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By M. Glasius

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France democratized long before granting the freedom of association (1901). Nor did associations reflect on their own practices by invoking ‘civil society’. We should be careful before viewing the historical absence of the idea in non-European cultures as an inherent obstacle to democratic pluralism. The recent revival of civil society (casting fascism and socialism as enemies) has distracted from the larger question of how a concept valued for its non-ideological qualities coped with ideologies in the nineteenth century—including liberalism.

All because one language, revealing the imprint of power in civil society, just does not acknowledge the other language as a free and equal partner in debate. The power of language of course reflects and codifies material power. When our revenue collector exercises power through a verbal transaction it has to be heard and heeded. But recollect that he would not be so heard unless his verbal utterances represented a structure of codified power: that of legal rules, and that of the state. Underneath and around this verbal utterance, therefore, lies an entire web of legal, political and bureaucratic power, which in turn lends epistemic authority to ideas of legal titles of land.

3 The problem with civil society Putting modern European history back into contemporary debate Frank Trentmann The revival of ‘civil society’ since the 1980s has been intimately linked to questions of democratic renewal. From communitarians rediscovering the ‘social capital’ provided by local associations (Putnam 1995) to radical pluralists championing associative democracy (Cohen and Rogers 1995), from critical theorists highlighting processes of deliberative reason (Cohen and Arato 1992; Habermas 1992) to advocates of cosmopolitan democracy (Held 1995), civil society has served as a bridgehead of democratic reform.

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