Hunt for elusive civil society

Civil Society

May 24, 2002

Civil society is a concept that has come back into fashion. Like "freedom" and "democracy", it seems to have multiple meanings, but always with positive connotations. Liberal thinkers claim that the conventions of civil society are the essential underpinnings for democratic politics and for wealth creation through markets. On the left, theorists hope to find in civil society the collective impulses that states and political parties can no longer mobilise. International development agencies support the self-organising associations of civil society as a means of bypassing corrupt and over-ambitious national governments. This book aims to analyse the origins of the concept of civil society in western thought and to assess its relevance for the current politics of the third world.

By the standards of edited volumes, this collection is unusually coherent in plan and consistent in quality. The editors have assembled an excellent group of authors, mostly political theorists. The first half of the book traces the development of ideas of civil society from the 17th century, with particular emphasis on Locke, the writers of the Scottish and French Enlightenments and Hegel. The second half relates these ideas to non-western countries, with chapters on India, China, the Middle East, Latin America and development policy. Generally, the focus is on theory rather than on practical politics; it is aimed at a readership of academic political theorists and development specialists.

The authors take it as self-evident that, by studying the canonical works of political theory, we can learn about how concepts such as "civil society" are understood in actual political discourse. For the most part, the link between theory and practice is unexplained. Is it, as Thomas Metzger is brave enough to claim, that profound works of theory have profound practical effects - that we are all the slaves of defunct political theorists? Or is it that works of political theory are admitted to the canon only when they are perceived as articulating understandings of politics that already exist in inchoate form?

In their analyses of the ways in which the concept of civil society has been used in political thought, the authors are able to account for its multiple modern meanings. Its core meaning, we are told, derives from Roman law. "Society" derives from the term for a partnership between individuals of equal legal status; "civil society" denotes a legal and political order construed as a partnership between separate individuals, each of whom retains his or her identity and interests, as opposed to an order based on tradition, kinship, hierarchy or power. Locke used the term in this sense to refer to a political order in which the ruler's powers depend on the consent of the ruled. John Dunn defines the Lockean sense of "civil society" as "the state liked". This is perhaps too simple, but it highlights the fact that, for Locke, civil society was not distinct from the state.

It was in the 18th century that the idea of "society", with its suggestions of secularity and voluntary association, became prominent in western thought. (Keith Michael Baker provides a fascinating statistical analysis of how the frequency with which société and cognate words were used in French texts increased over the course of the 18th century.) One strand of thinking, exemplified by Hume and Adam Smith, began to see civil society apart from politics. Civil society was viewed in opposition to traditional forms of order; it was seen as resting on relations of free association, commerce and impersonal trust rather than on kinship and patronage. From this we have inherited the idea that there is a symbiotic relationship between markets and civil society. In the 19th century, these ideas were reworked by Hegel, who gave more emphasis to the opposition between civil society and the state. A different strand of 18th-century thought, exemplified by Adam Ferguson and Rousseau and acted out in the French revolution and under Napoleon, emphasised the republican virtues of active citizenship. In this tradition, a free political order depends on the involvement of its citizens in collective self-government and self-defence. This gives us a conception of civil society in which politics is central. Luis Castro Leiva and Anthony Pagden suggest that Latin American political thinking has inherited this republican tradition - and with it excessive optimism about what politics can do.

The tension between these two ways of thinking about civil society resurfaces in the authors' discussions of how people concerned with development should direct their efforts. On one view, civil society - construed as a nexus of associations outside the control of the state - provides an alternative mechanism for the provision of the public goods and welfare services that governments previously have been expected, but have failed, to supply effectively. Geoffrey Hawthorn argues that the time has come for civil society to "give up on the state". The idea that, in a poor third world country, the state can be the agent for improving the wellbeing of its citizens is a fantasy. Thus, the collective energy of associations should be directed towards doing what the state cannot do, rather than to opposing corrupt and ineffective governments.

From a more republican viewpoint, in contrast, a healthy civil society is bound up with politics. Rob Jenkins reminds us that successful political movements are often grounded in networks of civil associations. He gives the examples of Solidarity in Poland and the African National Congress in South Africa; we might also think of the labour movement in early 20th-century Britain, or the nationalist movement in Ireland at the same time. Jenkins argues that such connections between high politics and civil society help to keep political parties responsive to citizens' interests. But, as he also points out, apparently democratic movements in opposition to corrupt and authoritarian regimes all too often transmute into networks of corruption and patronage when they succeed. While advocating support for the political movements he favours, he is happy to criticise development agencies for having supported movements that subsequently turned bad. Since Jenkins also criticises these agencies if they try to "pick winners", it is unclear what he wants them to do.

Running through the book is the question of how far civil society is peculiar to the modern period and to the West. Antony Black argues that networks of associational life, distinct from the state, religious authority and community, existed in European towns as early as the 12th century. Jack Goody makes a similar claim about the commercial cities of China and India in the medieval period. From a more theoretical viewpoint, however, Sudipta Kaviraj argues that the concept of civil society emerged in political discourse only in opposition to the absolute monarchies of early modern Europe. In pre-modern Europe and in Islamic and Hindu societies, political power was more limited and social norms were understood as natural or divine in origin. In such societies, a concept of civil society would have had no purchase.

Partha Chatterjee argues that the concept of public life did not exist for Bengalis until the 19th century. Chatterjee's sensitive essay centres on a controversy among Bengali intellectuals in the 1890s about the propriety of memorial meetings after the death of prominent people. Some saw such meetings merely as a pretentious imitation of British customs. The young Rabindranath Tagore responded by arguing that changes in the structure of social life had made new practices necessary: the idea of public life, and hence the possibility of public commemoration, was itself new to Bengal.

In a more heavy-handed essay, Thomas Metzger argues that the idea of civil society, as understood in western political thought, has never taken root in China. Metzger claims that Chinese political thought is typically "top-down" and utopian: the political ideal is seen as a society of harmony, governed by an enlightened elite. On the strength of his personal experience of what he takes to be the naivety of dinnertime discussions of politics among ordinary Taiwanese people, Metzger suggests that China lacks a tradition of "perspicacious" public debate. But he does not give us samples of the perspicacious political debate to be found in ordinary American homes. Nor does he consider the extent to which top-down and utopian ideas can be found in western political traditions too. What about utilitarian paternalism? Utopian socialism? Communism? Fascism?

All of these ways of thinking have their own canonical writers. All have been important in western politics during the past 100 years; between the two world wars, bottom-up liberalism was often viewed as passé , a hangover from the Victorian era. Perhaps the concept of civil society is not so deeply rooted in western thinking as we like to believe.

Robert Sugden is professor of economics, University of East Anglia.

Civil Society: History and Possibilities

Editor - Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani
ISBN - 0 521 63344 3 and 00290 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.95
Pages - 330

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