In recent weeks, enemies of civil society, especially those from the decadent government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) have attacked some leaders of civil society as being too political. These enemies of civil society are not alone. Civil society leaders also increasingly hear their friends complaining that they are becoming too political. In expressing very clear and strong opinions about political developments, some civil society leaders are supposedly abandoning their civil society stance and entering directly into the realm of politics.
These criticisms and concerns are revealing for two reasons. First they show the extent to which politics has been discredited in the Philippines. Second they betray a lack of understanding regarding the essential role of civil society in a country.
On Being Political
On the first point, the Philippines has suffered so much from bad politics for decades that many Filipinos no longer see its rightful and appropriate role in Philippine society. A number of analysts reinforce these criticisms by using derogatory terms to describe the political system in the country. These include such terms as “trapo” democracy or one run by dirty “traditional politicians”, elite democracy, “cacique democracy”, oligarchic democracy, clientelist electoral system, bossism, and other similar terms.
It therefore comes as no surprise that there is an almost automatic association between the word, “politician”/”politics” and “disgraceful” or “dirty”. Hence to be branded as “political” means to be power-hungry, greedy, selfish, and corrupt. That there are good, innovative, and effective public servants, albeit a minority, are almost totally forgotten in the accusation of being too “political”.
Two Basic Tasks of Civil Society
On the second point, it is useful to remember the essential nature of civil society. TruthForce!, along with many others, views civil society as a cultural phenomenon. As such civil society has two basic tasks: self-defense of culture and the creative advancement of culture. Both tasks are essential and complementary. And one cannot do without the other. These are the two legs upon which civil society walks. In this way, civil society is like the human body. The catabolic processes break down what has to die and fights off dangerous tendencies in the organism. While the anabolic processes build up and strengthen our physical body.
Civil society needs to defend culture from three sources of decadence: from within itself, from decadent political initiatives, and from predatory business practices. These three kinds of self-defense are connected with the three sources of power and dynamics in any society: culture, politics and the economy. In practice this means that civil society has to criticize any cultural, political, or economic initiative, movement, and/or institution that becomes a destructive force in society.
In cultural life this means the self-critique of civil society when, at appropriate moments, it turns its attention to morally bankrupt Church practices, commercialized academic initiatives, corruption among NGOs, and cowardly attitudes by foundations. In connection with both the economic and political spheres, civil society criticizes political and economic institutions from the outside, as a kind of check-and-balance in society.
Given its defensive task, civil society clearly cannot avoid strong criticisms especially in situations where the state or the market has become abusive of basic human rights of the citizens of a country. When it does engage in such a criticism, it does so from the vantage point of an independent cultural force and not directly within the dynamics of political and economic life itself.
However, criticism and defense alone, no matter how crucial, cannot create a better society or a new world. Society is in need of new ideas, new worldviews, new values, and new norms from which to address challenges and realize emergent possibilities. This is where civil society’s constructive role comes in, giving grand strategic perspectives to inspire the day-to-day activities of society and helping draw out the deepest potentials in human beings. And, often, this means accentuating the positive aspects of societal life and using these to transform existing challenges as well as open new horizons into the future.
It is also in this constructive context that civil society reaches out from within its cultural context to potential strategic allies in the state and the market for the greater good of society. This is the process of social threefolding which assumes the autonomy and agency of civil society. In social threefolding, the three societal powers (civil society, state, and market) recognize the importance of pooling talents, time, and resources, where appropriate, to organize a grand coalition for the eradication of poverty, the advancement of integral sustainable development, and the overcoming of other great societal challenges.
Thus civil society lives in tension between its two basic tasks. At one point of time and circumstance, civil society may see the need to criticize and defend culture and society. At another time and under a different set of conditions, it may praise and even support the very institutions it has criticized. Civil society thus remains flexible and creative in both its duties. And in this balance, in this active middle, civil society lends its cultural power to the creation of new possibilities in society. Already a number of sociologists have noted the essential role of civil society in the emergence of societal innovations.
This tension is reflected in the coverage of TruthForce! news, features, and editorials. When TruthForce!, as a cultural initiative, criticizes the rotten, repressive and violent government of GMA, TruthForce! is defending the cultural sphere from the decadence and corruption of the political sphere of society. When it covers positive developments like Karangalan and other similar initiatives, then TruthForce! is emphasizing its constructive role as a civil society organization.
In the end, society-at-large can only be grateful for civil society organizations and movements that risk, especially in the Philippine context, being called “too political” or worse, being harassed, repressed, or even executed. For democracy requires the active presence of civil society, of active and reflective citizens. It has been the world’s historical lesson that true democracy cannot function without the active involvement and participation of civil society, albeit as an independent and autonomous force outside the state. And should this active presence be construed as being “too political” in the derogatory sense, then this is but a small price to pay for defending true democracy and the future possibilities of a country.