Civil society and associative democracy

The subproject concerns the relationship between democracy and civil society, theoretically as well as empirically, and focuses on a Danish historical and contemporary context. On the basis of theoretical and historical investigations it is the aim of the subproject to discuss and evaluate the possibility of a revitalization of the democratic potential of civil society in Denmark today.

The subproject is conducted according to a threefold structure.


  1. The relationship between democracy and civil society is subjected to theoretical analysis in the light of of a particular philosophical and sociological tradition associated with the rise of the modern state in Europe and Northern America and emphasizing the crucial role of civil society: G. W. F. Hegel, Otto von Gierke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Léon Duguit, Émile Durkheim, Neville Figgis, G. D. H. Cole, Harold Laski. Many of these thinkers define, explicitly, the relationship between democracy and civil society as a complementary relationship: for the sake of democracy, against the dangers of state despotism and populism, an organized, active civil society is needed; on the other hand, civil society organizations must be supported by the democratic state. But also non-democratic thinkers such as Hegel and Otto von Gierke underline the vital role of civil society: civil society constitutes not only the lifeblood of society, but also of the state. On the basis of a critical reading of this tradition, the relationship between civil society and the democratic state will be reflected as a complementary relationship - which also means determining the tensions of this relationship, including its possible destructive aspects.

  2. The relationship between democracy and civil society is subjected to historical analysis. The center of attention is Denmark from 1820 until today. In the beginning of this period, Denmark was witnessing the rise of a range of new political and religious associations, along with associations the aim of which was to help peasants, workers and poor people creating the conditions for an independent existence, including insurance against sickness and accidents. From the mid 19th century associations oriented towards educational and cultural purposes began to play a dominant role. Throughout the 19th century a complex structure of diverse, but mutually complementary (and competing) associations was created - a structure that became the foundation of significant structural changes of Danish society in the 19th as well as in the 20th century, including democratization and the adoption of constitutionally guaranteed liberal rights, industrialization, the development of classes, nationalism, the welfare state and a culture of decentralization. With a view to this complementary structure of associations, developed through continuous interplay between state and civil society, a number of more specific analyses are carried out - exhibiting the multifaceted nature of the relationship between democracy and civil society in a Danish historical context. Civil society has influenced the establishment of political rights and rights of liberty, the development of Danish parliamentarism and a decentralized culture of government; but civil society is also largely democratically organized in itself both with respect to the internal principles of the various associations regarding membership access and influence, and with respect to the relationship between associations. The analyses seek to establish the specific nature of a democracy like the Danish - a democracy strongly influenced by associations. Especially, attention will be directed towards the ideological structures that have been developed by the state and civil society respectively and served as a (fruitful or problematic) foundation of the interplay between them.

  3. The relationship between democracy and civil society will be discussed in relation to a contemporary Danish context. The complementary structure of associations created throughout the 19th century can still be traced in Danish civil society today, but the historical conditions have changed. On the basis of the theoretical and historical analyses it will be considered to what extent the inherited democratic roles of civil society are still fruitful today, in the light of those that have been lost, and to what extent new roles are being developed, possibly carrying a democratic potential. Could fundamental reforms be envisioned - reforms by which the democratic potential of Danish civil society would be strengthened and developed, hereby responding to present crises confronting and threatening Danish democracy? In particular, such crises are indicated by an economic global development giving rise to a ‘politics of the necessary’; the production of ever stronger lines of demarcation between the ‘excluded’ and ‘included’ and increased patterns of clientisation within the context of the welfare state; an increasing ideological fragmentation testifying to the final collapse of the structural connections between particular groups of society, associations, political parties and media which used to characterize Danish society. More specifically, Paul Hirst’s and Joshua Cohen/Joel Rogers’ theories of ‘associative democracy’ will be analyzed and discussed: a form of democracy based on comprehensive societal democratization due to a complex network of associations on national, regional and local levels - the roles of which should not be restricted to policy development and responsibility for information, counseling and law implementation, but would include standard setting, educational support, research, innovation and knowledge sharing, development of infrastructure within the private sector as well as provision of welfare services.


The subproject will be carried out by Lars Bo Kaspersen and Christiane Mossin

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