It's August, and with no holiday time on the horizon, I decided to switch gears this week and visit a term which we hear all the time, though never sure of its meaning. That term is civil society'. Is the term merely another catch-all for modernity or globalization? It should not be. Russian civil society in the making may not be what we all hope for.
What is civil society and how is the term applied? There is an assumption that civil society implies some kind of liberal agenda that supports something like the following: tolerance, openness to different opinions and lifestyles, and an affinity with the majority's mindset on what broadly can be defined as politics, though divorced from the state. This means good ideas' for the individual or group the individual feels comfortable with. These ideas are very familiar and very much part of what civil society means in the West more or less. More or less because there is no real theory of civil society there are only practices. History tells us that these practices can go dangerously wrong if not thought about in a broader framework.
Beyond common usage, the concept of civil society originally comes from two sources. The first is 18th century social contract doctrine, and the second is Hegel. Social contract doctrine denotes the state of society in which patterns of association are accepted and endorsed by the members. Hegel claimed that civil society is not formed by contract but in the sphere of contract. Freedom of association is a good example. Hegel also believed that civil society had to include forms of association that are spontaneous, customary, and in general not dependent on the law.
As such, there is no template for Russia to follow. But some practices could be introduced. I worry that something like civil society is coming into being in Russia. I worry not because I am opposed to it, but because Russia's definition of civil society might only vaguely resemble it in form, and be abhorrent in content. Fine ideas are not always destined to benefit the social good.
I am not so concerned with the rise of nationalist, anti-democratic parties as I am about the discourse of nationalistic anti-democratic leanings that is becoming prevalent in most parties. This includes the Communist Party and United Russia. Vladimir Zhirinovsky's people already demonstrate a propensity for an idea of civil society embedded with ideas that are clearly anti-democratic and demagogic. The activities of the copious and studious Eurasianist intellectual Alexander Dugin are making progress. It is known that he has close relations with the Academy of the General Staff and headed an advisory group in the office of Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev.
Political parties are not the problem because they remain irrelevant. All claim to represent Russians and none do. Once a Russian-defined civil society matures, political parties in a normative sense may also come into being. In the meantime, we see more organized attacks on foreigners, football hooligans allowed to run amok and youth groups radicalized under the rubric of race and nationality. Literary groups are burning political satire they deem pornography while crassly persecuting the author in the courts. The Orthodox Church's truly bizarre Kulturkampf campaign should send shivers down everyone's spine. Are they really most interested in property and other physical assets? These people are getting organized around the principle of freedom of association, so familiar to many of us. These groups most probably look to infiltrate their ideas into the political mainstream.
On the other side of the civil society paradigm is the state or the Kremlin, which does not appear to be interested in the ideology of Russia's political parties. Its interests appear to be elsewhere.
The Kremlin remains focused on institutional power in the hand of the obstinate and rent-seeking bureaucracy. Its interest in helping to create anything resembling civil society in a Western country could not be more far-fetched. Politics in any meaningful sense is an anathema to this antiquated class, officially long forgotten but painfully experienced on a daily basis.
If we have learned anything from the Communist period, the post-Communist period, and the changes in what used to be called the Third World, it is that civil society means something very specific to different places and different times. If my memory serves me correctly, the current debate on the meaning of civil society has its origins in Poland and Hungary during the 1980s. In both countries the application of the term made sense, in trade unionism and socialist entrepreneurs. Social differentiation existed in both countries prior to communist rule and communist rule only accentuated that same differentiation.
Russia's experience could not be more different. There is no historically relevant precedent for Russians to follow. Attempting to find a precedent for Russia renders the term civil society as corporality.
It seems to me that the problem with the term civil society and how it is applied is the absence of a genuine social civility in this country. According to conventional wisdom, communist societies were atomized. This may have been true, but clearly Russia after ten years of non-communist rule is rigidly atomized under its particular form of capitalism. Most people I know in Russia inform me that civility over the last decade has all but collapsed. Maybe this is a starting point for change.
What is civility? Again, beyond the common usage, it is about the virtue of the citizen. It is about good manners that enable people to accept one another as members of a common order, and so treat one another with due regard for social well-being and what is accepted as moral rights. This is where a normative social society can find its footing for the long journey ahead. How does one teach people to be polite? That is key to meaningful change in Russia. How does one keep the forces of revulsion from using this to their advantage? Ten years on, the first steps still seem to be missing.
Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst. Email him at email@example.com.