When civil society becomes political

We do not know when exactly the term “civil society” first entered the vocabulary of Philippine politics.  But sometime in the early ‘80s, just before Edsa 1, it gradually replaced the awkward phrase “causeoriented organizations.” And, while it includes in its ranks diverse types of non-government organizations or NGOs, the name “civil society” itself increasingly came to refer to groups and individuals that advocate broad changes in society.

They are politically engaged in a unique sort of way, yet they are not political parties.  Indeed they tend to disdain conventional politics. That much is clear.  What is not clear is what distinguishes them from political parties when they get involved in electoral politics.  Some scholars refer to them as “non-party political formations” but that is not very helpful.

This is far from being just a question of semantics.  The issue seems to underpin the confusion of roles that confronts many civil society groups in the Philippines today.  There is an ongoing discussion of the consequences that arise when civil society organizations and individuals begin performing functions that belong to political parties and politicians. It is an important question because one particularly disturbing outcome seems to be the undermining of the moral authority of civil society.

To comprehend this phenomenon is to understand the challenge of the transition that Philippine society is undergoing, and the specific demand this imposes on civil society.  A brief background on the changing usage of the term civil society might be useful.

The philosopher Hegel had used it as part of the conceptual pair “political society-civil society.”  Political society referred to the institutional relationships revolving around the State, whereas civil society referred to all the other substantive relationships that people have in society — the family, the community, the church, professional and occupational groups, etc.  The State is supposed to represent the highest form of collective rationality, indeed the embodiment of God‘s consciousness in history.  This why it was made out to stand above and mediate the messy affairs of human beings.

Marxist theory rescued civil society from its inferior status in relation to the State.  Instead of the neutral arbiter of human conflicts that it was supposed to be, the State began to be regarded as a central site of these conflicts, indeed, the “executive committee of the ruling class.”  This paradigm shift prefigured the modern usage of civil society as a source of transformative impulses.

No longer was politics believed to be the exclusive domain of government and of political parties.  And no longer were citizens merely voters or the passive sounding board of State decisions.  As civil society, the people themselves became the ultimate source of sovereignty, and the State was merely supposed to reflect their will. This revaluation opened up the whole terrain of politics to metapolitical struggles in which the principal protagonists were social movements, autonomous peoples’ organizations, and social activists who were fighting for change but not necessarily for power for themselves.

This is the tradition from which civil society activism in the Philippines draws its models.  Both in composition and in temperament, it is almost the antithesis of party politics.  Civil society’s rhetoric projects a disdain for elections and politicians.  It stands up to power, yet it is not itself oriented to the capture and the exercise of political power.

We could say that civil society organizations are the protagonists of political transitions.  As such, their goal is to destabilize the norms of traditional politics in order to recast the framework of political contestation itself.  That is why their preferred mode of struggle, whether they are conscious of it or not, tends to be extraconstitutional rather than electoral.  What they seek is popular empowerment rather than government positions.  People Power is a child of civil society.

But civil society’s strength is also its weakness. It can mobilize the masses for confrontation with power, but it is not itself equipped for elections and governance.  Realizing the dead-end nature of pure advocacy, civil society organizations all too often find themselves immersed in electoral politics, deploying their capacity for popular mobilization to elect non-politicians to public office.  What they do not quite see is the specificity of the rules of electoral engagement.  And so they tend lose not only elections but also quite often their taste for politics.

In the rare times they score a victory, as in the 2007 contest for the governorship of Pampanga, civil society groups take up the reins of government totally unprepared to govern.  Instead of making the full transition to electoral politics and using their stint in public office to demonstrate the feasibility of a new style of governance, they go back to advocacy, forgetting they are now the government.  Advocacy and governance are two distinct functions that are best kept separated.

Comments to public.lives@gmail,com