College Quarterly
Summer 1996 - Volume 3 Number 4

Repair, Defend, Invent: Civil Society Faces the 21st Century

by Michael R. Welton

There is a lot of despair around, no doubt about it. Jean-François Lyotard (1984) has observed that the 20th century has given us as "much terror as we can take." Eric Hobsbawm's (1994) essay, "Barbarism: A User's Guide" argues that there has been a profound disruption and breakdown of the systems of rules and moral behaviour by which all societies regulate the relations between their members and the members of other societies.

Hobsbawm thinks that the project of the 18th century enlightenment - the establishment of universal rules and standards of moral behaviour - has reversed, and that we are descending into barbarism - into darkness. We scan the globe and mourn for such "disintegral societies" as Bosnia, Sri Lanka or Rwanda that reenact the "horrors of the ancient slaughter-house"(Barber, 1995).

At the other extreme, the "end of history" ideology, captured in Francis Fukuyama's (1992) The End of History and the Last Man, celebrate what they take to be the final triumph of liberal democratic politics and free market economics in our increasingly intertwined and homogenized world. History, in the Hegelian sense, has come to an end in its great, unifying synthesis. The world is becoming more democratic - have no fear! But there is a lot to fear as police truncheons continue to crack heads open from Indonesia to Paris. Yet Fukuyama's utopianism also encapsulates at least a moment of truth as we lurch toward the 21st century.

Epochal Development?

I want to argue for a modest and chastened utopianism as we face the new millennium: chastened because we have learned that political projects which seek to remake totally the world and humankind have radiated nothing but disaster (now we must speak of the self-limiting nature of transformative ideals); modest because the dissolution of communism and the crisis of the welfare state - both losing their capacity to mobilize for an alternative future - provide us with an "unprecedented historical opportunity to rethink the structural possibilities for the democratization of modern societies" (Wolin, 1993: 576).

My argument, posed for consideration towards the UNESCO meeting in Hamburg, Germany in 1997, is that a new self-understanding of the transformative potential of late modern societies hinges on the rediscovered and reinvigorated concept of civil society.

The much-used phrase "civil society" has an ancient pedigree, but its contemporary revival coincided with the "civil society against the state" movement in Eastern Europe. Since then, consideration of civil society has been taken up by Non-Governmental Organization activists, academics and many others. We most surely live in what Ulrich Beck has called a "risk society," and it is as if the air we breathe (that sustains us, that makes all the plenitude of human activity possible) is no longer taken for granted. There is a widespread sense throughout the world that the current global economic restructuring poses great threats to the moral, spiritual and social bases of the ways we live together.

Changing Configurations

It seems to me that the main cause of much of the disorder and confusion within most societies has to do with the changing configuration of the relationship between economy, state and civil society. The "economy" has pried itself loose from the constraining effects of the "state," and has turned a deaf ear to the agonies reverberating through civil society and the life histories of men and women.

Systemic deficiencies, we should never tire of reminding ourselves, are always experienced in the context of individual life histories. The language of economy, money and market has colonized our public (and maybe even our private) vocabularies, displacing spiritual, moral and social-critical vocabularies. The fundamental strategy of the "new right" has been to eviscerate the signifiers of culture by attributing to them hollow economic meanings. Freedom is manifested in absence of economic restraint, equality is realized in the opportunity to compete, and efficiency becomes the master signifier as it is elevated to an end-in-itself.

Why has the adult- and higher-educational community been so unable to resist marketspeak? We speak glowingly of finance capital, of physical capital and even of human capital. Rarely do we speak of social capital. But this is changing as we become aware of the way in which global restructuring is depleting relations of mutuality and trust within our associational lives.

The American sociologist Robert Putnam defines social capital as the "processes between people which establish networks, norms and social trust and facilitate co-ordination and cooperation for mutual benefit" (see Cox, 1995: 15). And it is precisely within the domain of what we are now calling civil society (the social space which includes intimate relationships, friendship, associations, social movements and public spheres) that social capital is produced and depleted.

While social capital is only one of the core components of a vitally functioning civil society (the institutions and learning processes of civil society also have the normative task of producing meaning and critically active personalities), if relationships of trust and reciprocity are damaged one can scarcely imagine life making much sense or persons functioning in a stable fashion. The unspeakable tragedy of Rwanda illustrates the madness into which humans can descend when trust is stripped from all social contacts and connections.

Relationships of mutuality, reciprocity and trust, when they occur, are carefully nurtured over time. Social capital is thus analogous to the growth of an oak tree. It starts out precariously as an acorn, then a small shoot facing wind, cold, animals. Over a century or so, it reaches its full sturdiness. In a matter of minutes, modern technology can burst in upon this tree and destroy it.

Social capital is like that: it takes years of care and nurturing to foster meaningful relationships of respect and tolerance. And the heedless action of the state or corporation can destroy accumulated social capital almost over night. Stockholders are told that profits have soared in the same breath as we are informed that the company has been downsized. Decisions made only in terms of economic efficiency neglect the pain that reaches into the human psyche and does not notice the faultlines that appear in our families and associations, let alone the almost unbearable pressures exerted on the overstressed welfare state.

Australian Eva Cox (1995: 17) comments: "Social capital should be the pre-eminent and most valued form of capital as it provides the basis on which we build a truly civil society. Without our social bases we cannot be fully human. Social capital is as vital as language for human society. We become vulnerable to social bankruptcy when our social connections fail. If most of our experiences enhance our sense of trust and mutuality, allowing us to feel valued and to value others, then social capital increases."

These insights ought to provide some encouragement to beleaguered socially responsible adult educators. The education for social transformation' discourse, with its orientation to strategic action to change the way people think and institutions perform, may obscure the way our educational practice (in and out of the classroom) either produces or depletes social capital. The global adult education movement must consider the extent to which its practices conserve and sustain the social basis for what Habermas has called communicative action.

Socially responsible adult education (SRAE) is not simply about social change. In fact, a strong case can be made that SRAE must grapple as never before with the following learning challenges engendered by globalization: the deprivation of meaning (Which confronts consumerism as surrogate god), the depletion of solidarity (which confronts possessive individualism and social fragmentation) and the destabilization of the personality (which confronts a host of socially-induced pathologies). In our topsy-turvy world, SRAE may well emerge as "philosophic conservatism" defined by Anthony Giddens (1994: 10) as a "philosophy of protection, conservation and solidarity " He thinks that a "radical political programme must recognize that confronting manufactured risk cannot take the for of more of the same', an endless exploration of the future at the cost of protection of the present or past."

I believe that a new self-understanding of society at the end of the 20th century is rising from the rubble and ruins of post-communist and post-welfare societies as well as from the suffering and misery of millions living in societies that lack traditions of liberal rights and vital publics. Indeed, as one person commented to me after a talk on civil society, "I think that civil society is just a perk of the affluent countries. Our attention ought to be elsewhere, namely, on the transnational corporations that rule everyone." Well, I don't believe that the transnational corporations do rule everyone even though they are certainly responsible for bad things. And if a "third world" country lacks an open civil society, then this has to be confronted in terms of the future of democracy. For me, our attention as SRAE must be on strengthening our capacity to react to the colonization of our lifeworlds.

Civil Society as the Natural Habitat of SRAE

As an adult learning theorist (for such is my pretension), I have increasingly come to realize that civil society is the privileged domain for non-instrumental learning processes. This is a normative statement; of course, actually existing relationships within civil society can also be manipulative and destructive. This is why Habermas (1996) uses the phrase "rationalized lifeworld" to capture both the possibility of pathologies within the lifeworld and the necessity of people arriving at norms, values and procedures that govern their interactions through reflexive, deliberative learning processes. Communication within the institutions of civil society is oriented to understanding, and we recognize, both intuitively and rationally, that when a spouse, for instance, coerces a partner into a particular act through force, this is a distortion of what ought to be mutually agreed upon.

The institutions of civil society which have evolved over time through interplay with the development of complex sub-systems of state and economy have the task of enabling us to learn what life means, who we are, what holds us together, what divides us, and what it means to be competent, active persons in our particular world. In sociological terms we can speak of the cultural, social and personal reproductive tasks of civil society. This rather flat language does not fully indicate what is at stake. If the reproductive tasks are interfered with or cannot be carried out for systemically-rooted reasons, then the very spiritual, moral and social infrastructure of the economy and state will be imperiled. And, it is precisely this infrastructure that is being damaged in the current global restructuring. Global SRAE has the opportunity at this critical historical juncture to re/assert a humanist, life-affirming language against the life-denying language of economics.

I would like to argue that the core value structure of SRAE-the affirmation that the lifeworld is the foundation of meaning, solidarity and stable personality; that our commitment to the enlightened, relatively autonomus and reflective learner, to the centrality of social learning processes to the formation of active citizens and to the fostering of discussion, debate and dialogue among citizens-is compatible with discursive or deliberative approaches to democracy, and that civil society-the normative realm of communicative action and self-organization-is the key to understanding the meaning of deliberative democracy.

The Association of World Education has as its mandate the preparation of documents addressing the issue of adult education, citizenship and democracy. The matter of adult education is very complex and requires elaborated and many-faceted discussion; however, I believe that a civil societarian approach to these questions holds some promise of understanding how global adult education can contribute to the further democratization of societies in the North and South. Three axioms can be culled from the extensive literature on civil society that are pertinent to our discussion.

First, the scope and vitality of a society's associational life is a prerequisite for building a deliberative democracy. We learn to be citizens, not by participating in politics first, but in the free space of school, church and clubs. Associations are schools of citizenship: in them men and women learn to respect and trust others, fulfill obligations and press their claims communicatively.

Second, in late modern societies the new social movements take on a specific significance as action-oriented sites for learning democracy. Movements focusing on peace, ecology, women and indigenous peoples' struggles are certainly bound up with identity-assertion but the learning processes inside the movements are directed toward bringing up issues relevant to the entire society, defining ways of approaching problems, proposing possible solutions, supplying new information, interpreting values differently, mobilizing good reasons and criticizing bad ones (Habermas, 1996: 370).

Third, the creation and maintenance of exuberant public spheres is central to civil societarian adult education. The public sphere and civil society are not identical; rather the public sphere is a central element of civil society in that it is via the institutions of the public sphere that members of civil society can engage in informed public debate upon matters of common concern, including the way in which power is distributed and deployed within society. A dynamic and vigorous public sphere depends on "the favourable organization of civil society" (Calhoun, 1993). For it is in the learning life of associations, organizations and movements that systematically generated problems, which reverberate in individual life histories, are distilled and transmitted in "amplified form to the public sphere" (Habermas, 1996: 376).

The public sphere is, of course, not an identifiable thing-in-itself. A geographical area within a city, for example, may function primarily as a park for picnickers and the sports-minded. It may also become a public space for a rally or protest against state or corporate actions. I believe that the new social movements often play particularly salient roles, in late modernity, in ensuring that reflective learning processes occur outside the control of government and private corporate interests. But it is not just the new social movements that assume this role. Any association, even if it is usually not "political," can under certain circumstances, attempt to gain public attention and foster widespread debate around an issue of major concern to citizens.

For instance, a bird-watching society (which fosters learning processes related to birds and their environment) may be galvanized into collective action which it notices that a particular species has not been seen as much as usual. Indeed, this learning process could result in the major identification of a serious ecological problem. The bird-watching club, however, would have to get the public's attention, and mobilize the public through various adult education initiatives in order to influence political decision makers.

Civil societarian adult educators would be committed, I believe, to a process of double democratization. The first principle is that the division between the state and civil society must be a central feature of democratic life is fundamental to this outlook on social learning processes. The second premise must be that the power to make decisions be free of the inequalities and constraints that can be imposed by an unregulated system of capital (Cohen and Arato, 1992: x). This means that the learning processes within civil society - the organization of enlightenment in Habermas' terms - are oriented toward the generating of influence through the "life of democratic associations and unconstrained discussion in the cultural public sphere" (Habermas, 1996: 372).

SRAE would decry any form of democracy that focuses on voting while confining citizen action primarily to the private sidelines of civil society. There must be institutionalized opportunities to exist and act as citizens, as participant in public life. With reference to the history of Canadian adult education, I have argued that institutions like the Citizens; and Farm Radio Forums of the 1940s and 1950s were seminal attempts to institutionalize social and political learning processes in order to channel influence from the lifeworld to the system. Without active participation on the part of citizens in egalitarian institutions and civil associations as well as "politically relevant" organizations, there will be no way to maintain the democratic character of any society.

We have learned some big lessons as the 20th century comes to a close. The old leftist dream of bringing society as a whole under public control lies in ruins." Civil societarian adult educators must learn lessons from the "civil society against the state" struggle of Eastern Europe that any viable project for the further democratization of society must be self-limiting. We cannot abolish the state or, for that matter, the market. Habermas (1996: 372) argues that "democratic movements emerging from civil society must give up holistic aspirations to a self-organizing society, aspirations that also undergirded Marxist ideas of social revolution. Civil society can directly transform only itself, and it can have at most an indirect effect on the self-transformation of the political system; generally, it has an influence only on the personnel and programming of this system." But the self-limitation of civil society should not be understood as incapacitation or paralysis. Civil society, Habermas reminds us, has the "opportunity of mobilizing counterknowledge and drawing on the pertinent forms of expertise to make its own translations."

Thus, it becomes very important to understand the circumstances under which civil society can acquire influence in the public sphere and have an effect on the parliamentary complex and the courts through its own public opinions and compel the political and economic systems to open themselves to learning generated from within civil society. Collective learning processes must crystallize demands channeled through the gates and into the arenas of formal decision making within state and economic sub-systems. Do socially responsible adult educators understand how this works? Most assuredly the global adult education movement must deepen its theoretical understanding of the circumstances under which a mobilized civil society is able to find receptors for its concerns within the system domains.

In conclusion, I think that any vital SRAE in the 21st century must face this question: how can civil society be secured, sustained and invigorated in our time? A strong civil society is prerequisite for the creation of any kind of vital (or even efficient) democratic society. We are currently dominated by an anti-public, anti-human way of seeing and ordering the world. Therefore, a rational, dynamic, mobilized, exuberant civil society must be defended where it has appeared, repaired where the system has damaged it, and invented where tyrannical states have strangled it.

At the cusp of the 21st century, the fundamental purpose of socially responsible adult education is the strengthening, defending and expanding of the scope and inclusiveness of civil society, in order to help tilt the balance of power away from government bureaucracy and privately-owned corporations, and toward individuals and independent public associations active within civil society.


Lyotard, Jean-François (1984). The Postmodern Condition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hobsbawm, Eric (1994) "Barbarism: A User's Guide." New Left Review 206 (July-August).

Barber, D. (1995). Jihad vs. McWorld. New York: Random House.

Fukuyama, Francis (1992) The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press.

Wolin, R. (1993). "Review of Cohen and Arato." Theory and Society 22.

Cox, Eva (1995). A Truly Civil Society. Sydney: Australian Broadcast Corporation.

Giddens, Anthony (1994). Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Habermas, JŸrgen (1996). Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Calhoun, C. (1993). "Civil Society and the Public Sphere." Public Culture 5.

Held, D. (1993). "Liberalism, Marxism and Democracy," Theory and Society 22.

J. Cohen J., and A. Arato (1992). Civil Society and Political Theory. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Michael R. Welton is Co-ordinator of the Adult Education Program at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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1996 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology