Exploring Civil Society: Political and Cultural Contexts by M. Glasius

By M. Glasius

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By freely associating with others in pursuit of personal and common purposes, human beings also express and cultivate their sociability, discover themselves, develop civic virtues, and grow to their full stature. Economic, professional, neighbourhood, civic and other associations arrest the atomization and feeling of helplessness inherent in modern industrialized society, generate multiple centres of power, cultivate moral and social discipline, provide formal and informal spaces in which to interact with others and rise above one’s subjectivity, and foster social cohesion.

Civil society, in short, was divinely bounded. And this boundedness imposed clear limits on toleration. The overwhelmingly Christian substance of civil society arguments in eighteenth-century Britain might be brushed aside as a deviation from a European trend. Yet, unless we wish to move towards an essentialist interpretation of civil society (of which current theorists are rightly cautious), we need to take diversity seriously. Most Britons had a religious understanding of civil society. Whether this understanding would pass the test of current theorists is irrelevant, since they held these views about civil Exploring civil society 28 society in their world, not in ours.

It does, of course, ensure associative freedom, this being true by definition, but the freedom is not and cannot be without constraints. All associations affect public order and public interest, and the state cannot be indifferent to their structures and practices. It may rightly ban associations that incite religious, ethnic or racial hatred, and require that they should not discriminate against blacks, untouchables, gays or women, or impose unacceptable cost on their dissenting or departing members.

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