- The Myth of Civil Society: Social Capital and Democratic Consolidation in Spain and Brazil
What is the key to securing a meaningful and sustainable democracy, one in which representative institutions are strong, responsive, and effective? For more than a decade, Robert Putnam and his disciples have argued that the crucial variable is high levels of social capital, and that the primary engine of social capital is civil society. Omar Encarnación agrees with the first of these propositions but rejects the second. Trust and cooperation are of central importance to democratic consolidation, he contends, but a dense and flourishing civil society is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce them. By juxtaposing two extreme cases of civil society strength (Brazil) and weakness (Spain), Encarnación builds a challenging case in favor of an alternative view: social capital is not generated from below, in grassroots organizations and voluntary associations, but is instead the product of leadership and institution building from above, by elites in the state and political parties. While his articulation of the argument leaves something to be desired, the work nonetheless merits attention from students of democratization.
The book gets off to a somewhat rocky start, distorting the current state of work on civil society and far overstating the degree of scholarly agreement on its relative importance to democratization. On page 3, for example, Encarnación asserts, "the debate about what it will take for the world's newest democracies to grow into efficient and stable polities appears to have been settled," and that conventional wisdom now holds that democratic consolidation depends "upon one indispensable condition: the emergence of a vibrant and robust civil society." This hyperbole continues right through the end of this introductory chapter, where he claims that civil society is "currently regarded as nothing short of an infallible democratic miracle worker" (14). Such exaggeration is unfortunate, because it leads the reader to wonder if the author isn't just setting up a strawman to destroy in the rest of the book. Occasional but egregious misspellings (for example, Brazil is "a veritable dessert of social trust," p. 12) give further cause to wonder how seriously the work should be taken.
The second chapter, which reviews the recent literature on civil society (beginning with Putnam), continues briefly in this vein but, happily, [End Page 171] settles into a more nuanced, contextualized, and useful discussion of the emergence and development of the scholarly debate. In the final section, Encarnación offers a first summary of his argument. He states that his independent variables are the configuration and performance of political institutions, and he claims to be inspired by historical institutionalism. "Institutions and their legacies matter," he explains, because they "structure preferences, interests, and values in society" (41). The problem, both here and throughout the book, is that what he means by "institution" is unclear. Indeed, at times the argument seems centered far more on the importance of history (the general legacy of past events) than on institutions per se. In his discussions of both Spain and Brazil, Encarnación pays insufficient attention to the origins or internal workings of the institutions to which he attributes outcomes. Indeed, he seems to attribute the performance of state bureaucracies or political parties largely to the wisdom of their founders or subsequent leaders. Yet for some reason, he avoids stating that the argument is about elite values, commitments, resources, and choices, using instead the vaguer term political institutions.
The bulk of the book is divided into two parts. The first covers Spain, addressing the question of how a society with abysmally low levels of civic association has been able nevertheless to consolidate highly legitimate and effective democratic institutions. The second deals with Brazil, exploring why the celebrated proliferation of civil society associations has not produced a stronger and more responsive democratic system. In each part, Encarnación draws on a wealth of secondary materials to support his claims, and thereby offers a rich portrait of political life in the respective...