"Civil society"...or democratic popular power?


South African Communist Party Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Cronin questions the notion of "civil society".


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 - privatization, liberalization, 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"). Those who read Sader`s article will remember that he 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 organized 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 gift themselves with 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 Paul Hoffmann`s self-styled Southern African Accountability Foundation, 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 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 endeavor 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-leave of "civil society".

In the third place, it helps to ground our engagement with a variety of workerist and leftist tendencies. As Sader correctly puts it: "This negative conception of the state abandons the path of democratization of the state." This calls to mind a debate I had a few years back with one comrade. He was arguing that the present state was a "bourgeois state", finish-and-klaar, (because it was clearly not the "dictatorship of the proletariat"). In essence this is a view that sees class struggle as being waged only in "civil society" - and whoever "wins" this struggle, then gets to run the state. This amounts to abandoning the path of democratisation of the present democratic (but class contested, of course) state in favour of a vacuous strategy of "smashing it". The bankruptcy of this perspective became all too apparent last year when the same comrade accepted a senior economic governmental deployment in a particularly corruption-prone province. When challenged, he shrugged his shoulders and said: "What can you expect? It`s a bourgeois state."

But, on a less personal note, the critique of the liberal "state versus civil society" paradigm also helps to ground the concerns that the SACP raised last year with our comrades in COSATU around the "Civil Society Conference". Obviously, the SACP expressed support for COSATU`s right to convene a conference that mobilized a range of social movements and NGOs to address, amongst other things, corruption in the state. However, we believed then, and we still believe now, that it was a mistake to exclude COSATU`s own party political alliance partners - as if there were something inherently pure about supposedly non-political "civil society" formations, and something inherently predatory about those more directly engaged with the state. It was a confusion that reflects the hegemony within our society of the liberal "civil society vs. the state" paradigm.

In the fourth place, note that Sader`s (and Marx`s) critique of civil society is ALSO a critique of a particular conception of the state as standing above and outside of "society". To subvert this false dichotomy, Sader uses the concept of the "public sphere" and of "popular participatory" activism. As he writes: "To democratize is to decommodify, to affirm the public sphere to the detriment of the commercial sphere.  To democratize is to strengthen the role of citizens to the detriment of the role of consumers."

Again, this touches upon many issues that we have been raising. In the first place, the liberal version of the state standing outside of society becomes (apart from a "necessary evil") a "bureaucracy" that, at best, must "deliver" to otherwise passive "voters-consumers". This mistaken notion of the state also connects up with the SACP`s "nationalisation of the mines" interventions. We correctly pointed out that it was a debate driven, at least initially, by indebted BEE mining investors seeking a bail-out. But (related to this) it was also based on a particular version of the state - a bureaucracy that could be factionally and parasitically captured in order to advance specific private accumulation agendas. This is why "socialisation" of all key resources and means of production (including socialisation of the state) is a better concept and a better objective. The idea of "socialization" emphasises the need for popular/working class power and activism in and outside of the state, versus an obsession with bureaucratic power (and bureaucratic ownership).

P.S. On a wider note - notice how the dominance of the (neo-)liberal paradigm of "democracy" as "civil society" protected from undue state interference, and the state, at best, as a technical bureaucracy, has enabled a current European scandal to pass largely beneath the radar-screen of our local media`s attention, let alone outrage. While we are constantly told that democracy is "under threat" here in SA - how about what has happened in recent months in both Greece and Italy?

There, elected governments have been dissolved and replaced, without any election, by technocrats from the financial milieu. These regime changes were brought by "civil society", that is, in reality, by the European Central Bank, and German and French banking interests, in opposition to "civil society" in the shape of many popular movements opposed to the stringency measures designed to rescue capitalist banks guilty of extravagant lending behavior. Former Greek Prime Minister, Papandreou`s brief flirtation with the idea of a popular referendum to test support for the stringency measures (in what is supposed to be the home of "Western democracy" after all) was greeted with outrage in the business media, including our own.

*Jeremy Cronin is the SACP deputy general secretary

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  • Jeremy Cronin has written a really important article for the global movement.
    Although the term is not used widely in the U.S.,"terms like "pluralism" and "consensus" vs. "populism" are much more common, the European based concept of "civil society," focusing abstractly on the conflict between "states"(governments in the U.S) and everything else, avoids the class nature of certainly capitalist society, stresses civil political liberties as really the only "human rights," conflates everything, as Cronin says(in the U.S. I would say General Motors with the Humane Society) and thus weakens class based peoples movements and parties by ignoring the concrete distribution of wealth and power in societies and, like 19th century liberals, contending that as long as the "marketplace of ideas" remains free and open, progress and civilization would continue to advance(even though the "marketplace of ideas" was never free and open but a reflection of social relations and class rule and the ideology of the free market was used to defend imperialism, brutal wars of conquest, the use of military force to suppress peoples revolutions, etc. The NG0's flattered as the protectors of "human rights" by those who talk endless of civil society are like the religious and secular charitable organizations praised by 19th century liberals for providing aid to the victims of capitalist exploitation, but never questioning what was behind the exploitation or how people could organize themselves to end it
    Norman Markowitz

    Posted by norman markowitz, 06/14/2012 3:13pm (7 years ago)

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