image by Jeff Djevdet, source:

image courtesy of the House Buy Fast Company

Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the establishment of civil society was seen as the perfect conduit for a transition from communism to liberal democracy in the states of Eastern Europe. Since then, civil society has been viewed by some as potentially inhabiting a similar position in relation to the European Union. This time, the focus is not on nation-states, but rather on the development of a trans-national civil society. This championing of an old political science concept is due to a range of difficulties that are said to confront the European Union in its desire to move towards further political integration: the need for stronger political accountability; the perceived ‘democratic deficit’; the absence of a strong sense of European citizenship; and the lack of a common European sense of identity.

This embracing of civil society at the post-national level has attracted attention from academics, usually concerning the efficacy of civil society in providing a source of democratic accountability and its potential for boosting levels of post-national citizenship (see Bouza Garcia, 2015 and Liebert and Trenz, 2010 for examples).  It could be said that this focus on civil society provides academics with an opportunity to re-discover old debates over civil society that previously have taken place exclusively in the context of nation-states. These familiar arguments have to some extent been transferred to the post-national level, with a certain re-inventing of the wheel taking place. This is not necessarily unwelcome, and the added dimension of attempting to develop post-national forms of governance lends the discourse on civil society an additional historical twist. Nevertheless, if this does constitute a rehashing of century’s old debates over nation-state bounded civil societies, it is one curiously devoid of real engagement with the Hegelian (and post-Hegelian) conception of civil society – i.e., a civil society that needed the state to protect it from the excesses of capitalism. Although for sure echoes of Hegel’s ideas are never far away from the centre of debates, there is a marked avoidance of any notion of conflict associated with civil society. Tensions, difficulties and challenges, yes; conflict, no.

Partly as a result of this intellectual evasion, we are currently left with a somewhat de-clawed and neutered understanding of civil society in the European context. This is especially the case when it comes to examining the position of civil society vis-à-vis the often fraught relationship between capitalism and democracy – a relationship surely of more primary significance to the European project than that between national forms of identity and a hoped-for European solidarity.

Given what we are witnessing in Greece and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Europe, is the historical development of post-national forms of governance a good enough reason to overlook the historical shift between pre-modern and modern understandings of civil society? Is the concern over the development of trans-national solidarities a justification for what appears to be a form of intellectual whitewash? A more plausible explanation for this memory lapse is that the age-old debate about the relationship between democracy and capitalism has fallen off the intellectual radar. This certainly might explain why, in so much discussion of civil society and a European public sphere, such an important dimension of European civil society as the market is missing from current discussions of European identity and solidarity.

Regardless of the rationale behind it, as the debate over a European public sphere has occurred without much recourse to the other civil society, the ability of trans-national civil society to resolve the contradictions of modern European existence is, as Adam Seligman suggested back in 2002, ‘open to serious question’. While the contradiction between the real and ideal of European democratic legitimacy is a significant one, it should not be used to exclude a broader debate about the just-as-significant contradiction between the formal political equality of trans-national citizens and the economic inequality of individuals in a European civil society. While the question of how to resolve such a contradiction is not a simple one, as we have seen throughout the history of social theory, it is not a question that should be conveniently ignored. Indeed, taking account of this other conflict at the core of civil society can do no harm when it comes to strengthening democratic legitimacy at the post-national level.

[image courtesy of the House Buy Fast Company]