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A contested idea

It is erroneous to assume that ‘civil society’ represents shared and common values premised on tolerance, pluralism, and peace

A contested idea
— Photo by B.K.Bangash / AP

The concept of ‘civil society,’ as it emerged within Western liberal political philosophy, is a contested one. The term originated with the Roman philosopher, Cicero’s notion of societas civilis to denote the good society in which people voluntarily come together for peaceful co-existence. The contemporary idea of ‘civil society’ is usually traced to the enlightenment, although it draws upon Greek rationalism as well as classical period notions of a society based upon consensual rules and norms that restrain people from inflicting harm on others.

In response to the absolute power of the Church and monarchy, enlightenment era philosophers, such as John Locke, argued that limitations need to be placed upon political authority to prevent abuse of power. In his Two Treatises on Government, he outlined reciprocal power and responsibilities.

In the first treaty, people submit themselves to public authority which is empowered to make and implement laws to maintain order in society. The second treaty places limitations on public authority, preventing it from violating the basic rights of people. For Locke the preservation of life, liberty and property constituted basic rights. Private property — the right to own and preserve it — lies at the heart of the liberal notion of civil society.

The German thinker, Hegel associated civil society with a particular period of capitalism. He argued that it served the interests of the capital — individual rights and private property. Karl Marx also linked civil society and capitalism, and believed that the State and civil society were both arms of the dominant economic and social class.

Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci saw civil society as the sphere in which hegemony is created by the ruling classes. He divided it between ‘political society’ (comprising the police, the army and the legal system which constitute the arena of political institutions, and legal constitutional control), and ‘civil society’, (represented by institutions, such as the family, the educational system, market and trade unions) commonly seen as the ‘private’ or ‘non-state’ sphere. Political society was regarded as the realm of force and civil society that of consent.

The prevailing notion of civil society has been popularised with the rise of political opposition among the former Soviet Union states. In the 1990s, there was a proliferation of non-governmental organisations and social movements on a global scale. These phenomena resonated in complex ways with the heralding of the New World Order after the ‘End of History’ had been pronounced and capitalist democracy had been declared triumphant over socialist centralism.

‘Civil society’ was the pivotal construct involved in weaving the New World Order. The current notion conforms more closely to de Tocqueville’s idea of a system of civilian and political voluntary associations of individuals and groups, as a counterpoint to both the totalising centralisation of states and the possessive individualism of self-interested human beings. It came to be seen as the ‘third sector’ between the state and market, capable of overcoming the shortcomings of each.

In Pakistan, the idea of civil society has been reduced to non-government, community-based and faith-based organisations. The broader concept, which included trade unions, political parties, professional and business associations, independent media and social movements, has been shunned in favour of a narrow definition comprising NGOs, CBOs, FBOs and the like.

Non-governmental organisations are further divided into those that focus on the liberal discourse of human rights, democracy and tolerance, and those that act as welfare organisations engaged in service delivery.

Also read: The ‘us’ and ‘them’

While rights-based organisations challenge the misuse of state authority and the violation of the rights of men, women, workers, peasants, minorities and the underprivileged, welfare organisations are more concerned with delivering, education, health or sanitation — an approach that tends to absolve the state of its basic duty to ensure fundamental rights.

This approach is regarded by Marxist critics as one that supports the roll back of the state — a neo-liberal agenda also pursued by multi-national companies. The ideas of ‘global citizens’, ‘global governance’, and ‘good governance’, as peddled by the World Bank, are implicated in diminishing the role of the state in relation to that of the ‘free market’. Funded by donors from rich and powerful countries, such organisations inadvertently become a part of neo-liberal globalisation.

The idea that ‘civil society’ is an inherently altruistic concept that promotes democracy and good governance is belied by the confusion exhibited by liberals in the face of political choices. In 1999, when an elected civilian government was overthrown by a military dictator, a sizeable number of the members of ‘civil society’ supported the transfer of power from civilians to the military, even though parliamentary democracy is the hallmark of classical liberalism.

Again, in 2014 a section of the ‘civil society’ that became active during the lawyers’ movement supported the attempted unconstitutional removal of a civilian government through nefarious means. It must be noted, however, that other members of ‘civil society’ opposed the move and defended the parliamentary system. This shows that ‘civil society’ is not a homogenous entity that always produces democratic responses. It is conflicted and contested space.

Another phenomenon is the promotion of faith-based organisations as service delivery mechanisms by some international donors. The provision of education through such FBOs can be seriously problematic as most of them are, by definition, sectarian. Instead of creating harmony in society, as envisaged by the earliest philosophers of ‘civil society’, FBOs can potentially engender dissension and discord, while simultaneously negating the equality of women and minorities as citizens of the state.

It is erroneous to assume that ‘civil society’ represents shared and common values premised on tolerance, pluralism, and peace. On the contrary, civil society is divided along the axes of class, religion, ethnicity, sect, gender and other markers of identity.

Furthermore, the fashionable notions of public-private partnership negate the very basis of civil society as conceptualised within classical theory. When the public teams up with the private, it is inconceivable that the greater public good would be served. Rather, private interest prevails as the state becomes an adjunct to the market and begins to create ‘conditions conducive for private investment’.

The ‘good governance’ paradigm, currently promoted by parts of ‘civil society’, is not oriented toward the protection and promotion of peoples’ rights. Rather, the ideas of transparency, accountability and rule of law, which in the past were indispensable elements of democracy, are now aimed at ensuring the protection of foreign direct investment.

From the brief overview above, we may infer the following: First, civil society is not homogenous but a diverse space consisting of individuals and associations which do not occupy the same space in society.

Second, civil society is replete with conflict as it represents the interests of the dominant elites.

Third, civil society is not necessarily premised on citizen equality.

Fourth, civil society does not necessarily represent positive, good, and altruistic impulses as humans are often motivated by self-interest.

Fifth, the assumption that civil society generates shared values and common interests may not stand up to scrutiny for societies seem to be torn by conflicts of class, ethnicity, religion, caste and gender.

Sixth, civil society seems to have played a role in promoting the neo-liberal agenda that is responsible for enhanced poverty in developing societies.

Rubina Saigol

Rubina Saigol copy
The writer is an independent writer based in Lahore.

One comment

  • A very good analysis of civil society. It clearly identifies the multiple problems inherent in the politics of civil society.

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