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“The uses and abuses of Civil Society”: Ellen Meiksins Wood

We live in curious times. Just when intellectuals of the Left in the West have a rare opportunity to do something useful, if not actually world-historic, they -or large sections of them- are in full retreat. Just when reformers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are looking to Western capitalism for paradigms of economic and political success, many of us appear to be abdicating the traditional role of the Western left as critic of capitalism. Just when more than ever we need a Karl Marx to reveal the inner workings of the capitalist system, or a Friedrich Engels to expose its ugly realities ‘on the ground’, what we are getting is an army of ‘post-Marxists’ one of whose principal functions is apparently to conceptualize away the problem of capitalism.

The ‘post-modem’ world, we are told, is a pastiche of fragments and ‘difference’. The systemic unity of capitalism, its ‘objective structures’ and totalizing imperatives, have given way (if they ever existed) to a bricolage of multiple social realities, a pluralistic structure so diverse and flexible that it can be rearranged by discursive construction. The traditional capitalist economy has been replaced by a ‘post-Fordist’ fragmentation, where every fragment opens up a space for emancipatory struggles. The constitutive class relations of capitalism represent only one personal ‘identity’ among many others, no longer ‘privileged’ by its historic centrality. And so on.

Despite the diversity of current theoretical trends on the left and their various means of conceptually dissolving capitalism, they often share one especially serviceable concept: ‘civil society’. After a long and somewhat tortuous history, after a series of milestones in the works of Hegel, Marx and Gramsci, this versatile idea has become an all-purpose catchword for the left, embracing a wide range of emancipatory aspirations, as well – it must be said -as a whole set of excuses for political retreat. However constructive its uses in defending human liberties against state oppression, or in marking out a terrain of social practices, institutions and relations neglected by the ‘old’ Marxist left, ‘civil society’ is now in danger of becoming an alibi for capitalism.

The Idea of Civil Society: A Brief Historical Sketch

The current usage of ‘civil society’ or the conceptual opposition of ‘state’ and ‘civil society’, has been inextricably associated with the development of  capitalism. There has certainly been a long intellectual tradition in the West, even reaching back to classical antiquity, which has in various ways delineated a terrain of human association, some notion of ‘society’, distinct from the body politic and with moral claims independent of, and sometimes opposed to, the state’s authority. Whatever other factors have been at work in producing such concepts, their evolution has been from the beginning bound up with the development of private property as a distinct and autonomous locus of social power. For example, although the ancient Romans, like the Greeks, still tended to identify the state with the community of citizens, the ‘Roman people’, they did produce some major advances in the conceptual separation of state and ‘society’, especially in the Roman Law which distinguished between public and private spheres and gave private property a legal status and clarity it had never enjoyed before.1 In that sense, the modem concept of ‘civil society’, its association with the specific property relations of capitalism, is a variation on an old theme. At the same time, any attempt to dilute the specificity of this ‘civil society’, to obscure its differentiation from earlier conceptions of ‘society’, risks disguising the particularity of capitalism itself as a distinct social form with its own characteristic social relations, its own modes of appropriation and exploitation, its own rules of reproduction, its own systemic imperatives.*

Artículo completo en pdf: “The uses and abuses of Civil Society”: Ellen Meikins Wood

Fuente: Socialist Register

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