Essay On Civil Society And Parliamentary Democracy

The role of civil society as promoter of democratic change ‘from below’ is not always as evident as some would argue.The legacy of anti-colonial struggles has meant that many states have been a progressive modernising force, compared to conservative populations.

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For my purposes, I shall use the term civil society to designate all organ-ised non-state actors, who occupy a sphere between the individual and the state, with the caveat, of course, that their relationship to the state varies widely ; indeed, some of these so-called non-state organisations are set up or promoted by the state, in part to re-organise or dis-organise civil society.

Much research has gone into showing how colonial governmentality shaped identity (see Breckenridge and van der Veer 1993 ; Cooper and Stoler 1997), and social movements founded on these state-generated categories and/or identities are then in turn posed against the state or against other groups in society.

Examples here are the Baathist state in Iraq, Nasser’s Egypt and Nehru’s India.

People’s movements or social movements are not always agents of progress or democracy, and some in fact may be both civil and uncivil.

There have been several debates over whether the concept of civil society and related concepts, such as human rights, are applicable outside Europe, though neither Europe nor Asia are homogenous entities (see Schak and Judson 2003 ; Bruun and Jacobsen 2000).

In Asia, government regimes vary, as in Africa and South America, with most countries having formal democracies, but some also under military dictatorships (Myanmar, formerly Pakistan), and one party rule (Singapore, China).

The level of freedoms that define democracy – for instance, the separation of powers, freedom of press, the nature of fundamental rights – also vary widely within the continent.

Many of the states have been victims of colonial rule, though how this has impacted their polity and civil society varies widely.

Some of the most significant political movements today are precisely over the legal recognition of the rights of the poor.

In any case, it is not clear that civil society as an autonomous sphere of rational debate existed even in bourgeoise Europe (see Eley 1992 ; Fraser 1992) ; and much of the current debate in Europe and America over the burqa and veiling, though couched in terms of separation of church and state or individual choice, simultaneously betrays primordial anxieties about immigration, and is deeply informed by Christian discourses (see for instance Asad 2003 ; Hirschkind and Mahmood 2002).


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