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How civil society has changed the world

Eleven million people across the world marching against the war in Iraq; thousands protesting in Seattle against unjust WTO policies… There is little doubt today about the impact of civil society on polities and societies, writes John Samuel

Civil societies: A pluralistic view

Civil society is not a colourless or odourless gas. Civil society is not an abstract academic concept anymore. Civil societies have colours and cultures, contexts and contours, gender and grounds, and politics and passion.

Civil society is plural. The theory and practice of civil society is plural in concept, genealogy, history, form, locations, content and politics. Its validity is partly due to this plurality at its conceptual core and the sheer diversity in its praxis. There is no single theory of civil society. And no single politics of civil society. This fluidity and fuzziness of the term is, paradoxically, what makes it significant.

Civil society signifies diverse arenas and spaces of contested power relations. So the contradictions and contestations of power, culture and economy are reflected in the civil society discourse of a particular country or political context. Civil society has now become an arena of praxis wherein theory is continually negotiated and re-negotiated based on the evolving practice in multiple social, economic and cultural contexts.

The idea of civil society is used for political subversion, political reform as well as political transformation. Proponents of various ideological streams from conservatism to neo-liberalism and from liberal reformists to radical socialists have been using the idea and practice of civil society to legitimise their respective political projects and programmes.

This dynamism, pluralism and diversity to a large extent shape the emerging civil society discourse across the world. In South Asia, civil society may reflect the feudal and post-colonial tendencies within its own power spaces. In many countries of Africa, community differentiations based on tribal identities may influence and shape civil society discourse as well.

How civil society has changed the world

If we consider civil society discourse as a pluralist network of citizens and associational spaces for social and political action, then one can begin to appreciate the contribution of such discourse in shaping and influencing the politics and policy processes in many countries and the world.

There are five specific areas where civil society discourse and initiatives have made very important political and social contributions. These are: a) women’s rights b) ecological justice and environment protection c) human rights of ethnic, religious, race, and sexual minorities d) movements for citizens’ participation and accountable governance and e) resistance and protest against unjust economic globalisation and unilateral militarisation. In fact, even in these specific areas there is a multiplicity of civil society discourse.

However, over the last 30 years, if women’s rights and green politics are at the centre of all political and policy discourse, it is indeed due to the consistent mobilisation and advocacy by thousands of organisations and millions of people across the world. On February 15, 2003, more than 11 million people across the world marched against the war in Iraq and unilateral militarisation. In fact, the unprecedented, coordinated global mobilisation happened on the same day largely due to digital mobilisation and partly due to the rather spontaneous coordination among social movements and civil society actors who met during the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2003.

In India too, in the last 25 years, most of the innovative policy framework and legislation happened due to consistent campaigning and advocacy by civil society organisations. It is the people-centred advocacy, campaigning and mobilisation by hundreds of civil society organisations in India that prompted the Indian government to enact the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Right to Education, the new Act to stop domestic violence, and the one aimed at protecting the land rights of tribal communities. It is due to the efforts of women’s rights organisations and civil society initiatives that women’s political participation and 33% reservation for women in Parliament are at the centre of political discourse in India.

In many countries of Asia and Africa, civil society activism has become a countervailing political force against authoritarian governments. It has also sought to challenge unjust economic globalisation. This was evident in the citizens’ and civil society struggle against monarchy in Nepal and authoritarian regimes in many parts of the world. In many countries of Latin America, civil society became the common ground for diverse interest groups and political formations to act together to challenge authoritarian regimes. In fact, civil society played a key role in shaping the political process in Brazil, where social movements, progressive NGOs, progressive factions of the church, trade unions and public intellectuals came together for political and policy transformation. The World Social Forum process originated in Brazil partly due to these historical and political conditions, and it helped the transformation of state power in Brazil.

With the advent of the Internet, digital mobilisation and relatively cheap air travel there is an increasing interconnectedness between civil society initiatives and movements across the world. The unprecedented mobilisation and campaigns against the unjust WTO regime and for trade justice and fair trade demonstrated the power of citizens’ action and mobilisation beyond the state and market. The diverse range of mobilisation against the World Trade Organisation in Seattle, Cancun, and Hong Kong influenced the political and policy choices of many countries and the G20 process. The Jubilee campaign for cancelling the unjust debt of poor countries attracted the support of millions of people both in rich and poor countries and in remote villages and megacities. The successful campaign against landmines proved to be another example of civil society mobilisation and action across the world. The World Social Forum emerged as an open space and platform for the exchange of ideas, coordination of action, and collective envisioning beyond narrow ideological and political divides. The emergence of a global justice solidarity movement influenced the political process in many countries in many ways.

A time for change: Civil society and international relations

In the last 15 years, there has been a resurgence of political consciousness in civil society. A whole range of new associations, citizens’ formations, new social movements, knowledge-action networks and policy advocacy groups have emerged at the national and international level. 

This was partly due to the shift in international politics in the aftermath of the Cold War and a consequent shift in the aid-architecture, with a stress on local ownership in the development process. The new stress on human rights in the aftermath of the Vienna Human Rights Summit, in 1993, gave new spaces and international legitimacy to new human rights movements, integrating civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. A series of United Nations conferences, starting with the Rio Summit in 1992, created an enabling global space for civil society processes and organisations. The Beijing Summit in 1995 on women’s rights, the Copenhagen Summit on social development in 1996, and the Durban Summit on racism provided a global platform for civil society movements to advance a new discourse on politics and public policy. The exchange of knowledge, linkages and resources began to create a new synergy between countries and communities in the South as well as in the North. In fact, the United Nations became a key mediating ground between civil society and various governments.

Such a mediating role between civil society and state provided a new legitimacy and role for the United Nations. The new stress on human development, human rights and global poverty created a legitimate space for global action and campaigns for civil society. New technological and financial resources helped international networking and a new trend of globalisation from below. As the new hegemony of power politics driven by unilateral militarism, conservative politics and a neoliberal policy paradigm began to dominate the world, the new social movements and consequent civil society process became the arena for a new politics of protest and resistance against unjust globalisation. Such a new civil society process was driven by communities, communications and creativity. New modes of communication, networking, campaigning and mobilisation made civil society discourse one of the most influential political and policy discourses in the 21st century.

There is a significant difference between the civil society discourse of the 1980s, 1990s and that of the last 10 years. Unless we understand and appreciate the multiple political shifts at the national and international levels, it might be difficult to understand the consequent shifts in the practice and theory of civil society. In the 1980s, civil society was more of a conceptual tool to legitimise and organise the protest movement against authoritarian governments in Latin America and Central Europe. In the 1990s, the term ‘civil society’ became an instrument of policy and politics at the international level, supported by both aid and trade. And in the last 10 years, the idea of civil society has been increasingly contextualised to become a plural arena of political praxis for transformative politics in multiple contexts. The old civil society discourse was submerged in new movements for radical democratisation, feminist politics, and ecological, social and economic justice. It is the new emerging discourse on civil society that seeks to address the issue of democratic deficit, and crisis of governance.

So it is important to reclaim civil societies -- as plural and diverse spaces for collective human action -- as an arena for transformative politics. The reclaiming of civil societies would mean a reassertion of the dignity, sovereignty and human rights of all peoples. The ethics and politics of the idea of civil society need to be reclaimed to humanise the state, market and the political process. There is the need to reclaim a new political consciousness driven by freedom -- freedom from fear and freedom from want; freedom of association and freedom of beliefs. The idea of civil society needs to be reinforced by new civil values and virtues: the values of equality and justice; values that would help us fight all kinds of injustice and discrimination -- based on gender, race, caste or creed. Civil society can be transformative when it combines the politics of protest and the politics of proposal. Civil society will become an arena that can help combine the politics of people and the politics of knowledge. Civil society becomes a transformative space when it can help to create the politics of dissent, politics of association and citizens’ action against monopoly of power and spaces for counter-discourse and counter-hegemony.

Infochange News & Features, November 2009