The False Dawn of Civil Society

The False Dawn of Civil Society

When we put our faith in civil society, we are grasping at straws.


Civil Society and the Future of the Nation-State: Two views
Civil society–a broad term denoting the wide range of organizations operating outside the governmental and business sectors–has taken on greater significance in a world in which the state is increasingly beset from within by armed rebellions and ethnic tensions and from without by the border-leaping forces of globalization. We asked David Rieff and Michael Clough to assess the role of civil society in the governance of an unruly world scarcely imagined by the architects of the traditional nation-state.   –The Editors

When we put our faith in civil society, we are grasping at straws. Apart from a few principled nationalists, libertarians and Marxists, most well-intentioned people now view the rise of civil society as the most promising political development of the post-cold war era. By itself, that fact only points to how desperate we are, on the cusp of the millennium, to identify any political paradigm offering some realistic prospect of a more humane future. Such hopes give credit to those who entertain them, but they also perfectly illustrate J.D. Bernal’s insight that “there are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man’s reason has never learned to separate them.”

Civil society is just such a projection of our desires. Worse, it gravely misdescribes the world we actually confront. As a concept, it has almost no specific gravity. It is little better than a Rorschach blot, the interpretations of which have been so massaged and expanded over the past fifteen years that the term has come to signify everything–which is to say nothing. Conventionally, we use civil society to apply to groups, societies and social trends of which we approve: societies based on diversity and tolerance, in which mutual assistance and solidarity are deeply established and the state is responsive rather than repressive.

Civil society is often described as a return to mutuality in political and social arrangements, and as the third force through which the traditional hierarchy of state and subject can be unseated. The term is used somewhat more rigorously by political scientists to encompass all those elements of society, and all those arrangements within it, that exist outside the state’s reach or instigation. But in our time, the most general understanding of civil society is as the vehicle for a range of political and social goals. It has become a shorthand way of referring to all those democratically minded groups that have opposed and sometimes brought about the overthrow of repressive regimes in countries as varied as Marcos’s Philippines, Abacha’s Nigeria and Husak’s Czechoslovakia. Where civil society is absent, repressive, tyrannical, even genocidal forces are supposed to have a freer hand; where it is present, it is supposed to constitute a firebreak against war, exploitation and want.

In short, civil society has come, simultaneously, to be thought of as encompassing everything that is not the state and as exemplifying a set of inherently democratic values. That is why those who tout it as the silver bullet both to “open” repressive societies and to guarantee or deepen democratic liberties and curb state power move with feline grace between using civil society as a descriptive term and as a prescriptive one. To which it might be added that the dogma holding that strengthening civil society is the key to creating or sustaining a healthy polity has come to dominate the thinking of major charitable foundations, as well as human rights and humanitarian organizations.

Those disposed to accept the claims of these groups for the emancipatory potential of civil society should note that the term has been enthusiastically embraced by many government officials in the United States and the countries of the European Union. In the framework of development aid in particular, the shift from channeling assistance to governments, as had been the case well into the eighties, to offering it to local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) has been justified not simply as the inevitable prudential response to states misusing aid but as a way of building civil society.

That this emphasis on local capacity building, to use the bureaucratic term of art, and on fostering civil society arose at exactly the moment when development aid from most major donor countries was plummeting (in many countries, including the United States, they are now at historic lows) may, of course, be coincidental. But in the development sphere, at least, ideological commitment to making states “responsive” to civil society seems to have been accompanied by a determination to cut funding. When pressed, development specialists who favor this new approach insist that a robust civil society will open the way for the integration of the poor world into the global economy–supposedly the first step toward prosperity.

Viewed from this angle, the idea of civil society begins to look less like a way of fostering democratic rights and responsive governments and more like part of the dominant ideology of the post-cold war period: liberal market capitalism. A perfect example of this synthesis of emancipatory sentiments and faith in free markets can be found in the Executive Summary of the 1997 Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict. Civil society is assigned a pivotal role. “Many elements of civil society,” the report states, “can work to reduce hatred and violence and to encourage attitudes of concern, social responsibility and mutual aid within and between groups. In difficult economic and political transitions, the organizations of civil society are of crucial importance in alleviating the dangers of mass violence.” The paragraph then segues, without break or transition, into the following assertion: “Many elements in the private sector around the world are dedicated to helping prevent deadly conflict.”

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.

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.

All the major nations seem to have emerged from the cold war weaker and more incoherent than they were when they entered it. And for good reason. The course of the world economy has been deeply subversive of the established structures of power. But as Robert Hormats, the vice chairman of Goldman, Sachs & Co. International, observed, nobody controls globalization–certainly not national governments, as was demonstrated by the inability of the British government in 1992 to protect the value of the British pound against speculators led by George Soros.

Such perceived and real loss of power has been followed by a loss of legitimacy. It is now politicians who are the supplicants and corporate executives who are viewed as the dispensers of wisdom and authority and the holders of real power. The European Union countries were not able to muster the resolve to end the Bosnian war, but they were able to launch European monetary union at the behest of corporate Europe–an event that in many ways was European capitalism’s end run around a half-century-old social contract between capital and labor, now seen to be interfering with the corporate bottom line.

In the United States, a renewed ethnic consciousness has led to what seems like a flowering of a multiplicity of allegiances; in Western Europe, the subsumption of nation-states in the project of the European Union, as well as the arrival of large numbers of nonwhite immigrants for the first time in several centuries, has produced similarly subversive effects on the legitimacy of the nation.

Faced with such confusions, is it any wonder that the ideal of civil society, which does not seek to oppose this fragmentation but rather to capitalize on it, should have become so important? Add to this civil society’s seeming moral dimension, and the stew becomes well-nigh irresistible.

Furthermore, this blend of economic and democratic determinism has combined easily with a deep fatalism about the future of the nation-state. Political scientists constantly assure us that we have been going through the most profound change in international relations since the establishment of the Westphalian order in the seventeenth century. Nations have been clearly less and less able to affect investment flows and have thus been judged to be turning into hollow shells. And the future of supranational institutions like the UN system is seen as being, if anything, bleaker still. Better make a virtue of necessity and insist that the new medievalism of civil society, with the NGOs playing the role of the guilds in fourteenth-century Italy, would be an improvement over a world of etiolated nation-states in which even that sine qua non of state power, a monopoly on violence, is in many cases no longer assured.

A world in which the Enlightenment project of universal values seems to have been reduced to human rights activists’ demands for more stringent and binding international legal regimes was bound to be drawn to a faith in localism and single-issue activism. In fairness, the perception of the weakening of the nation and of the impotence of international organizations has not been mistaken. What has been misplaced is the belief that a network of associations could accomplish what states could not.

Proponents of the effectiveness of civil society point to examples of the successful opposition of popular action to repressive regimes or state policies. People power in the Philippines, the Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, the recent campaign to ban landmines–these are the great success stories of civil society. But it was always an empirical stretch to claim that these historic events were proof that human betterment would henceforth mainly be the product of the struggles of dissidents and grassroots activists.

The idea of civil society has been most coherent when applied to nations where citizens needed protection from a repressive state, as was the case in the Soviet empire. But in other parts of the world this paradigm is either irrelevant or of distinctly secondary importance. There are parts of Africa where a stronger state, one that could bring the various bandits and insurgents to heel, might be of far greater value. It’s tempting to add that the United States, after more than two decades of seemingly inexorable privatization, is a country where strengthening the state’s role would be preferable to hoping that NGOs will somehow be able to take up the slack.

The suggestion that civil society can cope where nations have failed is, in fact, a counsel of despair in such instances. Without a treasury, a legislature or an army at its disposal, civil society is less equipped to confront the challenges of globalization than nations are, and more likely to be wracked by divisions based on region and the self-interest of the single-issue groups that form the nucleus of the civil society movement.

Why should fragmented groups of like-minded individuals be more effective in, say, resisting the depredations of environmental despoilers than a national government? Remember, the ideal of civil society is being advanced not simply for the developed world, where to a large extent it exists already, but for the world as a whole. And yet, as we know from bitter experience, the leverage of grassroots activists even in the United States, where there are courts to turn to and media to beguile, is not enormous. One can admire the efforts and sacrifices of activists in the poor world without losing sight of the fact that their countries would be better off with honest and effective governments and legal systems, and with militaries that stay in their barracks, than with denser networks of local associations, which may stand for good values or hideous ones.

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.

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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