Only a decade ago, the eighteenth-century distinction between civil society — a voluntary community of political actors — and the state had fallen into disrepute among political thinkers. The author shows how and why, in a wholly unexpected reversal of fortunes, the seemingly antiquated term civil society now has wider currency and greater political importance — among politicians, academics, journalists, business leaders, and citizens' organizations — than at any previous point in history.The author clarifies the debate between political scientists over the exact meaning of civil society, identifying three overlapping approaches to the concept, and also discusses the wide range of political uses to which it has been put. He is particularly interested in demonstrating that the concept of civil society has moved outside Western Europe and the United States to become a global phenomenon; he analyzes the rise of the language of civil society in various guises within the Islamic world, the former Communist states of Eastern Europe, China, South Korea, and South Africa. The book argues that the civil society perspective makes it possible to develop bold new concepts of power, property, violence, politics, and democracy, and suggests that the formation of civil society may be the best antidote to the worldwide problems of nationalism.
At the same time, the author also explores the fissures within civil society; he asks why civil societies generate patterns of violence that contradict the freedom and solidarity on which they are based, and discusses the possible effects on civil society of the fracturing of "the public sphere" and public opinion in the face of rapid changes ininformation technology. The author, however, is firmly convinced of the promise of civil society, and ends his narrative with a discussion of the prospect that civil society offers countries in which internecine violence has long been the rule.