State and Civil Society Can Join Sides

Article excerpt

The dominance of neo-liberal economic ideology over the past three decades has had its counterpart in the re-emergence of liberal socio-political categories.

Generally, the left has mounted a sustained critique of neo-liberal economic ideology - privatisation, liberalisation, and punitive macro-economic policies. But the re-emergent use of liberal socio-political categories has received less sustained critical attention.

It was with this in mind that, in the last issue of Umsebenzi Online, we published a short intervention by the Brazilian Emir Sader "Civil Society, NGOs, and the Public Sphere" (see above).

Sader notes that in Brazil (just as in SA), over the past few decades the concept of "civil society" has been widely espoused. Yet, as Sader notes, Marx himself only became a Marxist for the first time when he began to critique the liberal notion of society as being constituted by two realms - the "state" on the one hand, and a distinct "civil society", on the other.

This idea of a realm standing outside the "state", immediately places us onto the terrain of liberalism, the state starts to become a "necessary evil", at best confined to certain technocratic tasks and to limited welfare delivery.

By contrast, "civil society" is conjured up as a positive realm of freedom, whose job it is to check, balance and generally hold accountable a state that is always hovering on the brink of authoritarianism.

But "civil society" is really a wide range of different things - including social movements, diverse NGOs, business associations, media corporations, and even organised crime syndicates. To lump these all together behind the fig-leaf of "civil society" and to contrast them with "the state" obscures many things.

In the first place, note how, whatever the real challenges in government might be, just how unaccountable civil society formations themselves are - and yet they are those who claim the task of holding the state to account.

As Sader neatly puts it: "they proclaim themselves to be representatives of civil society, but they tend not to be transparent in elections of their leaders, origins of their funds, and forms of their decision-making". This would apply to Standard Bank, to advocate Paul Hoffmann's self-styled Institute for Accountability in Southern African, or the Mail & Guardian.

But what is especially hidden in the notion of "civil society" is the fact that, in a basically progressive, democratic but capitalist society like SA (or Brazil), real power within "civil society" is vested in the market (or rather in the dominant corporations). A progressive agenda cannot be about pitting "civil society" in general against the "state" in general. A progressive agenda has to be about building democratic popular power within and beyond the state in order to roll back the unelected, undemocratic power of the "market". The class struggle cuts across both the state and broader society.

The relevance of all this to some of the contemporary challenges we have in SA should now be more apparent.

In the first place, it helps to ground our own SACP "deployment" strategies, which some forces have tried unsuccessfully to turn into a question of personal venality.

As our medium-term vision clearly notes, it is important for the working class to contest all key sites of power - the point of production, the economy at large, communities, the ideological front, internationally, and the state. Which is also why we should endeavour to create a communist presence in all of these sites - after all, as Sader following Marx asserts, the class struggle itself is everywhere.

In the second place, and these things are all linked, interrogating the concept of "civil society" helps to ground our critique of the current anti-majoritarian constitutionalism. This anti-majoritarian liberalism treats rights almost entirely as rights of citizens/civil society against the state - and not, for instance, the right of a democratic state (and the right of a democratic majority to actively help that state) to vigorously implement an electoral mandate in the face of equally vigorous opposition from powerful class forces lurking behind the fig-leaves of "civil society". …