Relationship between civil society and state

ByUmair Jalali

Teaches in The Royal Colosseum and is an avid sports fan


March 15, 2023

Relationship between civil society and state

Umair Jalali describes the Relationship between civil society and state

The relationship between civil society and state modern world is evolving into a pluralist place where different segments of the state are placed on the same axis and are expected to adjust with each other. The most crucial of these relationships is considered to be between the state and civil society. It is now widely acknowledged that a civil society is a complement to the state and that the state is directly connected with its civil society. Despite such evolution the relationship between the state and civil soci¬ety are considered antagonistic.
There are types of relationship that have emerged and the first is where the state is the major agent for the redistribution of national wealth and takes responsibility for providing and operating many spheres of collective life such as edu¬cation and healthcare. In this situation, civic organisations enter only those areas of collective life that the state does not provide with sufficient social services. Such a relationship can be observed in welfare states characterised by an extended sphere of social benefits and its theoretical grounds can be found in communitarian concepts. It is however observed that excessive welfare commitments usually lead to the learned helplessness syndrome or dependency on social benefits that converts some citizens into the welfare state’s clients and weakens the vigour of civil society.

It is mentioned that the second type of relationship refers to the situ¬ation where the state’s responsibilities are restricted to the minimum such as police, army, courts and foreign relations. The remaining part of public life is taken care of by grassroots citizens’ groups. Such a rela¬tionship stems from liberal concepts of citizenship and state. It is worth noting that where a state’s noninvolvement is too restricted, social inequalities may increase, which may lead to the marginalisa¬tion or exclusion of some segments of society. This, in turn, reduces the vitality of a civil society because for marginalised individuals, dealing with public matters ceases to be of importance, having to focus on survival.
It is also described that the third type of relationship echoes the relation between individuals and the authoritar¬ian state. It can be found predominantly in young democracies as this antagonistic relationship between citizens and the nondemocratic state is still present in the collective memory and in common cognitive structures. In this case, various organisa¬tions of civil society usually have little trust in the state institutions and vice versa. As a consequence, conflict prevails over cooperation. Over time, espe¬cially when a young democracy has completed the consolidation phase, this generalised antagonism may disappear, replaced by civic defiance focused on certain acts of a democratic state.
The usefulness of the concept of civil society has changed over time. Still there are periods where attention is drawn to other areas with the civil society itself being treated as secondary to some more fundamental issues like the rule of law, functioning of democratic state institutions, party system development and functioning. In such cases, sociological or political science narra¬tives push the concept of civil society to the background, if they refer to it at all. This happens where the subject of research is a well-consolidated democracy in at least in some of its aspects.

There are times, however, where it is discovered that the cognitive usefulness of the concept. This takes place where a stable func¬tioning and reproduction of the democratic order is disrupted and the very existence of democracy is jeopardised. This is also the case when new social movements emerge in the public sphere, contesting a particular part of reality as, for example, ecologi¬cal movements that have had an impact on political decision makers and made the public opinion sensi-tive to the consequences of environmental devasta¬tion. However, the revival of this concept can be seen most clearly in times of great historical revolu¬tions, leading to a democratic order that emerged after the breakdown of authoritarian systems, as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s.

In different theories of democracy the analyti¬cal usefulness of the concept of civil society varies. Generally, in theories that focus solely on the procedural dimension of democracy, where the problem of civic participation in public life is of lesser importance, the usefulness of this concept is less than in theories focusing on substantial aspects. In the former approach, a civil society is reduced to the so-called third sector, understood as the totality of voluntary nongovernmental associations that articulate various interests in the public sphere. In the latter approach, the useful-ness of civil society is greater as the activity of citizens in the public realm determines the vitality of democracy. Mostly the examples in this respect are the associational democracy model as well as the deliberative democracy model.

In the current globalised world coupled with the progress of technologies, transport and, most of all, means of mass communication that cover the entire world, problems that used to be of local impact such as humanitarian disasters, epidemics and financial cri¬ses now turn into global issues. These problems are addressed by governments of nation-states, international economic and political organisations such as the United Nations, World Bank and World Trade Organisation as well as private financial or industrial multinational corporations. The global governance of transnational decision-making structures creates the need to ensure civil scrutiny and to build a global civil society.

However, using the concept of civil society in a global context creates both theoretical and practi¬cal difficulties. It is true that some institutions of civil society are becoming globalised. The 1980s were a breakthrough decade in this respect, when some civil initiatives such as human rights and paci¬fist movements transcended the borders of the nation-states. They referred to global problems and demanded global solutions as well. Some of those initiatives entered the institutional phase, which resulted in the emergence of nongovernmental civic institutions of global scope like Transparency International and Amnesty International. However, the conclusion that is usually brought to notice deals with the beginnings of a global civil society that seems to be premature for a number of reasons.
In this context it is a civil society that consists of citizens to whom authorities, legitimated by democratic procedures such as elections are accountable for their decisions. Global governance cannot be equated with political power defined in this way because there is no global accountability procedure, this relationship cannot be directly transposed to the global level. There are no rules to legitimise the actions of global civil structures, as a result of which their activity faces claims of usurpation. Moreover, the emer¬gence of global civil society would require a com¬mon normative base, on which even contradictory civil initiatives could meet and operate in mutual respect.

In a global dimension, there is no such common cultural denominator. Even the concept of basic human rights is not generally recognised and is sometimes interpreted as a product of the Western culture and a tool for its expansion. The importance of global governance is rising, as is that of global grassroots civil initiatives. However, because there is no social contract on the global level, both institutions that execute global governance and global civil organisations suffer from legitimacy deficits resulting in antagonistic relationship. Despite all complications however the civil society may eventually turn out to be a useful complement and may positively contribute to the further development of globalisation. TW


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