The role of civil society in post-corona world

The current crisis could prompt redistributive reforms akin to those triggered by the Great Depression, World War II

Sarwar Bari April 18, 2020
The Covid-19 situation is extraordinary, unprecedented and overwhelming. Hence, it demands an extraordinary response from us while raising several questions. Some include: will the post-corona world be different? If yes, then in what way? Isn’t it true that the ruling elites have failed and failed miserably? Isn’t it true that non-governmental organisations too are failing to have a united response? Will corona act as a “great leveler”? In my last column titled “Covid-19: The Beginning of the End”, I discussed the gigantic failure of the bourgeois states run by the champions of neo-liberal ideology. I also briefly mentioned the silence of the Western civil society. In this article, I will deal with the role of the civil society including NGOs and social movements in the making of the post-corona world.

First, let’s understand the concept of civil society. GWF Hegel (1770-1831) argued that “civil society is based on citizen’s freedom in the economic, political, social, cultural spheres.” According to a Russian scholar, Irina Ershova, for Hegel “the main idea of the civil society is an establishment of individual person’ s freedom.”

“Civil society is widely understood as the space outside the family, market (profit) and state (power).” As for social movements (i.e. labour movement, women’s rights movement, environment/climate change, etc) they are also part of the civil society like NGOs. This takes us back to the Hegelian notion of a “person’s freedom”. Therefore, civil society has to use the space (freedom) outside state and market in order to achieve its goals freely.

While associations serve the interests of its members, NGOs determine their role through their boards. Some opt for welfare, some choose community development, accountability, or human rights, etc. Interestingly, a large majority of NGOs become thematically hybrid a few years after their birth, swinging along the donors’ wind. As Western ruling elites became subservient to the interests of big business, global governance structures including UN agencies aggressively promoted the public-private partnership. Simultaneously, large corporations also established foundations and became donors too. Though accountability remained a buzz word of development sector rhetoric, NGOs were persuaded, first to engage with private and state bodies and then co-opted like a slow poising. Resultantly, they were turned into junior partners but in fact, they were extremely marginalised. Lucrative salary packages and huge projects and closeness to ruling elites blinded many leaders of CSOs of their strategic role. Sadly, they were often found to be happy with this suffocating situation. They even failed to read the writing on the wall.

States found the 9/11 incident and Arab Spring as great opportunities to shrink the space for civil society without any meaningful resistance as most of NGOs have already been co-opted. Resultantly, the independent civil society organisations also lost the grassroot support. And this has happened both in the developed and developing countries as surveillance and crackdown surged. Some scholars tend to blame the liberal and left of the centre political elites for creating inequalities, for shrinking the role of the state, for ruthless austerity and unemployment. This vacuum was quickly captured by the ultra-right, narrow-minded, xenophobic politicians from India to the US and Brazil. Their ascendency seemed to be complete in 2019.

But it proved to be a myth. Within weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, it evaporated in the air. Nobody imagined this even when China was struggling to contain the contagion. The managers of the neo-liberal economic and political model don’t know what to do. The state’s last resort has always been coercion. So, lockdown became the most popular tool from Italy to India. But deaths continued to increase beyond their imagination. This is indeed a gigantic failure of their economic and political model.

Like all disasters, the coronavirus too has brought an opportunity to “build-back-better”. Many scholars appear to believe the post-corona world may be different and better. This seems possible. However, it will heavily depend what role the civil society assumes now and later. Some activists and scholars have already started questioning the handling of the situation by governments and severely criticised austerity measures shying away from proposing alternatives. Perhaps, they don’t want to be seen as divisive during a colossal emergency. Don’t they know the large corporations and employers, while having billions in their treasures, have been pushing their ‘buddying’ governments for lucrative packages including tax exemptions and cash transfers? Yet, they didn’t stop them from sacking their employees. That’s immoral because it’s for greed and is unlawful. For instance, most private companies being contracted by WASA and other government departments have sacked many of their employees. On the other hand, governments (federal and provincial) have been keeping all employees and paying them salaries. There is a need to learn the difference between the state and private sector. While we appreciate the state, nothing is immoral in pointing out weaknesses in governance and demanding rights even during emergencies.

The concept of “building back better” must not be limited only to physical structures. As I mentioned above, this crisis has not only severely damaged the existing governance model, but has also paved the way to recapture its lost ground. Therefore, civil society should form a grand peoples coalition consisting of like-minded intelligentsia, civil society organisations, labour unions, political groups, women groups and youth, etc. They should particularly reach out to those who have suffered the most under the existing economic and political model of governance. The coalition may demand bigger role of the state in normal times; impose a special tax on the private sector for covering losses and wages during mega emergencies; develop a reform agenda and manifesto and present it for public debate (this may include constitutional and electoral reforms, comprehensive reforms: labour, agrarian, industrial, and environmental, etc); build a consensus on non-negotiable points through internal dialogue; and present the final manifesto to political parties for adoption. The Grand Peoples Coalition should strategise how to build pressure on ruling elites for the change.

Walter Scheidel’s book, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Ages to the Twenty-First Century, argues how pandemics, warfare, revolution and state collapse levelled income inequalities. In his recent op-ed, “The Wealthy Fear Every Pandemic”, he observes, “elites did not readily cede ground, even under extreme pressure after a pandemic. Today America faces a fundamental choice between defending the status quo and embracing progressive change. The current crisis could prompt redistributive reforms akin to those triggered by the Great Depression and World War II, unless entrenched interests prove too powerful to overcome.”

His observation is true about most countries including ours. It all depends how much effort is employed by those longing for change. The state had already levelled the ground in 1973. Just read article 38 of your Constitution. “The State shall secure the well-being of the people, irrespective of sex, caste, creed or race, by raising their standard of living, by preventing the concentration of wealth and means of production and distribution in the hands of a few.” In order to make it a reality, the civil society must liberate itself from the influence of big business. 

Published in The Express Tribune, April 18th, 2020.

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