18 January 2017

That curious creature called ‘civil society’

Words are easy for politicians and in politics.  Take ‘the people’ for example.  It’s hard to think of a term that has been as abused.  It’s all ‘in the name of the people’ isn’t it?  There are of course other useful (and cheap) words in the lexicon of politics.  ‘The nation’ has a lot of utility value, for example and has been used and abused all over the world and across history.  And then, there is ‘civil society’.  

Civil society is defined as “the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens" and includes the family and the private sphere, referred to as the "third sector" of society, distinct from government and business.”  It is supposed to refer to “a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity” and as such implies all manner of collectives, regardless of size.  However in usage it is the exaggeration of this definition that dominates.  It’s useful, this exaggeration, for political purposes.  In usage, it would (like to) count every single citizen who is not a politician or a business owner.  Perhaps this is why those who call themselves representatives of civil society see ‘civil society’ as an alternative to states and governments.

What really is civil society in Sri Lanka?  How representative are those who claim to speak on behalf of those whose memberships are assumed but not necessarily ‘membered’ in the term?  

These are not questions that the self-appointed ‘reps of civil-soc’ (RCS) will like to answer.  

Let’s consider a few examples.  In the early years of the new millennium there was a protest at Lipton’s Circus.  It was a ‘peace demonstration’ or rather a demonstration for peace, meaning agitation to put a stop to military activity.  Most of the key voices in that collective were and still are ardent advocates of federalism, some on occasion endorsing moves to confer parity of status to the LTTE vis-a-vis the Government of Sri Lanka.  That’s not what is important here. What’s interesting is that it was a demonstration by ‘100 women’s organizations’.  What’s telling is that less than 100 turned up!  

In 2006 February, another captain of this interesting industry was asked on the sidelines of talks between the then government and the LTTE in Celigny, Switzerland, how many people he could bring to a demonstration if he didn’t receive funds from donor agencies.  He was honest.  None, he said. Membership, even temporary membership, has a price tag then  Not too different to the rice packet, alcohol and a few hundred bucks plus transport that are spent to purchase support for the two major parties in the country, one observes.  

Civil society, however, assumes the kind of purity (of purpose and practice) that politicians dare not demand or, as of late, would not bother claiming.  On the one hand, politicians seek and obtain votes.  They are up for election.  They are up for rejection.  Even if one considers the fact that only those with money or are supported by the moneyed can reasonably expect to win, there is some rudimentary representational claim that they can make.  The lords and ladies of civil society don’t have even that!

What’s civil society?  Ask those who are counted in as members but have never met the lords and ladies who claim to represent them.  Ask them their names.  They wouldn’t have a clue.  ‘Civil society’ is the ‘other’ of what they are not.  

Some are lords, some ladies and some are wannabe lords and wannabe ladies.  Some genuinely think they are the subaltern they like to believe the entire enterprise is, but even among them only a handful would not be getting paid at the end of the day.  

The lords and ladies, then, make pronouncements on behalf of a largely non-existent membership.  They attach themselves (typically) to political formations that are for the most part admiring of the West, it’s dominant paradigms of development, it’s preferred economic policy regimes and the narratives of history and progress it prefers.  In the name of the people, mind you.  In the best interest of the nation, remember. Don’t be fooled, tell yourself.  

People talk of majorities as though they are pickpockets or worse.  People talk of majoritarianism as though it is a cuss word.  Haven’t heard of minoritarianism being used anywhere, even though minorities of the ethnic kind have unleashed violence and caused destruction throughout history.  No?  Well, research ‘English’, ‘Portuguese’ and ‘Dutch’ histories in Sri Lanka, not to mention Dravidian hordes, Tamil-speaking and otherwise, who’ve adventured here.  Well, forget all that — think of the Europeans who ‘discovered’ a new (sic) world across the Atlantic.  

Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta wrote a book titled ‘The only minority is the bourgeoisie’ way back in 1985.  I can’t remember if it was in this collection but he had a pithy line in one of his books, perhaps, ‘The 52nd state of amnesia’: ‘when they say you are a visible minority, it means you’re a sitting duck!’  Well, the bourgeoisie is not the only minority.  It is a minority that is visible and perhaps so powerful that its minority status misses the eye.   

The bourgeoisie is a silent, pernicious and destructive minority.  ‘Civil society’ can’t hold a candle to the bourgeoisie of course but it is still pernicious.  Not invisible in the bandying of terms, but made visible by the fact of that which it invisibles, if one were to use the term, namely the non-existent membership in whose name it operates.  Pernicious is an apt descriptive.

Consider who civil society backed to the hilt over the past 30 years.  Among politicians, they were behind Chandrika Kumaratunga.  They were, rather reluctantly forced to back Sarath Fonseka in 2010, a man they had previously vilified since he was on the ‘other side’ of their preferred victor in the war, namely the LTTE.  They were less reluctant in their support of Maithripala Sirisena of course, but today while some of them mutter dismay over pronouncements made by the President, they treat the Prime Minister as a holy cow.  If the election of Kumaratunga was a victory for the progressives, then yes they played a role, albeit a role smaller than claims.  So too with the victory of January 8, 2015.  Both Kumaratunga and Sirisena have proven that celebration was early and unwarranted.  Civil society, anyway, is supposed to go beyond personalities and parties.  

Let’s conclude. If we talk of minorities or sections of minorities that are as bad or worse as chauvinistic majorities, ethnically speaking Sri Lanka has wholesome minorities.  Compared to that peculiar minority called ‘civil society’.  The kind we’ve discussed above.  Just to clear confusion, if you talk of the collective of maranaadhaara samithi (death-donation societies) or thrift and credit cooperatives or Sarvodaya societies, they are far more numerous, do much more in real terms to uplift communities and get a lot more done.  They too are legitimately part of ‘civil society’.  And, if we talk membership that is known, understood, acknowledged and evident in practice, they are a majority that outnumbers many times over the collective assumed to be represented by the lords and ladies of civil society.    

Civil society.  It needs to be unpacked, clearly.  If done comprehensively perhaps a true civil society might emerge and a far more useful one too. 


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasene@gmail.com Twitter: malindasene.




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