The concept of civil society is gathering momentum today as the search continues for forms of community and political action outside of what is often seen as a discredited state. But what can we really expect from civil society? In particular, could citizen self-organisation ‘beneath’ or outside of the state provide for the democratic self-determination that so many feel is lacking in modern society, despite promises to the contrary from liberal democracies? Liberal democratic theory complacently assumes that civil society should act merely as a support structure for democracy ‘proper’ at the level of the state – shaping parliamentary deliberation by providing a voice to public opinion, educating citizens in democratic values, and generally acting as a ‘watchdog’ over those in power, but otherwise leaving the ‘real’ business of democracy to representatives. Are there, though, alternative visions of civil society to this domesticated liberal democratic one? In particular, is a democracy located in civil society rather than the state desirable or even possible? And can the slogan ‘civil society first’, involving turning our backs on the state, continue to be a meaningful mode of democratic organisation today, even after the events of 1989 appeared to signal its redundancy? Remarkable as it may seem more than a decade after the triumph of liberal democracy supposedly ushered in the ‘end of history’, some still answer yes to these questions – but why and in what ways? And can such sentiments ever be other than utopian?