No Enemies In ‘Civil Society’

by Radha D'Souza

Life should have been a lot easier after September 11. After all, from that day on, those on America’s side are friends and the rest are foes. At least, it should have ended all discussion on ‘civil society’. But ‘civil society’ continues to be bandied about by all sorts of people, from the World Bank, IMF and corporations to lefties and greenies of different shades. By the looks of it ‘civil society’ is here to stay.

With ‘globalisation’ the term ‘civil society’ made a comeback. Ideas, like people, have histories. Typically, a colonialist world-view (some call it the Enlightenment world-view) denies history. The idea of ‘civil society’, and the idea that consulting them is important for ‘good governance’ were first advanced by John Stuart Mill. J.S. Mill and his father James Mill were directors of the British East India Company. The British East India Company was responsible for colonising all of South Asia and parts of South East Asia. The East India Company was a trading company with sovereign functions. J.S. Mill and James Mill were not only directors of the East India Company but also the chief ideologues of colonisation. The Mills were staunch supporters of the Free Trade and Free Market ideology. Free Trade for the Mills was a one way freedom, free for the British traders but not for the South and Southeast Asians. The idea of ‘civil society’ was an integral part of colonial policies. It was the other side of the Free Trade coin. It was a radical idea and J.S. Mill had to lobby intensively for its acceptance.

With the return of neo-liberalism not only have core liberal ideas such as Free Trade, market regulation, competition and neo-Malthusian theories returned but the colonial component of liberalism, the idea of ‘civil society’ has also made a come back.

Now, why was it so important to incorporate ‘civil society’ into colonial governance policies? It was important because it gave the colonialists a means of bypassing the laws, institutions and mechanisms of governance that existed in our societies. Not only did it give the colonial authorities a sense of moral righteousness, but it helped to systematically undermine and erode local institutions, law and dispute resolution mechanisms of people in dealing with their internal social problems. In turn, this made the people dependent on colonial laws and institutions to deal with the problems of their societies.

Through their engagement with ‘civil society’ the successors of the Mills succeeded in creating a rapacious and oppressive institution, the ‘colonial state’. The freedom struggles of the 19th and 20th century were directed against the colonial state. In the post-war era, the victorious Allies wrote the constitution of the New World order, restructured the colonial state and brought them under the UN umbrella. The restructured colonial state tightened the economic controls through international institutions such as the WB and IMF and now WTO but nonetheless allowed a small political space for people, a space where the language of rights could be articulated. For all its limitations and shortcomings, it created an ideological space for the real ‘enemy’ to be identified. The renewal of debates about neo-colonialism, unequal ‘North-South’ relations, the nature of international institutions, the debt crisis and the disillusionment with ‘development’, were the result of that ideological space.

The return of the idea of ‘civil society’ threatens to take away the political and ideological space that enable people to identify the true causes of their oppression, their real ‘enemies’. With the return of ‘civil societies’ there are no ‘enemies’ anymore (until September 11 that is!!). Critics of structural adjustment programmes, of large dams, soothsayers of environmental doom, do not ask why the World Bank, or the US Congress or the European parliament are interested in including ‘civil society’, and who they have in mind when they speak of ‘civil society’? On their part, the NGOs who criticise the World Bank, and the US government and the European parliament find they have to queue up at the doors of those same institutions with funding applications for this or that project as ‘civil society’.

Little wonder then, we continue to see any number of brilliant critique on various issues, from evil TNCs to extinct turtles, from casino economies to clogged cities, but there is little sense of going towards a better future. The more we know the less we seem to be able to do anything about our destiny. After all, in a ‘civil society’ where there are no enemies, what can anyone do?

Radha D’Souza is a writer, trade union and human rights activist from Mumbai. She currently lectures in law at Waikato University, Hamilton, Aotearoa (New Zealand).