Optimizing Liberal Values in a Non-Liberal Society

The author suggests that as conceived in the West the idea of civil society probably obscures the practical means of achieving civil values in Iran. He derives his argument from a critique of the liberal foundation in the genealogy of civil society in the West; civil society in relation to power, democracy, and justice; asymmetries between Iran's political culture and civil society as projected in the liberal paradigm; and ways and means of optimizing liberal values in a society such as Iran, whose outlook is not (and probably cannot be) "liberal".

Historically, civil society evolved in the West on two elemental foundations: the primacy of society over polity and the ethics of individual rights. The first, theoretically exemplified by the Hobbesian and Lockean concepts of social contract, defines the limits of the sovereign's (state's) power and legitimacy and, consequently, the conditions of citizens' obligation to obey. The second is characterized by a move away from the primacy of law, whether given by God or by Caesar, to the precedence of right, meaning the individual's capacity to participate in the making of the law. Both elements are characteristically quiet on the subject of power relations within society, which is a matter of domination and subjugation. The legitimacy/obligation dimension is essentially juridical and the foundation of liberal constitutional democracy. The domination/subjugation dimension, on the other hand, is at the heart of the problem of justice. Since in constitutional democracies state is normally controlled by the dominant groups in society, there has always existed significant tension between liberal democracy and social justice.

In Iran, as in other "Third World" countries, the experience of colonialism not only disrupted the social balance but also reversed the relationship between society and polity. It fell on the state to change the society by defining the paths of development and parameters of justice. Consequently, ends became more important than means, on one hand weakening the juridical dimension and on the other hand strengthening state's intervention in the realm of social justice. The trade-off between state's ability to promote justice and society's proclivity to control state in favor of powerful interests will have to be taken into account in any serious discussion of civil society in Iran. State's power will have to be humanized and controlled by an inscription of ethical values and control through countervailing power. To optimize liberal values, it is important to draw, whenever possible, on the accommodating organizational and ethical features of traditional culture, using "balance" as the operative formula and forging an "institutional" balancer as its guarantor.

* Abstract prepared by author

Gholam Reza Afkhami
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