GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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I shall argue for the relevance of civil society to democratic governance, and I shall characterize both as complementary technologies that are instrumental to personal and collective self-determination and emancipation. And, finally, I shall attempt to show that civil society has a significant and perhaps overlooked role in the emergence of democratic governance in the Arab world.


Following the onset of the Arab Spring many remarked that the technology of the Internet is a wellspring for social and political emancipation in the contemporary world. Technology writer Clay Shirky is representative of this cohort, arguing that the Arab Spring shows us that the Internet is an inherently democratizing technology. Fellow writer Evgeny Morozov describes this cohort as cyber-utopian. Morozov, himself, is part of a counter-veiling cohort that is rather more skeptical of the Internet’s inherent virtues, and this cohort can be described as cyber-skeptic. Pre-dating this particular debate but on the side of the skeptics, sociologist Craig Calhoun argues that the Internet itself does not bring about social movements. Rather, it is people working in solidarity with each other in order to advance their common interests that bring about social change. Basic to social movements, therefore, is community building. The Internet may, but it also may not, support this more fundamental condition. For example, looking back at the French revolution (1848) Calhoun notices two things: (i) the drama of the revolution was played out in face-to-face interactions, and (ii) it was a characteristically urban or centralized movement. This illustrates, Calhoun thinks, the fact that social movements require centralized, coordinated, public actions. For example, it would be hard to image the Arab Spring without the drama of individual acts of resistance, notably Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunsia (2010), or the drama of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The technology of the Internet, by contrast, is decentralized. Certainly this makes it useful in building social movements. It allows people to network with like-minded individuals far afield and to grow a base for their movement. And, to the extent that the Internet enables members of a social movement to organize, and to reach a critical mass, it will be useful to the movement. But the technology may also be used to suppress social movements, for example, through surveillance and censorship. In any case, prior to the growth of a movement is the bedrock of those who have banded together to advance their cause.

Cyber-utopians, Calhoun suggests, think that mere access to a communication technology is sufficient for social and political change. But it is the more fundamental condition of community building that matters. As Calhoun puts it, the technology of the Internet may support community, but it is not a substitute for it. The technology simply enables us humans to do the things that we already are inclined to do, such as network, advance causes and so forth. Furthermore, while the technology of the Internet tends to be useful to social movements, it does not guarantee a movement toward democracy. Rather, I shall argue, it is the technology or apparatus of civil society wherein we build communities around interests that is foundational to social movements, and it is also more clearly correlated with democratic governance.


What, then, is civil society? There is a slight difference between civilians and citizens. Citizenship concerns our formal relationship with the state and its government. Civil society is concerned with social and cultural matters apart from the state and its government (henceforth simply the state). Not only is civil society separate from the state, it is distinctly public and it is therefore also separate from the private sphere. It is found neither in government offices nor within the confines of the home. It thrives in public places – both real and virtual – where civilians can freely associate. It is supported by various technologies including access to the Internet, a free press, higher education and culture and so forth, as well as the tried and true technology of the public square – which is distinct from parliament-square or the private courtyard, and even from commercial spaces such as shopping malls or the work place. City design and technology infrastructures, therefore, have a role to play in fostering a healthy civil society. Indeed, as the political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt points out, civil society itself is an intentionally planed and crafted artifact. It is not, she argues, based upon ‘natural’ affiliations such as ethnicity, tribe or gender. Of course, we can belong to natural groups, but civic friendship as she calls it, is by choice, not nature, and it comes about from a shared interest on how to flourish in common with others.

From time to time civil society expresses itself in a social movement. Civilians band together in solidarity and now also action on an issue to determine how they want their common life to go. Generally, then, participation in civil society is how we humans are self-determining – in fact, both personally and also collectively self-determining. As philosopher Charles Taylor argues, our emergence as individuals with agency and therefore autonomy primarily comes about through exchange with others. Along this line John Stuart Mill famously argued that dialogue with others, especially in disagreement, is how