This is the final installment of a six-part series that I wrote for, the official online source for the Investigative Journalists of Armenia. The English-language editor posted this article on April 4, 2011. It appears here with only slight changes.

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by Markar Melkonian


The victorious uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt bring honor to the peoples of these countries and inspire respect all the way to Armenia and beyond. A couple of despots are in forced retirement now, and Tunisians and Egyptians have a right to expect marginally greater accountability from the people who claim to represent them. In both countries, of course, “deep states”—that is to say, the entrenched military and security apparatuses--remain intact. Still, the young people in the streets and the squares, with their hundreds of martyrs, have revealed the vulnerability of decades-old tyrannies that have made up this part of the “Free World.”

Once again, history has blind-sighted the Western “intelligence” agencies, with their hundred-billion dollar budgets, their satellites, their computer forecasting models, and their legions of analysts, spies, and internet monitors. After the demonstrators in the public squares had gotten the upper hand, some pundits in the West pretended to celebrate the uprisings as victories for something they call civil society. But to skeptics, these forced celebrations look a lot like intellectual damage control.


Where Is this Famous Civil Society?

In Egypt and Tunisia today, as in Armenia twenty years ago, civil society is supposed to be leading the charge down the road towards the American Way of Life. There are opposition groups in Tunis, Cairo, and Alexandria, and there are unions and youth groups, too. There are streets and squares, Facebook and Twitter. There were also operatives of Mubarak’s Mukhabarat, and there is the army. But where and what in all of this is that famous alleged something called “civil society”?

As soon as the question is posed, the answer is forthcoming: civil society is the sum of all of these voluntary associations, minus the Mukhabarat and the army. The pundits inform us that civil society is comprised of civic groups, NGO’s, independent newspapers, employers’ associations, and of course chambers of commerce.

But if civil society were merely a medley of voluntary associations, then it’s hard to understand why we hear on all sides that a vibrant civil society is the goal of any well-run country these days. The answer, it seems, is that civil society is not merely an assortment of associations; rather, it is a special sphere of activity for these associations--a sphere that somehow swings free of the power and influence of state institutions.

This is the substantive claim about civil society, and this is what makes the term (at least as it is used these days) so dubious. In the course of examining this claim, we should try to get a better grip on the term.

Comparing the pamphlets, websites, and conference papers of champions of civil society, one gets the impression that they have a problem just getting their story straight. For example, one spokesman for a well-funded foundation dedicated to “strengthening civil society” in Armenia repeats the claim that civil society is common to all modern nations; meanwhile, a spokesman for another setup similarly dedicated to “civil society strengthening” in Armenia declares that “most democracies do not have civil societies.”

The latter have a point: voluntary associations, official and informal, are LEAST insulated from state power precisely in the countries with the most highly developed economies. For one thing, large corporations in these countries are seamlessly connected in one hundred ways with state institutions and policy. Consider for example, fiscal and monetary policy in the USA and elsewhere, or the enormous public subsidies to corporations, and the role of the state in credit markets. Or consider the role of corporations in campaign financing, lobbying, regulatory agencies, and policy planning. Or the enormous public subsidies to private industry, including those of the military-industrial complex. Or the constant monitoring--by interconnected agencies, public and private--of telephones, the internet, and the very social networks that technology geeks celebrate one-sidedly as great strides forward for the free exchange of ideas.


A Fairytale Realm beyond State Power

The term “civil society” is even more confusing when we compare the ways it is used today to earlier meanings. For John Locke, “the Father of Liberalism,” “civil society” was synonymous with “political society.” But these days, as we have seen, conference speakers typically contrast “civil society” to “political society” in one way or another.

The picture of an apolitical civil society is propagated globally by so-called “nongovernmental organizations” that often are themselves projections of foreign state power. One might consider, for example, the big roles of USAID, the US State Department, and the Millennium Challenge Fund in the Republic of Armenia.

Foreign aid is an instrument of foreign policy. Technocrats are trained to deny the point, but every now and then, in unguarded moments of frankness, their own bosses refute them. In the run-up to the latest war against Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State Collin Powell described NGO’s as a “force multiplier” for the U.S. military. NGO’s, he said, were part of “our combat team.” Foreign aid was one of the carrots in the bag of bribes and threats that the U.S. Department of State swung around to bash Armenia into the shameful Coalition of the Willing in Iraq.

Civil society is supposed to be a realm free of ideology. And yet it does not refer to anything outside the realm of officially sponsored ideology. Ironically, then, those who promote the picture of an apolitical private sphere are themselves engaging in the most political of rhetoric.


The Free Market and Unions

Another common assumption about civil society is that it includes the capitalist market as a crucial institution. Websites, pamphlets, and conference papers about “strengthening civil society” typically give the impression that the free market is necessary for civic responsibility and for the personal freedom of voluntary association. But for Locke and his predecessor Thomas Hobbes, civil society did not contain the market. It was a later thinker, the German philosopher GWF Hegel, who reconceived civil society as a “system of needs” that includes the market. Hegel’s conception, filtered through more recent writers, comes closest to the usual usage of the term by professional conference speakers these days. But for Hegel, civil society was subsumed within the larger universality of the state, which he called “t he march of God in the world.”

We’ll leave it to the champions of civil society to sort this mess out if they can. But it is clear at least that the term “civil society” hides more than it reveals, including the reality of constant and pervasive state intervention in the economy and the fact that state institutions and corporate power today are inseparable.

Precisely because it is such a muddle, the term civil society is well-suited for the purposes of taking up conference time and spreading confusion among potentially critical intellectuals in places like Yerevan.

In fact, today’s champions of civil society have helped to make the term even vaguer. A case in point: historically, workers’ unions have been prime examples of voluntary associations. Hegel’s followers recognized them as such, and so did beneficiaries of U.S. State Department funding, when it came to their Solidarity union in Poland. Nowadays, however, the capitalists are in power in Poland, Solidarity is a shadow of its former self, and the champions of “civil society” appear to be too concerned about “small businesses” and “the private sector” to bother with workers’ unions.

Indeed, some influential and well-funded civil society institutes are explicitly hostile to labor unions. The official literature of more than one such institute in the USA, for example, gives the impression that strengthening “private associations” entails defeating labor unions. Other champions of civil society, notably the World Bank, have distinguished themselves as enemies of self-organized workers. In the words of one supposedly non-ideological champion of civil society, “there is no room in a civil society for labor union activity.”

Here civil-society talk is clearly part of a larger effort to legitimize the tyranny of the rich. If in Yerevan champions of voluntary associations wish to distance themselves from such an effort, then let them demonstrate their sincerity by helping to build a strong labor movement in Armenia.

Civil-society talk is as fashionable these days as droopy pants, and to subject it to skeptical examination is to run the risk of being misunderstood. We do not wish to impugn human rights activists in Armenia who work within institutions that advertise themselves as “supporters of civil society.” There is no question that individual liberties and the rights of the citizens--including the rights to public assembly and the freedom of association--must be defended and extended against the mounting abuses of the state and of private firms and corporations that supposedly make up civil society. (And let it be noted that in country after country, LEFTISTS, not liberals, have been the first to fight and die for these rights and liberties.)

But civil-society talk is a distraction from the struggle for freedom. It is part of an officially sponsored vocabulary that directs attention away from certain facts on the ground, notably the fact that there is a ruling class in Armenia; that it is waging a one-sided struggle against workers and the poor, and that Armenia’s rulers are brokers for foreign imperialists. Hocus pocus about civil society takes up conference time and grant money; it fills up air time and column inches to the exclusion of more plausible accounts, and it keeps mouths moving, thereby putting a brake on hands, feet, and imaginations. Moreover, because the supposed goal of building civil society is so uninspiring, it is a source of demoralization for well-intentioned native intellectuals.

Civil society-talk, therefore, is very useful for the imperialists and their brokers in places like Yerevan. But intellectuals in Armenia who do not benefit from imperialism should consider a different way of thinking.


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