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The False Dawn of Civil Society | The Nation

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The False Dawn of Civil Society

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This last point is essential. Viewed coldly, the concept of civil society is based on the fundamentally apolitical, or even antipolitical, concept of single-issue activism. And yet surely one person's civil society group is another person's pressure group. The assumption of the advocates of civil society is that somehow locally based associations are always going to stand for those virtues the authors of the Carnegie Commission associated them with. When it is said that civil society must be recognized as a new force in international politics, what is meant is a certain kind of civil society--in other words, a certain kind of political movement. But why should this be the case? It is only because what is properly a descriptive term is being misused as an ideological or moral one.

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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Why, for example, is the International Campaign to Ban Landmines viewed as an exemplar of civil society instead of, say, the National Rifle Association, which, whatever one thinks of its politics, has at least as good a claim to being an authentic grassroots movement? The UN bitterly resisted having to recognize the NRA as a legitimate NGO. And yet if we think of NGO as a description and not a political position, the NRA obviously qualifies.

In any case, to make the claim that civil society is bound to be, or is even likely to be, a force for good is roughly akin to claiming that people, at least when left to their own devices, are good. In contrast, proponents of civil society are often mesmerized by the depredations of states and seem to assume that states, by their nature, are malign or impotent or both. But there are other predators besides government officials, other ills besides those unleashed by untrammeled state power. An example might be the Bosnian Serbs under Radovan Karadzic. During the Bosnian war, it was a liberal conceit that the Serbs acted as they did because of fear or media manipulation. The idea, say, that people are capable, without manipulation, of great evil was dismissed out of hand. And yet as one who spent a good deal of time covering the war in Bosnia, my view is that Karadzic represented the aspirations of ordinary Serbs in that extraordinary time all too faithfully, and could rightfully lay just as great a claim to being an exemplar of civil society as Vaclav Havel.

That Karadzic is an evil man and Havel a good one should go without saying. But where the question of civil society is concerned, it is beside the point, unless, of course, you accept the claim that civil society exists only when the ideals or interests being expressed are good, peace-loving and tolerant. At that point civil society becomes, as it has for its more unreflective advocates, a theological notion, not a political or a sociological one. The example of Rwanda, which, as Peter Uvin has shown in his extraordinary book Aiding Violence, was viewed by development experts before the genocide as having one of the most developed civil societies in Africa, should be a warning to anyone who assumes it is a sure measure of a nation's political health or a buffer against catastrophe.

Finally, there is the problem of democracy. Leaders of associations, pressure groups and NGOs--unlike politicians in democracies--are accountable to no one except their members and those who provide them with funds. That may seem a minor question to adherents of a particular cause. Does it matter that Jody Williams was never elected to lead the campaign against landmines? Perhaps it doesn't. But proponents of civil society are claiming that it offers a better alternative, or at least an important additional voice, to that of governments and parliaments, not just on a single issue but on all the pressing questions of our time. And leaders of such groups, unlike politicians, do not have to campaign, hold office, allow the public to see their tax returns or stand for re-election. It is, indeed, the new medievalism, with the leaders of the NGOs as feudal lords.

This, of course, is hardly what most advocates of civil society have in mind. And yet as things stand, it is this unaccountable, undemocratic congeries of single-interest groups that is being proposed as the only viable alternative to the nation-state. It seems to me that were they to achieve the kind of prominence and centrality that is being predicted for them, we would all be far worse off than we are today. And things are gloomy enough already. The premise on which the advocates of civil society have been operating is simply wrong. The nation-state has been weakened, but it is not a spent force. And those who aspire to the better world the magic bullet of civil society is supposed to engineer would do better to fight the political battles they believe need fighting in the full knowledge that we do not all agree on what should be done or how societies should be organized, and we never will.

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