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When is civil society a force for social transformation?

There are more civil society organizations in the world today than at any other time in history, so why isn't their impact growing? 

Civil society in action? Credit: http://www.iisd.ca. All rights reserved.

When you look at the numbers, the growth of civil society has been remarkable: 3.3 million charities in India and 1.5 million across the United States; NGOs like the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee that work with hundreds of millions of people; 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90 per cent of them launched since 1975. That’s not counting all the street protests, social movements and informal community groups that are often omitted from the data. In the UK, for example, these latter outnumber registered charities by more than four to one.

These statistics are mightily impressive - except when compared to the problems that civil societies want to solve. You could argue that things would be worse without the involvement of these groups. There’s also evidence to show that they’re making inroads around the edges of poverty and injustice.

But there’s no sign that the underlying structures of social, political and economic violence and oppression are being shaken to their roots.

As a result, fewer people in the world are dying young, and basic indicators of health and education, income and employment are getting slightly better - at least for most people in most countries. However, economic inequality is rising, democracies are being hollowed out, climate change is worsening, and discrimination based on race, gender, ability and sexual orientation remains endemic.

Social movements have helped to challenge these underlying problems, and they’ve successfully unseated dictators in many parts of the world. But they haven’t been able to secure lasting gains in democracy, equality and freedom.

Expecting civil society groups to achieve these gains by themselves would be foolish. However, given the rapid growth of all these organizations, shouldn’t they be having at least some impact on the deep transformation of self and society? What is going wrong?

I’ve spent the last 30 years trying to figure out an answer to that question, and every so often I put some thoughts down in print. Of course, like the proverbial painter on the Forth Rail Bridge in Scotland, I have to start afresh as soon as I’ve finished each round of revisions, since civil societies are constantly mutating.  But they don’t seem to be mutating in the direction of social transformation, despite the headline-grabbing protests of the Arab Spring and other ‘revolutions.’ In fact my conclusion this time around may be surprising: the strength of civil society is declining even as its size continues to expand.

I think there are two main reasons for this mismatch. The first is that civil society groups are increasingly divorced from the forces that drive deeper social change. When one looks at the few times in history when civil society has functioned as a powerful and lasting moral and political lever - like the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s - large numbers of people became active in translating ethical action into power structures at every level, from the family to the courts and corporations.

In this sense, civil society is like an iceberg, with the peaks of protest rising above the waterline and the great mass of everyday citizen action hidden underneath. When the two are connected - when street protests are backed up by long-term action in every community, bank, business, local government, church or mosque, temporary gains in equality and diversity have more chance of becoming permanent shifts in power and public norms. In that respect it’s not the Arab or any other ‘Spring’ that really makes the difference, but what happens in every other season, of every other year, across every generation.

Unfortunately these episodes of large-scale, joined-up action are quite rare, and the long-term trend has been the opposite, at least in Europe and North America. Traditional forms of participation - like voting and membership in labor unions and other mass organizations - have declined alarmingly over the last 50 years. Other forms of participation have emerged in their stead, but they haven’t had the same effect in pulling large numbers of people into face-to-face, ongoing, and potentially transformative activities. 

These new forms of participation are largely social media-based, but they also include social enterprises and professional advocacy groups which have strong messages but much weaker memberships. They may well attract large numbers of people to donate money, sign petitions, and consume less harmful products, but none of these actions have the same amount of purchase in the heartlands of politics and economics. They are too thin to have much effect on the transformation of society. 

As an indicator of changing fashions, the number of Google searches for “civil society” fell by 70 per cent between 2004 and 2012. During the same period, searches for “social media” and “social entrepreneurs” rose by 90 per cent and 40 per cent respectively.

It isn’t that these new trends are bad in themselves - successful social movements have always made use of innovations in marketing, revenue-generation and communications. The problems arrive when they displace other forms of civil society action that remain essential. In that respect, it’s significant that today’s most transformative civil society groups incorporate both online and offline activism around a strong ethos of democratic participation and accountability. “Making Change at Wal-Mart,” for example, uses Facebook to help employees identify which of their “friends” works for the company, to supply them with information about their rights, and then to connect them to ongoing campaigns and demonstrations on the ground.

But in terms of transformation, it does matter that a different ethos of competition and technocracy is increasingly influential in civil society itself. In a classic case of cooptation, what was designed as a solidarity-based alternative is being turned into an integral component of the social capitalist economy. 

The second reason for the decline in civil societies’ transformative potential is that structures that used to mediate between people of different views and backgrounds have largely disappeared. Getting large numbers of people to participate in politics and civic life is priority number one. But those people will likely disagree with each other on everything from gay marriage to student debt. That’s the reality of civil societies everywhere, which don’t belong to conservatives or progressives, or to anyone else in particular, but to everyone.

So priority number two is to find ways for people to come together across their differences and hammer out some common ground. That common ground then gets translated formally into laws and policies by voting in reforming governments, and informally into the norms of public opinion that help to set some sense of direction for society.

This was precisely the process that underpinned broad, public support for redistributive actions like the GI Bill of 1944, which made college education and other benefits accessible for all returning veterans in the USA. Many future leaders of the US Civil Rights movement were graduates of these programs. Something similar took place in Britain after the end of World War Two, when the newly elected Labour Government introduced the Welfare State. Greater social intermingling during the war years, and a sense of shared experience and responsibility, helped to draw in a wider range of support.

In both these examples, the ground was laid for potentially transformative changes in society, though much of it has since been eroded. By guaranteeing the conditions in which broad swathes of the population could participate in politics and public life, governments gave civil society a tremendous boost.

The problem is that most of the structures through which people participated have been destroyed or allowed to wither on the vine. They included labor unions (which declined by 43 per cent in the USA between 1950 and 2000), parent-teachers associations (which lost 60 per cent of their members during the same period), political parties, and national federations of women’s groups. As a result, the rich and diverse ecosystems of civil society that had brought different groups together, however imperfectly, began to resemble monocultures in which organizations looked alike or turned into single issue or constituency groups.   

This process was most visible in the decline of particular kinds of civic institutions, but it also had a personal face. Coalition building, or simply arguing with each-other to create a sense of the public interest, require a willingness to engage, and to recognize that sustaining civil society is a shared responsibility, even if we disagree about the details of what civic groups should do.

At its core, civil society has always been a deeply human construction, a way of “rearranging the geometry of human relationships” and not just cementing the bricks and mortar of NGOs and other groups. That, too, is being lost to the tide of corporatization and technocratic management.

Reversing the decline of civil society as a force for transformation will be exceptionally difficult, because the processes of hollowing out and separation, of commercialization and muzzling have become so deeply embedded. Any group that bucks these trends will be isolated and undermined. Philanthropists will deny them funding, politicians will curb their rights to organize, corporations will co-opt their language and their tactics, and other, less radical groups will try to colonize their work and capture their supporters.

But since civil societies are ours to lose, they are also ours to reclaim, to refresh and re-energize against the background of a constantly shifting landscape of opportunities, tools and techniques - social media and social enterprise included.

The destruction of civil society is easy, and it’s happening around us now. Its re-creation is much more difficult, a task akin to accumulating all the ‘snow’ that eventually makes the ‘iceberg’ of everyday citizen action.

That may sound like too little, too late, or simply take too long, or be too much work in an era when instant gratification is demanded. But it will be worth it. After all, it was an iceberg that sank the Titanic.