Vitality Of Associational Life
Dev Raj Dahal
The benefits of associational life to a stable society have been prized centuries ago by Gautam Buddha in his famous saying: Sangham Saranam Gachhami. Associational life, placed between the family and the state, is shaped by human needs, goals and milieu, allowing citizens to discover common interests and build basic humanity. The theory of institutionalism peddles that the gush of intermediary associations spurs density of social cooperation. It creates social order, embellishes manners, generates trust among its members and enables positive social development, measured by Buddha as one of the lofty goals of society. Social progress perfects a balance among population growth, economic productivity, job-creation, gender justice, social cohesion and ecological resilience. Associational life, enriched by social capital in Nepal, had driven moral economy to satisfy human needs. It had revealed their social nature and longing for community. The more they communicate to each other, the better they impel synergy for associational life and boost long-term progress in human condition.
Buddha used experience to know human nature and jiva (life force) and trained people on dharma to conquer self and attain nirvana, the liberation of soul from timeless karmic chakra, the wheel of life cycle gyrated by cause and effect. Questioning the conventional wisdom, he sought the release of all humankind from the glory of greed and insular biological and social identities adoring the rhythm of life above the soul. Nepalis in the past had focused more on chetana (inner vigilance), leaving its legacy to resonate in their duty-oriented behaviour. Now material and philosophical poverty stunts their scruples and forces them to migrate in search of better life. Incongruity between inner vigilance and outer reality of associational duty breeds conflict.
Nepal’s history is filled with rich associational life. Guthi (cultural trust), Paropakar (altruism), Gurukuls (residential schools), Pati Pauwa and Dharmashalas (public inns), Chautaras (resting place), producers and traders’ associations and spiritual sites were formed to attain Punya (good deeds). Wealth obliged the wealthy to cultivate sattwa guna (wisdom) and donate to vulnerable citizens to beat the perilous nature of life. Dramas about Rama, Krishna, Harischandra, Bhakta Pralad, Shrawan Kumar, etc. and open-ended discourse on the validity of knowledge schooled Nepalis on the idealism and inspired them to set up private foundations, trust, Dhikuti (cooperatives), library, literary associations, clubs, awards, etc. to brace public sphere. It has nourished a culture of giving and mending the selfish passion that divides citizens. Its spiritual heritage has animated sat sanga, culture of association to overcome solitary life.
With the onset of its exposure to modernity, Nepal’s right-based political culture has soiled its dharma-based social norms and set the primacy of law over richness of culture and wisdom. Primacy of law marks the hegemony of politics and legal bureaucracy over justice, ethics and morality. Nepali law now contests its own source, citizens, to habitually justify the doctrine of necessity. Citizens’ desire for substantive justice is shifting the associational life from the inherited to contractual ones but it does not descend to the habits of life. Political virtues can flourish if judges do not recoil from their ethical duties to see the vale of tears and know the effect of virus of legal logic in due process of law without the use of public reason. Justice helps laws to integrate Nepali society and confront identity politics which has reduced Nepali into insular group and indoctrinated to loath individual liberty and national identity.
Social Capital: Modern associational life is rooted more in rational choice and networking than social norms, values of reciprocity and solidarity of citizens. This choice has shaped their experience and actions. The associational vitality in Nepal has provided its society and state an ability to secure a balance between self-interest and social goods though both are now hit by the growth of power and profit calculating associations devoid of interest in either social or national integration. The impersonal services of key institutions can provide leadership an ability to respond to this challenge. Associational thought, feeling and action can enable Nepalis to acquire civic virtues to participate in social, economic and political affairs. It has a positive bearing on the mobilisation of social energy considered as a dazzling face of social capital. Buddha focused more on horizontal trust, sought the deconstruction of caste system and patriarchy for an equal society and refined mediation tools to experience blissful peace. In no way, however, he subverted the genealogy of knowledge and a progress towards human reason.
A trustful society can breed negative sanction against free-riders. The dissembled life is a state of nature prone to alienation from natural and cultural life and stress-prone. It destroys the civility of society and deprives citizens of a sense of self-worth and fulfilling life. Trusting civic culture is good for democracy. It resolves the problems of collective action arising out of the heterogeneity of actors and identities in Nepal. New development theorists have excavated social capital from the philosophical and cultural traditions believing that it is vital to mitigate poverty, inequality, ignorance, ill health, joblessness and crime. Awareness of common needs can drive citizens to cooperate with others to achieve justice which they cannot achieve alone. The wealth of social capital among them had been unveiled in the aftermath of great earthquakes, series of floods and fires, violent conflicts, etc. when they selflessly aided the victims.
Nepali politics has yet to free itself from crusty patronage culture. Stability of adversarial and identity-craze action has abated the growth of loyal opposition. Leaders’ interpersonal ties can widen scope for coalition rule and conflict mitigation but the undue effect of money in politics has exhausted the stamina of bridging social capital across political associations which is central for civil society to coordinate action. They now suffer from trust deficits, appear frail to sustain the integrity of politics, administration and business and enable citizens to enjoy what Buddha calls blissful life. The beauty of modern associational life lies in building awareness of meeting public and national interests. It enables national institutions operate impersonally to the service of all citizen and the government to reduce rich-poor divide and lift those enduring in the silence of poverty. The bridging social trust demands good performance of administration and politics in Nepal. So do many multi-functional NGOs and civil society that treat citizens an object of target, not sovereign entities capable of self-expression while their support to bonding social trust on certain groups against the other needs to be curbed to ramp up national unity.
Virtuous Cycle: The identity-oriented citizenship in Nepal has bolstered internal solidarity of certain groups to compete with outer groups where exclusion, not bridge building, rears its head. It has spoiled citizens’ ability to act for public goods. Nepal’s constitutional order needs to offer a positive incentive for the ‘Other’ to accept it. Uneven sharing of life-chances defies cooperation stoking the politics of victimhood. The atomising force of the market has subverted solidarity and social duty. The trust in business is ebbed following growth of economic vices and lobby for profits. Ethical business practices can enrich trust and contribute to productive associational life. But if money becomes mediating agency between supply and demand, the poor will become non-stakeholders of democracy. It poses risk to national stability and undermines democracy’s ability to create rational political order through social coordination of citizens in what Buddha calls “golden mean.” It can avert irrational passion for extremism bent on cutting human connections.
Promotion of associational life can revitalise Nepal’s democratic progress. A shared loyalty of all citizens to national identity can spur fidelity to its values, institutions and practices and diminish the rage of politics of difference, economic dislocation and personality disorder of all actors. Nepali democracy’s self-correcting checks on power must be restored to grease progress by fairly sharing benefits, aiding the integrity of polity and giving public policy a sound footing. Vertical trust-building of the center with provinces and local bodies can increase trustworthiness of each other and manage empathy, tolerance and emotional intelligence - the soft sides of associational life. Buddha’s concept of Karuna (compassion) has civic virtues in the creation of a mindful society. A circle of caring associations offer space even for the opposition and minorities, lend legitimacy to authorities and give citizens a stake in this nation’s future.