The essential characteristics of civil societyAaro Harju
The essence of civil society differs from the public and the private sectors. While the public sector is characterized by the concepts of power, authority, legitimacy and democracy, the concepts typical of the private sector are the markets, competition, profits, customership and consumerism. Civil society is, for its part, characterized by citizens’ spontaneity and activeness, participation and doing, public utility and autonomy, voluntariness and optionality, laymanship and professionalism, flexibility and independence,
communality and locality, ethics and solidarity.
In civil society, citizens organize activities and services for themselves and other people out of their own hopes and premises. Fundamentally, civil society has no requirements from the outside, as is the case with the private sector. The actors of civil society decide for themselves what kind of activities they engage in, although the financiers have begun to participate in the defining process more in the last few years. Project and targeted funding has become more popular and outsourcing services have increased. These developments have tightened the grip of the public administration and financial quarters on civil society, and thus the traditional autonomy and independence of civil society have narrowed.
In civil society people are at the same time actors and objects of the action. The members use decision-making power in defining the domain of civil society. Civil society is not stamped by customership or consumerism.
The spontaneity and activeness of citizens stem first and foremost from the willingness to participate and act. People are motivated by an interest in some subject matter. The willingness to participate, to take part and to obtain experiences brings substance to people’s lives. Spontaneous activity acts as a good counterbalance to work and brings variety to one’s life. Through participation the person can make new friends and break the circle of loneliness. The desire to learn but also to help others encourages many people to be active and participate in the activities of civil society.
Participation offers the opportunity and ability to have an influence. Civil society provides numerous occasions for influencing, especially in the spheres of political and trade union activity. The possibility to have an influence offers an important dimension to citizens’ spontaneous activities within the contexts of civil society.
In civil society activities are provided and services produced for members and customers in a non-profit making ethos. One ideological cornerstone of civil society is the charitable nature of its activities. It is on this basis that the actors of civil society receive public financial support.
The government has regulated the operations of Finnish civil society in a reasonable manner. Organizations have received their funding as general grants, which has left room for their own deliberation and decision-making power. Also non-formal adult education has been moderately regulated. In the last years, however, there has been a change in this practice. Project specific grants have increased and the authorities have more control over the sphere of non-formal adult education. Despite all this, autonomy remains as an essential characteristic of civil society.
In the public and the private sectors, there is no voluntary work. Voluntariness is one of the most central characteristics and strengths of the Finnish civil society. The willingness to help and to use one’s free time in a productive manner motivates Finns to participate in voluntary activities. (Yeung 2004)
Civil society is based on an individual’s freedom of choice. Force or sanctions do not characterize civil society.
The special feature of civil society is in the combination of laypersons and professionals. The peer support of those with similar life experiences forms an important part of the activities in organizations. This is unique to the sector of civil society. The know-how of the members and volunteers is at use alongside the know-how of paid professionals. The soft and hard knowledge, the empirical and professional knowledge complement one another. Laypersons and professionals, voluntariness and paid work coexist in civil society.
Civil society is able to adjust to the hopes, needs and desires of people as well as the changes of the surrounding environment. The lack of official duties and responsibilities eases adjustment and makes room for reactions. Neither can the heavy investments or the profit responsibilities of shareholders dictate the activities of civil society. There is room for creativity and new innovations. Many ways of action have in fact emerged in the sphere of civil society and have consequently become general working practises or responsibilities of the public sector. In Finland, civil society has also had a role in patching up the gaps between the public and private sector. Ultimately the actors of civil society can decide for themselves whether to act, to what end, and how.
Civil society operates in a communal context. The activity can take place in status-based, operational, or mental (symbolic) communities. The erosion of the traditional communality which was based on qualities such as status and descent, has not served to diminish the communal essence of civil society, because new kind of symbolic communality has emerged alongside the status-based communality.
Most of the activities of civil society take place locally and at grass roots. Locality characterizes civil society, not only its activities but its essence, too.
Civil society is generally seen to include the dimension of ethics and solidarity, although the goodness of civil society should not be overemphasized. Like in any human activity, problems exist in civil society, too. Nevertheless, the starting point is the equality between individuals and the goal is the public good.
Quoting Jürgen Habermas, one can state that civil society represents a living world where communality and mutual understanding is built with language and communication. The public and the private sectors, on the other hand, represent the world of systems governed by a strategic and calculating logic. (Habermas 1986, 14–16; Hautamäki 2004)