Dev Raj Dahal, Kathmandu, Nepal
The German concept Bürgerlicher Gessellschaft, (bourgeois society) is commonly interpreted in English as civil society, a concept related to the freedom to speak and associate without fear.
Ancient Greek Thinkers – Socrates, Plato and Aristotle— intimately fused society and the state into a political community, the polis.
For them, freedom meant the freedom to participate in the polis, to speak truth to power, to form a political opinion, to cultivate self-confidence, to live in dignity in opposition to the conformity perpetrated by the regime and to endorsing a common good.
Socrates believed that a good life could be achieved through rational debate over differing views of individual and social needs rather than through a cycle of deadly conflict.
The culture of dialogue, free from any domination, constitutes the basis of democratic practice.
The pursuit of good politics has helped define the civic responsibilities of citizens in the political design of civil society. Greek democracy, however, was bourgeois in nature.
It excluded women and slaves from the public sphere.
There is, however, a great tradition of historically specific political thought, from Socrates to Jürgen Habermas and the roots of civil society could be traced in this tradition.
The Roman orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) spoke of civilis societas, to refer to civil society.
He argued that civilis societas should guide political affairs through philosophical persuasion rather than violence and championed the rational autonomy of citizens.
He affirms: “Justice is one; it binds all of society and is based on a single law.
The Romans were primarily interested in defining peace as the absence of armed conflict against external enemies.
In the Middle Ages, Saint Augustine (345-430 AD) and Thomas Aquinas saw civil society as a natural part of human life. They spoke clearly about civil virtues, the civic virtues of citizens, the role of the State and the Church in relieving people’s difficulties, nurturing a common sense of justice, serving citizens equally and civilly, what whatever their rank, their religion and their birth and preserve the peace.
Martin Luther and John Calvin also contributed to the idea of civil society. Critics of feudal domination of society based on class, rank and status, they argued that citizens should be free to choose their own religion while extending charity and service to the community.
Centralized civil rule has been developed in Europe since the 16th century. From this century, the reform movement began to fuse the legalistic culture of the Romans with the Greek instinct for freedom.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) began the age of reason, the absolutist state and the liberation from superstition.
This helped to erode the traditional immunities and privileges given to certain groups in society and marked a shift from society based on inherited status towards renewable social contracts.
Hobbes asserted that in the state of nature, citizens considered themselves equal to all others and, in competition for scarce resources, lived in a society of fear, insecurity and eternal conflict.
He believed that life without an effective state to preserve public order would be “lonely, poor, mean, brutal, and short”.
To achieve peace and the right to life, he proposed a social contract by which citizens would seek a new basis of statehood in which the civic virtues derived from natural laws would suffice to curb excessive opportunistic behavior and murderous ways of express their grievances.
The state, which Hobbes called the Leviathan, once created by popular consent, would tolerate no threat to the peace of society but would bind individuals together through their relationship to a common authority.
The Peace of Westphalia codified in 1648 ended religious wars, granted state sovereignty and moderated the norms of an anarchic international system.
John Locke is the prime mover of representative democracy which lent legitimacy to the natural equality of men, equal subjection to law and majority rule and held that civil society exists in a condition where all the members of the society are governed by a constitution.
His social contract theory set limits on the power of the state by granting fundamental constitutional rights (liberty and property) to citizens and distributing the powers of the state.
Locke championed the rights of individuals to assemble, form associations, form relationships of their own choosing in religious matters, and rationally pursue their self-interest, but excluded the poor and women from the rights of citizenship.
He did, however, see the need for an international social contract to overcome an essentially anarchic system of competing states, war and tyranny where statesmen are driven to promote national security.
A more specific narrative about civil society emerged early in the development of liberal democracy in the 18th century.
It opposed absolutism, articulated modernity and tried to establish well-defined links of citizens with the state.
The philosophical discourse focused on political life, informed and rational communication, contesting particular histories of diverse societies, and the general interest of the nation-state.
Civil society grew out of intellectual efforts to occupy a public space within which modern and traditional types of association could engage the rational public in the formation of public opinion without resorting to violent conflict.
The emergence of the public sphere symbolized for many as an ethical social order that mediated the transition from feudalism to capitalism and from individual interest to social good and contributed to a value of democratic political culture, such as self-discipline, tolerance and a passion for compromise. .
Jean-Jacques Rousseau ushered in the Age of Enlightenment in the mid-1700s and attempted to create a new social order where civil society would provide a condition of equality and freedom for all, regardless of position, wealth, and power.
“The transition from the state of nature to civil society produces a remarkable change in man; it puts justice as a rule of conduct in place of instinct, and gives actions the moral quality they lacked before” (Rousseau, 2000: 45).
If citizens want to make the common good their first priority, the social contract can make mutual protection and peace possible.
He sought a balance between the individual pursuit of happiness and the community’s right to collective well-being and believed that the state is the arena for defining the nature of the common good.
He saw civil society emerge when all citizens were willing to bow to the general will.
Rousseau’s book The Social Contract became a source of inspiration for the American and French revolutions by popularizing liberty, equality and fraternity as inalienable and universal human rights and by seeking to transform arbitrary authority into rational authority subject to the will general of citizens.
These elements challenged the ideology of the ruling class on behalf of humanity as a whole and defined the core values of modern civil society.
Scottish Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century – David Hume, Thomas Paine, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith— analyzed the realities of their time, such as the expansion of property rights, science and communication, industrial development, free trade, education and the bourgeoisie’s demand for public space against the state sovereignty.
The growth of formal institutions, constitutionalism, impersonal ties of self-interest, unfettered rationality, secular ideology, and economic and legal interdependence have contributed to a powerful new social formation we call civil society.
This civil society was different from the pre-modern tribal society glued by family values, kinship, blood, lineage, tradition, and ritualized ideology because it shared political power with the state on political matters.
Enlightenment thinkers made a clear analytical distinction between state and civil society and thought that the power of a segmental, ritual-based tribal society to generate broad association for political action is weak because it is generally based on a strategic balance of exclusion, inequality and conflict.
They therefore pushed the boundaries of civil society beyond the state to capture the emerging internalization of economics, technology and ideas and downplayed the potential for conflict.
Adam Smith believed that moral sentiment and sympathy rather than self-interest united individuals to act together within institutional arrangements and provided the true basis for the well-being of all.
Smith believed in bourgeois wisdom and the virtues of honesty, diligence and prudence and believed that this social shortcut was the most effective means of preserving ‘the peace and order of society’ (1966: 332).
Enlightened reason is the basis of Immanuel Kant’s civil union or civil society.
He believes that civil society is the representative symbol of a cosmopolitan citizenship, membership of which is determined by their free will.
The Kantian version of civil society trumps state sovereignty based on a rigid bureaucratic organization of industrial society.
His vision of perpetual peace (1795) involved a world parliament of free states, bound together 9 by a pact renouncing wars and by which citizens and states would negotiate to coexist nonviolently, create democracy, interdependence economy and their pacifying effect on interstate relations.
He affirms: “The civil constitution of each State will be republican and the war will be declared only by a plebiscite of all the citizens”.
This is why Kant conceptualized the notion of “democratic peace” as a condition for bringing harmony between human beings, the state and the international system.
George Hegel conceives of civil society as a sphere between the family and the state.
The nature of this sphere is self-constituted, self-defined and self-maintained by citizens and, therefore, exists independently of the state. Industrial production, the expansion of trade and the social capacity for wealth enable the formation of identity.
His narrative of civil society is dualistic in nature: as the isolation of citizens from one another in competing businesses, religious groups, clubs, work groups and institutions and as a space where tradition and ethics of a society are produced and reshaped.
The propensity for statism in Hegel’s analysis is unequivocal. He argues that civil society must subsume the ultimate demands of the state as it mediates between the competing interests and claims of civil society and prevents violent conflict.
Democracy in America (1835-1840) by French sociologist Alexis de Toqueville offered a modern analysis of American society and argued that Americans based their actions on two main concepts: individualism and equality. Individualism is important for nurturing creativity while equality is a tool for negotiating social differences and challenging hereditary privilege.
# Thanks to the distinguished author Mr. Dev Raj Dahal: Upadhyaya N. P
The second part will be published soon.
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