In most G8 states there has been an extensive development of civil society on the basis of the liberal democratic order (freedom of assembly, opinion and speech).
Civil society actors are individuals and groups, generally democratically organised. Among the latter are those groups traditionally associated with the defence of employers' or workers' interests (e.g. employers' federations and trade unions).
Alongside these, especially in the advanced democracies, there have emerged countless other movements with diverse goals. Against the background of East-West confrontation, in the Seventies and Eighties the questions of peace and environmental protection came to occupy a central place among them.
Today, in the face of advancing globalisation, there has emerged a concern for equitable relations between North and South.
Appropriate forms of organisation
In the 1970s, the notion of structure and organisation was still contested within the "Alternative Movement". Today there is no longer any doubt that effective structures are indispensable to the success of collective action. Contemporary civil society actors, for the most part so-called non-governmental organisations (NGOs), are thus just as well-organised as employers' federations and trade unions.
What is more, they are networked across national borders and across continents. The technical possibilities of the information society allow them to react quickly and in coordinated fashion, addressing not just single-country or national issues but also global problems.
NGOs are not-for-profit organisations. Yet with subscriptions, donations and government grants, they sometimes command substantial resources. They are therefore able to organise events with global impact and also employ professional representatives who deal on an equal footing with even the highest-ranking representatives of state and business.
NGOs are often critical of governmental or business decisions: they warn, exhort, and apply pressure. As well as dialogue, however, they may resort to techniques of civil disobedience, which in extreme cases may regrettably also involve law-breaking.
The relationship state – civil society
The debate on the role of civil society that has been conducted over recent years has taken place at a time of profound transformation and reorientation: the globalisation of the economy calls for new responses to peoples' questions and anxieties, especially about their status in a globalised world.
This is a challenge to civil society as well: it too must make its contribution to redefining the tasks of state and society and to solving complex social problems.
A lively civil society cannot be decreed from on high. Rather, citizens have to be motivated to take responsibility and to become actively involved in shaping their society. The state can only provide the legal and institutional framework and ensure that conditions are favourable.
Nor can civil society replace the "social state". It should not be misunderstood as being synonymous with a retreat of the state. The role of civil society is complementary to that of the welfare state.
Public involvement in action through civil society does not free the state of its continuing responsibility to do all in its power to ensure fairness in the economic and social fields and to act against social inequality.