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Infusing Civil Society With Hope for a Better World

David A. Palmer is a highly accomplished scholar who has focused considerable energy on studying Asian religions at the University of Hong Kong. He has published books on Chinese religious life and Dream trippers: global Daoism and the predicament of modern spirituality. In his conceptually rich chapter, “Religion, spiritual principles and civil society,” in Religion and public discourse in an age of transition: reflections on Baha’i practice and thought (2018), Palmer lays out the conceptual foundations of Baha’i engagement in the “public sphere of collective global discourse” (p. 37).

This concept of “civil society,” he informs us, is attractive, because it designates a sphere (or space) somewhat free from “direct state control, from market forces, and from particularistic interest groups; and that contains a great diversity of groups, associations networks, and movements that self-organize, act to improve or transform social conditions, and participate in public discourses” (ibid.).

Civil society is widely perceived as a good thing

Civil society is widely perceived as a good thing. The idea of a vibrant civil society is “pursued and promoted by international foundations, government policies, development organizations, UN agencies, and academic institutions” (ibid.). Everybody loves civil society! Well, not quite everybody. Critics have pointed out that civil society associations’ moral integrity and inclusivity are not regulated. Things can go bad. Strictly speaking, a fascist organization resides in civil society; it can paint anti-semitic signs on household doors. Civil society associations may manifest racist and sexist attitudes; they may even exclude certain people from membership.

Why, then, this “nearly universal legitimation of civil society?” Palmer observes that a host of positive values (such as solidarity, participation, volunteerism, altruism, generosity, and justice) are associated with civil society. Civil society is imagined as a “realm of freedom” where people can solve problems and “sacrifice their narrow interests for the common good” (ibid.). The reason why this can be true is that civil society contains “moral and cultural resources” to draw upon. Civil society is also hailed as a counterpoint to market and state hegemonic interests.

Palmer informs us that Baha’i teachings and its world-wide community pattern of engagement “generally predispose Baha’is to support and identify with those elements of civil society that promote the enhancement of human dignity and reinforce unity and solidarity within and among communities” (p. 38). He observes that Baha’i values such as establishing “peace, unity, and justice among the peoples of the world; overcoming racism and prejudice of all kinds; building equality between men and women; reducing economic inequality; promoting universal education; and establishing world citizenship” (ibid.) are confluent with the core values of many civil society organizations and associations. From the early twentieth century Baha’is have been active in movements for women’s rights and racial equality. As the Faith spread outside the Middle East into South America and India, initiatives and projects occurred in health, literacy, agricultural technology and grassroots education.

Four dimensions of civil society

Palmer makes an important contribution to the civil society literature by identifying four dimensions of the civil society discourse: associational, deliberative, symbolic and emancipatory. This “associational fabric” of civil society—based on “flourishing, lively groups that are spontaneously organized among the people; this is the soil and the social space in which people learn to self-organize, to work together with civility, and to cooperate across different associations” (p. 41). The central idea here is that “popular self-organization” always moves in the direction of “social progress and solidarity” (ibid.).

But, Palmer reminds us, serious dangers of idealization and romanticizing of civil society await around the dark corner.  Palmer states: “Many voluntary groups are violent, racist, extremist, or intolerable” (ibid.). This has, in turn, given rise to distinctions between good and bad society: thus, the “democratic” nature of civil society can be called into question by association in the service of xenophobia, fanaticism, violence or the suppression of women. Palmer raises the pertinent question of the values civil society associations ought to embody.

The deliberative dimension can be linked to Habermas’s notion of the public sphere (social spaces and discursive practices). In these spaces common norms, values and ideas are debated and cultivated. People can be drawn out of private and particularistic interests and converge and engage with each other. Discourses emerging from these spaces can influence political, legal and social institutions. So, deliberative civil society operates at the level of discourses and rules of discourse. The symbolic dimension: Palmer draws attention to Jeff Alexander’s notion of the “civil sphere” that develops a useful vocabulary revealing the assumptions underlying assimilation and multiculturalism. Alexander urges us to pay attention to “exclusionary binary codes” that create an exclusionary and restricted civil society.

The emancipatory dimension: “The incorporation of groups into the civil sphere represents not only the expansion of the sphere of solidarity, but also liberation from political, social and cultural oppression” (p. 44). There are different approaches to the emancipatory dimension of civil society. Gramsci’s approach sees civil society as soil to grow “countervailing forces.” A second strand set forth by Adam Michnik demonstrates how civil society activity in Eastern Europe prepared people’s consciousness and lay the foundation for the end of authoritarianism and establishment of liberal democracy.

This emancipatory dimension is infused with hope for a better world. Palmer says that civil society is “fully institutionalized and legitimate component of the liberal-democratic order” (p. 45). While these models have spread to other parts of the world, they may exist alongside non-democratic practices and traditional forms of associational life. Western-based NGOs tend to dominate funding and intermediary work.

Civil society organizations take the Western neo-liberal order for granted

Palmer suggests that “emancipatory promise of civil society” must be considered within historical and geopolitical location of global and civil societies. He points out that  Western civil society organizations take the Western liberal order for granted. Civil society organizations could defend the existing order; or, they may confront the prevalent order. Interestingly, Palmer makes the important point that most civil society organizations have no “vision of a progression beyond Western liberal democracy” (ibid.). Nor do they envision what differentiates the role of civil society in the paradigm of global governance and its imagined role in the new world order of the post-national constellation.

Thus, the Western social, economic, and economic system becomes the preeminent ideal of emancipation. Palmer says that this Western vision if flawed for two reasons: one, it falsely assumes that Western liberal democracies represent the “end of history,” and two, that the Western notion of civil society is a component of global economic and geopolitical order. This means that it is structurally inseparable from the oppression of other regimes.

Another powerful critique of Western notions of civil society is that it is used as a geopolitical tool (in provision of development aid and promotion of political reform). Palmer counsels us to account for the partisan geopolitical and ideological forces at play in shaping civil society. It is unnerving to consider that civil society discourse is integral to the “Washington consensus” of market ascendancy: NGOs and charity organizations usurp role of old grassroots movements and state. Some scholars now speak of “neo-liberal governance.”

With revolution off the agenda, NGOs settled in to professionalize and operate on grants from private foundations or international aid agencies. Now, with the state incapable of solving any problems, society could self-organize under the market and civil society. At the same time, Palmer argues, the associational fabric of civil society could apparently generate social mobilization to keep governments in check or even topple authoritarian regimes.

The contemporary normative discourse of civil society is thus closely tied with the expansion of capitalism and Western-style democracy. This means, for one thing, that civil society organizations are perceived by anti-Western forces as ushering in pro-Western democratic regimes. These latter regimes have been fought against, and Palmer thinks that in Russia, China and the Arab world, resistance has been linked with assertive authoritarianism, fractured societies or total societal disintegration. To join the pro-American camp means, these days, that one capitulates to American hegemony and radically unequal forms of social organization.

Thus, civil society organizations operating in non-Western settings find themselves in a difficult position. Even opposition groups may have to receive support from foundations and governments that have little interest in transforming the Western socio-political order. The emancipatory function of civil society can be undercut by its association with Western hegemony, which leads authoritarian regimes to strive to prevent the growth of an independent civil society, in the Western liberal understanding of the term.

For Palmer, civil society can be defined as referring to social spaces for the voluntary and expansive expression of values of human solidarity. Crucial here, then, is the linking of space with structured norms and values that define human relationships. Palmer’s seminal argument is very important: many of the shortcomings of civil society can be linked to a common problem—the “tearing apart of the values of solidarity that underpin civil society, whether caused by associations whose values, ideals, or practices are damaging to an expansive solidarity; diverse forms of public discourse; exclusionary cultural codes; or co-optation by political forces or geopolitical interests” (p. 48).

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Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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