Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Defining "Civil Society" 

The term civil society has a range of meanings in contemporary usage. It is sometimes considered to include the family and the private sphere, and referred to as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business.

The term civil society was used by writers such as Locke and Rousseau to describe civil government as differentiated from natural society or the state of nature. 

The Marxist concept derives from Hegel. In Hegel civil or bourgeoise society as the realm of individuals who have left the unity of the family to enter into economic competition is contrasted with the state or political society. Marx uses the concept of civil society in his critique of Hegel. It is used as a yardstick of the change from feudal to bourgeoisie society. Civil society arose, Marx insists from the destruction of medieval society. Previously individuals were part of many different societies such as guilds or estates each of which had a political role so that there was no separate civil realm. As these partial societies broke down, civil society arose in which the individual became all important. The old bonds of privilege were replaced by the selfish needs of atomistic individuals separated from each other and from the community.

Contemplorary Civil societies: A pluralistic  

Civil society is not a colourless or odourless gas. Civil society is not an abstract academic concept   anymore. Civil societies have colours and cultures, contexts and contours,   gender and grounds, and politics and passion.

Civil society is plural. The theory and practice of civil society is plural in concept, genealogy,  history, form, locations, content and politics. Its validity is partly   due to this plurality at its conceptual core and the sheer diversity   in its praxis. There is no single theory of civil society. And no single   politics of civil society. This fluidity and fuzziness of the term is,   paradoxically, what makes it significant.

Civil society signifies diverse arenas and spaces of contested power relations. So the contradictions   and contestations of power, culture and economy are reflected in the civil society discourse of a particular country or political context.   Civil society has now become an arena of praxis wherein theory is continually   negotiated and re-negotiated based on the evolving practice in multiple   social, economic and cultural contexts.

The idea of civil society is used for political subversion, political reform as well as political transformation. Proponents of various ideological streams from conservatism   to neo-liberalism and from liberal reformists to radical socialists   have been using the idea and practice of civil society to legitimise   their respective political projects and programmes.

This dynamism, pluralism and  diversity to a large extent shape the emerging civil society discourse   across the world. In South Asia, civil society may reflect the feudal and post-colonial tendencies within its own power spaces. In many countries of Africa, community differentiations based on tribal identities may   influence and shape civil society discourse as well.

How civil society has changed the world

If we consider civil society   discourse as a pluralist network of citizens and associational spaces   for social and political action, then one can begin to appreciate the   contribution of such discourse in shaping and influencing the politics   and policy processes in many countries and the world.

There are five specific areas   where civil society discourse and initiatives have made very important   political and social contributions. 

These are: 

a)  women’s rights 
b) ecological justice and environment protection 
c) human rights of ethnic,religious, race, and sexual minorities 
d) movements for citizens’   participation and accountable governance and e) resistance and protest  against unjust economic globalisation and unilateral militarisation.   

In fact, even in these specific areas there is a multiplicity of civil   society discourse.

However, over the last 30 years,   if women’s rights and green politics are at the centre of all political   and policy discourse, it is indeed due to the consistent mobilisation   and advocacy by thousands of organisations and millions of people across   the world. On February 15, 2003, more than 11 million people across   the world marched against the war in Iraq and unilateral militarisation.   In fact, the unprecedented, coordinated global mobilisation happened   on the same day largely due to digital mobilisation and partly due to   the rather spontaneous coordination among social movements and civil   society actors who met during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre   in January 2003.

In India too, in the last 25 years, most of the innovative policy framework and legislation happened   due to consistent campaigning and advocacy by civil society organisations.   It is the people-centred advocacy, campaigning and mobilisation by hundreds of civil society organisations in India that prompted the Indian government   to enact the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Right to Education, the new Act to stop domestic violence,   and the one aimed at protecting the land rights of tribal communities.   It is due to the efforts of women’s rights organisations and civil   society initiatives that women’s political participation and 33% reservation   for women in Parliament are at the centre of political discourse in   India.

In many countries of Asia and   Africa, civil society activism has become a countervailing political   force against authoritarian governments. It has also sought to challenge   unjust economic globalisation. This was evident in the citizens’ and   civil society struggle against monarchy in Nepal and authoritarian regimes   in many parts of the world. In many countries of Latin America, civil   society became the common ground for diverse interest groups and political   formations to act together to challenge authoritarian regimes. In fact, civil society played a key role in shaping the political process in Brazil, where social movements, progressive NGOs, progressive factions   of the church, trade unions and public intellectuals came together for   political and policy transformation. The World Social Forum process   originated in Brazil partly due to these historical and political conditions,   and it helped the transformation of state power in Brazil.

With the advent of the Internet,  digital mobilisation and relatively cheap air travel there is an increasing   interconnectedness between civil society initiatives and movements across   the world. The unprecedented mobilisation and campaigns against the   unjust WTO regime and for trade justice and fair trade demonstrated   the power of citizens’ action and mobilisation beyond the state and   market. The diverse range of mobilisation against the World Trade Organisation   in Seattle, Cancun, and Hong Kong influenced the political and policy   choices of many countries and the G20 process. The Jubilee campaign   for cancelling the unjust debt of poor countries attracted the support   of millions of people both in rich and poor countries and in remote   villages and megacities. The successful campaign against landmines proved   to be another example of civil society mobilisation and action across   the world. The World Social Forum emerged as an open space and platform   for the exchange of ideas, coordination of action, and collective envisioning   beyond narrow ideological and political divides. The emergence of a   global justice solidarity movement influenced the political process   in many countries in many ways.

A time for change:   Civil society and 

international relations

In the last 15 years, there   has been a resurgence of political consciousness in civil society. A   whole range of new associations, citizens’ formations, new social   movements, knowledge-action networks and policy advocacy groups have   emerged at the national and international level. 

This was partly due to the shift in international politics in the aftermath of the Cold War and   a consequent shift in the aid-architecture, with a stress on local ownership   in the development process. The new stress on human rights in the aftermath   of the Vienna Human Rights Summit, in 1993, gave new spaces and international   legitimacy to new human rights movements, integrating civil, political,   economic, social and cultural rights. A series of United Nations conferences,   starting with the Rio Summit in 1992, created an enabling global space   for civil society processes and organisations. The Beijing Summit in   1995 on women’s rights, the Copenhagen Summit on social development   in 1996, and the Durban Summit on racism provided a global platform   for civil society movements to advance a new discourse on politics and   public policy. The exchange of knowledge, linkages and resources began   to create a new synergy between countries and communities in the South   as well as in the North. In fact, the United Nations became a key mediating   ground between civil society and various governments.

Such a mediating role between   civil society and state provided a new legitimacy and role for the United   Nations. The new stress on human development, human rights and global   poverty created a legitimate space for global action and campaigns for   civil society. New technological and financial resources helped international   networking and a new trend of globalisation from below. As the new hegemony   of power politics driven by unilateral militarism, conservative politics   and a neoliberal policy paradigm began to dominate the world, the new   social movements and consequent civil society process became the arena   for a new politics of protest and resistance against unjust globalisation.   Such a new civil society process was driven by communities, communications   and creativity. New modes of communication, networking, campaigning   and mobilisation made civil society discourse one of the most influential   political and policy discourses in the 21st century.

There is a significant difference between the civil society discourse of the 1980s, 1990s and that of the last 10 years. Unless we understand and appreciate the multiple   political shifts at the national and international levels, it might   be difficult to understand the consequent shifts in the practice and   theory of civil society. In the 1980s, civil society was more of a conceptual   tool to legitimise and organise the protest movement against authoritarian   governments in Latin America and Central Europe. In the 1990s, the term   ‘civil society’ became an instrument of policy and politics at the   international level, supported by both aid and trade. And in the last   10 years, the idea of civil society has been increasingly contextualised   to become a plural arena of political praxis for transformative politics   in multiple contexts. The old civil society discourse was submerged   in new movements for radical democratisation, feminist politics, and   ecological, social and economic justice. It is the new emerging discourse   on civil society that seeks to address the issue of democratic deficit,   and crisis of governance.

So it is important to reclaim   civil societies -->> as plural and diverse spaces for collective human   action -- as an arena for transformative politics. The reclaiming of   civil societies would mean a reassertion of the dignity, sovereignty   and human rights of all peoples. 
  • The ethics and politics of the idea   of civil society need to be reclaimed to humanise the state, market   and the political process. 
  • There is the need to reclaim a new political   consciousness driven by freedom -- freedom from fear and freedom from   want; freedom of association and freedom of beliefs
  • The idea of civil   society needs to be reinforced by new civil values and virtues: the values of equality and justice; values that would help us fight all  kinds of injustice and discrimination -- based on gender, race, caste or creed. 
  • Civil society can be transformative when it combines the politics of protest and the politics of proposal. Civil society will become an arena that can help combine the politics of people and the politics of knowledge. 
  • Civil society becomes a transformative space when it can   help to create the politics of dissent, politics of association and   citizens’ action against monopoly of power and spaces for counter-discourse   and counter-hegemony.

State of Civil Society in India 

Civil society in India seems defined by exclusion. It is crowded with human rights lawyers and activists, NGO leaders, academics and intellectuals, high-profile journalists, celebrities and think tank-hirelings. Mass media debates never see landless labourers, displaced people, nurses, trade union workers, bus conductors being asked to speak for ‘civil society.' Though, indeed they should.

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