Civics Against Politics: A Pre-Revolutionary Situation?
“They also serve who only stand and wait” — (John Milton, On His Blindness)
It seems to me that there have been an increasing number of articles of late on the democratic deficit, the crisis of politics and the emergence of what is being called “post-democratic society“. Such problems were anticipated decades ago but nothing was done to address them. However, this current crisis of politics may not be such a bad thing in the long run.
The most recent article from The Observer’s Peter Beaumont raises the issue again, and is the occasion for this post on politics and civics. It is revealing, I think, how these two categories of “politics” and “civics” have become estranged from one another. At one time, civics and politics were virtually synonymous. To be civically engaged was to also be politically engaged at a time when “public service” still had some meaning. Where “civics” was taught in public school it was as preparation for the student’s future role as a full citizen of the country.
Lately, though, a major breech has emerged between “the political class” (or the power elite, in C. Wright Mills’ phrase) and what is now called “civil society” which attests to their increasing mutual estrangement. This, today, seems to me the chief feature of the crisis of politics and electoral democracy. In the social discourse of the day “civil society” has come to mean a distinct and separate entity from the state and its institutions.
One aspect of this growing crisis of politics and the democratic state is the mass disengagement, principally of the young, from electoral politics. In Canada recently the participation rate has plummeted, which has occasioned a good deal of hand-wringing amongst the members of the fifth estate. Pollsters who have undertaken to discover why the young (principally) do not participate in the formal system of governance selection have reported nothing more enlightening than that the majority response was simply “not interested”. Well, “not interested” can mean many things. It’s about as vague an answer as one could expect. It’s a non-answer, really. “Not interested” could just as well mean “bugger off!” We have to wonder what question was asked and what range of responses were allowed. Yet the pundits jumped all over this vague majority response of “not interested” as if they knew exactly what it meant — apathy — and that the primary fault for the growing dysfunctionality of electoral democracy and the system of governance selection lay with those who were merely “not interested” enough to participate in the collective political ceremony of voting.
They didn’t ask whether “not interested” might signal a growing crisis of legitimacy of the entire political order and of the system of governance selection. They didn’t ask, for example, whether those who were “not interested” responded that way not so much from apathy but from antipathy. They didn’t ask either whether those who responded with “not interested” might be engaged and invested otherwise in civics — politics by other means, as it were — through membership or simple support of what is now called “civil society” groups, because civil society is now a parallel politics competing with the official party-based political system. None of those pertinent questions seem to have been asked.
My sense is that a good deal of those “not interested” respondents are not disengaged from community and civic life, and may well participate and contribute to the public welfare in ways that the pundits and pollsters don’t recognise as “politics” in the formal and habitual way they understand. The crisis of party politics and of electoral democracy may be, instead, the rise and assertion of civil society and civil society groups which, far from forming new political parties, come together in coalitions for specific tasks which then disband once those political and social tasks are accomplished.
This, in fact, may be the incipient form that politics and public life will take in the planetary era. Far from forming established national political parties around defined ideologies, the politics of civil society may be — and presently are, in fact — temporary arrangements and alliances designed to accomplish certain social and political tasks that even transcend ideology and other borders, but which never come to form a “system” or ideology as such. There are already many groups like this, and the whole global Occupy movement was also an interesting (some say unprecedented) model of this.
In effect, “civil society,” as it is now called, constitutes a parallel extra-parliamentary opposition to the conduct of business- or politics-as-usual and which, by its very existence, and by its estrangement and alienation from state institutions and partisan politics, suggests a pre-revolutionary situation. Classical authors never made a distinction between civic, or public, life and formal political service to the nation. The only time such a distinction has been made is during revolutionary times. Whenever there has emerged such a sharp distinction between “politics” and “civics” in history — and by whatever other terms they might have been known — it suggested a growing dissatisfaction with, and delegitimisation of, the political classes and political institutions of the day.
“Not interested” may not be what it seems.