Civil Life in America: Lessons for Transitional Society in Ukraine.


Civil society includes ‘public’
which debates and discusses.

Ukrainian teachers and scientists who attended the USA according to Fulbright and other exchange programs get a unique opportunity to observe civic life in a country about which French traveler and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the first half of the 19th century: “Imagine, my dear friend, if you can, a society formed of all nations of the world… people having different languages, beliefs, opinions: in a word, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices, without routines, without common ideas, without a national character, yet a hundred times happier than our own” [i]. What were (and what are) the roots of that happiness? What converted America into a country, which, according to Lawrence Fuchs, had made “diversity itself a source of national identity and unity”? [ii]

In a few words, American unified society and American nation were the result of such different factors as: (1) successful management of cultural diversity on governmental level; (2) influence on American newcomers of the very assimilating, unifying civic culture, based on American Creed; (3) social creativity of American ordinary people, their desire and ability to decide problems by their own coordinate effort. Or, in other words, it was the result of the functioning of American society as a civil society.

On everyday level the people have an inclination to apply the term “civil society” only to some historical and national forms of it. During my stay in America in 1994, for example, when I mentioned that civil society is a subject of my research, the most frequent counterclaim was: “Oh, yes. It might be a very timely topic for your country. But here, you know, it’s a historical theme”. “Civil society” was regarded in this case as a historically definite form and stage of contemporary western civilization, as a “burger society” — a phenomenon of the XVIII and of the first half of the XIX centuries.

The best description of this kind of society has been made by Hegel, on one hand, and by Tocqueville, on the other. Traveling throughout the USA in 1831-1832, French count Alexis de Tocqueville was greatly impressed by the large number and high effectiveness of voluntary associations. And he wrote: “Americans of all ages, all conditions and all dispositions, constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, — religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; they found in this manner hospitals, prisons, or schools … Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association”. [iii]

Tocqueville distinguished civic and political associations, explained their interdependence, elucidated their relevance to decentralization and self-government, as well as to the diffusion of press and to its independence. He underlined that by way of making associations, Americans, in fact, have formed a society and consolidated a nation. Civic engagement was considered in “Democracy in America” as a great educator and a great unifier.

Americans have good reasons to praise Tocqueville, and they actually praise him greatly. It was not by chance, I think, that the first book which I bought in the USA was Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” — abridged by R. D. Heffner and published in a nice pocket form by the Penguin books in a series “A Mentor Book”. It must be “a mentor” not only for Americans… This book opens a kind of  “theoretical window” into social life of Americans and is, therefore, worth of attention of any foreign visitor to the USA, who is interested in cultural exchanges between countries and civilizations.

Tocqueville’s perception of civil life as a base for democracy and national consolidation has been successfully developed by many researchers of the XX century [iv] among whom Robert Putnam’s analysis of the role of civic communities in Italy is one of the most interesting and thought provoking. [v] Putnam has proved rather convincingly that relatively high level of civic engagement accompanied by ordinary people’s adherence to informal institutions as guiding principles of societal behavior usually lead to mutual trust among people and to their ability to cooperate. These factors, in their own turn, made democratic performance easier and more effective.

According to the most widespread definition, civil society is a sphere of autonomous institutions, protected by the rule of law, within which individuals and communities, possessing divergent values and beliefs, may coexist in peace. To my mind, it is broad enough and covers all other definitions. If we want to draw the “spatial boarders” of civil society within the social system, we may use the Charles Taylor’s interpretation, according to which civil society is : (1) not a private but a public sphere; (2) it comprises a public, but not politically structured domain;  (3) it covers a set of autonomous associations; (4) it should not be identified simply with that set of associations, because it embraces the whole pattern of public social life [vi].

So, civil society embodies not only certain sum of voluntary associations able to protect special group interests but personifies relatively high level of civic engagement and civic activity of ordinary people that share civic values and attitudes. It plays not only preventive (essentially negative) role, but also upholding one (essentially positive role), providing appropriate cultural and socio-psychological environment for democratic performance.

Most contemporary researchers regard civil society as sine qua non of democracy. But, at the same time, they are divided into two “teams” — pessimistic and optimistic ones — with regard to the estimation of the present situation and perspectives of civil life in America and other liberal democracies. According to the views of contemporary critics of corporatism, state — civil society relations in the West have already ceased to be an interplay of independent social and political agents. Powerful voluntary associations (for example, trade unions) were integrated into a state apparatus and became semi-state structures unable to bear independent influence on public policy. Others are insignificant and their social role may be ignored. Sometimes, voluntary organizations are playing destructive role, and there is a tendency to distinguish “sound” and ”unsound“ associations, those that promote public interest, and those that go against it. Therefore, the question of existence of civil society in its traditional meaning stands now as more problematic that it is often assumed.

As C. Taylor has pointed out, the major indictment of contemporary state in the West (both from the right and the left) is that it suppresses civil society. Personally, C. Taylor disagrees with that skeptical judgments and invites readers to rethink the very concept of civil society adjusting it to contemporary forms of social action and to contemporary needs to support democracy. But there are many researchers and publicists who agree. For example, pessimistic view on civil society in the present-day America has been expressed by another specialist in the field, R. Putnam, in his article “Bowling alone” (1995) published by The Time. Well known Harvard Professor of Government have used this metaphorical title to underline his view that traditional civic engagement in America has been in slow decline for the last 25 years. That meant diminishing social capital of a nation and government’s attack on the positions of the public. The assertions of civic decline spurred high politicians (both President Clinton and Republican Leader Bob Dole) to propose some measures for its revival and instigated some Universities to offer obligatory courses in volunteerism. Volunteerism became “so important that it’s no longer voluntary”, commented The Time [vii].

The allegation about disappearing civil society became so widely accepted that one author connected it even with the decline of civility and the rise of crudeness. In a newspaper’s article “Understanding the passing of a civil society” Martin J. Smith remarks that “lamentations about the decline of common courtesy and civility transcend economic and social lines”. And he asks after that: “How did we go from a ma’am-ing and sir-ing society, where politeness really counted, to a society where even a corporate giant such as Del Taco feels safe distributing children’s prizes imprinted with the slogan: ‘Shut up and eat your beans’?”. Two explanations of the phenomenon are suggested: (1) the legitimization of protest movements (and inherent to them bad behavior of the youth), and (2) lessening the role of “informal mandate for public behavior” and its replacement by formal rules and government decisions. “The question: ‘Is it proper?’ has been replaced by the question ‘Is it legal?’”. [viii]

Many Americans have been deeply struck by the pessimistic evaluation of civil society’s perspectives. As a result, this topic, “touching a national nerve”, set in motion stormy discussions. Some scholars and journalists expressed the opposite views, according to which civic activism still was flourishing in the USA but it acquired new forms. Americans simply redefined the nature and style of their engagement but still were divided between individualism and communitarianism as in time of Alexis de Tocqueville. [ix] And no matter on what side was the truth, participation of readers in that discussions confirms that there is a public which debates and discusses, and, accordingly, there is a civil society.

During my visit to the USA such discussions were held not only over the problem of civic activity. They highlighted also the problems of racism and national unity, the problems of the study of English and Spanish at schools and colleges, the more local question of constructing gambling facilities in the city of Providence (the capital of the state of Rhode Island), and, of course, the problem of sexual harassment, and many others. I was impressed by the very careful preparing of public opinion to the planned invasion of American troops into Haiti on behalf of returning Haitian President Aristido. Observing the relationship between the government and the public, I had a good chance to become sure about the responsibility of the former and about the civic interests of the latter.

The most powerful means of expression interests and ideas are, of course, press and mass media in general. In 1994 an interesting movement for civic (or public) journalism was growing. Its proponents agitated for the new role of press — not only to inform the public, but actively participate in solving social problems.

All major newspapers (whether it was The New York Times, The Providence Journal or The Philadelphia Inquirer) published special pages of their readers paying considerable attention to the citizen’s views and judgments. Such practice, which in the former USSR had not infrequently perverted forms (letters had been scrupulously checked,  sometimes — ordered to the carefully selected “readers” or written by the journalists), now almost fully disappeared from the social life in Ukraine. Editorial boards of the newspapers, probably, don’t want to subject the government structures to additional botheration and make their own life easier. And the public doesn’t insist on its civil right to be heard and accounted for.

Without any doubt, American mass media have also some dark sides such as their devotion to sensations and scandals, often artificially constructed. I could not habituate myself to the indispensable beginning of TV news from the information about some murder or catastrophes (now we have the same situation at Ukrainian TV). But contrary to widespread view, American mass media in general, and especially press, makes much more educational influence on the public than the press in most post-communist countries. It really plays the role of a means of public discourse on the most acute problems of society.  And it proves, together with different real forms of public concern and social activity, that American society — allegedly one of the most individualistic societies on the earth — has much more cement for social cooperation and solidarity than supposedly collectivist former communist and present post-communist societies.



Americans’ ability to cooperate is highly concordant
with their individualism and personal autonomy

It is an axiom of liberal social theory that any country that wants to have stable democratic regime needs what is called social capital. This notion includes social norms of reciprocity (like trust and tolerance) that make people cooperative and more socially responsible. As a consequence they become able to follow voluntarily formal rules, which are imposed by law and constitute a good base for democratic government. Social capital is usually present, according to R. Putnam, in the countries that have tradition of rather high civic engagement or, in other words, which have developed the institutions of civil society. The most important forms of civic activity are usually connected with the solution of so called “small issues” and engagement in so called “small deeds”. They constitute the heart of non-political civic life. Participating in such forms of everyday social activity ordinary people learn to cooperate, to persecute the public goals and to be tolerant. They also learn to create rules and to live according to the rules. And all that is crucial for democracy.

But what are the present tendencies in the civic engagement in the United States from the point of view of Ukrainian visitor? Is it declining now, as some authors claim, or, assuming other forms, flourishes up to present times? Is it being in the process of integration into the contemporary state machine (within the corporatist tendencies) or still is functioning as a web of autonomous associations that have enough autonomy? These questions are worthwhile, in my view, for any foreign visitor to the USA, who is interested in cultural exchanges between countries and civilizations.

According to the very modest estimation, at the beginning of 1990s in the USA was no less than 1.1 million of independent associations. Almost 16 million of men and women worked in them (6.4 million of them were volunteers, working without payment). The proportion of so called member-serving to public-serving organizations was correspondingly 470 to 700 thousands [x].

In the city of Providence (R.A.) where I resided during my stay in the USA I viewed very intensive activity of the Fox Point Citizens Association — a neighborhood organization, which has been successful in planting trees, organizing clean-up days, recycling newspapers, bottles etc. In the fall of 1994 it launched the new Leaf Recycling Program to which some other voluntary associations, state and private corporations also joined. FPCA issued a bulletin “Neighborhood news” and tried to attract new members. Its vice-president participated in the electoral campaign of 1994 and, naturally, association became active politically.

Another form of civic activity was what I called “mutual teaching”. More than 180 programs have been launched in the city and vicinity. They helped people to learn how to do a lot of things: from using computers to weaving Christmas baskets and drawing caricatures. I had a chance to participate in some activities of International House, a Women’s club, evening student’s Study-breaks, Slavic House Holidays, in the parties and presentations organized by local Fulbright Association. I was also impressed by Americans’ art of celebrating holidays, by their active positions in discussing new publications, political events, and, sometimes, political or social scandals. So, my general conclusion would be that civil society in the USA, at least from the point of view of Ukrainian visitor, is far from declining. On the contrary. It flourishes up to present time, assuming new and new forms and providing positive lessons for the people from those countries where people strive for renewing civil life, sense of responsibility and self-reliance.

American experience confirm that one of the most important things for post-communist countries is to restore a sense of community and to create what is usually called social capital. Both features are central to civil society. It is my opinion, that before we launched a movement for revival of honesty (for example, in schooling), or anti-theft movement among ordinary people (leaving aside for a while the problem of professional thieves), or even a movement for cleaning porches of our houses and foot-ways of our cities, we could not just blame government accusing it in all evils and peccancies, a lot of which are the wrongdoings of the whole society. But, at the same time, we should not have a dread of the government and to fear it if we have an intention to protect our own or general public interests. The important lesson that may be deduced by Ukrainians from American practice of civil life concerns the ability of Americans to combine in a highly concordant (harmonious) manner individualism and communitarianism, personal autonomy and mutual responsibility and trust.

Looking at present social life in America and studying its unique past, each Ukrainian, I think, has to ask himself whether our own culture can propose more than we usually think in the field of rebuilding civic life and democratic spirit. [xi] In my view (which I will try to prove in the other publication) historical pre-conditions of the civil society existed in Ukraine prior and during some time after its subordination by Russia. They were original in form and quite intensive. But do they really matter today provided they were followed by vigorous attempts of the autocratic and totalitarian states to wipe them out?  In terms of “path–dependence” concept, exposed by R. Putnam, they, probably, do. But in the case of Ukraine the fact of interrupted historical tradition interfere with this assertion. We must therefore consider the more general problem of the probability of restoration of interrupted tradition of civic or semi-civic (or proto-civic) institutions. Can we do this or not, and to what extent?  I think we can, but only as far as cultural values became the features of national mentality and influence in that way the everyday behavior of the people, first of all, on the mass level. (We may witness a lot of instances when under the same conditions Ukrainian and Russian masses as well as elites behave in different if not in the opposite way).

Inferences derived from the Ukrainian past sometimes may lead to unexpected but in many aspects illuminating conclusions: that democratic consolidation, for example, may be most obviously endangered not by the high propensity of some old or new form of dictatorship (which seems to be much more probable in Russia) but by traditional for the country anarchization of a polity with all possible unpredictable consequences. Still we are not sure whether indigenous empirical, democratic and, partially, anarchical way of thinking and doing has become an integral part of Ukrainian political culture and whether it may not be balanced by the ability and inclination to self-sustaining and independent forms of organization. Of course, post-communist stereotypes are on the surface and play their destructive role. In addition, extremely low level of living of large percentage of people in time of transition to democracy may impede all attempts to stabilize democratic institutions.



The sleep of patience and oppression has not been yet dispelled
The burden of non-thrown ages is choking as yet …
(Olexander Oles’)

What do we have in Ukraine now? From the period of perestroika the new legal and political conditions spurred the steady process of the enlargement of civic engagement in post-communist states. There are about 20 000 voluntary civic organizations (NGO) now in Ukraine, which may be classified on many lines. The most general is the division on protective and promotional associations, member-serving and public-serving, self-help and benevolent. In Lviv region there are about 1000 civic organizations (see table 1) of different type: sports, cultural, educational, political, ethnic, professional, religious, women’s, etc. Unfortunately, many of them exist mainly on a paper, not in reality; taken separately, each of them is not a mature social actor; taken together they cannot form the full-fledged civil sector able to resolve at least some of the most acute social problems.

Table 1. Number of civil organizations in Lviv region by type *.

  Type organizations Number of organizations Membership
1. Interest groups (economic and social)  120 145 810
2. Cultural and educational 103 40 728
3. Sport clubs and organizations 97 123 294
4. By interests (spending free time) 95 140 271
5. Charity 82 146 63
6. Youth 79 9 259
7. Veterans’ 57 185 670
8. Professional 49 122
9. Economic and social self-help (credit societies and so on) 46 5 896
10. Ethnic 30 5 753
11. Scientific 28 1 752
12. Charitable (beneficent) funds 27 277
13. Women’s 25 5 345
14. Armed formations 24 9 309
15. International communication 18 473
16. Army support 15 163 937
17. Religious (religious communities not included) 13 13481
18. Ecological 6 113
19. Other 43 4 239

* The data from the Lviv Resource Center.

Regional Resource Centers financed primarily by the funds of Western origin function and try to render some kinds of support to NGO (providing education of their leaders, means of information and so on). In democratic countries with civic culture such organizations function as social actors that contribute to resolving the most acute problems of the society. But this is not always the case in Ukraine. Some of them are regarded by their leaders as a ladder for getting a higher social position. Others suffer from acute lack of finance, because their members cannot make an adequate contribution. Still others simply do not work. There is a big lag between the number of organizations and the citizen’s involvement in them as shown by polls (table 2). While the number of organizations has grown throughout the country from about 5 000 in 1991 to more than 20 000 in 1997, the participation of people in them, as shown by regular national polls, is very poor and is in the process of serious declining.

Table 2. Civic engagement in Ukraine (1994-97) **

  Type of organizations Percentage of people belonging to some organization
    1994 1997
1. Professional 3.3 0.8
2. Trade unions (except traditional) 2.7 2.1
3. Association of creative professionals 1.2 0.1
4. Sport clubs and organizations 3.2 3.3

Religious organizations and communities

3.3 2.5
6. Clubs by interests 2.0 1.5
7. Ecological organizations 1.3 0.6
8. Students’ or youth organizations 1.7 1.4
9. Political Parties 0.7 0.4
10. Social-political movements 0.4 0.4
11. Civic organizations, associations, funds 0.9 0.6
12. Farm organizations 0.3 0.2
13. Other 0.7 0.3
  Total (belonging to organizations) 17.8 12.0
14. Don’t belong to any organization 82.2 88.0
15. Did not answer 0.9 0.0

** The source: Political Portrait of Ukraine. Bulletin of the “Democratic initiatives” Foundation. — 1998. — No. 2.

Next answers prove that such features of civic culture as self-reliance and self-confidence also are not at present the major characteristics of Ukrainian people.

Q.: If government adopted a decision that pinches the interests of the people could do to undertake anything against such a decision?

A.:  Yes, I could do something     5.6% in 1994 and 4,7 in 1997
  No, I could not do anything     65.1 in 1994 and 67.0 in 1997

The same question concerning the decision of local authorities:

A.:  Yes, I could do something     5.6% in 1994 and 4,7 in 1997
  No, I could not do anything     65.1 in 1994 and 67.0 in 1997

Readiness to take part in some civic or political actions in order to protect one’s own interests also declines: 38.7 % in 1994 and 29.2 % in 1997 answered in affirmative. This indicator is not so low as participation in civil organizations but its reduction may not be regarded as a normal reaction on the deterioration of the standard of living. It is rather interesting that when people were asked what they regard better: to preserve order and peace at any rate or to go to the street and to protest actively against deterioration of living conditions — the percentage of those choosing the second position has grown from 22.7% in 1994 to 36.6% in 1997. [xii]

What are the main causes of this underdevelopment of civil society in Ukraine? Post-communist states  which undergo deep transformation of polity and economy at the same time are finding themselves now in the situation of multidimensional social crises. We observe two contradictory trends in Ukraine. On one side, transition predetermines the urgent need for development of civic organizations and for reemergence of civil society. Appearance of relatively large number of organizations is a response to that need. On the other side, transitional uncertainty, crisis in economy, stereotypes in social behavior connected with the cultural legacy of totalitarianism  hinder the process of their maturation and effective functioning. It is a surprise that cooperative actions are very rare even in those fields where they were systematic in Soviet times. “Small deeds”, like cleaning porches, gardens and yards (in special clean-up days or otherwise) by the effort of a neighborhood inhabitants are still waiting for the revival of communitarian spirit impoverished during the last decades.

Lack of finance is the most frequently mentioned cause of inadequate activity of NGO. In the USA 88% of their budget make voluntary contributions of the well-off citizens. But there is too small number of well-to-do citizenry in Ukraine. On the other hand, legislation is unfavorable for charitable activity of businessmen. The authors of the project “Business and Charity” of the Lviv Resource Center who have made the survey of charitable activity of Ukrainian businessmen, claim that the effectiveness of that activity depends not only on economic welfare of a society and its members but also on the quality of legislation that regulates this sphere of social action. Normally, some tax benefits should be given by the state to those businessmen who participate in charitable activity. But this is not still the case in Ukraine. Nevertheless, according to the survey only 5% of Ukrainian businessmen do not support charity and 7.1% are not interested in it. 72.8% of business enterprises were engaged in charitable activity. In most cases the object of their charity was a single action, certain persons, and also — separate organizations [xiii].

The separate problem is power structures’ attitudes to civic activity which is hopelessly negative in many instances. People in power are devoted to the old stereotypes of mass—elite relationships even to a greater degree than ordinary people. But the problem of the lack of public interest is very acute at all levels of social pyramid in post-communist countries. Partially it is connected with low level of knowledge of ordinary people where and how they can act collectively in order to protect their interests; where and how they can get money from sponsors and so on. In post-communist societies people know that “initiative is punishable” and they are not sure that it may be beneficial. We must therefore find effective means and ways of civic socialization, elaborate techniques of the educational process that will promote the formation of concerned, creative and responsible citizens.

Enhancing civic education, based on the experience of more democratically developed nations, like the USA, will help us in solving these problems — in a systematic and, without no doubt, incremental way.

In post-totalitarian states the building of full-fledged civil society is, in my view, the only way to the alternative mentalitymore optimistic with respect to his/her own power and possibility to change things and trends, free of paternalistic illusions with regard to the state. In other words, the desirable and favorable for democracy shift in values may occur only in a case of simultaneous changes in the pattern of state —society relationships, structuralization of independent public sphere and explicit recognition (not only in words, but also — in deeds) of its autonomous status by the power structures.

The important pre-conditions for such changes are:

  • arising of a pluralistic group structure based on private property relations (atomized social sphere consisting of helpless and frighten individuals is not suitable for normal functioning of civic institutions, even if they try to appear);
  • adequate legal sphere, in which all human and civil rights are guaranteed for citizens.

We cannot allow a parallel diminution in the power of both the state and the newly constituted civil society because it will mean the termination of the process of democratization and the dipping into the process of anarchization with the probable authoritarian end.

 [i] See: Artur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The Disuniting of America. Reflections on a Multicultural Society. — New York; London: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992. — P. 25.

 [ii] Ibid., p, 131.

 [iii] Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Edited and abridged by R. D. Heffner. — New York: Penguin Books, 1984. — P. 198.

 [iv] Only after the late 1980s such known scholars as A. Arato, J. Alexander, E. Gellner, J. Keane, R. Putnam, A. Seligman, Ch.Taylor, K. Tester, M. Waltzer and many others were involved in the theoretical discourse about civil society.

 [v] See: Robert D. Putnam. Making Democracy Work. Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. — Princeton (NJ), 1993.

 [vi] See: Charles Taylor. Invoking Civil Society / in: Contemporary Political Philosophy. An Anthology. Ed. by R. E. Goodin and Ph. Pettit. – Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997. P. 73-74.

 [vii] See: Bowling Together. Civic engagement in America isn’t disappearing, but reinventing itself // The Time, — 1996. — July 22. —  P. 36.

 [viii] The Philadelphia Inquirer. — 1994. — November 27. Whether all accents in that article were correct or not, they remind us that the term ‘civil society’ is of the same root as ‘civility’ and ‘civilization’. They also show the role of informal rules in social consolidation, in making society a civilized society. So, we may conclude, that in any post-communist country full-fledged civil society will be impossible until we become polite, civilized and public-minded people.

 [ix] See: The Time. — 1996. — July 23. — P. 35-36.

 [x] See.: Hromadski Hniciatyvy. — 1998. — № 9. — С. 4.

 [xi] At least one feature is common in American and Ukrainian history. I mean, existence of the frontier — free, unoccupied land at Western (USA) or Southern (Ukraine) border of the countries.  In both cases it spurred love for freedom, social inventiveness and suspicion for any political superstructures. But there also were a lot of different internal and external factors that caused distinct and even opposite outcomes of that social devotion and strive for independence.

 [xii] Political Portrait of Ukraine. Bulletin of the “Democratic initiatives” Foundation. — 1998. — No. 2. (In Ukrainian)

 [xiii] See: Business and Charity. Report. — Lviv: “West Ukrainian Resource Center” foundation for the development of public organizations, 1998.