Civil society and democracy

Anis Chowdhury | Published: 17:58, Oct 26,2017


CIVIL society gained prominence worldwide as a political force beginning in the 1980s in the context of radical changes, first of economic paradigm, unleashed by the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, and later of global geopolitics with the fall of the Berlin Wall that saw rapid transitions of authoritarian and communist regimes all over the world to democracy, described by Samuel Huntington as the ‘Third Wave of democracy’. The confluence of the victory of neo-liberal free market ideology and the triumph of democracy was celebrated by Francis Fukuyama as ‘the end of history’. To others, such as Larry Diamond, the episode of the last quarter of the twentieth century was ‘the greatest period of democratic ferment in the history of modern civilisation.’

Civil society and democracyHowever, soon the march of democracy took a turn different from Fukuyama, moving more towards Fareed Zakaria’s ‘illiberal democracy’: the rise of popular autocrats with little regard for the rule of law and civil liberties. Governments may be elected in free and fair elections, Fareed Zakaria wrote, and yet routinely violate their citizens’ basic rights. Worst still, neo-populist forces are increasingly manipulating elections and using the legislature, courts and other state apparatus to increase executive power in the name of continuity and political stability needed for development.

The cry everywhere is: what went wrong? Why could civil society, having played a crucial role in the collapse of communism and authoritarianism and in the accompanying transitions to democracy, not stop this trend despite their proliferation? Does this failure of civil society have anything to do with the way civil society has evolved or are there any structural flaws?

Answers to these questions are not straightforward. The relationship between civil society and democracy is complex. It starts with the lack of proper understanding of what civil society is.


Civil Society: philosophical strands

THE concept of civil society is not new. Its origin is in the European philosophical tradition and historically connected with the rise of capitalism and the evolution of a modern state in the Weberian sense of rational-legal structures of governance. The rule of law, implicit in the notion of a rational-legal structure of authority, is particularly important for the emergence of civil society to serve as a constructive force.

The discourse about the emergence and the role of civil society can be traced to the positions of at least four great political philosophers: John Locke, Friedrich Hegel, Thomas Pine and Alexis de Tocqueville. Their discourse concerns two main issues — first, whether civil society is primarily an economic or a sociological phenomenon; second, whether civil society is essentially autonomous of the state or state and civil society are organically linked.

Locke’s position is that the state arises from the need to restrain conflict between individuals. Locke also emphasises the need to limit state sovereignty to preserve individual freedoms derived from natural law. Therefore, there must be a social contract between rulers and the ruled to uphold the natural rights of individuals but also allow the state to protect civil society from destructive conflict. Thus, a constitutional arrangement, respected by both the state and civil society, is the cornerstone of liberal democracy.

Thomas Paine’s position is more libertarian: civil society flourishes when individuals are able to freely exercise their natural rights. Societies become civil as commerce and manufacturing expand through division of labour. In Paine’s minimalist view, as the state expands to provide order and reduce conflict, it may threaten the very liberties that cause civil society to flourish.

Tocqueville is worried not only by the prospect of a powerful state but also by the tyranny of the majority. Thus, he sees associations as the strongest bulwark against both. An active civil society made up of self-governing associations scrutinises state actions and facilitates distribution of power and provides mechanisms for direct citizen participation in public affairs, and thus, prevents revolution.

Hegel does not see civil society as a natural phenomenon and, instead, regards it as the product of historical processes. Civil society is made up of the associations that exist among various socio-economic strata with conflicting interests. Civil society stands between individuals and a legislature, and mediates their interests with the state. The conflicts that these processes cause within civil society can lead to its destruction in the absence of a strong state. Thus, the form and nature of the state is the result of the way civil society is represented. In Hegel’s ‘organic’ perspective, the state exists to protect common interests as the state defines them by intervening in the activities of civil society.

Marx, focusing on the destructive influence of the capitalist economic system, equated civil society with the bourgeoisie. But Antonio Gramsci, the leading Marxist analyst of civil society, bypasses the economic determinism of Marx, and argues that associations are the mechanisms for exercising control in society. Gramsci shifts the focus from the state to civil society as the key arena of conflict, and concludes that the control of the dominant class over society can be overturned through the development of counter-hegemonic associations.


Civil Society: ‘third wave’ discourse

THE discourse on civil society in the wake of the third wave of democratisation is influenced by Tocqueville’s view, and advanced by leading political scientists such as Robert Putnam and Larry Diamond. Putnam resurrects the notion of ‘social capital’, found in the nineteenth century discourse in the context of the Italian Risorgimento movement, which conceptualised valor sociale (roughly translatable as social capital) as the educative feature of the growth and practice of self-governing institutions.

In short, social capital refers to the normative values and beliefs that citizens in their everyday dealings share what Tocqueville refers to as ‘habits of the heart and the mind.’ These habits provide reasons and design criteria for all sorts of rules. Constitutional arrangements, laws, and regulations cannot work unless they are embedded in and reflect particular values and norms upheld by groups and communities making up a given society. ‘Civil society’, therefore, is the forum in which habits of the heart and the mind are nurtured and developed.

Putnam sees the social capital invested in associational life as the foundation for the emergence of a civic culture. Political scientists belonging to this associational school are generally optimistic that civil society can make a difference to democracy and development. Diamond, for example, believes that civil society acts to strengthen democracy by (1) containing the power of the state through public scrutiny; (2) stimulating political participation by citizens; (3) developing such democratic norms as tolerance and compromise; (4) creating ways of articulating, aggregating, and representing interests outside of political parties, especially at the local level; (5) mitigating conflict through cross-cutting, or overlapping, interest; (6) recruiting and training political leaders; (7) questioning and reforming existing democratic institutions and procedures; and (8) disseminating information.


Civil society: donor driven neo-liberal agenda

AS PART of the cold war, the protagonists of the neo-liberal ideology viewed state as not only constraining individual initiative but also an instrument or vehicle for socialism. Both Reagan and Thatcher explicitly declared state or government as part or source of the problem.

Thus, the promotion of civil society became an agenda of western donors, including the World Bank, as a strategy to bypass the government viewed as corrupt and inefficient. It was presented as a better vehicle for delivering aid and promoting local initiatives. The strategy is often couched in the terms of limiting ‘rent-seeking’ by state officials, and as part of war against corruption; but the hidden agenda is the undermining of the state deemed hostile to unfettered market forces. 

The World Bank in its 2000 World Development Report celebrated the rise of civil society as ‘assuming an ever-larger role in articulating people’s aspirations and pressuring governments to respond’ and suggested that increased pressure from civil society will prevent ‘the worst excesses of authoritarian systems.’ John Clark, who worked at the World Bank, suggests, ‘countries which are Western in outlook… are likely to have strong NGO sectors.’ In short, NGOs are utilised to legitimise World Bank-sponsored attempts to foster widespread acceptance of the neoliberal state.


Rise of NGOs in Bangladesh

THUS, Shelley Feldman observes that the growth of foreign-funded NGOs in Bangladesh is merely ‘institutionalising representation’, channelling all protest and citizen participation into the NGO sector that has become a ‘legitimised… controlled, organised arena of public debate with institutional and financial support from the donor community, [which] has come to speak on behalf of the citizenry.’ Moreover, ‘the participation of the donor community in NGO initiatives corresponds to a move toward the privatisation of resource distribution and forms of production away from locally initiated and locally controlled development activities.’

According to another researcher, Sarah White, the rise of NGOs in Bangladesh has been accompanied by a decline in state legitimacy. Gerard Clarke describes them as a ‘virtual parallel state’ while Geoffrey Wood characterises them as a ‘franchise state’, where NGO accountability is increasingly considered to be upwards to the donor rather than downwards to the grassroots, according to Akbar Zaidi.

As observed by White, NGOs in Bangladesh are increasingly adopting formal procedures required by donors and developing the conservatism and self-protection usually characteristic of State agencies. This has been compounded by the donor-funded growth of some of the country’s largest NGOs. The irony here, according to Terje Tvedt, is that strengthening NGOs may actually serve to weaken civil society.

Additionally, the NGOs in Bangladesh suffer from serious democratic deficits. They are often internally undemocratic, characterised by authoritarian or charismatic personalised leaderships. Being the major constituents, democratic deficits within the NGOs in Bangladesh further weaken civil society.

Finally, NGOs as well as professional associations are increasingly becoming divided along political cleavages. Thus, they are also losing their neo-Tocquevillean character, unable to perform the role that Tocqueville envisaged. They legitimise State actions, even when human and political rights are violated, ostensibly for the sake of promoting stability and development.


Not all hopes lost

YET, there is no reason for despair. Bangladesh has a rich tradition of active civil society. Trade unions, student organisations and professional associations historically played an important role in democratic movements. There is still neo-Gramscian civil society in the country engaged in ‘counter-hegemonic struggle’ under different banners, such as protecting the environment or rights of the indigenous peoples or workers, against state’s increasingly autocratic tendencies.

The neo-Gramscian civil society needs to unite to establish a truly sovereign, democratic, socialist and secular Bangladesh. If these four ideals could inspire the country’s liberation war, they can again unify the nation against all odds and state violence.


Anis Chowdhury, adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University (Australia), was professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney between 2001 and 2012 and held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok during 2012-2016.

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