03 June 2011

'Civil Society' as a check on democracy

In the middle of another bigoted diatribe against the "Arab Spring," the Christian Islamophobe Cal Thomas pauses this week to cite an article from the New York Times, a paper that is not normally a reliable source in his mind. In this case, the article was an op-ed written by the Turko-American economist and historian Timur Kuran on "The Weak Foundations of Arab Democracy." A sentence quoted by Thomas immediately jumped to my attention: "Democracy requires checks and balances," Kuran wrote, "and it is largely through civil society that citizens protect their rights as individuals, force policy-makers to accommodate their interests, and limit abuses of state authority."

If you're like me, you might have stopped at the first clause to wonder whether Kuran (or Thomas) knows what democracy is. If anything, democracy -- at least democracy unmodified by qualifiers like "representative," -- is the absence of checks and balances, since democracy in its purest form is the citizenry acting as a single deliberative and legislative unit. Checks and balances come into play when you multiply legislative units and branches of government. The Founders, for instance, created a bicameral Congress, against the example of those states that had unicameral legislatures, because most of them believed that the legislative branch had to accommodate both the democratic (rule by the masses) and aristocratic (rule by wealth) principles, which were meant to check and balance each other. To say that democracy itself -- the unmediated rule of the majority of the masses -- requires checks and balances is incomprehensible unless what you really mean is that democracy itself requires a check on its power.

Kuran seems to believe that "civil society" should serve as a check on democracy -- in effect as a check on the state and political power itself. He is a historian of Islamic economic practices, which he believes hindered the Islamic world's economic and political development, explaining why Islam fell behind Europe in modern times. In his Times piece, Kuran makes clear that the corporation is the essential element that empowered European civil society.

Strikingly, Shariah [i.e. Islamic law] lacks the concept of the corporation, a perpetual and self-governing organization that can be used either for profit-making purposes or to provide social services. Islam’s alternative to the nonprofit corporation was the waqf, a trust established in accordance with Shariah to deliver specified services forever, through trustees bound by essentially fixed instructions. Until modern times, schools, charities and places of worship, all organized as corporations in Western Europe, were set up as waqfs in the Middle East.
A corporation can adjust to changing conditions and participate in politics. A waqf can do neither. Thus, in premodern Europe, politically vocal churches, universities, professional associations and municipalities provided counterweights to monarchs. In the Middle East, apolitical waqfs did not foster social movements or ideologies.

In Kuran's view, it is desirable for corporations to exert an influence over politics.

Arab businesses had less political clout than their counterparts in Western Europe, where huge, established companies contributed to civil society directly as a political force against arbitrary government. They also did so indirectly by supporting social causes. For example, during industrialization, major European businesses financed political campaigns, including the mass education and antislavery movements.

While Kuran may be correct about Islam's handicapping effect on Arab economies, his assertion that that specific handicap also handicaps Arab political development is troubling. While many Americans worry about corporations exerting too much influence over politics, Kuran clearly believes that they don't exert enough influence in Arab countries, if not in Muslim countries generally. While he has no blind faith in civil society in general -- he notes that "private organizations can promote illiberal and despotic agendas" -- he seems to have more faith in the benign influence of concentrated wealth.

Independent and well-financed private organizations [emphasis mine] are thus essential to the success of democratic transitions. They are also critical to maintaining democracies, once they have emerged. Indeed, without strong private players willing and able to resist undemocratic forces, nascent Arab democracies could easily slip back into authoritarianism.

For his part, Cal Thomas is just worried about Muslims persecuting Christians, fighting Israel or attacking the United States. But I wouldn't be surprised if he finds Timur Kuran a congenial thinker whose ideas could be applied in a broader, global context. Kuran sounds like a cheerleader for corporate-based "civil society" around the world. What he doesn't sound like is a cheerleader for, or even a believer in, actual democracy.


Anonymous said...

I could be mistaken, but aren't both Saudi Arabia and the UAE run by powerful, wealthy private interests? Are they democracies? Is their wealth used to benefit the people (ie, working class)?

Once again, what you have here is a vassal of corporate interest, not a free-thinking man who considers himself an equal member of a democratic society.

Samuel Wilson said...

Kuman probably wouldn't consider a royal family a "private" interest since it makes whatever money it makes off the state rather than private enterprise. He seems to believe in a combination of democracy plus "civil society" similar to the "mixed government" of democracy and aristocracy (plus monarchy in the form of the President) that many Founders envisioned for the U.S. Others might be forgiven for believing (or hoping) that democracy and "civil society" are one and the same thing.

Anonymous said...

You could argue that, since the state makes it's money through taxes and tariffs, then the royal family does leach it's wealth from private interest.

The point being, that anyone who believes that freedom and democracy are somehow tied to corporate/private interest is neither free nor democratic,

Where wealth buys power, there is no equality. Where there is no equality, democracy is, at best, stymied; at worst, non-existent.