Rethinking civil society beyond modernity

The recurrent crises of the libllab configuration have highlighted the difference (a real splitting) between the old and the new civil society, that is the one that still reasons in terms of liberalism and socialism and the new

Aftermodern society as a societal network intertwining system and social integration

Figure 2.3 Aftermodern society as a societal network intertwining system and social integration

Source: Author.

one that instead brings out a distinct third pole, distant from the other two, capable of redefining them. We may have reached a turning point between the old and the new civil society.

The new societal configuration (as outlined in Figure 2.3) does not completely erase modernity, but sees the modern lib/lab setup only as a particular case, that is as a way of operating (i.e. organising economy, politics, etc.) which is only applicable to ever more limited action areas. The new setup is not characterised by a logic of dominance of a pole (market or state) over the other or by commercial negotiation logics between subsystems, but by a network-like logic which is forced to make the different societal spheres more co-operative, or at least to follow a mutually non-destructive competition logic, within a global sustainability project.

To implement such a setup, one needs a relational configuration that modernity was unable to tolerate, because it w'as overwhelmed by cultural movements conceiving of modernity as a way to immunise people from sociality.

As outlined in Figure 2.3, on the one hand, the old civil society is still amongst us, tending to subject every good to the sequence by which money is invested in goods and services (GS) which in turn are used to make more money (M-GS-M). Actors, that is, invest money in a good they have no need for, but which is only instrumental to making more money. At first, they attribute to that good a monetary (functional) value and then trade it to make more money. It is important to understand that this mechanism presides over the whole libllab system. The state also uses it in its relationships w'ith the market. The state uses the market to get the money to pay for public welfare, w'hich in turn is the source of votes, the political system’s own money. In this context, civil society is identified with the market.

On the other hand, a new civil society is emerging, which is identified with real economy. In real economy, in contrast with the previous case, the good is evaluated in itself and money (also in forms different from currency) is only used by actors as a tool to acquire the goods and services they need [according to the sequence GS-M-GS]. A good is translated into the money only in order to obtain another necessary good. Money is embedded into social relations, and its different forms depend on which social relationships are at stake.

Rethinking civil society means understanding whether, and how, it is possible and necessary to shift from the M-GS-M sequence to the GS-M-GS sequence. This shift modifies modernity’s own view-’. At the core of this view' lies the relational nature of goods and services. Indeed, if it is correct to say that the distinctive feature of a modernising economy is to erase the relational nature of goods/services and economic processes, the building blocks of a new' economy will be precisely the new needs for interpersonal and collective relationships. It is not by accident that w'e see gifts - and the enlarged circuits of exchanges based on reciprocity - coming back into so many social spheres and in many different forms: as redistribution, investment, free voluntary work, civic action, and also means of production. From a sociological point of view, gifts and reciprocity exchanges point to the pursuit of social bonds and to the need for social relations to be forged to cement the sense of community.

The key element of the distinction between modern and aftermodern society is the fact that the latter is confronted with the need to produce a variety pool of options in goods/services production and consumption, in life styles, and in welfare measures which cannot be evaluated in terms of a merely functional monetary equivalence. This pool must respond to existential needs of the life-worlds, must replenish primary natural resources, and above all must do this through the creation of common goods, by which I mean relational goods.

This results in the rise of a new Zeitgeist. Whenever we say that future society will have to be inspired by the ethical criterion of sustainability, everyone has different things in mind, but the basic idea is the one for which instruments, such as finance and technology, must match human needs, and not vice versa, without compromising resources for future generations. It implies that the means must be used only as means, and not as autonomous ends or objectives, and be legitimised by values of relational well-being and with appropriate regulatory rules.

I summarise the distinction between modern and aftermodern setups as follows:

  • 1 Main features of a “modern society”:
    • (A) The preferred symbolic medium of interchange is money intended as currency (which decides the value of all other factors, in particular production, labour, and technology).
    • (G) The goal of society is to increase the GDP, and the only constraint imposed on money is that it provides more money; money is an end in itself, because of the functional culture which makes all goods and services subjectable to monetary equivalence.
    • (I) Companies have no broader social responsibility than that strictly associated with their own employees and customers.
    • (L) The value motives of social action are individualistic, instrumental, and acquisitive.
  • 2 An “aftermodern society”, on the other hand, is featured as follows:
    • (A) Money, as symbolic medium of communication and interchange, can take many different forms, monetary, and non-monetary; the medium of currency as the privileged symbolic medium of interchange leaves room to other forms of money understood as entitlements to goods and services provided not only by the state, but also by the market, the third sector, and the community (Donati 2001: 189-197); the distinction between monetary and non-monetary means is assessed based on their specific and differential contribution to the real economy, in which many goods and services do not allow for monetary equivalents.
    • (G) Society’s goal is to maximise GDWB, and for this purpose, money (in its various monetary and non-monetary forms) is subject to constraints that must support sustainable relational contexts; the different forms of money are incorporated into social relationships that decide on its value and the type of exchanges for which it can be useful.
    • (I) Enterprises take on an external responsibility to the community’s stakeholders; corporate social responsibility is extended outside the company; profits do not only or entirely go to shareholders, but must be shared with the stakeholders; social responsibility is also broadened with regard to employees with forms of reconciliation between work and family, through relational contracts as well as corporate citizenship.
    • (L) Value motives are relational, that is oriented to pursue a relational well-being that is generated by relational goods and in turn regenerates them.

Therefore, aftermodern society is characterised by an observable multiplication of forms of money, labour, and capital. The types of work multiply due to technological changes. Capital is considered not only from a financial point of view, but also as a political, social, and human capital. This entails a multiplication of contracts, in addition to the classic ones, towards forms of relational contracts necessary to pursue an economic objective embedded in a relational social context (Donati 2001: 181-188).

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