Civil Society in the Shadow of the Neoliberal State: Neoliberalism and Civil Society in Denmark

Mathias Hein Jessen*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperResearchpeer-review


    In the 1970s and 1980s, civil society re-emerged on the political scene and has been the centre of a massive interest publically, politically and academically as a third ‘sphere’ or ‘sector’ outside state and market. Civil society was seen both as a hallmark of a well-functioning liberal democracy by guaranteeing a free, independent sphere of contestation and critique, but was at the same time up until today seen as a resource of public governance that could take over public service provision from an ailing welfare state. This has also been the case in Denmark, where, since the 1970s, references to the vitality of civil society in contradistinction to a cold, distant and bureaucratic state has served as an argument for changes and cutbacks to public sector welfare service provision.
    The paper views neoliberalism through a Foucauldian understanding as a form of state-craft that attempts to fashion every aspect of social life on the model of the market and introduce the logic of competition everywhere. This entails a specific production of civil society and of the collective and corporate subjects within it. The (neoliberal) state thereby creates a specific form of civil society by producing collective subjects conducive to its order. To Foucault, furthermore, civil society functions as a key site of veridiction and plane of reference that forms the principle of self-limitation of a liberal and neoliberal governmentality.
    In this paper, I argue that civil society has functioned as a double legitimatory trope that both hails the progressiveness and special values of Danish society, and at the same time has been used to legitimize cut-backs and privatization of public sector service provision by increasingly putting the responsibility of welfare provision on civil society (and the market). The notion of civil society has therefore played a central role in the neoliberalization process in Denmark where references to the vitality and progressiveness of civil society has served as an apt legitimatory trope for public sector reforms in a country where public sector service provision enjoys a great deal of legitimacy. However, the result has been an instrumentalization and depoliticization of civil society.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication date2019
    Number of pages24
    Publication statusPublished - 2019
    EventSASE 31at Annual Conference 2019: Fathomless Futures: Algorithmic and Imagined - The New School, New York, United States
    Duration: 27 Jun 201929 Jun 2019
    Conference number: 31


    ConferenceSASE 31at Annual Conference 2019
    LocationThe New School
    Country/TerritoryUnited States
    CityNew York
    Internet address

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