The Hour of Civil Society

September 25, 2007

The concept of civil society refers to a sphere of collective action distinct from both the market and "political society." When people identify themselves as "civil society," they are seeking to carve out a relatively autonomous sphere for organization and action.

Civil society stands at the center of today's debate on democracy and development in Latin  America. From the poblaciones of Santiago to the squatter settlements of Mexico City, from the Caracas riots of 1989 and 1992 to the movement for impeachment in Brazil, from the toppling of military dictatorships to the struggles against neoliberal policies, the political stage is occupied by a wide spectrum of groups and organizations which fall within the category "civil society." The term "civil society" is broad. Today it includes everything from daily life and interpersonal relations in the home, to questions of territory, purchasing power, ethnicity, gender and generation. Liberal-capitalist tradition distinguishes between the public and private spheres; the term civil society points to articulation between them. It implies a questioning of such "borders," and indicates the role of the "private sphere" in the gestation of conditions for collective "public" action, and in the reproduction of the political and social order. Thus the concept of civil society refers to a sphere of collective action distinct from both the market and "political society"-parties, legislatures, courts, state agencies. Civil society is not independent of politics, but clearly, when people identify themselves as "civil society," they are seeking to carve out a relatively autonomous sphere for organization and action. Obviously, many organizations which fall within the sphere of civil society have enjoyed a long life in the continent's political and social struggles. The antecedents of today's urban popular movements reach back to the tenants' struggles of the beginning of this century in Buenos Aires, Panama City and other urban areas. But it is also evident that many of the "old issues" are conceived of differently today. Certain aspects and dimensions of today's struggles were heretofore unknown, and it would be a serious error to put this new wine in old bottles. Such is the case, for Writers emphasizing the example, with gender questions or movements based class don't question the on ethnic identity. Civil society today is a complex mix criticize the reduction of c of cleavage and continuity, rupture and recurrence. What is most distinctive about the recent reactivation of civil society is the broadening of the sociocultural reference points for collective action. The spectrum of identities that people construct in the course of social action has been significantly extended. Today, people mobilize as youth, women, homosexuals, blacks, Indians, barriodwellers, workers, consumers, etc. Of course these spacial, gender, ethnic, racial, labor and symbolic factors all overlap. At certain moments they combine to emphasize, for example, territorial identity, while at other moments a different combination of these factors may strengthen economic or cultural demands.

From a bio-demographic point of view, the men and women haven't changed, but the multiplicity of reference points allows them to see themselves differently, and to define different courses of action. While the traditional liberal-capitalist conception reduced  social subjects to "homo oeconomicus," today we are witness to a greater complexity and openness in the construction of the subjects of social action.

This is not entirely new. From E.P. Thompson's classic study of the formation of the English working class, to research on the social bases of Central American revolutions, it has been pointed out that the concept of social class is a historical construct resultties from a multiplicity of determinants.' Besides the socio-labor framework, it includes such dimensions as gender, ethnicity, citizenship, religiosity, kinship, the idea of civil society region and community. My study on the Sandinista insurrection showed that the political-ideological concepts of "working class" and "bourgeoisie" that people constructed were only indirectly related to economic life, and had a very ambiguous link to the ownership or lack there of production.


Writers emphasizing the multiple determinations of class links other possible identities, and acts as a frame of ref- erence for them. 3 Class doesn't replace these other identities, nor does it necessarily take prece- dence over them. Rather, it organizes them. Gender identity, for example, is constructed in a manner linked to the dimension of class. 4 Kinship relations are woven in different ways in each social class. 5 The definition of ethnic identities is pursued in an incessant counterpoint with the dynamics of class. 6 Class membership also affects political per- spectives; people from different classes use dif- ferent frames of reference and meanings in address- ing their constituencies. 7 According to postmod- ernist thinking and neolib- y is the result of an always in of these multiple identi- just one-and never deter- y concept of determination :here may be factors which as detonators and reference cted. There is no "final conceives of civil society ity of circumstantial-even Id denies the existence of he definition of these identi- 1 critically observes, identi- sion, "is just a set of stories ut who we are." 9 But when loses precision, comments becomes an "all-purpose ide range of emancipatory whole set of excuses for nsequence, one of the char- st civil society is its "self- he voluntary abandonment favor of radical reform.""' VOL XXVII, No 2 SEPT/OcT 1993 39REPORT ON DEMOCRACY But the revolutionary goals of past decades were more than mere dreams, and only a hypocrite would consider their exit from the agenda for collective action to be a voluntary act. Civil society did not awaken from a revolutionary dream; it was defeated in its attempts to achieve global change. Tens of thou- sands of Latin Americans went from that "revolution- ary dream" to their graves. Postmodernists present as a virtue what is in fact the result of a struggle; they rewrite history to suit the taste of the victors, and pro- vide self-serving justifications which distract from the facts. 12 Railway workers in Rio de Janeiro protest against the privatization company in 1990. In Brazil, a new generation of industrial worker linking a broad spectrum of social movements. We can legitimately recover the concept of civil society without returning to the eco- nomic determinism of the past, or embrac- ing the opportunistic subjectivism of political post- modernism. It is worth recalling that the thinker who best developed the modern concept of civil society was Antonio Gramsci, a man who-let us remind our- selves-shared the methodological and epistemologi- cal foundations of Marxism, and who attempted to lib- erate these foundations from crude economic determinism.' 3 A deterministic emphasis on class is unsatisfactory because it leaves out other dimensions which are as relevant-or more so-in particular situations. But to replace class reductionism with class rejectionism is no improvement at all; on the contrary, it impoverish- es our analysis. In many situations, it is clear that class identity plays a pivotal role. Class is central, for exam- pie, in the extraordinary mobilization of Brazilian civil society, where workers constitute a strategic uni- fying force; or in the women's movements across the continent, where women from the ruling classes are stunningly absent. Class is also central to an understanding of the poli- tics of civil society. As I mentioned above, civil soci- ety is distinct from political society, but it is not alien to politics. The term itself has a clear political conno- tation. In classical terminology, "civil" means politi- cal; civitas is the Roman version of polis, the Greek city-state. In both cases political/civil refers to what in modern terms we call citizenship, the entitlement to participate in public affairs. In the ancient world and in feudal society, civil was a category which linked males, as members of certain bodies or ranks, to the state. With the rise of capitalism, civil became a dimen- sion of class relations. Adam Smith unblushingly recognized that civil government "is instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all."'1 4 In German, it is even clearer. The expression burgerlische gesellschaft means "civil society" and "bourgeois society" at the same time.15 Class is not the only conceiv- able articulating principle or "final reference point" in the activization of the federal railway of civil society. Gender and eth- rs became the axis for nicity are offered as possible alter- natives by certain currents in fem- inist and indigenista thinking. Although they lack the reach and heuristic potential of a non-reductionist class focus, they indisputably illuminate dimensions of social action that a crude class approach leaves out. 1 6 But in Latin America's experience, civil society is principally driven by the politics and structure of class. The civil society which has been mobilized in recent decades is much more than the proletariat, and the identities of its actors go far beyond the relations of production and appropriation. But in general, with- in this revitalized civil society, few are from the ruling classes or wealthy groups. The activation of civil soci- ety refers above all to the multiple forms of organiza- tion and mobilization of the world of the poor and the powerless. 7 The women who mobilize are from the poor barrios, workers, single mothers and, to a certain degree, from the urban middle classes. Impoverishment remains a recurrent element in the identity of indigenous peo- ples. The protagonism of the churches is linked to their engagement of poor people's issues and demands. It is principally the poorer classes who have organized to protest the high cost of living and gov- ernment pricing policies.' 8 Mobilizations against the violation of human rights and in defense of citizenship have been led by the poor and by sectors of the middle classes, with very little, if any involvement of people from the wealthy classes. In the same way, the victims of repression are above all members of the poorer classes.' 9 Only in extreme cases-the final months of the Sandinista insurrection in Nicaragua, or this June in Guatemala, when business elites joined popular sectors to block a possible military coup-do the organizations of the ruling class join the poor in their efforts to mobilize. The elites become involved in the actions of civil society only when they fear that if "the poor and the powerless" take the lead, civil society could take things too far. Up to that point, the wealthy don't have much to complain about. These mobilizations indicate, at least implicitly, an alternative notion of justice. The targets of these mobilizations are institutions of power-the state, the wealthy, bosses, oppressors-and the way power is exercised-class bias, institutional racism, and the sexist slant of policies and institutions. The construc- tion of identity involves an awareness of interests, of issues, of rights. The counterpoint of the traditionally close relationship between the elites and the agencies of power is the questioning of that dominance by a broad spectrum of groups and "identities" that fall within a clear definition of "popular." It is possible, for example, that women from the elites experience some of the same problems as their poor sisters, but you don't see them demonstrating. The question of gender, like ethnicity, plays itself out within a clear social framework. The same can be said about human rights, economic policies, and constitutional guaran- tees. We are all civil society, but not all of us become activists. Activism creates a confluence of the poor and middle classes-raising the banner of the sover- eignty of the people-to confront the traditional alliance of the rich and powerful with the state and its apparatus. he sociological profile of Latin America's popu- lar classes is currently being transformed by economic restructuring, the opening of domes- tic economies to international trade and investment, and the reform of the state. The class identity of Latin American workers has been eroded by a number of factors, including the de-salarization of the work force, the growing fragmentation of labor markets, the growth of the informal sector, the crisis in the precari- ous systems of social security, the weakening of the leadership capacity of unions as well as their ability to achieve demands, and the shrinking number of votes garnered by most leftist political parties. The opposite is true of the ruling classes. In fact, the factors listed above further strengthen the identity and power of Latin America's bourgeoisie. Today the cor- poratist and political organizations of the Latin Ameri- can bourgeoisie have a power-without parallel in the last 50 years-to administer the state, appropriate and distribute surplus value, and shape the contours of social and political life. The diminishing political, social and cultural strength of the working classes goes hand in hand The term with-and is the civil has a result of-the con- society" solidation of the rul- clear political ing classes. What has changed is the connotation. In class that serves as classical terminology, a reference point, not the class frame- "civil" means political; work itself. Accord- ing to the rhetoric civitas is the of international Roman version of organizations and state agencies, those polis, the Greek who struggle to sur- vive in the informal city-state. sector are now "micro-entrepre- neurs." The recent mobilization of civil society makes explicit the popular dimension of social dynamics. The notion of "popular" expresses a joining together of a wide variety of people to differentiate themselves from state power and from those who benefit from it, and eventually to confront this established order. Poverty, insecurity, informality, political oppression, and ethnic and gender discrimination have always been fundamental elements of popular identity in Latin America. Today they increasingly describe the living conditions of Latin America's popular classes. What we call civil society today is enormously similar to what we used to call "the people." What has changed above all is our way of looking at the people. Today we are more aware that the paths to social mobilization are much more complex than what socio- logical analysis, Marxist or otherwise, thought a few decades ago. The greater diversity and multiplicity evident in the concept of civil society is fundamentally linked to that historical moment in which the recent popular reactivation occurred in many countries-the moment of authoritarianism and forced depolitization. Popular identity was divorced from the unions and parties because these were repressed. Governmental agencies not only lost interest in encouraging popular mobilization, but they tried to crush it. The aspects of social dissatisfaction that parties, unions and state agencies used to channel lost their capacity to have institutional expression. At the same time, however, other dimen- sions that were not easily expressed within the frame- work of traditional institutions-ethnic differences, gender, daily life-began to try out their own forms of As far as people's living conditions are concerned, social movements are more effective in dealing with particular aspects of a problem than the overall problem itself. expression. As a result, the popular movement is much more rich, varied and complex today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Greater complexi- ty poses problems of expression and representation. In the past, trade unions and political parties acted as ref- erence points for the popular movement, and gave voice to its demands in the political system. Many on the Left have reallocated this crucial political role to Latin America's new social movements. An extensive literature has developed which tends to view social movements as substitutes for parties and unions, and beyond that, as the organic expression of civil society. But valuable as the social movements have been, the literature has not always acknowledged their limitations. While social movements have been able to mobilize resources, strengthen identities, and broaden the popu- lar agenda, it is evident that they have also helped reproduce the fragmentation of the popular classes sought by the state and the market. As far as people's living conditions are concerned, social movements are more effective in dealing with particular aspects of a problem than the overall problem itself. The residents of a barrio can get together to build a school, but for that school to function, a lot more than unpaid physi- cal work and donated construction materials is required. Families must have the necessary social con- ditions so they are not forced to take their children out of school to sell tortillas or gum on street corners, or to beg. This depends on global state policies regarding employment, income and welfare, whose designs are usually beyond the reach of social movements. By ignoring this structural dimension of the issue, the lit- erature on social movements--emphasizing the con- struction of active identities-ends up reducing them to a sort of socio-narcissism. The retreat of authoritarianism and the return to electoral processes, combined with the economic cri- sis of the 1980s and the later economic restructuring and state reform, have transformed the political scene, posing new opportunities and new challenges for social movements. Today social movements-battered by economic woes and by the demobilization of their rank and file-must figure out how to articulate their demands with the political system. They have two alternatives. On the one hand, they can remain aloof from political parties and the trade-union movement, and attempt either to strengthen their direct mediating role with state agencies, or pursue point-by-point negotiations with the party system and the unions regarding specific issues. On the other hand, they can emphasize the need to coordinate and create new agencies for mediating with the state-new and differ- ent parties and unions. Simplifying things quite a bit, the first alternative is what Peru's social movements have chosen. The sec- ond is the option taken up by those in Brazil, where a new generation of industrial workers became the axis for linking a broad spectrum of social movements- base communities, favela-dwellers and others-in a process yielding both new union organizations and the powerful Worker's Party (PT). 2 0 These alternatives aren't abstract choices. The macroeconomic and macropolitical stage creates conditions which favor one or another at different moments. But some form of agreement among parties and movements must be reached if the power of each is to be effectively increased. The activation of civil society fomented by social movements broadens the concept of citizenship to include a social dimension. This is not novel in Latin America. Since the end of the last century, all manifestations of Latin American democratic thought have implied some questioning of the standing socio- economic order. Latin America's great democratic movements have linked the broadening of political participation with the broadening of social participation. They have linked political reform with social change. Social movements-together with the labor movement and the progressive political parties-are an expression of the continual updating of this longstanding popular tradition. They constitute a significant dimension of the contemporary collective struggle to build a better world.

Tags: civil society, neoliberal, politics, grassroots movements, unions

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