Thursday December 07, 2023

The civil society debate

October 12, 2018

The notion of the civil society is frequently used in our modern political and development discourse. The concept of the civil society entails anything ranging from a political party, an NGO, a welfare trust to a business cooperative and an organic local institution.

The genesis of the civil society goes back to the Ancient Greek city-state system wherein citizens played a vital role in the political decision-making of state. The civil society is a direct translation of Cicero’s societas civilas and Aristotle’s koinonia politike.

However, not every inhabitant of a city-state was a citizen. In particular, women and slaves weren’t entitled to citizenship. A vast majority of the population in Ancient Greece was excluded from the civil society and all forms of civic amenities. And those who were excluded from representation in the affairs of the state became victims of the extractive economy of war and were subjected to subjugation.

The vanquished in these wars were made slaves and victors were to become citizens to relish on booty and the services of slaves. The wars were inevitable as a strategy of retaining citizenship – which is contrary to our modern concept of citizenship. There was no distinction between the state and citizenship and the citizens’ objective of freedom was driven by the political and economic priorities of the state and vice versa.

However, our modern concept of the civil society emerged with the Industrial Revolution, when capitalism replaced feudalism as a new economic and political system. This new system promised freedom from the oppression of the king and the clergy through the enactment of a social contract between citizens and the government.

The widespread acceptance of protestant ethics provided ample space for individuals to exercise faith without having recourse to the clergy as an intermediary between God and individuals. From May to October 1648, a series of treaties were signed to end Europe’s most destructive 30-year war and recognise the right to peaceful coexistence among the emerging states of Europe.

The modern state is far more complex, bureaucratic and rational than the Ancient Greek state of direct governance. It has monopoly over violence with legitimacy provided in the social contract between the state and its citizens to maintain social order and the welfare of the majority. However, the modern state can potentially trespass its role to impose the will of the powerful and influential class on citizens. And in doing so, the state can suppress the freedom of citizens to protect the political and economic interests of the elite.

Thomas Hobbes provided the intellectual foundations of the need for a strong state to avoid war and destruction wherein individuals must surrender part of their freedom to help the state establish social order.

Modernity rediscovered the civil society as a universal concept of rights and duties of individuals in the modern state system.

Locke spoke of the “civil government” as an alternative term for a civil or political society. Kant conceived the idea of burgerliche gesellschaft as the constitutional state and as the destiny of political evolution. For Rosseau, the concept of état civil was equivalent to the state. Political thinkers during this era invoked the concept of the civil society to define a democratic form of government rooted in the rights of citizens. The ideas of Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Tocqueville and Gramsci have been pivotal in the evolution of the concept of the civil society as a contested space for ideological and cultural expression.

Hegel considered the state to be the final destiny of human rationalism and the synthesis of all political ideals. He was also the first political theorist to introduce a clear distinction between the civil society and the state. To him, the state is the embodiment of the collective ethical will of citizens. He argued that until it represented the common good in this way, the state could make no claim on a society of purely self-interested individuals. Since it embodies the moral will of the community, the state can demand the support of the people in times of peace and war beyond individual allegiances to the collective interest of society.

The concept of the civil society put forth by Hegel evolved in the 19th and 20th centuries as a distinct space of civic engagement to represent the interests of citizens against the monopolistic control over the state and business by political and economic elite.

In our contemporary sectoral thinking of politics and development, the civil society is generally reduced to a ‘third sector’ – ie a formal domain of civic engagement in contradistinction to the state and the market. In this sense, the civil society is a space of conscious self-expression among citizens to make the state (the public sector) and the market (the private sector) accountable to the collective interests of the third sector or the civil society.

The notion of the ‘civil society’ as an independent space of civic engagement or an autonomous sectoral domain was put to critical analysis by Antonio Gramsci in the 20th century. For Gramsci, it was a misconception to believe that the space of cultural and civic expressions is independent of the ideological influences of a modern capitalist state. He provided an elaborate theoretical perspective of how the state uses cultural institutions and other civil-society domains to establish ideological hegemony as a means of ensuring intellectual legitimacy to capitalism.

In his analysis, Gramsci didn’t just restrict the civil society to a civic space but developed a revolutionary strategy to unfold its transformative potential to dislodge the coercive apparatus of the state. As a result, the civil society became a political strategy to gain access to political power and give rise to conditions to create a consensual society wherein no individual or group is reduced to a subaltern status.

The civil society is, therefore, a contested concept that is rooted in the historical evolution of the political and economic system, which gained a new impetus with the rise of global capitalism. The frivolous use of the term in our contemporary development arena – shaped by INGOs and IFIs – has reduced the civil society to an ahistorical, apolitical and disconnected space of individuals.

Development workers employed by INGOs have a limited understanding of the civil society and its transformative potential. That is why investments in social development have failed to produce desirable outcomes in transforming poverty-stricken countries . There is a lack of conviction, will, capacity and political interest to help promote the political and economic interests of subaltern groups amid increasing development aid. This seems to be true, not only in our cliched world of politics and development policy but also in academic research that doesn’t provide a substantial epistemic support in broadening the understanding of development as a process of creating a transformative civil society.

The civic spaces of expression espoused through the contemporary theory and practice of international development have increasingly become the domain of recipients. This is the era of neocolonialism where the developing world has little control over the discourse and disposition of the politics of development and its corollary, the West-centric neoliberal conception of the civil society. In my next article, I will discuss the indigenous variants of the civil society.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.