The Importance of Society in the Politics of Change

"Social movements move; state stays." This is a beautifully captured essential point about the difference of government and civil society/ social movements.

Society and Change

The discursive, in-depth and integrative, comprehensive and innovating elements of politics reside and must reside in the societal sphere. This is because it is in society where the raw and unadulterated collective actions and aspirations of the people is found. Such has been the case in the history of human politics. But what exactly makes society a harbinger of change in a given polity?

One thinker describes society as a "many splendored thing." Unlike the state where power is concentrated and defined, the society’s strength - and I dare say beauty - is its limitless means and ends. “…At its utmost range, it [society/ community] is pedagogic rather than legal; it is a school rather than a state. It is a free partnership of minds, for the exploration of all the fields of the mind; and it always retains the note of freedom, initiative and experimentation.”

Society in a democratic country naturally produces pluralist discourses. It is unstructured, hence it is characterized by decentralized and dispersed exercise power or influence, where there is no group having the monopoly of coercion. Society checks and balances itself through the dynamics of the many actors and forces that interact and interface as they engage in public affairs.

Society's power lies in its dynamism and therein lies change and progress.

Nature of the State

The State, even the reformist and 'disruptive' ones, will have to contend with the needed and expected regularity, predictability and rules-based processes of the government. It can dare to be daring but only up to some extent. Changes in the state takes time - as it should be. We have seen how drastic changes that is state-led led to disasters. It's not the nature of the state to be too disruptive because it is founded on established consensus (laws, rules, accountability controls) that will have to be observed and changed first before drastic changes take place.

Having said that, the state also need not be constant and unchanging, it need not be conservative and unresponsive. There is such thing as a “reformist” state. However, the ability and capacity of the state to be reformist lies not on its own capacity alone, but on its interface with the society, particularly society's collective actions in engaging politics, which is usually embodied in civil society and social movements.

Conflict and Consensus in State and Society

The society shares with the state that search for collective or general rationality. The state has institutional mechanisms such as elections, the courts and the executive and legislative policy-making to determine the collective/ legitimate reason. The society has the more fluid and unstructured means of discourses, dialogues and interactions. This makes it conducive for innovative, integration and in-depth analysis and discourses, where progression happens.

The power and authority of calls and actions of the social forces to influence the outcome of political processes comes from the many and varied arguments or rationalities created by its dynamic discourses. These rationalities constantly interact and interface to create stronger and formidable rationalities until a dominant reason emerges that will post a challenge to the prevailing rationality of the status quo. The more key players and actors within and outside the State are convinced with the dominant argument or rationality of the society, the more likely the course of action being proposed would prevail.

Because the state is founded on built consensus, the consensus-building that takes place in society on reforms and changes that must be introduced in the state is vital. Without such processes, the state undertaking something new could risk being the source of instability that could put to risk its legitimacy even if its intention is meant to pursue a change the benefits the people. And because the process of reform takes time, this interface between the state and society in pursuing reforms must achieve a certain level of instittutionalization with a clear accountability mechanism to ensure long-term relationship where the top - those in government - is made accountable to the societal forces and the societal forces and grassroots do not get easily disintegrate in periods of crises or transitions.

"State-Society Synergy"

The progress and capacity for reform and change in a given polity ultimately lies in that interface of state and society and the contestation, consensus and/ or synergy they engage in, build and harness over time. Both of their inherent strengths must be harnessed and not one should overpower and dominate the other.

So yes, nothing wrong with cross-overs. We just cannot afford to bleed the civil society dry of talents, expertise and warm bodies.

Yes, let us encourage people to join the government or for civil society actors to jump to government, but let's make sure we do not weaken civil society and social movements in the process.

For in the politics of change, both the government and societal forces are needed and they must be able to share power.

(Note: Some of the parts used here are directly lifted from an earlier unpublished material I wrote in March 2008 entitled 'An Empowered Argument for a People Power.")