The False Dawn of Civil Society

By Rieff, David | The Nation, February 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

The False Dawn of Civil Society


Rieff, David, The Nation


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. …

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