In this first serious work on the theory of civil society to appear in many years, Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato contend that the concept of civil society articulates a contested terrain in the West that could become the primary locus for the expansion of democracy and rights.
Cohen and Arato point out that "civil society" has become the catchall term to invoke everything that communist and military dictatorships suppress, yet it has an ambiguous status under liberal democracies. To some, it indicates simply what the West already has and appears to lack any critical potential in terms of the injustices and dysfunctions of a democratic society. To others the concept belongs to early modern forms of political philosophy that are irrelevant to complex societies today. Civil Society and Political Theory challenges both truisms. Its thorough and cogent theoretical analysis demonstrates the modernity and the normative/critical relevance of the concept to all types of contemporary societies and to democrats and liberals everywhere.
The first part of Civil Society and Political Theory discusses the reemergence of the discourse of civil society in Europe and Latin America, provides a history of the concept that takes Hegel's masterful synthesis as the starting point, and analyzes twentieth century theoretical critiques by scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and Niklas Luhmann.
The second part attempts a reconstruction of the concept, based on Habermas's dualistic theory. Four theoretical studies form a bridge between theory and politics, by answering the criticisms raised earlier in the book and particularly through an analysis of social movements and civil disobedience in terms of the categories of civil society.