What Ails Civil Society?

Author: Agnieszka Graff

Agnieszka Graff claims that through stubbornly labeling themselves as anti-political, neutral and working for the “public good”, civil society organizations have marginalized their own voice and impact in creating real alternatives to the ruling politics


Introductory remarks
“We wanted a vibrant civil society, and all we got were NGOs.” I have heard this quote several times, sometimes attributed to an anonymous social activist in Hungary, and other times to someone in the Czech Republic. Yet whoever said it first, it captures an important feeling haunting the region, which I would describe as disillusionment mixed with nostalgia and bitterness. For some thirteen years (since returning from my studies abroad), I have been part of a circle of people in Poland who could be defined as ‘social activists’, ‘engaged intelligentsia’ or ‘the new left’ – feminists, human rights activists and academics with an interest in social justice and political change, many of us linked to the former democratic opposition. We often reflect on the topic set here by the Civil Society Forum, and most would agree that something has gone wrong.
There seems to be a great distance between the time of wild hope and engagement in 1989 and the years that followed, and the present atmosphere of distrust, cynical me-ism, the low level of social activism, and the plague of ‘burn-out’ among activists. In my view, the sense of defeat and discouragement is connected with the way in which civil society was conceived and idealized in the late 1980s and early 1990s (i.e. as separate from the realm of politics), the way it congealed into institutions and was professionalized by the late 1990s (a process sometimes referred to as NGO-ization), and the way these institutions are now positioned in relationship to each other, the society, and the state.
Other forces and processes are also at play. For example, as I am sure many others in this debate will conclude, there is something very wrong with our educational system. By continuing to provide students with facts to memorize rather than ideas to debate, or instilling the desire to debate them, it has failed to prepare people for ‘citizenship’ in the modern sense – citizenship as participation. Another important factor in the specific context of Poland is the central role of the Catholic Church as the primary site of social and cultural cohesiveness, a bearer of political power with a monopoly on the nation’s values. Depending on the world view, the church can be seen as a guardian of true values, or as a censor blocking access to values other than its own. In either case, we are dealing with a monopoly directly at odds with democratic pluralism. Ironically enough, as human rights advocate Professor Wiktor Osiatyński once noted, the most vibrant center of ‘civil society’ in today’s Poland, capable of engaging the commitment of millions, is the nationalist Catholic broadcaster Radio Maryja. Such topics as education or the role of the Church are worth discussing, but I believe that the key problem is the relation of civil society to market forces, and the dominance of the neoliberal framework in the region’s transition to democracy. It is to this that I devote the bulk of my response.
I have also consciously omitted the most obvious argumentation, namely that it is all a matter of the legacy of communism and the way it deprived people of agency and trust in public institutions; the way it made us turn away from any involvement in public affairs. Of course, all this is true. But twenty years have passed, a new generation born after 1989 is coming of age, and we must move on.   
False assumptions: the trouble with ‘anti-politics’
I will not be the first to suggest that much of the ‘sickness’ afflicting civil society in Eastern and Central Europe is due to its conception from the very beginning as a sort of non-political engagement, a mission that is not about power struggle, ideological difference, or group interests, but about serving the common good. The sources of this ethos, as we know, have their roots in the culture of political dissidence that arose in the 1970s and 1980s (Karta 77, KOR, Solidarność, etc.). The concept of ‘anti-politics’ then survived 1989 largely unexamined and was idealized – both by activists and by institutions such as the UN and the EU – as the proper site of the transition to democracy. I would argue, though, that in a democracy there is no such thing as political neutrality. There is no such thing as a commonly agreed definition of the ‘common good’. In effect, ‘anti-politics’ has a politics of its own, in that it legitimizes the status quo. As an ideological construct, the glorification of ‘anti-politics’ has served to constrain rather than encourage effective and autonomous organization, blocked debate about alternative paths of development, and, finally, contributed to the rise of right-wing populism.
In her recent book Citizenship in an Enlarging Europe, Barbara Einhorn describes what she calls the civil society ‘trap’: instead of building a movement for social change, groups are engaged in “stopping the ‘gap’ left by state retrenchment and the ensuing loss of public welfare provisions” (p.175). In this scenario, social actors such as women’s rights activists are reduced to the role of mere service providers (and often inefficient ones, at that), a fig leaf in the process of mass privatization. The question is: was this what we wanted? Is this what we meant by ‘empowerment’ and ‘democratization’?
I consider the civil society trap to be part of a broader historical and social process, which is clear to me only in retrospect (things seemed natural and inevitable at the time). Early on in the transition period, the limited definition of ‘the political’ led to a peculiar division of roles in the public sphere. State institutions and party politics, as well as the sphere of public debate, were soon conceived of as ‘dirty’ and left to self-proclaimed experts, most of whom were uncritically committed to a neoliberal agenda and who viewed the process of marketization as non-negotiable. Meanwhile, the ‘idealists’ committed themselves to the purportedly neutral ideal of civil society.
Today, I think that these idealists, on the run from ideological commitment, were the very people who, in another scenario, might have offered a political alternative to the neoliberal paradigm. One that would have involved a social safety net that could and should have been provided by the state. Without the constricting ideal of ‘anti-politics,’ they might have transformed the public sphere, engaging people in a truly democratic debate about the possible paths of transition itself; they might have built a continuity of values with the political idealists of the pre-war period (stemming from the homegrown socialist and not the post-communist tradition). In short, had it not been for the ‘politics of anti-politics’, a new left wing might have emerged, marginalizing the corrupt post-communist forces and possibly preventing the rise of right-wing populism. Instead, with only a few exceptions (notably Jacek Kuroń), efforts were chiefly poured into ‘serving society.’ Meanwhile, as Kinga Dunin, Sławomir Sierakowski and others have argued, power in the public sphere was neatly divided between the Market and the Church, the experts and the priests. Proclaiming themselves to be outsiders to both power and ideology, civil society actors were in no position to challenge this right-wing hegemony (neoliberal in economics and conservative in values).  The key issues were never debated, because the answers had already been provided. No wonder the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘civil society’ came to ring hollow to so many people.
How did we end up in the blind alley of anti-politics? Chiefly because we left the politics to (mostly male) ‘experts’. The idea that the free market should be allowed to rule with as little state regulation and intervention as possible was all but a dogma in the transition era. All those who challenged the neoliberal paradigm (or even called it a paradigm, suggesting that it could be up for debate), were labeled as ignoramuses, populists or nut-cases. Jacek Kuroń was seen as a saint – idealistic, but somewhat unrealistic and naïve. The power of this ideology and the fear of stigma was (and perhaps still is) tremendous. Hence, instead of creating another political scenario, people who believed in social justice retreated into ‘anti-politics’; instead of challenging neoliberal dogma, we engaged in damage limitation.
While it is true that NGOs helped a great deal at local level, it could also be argued that they were supplying the neoliberal state with an alibi. For example, gender injustice leads to the formation of women’s groups and NGOs, which provide services for women usually along single-issue lines (hotlines, legal advice, medical information, shelter for victims of violence, and sex education in schools). Occasionally, we also demonstrate, protest or lobby, but ‘service’ takes up most of our energy and resources. When protests do take place, state authorities are visibly uninterested: why should the government be worried about gender discrimination when that is what women’s NGOs are for? Feminism is thus reduced from a world-changing vision and grassroots political movement to a series of professionally run institutions engaging in ‘projects’, which are forced to  adapt to outside agendas and pressures because of their dependence on funding.
If civil society is by definition marginal to state institutions, those state institutions are happy to take advantage of the fact, relegating activists to the status of service providers, or worse – charities. Twenty years down the road, many of the ‘idealists’ I know are tired of this, and the politics of anti-politics is increasingly viewed as a dead end. It was as a consequence of this realization that initiatives such as the Greens 2004, Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), and the Women’s Party were created in Poland. All three are overtly political, and define the public sphere as the site of the struggle for power. On the other hand, they are also idealistic in their commitment to social justice. I see this as a long overdue departure from the ‘civil society’ model, and an effort to re-connect politics and idealism. 
Specific difficulties
As the above diagnosis suggests, I see the disease ailing civil society as essentially systemic. It is therefore difficult to pinpoint specific problems that could be solved within the existing framework. Most of the difficulties I can see take me back to the original problem with ‘anti-politics’, i.e. the civil society ‘trap’. Here are three examples.
First comes the massive public distrust of civil society institutions. This problem is one of alienation: for instance, many women complain about sexism, gender inequality etc, but nonetheless do not view the women’s movement as representing them, nor is there a grassroots organization they might join. On the contrary, the movement is perceived as a body of distant institutions, funded by a group of suspicious outsiders. “There’s nowhere for us to go,” I hear young feminists complain again and again. And indeed, the vast majority of NGOs are not membership organizations. Rather than a movement to join, there are ‘foundations’ which can be applied to for financial support, or appealed to (perhaps to protest against a sexist advertising campaign). Some informal groups DO exist, and a politically-minded young woman could surely find one to join. Yet the NGO model has become so much a part of the landscape that they, too, are perceived as service providers. Many activists complain about the cynical culture of disengagement and greed that surrounds us, and the fact that students consider it chic to be socially and politically apathetic. They are infuriated by the fact that people relate to us activists as clients, complaining and demanding, rather than contributing and becoming active themselves. Sadly, this is a result of the very framework we ourselves established – one of service, rather than representation. De-politicization and NGO-ization have had a profoundly alienating effect.
Secondly, there are bitter conflicts both within and between NGOs. I am not an expert on this painful subject, but I believe that it, too, is structural, and not to be solved by means of ‘conflict resolution’ workshops, or the like. At its root is the very status and structure of NGOs, and above all the project-based funding system, which breeds ruthless competition for limited resources between people who theoretically have a common goal. The NGOs I know are also not managed democratically: in fact, the founder of any particular group often remains at the helm for decades. Even if the person in question is charismatic and deeply committed to the organization, its rigid power structure leads to conflicts and sometimes even its destruction.
Thirdly, I would mention the lack of success in transforming civil society initiatives into legislation. Many activists I know complain of the arrogance of politicians in communicating with NGOs. Despite the respectful talk of “dialogue with social partners,” women’s NGOs are often ignored when it comes to policy making. Without exonerating the politicians, who are indeed often arrogant, and need to be held accountable, I would argue that the problem is not just in political resistance to our demands (gender equality legislation, etc.). Rather, it is systemic: once civil society had vacated the sphere of politics, social actors found themselves in a very weak negotiating position. Isolated NGOs (or even coalitions of NGOs) without large membership and grassroots support have very little means of exerting political pressure.
Concluding remarks
The problems listed above are interconnected, and all related to the disadvantageous position of social activism with regard to the state and the market economy. I am convinced that by situating itself outside politics, civil society has contributed to its own marginalization. As I have argued above, the pattern is circular: the neoliberal state fails to deliver basic social provisions, and NGOs – funded mostly by Western institutions – respond to these needs by building professionalized, specialized structures designed to satisfy specific needs. The donors prefer non-political projects (because of the assumptions of the civil society framework), and so de-politicization is strengthened further. As (some) needs are met, the state considers itself justified in its retrenchment strategy. Within civil society itself, there is less and less discussion of how to make the system more just and equitable, because organizations are busy writing grant applications for yet another project, which will help fill new gaps created by the unjust system.
I do not wish to negate the good that has come from the work of NGOs. There are many wonderful initiatives around, aimed to alleviate injustice, eradicate inequality and fight prejudice. I continue to contribute to many, and have even helped to found some, including a feminist group and a stipend fund for young people who otherwise could not afford to study in Warsaw. I wish many others well. However, I believe that, in the final analysis, thinking of ourselves as remaining ‘outside politics’ has been a costly mistake. Instead of getting to the roots of inequality and social exclusion, we ended up serving as a cushion to the very system we were protesting against. It is not more NGOs to deal with more problems that are needed, but a shift in the framework itself: new voices in the public sphere, and grassroots political movements that will encourage participation. We must begin to re-examine and move beyond the politics of anti-politics.

Agnieszka Graff graduated from Amherst College (USA, 1993) and Oxford University (1995) and holds a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Warsaw (1999). She is currently an assistant professor at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw, where she teaches U.S. culture, literature, African American studies and women’s history. She also offers regular seminars on various aspects of feminist thought at the Warsaw University Gender Studies Center and at Collegium Civitas. Her current research interest is in gender and national identity (focusing on Poland) and in the rhetorical strategies of modern American feminism. A scholar and activist in Poland, she has published extensively on gender in Polish public life in both scholarly and political journals, as well as in the mainstream press. Her focus is on discourses concerning women’s reproductive rights, the rights of sexual minorities, and the role of these issues in Poland’s recent nationalist revival. She has published two books in Polish, both examining constructions of gender in the media: Świat bez Kobiet (A World without Women, 2001) and Rykoszetem (Ricochet – Gender, Sexuality and Nation, 2008). In 2004-2005 she was a fellow of the Fulbright New Century Scholars Program Toward Equality: The Global Empowerment of Women, doing research in New York City. She works with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and is a member of the editorial board at Krytyka Polityczna – a left-wing journal and publishing project that serves as a forum for debate [www.krytykapolityczna.pl].


Her recent publications in English include the following articles: 
“The Land of Real Men and Real Women: Gender and E.U. Accession in Three Polish Weeklies”, in: Carolyn Elliott (ed.) Global Empowerment of Women: Responses to Globalization, Politicized Religions and Gender Violence (Routledge, series: Research in Gender and Society (New York, London: Routledge, 2008), 191-212

“A Different Chronology: Reflections on Feminism in Contemporary Poland” in: Third Wave Feminism. A Critical Exploration. Expanded Second Edition. Ed. Stacy Gillis, Gillian Howie, Rebecca Munford. (London: Palgrave, 2007), 142-155. 

"We Are (Not All) Homophobes: A Report from Poland", Feminist Studies, 32 (2), Summer 2006: 434-449.   

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved. 


Comments by readers

Posted by: tomek kitlinski

On: Monday, November 10 2008 @ 05:36PM

It's an important voice about civil society and its current discontents in CEE. We need to revive the civic practices here and now and to reinvent civil society to which, in fact, we owe our freedom in this region of Europe. Much attention is needed to the (lack of) rights of women and sexual minorities in our countries. And, as Agnieszka argues, to how to "make the system more just and equitable" - the system of civil society and the system as such.

Posted by: A reader from CEE

On: Tuesday, November 18 2008 @ 12:09AM

Civil society here needs repair. That’s why the ideas of Dr Graff are valuable, in particular her call for “a shift in the background itself.” Hope you’ll continue the discussion.

Posted by: another reader

On: Thursday, November 20 2008 @ 01:56AM

Thanks for very stimulating food for thought!! Allowing ourselves to think out of the box - what shapes of civil society organizations and civic initiatives may we be looking at for the future? Valuedriven membership organizations? and what role for supporting organizations?

Posted by: Codru Vrabie

On: Friday, November 28 2008 @ 02:54PM

dear Agnieszka, i hope you don't mind my intervention in discussing with your readers :)

almost a month ago, at the www.13iacc.org, i attended a workshop on whistleblower protection, whereof i'd share some thoughts, especially with <another reader>... Mircea Toma of www.mma.ro, a psychologist turned journalist, analyzed the motivations of any given person to become a whistleblower, and his conclusions went along the following lines:
- personal values are an important drive for fighting against what one perceives to be wrong; hence, without "proper" education to instill "proper" values, we should not expect "ordinary" people to confront wrongdoings and/or try to fix the problems;
- unless the act of confronting wrongdoings (or wrongdoers, for that matter) results in visible consequences meant to fix the problem, we should not expect people to embark on a crusade against wind-mills; therefore, internal procedures in all types of organizations should ensure redress and "proper" counteracting measures against all grievances;
- safety of the individual's physical integrity, job security, protection of their family members and career development is just as important, and we should not expect people to engage or challenge the prevailing view in their organization, community or society at large, unless safety nets are in place, to catch one's fall--and the real test is whether they actually work when push comes to shove!

so, i guess that civil society organizations should be able to emulate and enhance these 3 motivational factors, if they wanted to secure a brighter future, don't you think?!? all the best! --Codru


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