The very idea that ‘the will of the people’ can be represented assumes that a common will can actually exist. Within contemporary theory, the possibility of a collective will has been widely deliberated. This essay, in accordance with Peter Hallward’s article entitled The Will of the People: Notes towards a dialectical voluntarism, argues that a common will can be made manifest when one reconciles the perceived theoretical dichotomy between agency and structure. Having ascertained the possibility for a collective will, this essay seeks to evaluate the neo-liberal state, and consequently, the supposed need for civil society. As such, this essay will contend that the state, which acts in accordance with what Foucault denotes as ‘governmentality’, justifies itself insofar as it provides for its citizens (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). This is problematic as it reduces political agents to passive recipients of policies. Furthermore, it is only where state provision of welfare is insufficient that the perceived need for civil society, most prominently conceptualised as NGOs (Neocosmos, 2009: 7) emerges.
In response, this essay will argue that civil society is insufficient in engaging with an authentic ‘will of the people’ and, in fact, also reduces political agents to passive objects in dire need of representation and aid. While it is undeniably true that marginalised groups require access to clean water, electricity and waste disposal, such emphasis on material goods does not go far enough in confronting deeper political demands. Due to the extent to which NGOs fail to recognise an authentic ‘will of the people’, they fail to sufficiently transcend the same limitations of governmentality experienced by the state. As a result, one needs to theorise beyond notions of civil society towards what Partha Chatterjee calls “political society,” (Chatterjee, 2004: 41) that is, a space in which the poor regain political agency. Recognition of agency is vital due to the extent to which marginalised groups require more than what can be promised to them within the discourse of service delivery. In addition to material demands, people want to be recognised as legitimate players in the determination of their own lives and their own well-being, and therefore want to be able to have a say in the democratic process (Gibson, 2011: 171). This essay will therefore show, using Abahlali baseMjondolo as a case study, how instances of political society are the only means through which a profound, meaningful and authentic ‘will of the people’ can come about.
- Can ‘the will of the people’ exist?
Within contemporary political theory, the authentic possibility of ‘the will of the people’ construed as “a deliberate, emancipatory and inclusive process of self-determination” (Hallward, 2009: 17) is often disputed. For Hallward, such discussion is centred on a perceived dichotomy between agency and structure; the former emphasising an existential radical freedom, and the latter emphasising determining constraints of society on ‘the will of the people’. Advocates of agency tend to support an existentialist account of radical freedom and the ability of individuals to transcend the facticity prescribed to them by a literal or abstract third party (Crowell, 2010: 1). Within this conception, priority is given to the capacity of the individual to shape their own deeply subjective identity; one is not limited to one’s prescribed facticity and one is ultimately free to surpass factual properties of the self (Crowell, 2010: 1). Conversely, arguments which emphasise the structural role of society in determining ‘the will of the people’ place primacy on either indeterminism or hyper-determinism. Within this binary, indeterminism emphasises the random, chaotic nature of society, while hyper-determinism highlights the role of antecedent events in determining the present (Hallward, 2009: 19). Such views necessarily undermine the agency of people and therefore remove the possibility of an authentic will, as to will something implies that the individual or group has the capacity to actively and consciously make choices in the absence of structural determinism or indeterminism. In his paper entitled The will of the people: Notes towards a dialectical voluntarism, Hallward dismantles the binary of agency versus structure to illustrate how individuals can have radical freedom and the ability to act as a collective in defence of a set of interests. This is due to the extent that one can endorse a Satrean conception of freedom by taking seriously notions such as self-determination and self-emancipation, while still taking into account the structural context from which individuals emerge (Hallward, 2009: 19).
Hallward manages to reconcile the binary of agency versus structure in order to advocate for dialectical voluntarism, a discipline which puts forward a qualified definition of ‘the will of the people’. Within this conception, an authentic and collective will is made possible when there is “assembly, deliberation and determination [on behalf of] a collective volition” (Hallward, 2009: 17). Hallward’s account takes seriously the presence of individuals within a group, as well as the structural limitations placed on collective formations. This is due to the extent to which he does not conceive of the collective as a wholly integrated and entirely homogenous unit, but rather as a group that “in any given situation, formulates, asserts and sustains a fully common interest, over and above any divisive or exclusive interest” (Hallward, 2009: 18). Therefore, ‘the will of the people’ authentically construed does not imply an indistinct mass, but rather a group of people who share a common set of experiences and responses. This definition rules out any conception of ‘the will of the people’ as a fascist organisation based on the suppression and subordination of its constituents, that is, ‘the will of the people’ authentically manifested can only arise from voluntary consensus in the present (when people choose to enter into the common will) and in the future (when considering the imminent trajectories of the collective).
- State logic and the perceived need for civil society
According to Chatterjee, the contemporary conception of the nation is legitimised by the notion of popular sovereignty (Chatterjee, 2004: 27), that is, the idea that the state is endorsed by, and representative of the national population. Whether or not the state is governed by undemocratic or authoritarian regimes is irrelevant; what matters is for the state to claim that its authority derives from ‘the will of the people,’ as opposed to “divine right or dynastic succession or the right of conquest” (Chatterjee, 2004: 27). While state legitimacy, in terms of sovereignty requires “a certain amount of participation by citizens in the affairs of the state,” (Neocosmos, 2009: 10) this is not necessary within the current status quo. Instead, Chatterjee correctly asserts that the modern state is justified by what Foucault denotes as ‘governmentality’ (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). Within this formation, the role of the state is to provide goods and services for its citizens in accordance with the discourse of universal human rights (Chatterjee, 2004: 32). Such an emphasis on human rights, and the provision of goods required to realise them, has “emptied [the state] of all serious engagements with politics,” (Chatterjee, 2004: 35) to the extent that it is a predominantly technical enterprise in which “administrative policy” (Chatterjee, 2004: 35) on behalf of experts takes preference over adequate political engagement. In order to facilitate “the governmentalisation of the state,” (Foucault in Chatterjee, 2004: 34) in which governments are merely the administrators of policies, the state perceives its citizens in terms of populations. This mode of organisation enables the use of statistical analysis to derive conclusions regarding the supposed desires and needs of the governed (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). Emphasis on welfare and the provision of goods and services therefore gives rise to “the disciplines of demography and statistics…as the population needs to be classified, categorised and measured” (Neocosmos, 2009: 10). Such a perceptual shift is useful for the authoritative nature of the state insofar as it undermines the individual agency of people and therefore the “normative burden” (Chatterjee, 2004: 34) and policy difficulties associated with treating people as unique citizens with agency.
Governmentality necessitates deconstructing the nation into heterogeneous groups in order to apply different policy measures to different spheres of society (Chatterjee, 2004: 35). Such a conception is necessarily inegalitarian and leads to empowerment or marginalisation, depending on one’s place within society. Due to the extent to which the state is considered to be the bearer of welfare and rights, any perceived deficiencies logically stem from the inability of the state to provide adequately for its citizens. Within contemporary global society, the failure of the state to provide for its citizens is reinforced by a neo-liberal orthodoxy which discourages welfare and state intervention in favour of laissez-faire policies which supposedly ‘trickle down’ to the poorest members of society (Rapley, 2004: 4). Tension therefore arises from competing ideologies of neo-liberalism, which requires inequality (Rapley, 2004: 4) and human rights, which regards all individuals as inherently equal. Civil society (as an ideal) emerges, therefore, as a means of responding to state deficiencies which are conceptualised as a failure to provide resources for citizens (Neocosmos, 2009: 7). The goal of civil society is then, arguably, to act as a mediator between human rights and capital interests, that is, to improve the capability of individuals to exercise their rights without overhauling the global structure (Neocosmos, 2009).
The willingness of NGOs to uphold the neo-liberal status quo stems, arguably, from funding on behalf of the states and wealthy elites, as well as the fact that “NGOs are sociologically staffed by middle-class professionals for whom they provide vehicles for employment and social entrepreneurship” (Neocosmos, 2009: 8). The way in which NGOs work within the status quo can be seen, for example, in terms of the TAC (Treatment of Action Campaign) which was founded in South Africa in the late 1990s. The TAC, by appealing to the rights to dignity and healthcare, managed to force the government to provide free antiretroviral drugs for its HIV positive citizens (Heywood, 2009: 15). While this was necessary given the trend of denialism in South Africa at the time (Heywood, 2009: 20), it was insufficient, as the TAC did not address deeper political concerns. For example, the TAC did not provide an adequate critique of the way in which neo-liberal ideology impoverishes people to the extent that they become dependent on the state for access to medication. In addition to this, the TAC did not address issues of psychological vulnerability that arise from laissez-faire market structures, which can lead to individuals engaging in unsafe sexual practices (Smit, 2006: 534). This is relevant as a study done by the Royal Institute of Public Health concludes that there is a correlation between depression and anxiety (as a result of unemployment and inequality) and a willingness of people to engage in risky sexual intercourse (Smit, 2006: 537). Despite the TAC’s obvious material success, it has managed to de-politicise the HIV/AIDS debate in South Africa to the extent that it is formulated only in terms of “technical bio-medical discourse,” (Neocosmos, 2009: 9) and is thus not deemed appropriate for popular discussion. Therefore, the TAC illustrates the fundamental error of civil society, that is, the idea that “[in civil society rights are] realised in a manner which keeps them firmly away from any (emancipatory) politics which question the liberal state itself” (Neocosmos, 2009: 7).
- Civil society: a critique
Critiques of civil society in the form of NGOs are threefold. Firstly, many theorists argue that NGOs are conceptualised as corporate organisations which place a disproportionate amount of emphasis on the acquisition of funds and the need to perpetuate a positive self-image and reputation (Sangtin Feminist Writers, 2006: 113) within the global sphere. Related to this is the tendency for NGOs, often reliant on external funding laced with conditionality, to be more upwardly accountable to patrons, such as states and wealthy elites, than downwardly accountable to communities (Ebrahim, 2003: 814). Due to the corporate nature of NGOs and the fact that they are often funded by wealthy elites and states, NGOs are seldom able to be critical of class-differences which arise within a neo-liberal schema. Indeed, numerous experts operating within NGOs occupy positions of privilege (Ebrahim, 2003: 819) and therefore have very little incentive to delve deeper into the underlying reasons for oppression, for example, the manner in which neo-liberalism requires inequality in order to generate wealth (Rapley, 2004: 3). Given the current proliferation of NGOs within the global community, such corporatism is perhaps necessary for organisations to survive in a highly competitive domain, but does little to empower communities beyond discourses of human rights and service delivery. A further problem with the commercial nature of NGOs stems from an emphasis on centralised decision making on behalf of a circle of elites who have not been democratically elected to represent ‘the will of the people’ (Sangtin Feminist Writers, 2006: 113) This is supposedly justified insofar as poor communities are seen as desperately in need of empowerment on behalf of experts within NGOs (Neocosmos, 2011: 2). Such a victimage mechanism assumes that poor communities are not in any position to partake in an active discussion that would enable them to play a part in determining their own future trajectories. Here, language of victimhood facilitates the silencing of certain groups in order to render their potential agency “unthinkable” (Trouillot, 1995: 73). NGOs therefore work in a similar way to state-orientated regimes which construct their own version of ‘the will of the people’ in order to justify their authority as ultimately for the sake of a greater societal good (Chatterjee, 2004: 27). As such, structures put in place to ‘represent’ the poor are seldom a result of a rational endorsement on behalf of communities, (Sangtin Feminist Writers, 2006: 115) and fail to take into account the idea that marginalised communities are often not in search of passive aid, but rather desire the ability to represent themselves as rational agents in the decision-making process (Gibson, 2011: 171).
Emphasis on the acquisition of funds in order to empower groups within a paradigm of human rights is also potentially detrimental due to the way in which NGOs can make instrumental use of ‘victims’ in order to further their agendas. An example of this is provided by the Sangtin Feminist Writers who describe an NGO event in which marginalised women were invited to share their experiences of violence (Sangtin Feminist Writers, 2006: 120). This event was used to attract media attention and funding for the NGO, but made no effort to rectify the injustices experienced by the speakers. As a result, the women were merely “exhibited…as cases of victimisation [and became] tools to publicise and popularise the organisers and their establishment” (Sangtin Feminist Writers, 2006: 121).
A final problem relating to the corporatism of NGOs concerns the business-like modes of evaluation which are employed in order to grade performance, often for the sake of reassuring donors. Assessing progress is difficult when one attempts to quantify qualitative notions of political empowerment and emancipation (Ebrahim, 2003: 817). Therefore, the assessment of progress is made easier when one has to measure tangible outcomes such as “[the amount of] schools built, trees planted and land irrigated” (Ebrahim, 2003: 817). Consequently, in order to feign progress and continue to receive funding, NGOs are limited, by their accountability to patrons, to do work which produces quantifiable results.
Related to the notion of NGO corporatism is the detachment of NGOs from rural communities. Such detachment brings about an element of ignorance and naïve idealism on behalf of civil society. This can result in an entirely ineffective representation of ‘the will of the people,’ or it can bring about tangible harms to communities. Organisations, such as Amnesty International, which seek to empower communities by making use of human rights education often do little to change the actual circumstances faced by communities. This is due to the extent to which marginalised communities are often “only tenuously, and even then ambiguously and contextually, rights-bearing citizens [and therefore not] proper members of civil society” (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). Within this context, knowing one’s rights does little to change the actual lived experiences of communities; it is of no value to know one’s right to justice and equality when state apparatuses seek to actively disempower one. This can be seen in contemporary South Africa whereby police use illegitimate violence against marginalised communities. For example, recent protests in Thembelihle, an informal settlement in Lenasia, saw the police firing rubber bullets into the face of an eleven-year-old boy, amidst other instances of violence against the community as a whole (SAPA, 2011: 1). The state justifies this behaviour by claiming that shack settlements are strictly illegal manifestations, and therefore the citizens who comprise such spaces are not necessarily regarded as having rights (Gibson, 2011: 151). As result, those who experience the most severe violations of their human rights are often conceptualised as criminals to whom the discourse of human rights does not wholly apply (Gibson, 2011:148).
The second result of detached ignorance can be actual harms incurred to communities as a direct result of NGO intervention. This occurs when NGOs, without understanding the nuanced complexities of certain communities, impose their own will without considering the consequences thereof. The Sangtin Feminist Writers describe an instance of this. Sangtin organises trips for women outside of their immediate communities with the intention of “[allowing] them to see the world, to become wiser and more confident” (Sangtin Feminist Writers, 2006: 116). However, this separation of men and women invariably seeks to fragment the community and ultimately leads to a hampered ability to act as a collective unit in defence of a common and authentic will. In this case, one can argue that Sangtin interfered with the community by implementing its own feminist agenda, without considering the broader context of “caste and class differences” (Sangtin Feminist Writers, 2006: 116) and therefore undermined a process of real, unified empowerment. The final problem for civil society concerns the legal realm within which it operates. Due to the extent to which NGOs seek to advocate for human rights, they tacitly operate within an agreed upon, democratic discourse within which there is “an acceptance by all contenders for power of ‘the rules of the game’, [that is], a consensual value system based on the mutual acceptance of each other’s rights and the rule of law” (Neocosmos, 2011: 2). As such, NGOs cannot make use of ‘illegal’ modes of democratisation in order to aid marginalised communities as, to do so, would entail a breach of their human rights agenda which precludes the use of violence and force. This is problematic due to the extent that an authentic manifestation of ‘the will of the people’ often requires a degree of disregard for normative and strictly legal institutions (Bayat, 1995: 55). In these instances, individuals and groups may realise that their actions are “illegal and contrary to good civic behaviour, but they make a claim to a habitation and a livelihood as a matter of right” (Chatterjee, 2004: 40). NGOs, by virtue of their aforementioned corporate allegiance to neo-liberalism, are prevented by their discourse from realising that marginalised groups are often justified in ‘stealing’ services such as electricity, a commodity which is supposedly guaranteed to them as a basic right. While these kinds of acts are often criminalised and essentialised as dangerous and abhorrent, this is not necessarily the case. The act of ‘stealing’ electricity is often done as an alternative to other methods such as burning candles and paraffin (Birkinshaw, 2008: 3). The potential consequences arising from accidents related to candles are paraffin include, but are not limited to, the burning of entire areas of settlements due to the proximity of dwellings, the poisoning of children who accidently ingest paraffin, the loss of life and the loss of livelihood in the form of clothes, official documents and tools (Birkinshaw, 2008: 1). In response to this, Abahlali baseMjondolo activist Philani Zungu states (Zungu in Birkinshaw, 2008: 10):
We have experienced fire shacks, we rather have other problems…it’s dangerous to connect but not as compared to fire. We can get electrical shock, arrest, but not worse than shack fire. I always prefer electrical consequences. If I had a fire, my family would have no clothing, facility to cook, no change to go to school because it would all be burnt. A fire is worse.
Therefore, while communities understand the complex relationship between the need for electricity and the act of connecting ‘illegally’ and ‘unsafely’, civil society cannot regard this act as anything but criminal and innately dangerous. Civil society cannot, therefore, accommodate instances in which groups justifiably act in a quasi-legal manner in order to bring about access to basic, but highly necessary commodities (Birkinshaw, 2008: 10).
- Political society as an authentic manifestation of ‘the will of the people’
Having discerned that civil society, construed as NGOs, is unable to represent ‘the will of the people’ (and in some instances, actively fragments the collective will) due to its corporate, detached and legal framework, the burden of proof now lies in finding an alternative means of channelling such a collective will. At this point, this essay argues, in accordance with Rancière, that “Politics is not the exercise of power. Politics ought to be defined on its own term, as a mode of acting put into practice by a specific kind of subject and deriving from a particular form of reason” (Rancière, 2001: 1). Here, one can look at Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), a social movement that began in Durban in 2005 with a road blockade which sought to protest the selling of a piece of land for commercial development that had been promised to the residents of Kennedy Road as space for housing (AbM, 2006: 1). Later, in 2006, the movement successfully organised an election boycott with the slogan “No Land, No House, No Vote” (AbM, 2006: 1) which explicitly placed them outside the space of electoral politics. The key demands of the members of Abahlali baseMjondolo involve: access to land within close proximity to the urban centre, bottom-up modes of democracy, ending forced and illegal evictions, as well access to sanitation, education and electricity (AbM, 2006: 1). However, members of the organisation do not conceptualise their demands within the discourse of service delivery as, instead, they insist that their demands are “about being human” (Gibson, 2011: 157). In place of hierarchical modes of organisation, AbM has managed to develop “horizontal links among shack settlements [suggesting] a new kind of movement in the making” (Gibson, 2011: 148). The internal organisation of the movement itself is radically democratic with rotating leadership positions and frequent, open meetings (Gibson, 2011: 158). Within AbM all decisions are made collectively and there is emphasis on the need for transparent discussions regarding the use of funds (Gibson, 2011: 159).
What differentiates movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo from NGOs such as Amnesty International and Habitat for Humanity, is the extent to which the former requires that members act as rational agents capable of leading themselves (indeed, without the participation of people within Abahlali baseMjondolo, the movement would cease to exist), while the latter requires a degree of subordination in order to conceptualise communities as “convenient instruments for the administration of welfare” (Chatterjee, 2004: 40). Within the former mode of emancipatory politics, ‘the will of the people’ is necessarily made manifest as a result of conscious discussions and deliberations on behalf of actional, agential citizens. This approximates what S’bu Zikode describes as “a homemade politics that everyone, every old gogo, can understand and find a home in” (Zikode in Pithouse, 2006: 6). Within social movements such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, technocrats are only involved in decision-making processes insofar as they are invited to do so by the movement. Nigel Gibson, in his book entitled Fanonian Practices in South Africa, explains how Abahlali baseMjondolo is sceptical of aid which comes from so-called experts (Gibson, 2011: 164). Indeed, there is a shared belief that linkages with the state and state-like organisations compromise the movement’s “autonomy and independence [and give rise to] the threat of co-option and professionalization” (Gibson, 2011: 164). Members of Abahlali baseMjondolo are also weary of modes of civil society which result in relationships of dependency (Gibson, 2011: 158). While the movement has made use of professionals, such as lawyers, the role of experts in emancipation is considered secondary to “a mode of organisation from the bottom up, through constant consultation and principled refusal of ‘biryani money’” (Gibson, 2011: 158). Thus, AbM is able to set its own political agenda and is not prohibited from addressing fundamental, structural issues.
Social movements, such as Abahlali baseMjondolo, operating within political society are able to avoid the problems associated with civil society which this essay has addressed. Firstly, they do not succumb to corporatism insofar as they are reluctant to accept external funding and the prescriptive advice of purported experts (Gibson, 2011: 158). Secondly, they are not vulnerable to issues of detachment and naïve idealism due to the extent that the majority of social movements are constitutive of individuals living within poor and marginalised communities. As a result, their involvement within the movement stems from their direct “existentially experienced situation of being in the shacks” (Gibson, 2011: 159). One can argue that, due to the unmediated discussion and decision-making process, this involvement is not a representation of ‘the will of the people’ (which NGOs strive to approximate) but, in fact, is the purest form of a collective volition. Finally, due to the extent to which the state acts in an illegitimate manner towards such communities (Gibson, 2011: 168), unlike NGOs, social movements in political society are not necessarily under a moral obligation to adhere to the rules prescribed by liberal democracy. As a result, these social movements are able to partake in acts which are deemed illegitimate, in order to bring about emancipation and liberation which does not have to be limited to the normative prescriptions of the state. This was the case when, despite pleas on behalf of Thabo Mbeki for daily demonstrations linked to Abahlali to desist, they continued anyway (Gibson, 2011: 149).
Therefore, while civil society in the form of NGOs is often uncritically heralded as the means towards emancipation and liberation, this is not necessarily accurate. Indeed, NGOs (like states) necessarily construct ‘the will of the people’ in order to feign justification for their technocratic authority. While this has undoubtedly led to material improvements in the lives of poor and marginalised communities, it does not approximate a genuine ‘will of the people’. This is due to the extent that NGOs are corporate, detached and operate within a legal framework that cannot conceptualise the political sphere in which poor communities exist. While it is certainly the case that state structures need to be challenged in the name of a collective will, it is unlikely that such a manifestation can take place within the confines of civil society. Therefore, one needs to give primacy to events which occur within political society, which is not restricted by state logic and ‘expertise’, in order to fully comprehend actual, concrete manifestations of ‘the will of the people’.
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