapidly and obviously today in Hungary, but Gramsci understood it that it was happening more subtly everywhere.

Yet, even as Gramsci’s first insight alerts us that most civil society organizations today are serving the interests of ruling elites, his second insight is that civil society can and should become a zone of freedom, of true liberation from political domination by those same elites.  It is within civil society, he argued, that we must try to create “counter hegemonic institutions.”  Indeed, Gramsci thought we would need to expand civil society to create such organizations, and that a civil society composed of these participatory organizations could become the “site of universal freedom,” eventually making political society itself unnecessary.

Questions for Rights Activists

For those of us engaged in human rights organizations and movements, Gramsci’s insights invite us to question whether our own structures are reinforcing the dominance of some groups over others.  Do our own hierarchies reproduce oppressive legacies?  Do our funding sources and hiring practices bind us into the very patterns of domination that we hope to overturn?  Or does the strategic use of resources acquired from diverse elite institutions (including foundations, universities, corporations, and international donors) give us crucial opportunities to shatter elite consensus and harness greater power?

In the Symposium Dialogue, participants pointed out that these two roles of civil society organizations—reinforcing elite dominance or opening-up participatory zones of freedom—represent ends on a continuum.  Ruling elites are usually not monoliths.  They have their fissures and factions.  Most of our organizations and movements for rights are partly aligned with one or more of these factions even while maintaining their fundamental alignment with the various majorities and minorities subordinated to the dominant elites.

So, Gramsci’s writings pose at least two challenges for those of us engaged with civil society organizations today. First, we are challenged to confront the extent to which we are inadvertently reinforcing patterns of domination that keep today’s ruling elites in power.  And second, we are challenged to understand the role that civil society is playing more widely in our countries.  Are we expanding civil society, so it becomes a site of freedom, or are we allowing civil society to remain, in Gramsci’s words, “a formidable complex of trenches and fortifications of the ruling class”?


*Symposium Dialogues are one-hour, virtual conversations among 20-30 invited participants who are playing leading roles in various human rights organizations and movements.  This is where Zoom excels, allowing advocates and activists from all over the world to have a rigorous conversation with trusted friends and allies, face-to-face, without having to travel.  You can find Joseph Buttigieg’s article about Gramsci and civil society discussed at this Symposium Dialogue here, and you can read our brief excerpt here (from which all of the quotations above are taken).  If you would like to join future Symposium Dialogues or our other invitational events, you can request an invitation here.