Global Policy Forum

Civil Society in an Uncivil World


By John Samuel*

October 18, 2007

Words are like flowers. Flowers have their own colour, texture and smell. Not every kind of flower blooms in every climate or soil. It's the same with words. Their colour, texture, smell and meaning arise organically from a particular socio-historical and cultural milieu. When demand exceeds the supply of flowers, there arises a market for manufactured flowers. Plastic flowers need neither soil nor climate; they transcend space and time. They may sometimes look like the real thing. But they can never feel like the real thing.

So it is with words in the postmodern condition. There are all too many plastic words, good for decoration and intellectual pleasantries, and little else. One of the key predicaments of the ongoing social and political transition in the world today is the subversion of language and ideas to create political smoke screen or delusion or to give a semblance of social and political legitimacy for the hegemonic discourse. Often progressive-sounding words and phrases are used to conceal the reality on the ground or to create a virtual or projected sense of select images and discourse. The reshuffling of meanings and the subversion of political semantics has become the order of the day. This has become a part of process of creating the new pornography of politics. The very term Civil Society is major protagonist in the post-modern politics of delusive power- plays and elusive semantics. They together often create political and policy mirages.

The term 'Civil Society' is contested terrain. Over the last fifteen years it has been used to denote everything from citizens' groups and activist formations to highly institutionalized non-governmental organisations and foundations. There is another dimension to this process of subversive politics of words from the point of view of the history ideas and the political economy of knowledge.

Civil society as a concept originated in 18th-century Western Europe. It was a theoretical construct useful in analyzing and understanding the emerging socio-political economy of the industrialized west in the 18th and 19th centuries. The concept was resurrected in the late-'80s amidst the ruins of the authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe. It was born-again in the manufacturing shops neo- democratization ventures in the North. During the second coming of the concept, more stress was laid on producing and marketing the civil society in different colours and shapes, rather than on reflecting the very validity of the idea in relation to real-life situations and experiences. The civil society is being paraded as the new panacea for issues such as poverty, human rights, gender equity and `good governance'.

What is this civil society all about? Whose civil society are we talking about? There is no one answer or even set of answers. The colour and smell of the term will change according to the convenience of the various proponents. As a result of such ambivalence, the second coming of the civil society conceals more than it reveals. Civil society, we are told, is synchronous with democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of choice, good governance and opportunity for economic growth. But what do all these goodies entail? Whose democracy? Whose freedom of expression and choice are we talking about?

The new holy trinity of the State, Market and Civil Society can be capable of concealing the structural inequalities, marginalization and patriarchy, and reduces complex reality into neat spaces. There is an underlying tendency to homogenize the world according to an idealized notion of governance that skips the entire historical process of marginalization and unequal distribution of power in the socio-economic and political arena. The problem with such an ahistorical theorization is that anything and everything outside the market and the State can be considered civil society. So the Islamic Taliban, Sangh Parivar in India and all such fundamentalist formations as well as small self-help groups, neighborhood associations or professional groups can be considered part of civil society. A mega-million non-profit organisation with huge corporate structures and tens of thousand of staff or a mega billion Foundation is as much part of civil society as a small NGO or a small community organisation. This is an interesting logic wherein sharks, sardines and shrimps all say we are fish, though the sharks would like the freedom to swallow sardines and other small fish.

This nebulous concept had its origin in western political theory. The pre-18th century concept emerged in the tradition of Aristotle, Cicero and modern natural law. Till the 18th century, civil society was considered "a type of political association which placed its members under the influence of laws and ensured peaceful order and good government". The discourse on civil society took a critical turn in the 18th century, as a corollary to the discourse on emerging capitalism as well as liberal democratic movements. The ambivalence of this concept is partly because it was an analytical tool used by both the proponents and critics of modern capitalism. On the one hand it served as a convenient tool to legitimize the market outside the sphere of an authoritarian and mercantile State and on the other; it was a tool to rationalize the sphere of individuals and associations to assert their freedom and rights.

One can see three broad varieties of definitions and interpretations of this term. There is a tradition that can be traced back to John Locke, Thomas Paine and De Tocqueville -- the liberal tradition. Though there are differing nuances within this tradition, one of the significant aspects is that civil society is considered a `natural condition' for freedom, and a legitimate area of association, individual action and human rights. Thus the notion of civil society came to be seen in opposition to the State: it allowed space for democracy and the growth of markets.

The classical political economy tradition of civil society emanated from the works of Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith and J S Mill. This stream of thinking perceived civil society as a sphere for the satisfaction of individual interests and private wants. This perspective stressed the primacy of individualism, property and the market. The third stream of civil society discourse can be traced back to Hegel, Marx, Gramsci and Habermass.

This stream can be seen as a critique of the liberal and classical political economy tradition. This perspective interpreted civil society as a historically-produced sphere of life rather than the natural condition of freedom. This tradition questioned the notion of an idealized civil society and recognized the internal contradictions and conflict of interests within civil society. For Hegel, civil society was sandwiched between a patriarchal family and the universal State. Though Hegel questioned the idealized notion of civil society, he tended to idealize a universal State. By challenging the idealization of both State and civil society, Marx argued that the contradictions within civil society are reproduced within the State. For Marx, the State is not merely an external force that confronts civil society, but the reflection of it, wherein different interest groups penetrate the State to rule. Both Hegel and Marx pointed out the role of the elite in defining the character of civil society. Gramsci emphasized civil society as the realm of public opinion and culture. It is the public sphere where hegemony is created through consent and coercion.

In the second coming of the civil society in the late-'80s and through the '90s, the predominant trend has been a resurrection of the tradition of Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith, with a doze of De Tocqueville's liberalism. The new civil society discourse is often misused as a poaching ground by the New Right to rationalise and legitimize the privatization of the public services and to reduce the State as a support mechanism to the market.

The other part of the story is that the Civil Society is also being used to denote new democratization, grassroots politics and new way for citizens' participation and engagement in the process of governance and affairs of the state. While the term Civil Society has broader social and political connotations, the tendency is often to equate the Civil Society with NGOs. The very world of NGOs themselves are very heterogeneous and with multiple institutional, social and funding power relations at play. The NGO world is increasingly looking like an Orwellian Animal Farm, wherein everyone is supposed to be equal but some are more equal than others. This becomes all the more problematic given that many of the new-generation NGOs are more like private enterprises in the public domain. The problem occurs when such groups or entities develop a universalistic claim based on an imagined or assumed legitimacy.

The various political and knowledge traditions behind the term Civil Society co-exit w and often intermingle to create new sense and meaning to the term civil society. This often makes the concept fluid and ambivalent. The new civil society discourse is also a symptom of the crisis in social theorization. Instead of looking for fresh theories to address the profound socio-political and economic transition, the tendency is to resurrect concepts and theoretical frameworks from the residue of the Enlightenment in the 18th century...

We are in the transitory phase of a new epoch. The notions of nation- state, market, civil society, reason and progress that emerged during the Enlightenment are beginning to get transformed. In the new paradigm shift, we once again go back to the lived experiences of communities and individuals to search for new ways of looking at the transition of the world. We need a new language, a new set of insights and a fresh sense of humility to look at our past, present and future. What we need is to rediscover ethical communities within our societies and the world. We can still question injustice or rights violations based on the whole range of humanizing ethical traditions.

When we have the potential to grow our own beautiful flowers and organic words, why must we be deluded by plastic flowers and words?

About the Author: John Samuel is a human rights activist and is currently International Director of Actionaid, based in Bangkok.

More Information on NGOs
More Information on Defining NGOs


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.