Thursday, 13 June 2013

Civil Society: Does it automatically represent the will of the people?

By Marc Davies, Rhodes University, Politics and International Relations 3

Civil society is a concept and ‘layer’ of society prevalent in the lexicon and lived experience of the modern neoliberal order, although it predates this period. It perhaps finds contemporary meaning in light of the democratic ideals of liberty and equality thrust most famously into popular discourse during the French Revolution and, again, finding greater global appeal following the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, civil society as a concept and ideal, or set of ideals, remains one that is contested and challenged on several grounds, including its potential to act as a ‘scapegoat’ or ‘substitute’ for the shortcomings of the neoliberal capitalist order and its exclusivity (Neocosmos, 2011: 377; Chatterjee, 2004: 40). In this essay, I will attempt to discuss what civil society entails and further discuss some of its shortcomings conceptually and practically. The corollary of this will be to consider whether this ‘sphere’ of civil society automatically represents the will of ‘the people’. The above framework will rely chiefly on Chatterjee’s argument of civil society as “demographically limited” in Politics of the Governed (Chatterjee, 2004: 39), as well as reflection on how the twinned concepts of liberalism and capitalism have produced a largely undemocratic and oppressive project for the poor, one that civil society – as long as it continues to operate within this ideological framework - cannot conceptually or practically hope to resolve.

I will ultimately argue that, although some of the activities of parts of civil society may appear to have ‘beneficial’ functions or emancipatory possibilities, civil society as a ‘space’ is ultimately disingenuous, or at times fraudulent, in light of the democratic ideals it claims to embody. Further, I will argue that it mostly represents the will of an elite and middle-class stratum given the legal, economic and socio-political context within which it operates, namely that of neoliberalism and capitalism. I will then discuss other factors that contribute to civil society being mostly unrepresentative of the will of the people, including the semiotics of liberalism and its conception of ‘success’, and the impact of this on discourse or lived experience in the post-apartheid era. In this I hope to provide a more holistic account of why civil society is problematic that interrogates beyond a reductive economistic explanation for its failures.

In South Africa, some of the most pressing issues confronted in the ‘realm’ of civil society include human rights, press freedom, rights to education, poverty, LGBTI rights and so on.  As it is perhaps most commonly understood in the context of the democratic state, civil society is idealised as the ‘third space’ that is separate from the state and the market, a stratum that facilitates citizen deliberation and participation around numerous concerns, such as those listed above (, 2003).  It is also popularly, and to an extent inaccurately, equated directly with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or non-profit organisations (NPOs) despite these constituting a significant ‘part’ of the activities of civil society. McKeon states that civil society in the modern period came to “describe the space that opened up between the household, government and the market place once all-invasive monarchies began to wane, in which people began to organize to pursue their interests and values” (McKeon, 2009: 50). The thread between these definitions is that civil society is understood to comprise of the sphere of citizenry and its institutions external to government and the market. This sphere, ideally, may possess monitorial, facilitative or collaborative capacities in various manifestations to achieve certain aims that, quite problematically, are often popularly imagined as purely ‘altruistic’ in their modus operandi. I will attempt to explain below that the idea of civil society as an eclectic ‘third space’ where the voice of the ‘citizenry’ is empowered is largely disingenuous and, possibly, participates in reinforcing chasms between ‘sections’ of the population that parts of civil society theoretically aim to close. Neocosmos perhaps understands this chasm highlighted by Chatterjee through the distinctive terms ‘civil’ and ‘uncivil’ society which I will deliberate on later (Neocosmos, 2011: 374).

It is perhaps fair to argue that civil society is rooted in paradox which accounts for much of its failures in representation. Its idealistic aim is to provide a legitimate democratic space for meaningful interaction of the citizenry that is holistically critical and beneficial to society. However, this ‘stratum’ operates within a system of liberalism and capitalism that I will argue, along with many others, is undemocratic at its core and ironically maintains systemic exclusion – both physically and psychologically - from this stratum of interaction. Making sense of this regrettable irony, however, requires some analysis of the liberal – and consequently neoliberal – capitalist order inextricably linked to the ‘twinned notions’ of freedom and equality within the nation-state (Chatterjee, 2004: 37). Discourse around these concepts and their limitations within a democratic order saw contestation over how to reconcile the apparent tension between a communitarian prescription of property which emphasises the value of the commune, and a liberal one which emphasises individualism and hence the ‘moral’ obligation to permit private ownership (Chatterjee, 2004: 31-32). In the nation-states that morphed into the collective notion of the ‘West’, liberalism and its policy of property enclosure on the basis of ‘productive use’, as Locke insisted, flourished and maintained individual rights and law as integral to a peaceful, ‘democratic’ state (Neocosmos, 2011: 361): one supposedly free from the inimical and violent ‘state of nature’ as Hobbes theorised it. This framework has evidently permeated modes of governance and the markets of the West to the extent where the Washington Consensus succeeded in pushing for growth and liberalisation of the ‘free-market’ in developing nations and many of the ‘post-colonies’ as well (Neocosmos, 2011: 361). Economic and social ‘shifts’ characteristic of the post-Cold War period are evidence of the infusion of the neoliberal project in numerous parts of the world, at least if only to encourage opening markets and privatisation of land for economic growth. The allure of potential for ‘economic growth’ through trade, privatisation and deregulation certainly compelled numerous developing nations ‘into the fold’.

In explaining why this decision was, I posit, problematic, it may be important to draw attention to what John McMurtry calls the ‘cancer stage of capitalism’ in which he argues capitalism to have spawned economic phenomena that have produced toxic results akin to a cancer in society. He phrases this aptly in saying: “Thus wherever we observe the ‘victory of global market forces’ after 1980, we observe also the reduction of species and environmental habitat, of public health indicators, of child nourishment, of universal education, of productive employment and of freedom from destitution. This is a startling generalization. But there are few exceptions to its grim hold,” (McMurtry, 1999: 256). While this essay is not an attempt to critique capitalism per se, I nevertheless hold that McMurtry’s arguments possess much relevance today where ownership of property and the means of production, to extract from the Marxist lexicon, continues to produce perpetual relations of inequality on a mass scale – the proverbial ‘rich get richer’ and the ‘poor get poorer’, or at minimum inequalities as they have been structured persist. A key difference is that a lot of the people whom capitalism reductively labels ‘labour inputs’ are now increasingly located in the ‘Third World’, and often subjected to harsh working conditions and low remuneration, which is often omitted or rendered a ‘non-event’ by international media and political discourse (Trouillot, 1995: 70-73).

Nevertheless, it is not unconscionable to consider the process of capitalism to have produced inequalities en masse for most of the world – perhaps withholding most of the global ‘West’ – and that this has serious implications for the  global social and political order. Ultimately, it seems imperative to locate any meaningful argument around the concept, position and practice of civil society within this the history of capital and the manifestation of a largely unequal global context. This, as will be shown, is integral to explaining the paradoxical nature of civil society and the chasm between some seemingly often altruistic, philanthropic or ‘democratic’ aims of civil society and its actual practice. 

A corollary of the above discussion on private property as a pillar of capitalism and its creation of mass inequality and marginalization is to discuss what constitutes a member of civil society in light of these conditions. Chatterjee succinctly highlights one of the central criticisms of ‘civil society’ in that it is a concept defined by constitutions or legislation, in numerous contexts, to include all of society (2004: 38). It is in this vein where civil society as a concept exhibits idealistic tendencies that are exceptionally contradictory to the lived reality of many in numerous ‘democracies’ across the globe. The concept of legal persona in the context of the ‘political process’, additionally, becomes central to an argument against civil society representing the ‘will of the people’. Chatterjee states that this political process is one where, at least ideally, “the organs of the state interact with members of civil society in their individual capacities or as members of associations” and then contrasts this with the reality of many people – at least in the case of India - being only “tenuously… rights-bearing citizens” (Chatterjee, 2004: 38). A fundamental dichotomy between de facto and de jure citizenship is, hence, established within this context of society governed by constitutional laws and economic principles that legitimise land enclosure and punishment of trespassing and unpaid occupation of land.  

Similar to India, a large number of constitutionally-defined ‘citizens’ in South Africa are, in reality, rendered objects of a project of state welfare that exercises manipulative power and capacity over those that are unable to cope financially within the state . Neocosmos reflects on this distinction by Chatterjee between rights-bearing citizens and the ‘entitlements’ of the remainder of the populace (Neocosmos, 2011: 375). This, as he notes, translates to a tension between the rights of property (asset) owners and the entitlements of the poor where the former are consistently prioritised and the latter only realised if the financial and strategic capacity of government at a given time permits (Neocosmos, 2011: 377). Neocosmos and Chatterjee similarly illuminate the paradox of liberal democracy: democracy in its purest definition alludes to the ‘power or rule of the people’ where all citizens possess equal rights, however, liberalism protects the individual rights of property and asset ownership which create disproportionate rights between those who own, and stay within the realm of legal ownership of the state, and those who do not who are often destitute and live on land ‘illegally’. Here the distinction between civil society and political society is illuminated where the latter is what Chatterjee understands as those who operate externally to civil society and engage in a more welfarist dialectic with the state (Chatterjee, 2004: 69). Neocosmos reflects on this distinction and uses the labels ‘civil’ society and ‘uncivil society’ to discuss the apparent dichotomy between civil society as an ideal of the Western modernising project versus the lived experience for many on the ground who ‘deviate’ from its norms (Neocosmos, 2011: 374).

What the above illustrates, essentially, is the tension between democracy as a ‘rule of the people’ and liberalism, or more appropriately neoliberalism, which has inspired a state project that reduces the poor to beneficiaries of entitlements rather than rights. Furthermore, the democratic project of the neoliberal order shifts the modus operandi of democracy from ideological contestation and political participation to one that is chiefly technocratic in its reliance on experts, the latter being what Chatterjee calls ‘governmentality’ (2004: 36). This project works towards efficiency in the provision of services, governance and ‘care’ of the populous which is where a dialectic between an ‘adult’ government and poor ‘minors’ becomes particularly patronising and exclusionary.

The paradox in which civil society is rooted is herein compressed: how can civil society hope to automatically include or represent the ‘will of the people’ if de facto exercising of rights requires socio-economic and legal legitimacy which, within a liberal status quo, systemically excludes a large portion of the population from ‘citizenship’ - namely the poor owing to its own legal-economic structure? It is particularly worrying that the basis for exercising or being afforded certain rights and capabilities is dependent on legal persona that per se is dependent on a situation of financial capability or at least remaining within the bounds of the law and prescribed social behaviours. This especially within the context of an arguably ‘cancerous’ capitalism, as McMurtry would perhaps agree, generates stark inequalities that enable the silent distinction between citizenry and population to persist, and hence a continued exclusion of mostly the poor from the ‘stratum’ of civil society (McMurtry, 1999: 255-258).

In short, the paradox of civil society is embedded in the structures of the neoliberal order for at least two main reasons: the first is the issue of private property, capitalism and its stratification of class and ‘value’ in society and how this generates a distinction between ‘citizen’ and ‘population’, and ‘civil’ and ‘uncivil’; the second is how the neoliberal order’s version of democracy is a technocratic project that reinforces said chasms but also produces a relationship of dominance on the part of the state and subservient entitlement on the part of the poor in particular. This relationship, I argue, is often most visible at the time of elections where the visage of the ‘vote’ as the citizen’s claim to democratic participation is emphasised and the actions of government legitimated. This framework, additionally, proves antithetical to real democratic engagement and participation in the ‘realm’ of civil society if it is one that is exclusive and, in the case of South Africa and other nations, “fully agrees to form part of the state political subjectivity” (Neocosmos, 2009).

An important South African example that illuminates these challenges is perhaps the Durban-originated shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM). AbM is a prominent autonomous organisation that identifies itself externally to state politics and from the institutionalised left, saying its aim is primarily to represent the “militant organised poor” over issues of land, housing and evictions in the country’s largest urban spaces (, 2013). This organisation has responded explicitly to the ‘framework’ discussed above, particularly the issue of criminalising the homeless that reside on land in the city. The tension between the organisation’s aims – which are often postured as adversarial by government and media – and property law have been made apparent on numerous occasions since its inception in 2005 (, 2013).

The Mail&Guardian reported that on April 28th 2013, the City of Cape Town’s anti-land invasion unit evicted residents from their ‘informal’ dwelling on empty land, beating several residents in the process as well as one Abahlali activist, and subsequently using ‘spin’ on property law to justify the action (Sacks, 2013). Such antagonistic behaviour towards the organisation is not a new phenomenon and, I argue, is indicative of the tacit preference of justice for elites which is characteristic of the neoliberal order and its judicial arms. It is, equally, also indicative of the order’s attitude towards those that are unable to cope financially within its system: housing is a right enshrined in section 26 of the South African constitution (, 2009), yet when homeless individuals respond fittingly to this right they are confronted with antagonism rooted in prioritisation of commercial land value over the rights of people. Instead of acknowledging this right to housing, government is known to respond with the perspective that providing adequate housing takes time and cannot happen overnight, despite the fact that – in the case of Cape Town – this land was empty and posed no real problems for the city other than its concern for high-value property and perhaps ‘aesthetic’ value (Sacks, 2013).

The chasm between rights for citizens and entitlements for ‘the rest’, ‘political society’ or ‘uncivil society’ is illuminated clearly in the case of AbM. It is important to note, however, that AbM is an organisation within the ‘realm’ of civil society and does very carefully represent the will of its people. However, it is also necessary to reflect on the marginalisation of AbM even as a ‘component’ of civil society – it is subject to antagonism, threats from government and law enforcement agencies, and often hostile attitudes from those who own property in urban settings (Sacks, 2013). Based on this, it is perhaps fair to maintain that civil society remains a space that is largely reserved for citizens and organisations that adhere to the norms and policies of the liberal order. AbM, although an organisation within civil society, is not respected as an entity by the ruling ANC – nor the Cape Town-led Democratic Alliance – nor does it rely on foreign donations, large businesses or government like numerous other NGOs, NPOs and other civil society organisations. 

What is established, quite clearly, is a distinction between individuals and organisations that choose to operate in the ‘shadow’ of state politics and its liberal aims, versus individuals and organisations whose aims and modus operandi attempt to challenge the order and are hence deemed criminal or threatening even if they are substantiated constitutionally. The former, which include NGOs and NPOs, often receive large funding from mostly Western governments or organisations and in turn often implement western programmes – these are generally popular in the perspective of government as they facilitate working towards its project of efficient ‘service delivery’ and development (Chatterjee, 2004: 69). The latter lack funding and support because they are often antithetical to state objectives, challenge the (neo)liberal order and advocate the rights of all people over the securities of a few.

A second dimension to the topic of civil society in South Africa that I consider relevant is the social-psychological aspects around political participation and divisions in society given the conditions established above.  McMurtry attempts to discuss the social-psychological effects of capitalism, namely the maxim of ‘those who work hard win’ as a social norm vis-à-vis a competitive economic sphere (1999: 255). I argue that such ideas and expectations that are venerated in the lexicon of capitalism possess particular consequences for how, and if, South Africans interact across ‘categorical’ lines and, by extension, also for the efficacy of the ‘realm of citizen interaction and participation’. Concepts like ‘success’, ‘self-investment’, ‘self-improvement’ and ‘financial stability’ all imply a necessary shift from some state of minority or limited capacity towards ‘betterment’: perhaps a state of self-sufficiency and augmented power. McMurtry reflects on how this works in saying: “‘We must compete harder’ appeals to a structure of motivation which is required to accept the global market’s money sequences at social-psychological level,” (McMurtry, 1999:255). It is perhaps reasonable to consider this paradigm integral to the naturalising of the ‘rich versus poor’ dichotomy that is ever-present in South Africa, where wealth is often believed to have been earned through hard work and betterment where it has – in significant ways - been inherited through privilege and apartheid benefit; and where poverty is often believed to be the result of laziness and lack of effort or capability when it has mostly been structurally formulated and sustained. I argue that the semiotics of capitalism and liberalism reinforce this problematic relationship between those in a position of privilege and those who are not, and further instil a segregating ‘wedge’ in South African society where they may alternatively be opportunities for social change if there was honest discourse around the origins and processes of wealth, privilege and rights in South Africa.

Although a short account of this social-psychological aspect, I argue that - in conjunction with the systemic exclusion of liberal economics and law - the semiotics of success, wealth, poverty and exclusion in South African history creates a wedge that if addressed with honesty and ingenuity may provide scope for some social change. Addressing the pathological tendencies within the global neoliberal society that fetishize successes, capital, and material accumulation may be integral to reimagining effective democracy in the ‘modern’ era, which is effectively the purpose of civil society to begin with. At this point, I argue that liberal democracies are prone to tacitly – and perhaps also explicitly - insist that whomever does not compete –regardless of whether they are actually able to in that system – falls out of the system, out of the realm of the ‘successful’ in the popular imagination, and most importantly out of the legal realm of citizenship if these people resort to means of survival antithetical to the law. This is one central legal and social-psychological issue that prevents civil society from achieving its aim of an all-inclusive sphere of democratic citizen participation. 

A second component of this social-psychological aspect is that of memory. The effects of apartheid on political participation and imagination should surely not be considered something of the past, especially when considering mass mobilisation amongst black South Africans behind the ANC in the last decades of apartheid. Consequential to civil society in particular may be the semiotics and discourse surrounding dissonance towards the ANC as South Africa’s ruling party today in light of this. Political dissent from the ANC and the tripartite alliance, given its history as a unified liberation front largely attributed with ending the system of apartheid, is often viewed with contempt or perhaps betrayal to the ANC’s expressed ideological standpoint. Political memory may, hence, be considered partly responsible for enhancing the challenge of creating a democratic sphere of citizen interaction and participation in that it, perhaps, works to ensure that political engagement remains along the lines of party politics. For instance, the activities of a new workers’ union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU), was met with hostility by the alliance’s ‘intellectual’ wing, the South African Communist Party’s secretary general Blade Nzimande (Tabane, 2013). Nzimande’s claims about AMCU, nevertheless, are not the subject of any analysis here, but rather the fact that dissidence to the ANC and its allies is, in certain spaces, rendered somewhat of a taboo. President Zuma’s assertion in 2011 that those who don’t vote ANC will effectively be abandoned by ‘the ancestors’  (, 2011) also reflects hostility towards dissidence from the party, not simply regarding defection to the opposing Democratic Alliance or smaller parties but seemingly from party politics altogether as well. This, in turns, poses a particular challenge for a ‘citizens’ democracy’ in that political participation is to a large extent, quite clearly, is expected to materialise within the realm of electoral events and party politics. This may exclude other emancipatory possibilities that challenge the preferred orders of the ruling party and its opposition – the Democratic Alliance - which are ironically parallel in many ways. 

The intention in reflecting on the impact of memory – and perhaps political coercion legitimated by this memory – is to highlight in particular how the history of popular struggle and its attempts to maintain loyalty to the ANC as a movement may be, in part, inhibiting a true ‘third space’ for real citizen’s democracy. Dr Mkhize, of Rhodes’ Department of History, echoes this sentiment in arguing that youth, in particular, usually fit into one of two political spheres in the post-apartheid era: the first is identification with the perspectives circulated by mass media and an infatuation for personalised success and ‘branding’ usually saturated with middle-class and elite youths, while the other is what she terms the ‘mass populism’ domain which roughly reflects loyalty to movements like the ANC as well as its alliance members and related organisations (Mkhize, 2013). She further argues that a ‘third space’ with “emancipatory possibilities” beyond this dichotomy remains small but possible, encompassing various aspects of community groups and leadership; volunteering without patronising tendencies often displayed by NGOs, and so on (Mkhize, 2013). It is this particular sphere, which I agree with Dr Mkhize, possesses the emancipatory possibilities and qualities of a ‘civil society’ truer to its idealised definition of facilitating a far more widespread kind of citizenship. Achieving this however, she argues, will require intellectual work necessary to afford people genuine democratic power where the existing realm of civil society fails in many respects (Mkhize, 2013).

 Using the above arguments and reflections in this essay, I have hoped to establish what is essentially a paradox rooted in the concept of civil society specifically in a (neo)liberal order. Capitalism and neoliberalism, and its laws and social dynamics often mediated by class and other ‘categories’,  have been argued as inhibitory to the development of a civil society that is truly representative of its democratic constituency. The example of Abahlali baseMjondolo was utilised to illustrate the impact socio-economic status and the laws of property and ownership have on civil society and, hence, why civil society certainly does not automatically represent the ‘will of the people’.  I also attempted to illustrate that although the structural implementation of neoliberalism maintains primacy in shaping how people participate or whether they can participate, that capitalism’s semiotic naturalisation of rich and poor, and the incidence of often coercive appeal to political memory, can and does inhibit the creation of a ‘third space’ that is truly representative of the citizenry where all people participate as equal citizens.

Nevertheless, it has been established that civil society, although automatically representing the will of some people – namely the middle-class and elites that benefit from the neoliberal economic paradigm – is mostly an exclusive playground for political participation and fails to encompass the actions and deliberations of a large majority of people in South Africa.


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