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[Fwd: John Samuel's column 'Straight-talk....']

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Dear Friends:

Attached herewith is the latest column "Straight-Talk" [Civil society
and other plastic phrases] by John Samuel which was published in
Humanscape in October 1999, which may be of interest to you.

Kindly acknowledge the same.

Thanking you,

Yours Sincerely

Balram Khandare
For NCAS Team.


By: John Samuel*

Introduction: The trouble with the new development discourse is that it
is cluttered with plastic words manufactured by redundant theoreticians
in think-tanks far removed from the real world. `Civil society' is one
such plastic term, imported and marketed vigorously in the development

Highlight: Anything and everything outside the market and the State can
be considered civil society. So the Islamic Taliban and Sangh Parivar
can be considered part of civil society. A mega-million non-profit
organisation such as the Rockefeller Foundation is as much part of civil

society as a small NGO. This is an interesting logic wherein sharks,
sardines and shrimps all say we are fish, though the  sharks would like
the freedom to swallow sardines and other small fish.
Illustration by: Farzana

Words are like flowers. Flowers have their own colour,  texture and
smell. Not every kind of flower blooms in every climate or soil. It's
the same with words. Their colour, texture, smell and meaning arise
organically from a particular socio-historical and cultural milieu.
When demand exceeds the supply of flowers, there arises a market for
manufactured flowers. Plastic flowers need neither soil nor climate;
they transcend space and time. They may sometimes look like the real
thing. But they can never feel like the real thing.

So it is with words in the postmodern condition. There are all too
many   plastic  words, good for decoration and intellectual
pleasantries, and little else. The predicament of the new development
discourse is that it is cluttered with plastic words manufactured by
redundant theoreticians in mushrooming think-tanks and universities, far

removed from the complexities of the real world.

`Civil society' is one such plastic term, imported and marketed
vigorously in the development market. Unless we recognise the duplicity
and delusion of plastic words, we will not groom and nurture our own
words and concepts based on the experiences and reality of the
communities in our own socio-historical milieu.

Civil society as a concept originated in 18th-century western Europe. It

was a theoretical construct useful in analysing and understanding the
emerging socio-political economy of the industrialised west in the 18th
and 19th centuries.  The concept was resurrected in the late-'80s amidst

the ruins of the authoritarian regimes of Eastern Europe. It was
born-again in the manufacturing shops of neo-liberal and
neo-democratisation ventures in the United States and Western Europe.
During the second coming of the concept, more stress was laid on
producing and marketing the civil society in different colours and
shapes, rather than on reflecting the very validity of the idea in
relation to   real-life situations and experiences. The civil society is

being paraded as the new panacea for issues such as poverty, human
rights, gender equity and `good governance'.
All of a sudden we were told that the so-called NGOs are actually CSOs
--  Civil Society Organisations. From the World Bank to the
international human rights and development organisations, all the
development-quacks now tell us  that the new mantra for redemption is
the civil society.  There is substantial funding from bilateral and
multilateral donors for the `construction' of the civil society in
Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. It's as if the World Bank has tired of
constructing latrines for the `third world'. Latrines which it has
helped to erect, which generally lie unused after three days, spreading
the smell of excreta, monuments to the World Bank's idea of development.

Do these development experts think that  constructing a civil society is

as simple as constructing toilets in slums? Is the jargon about civil
society no more than theoretical excreta? As long as there is money,
who is bothered about the difference between civil society and toilets?

The new avatar of civil society discourse raises more questions than
answers. There are four broad reasons that compel us to question the
new-found enthusiasm for the civil society:  a) As a concept, it
conceals reality and confuses people; b) It tends to idealise the civil
society while glossing over the internal contradictions in society; c)
It tends to relieve the State of its social responsibilities and seeks
to legitimise free-market, neo-liberal regimes; d) It is basically an
Euro-centric concept with universal claims that tends to strait-jacket
alternative  discourse to north-centric development models.

What is this civil society all about? Whose civil society are we talking

about? There is no one answer or even set of answers. The colour and
smell of the term will change according to the convenience of the
various proponents. As a result of such ambivalence, the second coming
of the civil society conceals more than it reveals.   Civil society, we
are told, is synchronous with democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of
choice, good governance and opportunity for economic growth. But what do

all these goodies entail? Whose democracy? Whose freedom of expression
and choice are we talking about?

The new holy trinity of the State, Market and Civil Society conceals
structural inequalities,  marginalisation and patriarchy, and reduces
complex reality into neat spaces. There is an underlying tendency to
homogenise the world according to an idealised notion of  governance
that skips the entire historical process of marginalisation and unequal
distribution of power in the socio-economic and  political arena. The
problem with such an ahistorical theorisation is that anything and
everything outside the market and the State can be considered civil
society. So the Islamic Taliban, Sangh Parivar and all such
fundamentalist formations as well as small self-help groups,
neighbourhood associations or professional groups can be considered part

of civil society. A mega-million non-profit organisation such as the
Rockefeller Foundation and Asia Foundation is as much part of civil
society as a small NGO. This is an interesting logic wherein sharks,
sardines and shrimps all say we are fish, though the  sharks would like
the freedom to swallow sardines and other small fish.

When both donor agencies and recipient NGOs say they are the dynamos of
civil society formations, it is a  bit confusing.  The difference
between the earlier NGO discourse and the new civil society discourse is

that the blanket term  `NGOs' had limited scope for homogenising and
concealing;  the notion of civil society in one sweep conceals every
unequal power relation and socio-economic contradiction in society and
at the same time manages to confuse people further. The concept also
conceals the different histories of marginalised communities outside the

western world. Another aspect of such diagrammatic rather than ethical
theorisation is the prevailing management approach to the issues of
poverty, rights and marginalisation. Such a management approach boils
down to rolling back the State and the privatisation of every social
security provision. When the global western elites prescribe the
idealised civil society as the answer to all ills, whose civil society
are they referring to?  That of the urban, educated middle class or that

of the large majority of people in villages, forest areas and slums? Is
it the civil society of the oriental `savages' or African `barbarians'
or that of the privileged global citizens flying around the world?
There is a need to understand the historical background to  civil
society. This nebulous concept had its origin in western political
theory. The pre-18th century concept  emerged in the tradition of
Aristotle,  Cicero and modern natural law. Till the 18th century, civil
society was considered "a type of political association which placed its

members under the influence of laws and ensured peaceful order and good
government". The discourse on civil society took a critical turn in the
18th century, as a corollary to the discourse on emerging capitalism as
well as liberal democratic movements. The ambivalence of this concept
is partly because it was an analytical tool used by both the proponents
and critics of modern capitalism. On the one hand it served as a
convenient tool to legitimise the market outside the sphere of an
authoritarian and mercantile State and on the other, it was a tool to
rationalise the sphere of  individuals and associations to assert their
freedom and rights.

One can see three broad varieties of definitions and interpretations of
this term. There is a tradition that can be traced back to John Locke,
Thomas Paine and De Tocqueville -- the liberal tradition. Though there
are differing nuances within this tradition, one of the significant
aspects is that  civil society is considered a `natural condition' for
freedom, and a legitimate area of  association, individual action and
human rights. Thus the notion of civil society came to be seen in
opposition to the State: it allowed space for democracy and the growth
of markets.

The  classical political economy tradition of civil society emanated
from the works of Adam Fergusen, Adam Smith and J S Mill. This stream
of  thinking perceived civil society as a sphere for the satisfaction of

individual interests and private wants. This perspective  stressed the
primacy of individualism, property and the market. The third stream of
civil society discourse can be traced back to Hegel, Marx, Gramsci and
Habermass. This stream can be seen as a critique of the liberal and
classical political economy tradition. This perspective interpreted
civil society as a historically-produced sphere of life rather than the
natural condition of freedom. This tradition questioned the notion of an

idealised civil society and recognised the internal contradictions and
conflict of interests within civil society.  For Hegel, civil society
was sandwiched between a patriarchal family and the universal State.
Though Hegel questioned the idealised notion of civil society, he tended

to idealise a universal State. By challenging the idealisation of both
State and civil society, Marx argued that the contradictions within
civil society are reproduced within the State. For Marx, the State is
not merely an external force that confronts civil society, but the
reflection of it, wherein  different interest groups penetrate the State

to rule. Both Hegel and Marx pointed out the role of the elite in
defining the character of civil society. Gramsci emphasised civil
society as the  realm of public opinion and culture. It is the public
sphere where hegemony is created through consent and coercion.

In the second coming of the civil society in the late-'80s and  through
the '90s, the  predominant trend has been a resurrection of the
tradition of Adam Fergusen and Adam Smith, with a  doze of De
Tocqueville's liberalism. Thus the ongoing civil society discourse has a

strong neo-liberal undercurrent. The new civil society discourse seems
to be a plea for the supremacy of the free market, rolling back of the
State, and the individualistic notion of human rights. Civil society has

emerged as a poaching ground for the New Right to rationalise and
legitimise  the privatisation of  the public services through the
so-called CSOs (read privatised NGOs), to reduce the State as a support
mechanism to the market and to conceal the contradictions of
globalisation. Hence there is no wonder that the so-called global civil
society convention, largely represented by big national and
multinational NGOs, had the chief executive of the biggest TNC in the
Philippines as its chief guest.

The new civil society discourse is also a symptom of the crisis in
social theorisation. Instead of looking for fresh theories to address
the profound socio-political and economic transition, the tendency is to

resurrect  concepts and theoretical frameworks from the residue of the
Enlightenment in the 18th century. The civil society discourse smacks of

the Euro-centric tradition where the `other' was the savage or barbarian

who had to be `civilised'. Adam Fergusen (An Essay on the History of
Civil Society -- 1767) explained the evolution of civil society based on

the criteria of reason, material advancement and moral progress. Thus
the notion of civil society became the measuring scale of progress and
accomplishment. The West European societies were the ideal to be pursued

by the `savages' and `barbarians' of the East or South. The
universalistic claim of the idealised north-centric conception of civil
society is due to the economic and political hegemony of the few rich
countries and the international institutional discourse controlled by
them. Such an Euro-centric conception of the world is still based on a
uni-linear notion of progress and a world-view based on `binary
opposition'. Such a tradition sees the world as `civil' and `uncivil',
`developed' and `underdeveloped', `north' and `south' and `black and
white'. The problem with such a conception is that in the enthusiasm to
paint everything black and white, all the grey shades in between are
taken for granted. It's little wonder then that the UN-World Bank
prescriptions and the WTO regime put forward the model of good
governance, civil society and human rights based on Euro-centric ideals.

Such idealisation is not only far from reality but also incompetent to
address the complexity of the issues of marginalisation, conflicts and

There is a crisis of legitimacy when NGOs are paraded as Civil Society
Organisations. The moral and political assumptions behind such a
description are very much in tune with the neo-liberal agenda. The world

of the so-called `NGO' is like a jungle: you have tigers, monkeys,
donkeys, snakes, squirrels, pigs, horses and rhinos in the NGO jungle.
To term all of them Civil Society Organisations is as simplistic as
treating all animals in the jungle as one. The NGO world is increasingly

looking like an Orwellian Animal Farm, wherein everyone is supposed to
be equal but some are more equal than others. This becomes all the more
problematic given that many of the new-generation NGOs are more like
private enterprises in the public domain, at the mercy of a manipulative

State or someone else in the hegemonic North for institutional
sustenance. The civil society title for NGOs often becomes a moral and
political rationale for appropriating the experience of communities and
the deprivation of the marginalised. To speak on behalf of all the
marginalised millions gives them a false sense of legitimacy. There is
nothing wrong with any committed organisation or group of people
speaking for the rights of others. The problem occurs when such groups
or entities develop a universalistic claim based on an imagined or
assumed legitimacy.

Historically we seem to have crossed the twilight zone of the  last rays

of the Enlightenment. We are in the transitory phase of a new epoch. The

notions of nation-state, market, civil society, reason and progress that

emerged during the Enlightenment are beginning to get transformed. In
the new paradigm shift, we once again go back to the lived experiences
of communities and individuals to search for new ways of looking at the
transition of the world. We need a new language, a new set of insights
and a fresh sense of humility to look at our past, present and future.
By resurrecting the ghosts of old concepts, we will be far  from
capturing the complexities of the ongoing transition. What we need is to

rediscover ethical communities within our societies and the world. We
can still question injustice or rights violations based on the whole
range of humanising ethical traditions.
When we have the potential to grow our own beautiful flowers and organic

words, why must we be deluded by plastic flowers and words?

*John Samuel writes on social change. He works with the National Centre
for Advocacy Studies, Pune.
To know more about National Centre for Advocacy Studies. Please visit to

our website : http://www.ncasindia.org
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11, Yogniti 18 S.V. Road, Satacruz (W), Mumbai  400 054, INDIA. Tel.:
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