Last week we delved briefly into the growing global phenomenon of “closing civic space”. This week we discuss the reasons why authorities of all shapes—from dictatorships to some “old” democracies—are squeezing the space for civil society, including efforts to weaken trade unions, non-governmental organisations, environmental groups and indigenous peoples.
First, let’s note that closing civic space is actually a symptom of a larger problem, rather than the problem itself. If we get this, we can then address the problem effectively. Today there are numerous initiatives aiming to address the closing civic space issues, but these are like treating the headache that comes with malaria, rather than the malaria itself.
The end of the Cold War created a boom in the numbers and types of civil society organisations (CSOs). The polarising Cold War turned complex issues and grievances into black or white matters. Any dissenting ideas were seen through the lenses of East versus West. Thus, for instance, the nationalistic movement of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo that wrestled power and gained independence from the Belgians was seen as being pro-East because it refused to kowtow to the Belgians, and the West, at independence.
The impact of this polarisation meant that the patron states of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America defended and protected their client regimes vociferously and with the force of arms if necessary. Consequently, dissenters were often forced into underground movements that frequently also advocated the use of force to get their issues on the table, or to change regimes. And in so doing, the easiest option was to seek support from the opposing patron state.
The end of the Cold War opened up space for peaceful, non-violent dissent and organisations that now did not need to use force for change or to get their agendas discussed. Thus, indigenous peoples in Central America could demand recognition and the cessation of the pilferage of their lands without taking up arms and being labelled communists and pro-USSR. Similarly, pro-democracy groups could mobilise against pro-western states—as the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy did so gallantly in Kenya during the Moi regime—and not be labelled pro-Soviet.
Over time, progressive civil society organisations grew and learnt to be more effective, challenging the orthodoxy of the state and ensuring that authorities did not keep on looting, killing, and torturing with impunity and without challenge. This effectiveness at challenging the state is one of the major reasons why states are now closing down the space for civil society. In fact, in some countries, some civil society organisations have been credited (some say blamed) for regime change because they successfully mobilised disaffected millions to stand up against authoritarian rule and "lootocracies".
But as we say, corruption fights back, and in the case of effective CSOs in mobilising dissent and ordinary people in their thousands and millions, the powerful have been fighting back by trying to close the space. The fight against CSOs in this context is simply an effort by rulers to maintain power at all costs, continue looting their treasuries, and impose rule of “silence and fear” but with the clothing of some democratic norms.
Second, the end of the Cold War, somehow signaled to corporations and businesses that they could do whatever they wanted without regulation or care, as globalisation became the norm and states craved investments and jobs, no matter how low paying and how tenuous the employment. The result was that across the world, independent trade unions have been weakened as their space to organise has been diminished. In many countries the traditional tripartite system now has the state and employers on one side against workers, driving “market fundamentalism” and increasing inequality and frustration globally.
So what can be done? Clearly, there is a need for disadvantaged groups in this new world order to come together so that they can achieve the “power of the powerless”. CSOs and trade unions must learn to do things differently and do so peacefully and above board.
Dissent and resistance can’t be stopped forever, so it is in the interests of authorities to keep the space open. For the alternative to organised groups that work openly and peacefully is chaos and violence when some decide that underground methods, including violence, are better.