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The Necessity of a Strong Social Sector as a Countervailing Power to Private Sector Dominance: The Vanishing Community and the Crisis of Alienation

By Mehdi S. Shariati

During the past three decades the world economy has been at the mercy of neo-liberalism as an ideology for the global north and crony capitalism with powerless national states of the global south implementing the policies of global capital toward total private sector dominance. Beginning with the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s, economic deprivation, social dislocation and political polarization manifested themselves on a global, national and local context.  The hegemonic private sector by virtue of its economic and political power further altered the dynamics of self and society, state and society and international relations. The state became the instrument by which the policies of the private sector towards greater accumulation were implemented and the social arena and its massive problems were the battleground for consolidation of long term hegemony. Increasingly, the World is experiencing loss of credible opportunities and income due to several factors including but not limited to automation, socialization of the cost of capital accumulation, and the two mechanisms of capital accumulation on a global scale- imperialism including its current mechanisms of implementation--globalization and militarism. This issue becomes more daunting as the economic and the political structures of society become a hegemonic tool at the hands of a few local and/or foreign owners. As the current global economic meltdown shows, the greatest damage is experienced by societies in which the private sector is dominant and unless and until the structural obstacles to a radical overhaul and utilization of social institutions and their resources are removed the process will continue to deteriorate. The realization that at the heart of any meaningful transformation lies the dialectic of self and society as a process, then the process must be set in motion such that social institutions take on new and critical mission. It is also realized that the social institutions have evolved to accomplish certain tasks and specialization along the way has always remained uneven across time and space. And as societies become more differentiated, and interact either voluntarily or by coercion with those beyond their borders, their resiliency to change increases and pose new challenges.

This paper examines the possibility of social transformation in the age of obscene private sector dominance by enabling and empowering what is referred to here as the "social sector"-the totality of social structures, social institutions and the people (collective agency), engaged in progressive social action united in a network of progressive Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs).  The aim of this paper is to reveal the critical viability and the indispensability of the social sector as an arena where "militant particularism" (isolated cases of struggling for a particular cause) evolves into a progressive universalism thereby advancing economic empowerment, political engagement, and social transformation. Particular references are made to Iran and the concept of "Umma" and the vibrant and growing community involvement as a major contributor to the effectiveness of social institutions. References to Umma (community), is for the sole purpose of illustrating the cultural resources and conceptual tools for creating a socio-economic and political reality which is diametrically opposed to hegemony.


Neanderthals of yesteryears plagued by hunger, diseases and constant fear recognized the need to belong to and function within the context of a social group. For millennia social groups (primary and secondary) provided the individuals a refuge, and a space. They all worked and shared the fruits of their labor. The means of production were communal property and as nostalgia has it, it was "primitive communism" in which everyone was equal in access to what the community possessed. There was no private property and no major conflict to speak of and it was for the most part a happy family. It was within the context of the social groups that division of labor became a necessity and gradually dividing society along life chances and access to resources. A primitive form of stratification (both in the form of caste and class) was evolving as permanent settlements (cities) were formed, a political establishment (government) for safeguarding the existing community resources and or to raid and conquer others, were created and the warrior class became the prominent political class. Political, social and economic institutions grew more complex and differentiated. The task of distributing the public goods, the setting of the political agenda and social direction all were assigned to these institutions. From the time of the early World Empires with the Persian (Achamenides) Empire as the first, these tasks have become more complex and far reaching. The public sector-the sector in charge of providing, and distributing the public goods (education, health care, variety of infrastructure such as roads, communication, defense and so on) took on many forms and through time manifested itself with different political philosophy, economic principles and social aims. Beyond the early stages of "primitive communism", and haunting and gathering, succeeding stages such as slavery, feudalism, capitalism, fascism, socialism and the idea of modern communism the connection between the political philosophy and economic principles became more pronounced. Thus slavery as an economic system was at the same time a political philosophy as is the case for fascism, socialism, and capitalism. Most social institutions have played and are playing a significant role in support of or opposition to a politico-economic structure. Often the term civil society is used to describe the relationship between these institutions and the people who either individually or collectively feel a sense of belonging.

In the classic philosophical discourse, civil society was synonymous with good society where people respected the rule of law and each other, and were committed to the common good. An elaborate discussion of civil society was triggered by Ibn Khaldun's thesis on the rise and fall of civilizations (cyclical theory of history). Khaldun's civil society is based on the concept of "assabiyeh" - a sense of belonging to and a feeling of kinship. Assabiyeh empowers the political authority to exercise power -legitimacy, and it is necessary for the survival and the continuity of the community. This view of civil society was maintained well into the enlightenment era and the belief in the inherent goodness of human beings. The refinement of the classic Greek political philosophy by the enlightenment era thinkers added new dimension namely the relationship between polity and religion. Thomas Hobbes saw it imperative for a powerful political apparatus (Leviathan) to maintain law and order and it must sustain civility in society. John Locke argued in favor of a social contract between a less powerful political establishment (the state) and a powerful people (society). Others such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant believed in the goodness of human being and blamed society for corrupting the relationship between people. G.W.F. Hegel, believed that civil society ("civilian society") is the product of an economic system based on private property -capitalism. Therefore it is at the mercy of contradictory forces. These forces have the potential of causing chaos in society and therefore the presence of a strong political state capable of sustaining society is warranted. Marx considered civil society as the "base" -the arena of labor/capital conflict. Antonio Gramsci, while maintaining most of the Marx's views on the location of civil society, believed it to be part of the superstructure of society similar to religion, polity and the rest. To Gramsci (1971) 'civil society', is the "ensemble of organisms commonly called 'private", and the 'political society' or 'the state'. To Gramsci both the "private" and the state are necessary for the hegemonic structure to function and reproduce itself. It is precisely for this reason that the dynamic of self and society in the contemporary public sector has a reputation of idleness and inefficiency. And is it possible that this is by design and not inherently a public sector problem.

Alternative systems albeit sporadic and relatively short lived emerged during the twentieth century and their demise for the most part ought to be viewed in the context of contradictions between the political philosophy and economic reality. The pronouncement of high ideals of the political philosophy was light years into the future and alien to economic reality which corresponded to much earlier stages of social development. Armed with this realization, political operatives revisited socialist and communist slogans and turned them into an ideology in defense of status quo. In this regard the former Soviet Union and China are examples of inconsistencies between political philosophy of socialism and "communism" and the economic reality erroneously referred to as "socialist" and "communist". Erroneous because neither the equality that socialism espouses (to each according to their needs), nor the stringent precondition for communism-abundance and the human mastery over nature existed. To some these entities were called "state capitalism" -a system based on strong ties between the political/administrative sector of society and the production/distribution sector. In other words, government decided the type and the level of production for major industries which were publically owned. The public sector in these economies was the dominant sector and the private and the social sectors barely acknowledged. In other societies the presence of a public and a private sector side by side produced what is now referred to as a "mixed economy." The question however is why and how a sector becomes the dominant sector? Is it the inherent qualities that give rise to dominance of a sector or it is primarily part of the evolving process of social change? Consider the Europe of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and in particular the colonial empires' at the height of their expansion. To what extent East India Companies as private enterprises were responsible for the expansion of colonial empire and control over extraterritorial possessions? As private enterprises, initially they had their own armies to protect their interests. Gradually as they became strong, that task was assigned to the colonial empire's military establishment. From the point of view of the bearers of capital, private sector dominance is the fantastic outcome of the public sector's use of force. History of capitalism has always been simultaneously the history of exploitation and plunder and invariably through the use of force commanded by the public sector. The public sector also expected by the dominant private sector to socialize the cost of accumulation. While the profit due to accelerated rate of exploitation is privatized, the public then is expected to foot the bill. Socializing the cost of exploitation simply means greater cost to the general public which in turn must raise revenues to sustain itself. In the process the loss of the public sector's ability to meet its obligations in the provision of services means more social problems which the private sector does not see as any of its business. To deal with these unpleasant developments, governments have borrowed extensively to meet the need (see my paper on "Socializing the Cost of ....). Yet there has always been a public response in trying to help deal with the consequences of private sector dominance. And indeed it is the dominance of the private sector and its pursuit of profit at any cost that has caused the current economic meltdown rather than as erroneously believed and manufactured propaganda that it was "mismanagement."

THE PRIVATE SECTOR: THE DIALECTICS OF SELF AND SOCIETY in the context of private sector dominance:

The contemporary world has been ruled for the most part by an imposing and hegemonic economic and political system the foundation of which is private property (broadly defined). Let me state clearly that I do not believe in the total elimination of private property and I do believe that there is space for a healthy level of private ownership in every economy. What I am arguing against here is the private sector hegemony and total dominance over society and polity and the consequences thereof. Indeed of all of the criticism of the private sector past and present, the problem has been with the manner in which the unbridled system of private ownership with its  massive economic and political power has been conducting itself. Within the prevailing culture of private sector people are reified  (commodified) and alienated (ala Marx) and what  Martin Heidegger  calls the ONTIC MODE , --"subject" and "object"), a thing. The private sector is structured on exchange of value and those in control of resources are able to decide the nature of exchange. The supporting social institutions and the social action are guided by an ideology which aims at creating a hegemonic position. This sector does not and cannot either by its internal logic or by choice and as dictated by its guiding ideology, address equality or fair exchange. Therefore the context (the market) in which it operates is inherently partial toward the powerful and the fit. People enter a relationship -- exchange and trade with a set of rules already in place. The worth of each action then is measured as are all other commodities based on the dictates of the forces within the market.

The consideration of profit motive as the guiding principle and a core value reflects a particular philosophy of human nature. A review of the philosophies espousing such a view reveals convictions rather than malice and bad intentions as a rule. As such were the natural rights philosopher of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the emphasis on liberalism, neoliberalism, laissez faire, efficiency and competitiveness. No one can deny that capitalism has been a dynamic system. Even Marx, whose indictment of capitalism is unsurpassed, agreed. And as capitalism evolved, its contradictions have become much more accent, but the conflict on the basis on these contradictions has been exceptionally passive. Excessive individualism, propagated privacy as an end and the consideration of privacy (individualism) as freedom of individual to "chose" his/her mode of living,  the sum of which I call "passive aggression" have been instrumental in managing contradictions and conflict in the market oriented "democracies." Outside of this context--the global south both the reaction to neoliberal economic policies and the reaction to the reaction by the state apparatus has been much more forceful and bloody. I see this as an indication of political sophistication of the people of the global south and their condition and an indication of the apolitical dialectic of self and society in the global North. "Manufacturing consent" (ala Chomsky) remains a critical task for the operatives of the socio-economic and political structure. Social actions taken by the hegemonic groups in society, have always been more competent in devising means of reproduction of their privilege position and that is universal phenomenon. However, their zeal in expanding material base and consequently their political, social and moral base often leads them to a debilitating crisis which either topples them or makes them battle hardened and they do recapture their position with a vengeance. Indeed the use of language and the reinterpretation of the concepts have remained an indispensible part of the hegemonic strategy. And the process entails the transformation of the meaning of terms beyond the time and space of origination. Terms such as liberalism, neoliberalism, laissez faire, efficiency and competitiveness are all descriptive of a portion of a belief system and the strategy of passive aggression, designed to create conformity and consent. In other words, the hegemonic structure retains and reproduces its hegemonic control as Gramsci noted, through its "organic intellectuals' and institutional arrangements. It is the ability of the hegemonic group to create social movements and/or coopt the exiting social movements as part of the strategy of reproduction of hegemony. "Organic intellectuals" produce new and/or reinterpret the old ideologies (liberalism, capitalism, Social Darwinism, Social Capitalism (1), Competition, democracy etc.), social structures (codified behavior and "common sense" view of the World), institutions (all of the think tank institutions headquartered in Washington D.C such as see endnote for partial list) and map social actions necessary to sustain them in their hegemonic position. The programs, agencies and World bodies such as the World Bank, the IMF, World Economic Forum and related organizations are forces defending private sector dominance on a global scale and to ensure success they have embarked on assimilation to Western values accordingly.

In the context of Western capitalism, the concept of "private" implies a culturally prescribed individual space (not of collective) and on the economic realm the concept of private property, the cash nexus and money transactions where everything is reduced to money are non-negotiable items. Private is synonymous with "freedom" and by extension individualism is "freedom to choose." Within the cash nexus the worth (price) of an individual is determined and group is dismembered  in favor of smaller units-the individual, thus allowing for greater control. Uniformity and universalism as demanded by the current globalization process, negates all other cultural values in opposition to the process and it does lead to the loss of national, local and community autonomy. Globalization, free trade, and standardization all point to the loss of self sufficiency and collective tendencies. Ironically in the name of privacy and freedom, the notion of freedom is challenged within the private sector that values privacy. Privacy is a commodified value. In societies where the private sector is dominant, uncertainties, insecurities, and further consolidation of rugged individualism are clearly visible. The literature denouncing the supremacy of the private sector abounds; From Rousseau's philosophical statement on the evils of private property, to Marx's critical analysis of systemic contradictions associated with capitalist system to Gramsci's concept of hegemony to various others in the post-Marx era in the latter part of nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. Nineteenth century America was home to a great number of social critiques of private property system. Serious inquiries were conducted by social scientists on the threat that a system of private property without social regulations posed to the democratic process. From the last quarter of nineteenth century--age of industrial capitalist, speculators, monopolies and trusts, financiers, real estate tycoons, rubber barons ruled with impunity. While technological development took off, so did the corruption and anti-public and unethical behavior of the major bearers of capital. The American Economist, Albion W. Small in his elaborate discussion of democracy and capitalism delivered an unusually harsh (at least for the American context), of the rule of private property. To Small nature and labor were the two most important source of value and not capital. Therefore, labor must be given the right to formulate industrial and social policy. Small criticized the notion of unlimited private property as an ethical and legal consideration. His contention was that capitalism and democracy are antithetical and as an undemocratic system, capitalism particularly the unfettered one or the one that the private sector is the dominant sector is incompatible with democracy. One of his contemporaries John A. Ryan a devout Catholic and a seminarian wrote essays on the necessity of legislating and regulating wages and income as early as 1890s. His Ph.D. dissertation (1906) A Living Wage: Its Ethical and Economic Aspect was a reflection of his conviction that an unbridled private sector can wreak havoc on people and the public sphere. Ryan advocated minimum wage, eight hour work per day, provision of housing, illness and unemployment assistance and support for women and children (see He also campaigned against monopolies and private sector ownership of mines, forests, utilities and other major industries. Ryan's contemporary and protagonist Richard Ely initiated labor studies at the University of Wisconsin and contrary to the dominant theological view of time he believed that the Christian gospel is geared towards the collective (social) rather than toward individual (private), therefore inherently opposed to rough individualism that the free enterprise system promotes. ( The critical social thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was not unusual and there were many others influential now unknown social scientists and activists.

Among the transcontinental political economists, Marx and Keynes viewed the private sector as being dependent on the public sector as a legitimate force for the pursuit of its interest (hegemonic reproduction).While Marx pointed out the important contradiction resulting from subservience of the public to the private which is the socializing cost of capital accumulation and privatization of gains, Keynes hoped to rescue capitalism from a certain disintegration by encouraging government activism and government spending as a cure for the ills of the system. The assumption and the hope was the creation of an environment in which the public (the government) and the private (market) would forge a symbiotic relationship towards resolving the symptoms of systemic contradictions.  This relationship resulted in massive cost to the public-the growing national debt. Today the assumption is that by bailing out the failing private firms in major industries, the private sector again is expected to provide the necessary means for growth. If the future private sector cannot provide good paying jobs, it would adversely affect the government sector's ability to meet the needs of the general public, provide social services and finance public projects. Should the bailout of the failing private firms be governed by social and economic contracts? Should they be subject to the same rules and regulations as any "free market" exchange? What ought to be responsibility of the private sector in face of the massive public bailout? The political state must manage labor/capital conflict so as to facilitate accumulation, and the managers of the political state must neutralize any threats to the accumulation process, since the threats are also directed against itself. The pornography of the private sector dominance extends to the protection of everything private at the expense of the "public." The end result is lack of any degree of "public", accountability, and a cozy relationship between the private sector and the government in pursuit of private gains--- corny capitalism.

The dynamics and the dialectics of agency/structure within a dominant private sector economy and the ideology of "individualism" of fanatical type have produced the condition for private sector dominance and its reproduction. In the context of the globalized capitalist world order, the dynamic, the structure of the economy moves forcefully forward and in the process crushing all obstacles in its path. The dialectical process embedded within the system is the interplay of all component parts of a system including opposing and conflicting components of a reality (particularly agency and structure) thereby producing change.  While the imposing structure secures and reproduces its hegemony, the agency attempts at overcoming hegemony through resource management or what Giddens (1984:16) calls "dialectic of control." In the late private sector dominant economy with its globalization agenda and neoliberalism as an ideology, and with the absence of any credible bargaining power by labor, agency has become so utterly powerless that it seems to speak of dialectics is meaningless. Nevertheless, the structural contradictions associated with private property, alienated labor, profit maximization strategies, declining standards of living, environmental degradation, wars and poverty are strong enough and ever so present that indicate the potentially explosive situation in the making. In the age of industrial capitalism and the corresponding ruthless neoliberalism providing the general guidelines for policy prescription and implementation, the private sector will continue to shrink in terms of the number of jobs it would  be willing (by desire) and able to (by logic and internal contradictions)  provide, the seriousness of the social impact will be determining (2). Indeed the phrase "jobless growth" --growth due to increase in productivity of labor and without increases in human resources in manufacturing has adversely affected the wage rate. The median weekly wages in manufacturing fell from $430.00 in 1979 to $415.00 in 1989. (See Multinational Monitor, May 03, and Lawrence Mishel  et al....State of Working America Multinational Monitor, 02/03 for greater details).

 Mere presence of the private sector may not be an issue across time and space. But what is at issue is the dominance of private sector and the sanctity of the private sector, its economic, political and social power and the ideological force pounding the non-market forces to a pulp. Equally problematic is the belief that the private sector is the answer to all of social and economic ills. As such is the belief that even the care for the elderly, the mentally and physically challenged persons and even educational services are best provided if it is within the context of the Private Sector. Behind the laughter, the cheers, the happy faces, there is the disease of commodification of everyday life thereby rendering life itself expendable. It is with this understanding that the social sector-the ensemble of non-private, community based entities capable of de-hegemonizing the private sector and empowering the public sector to rescue itself from the straitjacket of dominant private sector is necessary. Its nature is diametrically different and that the private sector with increasing global mobility and the adoption of capital intensive production process at an increasing rate, has created a vacuum which must be filled.

3) THE SOCIAL SECTOR: The Context for a Progressive Self and Society Dialectic

            In the annual meeting of the World Social Forum, the depth of concerns over and the criticism of the obscene level of economic violence against the great majority of people around the world is matched by the eloquence and the splendor of speeches denouncing the perpetrators of violence against the global common. What is mentioned as an alternative to the ugliness of global capitalism, imperial arrogance, militarism, imperialism and brutal globalization, is the spirit of equality, community orientation, anti-hegemony, and a negation of private sector dominance. At the heart of the power and efficacy of the social sector are people who are engaged in the planning and the implementation of decision in the interests of the community. Thus any discussion of the social sector must begin with a discussion of the concept of "community" so as to distinguish between the social sector (collective agency in charge of its own affairs), the public sector (vaguely representing the interests of the collectivity) and the private sector (which recognizes profit and individualism).

A healthy community is a community which empowers and enables people to become productive members of larger society, while at the same time providing the very basic necessities for a standard of living which every member deserves.  It also provides access to meaningful employment, health care, schools and all of the auxiliary institutions for a successful education, transportation and recreational places.  A healthy community enjoys a healthy level of mental and physical health and a high level of security. A healthy community places the greatest responsibility on its members while at the same provides the greatest level of comfort. A healthy community fosters individuality and creativity while negating individualism and the notion of competition and conflict over resources. And a healthy community has its own independent (as opposed to corporate) and reflective and diverse media. More than a century ago the German Sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies told us of Gemeinschaft and Gesselschaft and as in now the unfortunate lack of Gemeinschaft in the (then) modern industrial societies. In Tonnies' Gemeinschaft, --an ideal community where social relations are healthy and based on group interest, can safeguard against mental illness, and the feeling of not belonging. Social relations are not commodified and they do not take place for their exchange value, they are all geared towards achieving harmony and unity. The mutuality and complementary of the self and society-the dialectic of self and society produces an outcome contingent upon the role of self and society and the nature of social relations. To Tonnies, Gemeinschaft disappears with the rise of capitalist corporate worldview and it is replaced with the defining characteristic of that type-namely the class relations and rational calculations for selfish purposes. In other words, the dominant social relationship in gemeinschaft which is based on kinship and neighborly relations becomes an enterprise ruled by money, social contract, exploitation and the sanctity of private property. To Tonnies, in Gesellschaft (large impersonal society)-capitalist cash nexus as the main determinant of social relations of predicated on individualism. The loss of collective accompanied the rise of privacy as a cultural value and a preferred state of being, ironically has created a crippling dependency and forced integration of people into the plains of loneliness. Interdependence of self and community provides for unlimited possibilities and the belief that as Rousseau pointed out, action on the basis of consciousness or in Marxian view the dialectic of "theory" and "practice" or Praxis guarantees social change. Witnessing the crisis of European civilization and what they viewed as misplaced priorities, while yearning for the lost collective spirit, most of the political economists (sociologists, economists among others) theorized that it was possible to return at least in spirit to what was good.

In the Non-Western societies, particularly in the Islamic world, by delving into the conceptual reservoir, social scientists, philosophers and activists began rethinking similar concepts. At the heart of the social sector is the presence of a community that can be revived and made healthy .In particular the concept of Umma (community) took on new philosophical and social dimensions, with a new reformulation of agency and structure dialectic. The ideal community is synonymous with freedom and has a mission and purpose and a direction arrives at collectively. Umma, is a dynamic and egalitarian community and not static and backward leaning (Shariati, Collected Work# 26, Algar translation, 1979). Umma is the community of believers united in a goal, has democratically chosen Imam, the ideological leader and the committed leadership. On the basis of this definition, the terms could be considered, discussed and applied by people of all ideological persuasion (i.e., socialist, Marxist or any other who advocate for the establishment of an ideal society. The political philosophy of Imamat  negates the two end of the political/philosophical spectrum -liberalism and totalitarianism, hands off liberalism and suffocating dictatorship. The ideal society according to Shariati is not what the concept of nation (from naitre=birth) which implies the kinship and racial similarities; Clan, etc. Islam uses Umma implying a specific Islamic view and which is based on movement but not any movement; a dynamic movement which has a clear direction. The word Umma from the root "Umm" meaning conscious decision, aim and movement. Therefore, Islam does not view the fundamental and scared connection between people in terms of blood type, soil, collection, not commonality of labor and tools, race or social prestige and lifestyle, but views it in term of conscious decision to choose a path. That is an Umma has in common, aim and destination, leadership and guiding principles. It is not a "being" it is a "becoming."   To Shariati (CW#26, p. 73-74, 1979:119), "Umma is not a society in which people enjoy a static comfort without responsibility and commitment..... On the contrary, a member of the Umma is an activist, responsible, socially committed member and has an unwavering attachment and commitment to a collective. In the Umma, economics is the base (based on the dictum that "whoever does not have material life has no salvation") and a social structure based on collective ownership which can guarantee social justice and equality, people's control over their resources, revival of Able's system (as a replacement for the current system of Cane), and therefore, equality, classless society as a mater of principle. But contrary to the Western Socialism's belief which has kept the essence of Western bourgeoisie, it is not the aim, it is a means to a greater end. The political philosophy of Umma and the form of the regime are the predicated on social justice. It rejects the irresponsible and aimless liberalism at the hands of the powerful few in society, it abhors the rotten aristocracy and the anti people dictatorship and the imposed oligarchy.  Its political system is "structured on the principle of leadership (and not the cult of leader which is fascism), a responsible revolutionary leadership ...charged with leading the Umma towards the fulfillment  and the materialization of a perfect human society" (CW #16 pp. 72-73, Algar, 1979). "Umma which is a forward moving and responsible society and its aim is the creation of the "ideal individual"-is a society with three dimensions as  described in the Quaran (Surah Hadid)-"The Book, The Scale, and the Iron" (CW#16:73).

Can we conclude that the true meaning of the concept of Umma is counter-hegemonic? Since Umma is essentially a collective concept and as such aims at the interests of the collective, then the notion of hegemony is that of the exercise of the power of the community by the members and in line with the collective interests. Umma cannot be meaningful and relevant independent of  Showra. Showra is the essence of an unadulterated collective decision making. It is participatory and according to Shariati (CW#26) is a "committed" democracy with strong roots in a dynamic community, rather than the entertaining political circus often referred to as democracy. Since Umma is a "becoming" and not a "being", it is not the "good life" that Umma pursues, it is living good. Economics is not the aim, it is the means, and "freedom is not the aim, it is the means to reach the ideals..."  Yet it would be impossible to have social justice without freedom. Moreover, since "man is a choice" and "man is a free will", then one can conclude that the foundation of Umma is people, a collectivity unified in thought and action toward the realization of an ideal society-a just and free society. In the Islamic context, community has a distinct mission as stated in the Quran: "Let there be a community (Umma) among you, advocating what is good, demanding what is right, and enjoining what is esteemed and forbid what is odious (wrong). These are indeed the successful" (3:104).  And then there is the role of the agency in the context of Umma as stated in Hadith "It is incumbent upon members of the Umma to rectify wrongs by action or deed words. And if all fails, condemn the wrongdoers  by heart... "and that is the minimal degree of faith." Here faith is equated with good work and socially useful and acceptable deed, action and word. Even though the Islamic community appears to be based on voluntary association, in reality the demand from the followers to participate is based on the belief that outside of a community parameter, the individual does not have a social dimension. Yet there is no coercion in participation. That is Umma is entirely based on voluntarism not coercion as ideally are all decisions made by individuals with the realization that they alone are responsible for the consequences. A truly democratic community resists cooptation by larger forces. The essence of a democratic community is the ability to present itself as a counterhegemonic force (both against the internal attempt at hegemony and the external) and it is possible only through networking on a larger scale. It must transcend particularism and gain momentum toward universalism.



 "Militant Particularism" (to use the term coined by Raymond Williams 1989:249) and later developed by Marxist geographer David Harvey (1995, 1996, 2001). To Harvey, every worthwhile movement begins in a particular space, has a particular cause, particular goals and may gain momentum towards a larger social cause going beyond the particular. It has the potential of becoming what Harvey may call "progressive universalism" (my term) provided that there is a network of particulars. To use Harvey's own example (1996:390), the "ecologically based" Militant Particularism evolving into an "environmental justice" movement occurs through the presence of a universal network of the same cause. But what is it that creates and moves a particularly militant group towards a universal principle? Both the need for social activism and eventually the geographic expansion of it requires an understanding of reality, the belief that an entirely different reality is possible and that it can become a universal endeavor only if it acts in concert and in unity with others. It is in this context that Gramsci's concept of "common sense" is relevant. Within the human community the most routine and mundane social relationship has within it the seeds of the most progressive, radical and critical possibilities for social transformation. Gramsci called them "common sense" and "good sense" respectively: Common sense to Gramsci is the "diffused" and "uncoordinated features of a general form of thought common to particular period and a particular popular environment" (1971: 330n). Common sense is an "ambiguous, contradictory and multiform concept." The common sense has within it the "good sense"-the critical, socially constructed and historically grounded sense. It is critical reflection and social criticism-it is philosophy. "Good sense" is hidden within the "common sense". For "common sense to become "good sense" it must start with a philosophy- a critical outlook, which already enjoys, or could enjoy a certain acceptance and diffusion (Gramsci, 1971:330n). "Common sense" to Gramsci is "the philosophy of the non philosophers"-the uncritical and the organic intellectual. Thus any social movement either in the form of community groups, or NGOs among others must posses these criteria. Had the growth of social movement and NGOs being accompanied with a healthy degree of "good sense", they would have been a reliable ally in overcoming hegemony.

The number of NGOs (local and international) range from tens of thousands to more than one hundred thousand. The growth in number and influence of NGOs in the last ten years is indicative of the harsh consequences of the neoliberal economic policies on a global scale. Some have a remarkable history of empowerment, enabling and struggle to overcome social injustice and repression such as the NGOs against Apartheid, and repression in military government in Latin America and East, Central Europe, among the international NGOs prominent ones are Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, Amnesty International and the Red Cross. Militant Particularism or isolated cases of struggling for a cause will remain particular and therefore limited in scope and effectiveness unless it becomes a militant collectivist and differentiated militancy. The "good sense" within each of the scattered particulars once realized must become a uniting force rallying all particulars towards a greater universal cause-human emancipation. The combative "good sense" even in its most critical depth, must overcome hegemony and the attempt by the hegemonic structure to prevent cooption. As such are the NGOs which have been created to preempt the good sense, for they are created as organs of hegemonic powers. Certainly there is a guiding philosophy and a mission statement as well as the "common sense" in all of them (fighting poverty, AIDS, access to clean Water, clearing mines, environmental protection, women's issues etc. etc). But the uncritical "common sense" has also led to uncritical acceptance of these NGOs  and their mission statement. But the most important issue is the compatibility of the guiding philosophy with the "good sense."  And to what degree the current NGOs hidden agenda is known to the innocent foot soldiers of these entities? As is the case, the empirical reality is the only realty-the "common sense" and there is nothing beneath the veneer of the slogans. There is nothing that can lead people to move beyond the empirical reality, unless there is a leading philosophy-a critical view. 

Hopelessness accompanied by the anger at the devastating results of the neoliberal policies, made civil society in the form of NGOs a platform for action. Faced with the rising anger on a global scale, the globalizing neoliberal establishment and all of its so called multilateral and international agencies reacted in different ways including but not limited to creating their own NGOs to 1) deal with the terrible consequences of neoliberalism and 2) to coopt the already established grassroots NGOs. As Petras (1999) argues  "....the World Bank, the neoliberal regimes, and western foundations co-opted and encouraged the NGOs to undermine the national welfare state by providing social services to compensate the victims of the multinational corporations (MNCs)." And they (NGOs) became the "community face" of neoliberalism" (Petras), while the larger financial institutions (multilateral and private) along with the corporate hierarchy controlling the national economy and the denationalized state. There are many examples, but the case of Bolivia where massive social problems caused by "Washington Consensus" and neo-liberalist agenda were to be remedied by the NGOs which between the 1980s and 1990s their number increased from 100 to 530 in 1992. The important political point is that the NGOs depoliticized sectors of the population, undermined their commitment to public employees, and co-opted potential leaders in small projects. In reality non-governmental organizations are not non-governmental. They receive funds from overseas governments or work as private subcontractors of local governments. In that sense NGOs undermine democracy by taking social programs out of the hands of the local people. As Petras correctly observes (1999), the NGOs co-opt the language of the left in particular the progressive struggle for "popular power," "empowerment," "gender equality," "sustainable development," "bottom-up leadership."

The NGOs and their overseas banking supporters (Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank) publish newsletters featuring success stories of micro-enterprises and other self-help projects-without mentioning the high rates of failure as popular consumption declines, low-priced imports flood the market, and interest rates spiral, as in Mexico today. Finally NGOs foster a new type of cultural and economic colonialism and dependency. Projects are designed, or at least approved, based on the "guidelines" and priorities of the imperial centers and their institutions. Averting a revolution requires the construction of an effective "consensus culture", where hegemony is made possible and reproduced. Capitalist institutions such as the mass media, schooling, religion, sports, and entertainment maintain hegemony as Gramsci observed by propagating the ideology of the ruling class. The success of the hegemonic reproduction depends on the degree of the "common sense" that the working class perceive as legitimate. Indeed the role of NGOs has been to construct the context in which their interaction with the recipient is controlled by them and both the rules and the modules of interaction are imported from the governments of donor countries. This is why they are anything but non-governmental (ala Petras). But legitimation requires that a reality be constructed to appear on the surface as constructive engagement with local people trying to take control of their own destiny. Rarely, the discussion moves in that direction and it is interesting that on both sides of the discussions on the NGOs for example (neoliberal and critical), are oblivious to long term structural changes towards a better society. If the preceding evaluation of NGO particularly those rising and spreading from the centers of global capitalism holds, then the question is, are there NGOs which are not from the same DNA and therefore, capable of playing a progressive role in the evolutionary process? A brief review of the historical role and the contemporary position of some of them suggest that indeed NGOs are in a position to aid in the process of social transformation.   

In the social history of Iran, there are outstanding examples of a unified collective struggling for a better society. In other words, the history of social movement is an integral part of the long Iranian history. Iranians are the "first historical people..." One can "see a pure exalted unity as the substance which leaves free the special existence with substance in it. This unity is free as the light governs individuals only to excite them to become strong in themselves, to develop and assert their individuality" (Hegel (1954:48). Hegel believed that "The principle of development begins with the history of Persia" which "....constitutes strictly the beginning of world history" (Hegel, 1954:49). And as the most historically relevant and significant people, we Iranians have always been struggling to achieve an identity and environment congruent with that "pure exalted unity" and uniqueness. For throughout its history from Macedonian savagery to Arab brutality, Iran has been struggling to save its sole and keep itself intact and by doing so it continues to learn and get closer to a leadership position in the world and has send many brutal dynasties and petty dictators to the rubbish bin of history-it is in a permanent revolutionary mode in search of what it believes it can be.

In the Islamic period of Iranian history concerted efforts were directed at creating greater level of philanthropic organizations. Institutions such as Vaghf (an agency in possession of large donations in the form of land, water rights, factories, buildings and orchards among others for the purpose of distributing the income or social services) and the two tier tax system of Zakat and Khoms were for the purpose of financing community and philanthropic work such as poor houses, mosques and sufi monestaries. On a larger scale, in 1065 Nezam al Molk established Nezameyihs as places of learning and community work in medical, financial and related needs well before the establishment of major universities in the West. In the context of Iran, the mosques, the other religious organizations (community based), Gharzulhasanah Funds (a semi financial institutions which is based on the money deposited by individuals without interest and lend to needy individual or marrying young couples at a very low interest rate), wealthy organizations such as Astan Ghods Razavi (in Khorasan Razavi Province) with similar resources as Oughaf, schools, neighborhood councils (Showras), Friday Prayer leaders, Youth groups, women groups, and the even the exclusively Iranian neighborhood groups and heroes-- the Lutis (3) (the neighborhood protector and the enforcer of community honor), and retired individuals among others.

In the context of Iran, the social sector requires a combined and serious efforts on the part of the people, and the government. The people include all of those individuals who are able and willing and have the commitment to form and participate in a sector which it is not all too alien to the culture and history of Iran as an ancient civilization. It, then must articulate a theory-a road map for action and then proceed with an organization chart reflecting the ideals of the community, respect for the rights of individuals and democratic aspirations. The model of social sector must be based on and cognizant of the community characteristics and through resource mapping and need assessment, proceed to implementation. Once a model on the basis of an ontology  is created, then the plan must include the creation of a pool of social funds for implementing the plan. The public (government) can enhance giving by enhancing tax credits and incentives while it contributes to the fund itself and the individuals and the private sector can add to the well being of the fund through donation of money and time, tax on imports, tax on inheritance, tax on excessive use of social goods by those who have the means. No one should be under any illusion the proposed sector is neither easy to establish nor it is quick. It must be worked on and it will take a concerted efforts.  It would be much easier to work within the context and the framework of homegrown NGOs, particularly those with the necessary "good sense." Homegrown number of NGOs in Iran has increased rapidly in recent years and a great majority of them being established in the past several years. In Iran today there are over 8000 NGOs of which 2700 are youth related, 500 are environmental NGOs, 300 women's NGOs, 115 scientific NGOs, 2,181 cultural NGOs and 2,500 youth-oriented NGOs. There are also 5,000 charitable NGOs. Youth and women are key players in Iranian NGOs. A survey by the Iranian government in 2000 showed that over 40,000 women work as volunteers in health-related fields with NGOs (PARSA Community Foundation 2007) (4). Iranian NGOs in particular women NGOs have been very positive with respect to helping and also establishing a culture of organized collective action and democratic aspirations. What is necessary is for these NGOs to become parts of a greater network so as to contribute and to receive assistance from others. Iran/U.S. NGO Collaboration  would be impossible if the NGOs in the United States are State Department creations and/or have support from neoliberal backing and armed among other things with the imperialistic slogans of "regime change" and "velvet," and "orange", yellow and brown this and that.

Given the scope and the magnitude of social problems around the world, and in particular in social formations wherein private sector is dominant and/or where the public sector suffers form being a sector subservient to the private sector, the social sector becomes indispensible. The social sector has the potential of 1) influencing the private and the public sectors in terms of their responsiveness to the need of the general public; 2) placing a check on the veracious appetite for profit on the part of the private sector, 3) influencing the public sector's inefficiency for the provision and availability of public goods; and 4) debunking the myth of private sector efficiency. Social sector is a broad and all inclusive and diverse sector with a unique mission statement and a philosophy aiming at promoting radical democracy of grassroots participation. The social sector can be more resilient to global and local downturns and recessions for it is sustained at least after the initial phase, through its own means. It can sustain itself since it is also an auxiliary sector for the public sector. The development of the social sector ought to be viewed as the first step toward creating a citizen class which is capable of building toward economic and social democracy-- socialism. Societies with a strong sense of history and tradition are better suited in nurturing the social sector. Traditional societies, by virtue of their collective orientation are much more adept in forming a very strong sector. Even in a system classified as special forms of capitalist (social capitalism, "associative democracy" etc.), the presence of the social sector can complement the existing one by guiding it toward a moral path.  More importantly, in a linear fashion one could see that beginning with the grassroots, the ground for the building of a social sector is prepared and if necessary. It could begin with a refined version of social capitalism (not of a Christian Democrat, social democrat and related political party ideologies) so a dimension of a socialist economic system could be delineated to fit cultural landscape.  

It must be pointed out that there are major differences between what is referred to here as the social sector and the NGOs of which there are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of them and not all of them involved in philanthropic endeavor. In this regard there must be a separation between the good and the bad. -between those that truly are trying to help and have a social impact and those which are sent to destabilize and or to aid in "regime change" policy of imperialist countries. The social sector could be diverse and multipurpose as well as community specific where the community keeps its traditional, unique cultural characteristics. Social sector could facilitate greater "homonization" by instituting a dialectic of self and society in the opposite direction of individualism. And how would the dialectic of self and society vary in a social sector? It is in certainly in need of theorizing, and modeling. Social sector is not the public sector because it is not based on political orientation of the administration in power and it will not be a politicized issue. It is not just a collection of NGOs, because, it for the most part it is not a band aid, nor a make feel good for the guilty agents of neoliberal, globalizing agents. it begin with a realization that nothing is easy and it will take time to undo a portion of the damage. Definitely, it will not be based on neoliberalism, laissez fair, survival of the fittest and profit motive. Moreover, the social sector differs from the public sector in that, the decision regarding the allocation of resources is made with the needs of the context (community) in mind and with the full realization of what those needs are. There is no one size fitting all here in this sector the plans, the policies, the proposals are contextualized for best results. It is in this context that grassroots participation -democracy, is taking shape. Moreover, the social sector assets will never be auctioned off as has been the case for public sector assets. Its assets are communally owned and not disposed of by any political party and the claim that it is good for society to privatize. In other words, the favorite neoliberal/free marketers  panacea-privatization will be checked, reversed and/or stopped if there is a strong social sector. Good governmental/public sector and the social sector could enhance the private life of individuals without submitting to the wishes of the private sector. Private sector is not just business sector, and the public power and authority is not always the government sector. This is particularly true in a post "post-affluent" society). In terms of social impact, the hegemonic power of the two sectors (public and private) joined by their umbilical cord is detrimental to the formation of a health community. It is the through the uses of the "good sense"-the critical view of the world that one can discover that beneath the veneer of the slogans propagated by neoliberalism, and their philanthropic titles that one can see the true face of the NGOs.

Throughout the late Eighties and Nineties-the crushing first two decades of the return of neoliberalism, "in the verbal currency of first-world do-gooders, "microloans" became one of those magically fungible words, embedded in a thousand Foundation and NGO annual reports, like "sustainable" (Cockburn, 2006). Microloans (5) tauted as a panacea for hunger and poverty in the global south, in addition to becoming a money making scheme for the big bank mostly from the global North, has become an example of what social capitalism would look like. "....But in their own way they're a register of defeat. They have promoted the savage priorities of neoliberalism at the expense of the poor. Today the profitability of microloans has attracted the likes of the World Bank and the IMF-the mega financial agencies of world capitalist system, along with state and commercial banks as major players. The "microloan business is fast becoming....a macro-racket...... (Cockburn, 2006). Micro-financing, particularly as modeled by the Grameen Bank has the potential of alleviating most of the economic problems of the micro units. But once there is the profit motive is introduced as incentives, it becomes a profit making endeavor and nothing more. No one has to be under any illusion that any activity motivated by profit does attract capital to that particular activity and the profit motive can also destroy that activity. The social sector negates the private profit motive, thereby becoming a truly collective endeavor and as a collective entity (people centered) it can aid the national state in overcoming hegemony and aiding in national development.


The solution to the current global economic crisis which is the direct result of the private sector dominance and decades of deregulation (regulations in favor of the dominant private sector) is now being presented in the form of massive public (government) intervention by way of the public ownership. But the instantaneous reaction has been against such intervention on the ground that government intervention simply means the loss of freedom. How ironic that in the name of freedom, the very essence of freedom by way of commodity peddling, commodification, market supremacy and market fundamentalism is being altered.  This is a natural outcome of indiscriminate application of concepts in an ideologically loaded, politically distorted process and private sector dominant environment. The essence of the social sector is autonomy from the public (government) and the private sector. Autonomy however does not mean not having a share of the national budget. It is primarily with respect to correct identification of the problem and then taking measure free from restriction to solve them. In fact the government must provide the funding from the general revenue until this sector is developed into an organized socio-economic unit capable of sustaining itself. It must receive the core of charitable amounts, while simultaneously increasing the amounts it collects every year, bringing all scattered NGOs and charities, and donation under an umbrella with a mission statement and a philosophy pointing to the establishment of society with strong communal base. In a social system in which both the private and the public sectors are dominant, the presence of a social sector can reduce the hegemony of the private sector. The development of the social sector ought to be viewed as the first step toward creating a citizen class which is capable of building toward economic and social democracy-- socialism. Societies with a strong sense of history and tradition are better suited in nurturing the social sector. Traditional societies, by virtue of their collective orientation are much more adept in forming a very strong sector. Even in a system classified as special forms of capitalist (social capitalism etc.), the presence of the social sector can complement the existing one by guiding it toward a moral path.  More importantly, in a linear fashion one could see that beginning with the grassroots, the ground for the building of a social sector is prepared and if necessary, a refined version of social capitalism (not of a Christian Democrat, social democrat and related political party ideologies) then the dimension of a socialist economic system could be delineated to fit unique cultural landscape. In the deepest layer of anyone's existence is the yearning to belong and that is what a community can provide. Future research must include greater theoretical elaboration on the link between the vanishing community and the crisis of alienation.


1) Robert Corfe' 3 volume work on the theory and practice of social capitalism is one more of saving capitalism by reviving and repackaging the old "welfare state" model.  Voices to save capitalism and proposals to prevent capitalism from disintegration include Kevin Rudd of Australia, Obama of America, leaders of major European economies, and in Japan. Clause Offe among others have been talking about social capitalism and invariably the left are looking at welfare capitalism of Europe and Japan as a model. Also there is no discussion of ownership structure and without exception they begin and end with expenditures reform. Australian Prime Minister RUDD, while denouncing the "unfettered capitalism" is calling for the creation of a system of Social Capitalism so as to save capitalism from "cannibalizing" itself. Specifically he is arguing for "A system of open markets, unambiguously regulated by an activist state, and one in which the state intervenes to reduce the greater inequalities that competitive markets will inevitably generate," He calls for more state intervention, but with free trade and the elimination of protectionist measures (Phillip Coorey, January 31, 2009, Similar argument but with the title of "Associative Democracy" is also presented by Paul Hirst (1994). 

2) This issue is raised among others by Jeremy Rifkin (1995). Rifkin attempts to support his contention that the link between military expenditures, automation (elimination of human labor), widening  gap between the very rich and the rest in American society, capital accumulation drive which eliminates jobs (over two million annually), the disparity between the level of skills and the high tech based production process are causes of  future loss of jobs. Rifkin sees the world of tomorrow as a world of reduced employment opportunities particularly in the private sector. The solution is a rejection of private sector dependency for jobs and growth without meaningful employment. Rifkin, proposes "a social wage for community service" and a "shadow wages for voluntary work" would be essential in encouraging and providing alternative employment.

3) I am indebted to my friend Behrooz Ghasemi for encouraging me to read more on "luti" culture. see Homa Katozian for a discussion this issue in the context of Sadegh Hedayat's  life and work).

4) For a review and discussion of the role of women activism in Iran see (among others) Elaheh Rostami Povey,  (2005),

5) Currently around the world we have "micro-financing" "micro-loans" established in Bangladesh and India by the Economist Muhammad Yunis of Bangladesh and the rising charities and NGOs, and talk of "social capitalism" to deal with the consequences neolibearlism.  In the United States where 40 million people have no access to a bank account, the number of applicants for microfinancing is growing at a smaller pace than in developing countries.                                    

In the US microfinance organizations tend to be NGOs or non-profits relying on generous benefactors while the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh turns a profit each year from which it can lend to new borrowers. Although there are cases of microfinance helping the poor in the global south, for the most part as Uwe Buse asks whether it is, "altruism or exploitation? Big Finance Muscles In on Microlending." Buse points out that"Now major banks and pension funds are getting into the business, as they discover that the interest paid by the poor can produce high returns. Is it aid or exploitation?" however, it must be mentioned that "according to data, estimates, roughly one in two borrowers has been able to pull her family out of poverty with the help of microloans."  And that must be nurtured to become more successful and only within the context of a strong and committed social sector (where profit motive does not exist) it can be achieved. If microfinance becomes part of a network of similar organization, the possibility of a sustainable and successful program will increase dramatically. The social sector controls substantial amounts of assets. United States alone is home to over 1.5 million social sector organizations with an annual revenue of over $700 billion and assets valued at $2 trillion, thereby allowing for financing of a wide variety of social (philanthropic) programs.


Cockburn, Alexander (2006): A Nobel Peace Prize for Neoliberalism?The Myth of Microloans. Counterpunch. Weekend Edition. October 20 / 22, 2006.

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Shariati, Mehdi S. (2007), "Socializing the Cost of Globalization, Militarism, Imperialism, Social Imperialism..." Symposia, 2007. Also in Payvand Iran News under the title of  "Globalization, Militarism, Imperialism, Social Imperialism and the U.S National Debt."

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... Payvand News - 07/23/09 ... --

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