Act: Inspiration

Whatever Happened to Civil Society?

April 6, 2018

At the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, ‘civil society’ is referenced in virtually every presentation and fireside conversation. The world, it seems, no longer consists of two sectors—public and private, state and market—there is a third: NGOs and INGOs, charities and philanthropists, human rights watchdogs, aid and development agencies and global environmental campaigns to name but a few. The ‘Third Sector’ has arrived, and Its CEOs now mingle seamlessly with those from banks, energy companies, media giants and government agencies.

The problem with this embrace of ‘civil society’ is that it bears little resemblance to what civil society actually is or means. Most of civil society is not constituted formally or headed up by a CEO. Just 40 years ago, very few not-for-profits or charities had CEOs at all: that term was associated with the corporate sector, and few community groups or charities had even contemplated mimicking the language and culture of such a different sphere. But in just four decades all this has changed, and it has changed at an extraordinarily rapid rate, with very little public discussion or scrutiny of the enormity of the organizational transformation involved and its social and political impact.

The absence of public debate is partly attributable to the complexity of the social sector and its diverse forms and purposes. Some parts of the sector identify as NGOs while others rely on informal social bonds and practices. Some have representative ‘peak’ bodies but many do not. Some identify as part of a Third Sector but most are unfamiliar with this term. Fewer still understand themselves to be part of the ‘civil society’ that is now routinely referred to in UN management-speak and business discourse.

The principal factor, however, in driving both the transformation of the social sector and the relatively low level of critical public debate about it has been the global rise of the managerial class and its capture of much of the not-for-profit world. In the wake of the 1960s/1970s social movements, governments invested heavily in a plethora of welfare state programs and services, and universities churned out an army of social science practitioners with an insatiable demand for things to manage.

Not-for-profits and charities were easy pickings, so voluntary associations of all kinds were transformed into instruments of service delivery, ‘community representation’ and ‘therapeutic welfare’ in the public interest. Traditional bodies such as the Red Cross, the YMCA, church missions and voluntary health societies fell like dominos to ‘management capture’ and quickly became unrecogniseable to those who knew them a generation before.

To be sure, there was resistance to this process, but it was sporadic, weak and disorganised, much like the resistance of indigenous cultures to colonising empires. The victorious managerial class had no interest in trumpeting its takeover of these voluntary associations, or in promoting critical discussion of this process; hence the conspicuous lack of public scrutiny of the not-for-profit sector and its transformation. That is, until now.

In Australia, there are 700,000 voluntarily-formed community organisations. Of these, just 35,000 or five per cent are run by professional managers; the other 95 per cent are entirely voluntary in character, with no paid staff. Should any Australian not-for-profit be invited to Davos, you can be certain that it would be one of the small minority that are run by paid managers.  The rest don’t register on the radar screens of public and private sector executives. The five per cent do almost all of the public talking about civil society, and impose their own self-understanding and culture on the sector as a whole.

Furthermore, outside of these 700,000 formal community organizations there’s a vast array of additional social forms—family and kinship networks, neighbourhoods, friendship circles and informal support groups. These too are part of civil society, as are faith and religious associations and a broad range of micro-economic units constituted as family businesses, family farms, and household production and trading entities.

This vast array of social relationships and associations is what constitutes civil society. It is made up of the things we do as ‘civilians’, freely and voluntarily, in association with others, outside of the state and the market. Social well-being is largely determined in and through our relationships in this civil sphere, which are personal and horizontal in nature. By contrast, state-citizen relationships are vertical and coercive, while business-customer interactions are (usually unequal) monetary exchanges.

Our experience of love, care and belonging are formed by our relationships in the civil sphere, not by the state or the market. Our lives are subsequently shaped, battered and sometimes improved by the state and the market, but the primary formation of our unique selves and our values is the work of civil society.

Given the importance of civil society to our personal and social life, how is it possible that the Great and the Good at Davos can confuse all this with the CEOs of NGOs? In fairness, they are reflecting wider trends that have been developing for decades, and which have privileged the NGO component of this universe. This is not an accident. When the larger NGOs began speaking the same language as the managerial elites of the public and private sectors, they were embraced as long lost cousins. The rest of civil society—the  dispersed and anonymous mix of relational ties and associations that shape our personal and social lives—is  invisible to politicians, governments and public policy elites.

Ironically, the official recognition of civil society by these elites is an impediment to civil society’s regeneration. Instead of re-discovering the diversity of civil society and its importance for nurturing personal and social well-being, the Great and the Good have embraced a reductive, hollowed-out, managerial definition while ignoring the continued incursion of states and markets into the civil sphere of life.

The fact is that centralised states and concentrated markets are corroding civil society and colonizing the all-important voluntary and relational components of social life. In higher-income countries, many not-for-profit organisations have been turned into service delivery instruments for the state. In lower-income countries, a large proportion of NGOs have become instruments for the delivery of foreign aid. In both settings, transactional dealings have overturned relational models of functioning. NGOs drawn into these processes have become corporatised beyond recognition and detached from their founding purpose and culture.

What then is to be done? One thing is clear: regulation is not the answer. Government regulators tend to be drawn from the same managerial culture that has overtaken the not-for-profit sector, and they have a habit of reproducing that culture in their diagnoses.

Nor is reform likely to come from established political movements of Left or Right. In the transformations of the last 40 years civil society was ignored across the political spectrum. It had few defenders against the colonisations of state and market. For its part, the Left was quite comfortable with the capture of civil society by the post-1970s managerial class, because this generation of managers tended to identify with the political Left: the capture of civil society was one component of Rudi Deutschke’s now largely completed “Long March through the Institutions.”

But the Right was equally comfortable with the rise of the managerial class: it embraced extensions of managerial culture across charities, universities, philanthropy, religious and sporting bodies under the promise of more ‘efficiency’, leaner management and better business discipline in areas thought to need these changes. In a very real sense, Left and Right combined in driving the anti civil society revolution.

It is now clear that the regeneration of civil society can come only from civil society itself—from  citizens, volunteers, residents, carers, neighbours, parents, activists, mentors and donors—whose  agency and participation in social life is voluntary, associational and relational in character, and is therefore free from vested industry interests. But can such a diverse universe get organised and mobilised sufficiently to do the job?

For a long period civil society itself was poorly conceptualized and lacked a self-generated leadership capable of articulating its critical importance to personal and social well-being. This made it very vulnerable to capture by the managerial class in the four decades that followed the 1970s. In part, the decentralized and diffuse nature of civil society made it difficult to connect and organise its various constituent parts.

Today, in an age of distributed networks and powered by the internet, the costs and logistical difficulties of linking disparate components together have more chance of being overcome. It may be possible to connect vast social constituencies anchored in communities, with deep pools of cultural and intellectual resources, and extensive networks of networks, without imposing centralized direction or top-down regulation.

Intellectually, it is possible to conceptualise a common voice and agenda for civil society around the authentic representation of itself in the public arena and a reversal of the power transfers from civil society to states and markets that have characterized much of the last century. Technologically, it is now much more feasible to activate this common voice and agenda.

Imagine the collective power of civil society if it organised itself in pursuit of this agenda. It would have the elites at Davos quaking in their boots.


Teaser photo credit: By World Economic Forum – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Vern Hughes

Vern Hughes is Director of Civil Society Australiaand Convenor of the Civil Society Movement.

Tags: building resilient societies, civil society