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On Democracy (III): Why shall there be a strong civil society?

By Guenther Baechler*
Wednesday, December 19
What is the difference between “society“ and “civil society“? Why the adjective: “civil”? The answer refers to different understandings over time of the notion of the society, of the state and of the interrelations between the two. Whereas the philosophers in the classical period did not distinct between the “good society” and the state at all modern thinkers in the 19th and 20th century introduced the concept of the “civilian society” (“buergerliche Gesellschaft”) as a realm separate from the liberal state and its institutions. For Immanuel Kant human beings are rational and capable to be effective guards against the domination of a single interest or the tyranny of the majority or of bellicose adventurers. Only at the end of the last century (from the seventies onwards) “civil society” became a widely discussed term that made a distinction between both the society at large and the modern state. Obviously a socio-political arena appeared outside of the family, the state, and the market because neither the “civilian society” nor the state was able to address some common interests of a group of citizens. Against this “civil society” is understood as the aggregate of non-governmental, non-economical and non-family organizations that manifest the interests of citizens. The New Left as well as the Green movements and the Neo-liberals assigned civil society a key role in empowering citizens to defend their common interests against the state, disliked government figures, and the (globalized) market, but also as an arena to subvert all kinds of authoritarian regimes or dictatorships. Exactly because of such role assigned to the civil society some critics in the South would say that the civil society is nothing more than just a neo-imperial (soft) tool in the hand of Northern elite in order to shape the post-colonial world according to capitalist interests. Therefore, in many countries civil society is under heavy pressure or is completely wiped out by authoritarian regimes. Indeed, while many NGOs see the civil society as a panacea for solving all the problems created by the state and the market more and more civil society actors are called to justify the legitimacy and democratic credentials of non-elected and more or less self-nominated groups. The question whether or not mature and institutionalized democracies really need myriads of organizations in order to properly and effectively defend citzens’ interests comes up again and again.

To answer the question let us highlight the different roles of civil society organizations. First of all civil society organizations emerged in order to defend the interests of citizens against the state. E.g., in the 1970ties I participated in the protest movement against nuclear power plants in the city of Basel. Since inhabitants were afraid of the potential dangers of nuclear energy they got empowered through the movement and voted against the power plant in a popular referendum. Another example is the new peace movement in Europe at the peak of the Cold War. Since people were afraid of nuclear missiles if not of a new devastating war in the middle of the continent they engaged in large-scale activities for many years. These included quite some risky manifestations in former communist Germany, too. “Think globally, act locally” became one of the most famous slogans of the activists in the 1980tes.

A second role is linked to the so-called watch dog function. Groups of citizens may not fully trust the democratically elected representatives in particular when it comes to political hot potatoes, to the implementation of the constitution and legislation in disputed areas, or the proper spending of tax payers’ money. Since representatives in a democratic government are per definition partisan – promoting the program of one particular party or coalition, they may sometimes forget their obligation to act in the interest of the nation as a whole. Indeed, in many democracies we observe that over time the distance between the rulers and the ruled grew bigger and bigger. The civil society may introduce a political culture that sheds light on common goals and national interests. The fight against (elite) corruption or the misuse of power may be a case in point. Examples in this particular area are plentiful; let us just name Transparency International, (young) lawyers associations, human rights houses, election monitoring, and Amnesty International.

Thirdly, advocacy emerged as one of the main functions of the civil society. Advocacy groups may fight for the rights of certain sectors in the society. They stand for global human values, the promotion of human rights, and the protection of the natural environment. The promotion of gender equality and the struggle for women’s rights became the most outstanding topic of the advocacy sector. It made the roles women play in a society visible. At the same time the notion of “access to” became a major concern. Access to resources (water, money, education) and to political institutions (parliament, executives, international peace negotiations) are and will be crucial aspects of women’s movements.

Defense of interests, watch dog, and advocacy presumably cover most of the functions civil society organizations assumed. Equally important as the roles they play are the means and ways civil society uses in order to impact on both the democratic society and state. Again I concentrate on the three main types. Citizen initiatives aim at facilitating dialogues, round tables, or mediation between concerned people and state representatives either in order to promote a specific project (e.g., a traffic free street) or to stop one (e.g., expansion of an airport). They may also use courts in order to defend their interests. To a second type belong professional NGOs which use legal and political means to promote their cause. As such professional groups and associations (of advocates, teachers, academicians) may use the powerful instrument of scientific studies and assessments in order to convince a wider public or civil servants. An open and future orientated policy dialogue is a powerful tool in times of changes, in divided societies, or in extraordinary circumstances. Trade unions and associations of employees developed in a long history their own quite powerful methods in order to defend the interests of their members (strikes, lobbying, negotiations, standard setting). Quite often professional organizations propose new legislation and as such they may contribute to the transformation and creation of new law and practices in a particular field of interest (e.g., protection of forests through certification of wood; awareness rising on the impact of climate change; children rights; rights of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities). Radical activism belongs to the third type to be mentioned. Greenpeace in its early days became famous for its spectacular actions at high sea against wale fishing, oil platforms, nuclear waste disposal and the like. But also locally, radical groups engaged in numerous ways in what they call civil disobedience or social defense. They occupied railways, chained themselves at buildings, blocked roads or a financial district. The “occupy movement” became famous because it used modern social media for coordinating simultaneous protest actions around the globe.

Of course there are also “no go areas” for civil society actors. Recurring to armed violence, murder of politicians, blackmailing, or using terror and criminal methods do certainly not belong to the repertoire of democratic participation. “Thieves in law” may also be seen as an organization of the civil society (and even a strong one); however, such organization violates all norms democratic countries aim to promote. At the same time the existence of criminal gangs, nationalistic hotheads or neo-Nazi underground in some countries indicates the difficulty to draw a red line between a “good” and a “bad” civil society. E.g., artificial NGOs with misleading labels (e.g., underlining the charity or humanitarian character) created and financed by third states in order to undermine the public order of a given state damage the functioning of a sound civil society sector. The importance governments attach to the civil society sector can also be seen in another problematic development: the creation of quasi-NGOs by state agencies to create additional channels to influence the media, manipulate the public, win elections, or counteract against independent and critical voices. Or NGOs that are founded in order to promote one particular political party are problematic as well. Such groups may contribute to the escalation of power struggles and to deepening societal divides rather than to mitigating tensions through democratic dialogue and problem solving strategies. As it seems it is not possible to draw any line between good and bad strictly once and for ever. Maybe we should leave this field to societal and political processes of democratization at the national level. The drawing - and shifting – of the red line has much to do with the local political culture, with societal acceptance, tolerance, political negotiations and democratic law making as well.

However, in the 21st century the question whether or not there shall be a civil society or not cannot be left to national legislation only. Civil society actors definitely became strong in any democratic state; and they are struggling for existence in many non-democratic societies as well. They use quite distinct ways to communicate their concerns, activities, and visions. Promoting legislation, conducting studies, using media, facilitating dialogs, sitting at the mediation table, engaging in political struggles, organizing manifestations, and using more radical forms of civil disobedience are among the ways and means developed by civil societies in many countries. In democracies the rule of law defines what a citizen is supposed to do and not to do. National legislation and international conventions take care of the political rights of citizens. Against this the citizens’ activities mentioned above are legitimate and legal, too. Even more so democracies have foreseen that there shall be an organized civil society. All democratic constitutions and legislations provide safe space for political activities of the individual citizen. Such activities go beyond of just casting a vote or electing a representative for a governmental function. Civil political participation is the genuine will and a guaranteed right of each and every citizen.

With the emergence of the civil society as a new realm mostly the established democracies got enriched by “societal democracy” distinct from the formal and political spheres (see my contribution on democracy II in THE MESSENGER, August 1, 2012). In fact (may be even de jure) they add a new element to the separation of powers. Evidentially there is a strong desire, will, or need of citizens to organize around group interests for whatever reasons: to stop repression, to mitigate power struggles, to establish certain values, to induce change. Therefore, in nowadays democratic societies NGOs are widely seen as legitimate agents of well defined reforms, efficient problem solving, and changes embedded in (globalized) societies that are undergoing permanent however rather ill-defined and somewhat chaotic changes anyhow. Indeed, civil society has become a sign of ripeness and strength of a democracy and not of its weakness.

*Guenther Baechler, Ambassador of Switzerland in Tbilisi, holds a PhD in political science and is a visiting professor at the Institute for European Studies at the University of Basel.