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On why Team Hazare is not Civil Society


The time has come (no this is not what the Walrus said) to get to the bottom of the meaning of Civil Society.  It is a phrase that is being used consistently to describe the group of people who have Anna Hazare at the helm.  First of all let me simply say that the group of people around Anna Hazare are just that, a group of people.  They are not "civil society".  So let me explain why.  Much as people would abhor what I am going to say, civil society as a phrase does have very technical connotations which have been diluted in the context of everyday society in India sometimes by no less a person than the Prime Minister himself.  To call any group of people or non-governmental organizations (especially in India), civil society groups is if anything scandalous.


If one has to get a correct understanding of what "civil society" is, one will have to begin with the British thinker John Locke.  Most political theorists would consider John Locke to be the first person to have used that expression in the modern period and his usage comes from his agreement on a few things that he had with his predecessor, Thomas Hobbes. Thomas Hobbes underlined the need of a powerful state to maintain civility in society. For Hobbes, human beings are motivated by self-interests . Moreover, these self-interests are often contradictory in nature. Therefore, in state of nature, there was a condition of a war of all against all. In such a situation, life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” . Upon realizing the danger of anarchy, human beings became aware of the need of a mechanism to protect them. As far as Hobbes was concerned, rationality and self-interests persuaded human beings to combine in agreement, to surrender sovereignty to a common power. John Locke agreed to an extent with Hobbes' views but disagreed on the idea of surrendering rights and sovereignty to a common power (the Leviathan as Hobbes called it). In Locke’s view, human beings led also an unpeaceful life in the state of nature. However, it could be maintained at the sub-optimal level in the absence of a sufficient system . From that major concern, people gathered together to sign a contract and constituted a common public authority. Nevertheless, Locke held that the consolidation of political power can be turned into autocracy, if it is not brought under reliable restrictions . Therefore, Locke set forth two treaties on government with reciprocal obligations. In the first treaty, people submit themselves to the common public authority. This authority has the power to enact and maintain laws. The second treaty contains the limitations of authority, i. e., the state has no power to threaten the basic rights of human beings. As far as Locke was concerned, the basic rights of human beings are the preservation of life, liberty and property. Moreover, he held that the state must operate within the bounds of civil and natural laws. So here it is amply clear that civil society was tied to the political society or the state and this was at the time when capitalism was just coming into being and when it held the promise of a society that would be better than the one the feudalism held.


The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau disagreed with Hobbes and Locke.  In his work Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Rousseau starts by distinguishing two kinds of inequality, natural and artificial, the first arising from differences in strength, intelligence, and so forth, the second from the conventions that govern societies. It is the inequalities of the latter sort that he sets out to explain.  He like Hobbes suggests that original man was not a social being but entirely solitary, and to this extent he agrees with Hobbes's account of the state of nature. But in contrast to Hobbes' view that the life of man in such a condition must have been "poor, nasty, brutish and short," Rousseau claims that original man, while admittedly solitary, was healthy, happy, good, and free. The vices of men, he argues, date from the time when men formed societies. Rousseau thus exonerates nature and blames society for the emergence of vices.  Civil society, as Rousseau describes it, comes into being to serve two purposes: to provide peace for everyone and to ensure the right to property for anyone lucky enough to have possessions. It is thus of some advantage to everyone, but mostly to the advantage of the rich, since it transforms their de facto ownership into rightful ownership and keeps the poor dispossessed. It is a somewhat fraudulent social contract that introduces government since the poor get so much less out of it than do the rich. Even so, the rich are no happier in civil society than are the poor because social man is never satisfied. Society leads men to hate one another to the extent that their interests conflict, and the best they are able to do is to hide their hostility behind a mask of courtesy. Thus Rousseau regards the inequality between men not as a separate problem but as one of the features of the long process by which men become alienated from nature and from innocence.  So for Rousseau there is nothing nice about civil society as such.  But the high priest of modern thinking Hegel had a conception of civil society that was a little different.


Hegel completely changed the meaning of civil society, giving rise to a modern liberal understanding of it as a form of market society as opposed to institutions of modern nation state. Unlike his predecessors, the leading thinker of the Romanticism considered civil society as a separate realm, a system of needs, that stood for the satisfaction of individual interests and private property. Hegel held that civil society had emerged at the particular period of capitalism and served its interests: individual rights and private property. Hence, he used the German term "burgerliche Gesellschaft" to denote civil society as "civilian society" – a sphere regulated by the civil code.For Hegel, civil society manifests contradictory forces. Being the realm of capitalist interests, there is a possibility of conflicts and inequalities within it. Therefore, the constant surveillance of the state is imperative to sustain moral order in society. Hegel considered the state as the highest form of ethical life. Therefore, the political state has the capacity and authority to correct the faults of civil society.  After Hegel, Karl Marx seems to return to what Rousseau was saying.  I will quote Marx from the German Ideology where in his attack on Feuerbach he had this to say.


"The form of intercourse determined by the existing productive forces at all previous historical stages, and in its turn determining these, is civil society. The latter, as is clear from what we have said above, has as its premises and basis the simple family and the multiple, the so-called tribe, the more precise determinants of this society are enumerated in our remarks above. Already here we see how this civil society is the true source and theatre of all history, and how absurd is the conception of history held hitherto, which neglects the real relationships and confines itself to high-sounding dramas of princes and states. Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the State and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality, and inwardly must organise itself as State. The word “civil society” [bürgerliche Gesellschaft] emerged in the eighteenth century, when property relationships had already extricated themselves from the ancient and medieval communal society. Civil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social organisation evolving directly out of production and commerce, which in all ages forms the basis of the State and of the rest of the idealistic superstructure, has, however, always been designated by the same name".  Marx is crystal clear, so I will desist from doing an exercise in paraphrasing or writing a commentary on what he had to say.


What we have seen so far actually shows a  negativity towards the notion of civil society.  That changed a little when the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville looking at American society believed that there should be a civil society that will stop the political society or the institutions of the state from becoming despotic or autocratic.  Similarly within the Marxist tradition too the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci attempted to imbue the notion of civil society with some positive meaning.  For Gramsci the state is not to be understood in the narrow sense of the government; instead, Gramsci divides it between 'political society', which is the arena of political institutions and legal constitutional control, and 'civil society', which is commonly seen as the 'private' or 'non-state' sphere, differentiated from both political society and the economy. The former is the realm of force and the latter of consent. He stresses, however, that the division is purely conceptual and that the two, in reality, often overlap.  Despite his claim that the lines between the two may be blurred, Gramsci rejects the primacy attributed to the state that results from identifying political society with civil society, as was done by the Fascists (Gramsci was originally a supporter of Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party but broke ranks when he realized the true nature of Fascism). He believes that the proletariat's historical task is to create a regulated society and defines the withering away of the state (a phrase used by Lenin in his State and Revolution) as the full development of civil society's ability to regulate itself.  Another disagreement regarding the notion of civil society within the Marxist stream came from Jurgen Habermas (though he is no longer a Marxist) who believed that Marx was making a fundamental mistake in simplifying his thought as per the base-superstructure model and now argues for the creation of a public sphere which is different from the state.  I will desist from writing about things technical and take this discussion to the question on hand "does Hazare's movement qualify to be called civil society"?


From the technical point of view it is obvious that there is no sustainable way in which Hazare's movement can be called civil society.  Even from the points of view of common sense if civil society groups are to be taken as those that have a reasonably large membership and have a charter according to which they perform, Hazare's group does not qualify to be called civil society.  First of all it is not registered and does not have a name  and does hot have a charter or programmes for the welfare of anyone or anything.  Maybe animal rights groups such as PETA or non governmental organizations working for some form of development among some sections of society will qualify to be called civil society groups.  But the danger is that by that yard stick many sectarian and anti-social groups can also be called civil society which is a contradiction in terms.   It is obvious that Hazare pops out every once in a while with an anti-political society agenda and starts fasting, without even offering his side for discussion and deliberation among members of society in general.  He has a couple of people who will stand by him and dictate terms to a government elected by the people. Before you brand me as a Congress party loyalist or supporter of corruption I ask you to consider this question.  "Have public institutions or institutions of political society been created explicitly for the perpetuation of corruption in any form"?  If that is the case then it is imperative that this whole order itself by dismantled.  If that is not the case then why these institutions become what they have?  It is obviously the people who man the institutions who are corrupt and not the institutions themselves.  So what is the guarantee that a Lok Pal (who is again a person) will be immune to avarice and greed or fear?  And what is the basis on which the Lok Pal comes into being?  Popular election?  In that case anyone can contest and become Lok Pal just as money power can make MLAs and MPs.  If not on what grounds does one justify a person occupying this office in a democracy where people's mandate is required in some form or another?  Can you have an appointed post that overrides posts that have people's mandate?  I know Arvind Kejriwal has made some stupid posers such as "is the prime minister" elected?  Of course he is, not as a prime minister but as a member of parliament who is then chosen as PM by other elected members and not like the draconian Lok Pal that Hazare Team (that is the name that they have given themselves) wants to unleash on the people of the country.  The middle class is willing to be a guinea pig for the Hazare Team's experiments with undermining democratic principles.  When will lessons be learnt?  In India, the answer seems to be 'never'.