Part 1

This is the first installment of a discussion of the potential of civil society to be a force for social change in the 21st Century.

The Creation of Public Opinion

Civil society is one of those murky terms, that is, what do we mean by it?   Here is one current definition:   Contemporary definition for civil society – noun

The aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens; individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government. –  Civil society. (n.d.).’s 21st Century Lexicon. Retrieved September 24, 2014, from website: society

This definition would seem to include individuals and every conceivable non-governmental entity, churches, corporations, no-profit charities, hunting and fishing organizations, sports teams, fraternal organizations, political parties, youth organizations, and so on. But perhaps we should look to a more historical characterization of civil society. While a term was used in ancient Greek and Roman societies that imply the existence of civil society, the fact is that the social structure that existed did not correspond to what is considered modern civil society. Civil society, as we think of it today, is a product of the rise of capitalism, the corresponding development of the modern republic or liberal democracy, and the rise of a modern state, based on these political and economic realities. The exact formation of the modern state takes on different characteristics, depending on the concrete conditions, culture and history in each respective country as it became formed during this historical period.

Civil society is then, in this characterization, something separate from the state, i.e. all those aspects of society that are separate from the state and not controlled by the state. The first direct and concise definition of civil society, in this modern sense, comes from Hegel in his Philosophy of Right. “Distinguished both from the family and the state, civil society (burgerliche Gesellschaft) is the realm of economics and economic relationships, ‘the system of needs’; of the law and ‘the administration of justice’; and of the ‘police,’ and the ‘corporation’.” Civil society is, therefore, bourgeois society, in existence to protect life, liberty, property (and the bourgeois way of life) by the laws embedded in the state that serve this economic class in modern industrial society. As a quick aside, this is contradistinction to feudal society that modern, capitalist industrial society had emerged from over the course of the preceding two-hundred and fifty years when Hegel put forward these ideas. The bourgeoisie was simply the class of people who owned the means of production of society’s needs, as opposed to the working class and other remnant classes left over from feudalism. Small shop keepers were sometimes called the petty-bourgeoisie, while farmers and peasants were part of these feudal remnants.

The notion of public discourse and civil engagement as a basis of social change is a product of the Enlightenment.  Civil society emerged with the rise of capitalism as the dominant economic mode, along with the creation of modern state as a new mode of political organization. This new social arrangement, which allowed public debate on issues of common concern was a novel and even revolutionary movement which emerged out of the new capitalist commerce and creation of new classes of socially active individuals seeking to effect political, economic and cultural trends to meet their needs and interests. Exploring how modern engagement in social discourse for the purpose of social change can point to some ideas about its effectiveness and sustainability. One of the best inquiries into this historical creation of civil society, and its evolution today is Jurgen Habermas’s important study, The structural transformation of the public sphere; An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society.

This work opened an area of discourse concerning the political importance and impact of the establishment of “public opinion” as an outcome of capitalism.  This is both a historical and sociological study which covers the rise of the relationship between the private and the public sphere of everyday and political life in modern bourgeois society.  The emergence of the bourgeoisie as a class from feudal times through the forces of the development of capitalism and its transformation to become the dominant economic foundation of society is explicated in regards to “the emergence, transformation, and disintegration of the bourgeois public sphere.”  In the introduction, Habermas points out that this is a category of bourgeois society, meaning that it does not appear contemporaneously in all European countries, but does appear in the emergence of bourgeois societies as part of the development of “civil society”, with, of course, the characteristics or modifications of the unique national or local cultural character.

Through a brief historical review of pre-capitalist socio-economic formation’s expressions of private and public as social spheres, and their aspects and limitations, Habermas lays the basis for comparing and contrasting past formations with the differences that are expressed in in the private and public spheres as categories of bourgeois society historically developing on a capitalist foundation to transform economic, political and social relations.  He accomplishes this by giving a very concise sketch of the emergence of new social institutions and growth of literacy that led to the engagement of the general population in discussions of political, economic, aesthetic and moral issues.  This discourse instigated a dialectical creation of public awareness of their role in civil society from various aspects of letter writing, newspaper and journal production, and private/public debate in coffee houses, salons and other public places.  This created an awareness in the population of a new social role, that of being transformed from being in the public to being the public.

The analysis outlines the tensions and resistance that takes place in this development, as an evolution of a disparate population, through new forms of social discourse, education, debate and the emergence of consciousness of themselves as a class, which “causes” the bourgeoisie to pull all of society together into “the sphere of private people come together as a public” who soon “claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves.” This development created a new engagement of people in choosing to formulate positions on social issues, to see their lives as members of a society, to express themselves as wanting to control their own destinies and evolving a new subjectivity as social selves.  This dialectical growth created new social structures, new aspirations for freedom and self-determination and the quest for political freedom and power.  The previously disparate population became the public and the public overcame the existing social institutions to establish new ones which merged their private desires with public outcomes.  Civil society evolved with an emergence of the dominance of the economic basis leading to the control (or at least influence) over the state through the creation of a public sphere in “the political realm . . . the world of letters (clubs, press) . . . (and) a market of culture products (“Town”).”

Of course this was not a linear development with necessary outcomes.   The study goes on to analyze the political functions of the public sphere, with discussions of variations through different nation states and cultures, private law and constitutional variations.  Next Habermas explicates the relationship between politics and morality.  The transition from the reality of the public sphere to the ideological morphing of the public sphere and public opinion, as expressed in the writings of Kant, Hegel, Marx, J.S. Mill and de Tocqueville is explored as part of the growth and domination of capitalism and modern republics in passing from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth century.  Idealism, liberalism and revolutionary thought and actions all influenced the course of these developments.  New social identities were created in this process and new relationships to state, economy and other social institutions (family, the press, etc.) and the consumption of culture (books, newspapers, etc.) evolved. But, in the main, this is all historical background.

Again, the central point was to understand the contemporary (in the 1960’s when this was originally written) status of the public/private dichotomy as expressed in law, aesthetics, politics, culture, and so on, and their transformation into completely inverted and redefined structures and functions.  The commercialization of the press caused “the threshold between the circulation of a commodity and the exchange of communications among the members of a public (to be) leveled; within the private domain the clear line separating the public sphere from the private became blurred.”   This led to the transformation of the public sphere’s political function, as well, with the rational public discourse of private citizens being turned into “complexes of public power.”  Mass media has evolved to shape “public opinion”, views of culture, leisure time activities and has morphed into the products of advertising and mass consumption of culture.  Culture, news and entertainment become branded commodities which are marketed in such a way as to give the illusion of customization and uniqueness, while all the while limiting choice and options “dictated by the capacity of the unified machine process.”

In the fifty plus years since Habermas originally put forward these ideas there has been a revolutionary (in the sense of never existing before) change in the technology available for private use.  Habermas was only dealing with television, magazines and other periodicals and the way that they, in combination with the inversion of constitutional republics, i.e. democracies, into modern welfare states had essentially negated and debased democracy itself.  The private expression of political will through voting for representative influence on states had removed any real public influence on the outcome of authoritative (i.e. governmental) actions and ruling.  Public opinion replaced public influence on these outcomes.  Private discourse on serious political issues was eliminated as acceptable discourse through the domination of the media and its shaping of views and information available for evaluation of the actions of authorities.  Democracy is deemed to exist only fictitiously, and the role of the constitutional state as a welfare state emerged to “shape social conditions to continue the legal tradition of the liberal state” in order “to ensure an overall legal order comprising both state and society.”  How is the debasement or disempowerment of democratic activity concretely manifested in modern bourgeois society?

The constitution of the modern public sphere in capitalist societies is paradoxical due to its a priori openness as a “civic” realm oriented towards political inclusion and its de facto closure as a “bourgeois” realm based on social exclusion. To the extent that the discourses generated in the bourgeois public sphere are motivated by the dialogical exercise of critical perspective- taking, they can claim to represent, or at least seek to represent, the interests of society. To the extent that the discourses produced in the bourgeois public sphere are based on the perspective of the dominant class, they serve, first and foremost, the interests of a particular social group. In short, the tension between universal and particular interests can be considered as the first element that, because of its contradictory nature, has contributed to the steady degeneration of the bourgeois public sphere.

Habermas’s analysis points to the role of the state as transforming the relationship of the public as being partly meditated through bureaucratic institutions and partly mediated through the role of the market in its commodification of political involvement.  Susen points out that

the Habermasian account of the public sphere has been highly influential that it has been criticized in numerous ways. Hence, the multifaceted forms of criticism levelled against Habermas’s theory of the public sphere should not be one-sidedly interpreted as evidence of its analytical weakness and explanatory inadequacy; rather, they should be considered indicative of the fact that Habermas provides a useful and insightful theoretical framework for understanding the structural transformation of the public sphere in the modern period. (Susen, 2011)

Thus, civil society is a realm of liberty, equality, and creates the basis for individualism, individual personality and individual freedom. That progressive, and even revolutionary, social movements expanded this realm to include other classes and members of society, is part of the history of the past two-hundred years. The question becomes, however, can we speak of civil society in the same way today?  Has the commercialization of everyday life, the globalization of the world economy, the acceptance of a culture of surveillance, and the ever-present reality of nations at war undermined or stilted the ability to create social change in accordance with the institutions of civil society, or are these now “part of the problem?”  As Solnit portrays it, “Paradise is not the place in which you arrive but the journey toward it.  Sometimes I think victories must be temporary or incomplete; what kind of humanity would survive paradise?” (Solnit, 2006).  Can we accept this vision, which implies that incremental reforms of the status quo are all we can hope for? The transformation of the present reality is what is demanded.  Hope becomes a form of faith, the kind of faith Samuel Clemons described when he stated, “Faith is believing in something, when you know it isn’t so.”


Benhabib, S. (2002). The claims of culture: Equality and diversity in the global era.  Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.’s 21st Century Lexicon. Retrieved September 24, 2014, from website: society

Donovan, J. (2012). Feminist theory: The intellectual traditions. New York. Bloomsbury.

Ehrenberg, J. (1999). Civil society: The critical history on an idea. New Yotk. New York University Press.

Habermas, J. (1973). Theory and practice. Boston. Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society. Cambridge, MA. The MIT Press.

Hobsbawm, E.J. (1962). The age of revolution:1789-1848. New York. Mentor Book.

Lara, M. P. (1998). Moral textures: Feminist narratives in the public sphere. Berkeley, CA. University of California Press.

Solnit, R. (2006). Hope in the dark: Untold histories, wild possibilities. New York: Nations Books.

Stillman, P.G. (1980) Hegels’ civil society: A locus of freedom. Polity, 12/4 Summer 1980, pp. 622-646.

Susen, S. (2011). Critical Notes on Habermas’s Theory of the Public Sphere. In Sociological Analysis, 5, 1: 37-62

Tigar, M.E. & Levy, M.R. (1977). Law & the rise of capitalism. New York. Monthly Review Press.


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