Secular Social Arrangement: Society and Political Economy

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The evidence of history suggests that political economies compete for hegemony seeking dominance of leadership by one nation over others.

By Aqeel Ansari

The secularist organises society to promote secular perception of life and labels it civil society. The word civil, an adjective, qualifies society. It is important to understand the qualifying adjective. Secular thinkers and scholars discuss the form and performance of civil society, but they shy away from defining it. A panel of experts at a recent World Forum meeting takes up the challenge, but it does not oblige us with a definition either. The Oxford Dictionary helps us understand the need for the qualifying adjective. The following meanings and usage are of special interest.
First, the human and his fellow are citizens in society. The word citizen originally defines one who is an inhabitant of a town or city as opposed to the peasant in countryside, especially one possessing civil rights and privileges, and later as a member of a state or an enfranchised inhabitant of a country as opposed to an alien. Second, the civil society is a legal and not a natural entity. Third, the reason for qualifying society implies a well-ordered or well-governed society by establishing social order. This usage gradually becomes obsolete and order no longer typifies secular social arrangement. Because the secular perception equates human nature to animal nature and distinguishes the human only by unmatched power of his mind, the secularist denies characterization of the rational animal by potential virtues of temperance, justice and fortitude.
The civil society is therefore a legal entity based on the mind-embodied perception of the human. Accordingly, it creates a social arrangement to establish the rule of law necessary to restrain the rational animal that is disposed to the pull of passion and greed. A body of laws is essential to deter public behavior deemed illegal. The rule of law applies the fear of punishment to secure life and property of citizens. The civil society applies division of labor to transform natural resources into commodities for creation of wealth. It therefore measures prosperity in terms of level and growth of commodities its citizens produce. But division of labor creates surplus after compensating the factors of production. And surplus is what creates wealth. Historically, civil societies allocate large amounts of surplus for civil glory. This is why they build fancy structures including castles, palaces, amphitheaters, stadiums, monuments and mausoleums. This is how prosperous civil societies build great civilizations.
We have argued at length that competition is a major secular value the secularist seeks to inculcate in the citizens as a means to gratify desires of body. The civil society thus institutionalizes competition in every sphere of its social arrangement, which practically exists as an arena where life becomes a contest. The dictionary meanings of competition include contest and rivalry. The citizens are to glorify civil society in return for the privilege it grants them to compete in the arena to become prosperous. In exchange for the privilege to compete in the arena, the citizens pledge allegiance to honor territorial integrity of a piece of earth with legally defined boundary, which keeps shifting in response to struggle for dominance of civil societies. The secularist acknowledges the pledge and elevates citizenship to the level of patriotism. A patriot renders the highest service by sacrificing his life to preserve the honor and glory of his motherland or fatherland.
You can distinguish one civil society from another by the system of its political economy, which refers to two of its major institutions, the polity and the economy. The polity defines the form of government whereas the economy defines the system of production and exchange. The history preserves many forms of polity and systems of economy. The forms of polity include monarchy, aristocracy, military dictatorship, fascism, oligarchy and democracy. The systems of economy include feudalism, mercantilism, capitalism, socialism and communism. A civil society simply pairs a form of polity and a system of economy to structure its political economy.
The Bolshevik Revolution, for example, transforms overnight the monarchy-feudal political economy of Russia into an oligarchy-communist political economy. The pair of democratic polity and capitalist economy replaces the age-old monarchy-feudal pair in Europe following the Age of Enlightenment. The polities of democracy, fascism and oligarchy together with the systems of economy of mercantilism, capitalism, socialism and communism are recent inventions, about a century or two old. The historians seek a parallel in Athenian democracy to argue its origin in ancient Greece. But equating a short-lived experiment in a city state with modern nation states in the nineteenth century Europe is erroneous, especially because the equation relates to similar and not the same form of polity.
The evidence of history suggests that political economies compete for hegemony seeking dominance of leadership by one nation over others. The struggle for dominance divides humanity into competing groups of political economies. This explains, for example, why patriots of democracy-capitalist political economy compete with patriots of oligarchy-communist political economy. Little does the patriot know that sanctifying motherland or fatherland essentially glorifies the political economy of civil society! This is how secular polities teach patriots prejudice and this is how they learn it. The history evidences inter-generational hate and violence in their relationship. This is why patriots experience conflict and anxiety regardless of the nature of political economy.
Every contest creates winners and losers, by definition. The pair of democracy and capitalism emerges as the winning pair by the close of the twentieth century. Although the winning pair is preferred, the owners of wealth tolerate a contemporary civil society as long as its political economy includes capitalism as the system of its economy regardless of the form of its polity. The monarchy-capitalist, oligarchy-capitalist and dictatorship-capitalist political economies are examples of existing civil societies in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Good examples are China and Russia where capitalism is taking the place of communism while the struggle continues to retain the polity of oligarchy.
The competition for hegemony pitches capitalism against other systems of economy. Of course, the polity of democracy also competes with other forms of polities seeking to establish the winning pair. The protection of economic interests however underlies practically every struggle for hegemony. The democratic polity wins in Europe in the nineteenth century because it pairs with capitalism as the system of its economy preferred by the owners of wealth. Separate the rhetoric from the truth and you can explain every past or present armed conflict on the globe by contest for natural resources. But the competing polities deceptively label it as a contest for safeguarding national interests. Haven’t you heard the recent oft-repeated expression, “It’s the economy, stupid?” If you wish to pursue this topic, two books [Resource Wars by Michael T. Klare (Metropolitan Books, 2001) and The War for Wealth by Gabor Steingart (McGraw-Hill, 2008)] offer in-depth analysis of why natural resources and wealth define the nature of competition for hegemony. The next several columns will discuss major institutions of political economy beginning with polity.
(The writer is based in Texas, USA and can be reached at [email protected])