20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Political Philosophy

The Political Ethos of the Civil Society

Vjekoslav Butigan
NIS Yugoslavia

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

ABSTRACT: Totalitarian political systems in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe destroyed and repressed the civil society that used to exist in them. The authoritarian and totalitarian ethos was formed under a powerful influence of ideologies of the communist parties and politocracy in these countries so that the political ethos of politicians dominated the political ethos of the citizen. The breakdown of the real socialism and its unsuccessful attempts to complete accelerated liberal modernization of these societies caused turbulence of social values in addition to the general moral chaos. The moral crisis has deepened; anomie increased as well as the society’s inclination to commit crime. This makes difficult the creation of the cultural matrix of the civil society and its moral values. The liberation and development of the political ethos of the civil society as an element of the democratic political culture require structural and mental changes in these societies. They imply abandoning the value matrices of the traditional and political societies based upon collectivism, tribalism, authoritarianism, egalitarianism, ethnocentrism, etatisme and mythologization of the past. They require the use of the citizens’ active potential as well as that of their associations, their readiness for political commitment, self-initiative, respect of the general interest and a courageous defense of freedom and social justice.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)

The term "civil society" is used to denote a central category of the European political philosophy. It is derived from Aristotle’s term politice koinonia and its Latin version societas civilis, societe civile, meaning civil society or that of private proprietors. The notion of the civil society has been interpreted in various ways in the political philosophies of Hobbes, Locke, Paine, Hegel, Marx, Mill and De Tocqueville, as well as those of postmodernists.

In the seventies of the twentieth century the term "civil society" was used by the opposition and dissident groups in the socialist countries to denote the strategy of political fight against totalitarianism by forming autonomous institutions beyond the state control and for the sake of establishing a democratic society as opposed to the total state. By redefining the modern concept of the civil society a new and contemporary concept of the civil society has been created as an alternative to authoritarian socialism. Thus, a new practical and theoretical political paradigm has been set up for explaining ways of the transition of socialist, authoritarian and stagnant societies into democratic and civil societies which are able for self-development and are willing to use the civilization achievements of the developed societies as well as the achievements of social and political philosophy and contemporary sciences.

The civil society is most often determined as autonomous pluralism of private and public activities, beyond the state control, expressed in individual freedom, local and regional self rule, citizens’ participation in public affairs and social movements as well as in cultural autonomy and free trade unionism.

In the former socialist countries the civil society was destroyed and repressed by state measures. In order to restore it, it is necessary to de-etatize all social spheres and to transform proprietorship in addition to the creation of a developed market economy, autonomy of the society and of all its parts, the rule of the law, the affirmation of the citizen as a political subject, a democratic political culture, democratic public as well as moral and spiritual emancipation of the subjects of changes and innovations. First of all, it is necessary to raise the status of pauperized middle layers as the backbones of the civil society as well as to stimulate the development of a democratic political culture without which democratic political institutions tend to degenerate and corrupt. The political culture—the Civil Culture—is the most reliable guardian and transmitter of the basic cultural values, of an ethical vision of the social life and of the relations between society and state, society and politics. It is a hermeneutic key necessary to establish harmony between the private and the public, the individual and the common, the civil society politics and the state politics. The ways in which a multi-faceted transformation of the Eastern European societies will take place depend on their political culture, namely, of the countries which are torn apart between, on one hand, re-traditionalization (neoauthoritarianism), and, on the other, modernization. The political culture in these countries is increasingly becoming polarized into the political culture of a political society (of the state and its institutions, political parties and their organizations) and the political culture of a civil society, that is, into a social system based on force and violence, on one hand, and a system based on the agreement of the majority of its members, on the other. The politics of the civil society consists of nonconventional politics, individual and group activity of the citizens for the sake of satisfying individual and common needs and for the sake of realizing collective goals with no state intervention.

The collision of, on one hand, totalitarian politics, and, on the other, liberty-oriented and democratic politics has led to the deconstruction of socialist societies; however, what has been omitted is the construction of civil societies as well as overcoming of an all-inclusive crisis of these societies. Therefore, they have been subjected to turbulence of the basic cultural and political values, especially of the ethical ones. A moral crisis has deepened, the social anomie has expended and along with it, there is an increasing criminal activity of both the citizens and the state with all its institutions. In the conditions of an inclusive cultural and moral crisis it has become even more difficult to create a cultural matrix of the civil society and its moral values.

Integrative Power of the Political Ethos

The ethos—moral—is a category of the civil society. It expresses a part of the social culture which comprises the system of norms according to which people’s character and behavior are shaped and judged as good or bad ones. Regarding the scope of its regulations, the ethos can be divided into egocentric, genocentric, ethnocentric and anthropocentric.(1)The political ethos is a part of the sociocentric ethos which regulates behavior of members of a political community concerning the realization of collective goals, general and group interests as well as the realization of their duties and rights in the political struggle. The political ethos is a part of the political culture oriented toward unification and union of the political community as well as toward interpretation of the causes for growth or disintegration of political systems

Already in the Classical Times (V and IV centuries BC) Tukidides noticed that the political ethos of a society is determined by three factors: 1. political principles of the system and of its main political institutions, 2. political behavior of members of the political community and 3. people’s character.(2) The political ethos is the basis of a well-organized society and a good quality of life. A disintegration of the political ethos leads the society to the state of eunomy (rigid political institutions with no citizens’ participation) and of pleonexia (destruction of the norms and the state’ s decay). The disintegration of the political ethos, in Tukidides’s opinion, gives rise to a disagreement among the main political actors about the general good for which the greatest threat is that of the civil war.

Jean Bodin (16th century) claimed that there are various forms of the political ethos (mores) and that they affect the shaping of various forms of government. Accordingly, Bodin explains that the political system of northern countries is built on the principle of enforcement, unlike the middle countries in which it is based on the principle of justice; in southern countries it is based on the principle of religions. Due to this, rulers have to know and preserve the ethos of their political communities.(3)

Under Bodin’s influence, Montesquieu also thought that each political system has to be coordinated with mores, character and dispositions of the nation for whose interest it is established.(4) The political system which is suitable for one nation is not good for another. Each political system rests upon a special sentiment sustaining it. Montesquieu stated the existence of three basic political sentiments from which three types of government spring. Value is the basic principle of the republic, honor is that of the monarchy while fear is that of the despotism.

Alexis de Tocqueville, following Montesquieu, used the term mores to denote the totality of intellectual and moral state of a nation, the totality of customs, public opinion and beliefs.(5) Moral had a greater influence upon American democracy than its laws and its physical environment.

The economic and political instability of the Eastern European postsocialist countries is a consequence of the lack of the civil society in its developed form and its political ethos. The general social moral including the political ethos is in the state of chaos. The basic values of the political ethos of the civil society are: tolerance, spontaneity, dialogue, compromise, non-violent regulation of conflicts, rationality and humanism; they are overshadowed by the value matrix of the political society as well as by that of the traditional society, namely, by the matrix made up of: collectivism, authoritarianism, tribalism, fatalism, egalitarism, ethnocentrism, militarism, etatism, mitism, fideism, heroism ... A high degree of anomie, especially among young people, causes political apathy and cynicism, on one hand, and extremism, on the other hand.(6) Of especially destructive influence upon the postsocialist societies and their political moral was nationalism and its political use in solving the basic social conflicts, especially in multiethnic societies, as well as blooming of populism as a pseudo-democracy. A belated, too persistent, incomplete and insufficiently successful modernization of the postsocialist countries, especially in the economic sphere, cherishes nostalgia for socialist systems (7) and the orientation towards regressive re-traditionalization in general. This is also joined by citizens’ distrust of institutions of the existing political systems which is accompanied with the crisis of legality.

In the conditions of a general moral chaos politics becomes arrogant and unscrupulous. In trying to win its victories politics does not pay attention to the difference between truth and lie, means and goals, causes and consequences, good and evil, holiness and diabolism, moral-political principles and political strategy, certainty and a political adventure. Beyond ethical norms politics an end in itself and tries to transform everything into the means of its domination. In this way politics corrupts the general interest by turning it into the particular one while proclaiming it as the highest national interest—the interest of the state and the people. It spreads illusions about its self-sufficiency and purposefulness. Even in such conditions the civil society—or its elements—comprises an ethical potential with which the society defends itself from aggression and hegemonies of the official state policy by its autonomous political ethics and its moral and political ecology. It springs from a natural aspiration of people toward democracy and self-determination, from their value-orientation toward democracy and changes of the existing unfavorable economic and political state in the post-socialist countries.(8)The ethos of the civil society springs from the citizens’ active potential as well as that of their associations, their readiness for political engagement, self-initiative, respect for general interest and their acceptance of political responsibility for providing a better future. This ethos is firmly grounded in the moral conscience which, by its imperatives, makes the way for a more rapid development of the civil society. In the societies which are late in their development, the ethos of the civil society should precede the development of the civil society in them since they can look after the model of the developed societies. The cultural-spiritual and moral restoration of these societies will make easy the creation of the civil societies in them, namely, of those able to reproduce their authentic political ethos upon which the political identity of these societies will be reflected. Without political identity, it is not possible to discover political interests. Neither is it possible to discover the best strategy for their realization as best suits the human community.

The moral conscience about the need to de-blockade and to develop the civil society in the postsocialist societies is linked with the knowledge that this can be achieved with more profound mental and structural changes in these societies. The mental changes will contribute to the transformation of the authoritarian citizen—upon which the authoritarian political system rested—into a free citizen, aware of his needs, interests and goals which he can realize by his political commitment in the democratic system. An authoritarian personality does not take critically the authority of leaders, parties, states; besides, it is rigid, inclined to stereotypes and prejudices (especially ethnic ones), a black-and-white way of thinking, irrational reactions, collectivist-nationalist ethos, subordination and totalitarian indoctrination and manipulation. Authoritarianism as a character structure and a way of social behavior is widely spread, especially on the Yugoslav territory.(9) The change of the authoritarian and traditional syndrome of domination and subordination requires a fundamental moral and political re-socialization of adult members of the postsocialist societies and democratic political socialization of the young generation. The structural changes in these societies would lead to the same goal.

The structural changes in the postsocialist societies are necessary for the sake of changing structures of the social power toward liberation and affirmation of creative and democratic social forces, able to lead these societies toward civilization development in the spirit of humanist ethics. These changes give rise to market economy, pluralism of ownership, division of power, a multi-party system, a rational and efficient legal state, pluralism of values, moral and political tolerance, a free and objective information system, introduction of efficient institutions for controlling government and independent agencies for satisfying common needs; they will lead to the merging of the legal and social state. These changes will disintegrate remains of the Bolshevik system and uproot the Bolshevik political culture and authoritarian mentality of the personality shaped according to the Bolshevik morality.

Democratic economic and political reforms provide for the creation of civil culture, initiative, courage, conscience, solidarity and behavior—the basis of the civil ethos. By means of successful social reforms and moral transformation of the postsocialist societies what can be brought to an end is a hypertrophied, expensive, centralized, arbitrary, inefficient, expansionist and greedy state as well as its desire for an all-inclusive domination and control. To the extent to which elements of the civil society strengthen along with its political ethos, the power of etatisme will be reduced as well as the danger from neo-totalitarianism in the postsocialist societies. Along with the strengthening of the civil society there will be a competent elite created able to solve social conflicts by political and democratic means and it will oppose to political voluntarism in controlling the social development.

The political ethos of the authoritarian societies has been created in the ideology of the ruling party and of the state and it manipulated its subjects by indoctrinating them. The political ethos of the civil society springs from the conscience of a free citizen, aware of his rights, interests and duties; it acts through democratic political public opinion. This is its advantage which requires support and respect especially in the postsocialist countries.

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


(1) Edgar Moren, Kako iza}i iz XX stole}a, Globus, Zagreb, 1983, 243 p

(2) Tukidid, Peloponeski rat, Matica Hrvatska, Zagreb, 1957, p. 25

(3) Bodin, Six Books, Masters of Political Thought, Jone, London, 1963, pp.80

(4) Monteskje, O duhu zakona, Filip Vi{nji}, Belgrade, 1989, chapter 19

(5) Aleksis de Tokvil, Demokratija u Americi,Izdava~ka knji`arnica Z.Stojanovi}, Novi Sad 1991.

(6) One research has shown that there were 75% of anemic young people in Yugoslavia in 1990. Dragomir Panti}, "Dominantne orijentacije u Srbiji i mogu}nosti nastanka civilnog dru{tva", Potisnuto civilno dru{tvo, (Vuka{in Pavlovi}, ed.), EKO CENTAR, Belgrade, 1995, 89 p.

(7) Approval of the old regime was shown by 40% of the interviewed citizens in the Central and East Europe, R. Rose, New Democracies, Barometer IV, SPP 262, 1996

(8) Sociological research in Yugoslavia confirms it since it has been found out that 89% of interviewed citizens are oriented toward democracy, Centar za politikolo{ka istra`ivanja i javno mnjenje Instituta dru{tvenih nauka Univerziteta u Beogradu, Legitimitet politi~kog sistema i vrednosni profil gra|ana Jugoslavije, Belgrade, 1996, p. 9

(9) Research of authoritarianism in Yugoslavia carried out in the nineties shows a very high degree of authoritarianism of examines (2/3 of examines show it toward leaders), Z. Golubovi}, B. Kuzmanovi}, M. Vasovi}, Dru{tveni karakter i dru{tvene promene u svetlu nacionalnih sukoba, Institut za filozofiju i dru{tvenu teoriju "Filip Vi{nji}", Belgrade, 1995, p. 338. The research in 1996 show a decline of authoritarianism toward leaders among 55% of examines, Legitimnost politi~kog sistema i vrednosni profil gra|ana Jugoslavije, p. 9

bluered.gif (1041 bytes)


Back to the Top

20th World Congress of Philosophy Logo

Paideia logo design by Janet L. Olson.
All Rights Reserved


Back to the WCP Homepage