Civil society theory and republican democracy

Calls to ?build civil society?, ?create active citizenship?, ?empower communities?, or ?widen political participation? are growing by the day. They are heard in academia, the private sector, among NGOs and increasingly in government. In short, the rhetoric of self?government, that ideal dear to republicans, is back on the political agenda. This time, however, it is increasingly tied to the category of civil society. Yet can the programme of ?more power to civil society? really achieve democratic autonomy in the way that many neo?republicans want it to? This article pursues this question, first, by reconstructing an ideal?type model of republican civil society from the writings of Hannah Arendt and Vaclav Havel ? two influential theorists of self?organisation in civil society. Second, it asks, sceptically, where such a civil society will come from, whether it can be fully reconciled with modernity and how ? if at all ? it can meet the charge of voluntarism. These critical interrogations are followed by a further three, focusing on the problematic absence of the market in the republican account of civil society, its under?theorised ? even Utopian ? notion of power and, finally, its likely complicity in the ongoing exclusion of women from the public sphere. The article concludes by calling for a more ambitious, wide?ranging vision of republican autonomy than the narrow emphasis on civil society will allow
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DOI 10.1080/13698230108403350
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