Nowadays our news papers and media houses are often abuzz with the doings and sayings of a Pakistani civil society and their alleged representatives respectively. Recently, Civil society came to the fore in Media publications during Lawyers’ movement and since then it has maintained its heavy media presence. It is often eulogized for its efforts to constitute the rule of law by acting as a formidable barrier against military aggression and also for promoting liberal values in a failing society.
According to Samson Salamat, Director- Center for Human Rights Education- Pakistan, “Civil society in Pakistan is a vibrant structure which has led the struggle for democracy and human rights despite a wide range of challenges”.
With such intensive propaganda it becomes necessary to define the civil society in Pakistan and to study its impact on state, economy and populace. The purpose of this study is to define civil society of Pakistan, analyze its structure, mechanism, and its better appraisal.
Note: In this essay the term civil society is strictly limited to the group of people and organizations associated with it in our media (print, electronic, social). It does not equate with the whole society of Pakistan, neither does it imply that those people or associations who are not included in its domain are lacking in civility or general civic sense.
Despite such immense popularity and extensive usage in media and political circles, there is widespread ambiguity regarding the very definition of civil society. In fact many civil society organizations and people associated with them are hardly aware of the actual idea of civil society and its varied connotations. . Therefore, simply quoting cliched definitions can not do justice in defining Pakistani civil society. We often have difficulty distinguishing from What is and what should be when it comes to defining the role of any social philosophy or movement in Pakistan.
In lieu of a true theoretical definition, many functional definitions have been put forward by the representatives of civil society. Therefore, in general terms civil society can be defined as a loose conglomerate of people organizing voluntarily for common social interests outside the umbrella of state and state-sponsored institutes.
Normally, representatives of civil society in media equate civil society in Pakistan with similar movements in Europe and America in both definition and magnitude. Therefore, it is important that we take a moment and study the historical concept of civil society to confirm the veracity of this claim.
The historical concept of civil society:
The concept of Civil Society contains many inherent ambiguities which make it hard to define it in a way that can reconcile its present form with its historical roots. Since Roman and Greek era political and social theorists have defined it in uniquely distinctive terms instead of maturing their predecessors’ concepts. No two social scientists or philosophers agree on a common definition of Civil society instead the very contours and functions of this concept change dynamically with time and space.
Civil Society als politisch:
Question of Civil Society as a separate concept was developed in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe interlinked with the concepts of citizenship, liberalism and changing social and economic realities. Seventeenth-century English scholar Thomas Hobbes proposed civil society as an alternative to kingdom and church. For him its basis was entrenched in politics alone and it could not exist without the sanction of state power.
In eighteenth century Europe, a strong sense of resistance emerged against despotic absolutist monarchies. Therefore, the original concept of civil society was also molded into a Utopian anti-absolutist future society. Immanuel Kant presented the idea of “burgerliche gesellschaft” in which he described Civil Society as an organized society that is beyond the absolute power of monarch. British thinker Adam Ferguson elaborated it as an autonomous sphere, a self regulatory society in opposition to state.
Rise of capitalism and the Hegelian school:
Eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe witnessed advent of capitalism and with it the epicenter of European philosophy changed from politics to economy. Economy and market was seen to be the governing factor of both political and social problems.
Adam Smith defined civil society as a hub of economic activities which was self correcting and free of state interference. Hegel defined it as “a sphere of interests existing outside the state…individuals pursue their self interests often without regard for obligations that are considered essential for protecting the rights that all members are to be accorded.”
Karl Marx went one step further by proposing that it was not the state which regulates civil society, rather it’s the other way around.
Tocqueville and Gramsci:
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French sociologist, visited America in 1831 and was greatly inspired by a multitude of voluntary associations and ‘self-help’ societies. He disagreed with the idea of a centralized administrative state and wanted civil society to provide services which people expect from State.
The current idea of civil society in the west owes much to him and Antonio Gramsci, a twentieth-century Italian political activist who proposed a Hegelian civil society with a slight variation by placing it outside the sphere of both state and Market. It described a structure that would be outside the legal and government spheres that would counterbalance the state and act as a buffer between state and market.
After tracing the evolution of European civil society and keeping in mind our own; it becomes quite clear that the current form of civil society in Pakistan bears very less resemblance to its western counterpart. The biggest difference between European and Pakistani civil society is the absence of a natural evolution in response to the changing dynamics of the indigenous society in the case of later. The local leaders of civil society see no logical error in simply imposing the end product of a long historical process that took place in European societies over a time span of centuries on Pakistani society.
In the next section of this essay, we will analyze different components that make up the civil society of Pakistan and their brief significance.