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The age of civil society

Publication Date : 27-07-2012

 

As yet another experiment in violent "regime change" reaches its gory conclusion in Syria, the glaring contradictions of 21st-century neo-liberal democracy are increasingly laid bare.

Reports have surfaced over the past few days of significant al-Qaeda involvement in the anti-Assad uprising, making it apparent, once again, that Washington’s "roadmap for democracy" in the "Muslim world" has little relation to the needs and aspirations of that world’s people.

Yet it would be naive to ignore the fragmented reality of Syria, or Libya before it, inasmuch as there are popular forces within those societies closely aligned to external patrons who speak the language of "freedom" and "democracy". That some "freedom fighters" always turn out to be scheming mercenaries is beyond doubt. Just as conspicuous are those elements that kowtow to the Americans — or whoever else supports them — because they believe that such collaboration will lead to pro-people transformation in the long run.

In countries like Pakistan, where liberal democracy is already operative — at least in form — the civilising project is considerably more advanced. Here it is in the realm of "civil society" that freedom and democracy are consolidated. Indeed, we live in an age where the state is no longer considered the vehicle of social transformation, but rather one of the major impediments to it. An empowered citizenry operating in the realm between family and state is, we are told, the only guarantor of individual liberty, economic prosperity and social harmony.

Today Pakistanis of all stripes are jumping on the civil-society bandwagon as if it is something that previously did not exist. In fact the realm between the family and market has existed, in modern social theory at least, since Hegel first wrote about it in the early 19th century. Yet, it is only in the post-Cold-War period that the term has become part of the popular lexicon.

Civil society apparently came of age in this country during the anti-Musharraf agitation (although one should be suspicious of any idea that is popularised by our vaunted TV media). In fact, it has been celebrated and patronised by the foreign donor community since the early 1990s, and in the post-Musharraf era the love affair was confirmed.

There are numerous aspects of the civil society "revolution" that could and, in fact, need to be discussed. But I want to focus here only on how progressives who have taken the civil-society discourse to heart have helped consign an older progressive discourse to the proverbial margins. I do not want to speculate on whether or not this shift has been consciously undertaken or not. What matters is that young people growing up in today’s Pakistan are exposed to an imaginary (progressive) social transformation that is substantively different from what existed in the past.

Arguably the biggest casualty of the civil-society "revolution" is politics itself. It is increasingly rare to come across progressives who want to do politics, insofar as doing politics is understood as identifying and challenging incumbent structures of power, including the state. Instead it is now possible to be quite closely connected to both global and domestic structures of power and talk of universal "rights" while running "advocacy campaigns" ostensibly designed to ensure that all Pakistanis are brought within the ambit of established rights regimes.

I am not suggesting that the many activists working in human, gender, minority and other rights organisations have no desire to transform Pakistani society. My point is that real freedoms — rather than rights as conceived in this day and age — can only be guaranteed to all Pakistanis if there is acknowledgment of, and direct confrontation with, the rich and powerful at all levels of society (and beyond).

Not so long ago progressives talked openly about oppressed classes and nations and the need to overhaul the structures of class and national exploitation. Civil society represents an advance over these erstwhile discourses of the Left inasmuch as other major fault lines in society, particularly gender, have been raised to an enhanced level of importance.

Yet it is hard to understand why we cannot talk of class and national exploitation alongside gender and minority exploitation.

In fact, is it all that ridiculous to still imagine a world, as progressives all over the world did in the 20th century, in which all forms of exploitation can be decisively challenged?

There is, to be sure, a distinct lack of revolutionary idealism amongst young people these days. Wanton dreaming about a prospective future world in which all of humanity is given the opportunity to explore its innumerable creative potentialities is conspicuous by its absence.

For all of the flaws of leftist politics in the Cold War era, those movements did produce a large number of people who sacrificed much in their personal lives, put their heart and soul into fighting the status quo, and tried to build the society that they had read about in their little red books.

With the emergence of civil society, we are also witness to a new kind of "development worker" distinct from the political worker of the past. I do not wish to shed doubt on the commitment of those who do involve themselves in collective causes, but only wish to point out how much of an anachronism the idea and practice of revolutionary social change have become.

It would be naive to expect some kind of reversal in this regard, and it is not as if civil society or the development worker has played no role in progressive initiatives in recent times (in this or any other country). But it is not by coincidence that radical political projects are no longer on progressives’ radar screens, whereas "democracy promotion" through civil society is in vogue.

It could be that progressives in this country, like those who are consciously supporting externally sponsored regime change in the Middle East, truly do believe that pro-people social transformation is now only possible through the patronage offered by powerful liberal-democratic regimes in the Western world. Some might even call this pragmatism. I think that this is akin to completely forsaking the revolutionary imaginaries of the past. If that is pragmatism, I’d rather be a dreamer.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

 

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