Dev Raj Dahal
Modern society has three key players-- the state, the market and citizens-- with all their informal and formal institutions, networks and movements known as the civil society. The diffusion of power away from the state has innovated paired norms, values and interests of these players to breed social capital, resolve distributional conflicts and alleviate the rising scarcity of public goods in society. The state assumes legitimate power monopoly to subdue chaos, create security and order and govern society. The market hinges on competition aiming to spur production, exchange and allocation of various goods. Civil society grows on the spirits of mediation, voluntarism, charity and giving.
Robert D. Putnam defines social capital as “features of social life — networks, norms and trust — that enable the participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives.” It is informal relationships that encourage cooperation among diverse individuals, groups, communities and nations, scale up solidarity and provide vital resources and legitimacy for fighting social malaises. In Nepal, these features of social life are sine qua non for the operation of modern economy and participatory democracy. A series of horizontal networks, associations, unions and federations of the nation operating at various scales - local government, community schools and health centres, irrigation, community forestry, press, workers, cooperatives, among others, offer Nepalis connective tissues.
The skins of social capital thus assist one’s own links, infuse fervour to live by the rule of society, regulate life and penalise free riders, spoilers and bichaulias (special interest groups) indulged in the farming of selfish interests at the costs of social unity. Nation building in Nepal requires new forms of social capital that are inclusive, bonding, bridging and crosscutting across sub-groups of society. So it is through a set of shared interests, values and ties among the Nepalis that the synergy of social capital is spawned for larger public action for community progress. Voluntary groups in the community, filled with idealism, can regulate the imperfect Nepali market, weak state, divisive, distrusting and resentful politics and pre-rational social groups lacking a sense of citizenship.
Neuroscientists reveal that helping the helpless struggling for survival gives pleasure to both sides, reduces their stress and aids to the thrill of a healthy life. Born out of the disposition of care, civil society is a self-governing association, network and struggle formed to protect people from the unfair acts of the powerful and the rich and advance their rational interest. In Nepal, the life of democracy and the market, however, is like a roller coaster facing scores of ups and downs in mitigating societal problems. This has amplified the interest of the development fraternity of the nation in civil society, NGOs, community-based organisations (CBOs), charity groups and volunteers to drive social capital, shape robust community and ardour to work in supplying public goods.
These institutions matter in defining collaboration between the utilitarian tendency of polity and the market steamrolling the weak and the crazy ride of elite civil society in partisan, pre-rational politics. Thickness of social capital fortifies local communities and lubricates the bases of democracy, progress and peace by bringing the duties of these players in synchronisation. One of the rationales of a sparkling public sphere is to organise critical debates to produce the legitimacy of alternative choices in policy and exert social control over the authoritarian leaders. Social capital in Nepal nurtured by spiritual richness of dharma thus expunges the narrow ends of economy as mere wealth creation, politics a power game and elite civil society in issuing lofty statements, not practical action.
Strong public institutions of the state, media, intellectuals, democratic political parties and conscious citizen groups need to moderate the ferocity of the competing interests of market and politics and create conditions to realise the vision of the constitution. Market can be healthy if it is embedded in ecology, society and politics and optimises merciless profit instinct and social duty. Market sensibility spawns better economic output, spurs social trust and greases economic transactions thus generating a virtuous cycle of progress. The tragic impact of market failure in Nepal is seen in the scarcity of public goods, poverty, unemployment, inflation and growing migration of youths for livelihood abroad. One can also spot its effects on political institutions, quality of life, social cohesion and peace.
Civic connections of a myriad of communities, informal institutions and networks with the formal institutions of the state can turn this vicious cycle into a virtuous cycle if the market, like democracy, is socially driven to minimise negative impacts on public policy and public life. Social harmony requires Nepali civil society to carry out a wide range of social responsibilities, link the compassion of individuals, groups, communities and donors and revitalise the centrality of interface between civil society, social capital and community. This helps to seize the nation’s drift to downhill and debunk how Nepali leaders’ penchant for freedom is masked in privileges. It also exposes their aspirational spell unmatched with real performance.
The associational participation of people can shape collective choice, improve efficacy in engagement and contribute to the institutionalisation of public life. It can increase the leverage and ownership of Nepalis in public policy, improve transparency and achieve accountability to self-rule. The constitutional vision of the welfare state as a representative link of the entire nation supports voluntary approaches of the civil society. Their trust, tolerance and public action can reduce dependency and underpin a popular control over the governing elites. A welfare state does not take away those things, which Nepalis can and want to do for their empowerment. Withdrawal of people from civic engagement saps the social capital needed to address some common policy failures breeding poverty, inequality, social polarisation and political instability forcing bulk of Nepalis migrate to join the global labour market.
The national vision of social justice helps in buffering the unfair outcome of market rearing social stress and keeps the homeostasis of democracy. People need the warmth of a community against the atomising tendency of the market, encroaching neo-liberal regime and fear of predatory authorities who do not provide services to them without rent. A community is a social body of people, integrated more by duties than by rights and bound by shared origin, language, history, norms, affection and non-self-regarding ties. It is organised for supporting general welfare and interest of the entire community.
It is easy to mobilise Nepali community for the general good of society as its members are accountable for their actions. Guthi, temples, monasteries, many schools, common grazing places, public inns, canals, ponds, wells, libraries, public meeting house, hospitals and cultural associations in Nepal are formed to harness social capital necessary for addressing community needs. The strengthening of its social bonds, virtues, well-established values and cohesiveness determines the effectiveness of collective action. The boundary of a community is overlapping but its members enforce norms through mutual monitoring and evaluation and barring the free-riders.
A tolerant community inspires its members the habits of cooperation, solidarity and public spiritedness, which, in turn, contributes to the accumulation of ecological, social, financial and political capital. One can see how during the great earthquake and pandemic in Nepal people with lofty spirits thronged in the risk zone to support ordinary people with relief goods, rescue operations and reconciliatory support. The stunning resilience of Nepali community life has allowed the articulation of dissenting views of various sub-cultures and let social and political minorities live in security within an overall framework of the state. The social nature of its philosophy and human nature nurtured the habit of trust, solidarity and cooperative social capital.
In Nepal, social is derived from ascriptive primary institutions, such as families, tradition, religion, culture, social networks, shared historical experience of exchange among various communities, esprit de corps of the society in times of great ordeal. It is also derived from the secondary type of self-organised rational institutions like the civil society, NGOs, markets, political associations and their collective action.
A sustainable foundation of an economy provides institutional incentives for Nepalis to build relationships that promote confidence and trust among them and those institutions that lie outside the writ of economic division of labour. Many micro enterprises, credit organisations and stable social institutions placed between the state and families frame public demands, monitor the activities of economic societies and foster overlapping benefits across the lines of various divides. Primarily, political society is an arena of institutionalised competition and conflict for political power, rule and authority while the role of labour-intensive, agro-based, eco-friendly and intermediary micro enterprises is marked by service, voluntarism and class mediation.
Progress is about wealth creation without crippling the base of the ecology, democracy and social peace. Today, mounting societal discontent and conflict have increased concerns about the impact of poverty, inequality, joblessness, dependency, debt and pandemic. The renewal of social capital is, therefore, vital to redefine the relationship between economy, civil society and community. An improved understanding of their respective roles, rights and responsibilities within civic structures, broad community participation in decision-making, joint identification of local problems, support for the civil society’s positive role in community improvement, reduction of dependency and resolution of the structural injustices can overcome their deficiencies and foster a well-functioning pluralistic democracy in Nepal.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)