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The Withering of Civil Society


Civil society is proposed as an essential feature of any democracy: the institutional infrastructure for political mediation and public exchange. However, while recognizing the democratic functions that the concept and reality of civil society have made possible, it is also important to be aware of the functions of discipline and exploitation that are inherent in and inseparable from these same structures.

Furthermore, we must question whether the social foundations necessary for the construction and sustenance of civil society are themselves present in contemporary social formations. I want to argue, in fact, that in recent years the conditions of possibility for civil society have progressively been undermined in North America, Europe, and elsewhere (if indeed they ever existed outside the European world). ... The society we are living in today is more properly understood as a postcivil society.

Organization of Abstract Labor

In political philosophy, civil society is fundamentally linked to the modern notion of labor, a connection made most clear by G. W. F. Hegel. ... According to Hegel ... through needs, work, exchange, and the pursuit of particular self-interests, the »unorganized atoms of civil society« are to be ordered toward the universal - not exactly through the mysterious actions of Adam Smith's invisible hand, but rather through the competitive institutions of capitalist production and circulation. ... The second innovation in Hegel's usage of the concept of civil society, which is closely tied to the first but specific to Hegel in its formulation, is the emphasis on the educative aspect of civil society. ... In other words, civil society takes the natural human systems of needs and particular self-interests, puts them in relation with each other through the capitalist social institutions of production and exchange and, thus, on the basis of the mediation and subsumption of the particular, poses a terrain on which the State can realize the universal interest of society in »the actuality of the ethical Idea«. Hegelian education in civil society is a process of formal subsumption, a process whereby particular differences, foreign to the universal, are negated and preserved in unity.

Hegel combines and highlights these economic and educative aspects in his conception that civil sociey is primarily a society of _labor_. ... In his early writings on the State, in the Jena period, Hegel conceived the process of the abstraction of Iabor from its concrete instantiations as the motor driving the civilizing social institutions. »Concrete labor is the elemental, substantial conversion,« the basic foundation of everything, but it is also »blind and savage,« that is, uneducated in the universal interest. Concrete labor, which in this early period Hegel imagines as the labor of peasants, is the human activity closest to nature. Just like nature, concrete labor cannot be simply negated, since it is the foundation of all society, but neither can it be simply integrated, since it is savage and uncivilized. ... [W]e should say that civil society is not simply the society of labor, but that it is specifically the society of _abstract_ labor.

This same educative process of abstraction is also at the center of Hegel's mature conception of civil society, which he poses in his later writings in less philosophical, more practical terms: through labor the pursuit of the satisfaction of one's particular needs is related to the pursuits of others and thus »subjective self-seeking turns into a contribution to the satisfaction of the needs of everyone else.« Hegel finds this educative role of labor, the transformation to the universal, organized and made explicit in the institutional trade unions, the corporations, which structurally orient the particular interests of workers toward the universal interest of society. Civil society consists of not just the unions but all the institutions of capitalist society that organize abstract labor. ... [C]ivil society is the society of the organization of abstract labor.

Education, Hegemony, Discipline

The Hegelian conception of civil society persists in various forms throughout modern and contemporary social and political theory. When we survey the work of the wide variety of twentieth-century authors who in some form or another take up this notion of civil society, we quickly recognize that the social dialectic of civil society is presented in two guises, one more democratic and the other more authoritarian. Antonio Gramsci has perhaps gone furthest in theorizing the democratic and socialist potential of civil society. ... As we have seen, Hegel conceives the end of social movement and conflict, in both logical and historical terms, as gathered together, subsumed, and thus realized in the ends of State, the actuality of the ethical Idea. Gramsci casts the historical movement or flow in the opposite direction, proposing instead »that the State's goal is its own end, its own disappearance, in other words, the re-absorption of political society within civil society«. The term _reabsorption_ indicates a reversal of the social flow: what according to the Hegelian process of subsumption flowed from society toward the State now is reversed from the State to civil society as a sort of inverted subsumption. Gramsci is able to understand the process of the withering or disappearance of the State as a process of re-absorption because he conceives the State as existing only secondarily, as if it were a placeholder filling the structural voici left by a not fully developed civil society. When civil society does manage fully to fill its role, the State as such will no longer exist; or rather, State elements will continue to exist only as subordinated agents of civil society's hegemony. ... Expanding and reenforcing the scope and powers of the various segments and institutions of civil society is thus central to a Gramscian strategy of social progress, which will eventually reverse the flow of the Hegelian process and fill the dictatorial and coercive spaces now occupied by the State with democratic forces organized in terms of social hegemony and consent. This hegemony is grounded finally on an Hegelian form of education, which gives the revolutionary class or party its ability to »absorb« or »assimilate all of society« in the name of general interests. When the State has been effectively subsumed, Gramsci claims, the reign of civil society, or self-government, will begin.

Authors who, like Gramsci, highlight the democratic aspects of civil society focus in general on the pluralism of the institutions of civil society and on the avenues or channels they provide for input into the rule of political society or the State. ... Numerous other strategies of political practice and scholarly analysis ... all emphasize the possibility of democratic representation available through the passages opened by the ideological, cultural, and economic institutions of civil society. From this perspective, the social dialectic in civil society and the possibilities of mediation make the State open to the plurality of social flows channeled through the institutions. The activation of the forces of civil society makes the State porous, destabilize its dictatorial powers or rather »re-absorbing« them within the expanding hegemony of civil society.

In the work of other authors, however, the mediatory institutions that define the relationship between civil society and the State are shown to function not toward democratic but authoritarian ends. From this second perspective, then, the representation of interests through the channels of the institutions does not reveal the pluralistic effects of social forces on the State; instead, it highlights the State's capacities to organize, recuperate, even produce social forces. Michel Foucault's work has made dear that the institutions and _enfermements_ or enclosures of civil society - the church, the school, the prison, the family, the union, the party, et cetera - constitute the paradigmatic terrain for the disciplinary deployments of power in modern society, producing normalized subjects and thus exerting hegemony through consent in a way that is perhaps more subtle but no less authoritarian than the exertion of dictatorship through coercion. The disciplinary perspective, then, might recognize the same channels passing through civil society, but sees the flows moving argain in the opposite direction. ... The social dialectic thus functions in order that antagonistic social forces be subsumed within the prior and unitary synthesis of the State.

... Hegel's understanding of the historical rise of civil society and the generalization of its educative social role does correspond in several respects to the process that Michel Foucault calls the governmentalization of the State. The State of sovereignty which, according to Foucault, served as the dominant form of rule in Europe from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century, positioned itself as a transcendent singularity with respect to its subjects. The transcendence of the sovereign State afforded it a certain detachment from the pressures of conflictive particular interests in society. In the passage to the modern State, however, the transcendence and singularity of the State were overturned through the rise of what Foucault calls »governmentality.« The rule of the governmental State is characterized instead by its immanence to the population through a multiplicity of forms. ... The management of people and things implied by this governance involves an active engagement, exchange, or dialectic among social forces and between social forces and the State. The same educative social processes that Hegel casts in terms of abstraction and organization, Foucault recognizes in terms of training, discipline, and management. The channels or striae in which these processes function, recognized as social institutions by Hegel, are characterized by Foucault in terms of deployments (_dispositifs_) and enclosures (_enfermements_). Civil society, from this perspective, is the productive site of modern economy (economy understood now in the large sense); in other words, it is the site of the production of goods, desires, individual and collective identities, et cetera. It is the site, finally, of the institutional dialectic of social forces, of the social dialectic that gives rise to and underwrites the State.

In his extensive work on the nature of power, however, Foucault not only refuses Gramsci's inversion of the priority between civil society and political society (that is, civil society and the State), he goes one step further and argues that we can make no analytical distinction at all between them. When Foucault argues that power cannot be isolated but is everywhere, that it comes from everywhere, that there is no outside to power, he is also denying the analytical separation of political society from civil society. ... In the disciplinary and governmental society the lines of power extend through social space in the channels created by the institutions of civil society. The exertion of power is organized through deployments, which are at once ideological, institutional, and corporeal. This is not to say that there is no State, but rather that it cannot effectively be isolated and contested at a level separate from society. ... On the contrary, the State as such is better understood as the result, the consolidation or molarization of forces of »statization« (_etatisation_) immanent to social power relations. The causes and intentions that inform and order power relations are not isolated in some headquarters of rationality but are immanent to the field of forces. Foucault thus prefers to use instead of _State_ the term _government_, which indicates the multiplicity and immanence of the forces of statization to the social field. ... In particular, Foucault emphasizes the »educational« aspect of civil society whereby particular social interests are enlightened to the general interest and brought in line with the universal. Education means discipline. More accurately, Foucault reformulates the educational process of civil society in terms of production: power acts not only by training or ordering the elements of the social terrain but actually by producing them - producing desires, needs, individuals, identities, et cetera. ... The State, Hegel claims, is not the result but the cause; Foucault adds, not a transcendent but an immanent cause, statization, immanent to the various channels, institutions, or enclosures of social production.

... Disciplinary society can be characterized as civil society seen from a different perspective, approached from underneath, from the microphysics of its power relations. While Gramsci highlights the democratic potentials of the institutions of civil society, Foucault makes clear that civil society is a society founded on discipline and that the education it offers is a diffuse network of normalization. From this perspective, Gramsci and Foucault highlight the two contrasting faces of Hegel's civil society. ...

Infinite Undulations of the Snake

When we look at the contemporary societies of Western Europe and North America, it seems that these various, rich, promising, and frightening theoretical visions of civil society, both in the Hegelian version and in the Gramscian and Foucauldian reformulations, no longer hold - they no longer grasp the dominant mechanisms or schema of social production and social ordering. The decline of the paradigm of civil society correlates to a passage in contemporary society toward a new configuration of social relations and new conditions of rule. This is not to say that the forms and structures of social exchange, participation, and domination that were identified by the concept of civil society have ceased entirely to exist, but rather that they have been displaced from the dominant position by a new configuration of apparatuses, deployments, and structures. Deleuze's notion [that we have recently experienced a passage from a disciplinary society to a society of control] can serve us here as a first attempt to understand the decline of the rule of civil society and the rise of a new form of control. Disciplinary societies, as I suggested earlier, are characterized by the enclosures or institutions that serve as the skeleton or backbone of civil society; these enclosures define the striae of social space. ... Deleuze insists, however, that these social enclosures or institutions are today everywhere in crisis [and] suggests that it is more adequate, then, to understand the collapse of the walls defined by the enclosures not as some sort of social evacuation but rather as the generalization of logics that previously functioned within these limited domains across the entire society, spreading like a virus. The logic of capitalist production perfected in the factory now invests all forms of social production. The same might he said also for the school, the family, the hospital, and the other disciplinary institutions. ... Social space has not been emptied of the disciplinary institutions; it has been completely filled with the modulations of control. The relationship between society and the State no longer primarily involves the mediation and organization of the institutions for discipline and rule. Instead, the relationship sets the State in motion directly through the perpetual circuitry of social production.

We should be careful to point out, however, that the passage from disciplinary society to the society of control is not merely a shift in the institutional structures of rule. ... What underlies the various institutions is the diagram: the anonymous or abstract strategic machine, the unformed or nonstratified schema of power relations. The diagram transcends, or better subtends the various institutional assemblages. ... The disciplinary diagram runs throughout the various institutions defining the conditions of possibility, the conditions of what can be seen, said, and known, the conditions of the exertion of power. The passage to a society of control, then, will certainly manifest symptoms at the institutional level, but it should he grasped also and above all at the diagrammatic level. If we are to follow Foucault's method, then, we should ask, first, what are the diagrams that define the conditions of possibility in the societies of control? And then, in what kinds of social assemblages will these diagrammatic forces be consolidated, and how? The metaphors available to us can at least give us an indication of the nature of this passage. ... The panopticon, and disciplinary diagrammatics in general, functioned primarily in terms of positions, fixed points, and identities. ... The diagram of control, however, is not oriented toward position and identity, but rather toward mobility and anonymity. It functions on the basis of »the whatever,« the flexible and mobile performance of contingent identities, and thus its assemblages or institutions are elaborated primarily through repetition and the production of simulacra. ... Elaborate controls over information flow, extensive use of polling and monitoring techniques, and innovative social use of the media thus gain prominent positions in the exertion of power. ...

Claiming the decline of civil sociey, of course, does not mean that all the mechanisms of rule and organization which characterized civil society no longer exist or function. Similarly, recognizing a passage from disciplinary societies to societies of control does not mean that disciplinary deployments and the attendant potentialities of resistance have completely disappeared. Disciplinary deployments remain, as do elements of sovereignty in the regimes of control. ... What is primarily at issue, though, is not simply the existence of certain apparatuses, mechanisms, or deployments, but rather their predominance within a specific paradigm of rule. Our task is to discern the salient characteristics of the social formation that succeeds civil society; the smooth spaces of the societies of control constitute our first attempt. We can formulate a second, complementary approach to this problematic by casting the passage not in Foucauldian but rather in Marxian terminology, which will highlight the contemporary change in the social organization of labor. ... Marx recognized the passage from the formal to the real subsumption in nineteenth-century society as a tendency, but it seems to me that this passage has only come to be generalized in the most completely capitalist countries in our times. [6] According to Marx, in the first of these two phases, the formal subsumption, social labor processes are subsumed under capital; that is, they are enveloped within the capitalist relations of production in such a manner that capital intervenes as the director or manager. In this arrangement, capital subsumes labor the way it finds it; capital takes over existing labor processes that were developed in previous modes of production or at any rate outside of capitalist production. .... Actually, as Hegel clearly recognized in his writings ... capital cannot directly integrate concrete labor but must first abstract it from its concrete forms. The various processes of abstraction, the resistances these give rise to, and the potential lines of social conflict between concrete labor and abstract labor are thus principle characteristics of the phase of the formal subsumption. Capital tends, however, through the socialization of production and through scientific and technological innovation, to create new labor processes and to destroy old ones, transforming the situations of the various agents of production. Capital thus sets in motion a specifically capitalist mode of production. Marx calls the subsumption of labor _real_, then, when the labor processes themselves are born within capital and therefore when labor is incorporated not as an external, but an internal force, proper to capital itself. As we move to the phase of the real subsumption, Marx explains, labor processes evolve so that, first of all, production is no longer a direct and individual activitv but an immediately social activity. ... In the _specifically_ capitalist mode of production, that is, in the phase of the real subsumption, productive labor - or even production in general - no longer appears as the pillar that defines and sustains capitalist social organization. Production is given an objective quality, as if the capitalist system were a machine that marched forward on its own accord, without labor, a capitalist automaton. ... This is how we should understand the passage from the formal to the real subsumption. The society of the formal subsumption was characterized by the dialectic between capital and labor: as a foreign force subsumed within capital, labor had to be abstracted, recuperated, disciplined, and tamed within the productive processes. But labor nonetheless was continually recognized as the source of all social wealth. ... In the society of the real subsumption this dialectic no longer holds the central role, and capital no longer needs to engage labor or represent labor at the heart of production. What is subsumed, what is accepted into the process, is no longer a potentially conflictive force but a product of the system itself; the real subsumption does not extend vertically throughout the various strata of society but rather constructs a separate plane, a simulacrum of society that excludes or marginalizes social forces foreign to the system. Social capital thus appears to reproduce itself autonomously, as if it were emancipated from the working class, and labor becomes invisible in the system. ...

... The State of the real subsumption is no longer interested in mediation or »education« but in separation, no longer in discipline but in control. The State of the real subsumption operates on a separate plane, a simulacrum of the social field, abstract from labor itself. ... Once again, my general point here is simply that in this passage the democratic and/or disciplinary institutions of civil society, the channels of social mediation, as a particular form of the organization of social labor, society politically have declined and been displaced from the center of the scene. Not the State, but civil society has withered away! In other words, even if one were to consider civil society politically desirable ... the social conditions necessary for civil society no longer exist.

The Postcivil Condition

... Civil society, as we have seen, is central to a form of rule, or government, as Foucault says, that focuses, on the one hand, on the identitv of the citizen and the processes of civilization and, on the other hand, on the organization of abstract labor. These processes are variously conceived as education, training, or discipline, but what remains common is the active engagement with social forces (through either mediation or production) to order social identities within the context of institutions. What has come to an end, or more accurately declined in importance in postcivil society, then, are precisely these functions of mediation or education and the institutions that gave them form. The formulation _postcivil_ however, like _postmodern_, is finally limited by its backward gaze; it is too reactive to do justice to the new paradigm of social relations. More important than the social elements and techniques that have faded from prominence are those that have newly taken the dominant positions. The deployments of control and the social constitution of the real subsumption give us a framework to begin to grasp the novelties of our situation. Instead of disciplining the citizen as a fixed social identity, the new social regime seeks to control the citizen as a whatever identity, or rather as an infinitely flexible placeholder for identity. It tends to establish an autonomous plane of rule, a simulacrum of the social - separate from the terrain of conflictive social forces. Mobility, speed, and flexibility are the qualities that characterize this separate plane of rule. The infinitely programmable machine, the ideal of cybernetics, gives us at least on approximation of the diagram of the new paradigm of rule. Analyzing the new techniques, of social control is only worthwhile to the extent that it allows us to grasp also the new potentialities for contestation and freedom emerging witthin this new paradigm. ... I would suggest that in order to begin thinking these new potentialities we should return again to investigate the form and nature of labor, or creative social practices, in contemporary society. ... Social practices have certainly changed and so too should our notion of what constitutes labor - not just in the sphere of wage labor (which indeed has undergone radical transformation in some sectors) but also in the sphere of desiring production, intellectual creativitv, caring labor, kin work, and so forth. ... Even in the society of control, labor is still the »savage beast« that Hegel feared, refusing to he subjugated and tamed - and perhaps its potential is even greater today when it is no longer engaged, mediated, and disciplined through the institutions of civil society as it was in the previous paradigm. The networks of sociality and forms of cooperation embedded in contemporary social practices constitute the germs for a new movement, with new forms of contestation and new conceptions of lliberation. This alternative community of social practices (call it, perhaps, the self-organization of concrete lahor) will be the most potent challenge to the control of postcivil society, and will point, perhaps, to the of our future.