Origin of Civil Society Ancient Period-Part 5 – Telegraph Nepal

Dev Raj Dahal, Kathmandu, Nepal

-Continued from the last issue.

The general Asian family values make the change process elite-driven and trickle-down.

In Asia social change is incremental overlapping tradition and modernity.

On the one hand citizens are loyal to authority, order and hierarchy on the other hand there is progressive erosion of this culture thus marking a paradigm shift from ritualized, clan-based, rural and customary gemeinschaft (traditional society) to detribalized, de-ruralized, class-based and urban gesellschaft (modern society) required by rapidly changing economic fundamentals, rationality, political transformation and modernization.

This shift has been propelled by information, education and science, growth of modern industrial hubs and cities and globalization.

As a result, one can see a new public sphere in the making entrenched in the democratic processes.

A basic tension, however, exists between consensus and conflict in the operation of Asian politics.

Educated citizens are mobile, skilled and cosmopolitan and exercise more choices in personal and public life.

The emerging international regime is exposing the Asian public not only into each other’s culture but also to world cultures.

Enlightened leaders have, therefore, a general willingness to accommodate sub-societal groups in a common bond of the nation-state. Another tension persists between the worlds of the elites and masses.

Many of the Asian leaders’ style can be characterized by the term patrimonial. Highly personalized leadership coexists with impersonal laws and political institutions.

It is the legacy of the traditional political system in which government is personalized and public administration is the extension of the ruler’s patronage system.

In such a polity, a powerful leader controls the political and economic life of the state, economy and society, and the personal relationships with leaders play a crucial role in increasing citizens’ personal fortune, access to power, authority and status.

Both patrimonial and soft-state characteristics signify that there is a lack of strong social discipline—where cultural norms allow the breaking of rules, infringing laws and indulging in corruption– thus a culture of impunity. Patrimonialism also reflects the problem of the institutionalization of political parties and civil society.

The social and cultural context shapes the performance of political institutions.

The competition over institutions among various political groups is more about power sharing than reshaping legitimate institutions.

In the weak and poor states of Asia a terminal gap exists in the social and political order.

Decaying democratic institutions have provoked public disengagement from politics, cross-cutting bonds of solidarity are tearing apart the political institution with new forms of identity-related ideological, ethnic, regional and communal conflicts and even melting down the civility of society.

Still, another constant source of problem is the gender gap in public and political life of Asian societies.

Here, the works of civil society have proved vital in the transformation of politics based on freedom, gender equality, identity and social justice and exonerating modern politics from primordial clutches.

In Asia, the tradition of public service differs sharply from one society to another depending on the level of modernization and the level of reconciliation between authoritarian and modernist ways to adopt the aspirations of diverse citizens.

The Asian style democracy is largely characterized by patron-client relationships, predominance of communitarian culture, personalized leadership, veneration of authority, existence of a dominant political party and a strong state system (Neher, 1994: 949-958).

In the better-developed states like Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, a basic harmony exists between the capacity of civil society to generate public interests and the ability of political institutions to fulfill them.

In contrast, in developing parts of Asia, political institutions are far behind in social, economic and technological change and political commitments of leaders outstrip the state’s capacity to deliver.

This has caused atrophy in the system. In South Asia, argumentative cultures have sustained a pluralistic tradition, values and worldviews which have animated civic life despite gross inequality.

In China, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailand a large part of society is still under the influence of geminschaft.

The smallest surviving tribe of Nepal and India, Raute, for example, is living in a stateless segmentary structure.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, the state formation process has evoked an ethno-cultural identity.

Traditional societies are composed of a large number of very similar, self-contained social units like extended families, villages, tribes and communities.

The masses of citizens are group-oriented and respectful of authority, while their leaders are more concerned with personal dignity and collective national pride.

Modern societies, by contrast, consist of a large number of overlapping social groups that permit multiple memberships and identities (Fukuyama,1999) and have a sufficient level of trust and cooperation.

As culture decides the course of political development, Asian societies, confronted with the task of setting up modern nation-states, respond to this by shaping patrimonial forms of power that please their deep mental longing for security, stability and status.

This new patrimonialism may seem authoritarian to Western social scientists, but it is a legitimate response to the citizens’ needs as it ensures community solidarity, strong group loyalties and public service orientation.

One can, however, also see emerging from Asia’s accelerating transformation some new version of civic culture that may avoid many of the forms of class conflict common to the Western civilization.

The impact of modernity in Asian politics is that the centrality of bureaucracy, dominant party system and traditional politics are eroding and giving birth to coalition politics where diverse societal interests are represented in political power and mobility of class, caste and gender is supported by the state and non-state civil society organizations.

Japan and India generally symbolize this trend.

Asian classics treasure within them valuable ideas for conserving civilized life, liberty and identity and building constructive contact among groups.

Its classical tradition offers liberal thought on learning, leadership, virtue, just and unjust wars, civility, nobility and common good.

Civic coalitions are emerging in South Korea, the Philippines and Japan and many countries to prevent the declining egalitarian culture of South East and East Asian states while in South Asia urban civil society groups “appear as the closed association of modern elite groups, sequestered from wider public life of the communities, walled up within enclaves of civic freedoms and rational law” (Chatterjee, 2004:4) while their rural counterparts are fighting neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism which have made their politics and economy winner-takes-all, callously clientelist and confrontational.

In Chinese parts of Southeast Asia and much of Latin America, social capital resides largely in families and rather a narrow circle of personal friends (Fukuyama, 1997).

This virtue is transmitted from one generation to the next through a process of socialization and political acculturation.

Social webs have created several inner circles and hierarchies where trusts circulate within inner circles while public sphere, political parties and the state remain outside the circles of trust.

In the formation of social capital religions have also played a role. The Buddhist concept of Sangha (institutions building) and Hindu system of Shastrartha (public philosophical discourse) played their role in the creation of social capital like the art of association articulated by Tocqueville.

Each civilization has produced a distinctive pattern of relations between the state and society and tied citizens’ compliance to order, authority and discipline.

In some countries nationalism is still the dominant force at the elite level, in others tribal instinct is challenging the writ of the state, still in others secular separatist movements are exposing the fragility of the state and society.

The denial of democratic rights to sub-groups of society has compelled citizens to resort to distributional, identity and rights-based conflicts.

The reason for all these is the persistence of weak mediating structures in society what Buddha calls “golden mean” whose core elements involve the satisfaction of basic needs, high level of individual freedom both in thought, speech and action, formation of decentralized society with smaller units, avoidance of a complete separation of the sacred and secular of religion and ordinary life and articulation of development in social space in a green direction (Galtung, 1993:28-31).

Asian civil society groups require a clear articulation of the “golden mean” in every sphere of life to establish the condition of habitable middle ground between liberalism and relativism, globalism and localism and cosmopolitan citizenship and nationalism.

The Impact of Conflict on Civil Society To know the complex and multiple roles of civil society in peace building, it is very essential to examine their strengths and weaknesses and their relationship with the state and market institutions.

Protracted conflict erodes the monopoly of state’s power and undermines its basic functions—preservation of human rights, law and order, voice, visibility, justice, education and health.

It also transforms social capital of pluralistic, multiethnic and multicultural societies and undermines the capacity of communities to engage in peace building.

Opposing pressures of conflict actors alter the basic functions of civil society and community and sometimes tear apart their critical support base.

The state, which defines the legal framework of civil society functions, may become strict in disciplining and controlling the organs of civil society, such as the media, NGOs, trade unions, human rights groups and professional associations thereby changing the institutional framework and reducing their freedom of action to address the multi-dimensionality of violence and their vicious tendencies.

State authorities often cast doubt over civil society’s ability to transcend urban, partisan, paternalistic and class bias and believe that they are competing with existing structures of political power backed by the financial resource of the international aid community and demanding the restructuring, federalizing, democratizing and decentralizing of the state.

The lack of monopoly of state power and inability to create autonomous structures of civil society for designing peacebuilding give reason to fear that the massive aid package will produce unintended negative effects for conflict resolution.

As a result, peace building under the leadership of civil society carries the danger of political instability.

“A democracy can only release the potential for political integration following successful political stabilization and institutional consolidation” (Wimmer and Schetter, 2002:3).

The relationship of the civil society with market institutions also undergoes substantial change with the growth of illegal proliferation of arms trade, economy of violence, money laundering, growth of the black economy, breakdown of agriculture, capital flight, extortion, theft, fraud, corruption, human and drug trafficking and providers of information to armed groups rather than providers of basic public goods and services.

Violent conflict divides citizens along the fault lines of the polity especially between the forces of change and beneficiaries of the status quo, between demands for a power equation and structural transformation, between unfair control of the economy and social justice, and between the absolutization of identity based on religion, ethnicity, class, regional and religious groupings and an identity based on citizenship.

Conflicts along these faultlines weaken their social cohesion and harmony thus stripping the citizens of power, access to resources, status and identity.

Conflict polarizes civil society sometimes making them uncivil, partisan and spoilers of peace, divides communities and destroys development infrastructures thus leaving the poor, women, disabled and children vulnerable to a deepening humanitarian crisis.

The concluding part will be published soon: Ed. Upadhyaya.

Out contact email address is: [email protected]

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