Whither civil society in promoting democracy

Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir | Published: 18:10, Oct 26,2017


THERE is a widespread frustration on the role of civil society in democratic transformation of state in Bangladesh. Such discontent heightens when ‘civil society’ is celebrated as a panacea for promoting development and democracy by particular quarters. The depiction of this fussy ideal form of civil society and its venerated functions in strengthening democratic polity, promoting civil rights and creating pluralistic culture, a conducive space for democratic fair dealings is, nevertheless, hardly palpable if such is contextualised in the political settlement of Bangladesh.

The despair about the failure of the civil society’s actions in transforming towards a democratic state stems from misconstrued understandings on the structural feature of organisation of politics and its bearing on the formation of civil society in Bangladesh.

The political process in Bangladesh has evolved in a particular direction, corresponding to the characteristics of political activists and the incentive-structure to reproduce the political system. The particular form of materialist incentives of primitive accumulation of resources through use of power and coercion has led to a system of clientalist political networks in Bangladesh. The process of such competition and accumulation is authoritarian in nature, takes aggressive and brutal forms, and cannot afford to withstand even muted dissent and public scrutiny, resulting in the breaking away of institutions into pieces. The process, for its perpetuation, also harbours a mutually rewarding extended network, with vertical and horizontal structure of incentives and authoritarian accountability.


Discourse and discursiveness

THE re-emergence of the term civil society in the 1980s and its wide appeal since the 1990s as an effective instrument to curve a tight grip over states and promote ideals of free market and democracy received plenty of attentions from different sides. No doubt, this reincarnation, in fact the way it was popularly used, created a valuable catchphrase that replaced the archaic ‘state versus market’ dichotomy with a new package of development prescriptions where civil society is coalesced with market and democracy. While alluring to command popular optimism and offer solid solutions, the term civil society, however, has been commonly used and over-used in simplistic, vague and elusive ways.

The term was popularised in the context of prominent role played by social groups in countering Eastern European communist states during the 1980s. But the variety of ways this term has been used to suit intellectual discourses, ideological schemes or practical needs during past few decades has been full with ambiguity as well as wishful thinking. Although there is now a load of literature and domain of discussion about what or who constitutes civil society and what are its implications for development, the exact cause and effect relationship in democratisation is still debated and left open to the imagination of people who use it. As a result, often it loses its immanence to be reduced to rhetoric. This is problematic as it obfuscates as to whether strengthened ‘civil societies’ in developing countries can foster a way out from an oppressive state and repressed society.

Despite being elusive as a change agent, civil society has commanded a great deal of emphasis as a ‘pragmatic’ tool to be used both by locals for internal mediation of power and by donor agencies and international communities for external intervention in that process. These reiterations in discourses of political and social sciences not only specify it as a political and social force that can check the exercise of power by the state but also justify its leverage in doing so. This imposed analytical foundations makes it as a very popular magic bullet in the contexts of developing countries across continents. These discussions also create high expectations about civil society as ‘an embodiment of social virtue’ confronting political vice, transecting towards the realm of freedom from the realm of coercion, enticing participation from hierarchical decadence, infusing pluralism from obscene conformity, fostering spontaneity to move out from manipulation and corruption, etc.

promoting democracy

The dominant conceptualisation delineates civil society from the state and market as a whole and refers to an intermediate sphere that includes various associations formed by citizens and variety of social organisations, besides private firms and state apparatus. Some, amongst them, qualify for the definition to include organisations that have some forms of interaction with the state. They tend to characterise types of interactions or relationships with the state in terms of ‘principles of citizenship, rights, representation and the rule of law.’ Few others regard civil society as synonymous with political society. Virtually, the ideal picture of civil society mirrors the ‘standard conception of a liberal democratic political system’ and thus warrants conventional expectation about effectiveness of its role in ensuring democratic governance.

Thus, the idea of civil society assumes the centre stage in the discussion of transition to, and consolidation of, democracy in a developing country. Standard expectation articulates that civil society are organisations and social forces that act to limit and legitimise the state. Likewise, development discourse equates sponsoring civil society organisations with furthering democratic values and quality of governance in a polity. This discourse maintains that the growth of civil society contributes to establishing and strengthening democratic regimes by creating a balance of power in favour of society, undermining excessive hegemony of authoritarian states. The argument is based on the implicit assumption that a strong civil society can ensure accountability of a regime and hold politicians and administrators accountable with sourcing pressure from an active citizenry. Additionally, civil society plays the role of an intermediary between the state and society mediating interaction between them. It often articulates and channels interests and aspirations of people to state and, thus, improves effectiveness of democratic governance. Another assertion that is frequently put forwarded is that civil society plays a crucial role in reconstituting norms and rules of a polity and as such helps evolve political culture and institutions matched with that of a liberal democracy.


Complexity and challenges

THE validity of the above arguments is fraught with terminological confusion, real world complexities and formidable challenges, stemming out of structural features of a developing country like Bangladesh. Indeed, dubbing civil society as a ‘sphere of intermediate social associations’ leaves many questions unanswered when examining its structural and empirical (ir)regularities.

Far from its conventional formulations of the ideal type — civil society may turn into anything but voluntary, autonomous, independent social associations immune from political settlement, nature of the power and incentive structures to perpetuate such political settlements. For instance, the line of demarcation between the state and the ruling regime, political party and civil society is blurred and overlapping in Bangladesh. The ‘civil’ nature of the civil society may be forfeited because of political pressure or state interference. Under constrained circumstances, civil society is co-opted by the ruling power. Notably, civil society itself is not a homogeneous entity and is usually rife with competing interests. There is no guarantee that it will represent what citizens are made to expect from it. In fact, the mode of distribution of power and resources and resultant political settlement have determined who constitutes civil society (with credible influence) and what would be its relationship with the state and the ruling party in Bangladesh.

Political settlement is defined as a combination of a social distribution of power with formal and informal institutions that is compatible and sustainable. The distribution of power between organisations typically does not allow the enforcement of many formal institutions that are modelled on more advanced countries. These institutions are informally modified or partially enforced to ensure that the distribution of benefits is in line with the actual distribution of power, and many organisations informally operate to ensure these outcomes. There are many such instances in Bangladesh.

Political settlement in Bangladesh is clientelist because of the dominance of ‘personalised’ or informal exercises of power. The informality can incorporate a wide variety of exercises of power that are responsible for the gap between the expected operation of formal rules and their actual operation. The clientelist resource-dependent networks, for perpetuating their objective of accumulation of wealth and power, are symbiotically connected at vertical layer (local, regional, and national) and are intrinsically interlinked at horizontal level with business, administration, law enforcement agencies and judicial system. For example, political party leaders employ muscle-flexing activists and musclemen to expropriate public resources and loot or deprive soft targets (minorities, indigenous people, opposition, and general people without political affiliation). The police usually do not arrest ruling party leaders and muscle-flexing activists for their wrongdoings because they are backed by the government of the day. The administration dishes away bounty to, and benefit from, the ruling political ring. The businessmen elect (if, at all, there is an election!) supporters of the ruling party to lead the business associations. The material basis of this particular form of accumulation has, thus, given birth to a nexus amongst politicians, members of the administration, the law enforcing agencies and the judicial system in Bangladesh. Such a nexus is cyclical and transient, and always houses with the party/alliance in power.

The rulers in Bangladesh are from intermediate classes. Broadly, the intermediate classes is composed of rich and middle peasants, urban petty-bourgeois and educated middle classes. These classes are different from workers, poor peasants and the illiterate unemployed in that they have a greater degree of organisational ability resulting from their better education and greater wealth. Moreover, these classes are greater in numbers than the capitalist class and the large landlords. Since the underdevelopment of capitalist class, both in numbers and in purchasing power, acts as a hindrance to its establishment of control over politics, the intermediate classes take a dominant role in political matters, and thus enjoy supremacy in resource accumulation in Bangladesh.

The variability in composition of civil society groups and nature of their relationships with the Bangladeshi state and society at large also warrants a critical scrutiny. For example, if civil society is composed of organised business groups and powerful ethnic or religious factions, they are likely to buy in political influence and pursue their own interest rather than that of what is expected by their staunch advocates. At worse, it can instigate political instability and lead to governance crisis by polarising social interests in line with the spectrum of political conflicts and even by exerting undue pressure on the state.


Deceleration and dysfunctionality

THERE is a gross mismatch between ingenuous beliefs about civil society and tell-tale reality in the country. At best, civil society is still inchoate or has become weak; and at worst, it is not functioning as per the standard expectations. The orthodox approach most often focuses on the history of state’s confrontational relations with society to explain why civil society is failing to promote functioning democracy in Bangladesh. According to this view, the legitimate role of civil society in nurturing ‘good governance’ and democratic values is undermined by the state. The point, however, is often not highlighted that the state itself is not functional in the country. This emanates from the fact that the political system is not functioning as well in the sense that it is not mobilising and representing interests of the vast majority. This is also substantiated by the prevailing nature of the political settlement that empowers and awards undue advantages and excessive rents to a select few at the expense of greater public. The resultant fragility of the state and institutions undermine autonomy and functioning of civil society and largely explains the ‘inertia, alienation and politicisation’ of social movements and citizen’s associations in the country. The breathing space for civil society organisations is increasingly being squeezed by the state as it turns more authoritarian.

Another group of conventional commentators draws attention to the fact that civil society itself has not developed or is still weak in Bangladesh and this is why it fails to fulfil the idyllic expectation about its assumed function to challenge the state’s non-democratic actions and to safeguard people’s interests. This claim begs the question that why civil society could not evolve to its vibrant functional form at the first place let alone why it fails to strengthen democratic polity in the country. An absence of an organised industrial class due to slow pace of industrialisation and emergence of no strong interest groups among farmers in a highly fragmented society may be responsible for civil society’s inability to develop as a key player in Bangladesh. Some other conformist researchers have argued that lack of financial support either from public or private sectors as well as limited initiatives or interests of organised groups have impeded the development of a strong civil society in Bangladesh. At best, however, these analyses only partly explain the inability of civil society to perform its supposed functions and shed no light on how the on-going politicisation of civil society organisations, derailing them from performing their aspired democracy enhancing functions.


Conflicting interests and co-option

CONFLICTING interests within civil society groups themselves in the context of growing politicisation of virtually all spheres of lives are seriously at odd with the standard formulation. As a result of the increasing fragmentations in civil society emulating the pattern of divisions in politics along partisan lines, the realms of social organisations are becoming assimilated within the intensifying political polarisation in Bangladesh. In such a context of deep division on a political line, social organisations fail to promote culture of pluralism or values of democracy. Hence they become subsidiary to the regime and take part in rampant rat race of divisiveness, dissipation and primitive accumulation. Patron-client politics, thus, plays a significant role as a mechanism for managing redistributive demands. These structural features explain why ‘Weberian states’ of advanced countries are nowhere in evidence in the developing world and copy and pasting of concepts is misguiding.

The Bangladeshi civil society is a mere reflection of political settlement. In case of Bangladesh, it is observed that they are, unfortunately, metamorphosing into companion of domineering state apparatus. Civil society organisations joined the rat race with political parties resulting in a kind of political settlement where primitive accumulation, loot and rampant corruption have become the norms of the day. Such rate has exasperated with further breakaways of institutions in recent times due to crisis of legitimacy of the current regime. The lack of political competition not only deprives the citizenry due to malfunctioning of the public order, emanating from chaotic space, but also due to squeezed public services, resulting from embezzlement of public funds and resources, especially impacting adversely on the poor.


Dr Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir, a professor of economics at the department of development studies at the University of Dhaka, is chairperson of Bangladeshi independent multidisciplinary think-tank Unnayan Onneshan.

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