How to kill civil society
The following essay stems from the personal experience I have gathered, working for an organization representing civil society. It aims at stitching together the various means through which, in my view, governments, public institutions, private interests, or more generally anyone exercising some form of power, manages to reaffirm their authority and stifle democratic processes, especially ones coming from organized civil society.
Here under, I will examine how, specifically, governments, public institutions and private companies manage to “kill” civil society, or at the very least, severely weaken their role and influence on policy making.
Keep in mind that this essay is merely an overview of the various ways civil society can be weakened or killed and does not mean that civil society suffers from all of these at once, or that public institutions or private companies deliberately apply them. The aim is to list those methods in order to better recognize them, resist and fight against them when/if they are applied and thus boost the impact of civil society on policy making.
But first, what is “civil society” and why is it important?
Civil society is narrowly defined as the “aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens”. Its importance is directly related to mistrust of any form of Power or governance which may turn against its citizens or mislead/manipulate them. Thus citizens needed to organize in order to create a counter-balance, in addition to the three traditional checks and balances in modern governments (executive, legislative, and judiciary). But what is the “mandate” of civil society? While in our modern democracies, the mandate of governments is directly related to political campaigns, party programs, in respect of the law and fundamental rights, civil society has no “true” mandate except proving that whatever it advocates, it does so on behalf of the “will of citizens”. This is probably why, time and again, civil society organizations call for petitions, protests or even strikes to “prove” that they are not merely a “façade” of good intentions, but the real deal.
In theory, however, at least since Rousseau’s formulation of the “volonté générale” or the “general will” in English, anyone can incarnate the “will of the citizens” as it is a state of mind by which one thinks about the common good of all instead of his/her own private good. This is in staunch opposition to other political and economic theories that believed that encouraging people to achieve their private goals would naturally benefit everyone (I would call this the apology of greed).
Thus civil society organizations need only exist in societies where the wielders of Power do not incarnate the Rousseauist ideal. This is certainly the case of governments and public institutions in our day. One could argue that if Politicians, Members of Parliament, Ministers, and any other policy makers did their job, that is, to serve the common good, civil society would cease to exist as it would only parrot what policy makers would say or applaud them for their actions. Exploring the “problems” within our current political system would take too long, but just for future reference, here are some of the issues that are at the root of the failure of governments to act in the best interest of their people:
The undue influence of private interests (via lobbying, financial influence, conflict of interest and many other ways)
The transformation of our political system from a democracy, to a fight between competing oligarchic “boards of governors/CEOs” (Political Parties) for the control of the “company” (the State) by convincing “customers” (citizens) to “buy their products” (vote for them). This is directly linked to the “establishment” and the traditional political families forming in many countries, some calling them “dynasties”.
The disconnect between policy makers and citizens.
Ironically, the English term for people working in government is “civil servant”, literally meaning “at the service of citizens” and therefore the common good.
Now let’s examine the methods by which one manages to kill civil society.
Evidence based policy making
The very first method is securing that any and all policy measures envisaged undergo rigorous impact assessments and are justified by strong evidence. Why is this a problem? Isn’t this supposed to prevent arbitrary and unjust policy making? In theory, it should. In reality, it only makes it harder to unravel the bias behind policy making.
First, let us look at whether policy making should always be justified through impact assessments and scientific evidence. The answer is easy: of course not! Our current society is based entirely on non-scientific decisions based either on human principles, values or simply power struggles between competing models. We did not move from Monarchies to Democracies following a lengthy impact assessment and scientific review of the costs and benefits associated with each, presented to the Kings in the 18th century who, convinced by the solidity of the evidence, willingly stepped down from their thrown. Nor did we review the “impact” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (perhaps if we had, we wouldn’t have adopted it, given the way it limits the actions of private businesses and governments). And the list goes on and on: the end of slavery, the end of child labour, social welfare systems, minimum wage,… And ironically, in many instances, a part of the private sector directly concerned by such progressive laws contested them by claiming that ending child labour would kill their businesses. Had we listened to their claims, our children would be going to factories instead of schools. More cynically, it can even be argued that social progress is achieved only when it comes with some tangible monetary profit. Ending slavery? The best decision for the industrialized countries to shift from regular slaves that were costly to care for to “wage slaves” who could easily be disposed of. Ending child labour? The best decision once the private sector needed more qualified labour and didn’t want to pay for its lengthy training. Social welfare? The best decision at a time when Communism was a popular ideology amongst the working class and such policies were the most cost-efficient way to prevent an uprising or a revolution.
Second, impact assessments and evidence based policy making relies on the predicament that everything can be “quantified”, scientifically measured and that a clear “rational” or “best” decision can be made. This is only to obfuscate the fact that most decisions are either “best guesses” or simply political in nature with “scientific evidence” taking a back seat. The easiest example are austerity measures put in place following the financial crisis, especially in Greece. How could any model or evidence pitch the “pros” and “cons” in an objective way of certain austerity measures and their impact on people? Following the austerity measures in Greece, suicides of desperate unemployed or over-indebted workers skyrocketed. How much was their life worth? 100.000$? 1.000.000$? But let us not underestimate the arrogance of evidence based policies. Such deaths have been calculated as “loss of GDP” or “loss of productivity”... Even with the best of intentions, denouncing the “cost” of suicide on GDP to push for more progressive regulation or wealth redistribution is playing into the hands of “evidence based policy making”, which will simply whisk out some conflicting econometric model which shows that adopting said progressive policies would lead the country into an endless economic depression which would cost an equivalent amount of lives in addition to ruining the economy and hurting GDP.
Third, let us look at whether scientific evidence can be trustworthy. And here again, there are a myriad of examples which show that evidence can be bought. The most blatant example is the tobacco industry which successfully managed to disguise privately funded research as “science” showing that smoking is not bad for health. Even if this fake research was successfully debunked by independent/quality/real research, it took some time to disprove and stalled much needed policy measures which could have been taken in the meantime, justified under principles of precaution/prevention premises rather than absolute scientific proof. The same applies to climate change, genetically modified organisms and pesticides, and many other contemporary issues, where policy measures are either delayed or scrapped due to supposedly “conflicting” scientific evidence.
So why have we shifted towards the trend of “evidence based policy making”? The reasons are many, but two main reasons can be identified:
1) Policy makers needed a way to shift responsibility and liability away from their political decisions. In a world where people either are less interested in politics or are too busy to carefully reflect on what the “common good” means to them, and where the political campaigns consist more and more in smearing opponents by criticizing their decisions rather than defending your own political program, it is necessary to deflect responsibility and liability from your actions when in power in order to maintain power. And “evidence based policy making” is the perfect strategy. As long as you’ve ordered in-house clerks, external consultancies or sometimes even a bunch of interns to write an unreadable lengthy justification for your planned actions based on whimsical future gazing models, along with collecting thousands of pages of “positions papers” and opinions from any and all stakeholders, then you can much more easily sell the idea that you bare no responsibility for your policies. If anything, it’s “science” that is to blame…
2) Representatives of private interests needed to find an “edge” over civil society, in addition to their advantage in financial and human resources. They could not compete with civil society on rhetoric, value, principles, and their legitimacy of representing the common good. Civil society remained best placed in arguments centered on rights, values and principles. That “extra” edge was “evidence based policy making”. Private companies, as opposed to civil society organizations, are sitting on heaps and heaps of data, and ever more so every day. Data collection is an integral part of their business strategy. Why not use it also to shape policy? This is a “classic” business move, akin to supporting extremely complex compliance regulation which kills smaller companies. By the same token, civil society is asked to compete with private companies in providing equivalent or at least comparable “evidence” to support any claim or recommendation; a very smart “business” move since civil society was never meant to collect data but rather to defend citizens’ rights and being a resonance of their will. So in essence, even when a majority of the population, as in Greece or Spain, have been disenfranchised with the current political system and demand change, their will is ignored because they could not produce the “evidence” justifying the change they were asking for. And of course, the “evidence” that is being asked, is the one that private companies have most of: economic indicators, financial considerations, GDP, growth, jobs… but always supporting the private sectors’ positions of course.
In closing, in order to put an end to this greatly damaging trend, I would call for an impact assessment of impact assessments and whether they are truly as useful as they claim. What is the “cost-benefit” of mobilizing so many people to write pages upon pages of future gazing with a thin veil of “science” if in the end, the decision will likely be based on politics, more or less successful lobbying and power struggles between political parties? So much work just to shift liability/responsibility and weaken civil society positions… what a shame. Many decisions, or even most decisions are inherently political in nature, neither good or bad but reflecting a certain ideology, preconceptions or views of the world, of what the public interest may be (or private interest, in case of corrupt politics). Impact assessments are more of an equivalent to private companies legal disclaimers, shielding politicians from liability for any “undesirable side-effects”, “unintended/unforeseeable consequences” of their policies. The equivalent to “we are not liable in case you try to iron your closes while wearing them” becomes “we are not liable for any negative impacts of regulation because we chose the optimal scenario, based on a bunch of trainees that stitched together some research papers and the input from stakeholders (understood as private lobbyists which have a vested interest in a certain policy measure)”.
This is a tragic situation, where governments spend more time justifying why they should do anything instead of actually devising policy which serves the public interest. But at the same time, it makes sense. In a world where the mainstream media have been gradually bought by private individuals/companies, any “move” from government which is not backed by heaps of paperwork might mean political death through public lynching on the media, especially if it hurts the interests of the media owners.
The cherry on the cake is that while governments are not allowed to fail and have to, by some miracle, deliver rock solid, science backed policy, private companies are allowed to experiment freely with society, make mistakes which would equate to the automatic dissolution of an entire government and parliament, with little to no consequences except perhaps letting the CEO go with a huge golden parachute as a “thank you” for managing to deceive the public for so long without getting noticed. The list is long: Volkswagen’s Dieselgate, BP’s deepwater oil spill, Facebook’s auto-post experiment of things you bought online, the financial services industry responsibility in the 2007-2008 financial crisis… And because many of them are too systemically important (more on this later), either to the global economy, or are the national champion of their country, they can get away without much more than a “sorry” and perhaps a few million dollar/euro symbolic fines (which they will contest in courts until the very last cent, pushing cynicism to its limits).
For clarity’s sake, I am by no means arguing that science is never useful in policy making, but rather that science requires a very strict sets of conditions to be trustworthy, including independence of the researchers and peer reviews. In addition, any “serious” scientist has always stirred clear from translating his/her findings into policy recommendations as they are very well aware of the limitations of their own research. Anyone who takes the time to read through a serious scientific paper knows that the “conclusion” or as it is more often called, the “discussion” closes by explaining the limits of the findings of the study and paves the way for future research, and certainly not calling for laws or regulations. Translating scientific facts into policy can only be done via the prism of Rousseau’s “general will”, in respect of the core values our democratic societies are built on, something most scientists would never claim to achieve. And these principles and values never were ensuring a steady GDP growth or allowing limitless wealth accumulation.
Finally, looking at recent events such as Brexit and Donald Trump's election, it seems a "new" trend is emerging: the dawn of "post-truth" politics where facts are less important than emotions and beliefs. "Post-truth" was even declared "word of the year" by the Oxford dictionary. How this will affect civil society is yet to be determined. Will civil society be able to "adapt" its rhetoric to this new form of argumentation?
Self-regulation and co-regulation
Related to the point above, given policy makers’ reticence to take any form of political risk, there is a growing trend to “delegate” policy making to private actors. Private actors have been calling for self-regulation or at least, co-regulation for a long time. The idea is that private actors are ideally placed to understand the inherent and unique complexities of their own business, and given the pace of innovation, only they can devise and revise regulation in a fast and efficient manner.
In reality, the situation is rather akin to putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. Examples of self-regulatory failures are many, and the ones listed below are only those that I am most familiar with.
The World Federation of Advertisers and their “EU Pledge” which aims at lowering the exposure of children to advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages.
The European Commission’s “Alcohol” Platform which failed after civil society organizations pulled out, given the lack of deliverables and impact of the self/co-regulatory initiative.
The European Commission’s EU Platform for action on diet, physical activity and health which brings together the food industry, health ministries and civil society to help address child obesity.
The deregulation of financial service providers in the US in the 1980s and 1990s in the “hope” that they would self-regulate (which has also been linked to the causes of the financial crisis of 2007-2008).
The CEO Coalition of the European Commission in DG CNECT (formerly, INFSO) bringing together information technology firms and civil society to tackle issues such as cyberbullying or exposure to harmful content.
It would be too long to go through each example in detail in this essay, but I have written articles about many of these. In short, this is what happens most of the time: companies use self-regulation as a Public Relations opportunity to promote Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) or simply improvements on their practices which they would have carried out anyways, with or without self-regulation. In most cases, the company representatives come from the PR or CSR branch of the company and therefore, have a fixed mandate in what they can promise. In huge companies like Facebook or Nestlé, the odds that they get a chance to speak to the “top” decision makers within their company is tiny, and probably happens only in case they “smell” a regulatory initiative that threatens the company.
Civil society organizations, in self-regulatory initiatives, are instrumentalized to legitimize the process and outcome. While civil society are free to voice their concerns during the initiatives, their mere presence suffices in providing the necessary credibility of the outcomes even if they are unsatisfactory and denounced by civil society at the end of the process.
Another strategy for using self-regulation to weaken civil society is for the industry to offer “quick fixes” to grievances voiced by civil society. One example is removing harmful content online. Companies are quick to pick up the criticism, reach out to civil society, and offer their “help” in removing the content, even integrating these organizations in the process (see the point below). This enables companies to “divert” civil society from other solutions like enabling community based moderation or increasing the overall efforts, via regulation, of content hosting platforms, for taking harmful content down (as they do for other content like copyright violations, because they risk getting into legal trouble whereas for “harmful content”, there are no legal consequences for failing to take it down in a timely fashion).
There are also recent initiatives by companies where they actively seeking out input from civil society before any issues even arise, either directly, or by creating dedicated bodies within their company for gathering opinions from civil society. It is too early to decide whether such initiatives are a “positive” development or not. In my opinion, it may be useful in so far as the proposed measures by civil society do not pose a threat to the companies’ bottom line, and also, again, as a PR exercise to help building a positive image for the company.
To be fair, there are examples of successful self-regulation, mostly in two cases: either because the self-regulatory measures are in the (financial) interest of the companies or because there was a real threat of regulation. One example is the harmonization of chargers on mobile phones/smartphones.
Cut the funding
Of course, this heading is purposefully provocative. Even if budgets are tight and many civil society organizations did suffer from a cut in funding, many others benefit from funding from a variety of sources including governments, public institutions like the EU or other actors such as foundations and even private companies. But upon closer examination, the strings attached to any of these funding sources is akin to cutting the funding, since in one way or another, it detracts civil society from their true purpose, thereby transforming them into something else, but certainly not civil society.
Public funding takes on many forms. The first, and probably least problematic way of funding civil society is via “operating grants” or core funding. The strings attached to such funding are usually less restrictive in attempting to influence the priorities and activities of civil society organizations. Operating grants with no pre-approval of the program don’t run any risk of censorship from government. On the other hand, there is a risk of misappropriation, misspending or fraud, in cases where “façade” civil society organizations divert money to serve other interests. And even in the case where civil society organizations are genuine, what if they represent a more or less numerous constituency which advocates for policies in contradiction with fundamental rights (such as anti-abortion)? Where is the line drawn between censorship and freedom of expression? This debate extends way beyond the scope of the present essay, but it is necessary to underline that there is no “easy” answer to finding the “optimal” way of funding civil society. Some would say that it should be grounded on the basis of “fundamental rights”, but lest not forget that when citizens’ frustration and anger with the “establishment” is censored on such grounds as fundamental rights, it tends to strengthen extremism including through voting. And once a majority of the population have democratically voted for a party or candidate whose political agenda is contrary to fundamental rights, it will be very hard for institutions like the judiciary to uphold fundamental rights when both the executive, possibly the legislative and a majority of the population support their violation/abolishment. Thus while excluding civil society from funding based on fundamental rights is possible, despite the fact that they do represent a non-negligible number of citizens; in the long term, it might only exacerbate and accelerate the support for extremism and extremist politics. Civil society, on the contrary, should be a “sounding board” for politicians and policy makers, in order to detect signs of disenfranchised citizens early and work towards a remedy to prevent the emergence of extremism.
Operating grants can also be more restrictive, with the obligation to submit detailed planned activities and monitoring/reporting on how such activities were fulfilled. The more frequently such an exercise needs to be carried out, the more control governments can exert over civil society. More generally, a frequent necessity to provide detailed planning ahead leaves less room for “reactive” freedom to unpredictable events such as reacting to political scandals like the Panama Papers or reflecting on a policy response to terrorist attacks. Also, it detracts civil society organizations from their core activities. Taking as an example, an NGO which serves soup to the homeless, an operating grant with stricter attribution criteria and reporting/monitoring means less people available to serve the soup (as some will be taken up by filling paperwork) and less soup available for the homeless (since part of the funds have to be used to carry out the evaluation). And so the homeless receive less soup and with it, a feedback form to “rate” the soup’s quality, consistency, the friendliness of the staff,… Finally, the duration of the operating grant also puts pressure on civil society. For instance, a 3 year operating grant, reviewed on a yearly basis, means that civil society organizations are at risk of losing access to funding and thereby cease to exist every three years. How can they retain staff, project themselves in the future under such uncertain conditions? How can they be effective in their policy work if their survival occupies a large part of their minds?
Then there is the issue of co-financing, or asking civil society organizations to find other sources of financing to compliment the operating grant. This system, it is argued, is to make sure that civil society become “less dependent” on public funding. Again, the end effect is detracting civil society from its true purpose, by hiring a “fund raising” expert instead of a “policy” expert, spending resources running after money to fill the gap instead of reflecting on how to devise policy respectful of the common good. And money is not so easy to come by. In a world where money is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest, and the middle class is under severe financial pressure, donations are hard to come by. Getting money from foundations is not easy either, and is controversial and perverse in many ways (since many foundations have been created by some of the wealthiest people on earth, it is nearly a “privatization” of public interest). There is also the option of private sponsorship, which can also severely weaken the scope of action of civil society (see the most recent Coca-Cola scandal).
Some civil society organizations resort to hiring students full of idealism to harass people on the street. Such is the case of Green Peace, Amnesty and many others. Other organizations have to start selling products or services like Oxfam for example which has its own shops. Forcing cash strapped NGOs into selling stuff is probably the most cynical and horrible way of killing them, by transforming them slowly but surely into private companies with sales objectives, profit targets, cash flows, growth,… What’s next? Entering the stock market and become a publicly traded “NGO”?
Another, very popular source of funding, is publicly funded projects. This can be research projects or any other projects with a clearly defined objective and scope. It is way more specific than operating grants and therefore leaves little freedom to civil society. It is basically one of the best ways to keep civil society aligned with the agenda of public institutions and governments. The objectives and scope are limited from the start, and civil society has to apply via a “call for tenders”. In order to be selected, civil society organizations must satisfy as many conditions as possible including creating a “diverse” partnership (read “public private partnership”) which further compromises the independence of action of civil society. Civil society organizations which have more “Project Officers” than “Policy Officers” can rebrand themselves as “outsourced government” or “external contracted civil servants”.
In conclusion, sure, civil society is still here, civil society organizations still receive financing, but the relentless menace of budget cuts and austerity, the pressure to perform and prove that they deserve the grants received, the compliance with restrictive project based funding, have all but transformed them from being watch dogs into beaten dogs, always fearfully attentive for a sign of whether the hand that feeds them might actually strike them down for good.
Directly related to the point above, making civil society organizations compete for funding hurts their ability to cooperate, especially if they are funded under the same operating grant and need to demonstrate each year their “added value”. The necessity to show your “added value” can lead to the necessity to differentiate your work from what other civil society organizations are doing, just to make yourself noticed, even though on the whole, most of the positions you would defend could be taken up verbatim by any other civil society organization. It also creates a perverse incentive to present the constituency that your civil society organization represents as “more relevant/important” than others to increase your chances of “making the cut”. Finally, it forces many civil society organizations into “power struggles” over who “initiates” a policy proposal and who “signs/supports” it, since “leadership” is sexier in a monitoring report or application for funding then “signee”.
Create counterfeit civil society
While sponsorship is one way by which private interests manage to silence civil society, another way is to set up “fake” civil society organizations directly. The list of “fake” NGOs representing the private sectors interests is enormous and cannot be listed above.
Food companies set up NGOs promoting “healthy eating and exercise” (pushing responsibility for obesity or any other health related risks stemming from diets back on consumer choice/behaviour), IT and Internet companies set up “Online Safety” NGOs helping parents to keep their children safe online (again, pushing responsibility for keeping children safe online on busy parents rather than looking at whether companies themselves are at cause), financial service providers fund NGOs carrying out “Financial Literacy” to help consumers make “informed and responsible” financial decisions (while many financial products are so complex that even the staff selling them do not fully understand them). And these are but a few generic examples.
Still, such NGOs can call themselves NGOs or “not for profit” organizations because indeed, they do not make a profit. However, they can hardly claim to speak on behalf of the public interest. Unfortunately, the “label” they fall under often suffices to effectively lure and mislead their interlocutors in believing that they do represent the public interest and act for the common good of all as opposed to the common good of the companies they are funded by.
Policy makers may find it more enjoyable to exchange with these fake civil society organizations as opposed to the real deal. The staff working in such fake NGOs are professionally trained Public Relations people, sometimes with a rich background and experience working for private companies. They know their way around lobbying, spending their time presenting very “sexy” projects (no need for regulation, via our projects, we are already getting the job done), talking about amazing research showing just how smart and resourceful people and children are (no need to regulate, children and people can handle the issues you are asked to resolve via policy) as opposed to the typical civil society rants constantly criticizing and bitching about the actions and functioning of governments.
Shape thy will
Since civil society is the expression of the “will of the people”, why not simply “bend” the will of the people? If one manages to control what people want (read shaping the “demand”), then one directly undercuts the roots from which civil society draws its power.
Shaping the will of the people to undercut civil society is a byproduct of marketing, advertising and more generally the entire context shaped by private interests or by government surrounding people in general. It is not so much that private companies or governments purposefully devise plans on how to weaken civil society than bending the will of the people to meet their direct interests. Weakening civil society is mostly a secondary effect.
Private companies’ core interest is that citizens focus on their right to consume and ownership of products, property, access to entertainment... Instead of reflecting on whether the current Capitalist system is fair and sustainable, consumers should focus on their next purchase, the next gadget they want to own. Instead of debating on key principles like the social contract, sovereignty and the state of enforcement of citizen’s fundamental rights, the debate centers around purchasing power, creating jobs, growth with a hint of “green” for good conscience. Other ways of bending the will of people is keeping them busy at work and busy with their family life, with little to no time available for deeper thoughts about what kind of society they want to live in save for the spasmodic trained reflexes of “protecting thy property from thy foreigner”. Working for a private company, as such, is a direct impediment for people to think “collectively” or reflect on the “common good” since they depend on the private company they work for and would compromise their career and financial stability if they supported policies that would hurt their company, even if it serves the “common good” (for instance, someone working in a coal fueled power-plant). One can easily see why reducing the size of the public sector can serve the political interests of private companies. Yet another, is to fill whatever time they have available for thought by entertainment. “Panem et circences”, little has changed. And we can see, in “broken” societies like the United States, how shaping the will of the people yields tragic results. Politics and public debate have been reduced to insulting political opponents, publicly shaming them with scandal stories usually unrelated to politics or the contents of their political program, and policy proposals have been stripped down to the bones to make sure that the dumbed down population, after years of will bending, can understand them. “Me build wall, bad Mexicans, rapists, murderers”. “No muslim in country, terrorists.” Or from the other side of the aisle, “Education expensive, make it free”. And even when trying to put forward “facts” and argue sensibly about a number of topics, it seems as if people do not care about “facts” anymore and root their positions on “beliefs and feelings”.
Once a majority of the population had their will bent, the rest suffer the consequences. Even those who still believe in democracy, debate, argumentation, facts see the politicians who try to represent their interests exit the race early, contributing to a further alienation towards government and politics, as we have seen with Bernie Sanders and his disappointed supporters.
Crushed by consultation, drowned by private lobbyists
This method is directly linked to the first one (evidence based policy making). Public institutions will periodically issue consultations, calls for participating in expert groups, launch invitations to speak at events, ask for input on policy making. Of course, this isn’t negative per say, if it weren’t for the sheer volume, complexity and velocity of these processes. Legislative processes take a long time, and the consultation process itself is multiplied manifold as the legislative proposal advances through the administrative, executive, legislative branches. Every step of the way, input is required for reports, impact assessments, and new questions are asked. Not only, as explicated above, does civil society struggle to provide “evidence based” policy recommendations during these processes, but it is also simply drowned by the magnitude of initiatives, the number of interlocutors and actors.
This is especially true since governments and public institutions have seen a growing citizen disengagement from politics, as seen from the shrinking turnout on elections. In an attempt to help legitimize the policy making process in the eyes of the public, the opinions and input of civil society is eagerly sought after. Unfortunately, this does not equate to taking civil society’s recommendations on board of course, but merely ticking the “civil society” box to be safe if/when being accused of bias towards private interests.
In addition to being crushed under a massive flow of consultation, civil society is also drowned by private lobbyists. In the area of financial services, for instance, private lobbyists had 7 times more meetings with policy makers than NGOs or civil society. This is due to the clear imbalance in the number of private lobbyists vs civil society representatives. Even when public institutions try to increase the diversity inside expert groups, finding enough civil society representatives to match the representation of private interests in every expert group is impossible. So although some progress has been made such as in the European Banking Authority where the balance between academics, civil society and financial industry representatives is respected, the inequality in numbers quickly limits the balance that is realistically achievable.
As civil society often bases its discourse in strong values and principles like fundamental rights, an easy way to weaken their influence and their message is to create a nice little “sandbox” for civil society to play in. This means, for instance, creating departments, committees, directorates or ministries in charge of “social affairs” or “fundamental rights”, with virtually no decision-making power, while at the same time, burying important policy making in highly technical, specialized institutions. A clear example is the aftermath of the financial crisis in 2007-2008 where most civil society organizations were voicing their grievances and fears of growing inequalities and the nefarious impact of austerity measures with their traditional interlocutors such as the ministries of employment and social affairs (which of course happily took them on board), the decisions to implement austerity measures lied with ministries of economics and financial affairs, which grounded their decisions on ideologically biased econometric models, thus impervious to any input from civil society.
Another blatant and recent example from 2016 is the organization of the EU Commission Directorate General for Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion (DG EMPL) conference entitled “Annual Convention for Inclusive Growth” and the Directorate General for Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN) organization of the “Brussels Economic Forum”. The first event brought together nearly all the Brussels based civil society organizations which happily engaged in self-indulgent denunciations of the social injustices stemming from our current economic growth model. No opposition or conflicting views, everyone patting each other on the back during the entire conference. Of course, DG EMPL has a very limited influence on the “growth strategy”, since the EU does not have competences in social policy and employment! On the other hand, the later event from DG ECFIN brought together all the representatives of the current economic growth model, defending the necessity of austerity and the policies put in place following the financial crisis. Virtually no civil society representatives took part in this event. At the very least, their voices were not heard during the event.
Sadly, many civil society organizations willingly indulge playing in those sandboxes. Pages after pages of “human rightsy” recommendations with no substance are published: “Article X of the charter on Y says this, it’s not happening, make it happen”. No concrete proposals on how to make it happen of course.
In essence, a much more effective way for Directorate Generals within the Commission with little power like DG EMPL to reach their objectives would be to fund civil society organizations to lobby other DGs like DG ECFIN, DG FISMA, DG JUST and so forth.
Civil society fatigue
Policy makers have all the time in the world. While civil society organizations or citizens in general have managed to force policy makers to back-pedal on certain unpopular or controversial policy proposals, in many cases, these were re-introduced later, once the issue was no longer high on either the media attention, or on the minds of citizens. Alternatively, when under pressure from citizens or civil society following a scandal or important event, policy makers have dragged discussions about specific policies to kill them once no one was watching anymore. From the perspective of the media, it is always less sexy to talk about the “nth attempt to pass the same legislation” or to keep talking for years on end about a “legislation under discussion” than covering new stories/scandals. For civil society and citizens, it is hard to keep policy makers under pressure, to demonstrate every day/week/month, keep sending messages, calling policy makers… Inevitably, after a while, the interest/effort dies down save for a few civil society organizations who are specialized on those issues. But without the perceived pressure and support from citizens, their voice is much less effective.
The Lisbon treaty is one of the best examples. While French and Dutch citizens clearly opposed the treaty when it was still formulated as a “Constitution”, the EU institutions waited a bit and reintroduced it as a “treaty”. Another example: following the financial crisis of 2007-2008, there was momentum and public support to introduce regulation on a European financial transactions tax and other regulation such as separating investment banks from retail banks. Although these ideas are not new and much ink and reflection already went into them, the EU managed to delay the initiatives long enough for them to “die” or be watered down significantly without triggering any major form of protest.
And the list goes on, growing longer and longer: the Snowden revelations which prompted a pressure on spying agencies which had little effect as governments pushed the “fear of terrorism” buttons, the Panama Papers which have already sunk in the minds of citizens…
“TINA”, or “there is no alternative”. This is a classic argument to counter anyone who questions the current political and economic system. It is in direct contradiction to “evidence based policy” but somehow does not suffer from this contradiction.
The TINA discourse is aimed at solving a key problem to the combination of Capitalism with Democracy. With other forms of government, like Monarchies, control wasn’t impeded by contradictory goals. Regardless of whether people were smart or dumb, monarchies could rule by using their brute strength and censorship. But with Capitalism, Power struggles to exert control. The reason is rather simple: how can one ensure that their “subjects” have innovative thought, originality and critical thinking which will spur further economic growth and development, yet never exert such “innovative thought” to question the system as such? In essence, how can one make people smart enough to actively contribute to the success of Capitalism, yet dumb enough never to question its legitimacy and thinking of alternatives, and then exerting political power through Democracy to impose change?
So whenever civil society or citizens dare question the current economic system, the TINA argument is raised. Upon closer examination, and looking at historical evidence, one easily sees that TINA does not hold up. Democracy and Capitalism actually fought long and hard to make sure that no viable alternative emerged: by direct military intervention (as with the election of Allende in Chile), economic strangulation (as with Cuba after Castro took power) or many other strategies like propaganda, financing revolts, sabotage… that destabilized the societies who were looking for an alternative.
I’m systemic, can’t touch this
A similar method to TINA, is for any private company to reach systemic importance. Creating an economic system which is extremely fragile to any form of “shock” including the failure of a systemically important actor within the system directly undermines the freedom of policy makers to formulate policy. So regardless of how many people/civil society organizations express their democratic wish for regulation, if it affects a systemically important actor, it is bound to be rejected.
Constructive criticism and compromise
Civil society has to agree to compromise and offer constructive criticism towards policy making.
Compromises and seeking middle-ground are a cornerstone of Democracy and the realization of the common good. But the necessity to compromise has been abused. One such abuse is to pretend to be open to compromise while in reality, asking for a repeated series of compromises which equate to adopting the opposing position. This is possible because humans can only perceive relative differences, which means that they assess the fairness of a compromise in comparison to the previous one instead of looking at the initial position. For instance, a “small” budget cut each year in funding social policies might seem harmless, however, over a course of 5 or 10 years, it can be devastating.
“Constructive criticism” usually means proposing a solution when criticizing something. But constructive criticism can also be more narrowly understood by including certain criteria such as “evidence based policy making”, TINA or systemic considerations.
Dictature of human rights
Human rights are used by civil society to keep governments in check on Internal policies and affairs, but on the other hand, they limit the scope of criticism civil society can formulate vis-à-vis External affairs.
As many renowned intellectuals argue, including Noam Chomsky, foreign policy and international affairs are grounded in perceived national interests and cold real politik. Thus while the many wars over the last few centuries have been carried out, in the official public discourse, in the name of “Democracy”, “human rights”, “freedom” or other such ideals, most of them merely served in one way or another the perceived “national” interest of the protagonists (be it economic, military, geopolitical or any other). And the consequences of such External policies have many implications on Internal policies such as immigration, security measures, pressure on national budgets (and thus social security), the fight against terrorism,…
But whenever civil society tries resisting the push for a “Security State” or an “Orwellian State” due to terrorism, it can only formulate recommendations on Internal policies because of the limits imposed on what civil society can say due to its “human rights” straight jacket. For instance, civil society can hardly defend the right of people to self-determination if such “self-determination” takes the form of a dictature. Before the Vietnam War, for instance, most academics agree that Communists were a majority and would have won the elections.
Looking at our own history, the French Revolution, which brought with it the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was an extremely bloody and violent event, followed by several years of the “Terreur” where arbitrary decapitations were the norm, followed by Napoleon’s imperialist conquest of Europe in a “non human rights” fashion, followed by the temporary reinstatement of monarchy, followed by the extremely gradual “shift” towards Democracy throughout Europe. And that’s not even mentioning colonialism and the two world wars! So in essence, it took Europe over a century to “practice what they preach” in domestic politics (in a more or less convincing way, as we argue here), and yet still exercise extreme cynicism in foreign policy, denouncing human rights violations in one State, which might justify a military intervention, while turning a blind eye to other human rights violations so long as the government in place is compatible with our “national interests”. To top it up, the interventions which pushed for more Democracy and human rights can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Examples include South Africa for instance, where the end of apartheid was influenced, in part, by pressure from Western countries, especially the US. On the other hand, there is a plethora of examples of instrumentalization of human rights to serve other interests. Any intervention in the entire Middle East has been self-serving: the sabotage of the Iran revolution in the 1950s, the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq, the turmoil caused by the assassination of Gaddafi in Libya… Other examples include the hypocritical stance of the World community during the Rwanda genocide, especially in the US, where the US interpreted what was happening as “acts of genocide” to escape the international law and the moral obligation to intervene to put an end to it.
All of this goes to show that “human rights” are used in international politics as a veil to obfuscate the “real” motives and objectives. And unfortunately, civil society is ill equipped to respond with concrete and realistic proposals which are in line with their “human rights” straight jacket. In many cases, the only solution is to allow people the right to self-determination, lead by example and allow any displaced or threatened populations fleeing the area to find shelter in our societies. While it is possible to win wars against armies, it is impossible to win wars against civilians fighting for their right to self-determination, even if such self-determination is contrary to our values. No one can carry out a “revolution” instead of the local population. But this is not something civil society can say.
End of the right to revolt
Whenever peaceful protests turn into riots (regardless of whether they are due to a few marginal extremist rioters or even policemen in disguise), the media, public authorities and just about anyone engages in hysteric denunciations of violence. The organizers of the demonstration apologize and try to argue that the violent rioters were “outsiders” trying to “sabotage” their pacific protest, and all the rest condemn such violence in the name of all the values they hold so dear to their hearts, “human rights, fundamental rights, democracy…”. Suddenly, everyone is a peace lover living in Care Bear Land.
In the early days of our western democracies, the right to revolt (including the use of violence) was a fundamental right to ensure citizens could protect themselves from emerging dictatorial/authoritarian tendencies within their governments. Such a right has been gradually limited, then abolished, as it seemed “preposterous” that we would ever need it given that the rule of law and our democracies are now “functioning and well established”. Yet history is rich of examples where democracies turned into dictatures such as Germany between the two world wars and more recently, Turkey after the failed military coup. But these are only the most self-evident examples. Democracy in our own societies has been severely weakened or gradually shifted towards oligarchy due to many factors such as a concentration of political parties acting as censors on who gets to ascend to positions of power, the formation of a political “elite” with a hereditary dimension, the undue influence of private interests on policy making, corruption, conflict of interest, revolving doors and all of the methods for watering down civil society listed here.
But this is only a detail. “End of physical violence, enter economic violence!”
In October 2015, during a protest against downsizing at the Air France headquarters, a protester tore apart the shirt of Air France’s Director of human resources. The lawyers of the company argued in court that “social violence” as they called it could never be a justification for physical violence. And this story is representative of thousands of similar cases, where citizens victim of “economic violence” (I believe this term is more accurate than “social” violence) should just suck it up and go about their lives. On balance, however, most “sane” people would chose being punched in the face in a heartbeat over losing their job or seeing their home being repossessed. One could use the “shit happens” or “that’s life” argument, arguing that losing your job or losing your home is just “bad luck”, but it does not hold under closer scrutiny. In the US, for instance, the subprime mortgage crisis which triggered the financial crisis left thousands of families without a home and in extremely dire economic conditions, due to misselling or even fraud from financial service providers. Despite these blatant facts, there were very few consequences for the culprits! A few trials “for the show” were carried out such as the Madoff and the Tourre trials, some banks got fined (and contested/negotiated their way into paying less or nothing), and a bunch of CEOs got golden parachutes to enjoy playing golf for the rest of their lives. How is that, by any means, justice? Normally, under the rule of law, any damage caused has to be restored.
The legitimization of “economic violence” is at the root of Capitalism's history. It is what legitimizes exploitation of workers all over the world, especially in third world countries. Physical violence in protests, however, is merely a byproduct of extreme “economic violence”. The more fundamental question is rather which takes precedent over the other: sovereignty of States, the social contract and the right for citizens to shape the society in which they live (including the rules of the game by which any economic actor has to abide by) or the right for private companies to dispose of their (more or less legitimately acquired) property as they see fit. As it is often the case, this question has no easy answer and finding the “right” balance between inhumane exploitation of workers and a “de facto” public ownership/control over private companies will be debated for many years to come. While in the last few decades policy makers had the luxury to turn a blind eye on this question, the growing inequalities in our society will oblige them to provide an answer, and it better be satisfying too, lest they wish to have a revolution on their hands.
By the same token, the question of when citizens/civil society can legitimately call upon the “right to revolt” in order to overthrow a dictatorial government also does not find an easy answer. However, as we have seen in Turkey and as we may soon see in the United States under Trump, this question will have to find an answer and again, it will not be an “evidence based” one but a highly political one. What should be the catalyst for a revolution? The arbitrary imprisonment of teachers and journalists? Letting inequalities reach such levels that millions of citizens start dying of cold or hunger?
Power (whoever holds power), regardless of its form, seeks for more control. The methods below are but a few of the many ways Power exerts control but hopefully, knowing about them might help civil society and citizens to be more efficient in keeping whoever holds Power in check.
If you can think of other methods that I have not listed here, please add them to the list and I will integrate your input into the article.
I have a feeling it is becoming more and more important as the current system combining Democracy and Capitalism is starting to show signs of major failures.
 A State is not just about policy making, it’s also a lot of money. Policy makers relying on controlling the government to get paid is the recipe for transforming a public institution into a private company.