A Study of the Civil Society’s History in Accordance to the Political Philosophy


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The History of Civil Society as a Concept

The term “civil society” has a long history in political philosophy, with different philosophers altering its definition since its inception. The disentanglement of those debates has become an industry of its own in recent years, but a brief summary is useful here. To understand why the term has come back into fashion, we to need to consider some of its history.

The history of civil society as a theory can be divided into two phases. The first phase occurred as political philosophers were grappling with questions of how and why humankind ought to be governed, who governs, and under what conditions. Much of the 17th-cetury (pre-Enlightenment) writing on the subject maintains the idea that state and civil society are consanguineous (Van Roy 207). Locke and other proponents of natural law saw each individual as naturally free, and thus in harmony with a democratic state.

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Such questions around the freedom of the individual and the individual’s relationship with the state are just as relevant in contemporary Latin America as described below. The idea of a “loss of civil society” lies in the background of contemporary struggles around the meaning of democracy as we address the same questions through a contemporary lens. The democratic ethos, whether we consider modern or historical times, functions through the associations and enthusiasms of civil society.

Another concept of civil society, however, focuses more on divisions than on commonalities. This concept, found in eighteenth century Scottish writing, draws a clear line between the governed and those who govern. According to this theory there is a state against which the ordinary people must defend themselves and a civil society that contains the citizens and trains them to keep the state at bay. This idea may be particularly relevant today as we consider the relationship between economic actors such as multinational corporations and states.

Civil society concerns not only particular societal groups and their functions, but also efforts to expand the environment that enables such groups’ existence, such as regulations that encourage companies or social groups to form. These efforts may be culturally specific, or may be general. As the environment for a thriving civil society expands, sovereignty may actually shift from the state to civil society actors, and this shift has implications for the legitimacy of states. For example in some cases, the international community has accepted that civil society organizations are more representative of the populace and more true in their rendition of the world than are their governments (Vellinga 9).

In the world of international activism and international organizations, there is a widely accepted notion that true democracy may involve the circumvention of government altogether. This sentiment explains in part why foreign agencies have often given themselves permission to intervene in other countries under certain conditions, as addressed below for the Latin American region. (Van Roy 210).

Global Shifts in Governance

Over the past 25 years there have been significant shifts in the international political system, affecting both significant international actors with global influence and smaller countries (Gwynne 5). The first cycle of these shifts was most drastic, beginning at the end of the Cold War. The end of the U.S.S.R. and the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe gave way to the rise of the United States as a global power with apparently incontestable strength. During this period, U.S. policy sought to prevent the rise of other powers capable of challenging it (Van Roy 206).

The second cycle of shifts started barely a decade later, with a new surge of asymmetrical threats. The crisis unleashed by acts of transnational terrorism on September 11, 2001 changed U.S. priorities on the international stage with security moving to the top of the list (Gwynne 8). These two periods of shifting priorities, with U.S. foreign policy at their center, have had a significant effect on neighboring states to the south and in turn on the relationship between Latin American states and civil society.

Latin American Migration in Global Context

The history of Latin American migration can be split into two broad phases. The first, lasting from the early 1500s until the 1950s, is characterized by in-migration to the region. European colonists and African slaves first settled the region in the 16th century, and indigenous populations soon dwindled following exposure to European microbes to which they had not attained immunity (Van Roy 209). European settlement was initially steady and slow, while more than 12 million Africans came to inhabit certain regions of the New World over a 300-year period. Large numbers of immigrants from Europe, however, began to arrive immediately following the uproar of the wars of independence, and immigrants from the Middle East and Far East followed. This array of migration flows led to a new mixing of races and principles best described by the Spanish term mestizos (Van Roy 206).

During the first period of Latin American resettlement most countries offered an open door policy, and some even worked actively to increase migration. A common perspective at the time was that the area was a horn of abundance (Van Roy 207). Critics argued that the Latin American states needed to increase immigration because they did not have sufficient workers to exploit so many riches and effect an increase of the region’s plentiful resources. Although positivity about the future led to extensive agreement about the necessity for immigrants, there were disagreements about who should be encouraged to come.

Officials from the huge companies that organized the mines, plantations, and construction outlays were least picky about immigrants’ national origin, as their only concern was that laborers came ready to work (Van Roy10). Government officials and especially politicians, however, were concerned about “improving” the race in addition to attracting labor. In practical terms, this meant encouraging the immigration of white Europeans who, through generations of intermarriage, could progressively bring about a genetic “improvement” of American Indians and Africans by the method of mestizaje (Gwynne 13).

The second stage of Latin American migration began around 1950 and continues to the present. This stage is characterized by out-migration, rather than in-migration. The exact moment of the shift varied from country to country, but it occurred after World War II in each country, with Mexico being the last to shift. The postwar period saw a renewal of migration flows that had been nonexistent for over a decade (Van Roy 11).

The new trend of migration from Latin America to other regions could be attributed to new circumstances in the global political economy. In Western Europe and Japan, war revival triggered a long financial boom that kept laborers at home as demand for workers was high. At the same time China, Russia, and Eastern Europe greatly restricted emigration to prevent the mass departure of citizens (Gwynne 18). In Latin America, U.S. Cold War policies supported and installed authoritarian regimes that limited population movement as a method of political power during a time when demographic growth was rapidly accelerating.

The Changing Relationship of State and Civil Society in Latin America

Alongside the changes in migration patterns described above, it is important to consider three major paradigm shifts that occurred in Latin America in the 20th century and affected the state/civil society relationship. These shifts are the shift from authoritarian governments to democracies, the shift from closed to open economies, and the increase in political participation (Vellinga 6).

A major shift from authoritarian to democratic governments occurred in the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America, sparked by the Nicaraguan and Cuban revolutions. At the same time, Latin American economies were significantly changing as well. This shift was characterized by a change from ISI to neoliberal markets and an export-led model of development (Gwynne 19).

Latin American economies had relied on an export-led model of development from the time of the English industrial revolution through the 1930s, but the trend shifted with the arrival of the Great Depression. The export-led model made the most sense during periods of significant worldwide growth (Van Roy 16). Following the crash of the American stock market in 1929, wages tanked and costs shot up worldwide. New paradigms were forced to emerge, such as the more inward-focused model of ISI (import substitution industrialization) in Latin America.

The 1980s marked another paradigm shift and a return to export-led models in Latin America. Poor investment of loans given to Latin American countries in the 1970s and early 1980s led to deep debts and further loans. Global financial institutions not only allowed Latin American countries to become deeply in their dept, but also forced structural development policies on the indebted countries based on the new neoliberal paradigm (Vellinga 7). These policies could have drastic consequences, as was the case for Mexico when it defaulted on its debts in 1982.

Neoliberalism as an economic paradigm went hand-in-hand with democratization in the political realm. In a matter of just a few years, it became very difficult for Latin American states to challenge this model. States were forced to open their markets, deregulate and become more flexible, allowing for competition in the labor force (Vellinga 8). These changes meant lower barriers to trade for multinationals, including reduced or completely eliminated taxation, and the implementation of free trade agreements. Neoliberalism contributed to the privatization of the public sector, creating a better environment for multinationals (Gwynne22). States were also forced to cut social programs including welfare protection systems, health care systems, and education programs. Labor unions were forced to dismantle as sound fiscal management measures were applied (Gwynne23).

Neoliberalism ultimately defeated structuralism not because its ideas were superior, but because regional context including the deep debts described above allowed for a full war against structuralist ideas including an acceptance of governmental systems other than democracy and concerns about poverty and inflation (Van Roy17). It is notable that all 16 Latin American countries now have democratically elected governments, in contrast to the authoritarian governments that were still dominant in the 1980s (Van Roy 206).

The development of neoliberal policies and democratic governments during the 1990s in Latin America has been intimately linked with globalization. During this decade, most mainland Latin American governments tied their national economies more closely to the global economy (Gwynne 25) through methods such as trade liberalization and deregulation of financial markets. The results included increased trade, greater capital flows, international investment, and technology transfer. The Latin American state thus became a democratic system by the 1990s while its direct influence over the economy (through privatization and deregulation) was simultaneously reduced and the public sector’s size decreased through fiscal reform (Van Roy 20).

We tend to assume that civil society is a good thing, as many companies for example form in our interest to compensate for the failure of the State, the market or other parts of society to fulfill their aspirations. We assume that civil society—a group of organizations as well as the environment necessary to enable their survival—is necessary to guarantee a just society. (Vellinga 8).

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