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Are civil society movements ‘oppressive’? Jai Sen on Engaging Critically with the Reality and Concept of Civil Society

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
3rd December 2010

The emerging global alliance and cooperation between civil, social, and political actors – that is collectively referred to as ‘global civil society’ – is first and foremost a crucial vehicle for transnational civil solidarity, which translates into the consolidation of the hold of civil societies transnationally.In a very limited sense, it is true that this coming on to the world stage of non-state actors contributes to the democratisation of world politics, a stage that has so far been monopolised by nation-states. But seen through the lens of the historic larger and wider democratisation that is beginning to unfold in our times, this cooperation and consolidation is, more importantly – due to the dynamics of civility and its internal tendencies to corporatisation that I have tried to discuss in this essay –, an instrument for the consolidation, strengthening, and imposition of historically unequal social and political relations and entrenched interests at local, national, regional, and global levels. In fundamental terms, what is fondly called ‘global civil society’ is therefore today arguably contributing to less democracy, not more.

An important essay by Jai Sen, challenging the domination of emancipatory movements by civil society elites. Below is a processed version, and the titles are mine. For the full version, contact the author via jai.sen@cacim.net .

* Paper: Interrogating the Civil. Engaging Critically with the Reality and Concept of Civil Society. By Jai Sen.

(Forthcoming in : Jai Sen and Peter Waterman, eds, forthcoming (2010b) – Worlds of Movement, Worlds in Movement. Volume 4 in the Challenging Empires series. New Delhi : OpenWord)

Excerpted from Jai Sen:

“In our times, in both social and political literature and the media, the phenomenon called ‘civil society’ – or, by extension, ‘global civil society’ – is increasingly accepted and celebrated as a powerful contribution to the democratisation of politics and to bringing common sense and civility to difficult situations. This is so especially in the North, and among those in international organisations, but increasingly so also in the north in the South. In this essay, I put forward the argument that civility – which I submit is at the core of civil society – is structurally suffused with what in effect are profoundly anti-democratic undercurrents, and has always been so. I argue further that today, at a time when the world is dramatically changing, with the historically oppressed becoming new actors on the stage, the power of civility is – even as civil society makes its contributions – undermining processes of much deeper and wider democratisations that are opening up. This, I suggest, should be reason enough to give pause for thought to members and leaders of civil organisations to reflect on and rethink their politics (and their lives); and to give those who do not see themselves as necessarily belonging to civil society, a critical lens through which to view it. This is difficult terrain, however, because the term ‘civil’ and the concept of civility (and their equivalents in perhaps all languages and cultures) are so embedded in our everyday lives and our self-images. They are part of our everyday language, norms, and customs; they are deeply buried in stories and storybooks; they are contained in all our textbooks. Almost by definition the term and the concept are today normatively positive, without question. This is perhaps true of all societies that are conscious of themselves as being ‘civilised’, past or present. But it is especially in the past two decades that the term ‘civil society’ has been vigorously introduced into common usage, in governmental policy, in academia, and in the media – three key circuits of the propagation of ideas – as a part of neoliberal globalisation; and in these circles it has been made a given and a good – a virtually unquestionable good. It is difficult terrain also because the word ‘civil’ in the term civil society is very beguiling, especially for those who feel that they are civil and belong to civil society. However, we need to see the word for what it is – a veil – and to take care not to get seduced by it.

I therefore try to critically visit and examine this apparent good, by looking at two issues:

- One, the dynamics of power relations in the building and exercise of civil society in the world as it is unfolding today, especially in relation to emerging movements and alliances among the historically and structurally oppressed and marginalised;

- and two, the structural politics and dynamics of the global civil cooperation that underlies what is called ‘global civil society’, taking the World Social Forum as an example.

In particular, even as I acknowledge the many contributions in history of civil organisations and civil societies, I try to look critically at the question of power relations within such organisations and processes, and at the internal contradictions of civility. The question of the power of conventional market corporations, and of (market) corporatism, has been well explored, as has the question of the corporate State.2 But for some reason, when we talk of ‘power’ we automatically refer to the state or the market. What I attempt to do here is a parallel exercise, to look at power not among and between state and market and of their power over society, but at power within the non-state (and also non-market) world and among and between non-state actors; in short, at power in the world of civil society.
I do this at two levels. I argue first that the concept of civility is central to (though not alone in) the exercise of power in the non-state world. And second, I reflect critically on the democratic options that global civil society is offering us, not normatively but in structural reality, with the aim of getting practitioners and theorists both in the civil world and in what I term the incivil world to engage with this hard question. I do not, however, try to define, or re-define, the terms. On the one hand, this has been done so richly by others, such as social theorist John Keane;4 and on the other, fixing their meanings is not my objective. Rather, it is to critically engage with and interrogate them, to open them up for debate.

Along the way, I argue that part of the problem lies precisely in the relations of the production of knowledge : Since it is (usually prominent, rule-making) members of ‘civil society’ who, as the brahmins of society, produce the knowledge that most of us are brought up on (that defines what society is and how it works, and establishes the values that it stands for), it is a self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing process. But I also argue that this is changing, with new actors emerging on the stage – including, crucially, in terms of production of knowledge.”

Civility as oppression

“My first submission is that ‘civil society’ is not what it is said, and assumed, to be, as outlined in the previous section; nor is it what the textbooks say it is, a neutral (and neutered) ‘space between the individual (or the family) and the state’. Rather, it is just what common sense tells us, and what the term itself indicates : Civil society – a society, or better, a community that is bounded and governed by norms of civility that its thought- and rule-givers define for it; and a section of any given society that has become – in its own terms, and by its own definition – ‘civilised’. The etymological linkage between these various terms is self-evident and unavoidable, and the very fact that theorists like to give a different spin to a particular term within the family, without reference to the others, should itself raise questions.

As perhaps in all contexts, the rules of civility that prevail are always set by individuals and institutions that consider themselves to be civil and civilised; and the primary aim of the rules is to ‘civilise’ and mainstream everything and everyone : To bring order into society by making sure that everything operates within defined limits. These limits and norms change over time, in all societies, but generally speaking the change is incremental and highly conservative, tightly controlled by the rule-giving institutions and individuals. In particular, there is little or no room for deviants – for all those sections in society that do not follow the rules of being civilised. In addition, it is generally the case that the civilised feel threatened – sometimes vaguely, sometimes directly – by those who do not conform and by the very existence of such worlds. And so they variously term such sections ‘anti-social’, ‘deviant’, ‘wild’, and ‘uncivil’, and seek relentlessly to marginalise, subjugate, convert, or tame them; in short, to civilise them. This has been the case historically, and it is true today – though the boundaries are constantly changing, as social relations evolve, through processes of negotiation and struggle. If some such people become sufficiently docile and domesticated, they are left alone and ignored; on the other hand, if they resist or are too assertive, the tactics change and may even include attempts to destroy and exterminate them (only in the most civilised of ways, of course).

One of the most infamous examples of this in history has been the savage treatment by settler societies – largely immigrants from what is now Europe – of the Aborigines of Australia, the Indians of Latin America, and the First Nations in Canada and the USA. All of this, including genocide, was done in the course of “the great cause of civilisation”.17 Indeed, the rise of colonisation coincides precisely with the formation of so-called ‘civil societies’ in colonising countries; the two took place together. Equally barbarous has been the treatment of slaves, throughout history and across the world; and the horrors of Hiroshima, and more recently Iraq, were again committed in the name of the protection and promotion of civilisation. But this behaviour is not only a function of what we commonly understand as colonisation. It is equally true of the behaviour of self-styled civil societies within their own societies, and it is as true of what we today call the North as it is of the South. Just as two examples, we have the barbaric treatment of dalits in South Asia by upper caste Hindus –where discrimination and exclusion have historically been defended by the upper castes as a means of protecting their own purity, and the purity and order of ‘society’ – and the manner in which the civilised gentlefolk of, say, the Netherlands ‘treated’ and ‘processed’ the Dutch peasantry and working classes in special ‘homes’ even as recently as early twentieth century, teaching them reading, writing, dressing, table manners, and bathroom manners in their attempt to ‘civilise’ them into ‘proper’ citizenship.

In particular, all so-called ‘civil societies’ have historically emerged through intensive processes of the civilising of societies, especially through the establishment of enforcement agencies such as the police and of prisons, homes, mental ‘homes’, and other institutions where these ‘unruly elements’ were – and continue to be – incarcerated and ‘civilised’. I submit that this, and the treatment that aboriginals across the world have been subjected to, comes from the same root – and that we need to search for that root.20 Conversely, we need to recognise that colonisation, and the process and treatment of ‘civilisation’, are not restricted to the conquest and domestication of alien lands and peoples.

In short, I suggest that for colonisers and civilisers alike it is their self-appointed historical task to domesticate and civilise the world and to establish a civil order. Most centrally, this means establishing hegemony over all those who (and all that) they consider to be wild and uncivil.

The civil, and the task of civilisation and of building a civil society, is therefore umbilically and dialectically tied to the uncivil. In my earlier writings on cities, borrowing the term from someone who specifically used the term to refer to the ‘deviant’ in society, I used the term ‘unintended’ to describe the dynamic tension that I sensed between the different worlds I could see in cities. I argued that the unintended build separate, parallel societies, and ‘cities’, of their own, but through a complex dynamic of relationships with the intended world.21 Given the contemporary resonance of the term ‘civil society’, I feel that the terms civil and uncivil – and, as I will argue, incivil – are equally relevant and useful.

In this narrative, the ‘civil’ are those who are otherwise referred to as the middle and upper classes, and earlier as ‘the gentlefolk’. In the part of India I come from, Bengal, we have the term bhadralok, the ‘proper’, ‘civil’, or ‘well-mannered’ people. Beyond good manners, however, a crucial aspect of civility is power, where this civil class sees itself as being permanently in power. Although the proponents of civility would prefer it to be represented as merely a benign and well intentioned rule by those who have a superior understanding, in reality civility is interpreted and manifested as power-over – as a force of control, not of emancipation.22 In West Bengal for instance, even though there has been a government of the left continuously in power for over thirty years now (since 1977), which according to any conventional understanding of the left might have been expected to challenge such an order, there has been no reduction in the power and hold of the bhadralok over the state. To the contrary, there have been several instances during this reign of massive repression of dalits, of which the Left Front government has on each occasion made strenuous efforts to suppress media coverage.

This is unlike, for instance, the neighbouring state of Bihar – which the Bengali bhadralok typically sees as being an ‘uncivilised’ state – where despite continuing caste warfare and extreme caste atrocities, the OBCs (Other Backward Classes) have come into power during this same period; or in the also-neighbouring state of Jharkhand where the adivasis have come into power. This speaks volumes about the power, reach, and resilience of civility.”

The political productivity and emancipation of the incivil

“Let me now explain why I propose and use the terms ‘incivil’ and ‘uncivil’ as analytical categories, in contradistinction to ‘civil’ : First, in order to focus on the dialectical reality of civility; second, in order to make clear how ‘we’ see not only ‘them’, as ‘the other’, but also ‘ourselves’, and for ‘us’ to be constantly conscious of this; third, by contradistinction and opposition, to signal the resistance of such peoples to the singular and hegemonic norms of the civil – and indeed, to implicitly suggest that there are many civilities, many different forms and modes of civilisation and of life; and finally, to politicise the term ‘civil’ and to draw out its political content and reality.

As I see it, the dynamic of civility plays out as a function not only of class but also of caste, in those contexts where this applies (right across South Asia, reaching into Southeast Asia, covering over a billion and a half people); of ethnicity and race; of faith and cosmology; of sexuality and sexual preference; of language; and of gender, especially as it intertwines with some or all of the above.

In this view, those who constitute the core of ‘civil society’ are in general middle or upper class, middle or upper caste, white (or at least ‘fair’, where in many societies ‘fairness’ of complexion is something that the upper castes and classes aspire to), heterosexual male, actively or passively practising the dominant religion in the region, and speaking its dominant language (and which is often colonial); and also people of colour and other differentiations and preferences who are allowed by such sections to join them, on condition of loyalty and adherence to the rules. Those who constitute the ‘incivil’ – as perceived and stigmatised by the civil – are the lower classes, the lower castes (and the outcastes), and in general people of colour, especially the black and the indigenous, and all those of other languages, faiths, and preferences. There are of course those who have been successfully domesticated and ‘civilised’, but such people are often left hanging in a tragic middle world, as second-class denizens.

The new reality is that all over the world we are now seeing precisely these sections of society – peoples who have been historically oppressed and marginalised by civil society and state – organising themselves; and in contexts such as Bolivia and parts of India, where they constitute the majority of the population, they are slowly not just accumulating power but also asserting it, often (though not always) in independent and insurgent ways that challenge ruling civil society. They are also building their own transnational linkages and associations and increasingly putting forward their own visions of the world. These historically ‘unintended’ worlds, which I term the incivil, are new societies in the making – of their own making and on their own terms.

This is of course not a linear process, nor automatically successful in emancipatory terms. There is plenty of evidence already available of inversions and implosions. One reason for this seems to be the tendency of the leadership of such sections to, once they are in power, adopt and reproduce the laws and customs of their former oppressors; another, the tendency to use organisational forms and cultures developed in dominant civil society and that they inherit, and therefore also the hierarchical social relations embedded in them, as a part of the biopolitics of state and society. But these are inversions that are natural enough; and when seen in a longer historical perspective there is surely no question that we are today at a new threshold of human history, a historic deepening and widening of the democratisation of local and national societies and of global society – a re-imagining and re-building of the world – that is being undertaken and led not by civil societies but by the incivil of the world.”

The uncivil underworld

“Beyond the incivil, however, lie other worlds : Worlds of gross exploitation such those of child prostitution and trade in women, of bonded labour and other forms of slavery, and of trade in organs, drugs, and arms. These worlds, which overlap with the incivil, are broadly the sections of society where the criminal, the mafia, and the criminalised lumpen rule. As films such as The City of God make so dramatically clear, large sections of contemporary society live these very other lives.32 Even while recognising that these worlds too are often ultimately controlled and exploited by members of civil society – and at the risk of oversimplifying things – in order to distinguish this world from what I am referring to as the incivil, I refer to this world – this reality – as the uncivil.

Without elaborating further on this complex point, I suggest that we need to make a distinction between these two realities, incivil and uncivil, and that this is of vital strategic consequence to the task of building other worlds. As a contribution to this rethinking, I propose that we use the term ‘incivil’ for the victimised and oppressed who are building insurgent societies and challenging existing power structures dominated by the civil; and ‘uncivil’ for those who, while also resisting civil society and subverting it, do so with motives and actions are that far more limited, material, and in general criminal and exploitative. In lived reality, it is true that the dividing line between ‘incivil’ and ‘uncivil’ is often blurred – but I believe and urge that we need to recognise that these are different worlds, and crucially, that they co-exist in dynamic tension.”

The World Social Forum as instrument of civil domination and the role of the incivil movements within and against it

“At the risk of taking several liberties at once, I suggest – on the basis of my research on the history and dynamics of transnational civil alliances and of involvement in the World Social Forum process – that there is much reason to believe that the broad sketch of a process of ‘civil’ domination that I have attempted here applies also to emerging civil alliances and to the World Social Forum; not uniformly, nor absolutely, but all too widely.38 An examination of the WSF also yields some insights into other, related tendencies, of civil corporatisation and the exercise of civil power.

To speak of civil domination is not to say that indigenous peoples of the world are not establishing transnational or global alliances – they are;39 but it is to suggest that the centres of power in global civil alliance are still very strongly located in the North, and in the ‘North within the South’; that they still very much lie with the middle and upper castes and classes and among white males; and that transnational incivil alliances are still all too dependent on these power centres. This remains the case even if some incivil alliances are acutely aware of this centrality and reality of power, and strategically work with it. An example is the Minga process that has been launched by the indigenous peoples of Latin and Central America, with one foot in the WSF;40 another is the struggle of third generation dalits in India, who have also consciously used the WSF as a convenient platform.

However, wherever mixed alliances have appeared to take shape, or even in most of the big actions in multicultural contexts such as the US (such as Seattle in November 1999 or Washington, DC in April 2000), Canada (Quebec City in 2001), or the UK (Gleneagles, 2005), people of colour, indigenous peoples, or the incivil in general have so far hardly been seen. By and large, all such initiatives are still dominated by members and organisations of ‘civil society’.

The WSF is ruled by a transnational civil class

“I turn now to the question of corporatisation within civil processes, and of the power relations that are contained therein, which build and consolidate on the structural relations and realities of civility and civil society. I will again take the WSF as an example.

The WSF is ten years old in 2010, and even though I myself have argued that it is an extraordinary example of a process in organic emergence, in terms of learning from its own experience, I believe that it has also reached a stage where it is showing strong tendencies of becoming corporatised, and thereby losing its soul, its essence. Since I have already presented these arguments in detail elsewhere, I will only summarise them here.

The WSF resonantly calls itself an ‘open space’ – open to pluralism and diversity – but its history shows strong tendencies both towards cooption, as discussed above, and also the periodic articulation of strict and exclusionary rules for membership and / or participation.

Examples are the requirement, at one point, of a written declaration of adherence to the Charter of Principles of the Forum for membership of its committees; and the coercive question to those registering for the Mumbai Forum in 2004 as to whether or not they agreed with the Charter of Principles. As in many corporate structures, this gate-keeping takes place not only through articulated rules but also through a ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ where a barely visible leadership makes (and breaks) the rules and decides who is eligible to join, without making the procedures public. The social and political dynamics that lie behind such control are always disguised by a veil of civility, and it takes determined investigation to lift the veil and show the real face behind.

The tendencies also include an increasingly intense discourse about the representativeness of the International Council (IC), even though the Charter of Principles declares that the WSF is not a representative organisation and does not seek to represent world civil society.60 Although the IC has taken some steps in recent years towards systematising the processes of application and approval, the rules and criteria by which decisions are made remain undeclared. This notionally democratic ideal and debate about representativeness therefore contrasts sharply with the long-standing non-democratic and non-transparent organisational culture of the IC.

There was some possibility that this might change after the IC adopted a Resolution in Nairobi in January 2007 regarding the need for an assessment of the internal functioning of the WSF. As it turned out, despite public reminders61 the Commission established to undertake this review chose to focus only on the much simpler question of the logistical organisation of events, and ducked the far more difficult issues that are involved in regulating relations between different bodies, including relations of power. Moreover, the final report of the committee remains unavailable, and the new rules therefore invisible.
This behaviour is also manifested in the degree to which the WSF has become real estate at local and national levels, especially for those with political ambitions. Despite protestations to the contrary in its Charter of Principles, it is often a piece of territory to be struggled over, gained, and retained, at almost any cost. The experience of the WSF in Mumbai in January 2004, of the ESF in London in 2004, and of the WSF India process as a whole, are classic examples of this.63 In most cases the leadership of the Forum, once installed, never changes, because there are no procedures established for doing so.

This is again a classic manifestation of the tyranny of structurelessness, where it is always the already powerful who take advantage of such a situation.

Furthermore, we need to recognise that those who are in the leadership of the WSF – as manifested in the membership of its International Council – are also in the leadership of many other significant civil alliances and coalitions at national, regional, and global levels; not only among civil organisations but also among social movements. In social and structural terms, this is remarkably similar to the case of the conventional corporate world, which Sklair has described as the emergence of a ‘transnational capitalist class’.64 On the one hand, this prominence in national and global society has been the driving logic behind the formation and expansion of the IC; on the other, it makes the IC a hugely powerful body – in effect, a supra-board of the activist civil world – despite the WSF’s Charter’s and spokespersons’ very civil insistence that it does not see itself as a locus of power. It is again precisely the formal denial of this power that is a manifestation of civility’s power.

Over the years, and through all these actions, the leadership of the Forum has also at times behaved like that of an organised and orthodox religion, or party. It has its priests, its faithful constituency, and its rituals.

Notwithstanding the declared progressive political intentions of these calls, the social reality of the Forum is that it remains largely led by aging males, mostly white or honorary white, from middle and upper class and caste sections from settler societies around the world, despite the recent widening of the membership of the IC to include more movements. On the whole, the spirit of openness and consensus that characterised the Forum in its early days – which I too have written about and celebrated – is tending to get lost and be progressively replaced by what seems to be a far more categorical, hierarchical, and corporate civil structure. I assert this even while I repeat that the WSF has been an extraordinary example of institutional emergence (where the process of horizontal spread and proliferation is far more important than any single event), and even while I recognise that the leadership of the Forum has often been unusually creative in terms of responding to challenges and introducing change. All this however is not mutually contradictory; and indeed, this ability to learn and adapt is an intrinsic attribute of civility – and more broadly, of retaining control and power.”

NGO’s as a vehicle for the pacification and cooptation of emancipatory movements and their leaders

“While one result of NGO mobilisation is a greater exposure for those who have been historically marginalised and excluded, and through this some degree of selfawareness and self-confidence, there are many other results as well. One is that those in the leadership of popular organisations often get ‘lifted off’ the ground by the experience, and uprooted. They either get progressively more drawn into international level work by their sponsors, to whom they provide legitimacy, or they get attracted by the perks and power of international work. But as important is the fact that it is in fact the NGOs that sponsor them, and their leadership, who tend to move to constantly more powerful positions through such actions, often behind the scenes. This does not happen by accident. We therefore need to be more critically aware of the structural dynamics involved in such situations.

Secondly, we live in a time when the incivil, more than ever before, are independently and insurgently building their own organisations and their own transnational coalitions and alliances within and beyond ‘national’ societies. In many instances, they reject the concept and project of the dominant ‘nation’ within which they find themselves located and which they seek now to transcend. In some cases these initiatives are emancipatory and progressive, and in others, regressive – just as in the case of civil society. But in relation to the much celebrated thesis of ‘globalisation from below’, in which civil organisations (‘NGOs’) have been projected as playing the key role, we need to recognise that this is not globalisation from below (GfB) but globalisation from the middle. More importantly, the real globalisation from below is taking place in very different ways and largely quite independently of the celebrated version.

Equally possible and real is the well-established practice of civil organisations co-opting (and thereby ‘civilising’) incivil movements and tendencies. To cite just one example of stark differences of praxis, there is a world of difference in the manner in which many dalit organisations perceive neoliberal globalisation – as potentially one more tool to blow open the caste structure that has imprisoned them for over a thousand years, which they regard as their primary issue – versus the formal ideology of the WSF and the alter-globalisation movement, of opposing neoliberal globalisation. Despite this major contradiction, the WSF never objects to their presence, and to the opposite, wants it and celebrates it. We need to question this selective openness, and reflect on it. If we accept that the WSF’s opposition to neoliberalism is based on principle, then we need to recognise that there are deeper reasons than mere opportunism why its leadership is willing to accept this contradiction but not, for instance, the participation of armed organisations. The answer, I suggest, lies in the historical task of civil organisations to civilise the incivil; in this case, by co-opting them.

Third, we need to far more seriously read and recognise, especially in this context of competing alter-globalisms, the degree to which the leadership of international civil organisations, private foundations, and many social movements promoted by such organisations is coagulating into what has many of the characteristics of a powerful ‘transnational social class’. As I have argued above in terms of the WSF, these characteristics include key individuals (mostly males) across the world being on the boards of each other’s organisations, thereby building everlarger webs of interlinked control.82 This is not only true of the WSF.

Fourth, it is important to remember that the recent phenomenal growth and expansion of civil society and transnational civil organisations is not only a result of spontaneous association and action, though this has played an important role. It is also a function of Northern governments being far more flexible in terms of funding international NGOs from the 1990s onwards, as a part of the neoliberal project and as a part attempting to secure global hegemony through the dominance of the Washington Consensus.83 Governments now see civil organisations at local, national, and transnational levels as useful, if not yet critical, role players in their larger geopolitical ambitions.”


Jai Sen:

To conclude, the emerging global alliance and cooperation between civil, social, and political actors – that is collectively referred to as ‘global civil society’ – is first and foremost a crucial vehicle for transnational civil solidarity, which translates into the consolidation of the hold of civil societies transnationally.

In a very limited sense, it is true that this coming on to the world stage of non-state actors contributes to the democratisation of world politics, a stage that has so far been monopolised by nation-states.

But seen through the lens of the historic larger and wider democratisation that is beginning to unfold in our times, this cooperation and consolidation is, more importantly – due to the dynamics of civility and its internal tendencies to corporatisation that I have tried to discuss in this essay –, an instrument for the consolidation, strengthening, and imposition of historically unequal social and political relations and entrenched interests at local, national, regional, and global levels. In fundamental terms, what is fondly called ‘global civil society’ is therefore today arguably contributing to less democracy, not more.”


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