State and Civil Society Relations: Approaches and Party Politics

In the analysis of state and civil society relations, three theoretical approaches can be used: pluralism, elitism and Marxism. In this essay, I will discuss the development of each approach, identify its strengths and weaknesses and look at party politics using these approaches.

Pluralism. Political scientists like Robert Dahl argued that in order for a state to be democratic, it must be, or at least be, a pluralist state. Pluralism can be considered as a reaction to an all-powerful monarch, resembling that of the crown in England. Pluralism holds that there is no single entity, institution or group who may have a monopoly of authoritative power within the state (Kourvetaris; Hay). With demonopolisation of power as its central theme, pluralism encourages the participation and involvement of the members of the civil society. In a sense, each group or collectivity is empowered and has a voice in the decision-making process of the state. The state, in a pluralistic society, is reduced to the position of an agent that unites the collectivities and groupings within the society. In terms of ideology, the state does not have a distinct and single ideology. There is a plethora of ideologies in the society following the high regard in groups and collectivities.

However, as pointed out in Hay, most scholars have confused pluralism with plurality. A mere plurality of groups in the society does not constitute a pluralistic society. Pluralism emphasises the need for these organisations not to simply exist, but also have the power to influence the decision-making process in the state.

Also, in this situation, the state becomes one of the many groups in the society. This criticism of pluralism suggests that there might be no actual interaction between the state and civil society because, in this case, the civil society is the most dominant force.

In terms of party politics, pluralism may be able to help explain and analyse the rise of many political parties. More political parties, those in its real essence, would mean greater opportunity for people to engage in competition for political authority (in the Weberian, legal-rational sense). If they fail to win a political contest, losing parties may still be useful to the society by serving as an opposition group to the existing government, thereby strengthening the democratic nature of the state.

However, caution must be placed with this kind of view. As raised above, mere plurality may not necessarily constitute pluralism. For example, the instant rise of political parties in the Philippines may not necessarily mean that pluralism exists. Following the adoption and implementation of the party-list system, various formations have emerged, mushroomed from the void. The number of parties present does not mean all of them share in the political power within the state. They may not even participate in the policy formulation process after elections.

Elitism. There are several elite theories, both conservative like Mosca and Pareto and radical like Michels and Mills (Kourvetaris). According to Pareto, in a society, there are two classes: the elites and the non-elites. Among the elites, there are governing and non-governing elites. In this sense, Pareto is admitting the fact that in the society there is a stratification between those who are elites and the masses, and within elites, a governing and non-governing class. For Mosca, following Pareto, there exist in the society two classes: the ruling class and the ruled. However, he said that in between, there is a middle-level class of sub-elites composed of technocrats, civil servants and the like who assist the elites in the performance of their function. These two elite theorists were conservative in the sense that they simply explained that elitism exists and is acceptable. In fact, it was said that elites are circulating and history is a graveyard of aristocracies.

Radical elite theorists Michels and Mills did not deviate from the observations of Pareto and Mosca, but instead clarified and elaborated the concept of the elite. According to Michels, there is always within an organisation a smaller group of people who will lead and serve according to their self-interests. His famous iron law of oligarchy was based on his study of the German socialist party. He said that even in the most democratic organisation like a socialist party, there exists an oligarchy, a group of elites.

Mills on the other hand identified a triumvirate of elites in his book on the power elite. He said that the American government is controlled by a group of elites, a network of families and friends. They control three institutions namely, the government, the military and the economy. Power in the state rests on these networks of families and friends.

Generally, elite theorists agree that power in the state is in the hands of few people, whether it is an oligarchy or aristocracy. Power is centred on the state particularly the elites running it.

In terms of state-civil society relations, it is hardly thinkable that there is significant influence from the group and collectivities outside the institutions of the state and the elites. If pluralism does not subscribe to monopolisation of power, in elite theories, it is apparent that power, in government, military and economy, are controlled by a single class, the ruling or the elite class.

Conventional parties could be considered elite parties. Prior to a general franchise in the election of public officials, it was limited to those will the ability to live a modest life. Political parties then are composed of elites, and perhaps until today. There might be some modifications or changes due to upward mobility and the enlargement of a middle class, but the fact still remains that there is an elite group within among the members or the members themselves.

Another thing to consider is the similarity of parties and the non-differentiated ideology, platform and programmes. As raised by Lande in the Philippine case, political parties are same species of different name and colour but essentially of the same kind. This is due to the elite membership. Also, one will have to consider the widely practised party switching as indicators of the above observation.

In this regard party politics is exclusivist in an elitist viewpoint considering that members are circulating, belonging to a single network of families and friends, pursuing the self-interest and are separated from the masses and civil society groups.

Marxism. Marxism could be viewed as the reversal of the elitist theories. Marxist theories find its origins from Marx himself, Lenin and other Marxist leaders. But the most theoretical foundation was laid by Antonio Gramsci.

Marxist theories also identified the existence of two classes in the society: the bourgeois class, which is the ruling class and the proletariats, the ruled class. But unlike the elitist theories, Marxist theories view the state as an instrument of the bourgeois to dominate the society. Marxism provides a view that there is an ongoing struggle between these two forces/classes.

Given this notion, power in the state is monopolised by the bourgeois class, in order to achieve its goal of dominating the society. In terms of ideology, the Marxist model, ironically, pushes for a change in the status quo, i.e. a change in the form of government towards a more socialist set-up. This is why Hay in his chapter on Marxism in the volume “The State” asks for the need to have a Marxist theory of the state.

Interaction-wise, there is a constant interaction between the state and the civil society since the two have a struggle for power. The former is composed of the bourgeois; the latter, the working class.

Since political parties are dominated by the elite, the Marxist model views this as an instrument of domination. But in some cases, there are communist parties of Marxist orientation who engage in political exercises like election and compete for seats in parliaments. In this setup, there exist the continuing struggle for power between the ruling and the ruled class.

The three major perspectives in analysing the state and civil society relations are varied at best. However, we can point to particular similarities or points of convergence. We can also notice the opposite nature of elitism and Marxism theory thereby serving as the critique of each other. Pluralism, on the other hand, did not focus on the class but on the groupings within the society.

Party politics is vibrant and dynamic as viewed using the mentioned approaches. However, each approach places caution in terms of multitude and multiplicity in pluralism, defects of the party system in the elite model and the never-ending struggle for power in Marxism.

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State and Civil Society Relations: Approaches and Party Politics

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