All This “civil Society” Talk Takes Us Nowhere

If there’s one phrase I could do with hearing less of during 2002, it’s “civil society”. I’m not alone. Many of my friends, community activists and organisers in a number of countries also cringe at the ritualized, ubiquitous usage of the phrase. We shudder at the thought that we might be mistaken for being part of it. John Grimond, in The Economist’s “The World In 2002” says of the phrase: “It is universally talked about in tones that suggest it is a Great Good, but for some people it presents a problem: what on earth is it? Unless you know, how can you tell if you would want to join it?” I couldn’t agree more. And if you found out, would you want to? I still don’t know what the hell “civil society” is supposed to mean, let alone “international civil society”. Is it the name given to a group of representatives from various NGOs deliberating the latest sign-on statement or declaration at a meeting? It certainly seems to have become a kind of grandiose shorthand to describe groupings of NGOs which may or may not be connected with communities and broader peoples’ movements in the countries in which they are based. Or is it something else? Who gets to be in civil society and how? Are the people taking direct action on the streets against the authorities and being teargassed, pepper-sprayed, beaten and arrested part of civil society? Who gets to represent civil society and decide what, for whom, and on whose behalf? There is no shortage of definitions of civil society, Gramsci, de Tocqueville, Putnam, Hegel, Marx, and many others have written volumes on the subject. But other than general agreement that it spans all forms of organisations between the household and the state, the notion seems to mean all things to all people. I cannot see how uncritical adoption and use of this term advances peoples’ struggles for basic rights, for self-determination, liberation, and decolonisation, and against imperialism and the neoliberal agenda in all their various guises.

This is not a matter of a term emerging from peoples’ struggles being coopted by the power elites and subverted – although the terminology lends itself entirely to the service of divide and rule strategies, and the marginalisation of social movements and more critical voices. Civil society is a construct which allows politically and economically powerful institutions to decide who is in, and who is out, when and if it suits their interests.

Furthermore, it has the added value of sounding broad and inclusive enough to add a gloss of legitimacy to any institution, programme, or system which can be shown to the public as somehow engaging with civil society, whoever that is. Referring to the use of the phrase in the Philippines, after the recent mass mobilizations to oust President Estrada, Edmundo Santuario III observes “it is now likewise being claimed by civic clubs, groups of rightist military elements, and politico-religious organisations, some legislators and others.”

Moreover, he argues, “civil society is actively bannered not necessarily as an antidote to poverty, corruption or as a vehicle for democratization, but to steer grassroots organisations away from the radical influence of political organisations calling for radical comprehensive revolutionary reforms.” In New Zealand, the Trade Liberalisation Network, a new business organization, entirely business led- and driven, which was set up just prior to the Doha WTO Ministerial to promote “better public understanding and support for trade liberalisation” claims to be part of civil society.

And of course, it is. So is the Mafia. So are feudal landlords, financial speculators, neoliberal thinktanks, corporate front groups, public relations spindoctors and CEOs of the most rapacious corporations. Yep, they’re all part of the wondrous diversity of civil society, too. James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer note in “Globalisation Unmasked” (Madhyam Books, New Delhi, 2001) that: “Most of the greatest injustices against workers are committed by the wealthy bankers in civil society who squeeze out exorbitant interest payments on internal debt; by landlords who throw peasants off the land; and by industrial capitalists who exhaust workers on starvation wages in sweatshops”.

In their incisive chapter on “NGOs in the Service of Imperialism”, they add: “By talking about “civil society”, NGOers obscure the profound class division, class exploitation and class struggle that polarizes contemporary “civil society””. At a time when the most powerful nation in the world has been pursuing the near obliteration of a country in a naked show of 21st century imperialism is this really a time to be “civil”? In confronting the power of global capital and exposing the role of neoliberal policies in inflicting misery and poverty in our communities and across the planet can we, should we, be “civil”? There are now numerous foundations, institutions, courses, publications – and NGOs dedicated to studying, strengthening or building civil society. Over the past few years, astronomical sums of funding seem to have been sloshing around in the NGO world on “civil society”-related projects. The Bretton Woods institutions, the “baby banks”, many governments and big business are full of civil society rhetoric. The World Bank says it “welcomes the opportunity to work with civil society”.

According to its official documents, The Inter-American Development Bank’s “work with civil society takes on many forms. At the operational level the Bank and its borrowers consult with civil society organisations (CSOs) and affected populations during the course of project preparation and implementation”. The Asian Development Bank seeks to “strengthen cooperation with civil society actors and to respond to their concerns.”

WTO Director-General Mike Moore says he welcomes scrutiny from civil society and that their engagement with the WTO “informs us and encourages us to do better.” How very nice. While their policies are helping to deepen poverty, inequality, desperation, injustice, and environmental destruction, we can all feel so much better because these agencies will be engaging in “constructive dialogue” or consulting with carefully selected “representatives” of civil society. There is no shortage of exhortations to “civil society” to form “partnerships” with business, government, and international institutions in order to supposedly eradicate poverty, save the environment or work towards some other noble-sounding goal. And plenty of takers in the NGO world where the term “civil society” seems well and truly entrenched and many seem willing to walk through fire to earn the right to mingle and meet with those in power. Maori lawyer Moana Jackson says: “One of the difficulties we confront in the struggle against globalisation and the terrible things that neoliberalism, capitalism do to us is that we give away, we forfeit the right to name our world. We seek to demolish or deconstruct globalisation with the naming tools and ideologies of the capitalists who have constructed it. We seek to oppose the weapons of colonization with the language and words of colonization.” We need to have some clear starting points for how we define ourselves. And some clear values. As someone who has long described myself – for want of a better phrase – as part of “uncivil society” I won’t be queueing to join civil society. And as a Filipina activist said to me recently, I think we need less NGOs, and more mass movements. If we are to successfully dismantle the oppressive economic world order and create real alternatives to the neoliberal agenda, we need to stop defining ourselves in half-baked terms. We need much more precision. And we must develop strategies and campaign plans that are not driven by the frameworks of the institutions and processes which we oppose – urgently.

Leave a comment