Being Civil About Things

‘Civil society’, in Ireland, has a sort of sterile meaning, calling to mind perhaps a round of It’s A Euro Knockout featuring Pat Cox, Fergus Finlay and some GAA manager-turned-hotelier, campaigning in favour of the latest European Treaty.

Or maybe it means a load of nicely mannered middle class people of a leftish-liberal mien attending a billionaire-funded conference, where they listen to earnest discussions of how neo-liberal economic policies are failing Ireland. They clear their throats to voice their hearty agreement with eloquence, but participants are polite enough not to draw to the attention of the assembled that the changes in policy so vigorously advocated -even if they are quite modest- require open conflict and confrontation, in the streets and in the workplaces, and not the hope of sweet reasonableness, collaborative openness and dutiful deference in engaging with those who are imposing the policies. (The idea that it might be a problem with capitalism per se, as opposed to a nasty variant of capitalism that doesn’t seem to act on what we tell it, seldom goes down too well at these occasions)

Many people will not be familiar with Gramsci’s conception of civil society, which is what a lot of people notionally on the left hint at when they say things like ‘Congress is the largest civil society organisation on the island of Ireland’. (And the neat differentiation between ‘State’ and ‘civil society’ that such a claim entails means we can leave to one side the question of just how much unions form part of the State). For most people, I suspect, ‘civil society’ just means ordinary people, neither government officials nor politicians, ‘civil’ with a hint of the sense of being unthreatening and accommodating, with jovial handshakes and dinner dances. Which is not really what Gramsci had in mind.

The reason I mention this, more as a lengthy translation note than anything else, is that the writer below, Rosa Cobo, says that the hour of civil society has arrived, and I would not want this to be translated as the hour of Blair Horan, Feargal Quinn and Angela Kerins.

Originally published in Público.

The Hour of Civil Society

The big problem in our country is not just that the right wing has gained a grip on the majority of institutional power or that it has decided to monopolise public television news in an antidemocratic swoop. The problem deep down is that the world’s right wing is using the economic crisis as an excuse to pare down social rights and cut back or eliminate policies of social welfare. This is not merely another crisis of capitalism but a new strategy of the economic and political right wing to eliminate welfare states and prevent countries which do not have them from being able to create similar models. We are not faced with an economic crisis like previous ones, but a change in the economic and social model that puts an end to Keynesian policies of redistribution and advances a shrinking of the state as an instrument for regulating the market and as a guarantor of social rights. Economic globalisation, new information technologies and the economic crisis are being skilfully exploited by capitalism in order to do away with social and economic rights that it agreed upon after the Second World War with the labour movement and which gave rise in Europe to welfare states. The results of this operation by capitalism and the political right wing that represents it have been on display for years: poverty wages become more widespread, as does informal work, unregulated contracts, part time work, and, moreover, poverty and survival jobs are feminised. And all this accompanied by widespread drops in wages for more than a decade and a lengthening of the working day. As if this were not enough, this reconversion of Keynesian capitalism into neoliberal capitalism is expelling millions of people from the labour market and widening the abyss of inequality.

But this is not the only problem. There is another one that we need to reflect on. And that is that the right wing is conducting an ideological offensive that is so effective and solidly articulated that it has managed to demobilise a large part of public opinion. So much so that neoliberal economic policies have invaded our lives and our heads to the point that even progressives accept ideological approaches from neoliberal discourse and argue for them as if they were processes for rationalising our networks for social well-being. Ultraconservative and neoliberal discourse has contaminated our way of analysing reality to the point that social mobilisations and strikes are presented to public opinion as if they were actions bordering on terrorism. The delegitimisation of social conflict is the resounding proof of the successful ideological offensive of the right. As if this were not enough, these policies are being shown to public opinion as if they were irreversible. And, nonetheless, we know that there is nothing irreversible in history.

Meanwhile, social democracy has proven spineless in its criticisms of neoliberal capitalism and has been incapable of offering an alternative for society that is qualitatively different from that of the right. And elsewhere, the most radical left has not been able to convince public opinion that its political proposals protect the weakest sectors of society and the middle classes. Faced with a panorama so inimical to the interests of broad sectors of society a rapid and effective collective response is needed. And for this we must organise ourselves peacefully and actively in civil society. We must put forward reasons and arguments so as to unmask a discourse and a practice that are leading us to a rise in inequality and the abandoning of millions of people to their fate. In moments such as these, civil society configures itself as a motor for social change. A plural civil society, with many voices, marked by a diversity of interests and ideological emphases, but which left parties are obliged to listen to. Now, plurality must not be an obstacle for articulating a minimum set of demands that confronts the perverse policies that serve the market and impoverish wide sectors of society. We must go on the ideological offensive and engage in rational combat, always peacefully, with proposals and reasoning, against the discourses and the policies that are leading us into a rise in inequality. It is a question of articulating a collective response that lays manifest that neoliberalism is not the end of histoty and that another history is possible. This is the hour of civil society.


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