Mar 30, 2011

Revisiting Civil Society

By Dev Raj Dahal

Civil society has to take up the policy agenda of progress, climate change and post-conflict peace-building as they affect the citizens most and are important for building a viable future for Nepal.

'Without civil society, democracy remains an empty shell; without civil society, the market becomes a jungle.' - Michael Ignatieff

The progressive life of general society is rooted in sabhya samaj (civil society) or the Homo cogitans (home of knowledge). It provides democratic impulse within societies to survive, and abide by the laws of their own existence. The spirit of civil society has, therefore, inflamed the spark of enlightenment values of freedom, equality, solidarity, ecological justice, and peace within citizens. These values stoke the free will of jagrat manushya (awakened human beings). As an agent of social change, the dharma of civil society is to de-traditionalise the general society and work for its continuous reforms and renewal. This helps to mediate the system and the life-world and removes the evils that divide them. The terrain of civil society is different from the general society as it espouses political character, rationalised and cosmopolitan. It seeks to eliminate all forms of privileges from public life and public policy and opens up possibilities for citizens to become cultured and creative human beings liberated from noble savage (an idealised concept of uncivilised person).

People are not only place-bound individuals but also citizens and human beings entitled with constitutional and human rights. Their orientation to gyan marg (knowledge), karma marg (work), and bhakti marga (devotion and feeling) other than self-interest defines their virtue and higher will. Constant engagement of civil society in educating people about knowledge, life-skills, and resources helps them realise those rights and perform public duties. In Nepal, where the tradition of civility is ancient and embodies in the diversity of national life, modern civil society has to shore up the heritage of multiple nirwan (enlightenment) derived from Janak, Vedas and Gautam Buddha and internalise the utility of the rationalist and scientific tradition of modernity inspired by Immanuel Kant, who brought philosophy to serve human beings. The project of emancipation formulated in terms of a future egalitarian society in response to the critique of current conditions of Nepal requires civil society's creative roles in building this post-conflict nation. The society's claim of state sovereignty and citizens' awareness about global enlightenment help contextualise policies and generate a common ground for the resolution of identity, ideological and interest-based conflicts. Civil society in such a context needs to cultivate the following strategies:

First, a way forward for social transformation requires Nepali civil society to free itself from the nation's cycle of decadal political change. George Santayana has rightly said, "Those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it? Historical and cultural ignorance leads one to the blindness of contextual knowledge. This means firstly, civil society as an embodiment of reason and capable of achieving self-consciousness, must instill historical awareness of the need to respond to the changing aspirations of Nepali citizens, not just the interests of the present generation but also to inter-generational justice. Secondly, civil society should broaden the binary code of politics steered by friend and foe and aim for a new social contract, a workable constitution owned by all citizens. The binary code of politics based on single unit determinism such as class, ethnic, gender, territorial, and ideological division is destabilizing as it does not establish democracy's optimal values of the inclusion of the Other, but maximises one at the cost of other.

The transformation of working people into multi-classes - white, blue, and green collar workers, professionals, and self-employed citizens and unfolding of multiple identities offers the possibility to transcend the binary political mode. But emancipation of workers requires the production of the necessities of life. This helps to overcome alienation, necessity and dependence. Third, the historical crisis in Nepal's reformist politics reflects the weakness of civil society to uphold the golden mean of politics defined by Gautam Buddha -- and the capacity of mediating agencies of society to open up reforms in each generation of citizens and the rational articulation of political life. Buddha rightly advocated the liberation of human beings through knowledge, not through faith only. Fourth, the organic formation of civil society in Nepal is essential to free itself from barrowed existence and open a debate in the public sphere about the democratisation of state power, economy, and international system and exhort the leaders to execute the people's mandate for a new constitution, remove gaps in governance between security and development and promote citizens' welfare to consolidate democratic gains. The democratic outcome presumes a qualitative transformation in the patterns of orientation, attitudes, values, and beliefs of citizens to inspire the hope and enthusiasm of the poor in the polity. A positive outcome of civil society's works can constructively contribute to the creation of a civic culture. Overall transformation of the political culture of the day, however, will demand habit-breaking, innovative and visionary policies rooted in the changing spirit of the yug dharma, the zeitgeist.

Second, national leadership in the various spheres of decision-making such as political leaders, citizens? representatives, planners, and policy-makers, need to open up their mind to social learning of the changing nature of citizens' rights in order to seek to institutionalise those rights, inspire civic participation, initiate socio-economic reforms and institutional transformation. Institutional transformation does not come from the system; it comes from alternative leadership and vision provided by genuine civil society and grassroots organisations. The social pressure for institutional opening is broadening the social base of political parties. Good signs are now visible on the nation's horizon as the social movements of Nepali citizens across the party lines are fostering inner-party democracy and representation of their interest in various layers of party committees and their articulation in constitution, laws, and policies. A rational collective action of civil society can restructure the nature of work and offer a favorable environment for citizens' demand for better working conditions, dignity, and standards of living. This will support the vital energy needed for broadening the public space and energy for state-building from below, constitutional stability, national security, rule of law, and supply of public goods. A genuine democratic transformation of the Nepal's parties, however, will also require arresting the social diversions underway and synergising all the centripetal forces and resources for a rational reconstruction of the future order.

Third, Nepali society has undergone a shift from Gemeinschaft (community governed by religion, custom and folk life) to Gesellschaft (society governed by rights, laws and contracts), hierarchical status to citizen equality and natural will to rational will driven by the forces of modernity. Federations of many civil society groups are struggling to moderate the hierarchal systems of production, appropriation, and control. The economy of tomorrow will be horizontal as it will remove the boundary between the worker and boss by a culture of partnership. But the key propellers of modernity, such as education, economy, technology, institutions, and leadership process are not yet sufficiently rationalised in Nepal to achieve a breakthrough. The civil society, in that context, has to play a pro-active role in familiarising itself with the vision of tomorrow's economy and the imperative of citizens to cope with it. A certain set of incentives for free collective bargaining and codetermination of public interest are preconditions needed for the equal development of multi-classes of Nepali society and solidarity of citizens of both formal and informal sectors. Social stability, moreover, requires bridging the gap between the knowledge class and the working class citizens for a shared future. Civil society in such a context can serve as a bridge between the two if it is capable of removing its own self-contradictions and enforce democratic accountability.

Fourth, confronting a cascading series of problems requires that all the systemic causes be known in their entire context for resolution. Civil society has to take up the policy agenda of progress, climate change and post-conflict peace-building as they affect the citizens most and are important for building a viable future for Nepal. The solidarity of civil society with the general society at large can bring essential inputs for policy reforms. Similarly, the promotion of a strong public sphere for opinion and will formation can rectify subversion of the general will by the private interests of power, money, and media and radiate the trust across empirical divides of the nation. It helps to bridge the gap between citizens in the informal and the formal sectors of the political economy by networking, widening, and deepening the possibility for inclusion, representation, modernisation, and collective action.

Fifth, and finally, social transformation driven by the country's competitive position in the world economy cannot be strengthened without increasing the quality and productivity of economy, education and technological application to address the unmet demands of citizens arising out of new social stratification, new social formation, gender equality and new challenges and overcome the turmoil of modernity. In the changed context, civil society must strengthen its capacity for modernisation and contribute to the modernisation of Nepal's democracy, economy and polity.

(Dahal is head of the Nepal office of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES). He can be reached at:


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