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The Redeemer Cometh: The Second Coming of Civil Society

Gopi Arora

By Neera Chandhoke
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 278, Rs. 575.00


The first man who, after fencing off a piece of land, took it upon himself to say ‘this land belongs to me’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.-- Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality   There had to be a first time for starting the discourse on civil society in the closing decade of the twentieth century. A postmodern fable was needed. Capitalist modernity had reached its high watermark in ‘globalization’. It had to have its philosophical gravitas. Liberation theology was not enough. Resistance against army coups in Latin America was not enough. A climactic event was awaited. It came. The Wall came down. Brought down by human hands. The Magi had to spread the word.   First, there was the primaeval darkness of Communist tyranny and totalitarianism, a depoliticized realm of desolate political spaces of lonely, uprooted individuals looking to the Leviathan for survival and security. It was a long, long night of despair and erasure. Then, in Eastern Europe, some courageous and brave spirits came together in that black night to light a tiny flame of civil association to claim man’s right to freedom. The little flame grew into a blaze that destroyed the monstrous structures of communism and arbitrary and oppressive authoritarian rule.   The civil society, thus anointed in 1989, the Annus Mirabilis of freedom, democracy, and free markets, soon outgrew its protean shape of a space of togetherness to ask simple questions of what happens, how and why, to house myriad answers to predicaments of human societies anywhere and everywhere. Civil society as participative and deliberative democracy. Civil society as economic and social development in poor countries. Civil society as the guardian of individual and community rights. Civil society as the upholder of human rights. Civil society as the network of self-realizing, self-developing individuals engaging themselves in projects to pursue ends of the good life. Civil society as an antidote to authoritarianism of both the malign (Stalinist) and the benign (the Welfare State) varieties. In other words, as Professor Neera Chandhoke points out in her magisterial study being reviewed here, civil society has become a consensual concept, a ‘hurrah’ word, meaning all things to all people, and thereby losing all its transformative potential. It was not always so. It was once a contested concept.   Neera Chandhoke sets out to investigate the concept in all its historical, political, and ...

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