Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Civil Society: The Pulsating Heart of a Country, Its Safety Valve

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Civil Society: The Pulsating Heart of a Country, Its Safety Valve

Article excerpt

Civil society has always been with us. In fact, it has been present in some way since the earliest forms of human society, although the term is of recent origin. Greek philosophers, including Plato and Aristotle, were already speaking about forms of civil society. (1) They describe citizens as persons who engage in the life of the polis and care about its development. Athenian society is never depicted as complacent or passive. They tell stories of citizens with distinct interests and a willingness to fight for them, including through public citizen forums such as the agora. (2) Yet not until hundreds of years later, in the middle of the 18th century, did a formal concept of civil society begin to be defined.

John Locke, in his Second Treatise of Government, expresses his belief that a government derives from an agreement or social contract among men who agree to give up life in the state of nature, with its risks to survival-like war and civil disturbance, in favor of a more secure life in a civil society. (3) Hegel defines it as a dialectical relationship that occurs between the macro-community of the state and the micro-community of the family. (4) Rousseau goes so far as to equate civil society with the state. (5) This discussion was reignited in the 20th century, during the 1980s, with the development of glasnost in the Soviet Union, the rapid expansion of economic globalization, and the rise of new civil movements across the world.

From ancient Greece to modern times, civil society has been present and has fostered development and stability across nations. Political theorists have shown on the basis of repeated historical experience that civil society plays a critical role in giving legitimacy to the state and also gives rise to movements that delegitimize states that do not follow or address their citizen's will. It is an engineering concept, or a feedback mechanism between citizens and governments. People everywhere have grievances, and they naturally want to air them; they want to be heard. Moreover, state policies and laws are effective only when they are endorsed and accepted by a state's citizens, so politicians who are committed to democracy and long-term stability have a vested interest in strengthening and maintaining well-founded civil societies. (6) A well-developed civil society can protect the state from economic and political crisis and can foster innovation and social improvement. In the words of former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, civil society is the oxygen of democracy as it acts as a catalyst for social progress and economic growth. (7)

But the actions of civil society can interfere with vested interests. It is therefore not surprising that many governments have sought to suppress civil society. Governments worldwide are increasingly carrying out a crackdown on civil society, adopting subtle, but deleterious techniques, which, if not countered, could over time have negative consequences for the development, as well as the stability of their nations.

Given the complexity of civil society, research on this field is lacking, and it is difficult to reach clear uniform conclusions about the importance of civil society. This paper is an attempt to lay out some of the main functions and benefits of civil society, show the ways in which governments worldwide are cracking down on it, and propose recommendations on how governments can benefit from a good relationship with civil society by permitting it to act as a valve that will let off social tensions and promote growth and social stability. But this means all voices need to be heard.

Civil Society: A Valve to Let Off Steam

Citizens have for centuries used the networks and mechanisms of civil society as a valve to let off steam and to express their concerns, interests, and wants. Every citizen has expectations of their society and political system, which, when not met, can lead to tensions, frustration, disappointment, and to a desire for change. …

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