Examine the different challenges to civil society
Examine the different challenges to civil society
The growing importance of civil society has also brought with it a variety of constraints and pressures. In reiteration of some of the maladies that have inflicted civil society, it can be pointed out that the civil society has not been conceptualised tightly, that is why varied perspectives on its meaning, nature and composition have come to camouflage its very essence. It has been observed by Neera Chandhoke (1995, op.cit.) that just as the attention paid to the State has failed to account for civil society, the focus on civil society fails to comprehend its complex relationship with the State. For instance, in India, civil society is seen by most theorists as a volatile association of social groupings, which are based on caste and kinship linkages, or on religious mobilisation as much as on voluntary social associations. The problem with this kind of formulation, she maintains, is that it fails to distinguish between counter-civil society movements. Society, in this perspective, is collapsed into civil society. The civil society is thus being treated as a residual category, as an authentic collection of everything that is not the State. It has become a conceptual ragbag, consisting of households, religious denominations, and each and every activity, which is unconnected with the State.
Community identities, as has been observed, have always been fluid in India. This fluidity gives considerable scope for political enterpreneurs to reshape the boundary and the concerns of the identity of a community. In recent years, the process of modernisation and participatory politics and access to media, and other technological devices have actually increased the mobilisation potential and sharpened the self- image of splinter ethnic groups and sub-national identities, quite contrary to homogenising efforts of modernising elite (Bardhan, 1999).
When civil society is seen as tradition, the internal contradictions between communities and within communities are completely overlooked. Andre Beteilli (2000) argues that the well-being of modern institutions can be guaranteed only if civil societies are understood as comprising truly autonomous bodies. In the view of Dipankar Gupta (1999), there is a need to be wary of giving in to traditional solidarities and associations, as they are unfavourable to the modern institutions.
Civil society by itself therefore, observes Neera Chandhoke(2004), has no teleological virtue, unless it is accompanied both by an interrogation of the sphere of civil society itself and a project for democratising civil society. And a call for rolling back the State has no particular virtue, unless it is accompanied by a determination that the oppressions of civil society will be dismantled. The ability of civil society to prevent the State from exercising absolute control is an essential but not a sufficient condition for democracy. The existence of civil society as a sphere of participation, deliberation, dialogue and contestation is no indication of the capacities of individuals to participate in all these activities.
Critics have even pointed out the various limitations of the idea of ‘social capital’ in explaining State-society interactions in the context of developing countries. It has been felt that there are a few potential problems associated with the development of civil society institutions that would nurture social capital. Looking at the State-civil society institutions develop in an authoritarian environment and what the State can do in enabling the growth and expansion of those institutions, the emphasis is on the ‘recursive cycles’ of interaction between the State and civil society actors. Putnam’s work is derived from the historical experience of Italy that suggests that a country’s stock of social capital is inherited. Social capital with Putnam’s framework thus cannot be accumulated (Sobhan, op.cit.).
As we have read earlier on in this Unit, the civil society organisations are generally equated with NGOs. This tendency limits our understanding of a broad process of interaction among different types of organisations. The concept of civil society points out Alan Whaites (op.cit.) has been ‘grabbed’ by NGOs as one relating closely to their own natural strengths. On the surface, civil society is intimately connected with the role of local community associations or groups, and with the indigenous NGO sector. In the globalisation scenario, it needs to be kept in view that among the donor agencies, the interest in civil society has been associated with the evolution of the conditionality of aid in the 1980s. Donors have begun to re-appraise the role of civil society in providing a foundation for sustainable democracy. The combination of donor, NGO and UN interest provides the background to what has been termed as the civil society ‘grab’.
The States, as has been observed by He Baogang (op.cit.), are adopting new strategies, using NGOs for their own purposes. Some critics see the recent quests for community control as little more than a State-orchestrated managerial reform to take over institutions. Other critics view it as an interpretation between the State and community spheres that is more than genuine community control. Still others portray it as an attempt to redress profound crises that is now confronting capitalist classes. Both State-centred and society-centred approaches are now proving problematic and inadequate. Importantly, it is believed that the civil society approach is itself problematic if it does not take cognisance of global civil society.
The idea of global civil society combines elements of both anti-state and anti-nation positions. The growing size, sophistication, and influence of the Global Civil Society Organisations (GCSOs), have been facilitated and actively encouraged by one major factor-the Neo-liberal consensus that emerges from the power centres in the West. Among other things, the consensus dictates: a) The State, particularly in third world countries, should withdraw from the social sector, b) The market should be freed from all constraints, and c) Communities in civil society should organise their own social and economic reproduction and well-being. The State has been liberated from its traditional responsibilities of providing the conditions of human flourishing (Chandhoke, 2002). This stance is particularly problematic in context of ‘governance’, as the State has to assume the role of facilitator and catalyst in bringing about just and egalitarian governance. We have already read in the earlier Units of this Course that the Neo-liberal State’s roll back ideology is misplaced in the context of developing countries like India.
The vision of civil society sans a well-defined role of the State is thus replete with serious consequences, which not only weakens civil society, but also jeopardises the future of GCSOs. It has been pointed out that by drastically reducing the importance of proximity, the new technologies change people’s perceptions of community. The potential for building global civil society might come at the expense of weakened identity with one’s State and with the civil society within one’s country (Schechter, op.cit.). In the absence of a global public space and an opportunity for dialogue, robust global community may remain a distant dream.
There is a need to look into the role of media too in building civil society. It has been seen that instead of a positive role, the media many a time camouflages important issues. The mediascape, for instance in India, seems to give its subscribers a sense of collective identity and participation in public affairs. At the same time, it also reduces the discussion of vital issues to simple caricature, leaving people interconnected but dangerously uninformed. The mediascape has the power games to displace the substantive with the symbolic (The Hindu, March 23, 2003).
The developments in administration such as Public Choice approach and now the New Public Management (NPM) make an endeavour to provide alternatives to bureaucratic hegemony. But while the Public Choice perspective seeks to reduce individuals to utility maximisers and focuses on individual interest, it does not provide the mechanism for arriving at a collective general interest. The NPM, on the other hand, treats the citizens as mere clients and consumers. The Pluralistic, Communitarian, New Public Administration and Network Agency perspectives give due regard to community, non-bureaucratic institutions and values, but do not attempt to develop the idea of autonomous, self-reflective, humane and conscientious civil society with an accent on genuine public interest.
Francis Fukuyama in his original essay ‘The End of History’ (1989) offered a vision of a world purged of ideology, in which history has come to an end because there are no alternatives to the institutions of the present representative democracy and the market. The future would, be the endless repetition of more of the same, with politics centred in bureaucratic problem-solving, limited social engineering and liberal compromise (Cf Hirst, 1994).
This indeed is a very pessimistic projection of the socio-economic and political reality. If one goes by it, the alternatives to absolute State or market control over production and provision of goods seem almost elusive. A ray of hope could be democratic decentralisation, participative decision-making, and community management of resources through different civil society organisations which can surely solve the problem to some extent. Voluntarism and associationalism have been a part of the culture in the developing countries, their pertinence needs to be harnessed, more so, in the globalisation context. The very fact that the number of community organisations, voluntary agencies, self-help groups, and non-public, non-market associations has grown tremendously in the last decade is a step in the right direction.