chapter  11
18 Pages

Disharmony and civil society: a view from Latin America

Harmony is a difficult concept to define. This is particularly true in the context of this volume, which seeks to explore the notion of ‘harmony’ by bridging Confucian and non-Confucian viewpoints. Experts on Confucianism disagree on the meaning of harmony and, understandably, tend to be reluctant to accept Western readings of this concept. This problem locks us non-experts into a difficult situation. How can we talk about harmony, trying to connect East and West, without having to defend a Confucian concept that can easily cease being ‘Confucian’? In this chapter, I approach the notion of harmony in political life by focusing on a theme that has enjoyed tremendous popularity in Western political science in the last two decades: civil society. Beyond all disagreements on the meaning of harmony in Confucian thought, there seem to be a couple of points that merit a look at the relationship between harmony and the Western notion of civil society. ‘Harmony talk’ is invariably connected to social relationships that foster civic virtues in individuals. Also, Confucian harmony confers significant weight to the cultivation of trust as a foundation for ‘humane’ social relationships and government (see Tao’s contribution to this volume). The production of civic virtues and trust are core components of arguments that link civil society to good governance in democratic systems. Thus, a look at the effects of participation in voluntary organizations can help us illuminate the idea of harmony from a Western perspective. However, my take on civil society will not focus on its capacity to facilitate harmony in society. I am interested in exploring the connection between civil society and disharmony. A look at the ‘dark’ side of civic engagement can be helpful to problematize the notion of harmony, to place it in context and to understand some of its potential limitations. I will illustrate the discussion with a case study from Argentina. The purpose of the empirical analysis is not to learn specifically about the Argentine case, but to suggest concrete ways to explore how associational life connects to the notion of (dis)harmony in the real world.