The spirit of civil society

The term has been used so loosely that it has become synonymous, at best, with what we used to call “cause-oriented groups,” and, at worst, with unelected meddlers and hecklers without any real political base.  In fact, the term “civil society” has solid credentials, and it is useful to go back to its early usage in order to appreciate developments in our political life.

It first came into use in German philosophy as a way to distinguish between two spheres of human activity: the political framework of the state (political society), and the social framework of everyday life (civil society).  Hegel regarded the state as the embodiment of the highest form of reason, and thus it was perfectly suited to regulate human affairs.  Our everyday relationships in society, he said, tend to be marked by conflict and confusion.  The state, as the epitome of disinterested wisdom, mediates and provides direction.

Marx called this view of a neutral and autonomous state standing above society an illusion.  The state, he said, is very much a product of the conflicts of social life.  It exists not to mediate but to enforce the dominance of one class over the rest of society.  Far from reflecting universal wisdom, the state is an instrument of narrow interests.  To understand the nature of the state and the role it plays in society, we must, he argued, look into the interplay of classes at the level of social production.  The practical struggles and experiences of the working people at this level would provide them the self-knowledge they need in order to free themselves and thus become initiators of the historical process.

Here – in the primacy that Marx assigned to civil society – lies the seed that has sprouted into many forms of popular initiative, challenging the supremacy not only of the state but also of the political parties.  It was the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci, who gave this idea its clearest expression.  Gramsci was very critical not only of the bureaucratic state but even more of the radical parties of his time, whom he disdainfully regarded as little more than a bunch of professional politicians jockeying for positions.

Gramsci denounced the cynical manipulation of the working masses by politicians in their quest for state power.  He urged the working classes to develop their own “organic intellectuals” who could synthesize the actual experiences of their fellow workers and point the way to the attainment of their real aspirations.  He held up the “workers’ councils” as the proper instrument for transforming society, not the trade unions, or the political parties or the state.  In fact, he looked towards a future society that would be so unified it would have no need for any form of political rule.

In today’s politics, the inheritors of Gramsci’s spirit of civil society are the critical press, the independent people’s organizations, social movements, and developmental non-government organizations that are concerned with social empowerment in its various forms.  They care little about working with government or dealing with politicians and established political parties.  Their vision is of a society free from oppression and domination, and their mission is to empower ordinary people by releasing their fullest human potential through critical reflection and organized action.  Ultimately, their objective is to absorb the state into civil society.

Civil society groups have played an increasingly important role in Philippine political life since the 1970s.  They filled the vacuum created by the death of the political parties during the period of authoritarian rule.  Their view of social progress contrasted sharply with the repressive programs of the Marcos dictatorship.  Emergent civil society hastened the overthrow of the Marcos state in 1986, but the movements that constituted it were not sufficiently unified to offer an alternative non-elitist model of political democracy.  As soon as the dictatorship was gone, the professional politicians came back to reclaim their traditional roles as overseers of the national community.

It was not difficult for them to return to these roles given the persistence in our society of an unreformed political culture of patronage and dependence.  Not wishing to concede government totally to the traditional politicians, many civil society activists accepted roles in the national bureaucracy. In time, their good intentions were buried in the ways of state power.  Many joined traditional parties to survive politically.

Edsa II followed Edsa I.  Once more, civil society led the way in ousting a regime.  The scope for change in 2001 was, however, even more limited than in 1986.  This was affirmed by the ambivalent results of the national elections held after Edsa II.  The old regime was not completely dismantled; the “new” regime that succeeded it operated under unchanged rules.

It is thus foolish for civil society to think it has any hold on the Macapagal administration it helped put in power.  The political rules and structures are unchanged.  This is still a government of the elite. As in 1986, some civil society elements find themselves working in government, and though their frustrations grow day by day, they continue to hope that they can continue their mission of popular empowerment from the other side of the barricade.  This is not an easy role.

The proper role of civil society is to inform and organize the people so they can govern themselves, not to engage in the old contest for state power.


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