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Why Civil Society is Crucial for Liberals

Welcoming Remarks by Mr. Manfred Richter, Member of the Board of Directors of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty (FNF) at the International Conference: "Civil Society in Europe and the Arab World – Towards a Sustainable Dialogue" – Potsdam, June 3, 2010

The subtitle of our event says it all: This is not a one-off event. It is rather designed as the beginning of a "sustainable dialogue", a series of meetings that we want to continue and sustain here in Germany, but also at various other venues in countries of the Arab world.

The participants, representing a wide array of NGOs, come from several Arabic countries, Central and Eastern Europe, and Germany. We see this as a major opportunity for a lively exchange of ideas on different political, economic, legal and cultural framework conditions for civil society as a whole and for concrete local action.

Why do we, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty, think this is a matter of central importance? I believe my following introductory remarks will make it sufficiently clear why the theme of civil society is so crucially important to our foundation’s work.

Not long ago, a journal stated that "civil society" had gained the status of a "new celebrity in the arena of popular buzz words". Indeed, positive associations such as common good, self-organisation, commitment etc. have substantially contributed to the rise and popular success of this concept. Today, hardly any single political news report, article about a social problem, any speech about citizens’ engagement and public spirit will not at least mention this term of "civil society".

In the meantime, this concept has found its way into many programmes and party programmes both on the left and the right. Such programmes will almost inevitably mention the forces and the relevance of civil society.

A report issued by the "Maecenata Institute", an institution of the Berlin Humboldt University committed to researching and teaching about topics of civil society, states it in a very concise manner for the year 2005:

"Civil society is becoming a generally accepted mainstay of international debate in Germany, too."

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the word was used primarily in technical debates on democratic theory, for example when it came to a redefinition and strengthening of civil engagement. In the meantime, it has left the narrow arena of scientific debate and has penetrated both the public bureaucracies and the limelight of politics and the media. This concept comes today inseparable from programmes, funding applications and guidelines for international developmental aid and cooperation as well as current political reports.

And yet, similar to so many other popular fads, "civil society" is seen with a "certain haziness", depending on the socio-political context in which it is used.

Now, it is hardly a new finding that no state, no government can exist without its citizens. It belongs to the very foundations of the philosophy of government even in the ancient world, e.g. when Aristotle depicts man as "zoon politikón", a being that is designed to grow into a shared existence within the political community.

In John Locke’s liberal contract theory, the State is defined as a function of civil society. Civil society, Locke claims, constitutes itself through the Social contract, laying the foundations of statehood through collective and unified relinquishment of power. Such statehood is in turn bound by the Contract. It is the purpose of the State to guarantee the civil sphere. Guarantee means – translated into a contemporary context – safeguarding the rights of freedom as well the social and political rights by the State.

Now, this is one of the major prerequisites for the formation of any civil society, namely a sphere of collective action in a liberal perspective, positioned in between the private sphere and the State. 

Which brings me back to my initial question: Why are questions of civil society and/or its strengthening such a central issue for our worldwide work in political education?

In its political principles of 1993, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation has stated among other things the following:

„Liberal politics considers it a task of the State to safeguard individual freedom, to protect its citizens against internal and external violence, and to preserve the constitutional order."

Further down, it reads under the title of „Liberal politics and civil society":

"Liberal politics wants to enlarge the free spaces of the citizens in all areas of life, pushing back the role of the State to the minimum necessary. This implies acknowledging the citizens’ capacity for self-organisation.  The citizens can take over a variety of tasks in communities, neighbourhoods, associations, lobby groups, and in other private institutions and initiatives. What’s more, they want to do so. "

So you see, committing oneself to the cause of "Civil society" or the "Society of citizens" is not a mere fad for the Liberals. On the contrary, it is a cornerstone of liberal philosophy.

It was with this in mind that Sir Ralf Dahrendorf, the great liberal politician and philosopher, who died last year, stated it in a nutshell, when he called the society of citizens "the fundamental pillar of freedom".

For it means, in a liberal sense, by definition an "open society, in which a variety of autonomous institutions and organisations is preserved by the civil sense of its members, who are equipped with rights, and who are therefore citizens in the widest and deepest sense" (Dahrendorf, 1992).

This citizen society presents certain characteristics. Dahrendorf mentions three of them:

Plurality – Autonomy - Civility

    Plurality means that numerous organisations and institutions belong to the citizen society. Where monopolist structures exist, the citizen society is at risk. This means, on the other hand, that the State itself does not belong to the citizen society.
    Autonomy means that there must be no direct dependence of organisations and institutions on the State. The citizen society is a world that offers life chances to the individual without the State having to play a role.
    Civility means that any citizen society is simply unimaginable "without civil sense, civil pride, without tolerance, without participation, without civilized behaviour".

The characteristics mentioned by Dahrendorf  – autonomy, plurality and civility – inform and shape the civil and democratic common culture. But they are linked not only to freedom rights guaranteed by the State.

Civil societies can "work" only when opportunities for social participation are taken and used by the citizens.

Civil societies are therefore always active systems borne by the interest, the mindfulness and the commitment of its members.  No state based on the principle of freedom can enforce the necessary civil virtue of commitment without depriving itself of freedom.

However, as these virtues can neither be transferred nor "inherited", it is obvious that civil societies are always also fragile, therefore destructible organisations. It remains a political and social permanent task to preserve, strengthen and develop civil societies. To tackle this task is not least a challenge to political foundations.

According to a "Volunteer survey" gathered by the German federal government from 1999 onward,  about 36 percent of all citizens from age 14 were active as volunteers in federations, initiatives or projects in 2004 (i.e. 2 percent more than in 1999).

Another 34 percent were members in clubs or associations. This means that two thirds of the population are committed to causes somewhere beyond their professional and private duties – quite an amazing number! It makes clear that any modern society like the Federal Republic of Germany would not function without this broad civil involvement in aid organisations such as the Red Cross, the voluntary fire-fighters, various youth organisations and charities - even when considering that many of these members are non-active members.

For 21 percent of the "committed volunteers", their commitment is a form of political engagement "in every sense of the word".

Based on the orientation towards the role model of an "empowered" and "democratically competent" citizen, we, as the Foundation for Freedom, are interested to offer assistance for professionalization of civil commitment to all interested citizens.

Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty in Egypt :