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A fine balance

Only an equipoise between state, market and civil society can produce a 'good society', writes TK Oommen

Civil society is a term in wide currency not only in the social sciences but also in everyday conversations in contemporary societies. Yet it cannot be asserted that the term has acquired the required level of clarity. Why is it so?

For one thing, the notion of civil society is of recent origin; it originated only in the 18th century. For another, it developed in association with a particular class -- the bourgeoisie, and its characteristic activity. For example, for Marx and Engels, civil society “…embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals…”, it is “…the social organisation evolving directly out of production and commerce and it… is the true source and theatre of all history”. The fundamental flaw in Marx’s conception of civil society however is its reduction to the capitalist mode of production.

Tocqueville too conceptualised civil society as the theatre of private interest and economic activity, but he distinguished it from ‘political society’ in which he included activities undertaken by political parties, local self-government, religious groups, moral crusades, literary and scientific societies, the press, professional and commercial organisations, clubs and associations for recreation, etc. But taking into account contemporary developments, it is more appropriate to designate Tocqueville’s political society as civil society. Why?

Contemporary societies stand on three relatively autonomous but necessarily interdependent pillars -- state, market and civil society. Therefore, instead of encapsulating the market, that is, the economy, into civil society, it is more relevant to consider it as falling “…between the economic structure and the state” as proposed by Gramsci. But the precision that Gramsci obtained by bifurcating the economic structure and civil society is lost through his conceptualisation of state, which incorporates both political society and civil society. In Gramsci’s rendition, political society is the arena of coercion and domination, and civil society is that of consent and direction. But the incorporation of civil society into the state robs the latter of its legal autonomy and the former of its real purpose, namely functioning as a countervailing power to the state as and when required.

John Keane’s perspective accords well with this: “Without a secure and independent civil society of autonomous public spheres, goals such as freedom and equality, participatory planning and community decision-making will be nothing but empty slogans. But without the protective, redistributive and conflict-mediating functions of the state, struggles to transform civil society will become ghettoised, divided and stagnant, or will spawn their own new forms of inequality and unfreedom.” But it is necessary to bring in the third dimension -- namely economy/market -- to inform contemporary societies with the required completion.

What I am suggesting is that for an adequate understanding of civil society the discussion on the conceptual trilogy of state, market and civil society is an imperative because of their intricate interrelations. Limitations of space prevent me from undertaking this task, but it is absolutely necessary to characterise the three entities in terms of their contents. The state encapsulates parliamentary institutions, courts, government bureaucracies and defence forces. The market refers to the arena of production, exchange and consumption of goods and services. Civil society consists of political parties, voluntary associations, the media and the wide variety of non-government organisations. Each of these entities -- state, market and civil society -- operates in reciprocity while retaining its autonomy.

It is necessary to dispel a widely held naïve notion about civil society at this juncture -- namely that it is always and necessarily positive in its orientation. This is a simplistic view. Just as a state may be democratic or authoritarian, and the market could be competitive or monopolistic, civil society will invariably consist of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ or ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’ elements. The position that negative and authoritarian elements should be exorcised from society is a laudable one, but freedom of expression and association cannot be denied to any collectivity in a democratic society. What is available to men, secularists, brahmins, bourgeoisie or nationalists cannot be denied to women, believers, dalits, the proletariat, religious fundamentalists or homosexuals. However, one can insist that all social groups should pursue their goals through legitimate and peaceful means. This is the fundamental requirement of civil society in an open democratic society.

Another crucial clarification needs to be made about civil society. In conventional understanding, the acknowledged hero of civil society was the individual. However, all individuals were not entitled to the freedoms of civil society, be it ownership of property or exercise of franchise. In fact, only property-owning males were given these entitlements in the beginning although these privileges are extended to all, irrespective of gender, class, religion, caste, race, language, tribe and other identities. But if individuals are denied equality precisely because they belong to particular groups, these groups, as groups, should be recognised as inhabitants of civil society. To ameliorate group-based deprivations we need to consider them as units of policy formulation and implementation.

Such steps may not be required in all societies. For example, if a society is only stratified along gender, age, class, rural-urban differences and the like, by extending individual-based equality to all, a firm foundation for the crystallisation of civil society can be laid. But if a society is heterogeneous, consisting of race, religion, caste, language, tribe and the like, the principle of equality of opportunity in itself will not lead to the formation of a robust civil society. For this to happen, the identity of the traditionally disadvantaged groups should be taken into account. That is to say, the idea of groups surrendering their identity in order that they be treated as equal individual citizens is no more an acceptable one. Citizens insist that they be allowed to retain their group identity but at the same time be entitled to all the privileges of citizens. This is the conundrum between equality and identity which renders civil society an intricate and complex entity.

With this general understanding of civil society as a space between the state and market as well as the recognition of the need to maintain reciprocity and autonomy between the three entities, let us look at the situation in independent India.

Broadly speaking, there were two competing models of society when India achieved political freedom. One model was that of the capitalist democracies of the West. These polities had evolved gradually on the principle of separation between state, market, and civil society. The underlying assumptions of this separation were the following. First, the state is a coercive agent and is motivated by power. Therefore, the process of acquiring and exercising power should be well-defined and checked through legal mechanisms. Second, economic activity is motivated by material incentives and is to be regulated by market mechanisms in terms of free exchange of goods and services. Third, civil society is the space for free voluntary activity for citizens, between the state and market, the zone in which a variety of political actions could be initiated to moderate the potential authoritarianism of the state and the likely rapacity of the market. In the West, state, market and civil society emerged successively and each of these spheres acquired a certain level of autonomy.

In contrast to the separation principle of capitalist democracies, socialist states functioned on the institutional principle of fusion of the state, market and civil society. The party-state monopolised all powers and regulated the market and civil society. From the command economy of the socialist state, the market disappeared and civil society was absorbed by the state. The conjoint activities of the one-party system and its numerous front organisations came to be christened ‘people’s democracy’.

In the beginning, capitalist democracies were mainly concerned with creating congenial conditions for their citizens to pursue their preferred pattern of life, protecting them from external aggression and providing them with internal security. But the emergence of socialist states, which put the economic welfare of citizens on the state agenda, posed major challenges to capitalist democracies. Understandably, 20th-century capitalist societies reinvented themselves as welfare states wherein civil society assumed an important role. What were considered to be the private worries of individual citizens became public issues to be handled by the state. Most of the colonial states became politically independent by the mid-20th century and took over the agendas of socialist and welfare states in different combinations. And India was no exception.

Independent India opted for what came to be characterised as the ‘third way’, that is, combining multiparty democracy, one of the distinctive features of capitalist states, with a planned economy, the hallmark of socialist states. This was indeed a challenging experiment in that the best of both models were attempted to be incorporated into one model. However, it was planned economy and state-centrism that assumed salience in the first three decades of independent India. The state promoted economic development and initiated a series of measures to introduce and institutionalise people’s participation. The state thus partly took over the functions of the market and the role of civil society, and occupied the commanding position.

However, by the 1970s a large number of protest movements and civil society organisations started interrogating the development goals as they diluted, if not abandoned, the thrust of distributive justice. Some of them criticised the state-initiated ‘destructive development’ leading to a ravaging of the ecology and argued for sustainable development. Prominent among civil society actors were women, students, dalits, adivasis, religious minorities, rural poor, urban slum-dwellers, and ecologists. They heralded a new beginning and manifested a new stirring -- the emerging vibrant civil society. However, only a few were explicitly anti-state; quite a number only wanted the state to adhere to the constitutional vision. For its part, the state responded by declaring a larger role for civil society.

For example, the Seventh Five-Year Plan (1980-85) document recognised that the Plan “…can be implemented successfully only with the involvement of the people. The Plan proposes to do this through effective steps for the decentralisation of planning and development administration as well as by increasing the involvement of voluntary agencies on the implementation of Plan programmes, particularly in the rural areas”.

While those civil society organisations involved in development activities invariably worked in close collaboration with the state, those that interrogated the state were mainly opposed to its predatory tendencies. The declaration of internal Emergency during 1975-76, the manner in which Operation Blue Star was conducted in 1984 in the Golden Temple and the failure to punish those who whipped up anti-Sikh sentiments resulting in large-scale violence, the failure to prevent the dismantling of the Babri Mosque in 1990, the Gujarat carnage of 2002, and the recent (2008) anti-Christian violence in Orissa are some glaring examples of the failure of the state and civil society, not to mention preventing recurring religious, linguistic and caste violence.

The point I want to make is that state authoritarianism and violence occurring in civil society are two sides of the same coin. On the other hand, a non-violent civil society and a democratic state reciprocally reinforce each other.

It is far from my intention to suggest that civil society emerged in India only three decades after India became independent. Indeed, civil society in India has a long tradition of anti-establishment mobilisation. However, two points are to be noted: one, the state and civil society reinforced each other in many contexts in independent India, and, two, the two entities also became estranged and functioned as enemies in several contexts. There are several implications of this, some of which are noted here.

First, collective mobilisation, an important dimension of civil society, can be anti-state or pro-state. Which of the orientations particular collective actors partake in depends on the actions of the state and their impact on specific groups and communities.

Second, the agenda of civil society may undergo substantial changes over a period of time depending on the demands people make, which are anchored to the nature of their deprivations. This may lead to the emergence of different political parties and civil society organisations with differing, even contradictory, orientations, rendering the relationship between the state and civil society complex and complicated.

Third, if some of the elements in civil society become explicitly pro-state they may lose their legitimacy in the eyes of the wider public. Conversely, those elements of civil society that oppose the state without rhyme or reason are likely to experience an erosion in their credibility. That is, an equipoise in the relationship between a democratic state and civil society is a prerequisite for maintaining the authenticity of both.

Fourth, the liberal understanding that civil society occupies the space between the state and the family is not necessarily correct; family may also become part of civil society depending on what transpires within it, ranging from incest taboo to dowry deaths. This in turn obliterates the distinction between the private and the public. The private space can remain so only if its inhabitants perceive that the institutions concerned are just and fair to all of them.

Fifth, it is wrong to characterise the state and civil society as monoliths. If they are internally differentiated it is quite possible that the nature of relationship between the different elements within them also vary. For example, if the Indian state is conceived as a multi-layered system -- federal/union, state/provincial, district and panchayat -- it is likely that civil society’s relationships with different levels of the state are different.

Sixth, the enemies of civil society are not always external to it; some of them could be internal as well. Internal rivalries between the different elements that come to constitute civil society may adversely impact on its capacity to challenge the state.

Having noted the complexity of the state-civil society relationship in independent India, it is necessary to recognise the fact that these two entities gradually and progressively insisted on their respective spheres of autonomy. But the story of the market is almost the reverse. The Bombay plan of 1944, conceived by a few captains of Indian industry, wanted state intervention in planning, financing and managing industrial development. But it may be noted here that the ‘economic nationalism’ articulated in India had two slants. While the big bourgeoisie wanted protection from the state vis-à-vis their foreign counterparts, the small bourgeoisie from different linguistic regions wanted state protection from the big Indian bourgeoisie. This internal tension within the Indian bourgeoisie impacted on the functioning of civil society.

The dilemma civil society faced was to choose between big (all-India) and small (regional-linguistic) bourgeois camps. Generally speaking, civil society organisations mobilised in favour of regional-linguistic elements, that is, the ‘sons of the soil’, manifesting in regional, linguistic, tribal and/or caste groups. In contrast, the state in India favoured the big bourgeoisie, although the rhetoric of curbing monopolistic tendencies was loud. The restrictions imposed on private companies did not produce the intended results as licensing favoured big business. Not only that, the disparity between rich and poor in the population widened; even the absolute proportion of the population below the poverty line increased. These developments prompted the liberalisation of the economy, conceding considerable autonomy to the market. Thus, while civil society struggled to wrest autonomy from the state, autonomy was bestowed on the market by the state.

The implications of the progressive reduction in state-centrism and autonomisation of civil society and market may be noted here. First, the state is increasingly compelled to share its sovereignty not only with the national market and civil society but also with other powerful sovereign states and global institutions. Second, while the market in India has achieved a certain degree of autonomy vis-à-vis the state, the Indian market’s autonomy is substantially eroded at the instance of the global market. Third, civil society has to fight its battle on two fronts, the state and the market.

The process of autonomisation is likely to produce new alliances between the different spheres. The state and civil society may be compelled to become allies to protect the interests of the consumer vis-à-vis the rapacious market. Similarly, the market and civil society may have to conjointly confront the state so as to get citizens’ entitlements implemented by the state. Finally, the state and market may have to cooperate to moderate the violent tendencies erupting in civil society. The point to note is that none of them -- state, market and civil society -- is likely to remain without blemish and, therefore, privileging any one of them irrespective of the contexts and contents of their actions would be a rash and unsustainable pre-judgement. Indeed, only an equipoise between them can produce a ‘good society’.

(Dr T K Oommen is Professor Emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and former President of the International Sociological Association. His two dozen books include Nation, Civil Society and Social Movements: Essays in Political Sociology, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009