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Billy King


Nonviolence News



These are regular editorials produced alongside the corresponding issues on Nonviolent News.

Issue 173: October 2009

Democratic definitions and deficits

Part 2: The role of civil society

In the last issue’s Editorial we considered some of the questions regarding voting systems and governmental accountability. In this editorial we will look primarily at the role of civil society – but this is both for its own sake, and for the relationship which it has, or should have, to governmental structures.

‘Democracy’ is not possible without a vibrant civil society which is made up of a variety of different sectors including trade unions, community groups, voluntary groups, campaigning organisations and so on. Indeed, when democracy is failing at a central, governmental level (as it did in Northern Ireland) then these are the kinds of bodies which fill in with both service and representational functions. In a divided society this is especially important because otherwise there can be a total fracture in society leading to brutal and violent conflict; the fact that the Troubles in Northern Ireland did not descend to all out warfare can be attributed in a considerable measure to the work of these bodies.

Without freedom to organise for such civil society bodies, democracy is a sham even if it includes relatively free elections. While ‘government’ may be considered the apex of the representational democracy model, the power of governments is limited by a number of factors, including the failure of electoral systems to represent people’s views, and these limiting factors can act in a positive or a negative way depending on what government is attempting to do. A healthy civil society is also an essential for democracy and should not be considered an ‘also ran’ in the democratic stakes; governments may ignore certain issues, or be relatively powerless to do anything about others, e.g. according to the political and economic system, the power over financial and multinational corporations may be limited, rightly or wrongly. It is these groups who pick up on issues and run with them, garnering support from the wider public where possible and attempting to influence governments as well, perhaps, as dealing with issues directly; e.g. trade unions act to both defend individual workers and to defend workers collectively in the economic and political melee of society.

Civil society has the right to be listened to by governments in a democracy. The extent to which governments actually listen and respond is a good indicator of the health of a democracy. Governments make the decisions at the highest level in the system, sometimes hard decisions, and they have the buck stopping on their desks, but if sensible (both morally and pragmatically to avoid later crises) they will pay attention to grass roots opinion and, where possible, make adjustments. The fact that the Irish government ploughed ahead with the planned route of motorway near Tara, and has been unable to compromise over the gas pipeline route in Mayo, does not say much for the listening and adaptability skills of certain politicians. In Northern Ireland the laudable aim of getting rid of the iniquitous and unjust “11+” exam has descended into complicated farce for a variety of reasons; strong division on the issue (reflecting the religious/political divide to some extent) is one factor but so is what would seem an inability to properly involve all concerned in searching for suitable ways out of a shambolic brick wall.

Pressure groups cannot always get their own way for a variety of reasons including lack of resources. However governments tend to be hidebound by both the limitations of their own political ideology and by taking pragmatic, minimalist responses to the issues at hand. This is where civil society comes in with vision, vision for a future which is different, which cares, and which acts as a challenge to staid governmental models. Governments tend to see the current situation and say, almost rhetorically, “What’s wrong with that?”, and think about tweaking it, whereas civil society tends to look at what’s wrong and ask how a better model can be implemented. In facing the coming ecological crisis it is the latter model which is needed, apart from any issues of social justice.

In the current situation, governments tend to want to restore the ‘status quo ante’ the financial crisis, while pressure groups are more likely to have a vision of what is needed. Financial constraints are usually cited as reasons for inaction while what is required is designing what needs to happen and then asking, “how do we get the resources to do this?”. It is a fundamentally different approach.

The clientelism so prevalent in politics in the Republic is another aspect of a failing and underdeveloped political system which makes a mockery of both party politics and citizens. ‘Clientelism’ is where citizens are dependent on party political intervention to get services to which they are entitled (or, in some cases, not entitled). State services should be provided on the basis of rights and, where it is possible that rights are denied, by appeal to an independent body which has no party political makeup. Party politicians should have no role in assisting their constituents to get services; where there are gross infringements of citizen’s rights they should certainly be entitled to take up issues at a parliamentary or council level, and at a parliamentary level have the wider ability to reframe policy. Failure to grasp this nettle has led to many of the planning and other scandals which have emerged over recent years in the Republic.

Civil society is not elected and sometimes not electable, for a variety of reasons. But the idea that democracy resides only in voting every few years is a nineteenth century concept which is well beyond its sell by date. Democracy is in the air we breathe (literally – Is it polluted?). Democracy is in the decisions we make as citizens and consumers. Democracy is in the time we invest as volunteers and change agents. Democracy is in how we are treated in work (or unemployment), and what we work on. Civil society may not generally have the power that governments do but it is an inseparable part of a functioning democracy, and it should be valued as such.

The health of civil society, and the interaction between it and government are a good marker of how democratic a particular society is. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic have vibrant community and voluntary sectors. But if we take as a measuring stick how much attention the respective governments pay to these, both North and South have a long and probably winding road to travel.

- - - - - -

Eco-Awareness Eco-Awareness

Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Learning from Disasters

If you watched the September documentary on Channel 4 about the attack by Al-Qaida on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 you may like me have been captivated by the drama and disturbed by the huge death toll and the anguish that would have been felt by the family and friends of those who died.

The New Yorkers watching the tragedy unfold were in a state of fear and shock. What I found instructive was that even in the face of the fire and smoke, the wail of sirens, the live accounts given by TV and radio, those in the vicinity of the towers made no effort to take evasive action. When the upper floors of the South West Tower were engulfed by fire people watching the event on the TV screen in Times Square gasped in horror, some were angry while most were confused about what to do and seemed after a pause to go about their business. The authorities did not immediately order an evacuation of the areas likely to be affected by the collapse of the towers. The consequences of this lack of foresight was apparent when the South West Tower collapsed sending mountainous clouds of poisonous smoke, inevitably containing human tissue, gushing through the city. This was repeated with the collapse of the second tower.

This reaction to an unfolding disaster - disbelief, confusion, inaction and attempted recourse to normalcy - accurately reflects our response to climate change. Like the smoke and fire billowing out of the Twin Towers, climate change, as a direct result of human activity, is fact. Millions of people are already suffering from climate change. Witness the severe drought in Kenya and other East African countries. The long-term consequences of inaction are clear. If the temperature of our planet rises above 2 degree Celsius as against pre-industrial levels eco-systems will collapse bringing the downfall of industrial civilization. The point we have yet to grasp, including government officials preparing for the all important UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December, is that we are at the point where radical and decisive action concerning how we live can no longer be delayed.

The question, like that faced by New Yorkers who watched the Twin Towers burn, is what should we do? When we witness a disaster of enormous magnitude people are inclined to feel powerless and either turn away or look on in fascination. What the witnesses to the attack on the Twin Towers should have done is move as far away from them as quickly as possible rather than stand within close distance of the inferno gazing with a mixture of horror and awe.

With regard to climate change, the worst disaster of all-time, we should not watch passively as it unfolds but act to reduce the rate at which the planet is warming. One way we can do this is by joining the Guardian sponsored 10:10 campaign, which asks individuals, businesses and organisations such as schools and Local Councils to cut their carbon emissions by 10% in 2010 [ see].

Behaviour is value-based. This means that if we are to act to safe-guard our home planet Earth we have to expand our circumference of empathy to include people we don’t personally know as well as non-human beings. Our sense of care and responsibility has to be inclusive. We are not islands as we are socialised to believe but part of an intricate web of social, economic and environmental inter-dependences.

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