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Christopher Bryan | Civic culture and civil society builds strong democracy

Published:Friday | December 28, 2018 | 12:00 AMChristopher Bryan/Guest Columnist

A healthy democracy depends in large part on the development of a democratic culture, which is sometimes referred to as a civil culture. A civic culture consists of the behaviour and norms that are consistent with the democratic ethos.

Civic culture is one in which citizens are free in society to pursue their interests, exercise their rights, and take responsibility for their lives.

These are personal decisions, not political ones. This requires a sense of personal responsibility. The idea and the practice of democracy must be learnt and therefore, there must be a civic-minded attitude on the part of the democratic citizens to obtain democratic education to understand the political world.

The civic culture is also one that accepts conflict and manages it with consensus. Conflict is natural in the world of differing views, but conflict must be managed through compromise, consensus and agreement that all sides accept. A civic democratic culture is the basis for a vibrant civil society. Civil society is an important foundation for building social capital. This is the capacity that comes from citizens working with each other to enhance social cohesion and thereby build social capacity. The association of life which it promotes, contributes independently to democracy - for example, the more people trust each other, the more they will work with each other in association, and the more people form associations, the more they trust each other.

A culture based on trust and reinforced through association in civil society is critical to the improvement of the democratic quality of life. Civil society carries the liberal presumption that the state is a potential threat to individual liberty. Therefore, it is in the best interest of civil society to check and limit the powers of the state over the society. Civil society should do this by forming civil activities to expose or protect against state abuses.

 

COMMUNITY WATCHDOG

 

This is why heads of government of the Caribbean in 1997 agreed to a Charter of Civil Society for the Caribbean to be developed as an important element of the community structure to be an advocate to deal with issues - citizens' rights and a watchdog to ensure greater accountability and transparency in government.

Like Larry Diamond, Professor Trevor Munroe believes that a strong democracy depends on the vibrancy of a good civil society. However, he believes one must first investigate the maturity of civil society in any democracy to discover the state and health of that democracy. To do this, he argued that one needs to look at the number of civil-society groups and the degree of participation, i.e., how involved people are.

Civil society in Jamaica seems modest in its level of maturity, and its strengthening would be one of the important conditions for improving the quality of democracy in the country. However, Munroe feels that on the face of it, Jamaica's civil society is neither strong nor weak but showed signs of strengthening in the 1990s. Some of the leading organisations, he pointed out, are the churches, Jamaicans for Justice, sporting associations, neighbourhood-watch groups and the Citizens' Action for Fair and Free Elections.

One of the studies that was important in drawing attention to advanced democracies was the study by Robert Putnam called 'Bowling Alone', which was concerned with the declining social capital in the United States (US) and other democracies. Putnam argues that a strong and active civil society is necessary for democracy. A strong civil society, he further argues, provides social capital for democracy, and social capital rests on social organisation, which in turn provides networks, social trust coordination, and cooperation for mutual benefits.

For all the talk about civil society in the 1990s, Putnam posited that social capital in the advanced democracies was in decline. In the US, for instance, he found that civil engagement had fallen for a wide membership group entering the 1990s when compared to the 1960s and 1970s.

He outlined some reasons that others have given to explain this paradox:

- More women moving into the labour force.

- The mobility hypothesis (i.e., people are moving around more and there is less residential stability).

- Marriages and divorce.

- The technological age and how this promotes leisure.

- People spending more time around television and computer and video games.

- More people are doing things alone or substituting economic capital for social capital (i.e., people are more likely to participate by giving money to a cause rather than giving their heart and energy to a cause).

The extent to which civil-society groups build bridges among members of the society, whether these groups are themselves democratic or just functioning as instruments of someone's agenda, and how effectively they promote popular participation and act as checks and balances against the State are critical issues to be measured to determine the status of our democracy.

How strong is Jamaica's civil society today?

- Christopher Bryan is a graduate of The University of the West Indies who has studied government and political science.

Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.