The False Dawn of Civil Society | The Nation


The False Dawn of Civil Society

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Obviously, the communitarians, human rights activists and liberal foundation executives who first raised the banner of civil society were no more interested in helping refurbish liberal capitalism's ideological superstructure than was the human rights movement in making its cause the quasi-religious faith of the international new class, but this is nonetheless exactly what they have done. Surely, it is a safe assumption that any term that can be embraced as warmly by the Clinton Administration and the European Commission as "civil society" has been threatens no important vested interests in the rich world.

About the Author

David Rieff
David Rieff, a New York–based journalist, is the author of eight books. He is working on a book about the global...

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Again, there is no question of a subterfuge. The idea of civil society simply coincides with the tropism toward privatization that has been the hallmark of these post-cold war times. Far from being oppositional, it is perfectly in tune with the Zeitgeist of an age that has seen the growth of what proponents like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are pleased to call the "Third Way" and what might more unsentimentally be called "Thatcherism with a human face." As we privatize prisons, have privatized development assistance and are in the process, it seems, of privatizing military interventions into places like New Guinea, Sierra Leone and Angola by armies raised by companies like Sandline and Executive Outcomes, so let us privatize democracy-building. Let's give up on the state's ability to establish the rule of law or democracy through elections and legislation, and instead give civic associations--the political equivalent of the private sector--a chance to do their thing.

The fact that all this comes couched in the language (and the imaginative framework) of emancipation does not, in and of itself, make it emancipatory. Indeed, there are times when it seems as if the advocates of civil society are the useful idiots of globalization. In further undermining the state, they undermine the only remaining power that has at least the potential to stand in opposition to the privatization of the world, commonly known as globalization.

Making the world safe for global capitalism may be one of the effects of the triumph of the ideal of civil society, but it is not, of course, the sole or even the principal reason for its prominence. The ideal of civil society responds to a deeper problem--an intellectual, not to say a moral, void. The most profound legacy of the post-cold war era may prove to be the ideological hollowing-out that all developed countries and many poor ones have experienced. The disappointments, for liberals and leftists, respectively, of nationalism and communism were already largely assimilated well before the collapse of the Soviet empire. What was unexpected was that the end of the superpower rivalry and the victory of market capitalism over state socialism would also reveal just how diminished the nation-state had become over the half-century since the end of the Second World War, and just how ineffectual the international institutions--above all the United Nations and the Bretton Woods organizations--that were established in its wake.

This is the revelation that has come in the package marked "globalization." The cold war had been an era of alliances and battlegrounds. Every nation had its place, whether it wanted one or not. It was above all a militarized environment, and, because only nations could afford modern armies, the nation-state still appeared to be quite strong. But this only shows how the transformation of the world economy could take place without sufficient notice being taken of the implications of those changes.

For all the bluff talk of the United States being "the indispensable nation" or the "only remaining superpower," it is less able to impose its will than it was during the cold war, and internally, no national project with the unifying force of anti-Communism is anywhere to be found. Multiculturalism, global capitalism's consumerist ideological adjunct, has further fragmented any unitary cultural conception of the nation except in its most debased, commodified form.

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