Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Civil Society and the Will of the People

by Sandra Masaka

A democracy is said to be efficient if it has a civil society that is independent from the state and represents the people without bias. However, the existence of civil society has led to the stereotype and assumption that it automatically represents the will of the people. In my essay, I will set out to question whether or not the representation of the people’s will is automatic if existent at all?. This essay will also look at the main ideas behind civil society and the importance of the will of the people and compare and contrast as to whether, in reality, they exist or function as they should. I will also make reference to real-life examples in India and South Africa to see if civil society does indeed automatically represent the will of the people. The question that will also be raised is that if civil society does not, in fact, represent the will of the people- then who or what does? Are the wishes of the people then just ignored? Furthermore, we need to question the importance of civil society within a democracy and whether or not democracy can still be said to exist if civil society is actually dysfunctional.

The meaning of civil society

According to Chatterjee, (2004: 33), civil society is a public sphere made up of civic and social organisations and institutions that operate independently of the state but are consistent with its laws; it thus forms the social base for capitalist democracy. Furthermore, it is of paramount importance because without civil society, notable is that the creation and sustaining of freedom and equality in the political realm become quite impossible (Chatterjee, 2004: 33). In this view, civil society becomes the pivot of a successful democracy in that it makes sure that democratic values are promoted. For instance, the role of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations), has been described as being civil society organisations which are also dominant actors in the advancement of universal values around human rights. Thus civil society is the ‘social base for capitalist democracy’ (Chatterjee, 2004: 33). However, as flowery as this all may sound in theory, we need to question whether or not, in reality, this is how civil society actually functions. The constant human rights violations, within democratic countries, makes one wonder if civil society does truly represent the will of the people. Noteworthy are critiques of the role that civil society has, in reality, taken; Arundhati Roy (2010), in an interview, answered a question on her view to the role of NGOs by stating that, “I believe NGOs are dangerous. They do what the missionaries used to do in Colonial times. They are Trojan Horses. The worse the situation, the more the NGOs.”.

In India, most NGOs are not independent from the state or the market (Chatterjee, 2004: 49). Instead, most NGOs today are actually run on a professional basis, like capitalist co-operations. One would wonder why it is that in places like South Africa and India, were most of the poor people are homeless or do not have access to the resources, there are so many NGOs which are introduced in the name of human rights and yet the situation either remains the same or even becomes worse. The meaning of civil society is not at par with the actual state of affairs; in reality, not everyone has equal access to this ‘public sphere’. Marx was of the argument that civil society is actually made up of middle class society because the third class are poor and hence do not have access to it. Chatterjee further argues that, civil society is in reality a ‘...demographically limited’ space (Chatterjee, 2004: 39). Hence, civil society is actually limited to a small section of culturally equipped citizens and thereby representing the upper side of modernity whilst the rest of the citizens are actually excluded. Yet in order for civil society to automatically represent the will of the people- it needs to be inclusive and not exclusive. In other words, everyone needs to be involved and not just those with access to this “public sphere’. As in the same way that Chatterjee (2004), is arguing that just because India is a democracy does not mean that the people of India experience a democratic life. Notable is that the same applies to the question above, just because civil society exists in a democracy does not automatically guarantee the representation of the will of the people. 
The problem of Governmentalisation

Governmentalisation is an idea by Michel Foucault, which he used to explain how the state ‘...secures legitimacy not by the participation of citizens in matters of state but by claiming to provide for the wellbeing of the population’ (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). Hence, the people do not get to participate in the rule of power as citizens; instead they are converted into populations which need to be regulated and monitored by the state. This is how state politics is shaped now and thus as a result, the will of the people is not heard because they are now ‘populations’ and not ‘citizens’ who have a political right to be involved. According to Chatterjee (2004: 34), the states no longer justify their claim over power by saying they ‘represent the will of the people’, instead they use service delivery as being their sole purpose. The problem here is that citizens of a state have political agency and thus are recognised as being agents of change, they are heard and hence their will is known or made known as they are political actors. Populations, on the other hand are passive receivers of services from the government, they do not have political agency and are not heard. Hence, all that populations need is to be cared for and not given a political voice, they need to be managed and ruled (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). This ‘modern power’ of the states curtails the possibility of a participatory democracy; it cannot exist where there are no citizens and where they are just passive populations. Hence, most strikes in South Africa, by the masses, tend to be about service delivery- not many demand the right to participate in a participatory democracy. 
The formation of Political Society

The ‘will of the people’ seems to be a thing of the past and service delivery seems to be the most important thing for the people. For instance, the poor in the townships would rather demand shelter, food and water than demand their rights. In this light, notable is that most of the masses find themselves excluded by civil society and made passive receivers because they are now treated as populations. Such people now exist outside of civil society; a clear example is that of Abahlali beseMjondolo. They are a clear example of how in South Africa, people have no choice but to live outside civil society and find their political voice despite the fact that they are not included in civil society. Chatterjee (2004: 38), refers to the existence of political societies; this is where people make political complaints on civil society because they are excluded from it or cannot afford to be a part of it. A clear fault in the ideas behind civil society, is the assumption that the citizens live according to the law - this is not accurate when looking at the current affairs in most developing countries like South Africa and India (Chatterjee, 2004:47). An actual fact is that if a peasant or third class lived within the boundaries of the law, then they would not survive or keep up with the capitalist structure of the economic situation in these countries. As a result, people live outside civil society and are dismissed as being criminals without even understanding why they resort to criminal behaviour (Chatterjee, 2004: 47). Their actions are never looked at through the lens of political action, instead it is just concluded that they are criminals or are of barbaric behaviour.

Illegal squatters are popular in India and South Africa because the poor people cannot afford the expense of renting a home or the expenses that come with it (electricity and water costs). Therefore in South Africa notable is that in Townships when the state cuts off their electricity when they have not met their bills, the people retaliate by illegally ‘hot-wiring’ their electrical cords to the main electricity switch. In France, during the French revolution, the action of the masses of storming the Bastille was expressed by the philosophers as being a political action- that it represented the people breaking the chains that once bound them. However, today, such actions would be expressed by the press as being criminal behaviour and these people as standing in the way of development. Hence, if the state took serious notice of the political society, it would notice that this is indeed a means of incorporating the will of the people, because relaying on the those who can afford to be members of the civil society does not cover everyone. We cannot use civil society alone to attempt representing the will of the people; instead, we need to recognise the existence of those who exist outside civil society.

What does the ‘will of the people’ actually encompass?

In his interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Hallward (2007), uncovered the importance of the people’s will in establishing a democracy that is all in all- participatory. The reason why Haiti experienced a participatory democracy is because Aristide invited people from “...sectors that had little or no representation in parliament to have a voice in the administration, to occupy some ministerial positions and to keep a balance between the legislative and the executive branches of government.” (Hallward, 2007). Hence, the people were not just ‘the ruled’; instead they were involved in the ‘ruling’. Hallward’s idea of the will of the people is that it involves “...a deliberate, emancipatory and inclusive process of collective determination.” and its exercise is “...voluntary and autonomous..” (Hallward, 2009: 17). The will of the people is an important factor in a democracy; it is a means of giving people the freedom and the voice they seek from a democracy. This is understandable when one looks at the history of oppression, colonialism and apartheid that would have existed before a democracy is fought for. People fight for it because they want to be heard, the want freedom and to have a government that is ‘for the people’, ‘by the people’ and ‘with the people’. One could thus conclude that the very purpose of a participatory democracy is to represent the will of the people. Marx’s idea on emancipation was that the ‘emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves’. He believed that the people themselves could be agents of change and that they must have a voice in a state- they should take over the state and not let the state take over them. The will of the people is thus an idea about self-determination and self-emancipation.

According to Chatterjee (2004: 47), popular sovereignty envelops ideas that people should decide or be involved in decision making- people should be controlling the city. The will of the people is therefore not only important but also seen as a tool for development, emancipation and a way forward. Aristide saw the future of politics as revolving around the will of the people and not the actions of the state, “Once the people are genuinely able to participate in the democratic process, then they will be able to devise an acceptable way forward.” (Hallward, 2007). The silencing of the people or them being tuned into populations is therefore going against the idea that drivers of democracy are the people. Aristide saw citizens as being valuable and was against governments which want to rule them. The people should have a voice, “-every person is indeed a person, every person is capable of thinking things through for themselves” (Hallward, 2007). This goes hand in hand with Marx’s views emancipation as being in the hands of the masses; it goes to say that the will of the people is the driving force behind emancipation and democracy. Roy (2010) gives the example of Maoism; it stresses political will rather than structure. Thus people can change political structure themselves, they are capable of political thought; it is not just a job for the state of political parties and as Aristide said- ‘every person is capable of thinking things through for themselves’. In this light, the will of the people is an idea that gives people the chance to do this; to think for themselves and not to be passive populations. The question therefore is whether people are given this platform?; from the above discussions- it is clear that people are excluded from civil society, which is in actual fact supposed to be a forum for their will to be put in action and their voice to be heard. The people are forced to live outside civil society as they cannot afford to live within its boundaries. Hallward, (2009: 18), thus argues that usually, the will of the people is suppressed and it is assumed that the people are too barbaric-like to reasonably exercise their will. This is seen in how the events in political society are made to be criminal rather than political. Many scholars have thus advocated for the introduction of emancipatory politics as a solution to this problem.

Will emancipatory politics re-enforce the representation of the will of the people?

In a nutshell, emancipatory politics is the politics of achieving equality for all people. How this should be done has brought forward two main arguments; that emancipatory politics should work within the state in civil society or that it should actually act at a distance from the state. This, in Halloway’s view, brings us to the popular theories as to ‘who should change the world’, or more specifically, the social structure (Halloway, 2002: 11). In this light, the main problem is deciding whether equality and social change can be established by reforming the state structures or through a revolutionary process. Holloway, (2002:13) is of the argument that “...radical change can be achieved through constitutional means”, and thus sees attaining state control as being crucial to bringing about social change. Marx was of the idea that the people should take over the state and use it to implement change. However, from the arguments above, it is clear that civil society is not a representative of all the people and hence one would question its ability to achieve social change within the state. Theoretically speaking, civil society is meant to be the ‘social base in a capitalist democracy’; it is meant to provide a public forum for political debate where all people can let their voice be heard (Chatterjee, 2004: 33). Hence it is meant to represent the will of the people and be a space where “...organs of state interact with members of civil society in their individual capacities or as members of associations.” (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). However, in reality, this is not possible because civil society only represents those who can afford to live according to the law; those who need to break the law in order to survive are excluded and hence, as a result, this forum does not represent everyone. 
This brings me to the second school of thought as to how social change and equality can only be achieved at a distance from the state. Badiou (2006), argues that ordinary people could be political actors instead of just following orders or letting the ‘system’ run everything. In other words, history has proven that ordinary people are able to be active in their fight for social change, and therefore do not need elites or the state being the instigator of social change. Badiou (2006) uses the Paris Commune as a point of reference to show that the ordinary man can enforce a democracy. Therefore, in this light, emancipator politics should not be put in the hands of the state, in-fact the state should act from a distance. Noteworthy is that the state has a logic in which it operates, and to operate outside the logic would be autonomous from the state. Otherwise to operate in the same logic as the state one would have to accept the rules of the state. Hence, Badiou (2006) proposes challenging the logic of the state - the state cannot be left to set the parameters of one’s logic. The people should act as citizens with political agency and the ability to bring about transformation rather than just passive populations that allow the state to take over and do the thinking for them. 

Roy is of the view that those who run the state abuse its power and that the only way for the marginalised people to achieve change is through a revolution. She boldly stated, in an interview, that, “Every people, every society, needs a culture of resistance, a culture of being different and disobedient, that is the only way they will ever be able to stand up to the inevitable abuse of power by whoever runs the state apparatus....”. (2010). Hence she is of the view that emancipatory politics cannot be achieved by working within the state in civil society because in India, most of the people are not even a part of civil society- they exist outside civil society. Thus she does not see the reason why such people cannot have the power to emancipate themselves from such inequality; a revolution and rebellion from the state will give them the power they need. As much as mancipatory politics seems to be a solution to achieving a democracy that recognises the will of the people, mention must be made of Alvaro Garcia Linera (2005) who argues that emancipatory theories can also have the consequence of failing to understand reality. Thus ideas that are emancipatory can also actually end up silencing the true state of affairs or reality of what is actually happening. For instance, the idea that emancipatory politics should be achieved within the state in civil society would be one that silences the people living in the townships of South Africa as they are not members of civil society. It fails to recognise that the emancipatory nature of civil society is not how things are in reality- that in actual fact, civil society represents only a few of the people whilst the rest actually exist in political societies now.

State power vs the will of the people

Halloway (2002: 14), makes the argument that the state is not isolated, instead it is interconnected in a global web that, not only influences but often controls its actions. Hence the state, in a capitalist system now operates by way of avoiding economical crisis rather than by way of implementing equality for all its citizens. If the state wanted to restore equality, it would, for example, charge less- if anything at all, in terms of electricity bills to the people in the townships. Instead, the state now runs like a business and when the people fail to meet their bills, the government disconnects their connections. This is why people in South Africa resort to illegal activities like hot-wiring the electricity; it is a copying mechanism for the marginalised in a capitalist society. Capitalism is all about profit, thus nothing can be for free hence those who benefit are those who can afford the cost of living. The will of the people thus has no place in such a society; the only thing that matters is the will of the market. Another argument is that which is raised by S’bu Zikode (2009); he argues that the state feels threatened by the masses and thus reacts by suppressing them. In the past, notable is that the masses have proven to be capable of overthrowing even the strongest of states and rulers. Louis XVI was the last king of France in 1789 due to the French revolution; he lost his throne to the masses who were not even made up of powerful men in politics, but of the peasantry. In this light, it is important for the state to understand what the people need and not see them as the enemy, criminals, barbaric or threats to power.

Abahlali baseMjondolo

It is a movement of shack dwellers in Durban, of more than ten thousand members, who chose to rebel and make their voice heard (Zikode, 2009: 1). It started in 2005 as a direct action of people outside civil society who were demanding to be included within civil society (Zikode, 2009: 15). If included in civil society then they could speak out and let their ‘problems’ be known because inclusion will allow civil society to actually represent the will of the people and not only of the few who can afford to live within boundaries of civil society. Zikode argues that in order for a state to represent the will of the people, we need popular democratisation. He talks about the importance of ‘living politics’, which arises from the people’s daily lives and is characterised by their daily challenges. He states that, “It is a politics that every ordinary person can understand. It is a politics that knows that we have no water but that in fact we all deserve water.......It doesn’t have a hidden agenda- it is a politics of living that is just founded only on the nature of living.”. Therefore, the state needs to recognise the fact that the people are free and that they have a will, it must not hold on to state power because the power, in actual fact, belongs to the people in a democracy.


As seen from the different arguments raised in this essay, civil society does not automatically represent the will of the people. If civil society, by its mere existence in a democracy meant that it automatically represented the will of the people then how would we explain the marginalised people and those who now exist within political societies? One problem that democracies are facing today is the influence of the global capitalist system- it has gained control of civil society as seen by the fact that many NGOs are now being run like corporations. Hence noteworthy is that this makes it difficult for civil society to care for the people when it is no longer ‘independent’. Civil society cannot be said to represent the will of the people when it is actually excluding the majority of the people who would not survive if they tried living within the boundaries of the rule of the law. Hence, like Zikode is arguing, we need to transform society at a distance from the society and acknowledge the political factor behind political societies. We should be experiencing a living politics in order for the will of the people to heard and recognised. 


Badiou, A., 2006, ‘The Paris Commune: A political declaration on politics’ in Polemics, London: Verso.
Chatterjee, P., 2004, ‘Populations and Political Society’ in The Politics of the Governed, Delhi: Permanent Black.
Hallward, P., 2007, ‘An Interview with Jean-Bertrand Aristide’, London Review of Books, Vol. 29, No. 4.
Hallward, P., 2009, ‘The Will of the People: Notes towards a dialectical voluntarism’, Radical Philosophy, No. 155.
Holloway, J., 2002, ‘Beyond the State’ in Change the World Without Taking Power, London: Pluto.
Linera, A. G., 2005 ‘Indianismo and Marxism: The mismatch of two revolutionary rationales’, Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal.
Roy, A., 2010, Interview: NGOs are contemporary Trojan horses, Sol Defter, http://www.soldefter.com/2010/08/04/interview-with-arundhati-roy-ngos-are-contemporary-trojan-horses%E2%80%9D-kaya-genc/, Date accessed: 07 September 2011.
S’bu Zikode, 2009, 'To Resist All Degradations and Divisions'.