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Planned obsolescence

Civil society actors must believe that they could find nothing more fulfilling than to become inconsequential, says Anmol Vellani

Does civil society have a larger purpose? I shall endeavour to answer that question by first asking another, perhaps surprising, question: Can civil society exist under an authoritarian regime, under a dictatorship or a fundamentalist state? Authoritarian states typically deny legitimacy to the public sphere -- the sphere that lies between the family and the state -- wherein private citizens connect or associate with one another to pursue their common interests or those for the good of society. 

Nonetheless, even under the most repressive regimes, civil society activity can and does endure. Think of what came to light once the Taliban’s cover of darkness had been lifted in Afghanistan in 2001. I am not just referring to the music that survived, or the dancing that went on in secret rooms, or the beauty parlours and video parlours that kept on doing business. I mean also the women’s groups that quietly educated girls in opposition to the Taliban’s diktat, risking their wrath and terrible vengeance. 

Such activity is treated as illegitimate by the ‘absolutist’ state. It is thus forced to go underground and its role is inevitably oppositional. What does it oppose, however? Clearly, on the one hand, it challenges what the ‘absolutist’ state projects and promotes as the ‘public good’. But it also challenges something else. A fundamentalist or dictatorial state does not just define the public good; it insists that defining the public good is solely its preserve. A clandestine civil society is opposed, therefore, to regarding the public good as the state’s, or for that matter anyone’s monopoly. 

Consider the implication of thinking that it is enough if civil society’s opposition to an authoritarian state were to rest on a single but rival vision of the public good. Civil society would then be committed to replacing the existing state by one that, while promoting a different understanding of the public good, would be like its predecessor in refusing to accommodate other ideas of the public good. It would favour a state that says ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’, even if it stops short of saying -- as fundamentalists and dictators do -- ‘I’m right and you’re dead’. 

However, it is hard to defend the idea that civil society must owe allegiance to a particular conception of the public good and therefore that its purpose is to realise it. By its very nature, civil society is committed to creating space for multiple visions of the public good. There can be no civil society without a right of association, but what would be the point of giving people the right to associate if they can only come together to pursue the same thing? 

Civil rights are meant to widen our choices, not restrict them. It is for this reason that civil society is most compatible with democratic forms of government. Democracies acknowledge that individuals and groups within society might have competing interests and differing conceptions of the good. 

But is civil society compatible with any kind of democracy? Can foundations and NGOs, which mostly see themselves as working on behalf of the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised, accept the idea that the function of democracy is to accommodate and facilitate the expression of competing interests? Competitions are generally won by the rich and powerful. In most functioning democracies, not surprisingly, the interests of the influential and powerful are consistently privileged.

For this reason, I believe that civil society must support the idea that democracy’s fundamental purpose is to promote active citizenship. The poor, after all, are disenfranchised because they are subjects rather than citizens, because they lack the power to participate in the making and shaping of the public sphere. Such a vision of democracy, moreover, is alone consistent with rights-based views of development-as-empowerment. 

But the agents of civil society have good reason to resist this idea: if active citizenship were to be fully realised in our societies, would they not all be out of a job? As a professional class, is it not in their interest to reproduce the conditions that demand their continuing intervention on behalf of the disenfranchised? It is only in the absence of any progress towards active citizenship that civil society organisations, which are dominated by middle class professional elites, can sustain a culture of dependency. 

There is, in other words, a palpable tension between what we must take to be the larger purpose of civil society and the self-interest of developmental professionals. Working for the interests of the disadvantaged, committed to a certain understanding of development and democracy, civil society actors must believe that they could find nothing more fulfilling than to become inconsequential! 

Foundations and NGOs might argue that they will never become obsolete because no society can ever be free of the needy and dispossessed. I really do not mind if civil society professionals make that argument, as long as they do not make it with a sense of relief. I do not mind it also because my argument is not that foundations and NGOs will become irrelevant, but that they must want to become irrelevant. They must visualise the ideal state of civil society as one in which the poor and disadvantaged are themselves able, fully and properly, to represent their own interests and struggle for their rights. They must strive for obsolescence in the firm belief that the sooner they depart from the public stage the better. 

(Excerpted from a keynote address delivered at a conference on ‘A Dialogue towards an Effective Grantmaker and Grantseeker Relationship’ in the Philippines in 2004) 

(Anmol Vellani is Executive Director, India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore)

Infochange News & Features, November 2009