Civil Society, NGOs, and the Public Sphere

The great turning point in Marx’s work is his discovery that class relations traverse the whole capitalist society.  After working with categories he inherited from liberalism, such as the state and civil society, he made what he called an “anatomy of civil society” and therein encountered classes and class struggle.

In the last several decades, as democratic struggle gained weight again — after being underestimated, generally speaking, by the Left — the category of civil society reappeared.  By its very nature, it is opposed to the state and displaces class relations.  It is a return to classical liberalism, in parallel to the turn to liberalism on the economic front under the name of neoliberalism.

In the framework of this category, organizations of a distinct type came to take shelter, ranging from those closely tied to social movements and other forms of resistance to military dictatorship, to others that are very much ambiguous.  This amalgamation is possible because the category of civil society lends itself to it.  It means “what is not the state,” including, under this broad umbrella, agribusiness associations and rural workers’ associations, bank owners’ associations and bank employees’ associations, private school operators’ associations and student associations — even aside from other yet more problematic expressions of “civil society,” like drug traffickers, militias, etc., all of whom belong to “civil society.”

What all of them have in common is the lack of transparency: they proclaim themselves to be representatives of civil society, but they tend not to be transparent in elections of their leaders, origins of their funds, and forms of their decision-making.  Suffice it to see how easy it is to found one or more NGOs and file applications to receive public funds or simply to cover up shady business deals.

Besides ambiguity — not to mention bad faith — the definition of “non-governmental” is itself a problem.  This anti-government position easily joins neoliberal positions.  It has no limits in relation to “partnerships” with major private corporations and their foundations, while defining its frontier limits against the state.

With the reappearance of liberalism came the powerful resurgence of its vision of democracy and the state.  Democracy came to mean the limitation of and external control over actions of the state, which was said to be, by definition, the central enemy of democracy, whose constitutive elements were made out to be individuals congregated in civil society.

Then the question would be how to control the state by civil society, to guarantee democracy.  The more state, the less democracy, which is how neoliberalism sells its theory of the minimal state.  Limit the state, so that the market may assume centrality.  In theory, the central role would be played by civil society, which, in reality, barely masks the market.

This negative conception of the state abandons the path of democratization of the state.  It is a liberal conception, reactivated by the idea of control over the state by civil society — represented by NGOs and other associations that seek to play the role of representing it.

The most advanced policy for democracy building in Brazil was participatory budgeting, which strengthened the public sphere from within the state itself, to the detriment of commercial interests.  Democratic struggle is not external to the state but traverses it.  Within the state, distinct, even contradictory, interests are represented, the same contradictory interests that cut across society.

Separating the two, in liberal fashion, misses this fundamental aspect of the reality: everything is traversed by social determinations.  Civil society is a fiction, just as the state that is put in opposition to it — all without class determinations in liberal theory.

To democratize is to decommodify, to affirm the public sphere to the detriment of the commercial sphere.  To democratize is to strengthen the role of citizens to the detriment of the role of consumers.  To democratize is to bring democratization into the very heart of the state.

Emir Sader is a Brazilian sociologist.  The original article “Sociedade civil, ONGs e esfera pública” was published by Carta Maior on 20 November 2011.  Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at]

var idcomments_acct = ‘c90a61ed51fd7b64001f1361a7a71191’;
var idcomments_post_id;
var idcomments_post_url;

| Print