Civil Society in Question

170 pages,
ISBN: 1896357245

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Brief Reviews - Political Theory
by Martin Loney

Jamie Swift's Civil Society in Question (Between the Lines, 170 pages, $16.95 paper) offers a discursive, well-informed overview of the tortuous debates over civil society.

"Civil society" refers to the activity of citizens and voluntary organizations that is undertaken independently of the state and that is not directed primarily at making a profit. Among development activists, the term has become a buzzword for the nineties. The attraction may lie in its lack of specificity that enables CIDA bureaucats and Liberal politicians to join together with progressive NGOs to achieve a better world, without engaging in acrimonious discussions about the widely divergent goals that underpin such ventures.

The book originated at a conference organized by the South Asia Partnership and funded by a range of government agencies. One prescient observer described the task of making sense of the concept of civil society as "trying to pin multi-coloured jelly to a wall". Swift, whose interest is in its wider purpose in extending democracy and reducing inequality, makes a valiant effort; but the concept remains amorphous.

Swift recognizes the complex relationship between civil society and the state, but his analysis of the Canadian situation is unconvincing. He cites the sharp decline in government funding for Canadian lobby groups, claiming that the cuts "have reduced funding for representation". In fact, such cuts may actually encourage genuine representation. The mandate of many of those funded rests less on any grassroots support than on government sponsorship. The National Action Committee on the Status of Women, for example, claims to speak for three million Canadian women, a sizeable proportion of the adult constituency. Threatened with the removal of their government grant, NAC's response was not to call on its supporters to contribute (though at even five dollars a head, the result would have been impressive), but to threaten to close up shop.

Canadian civil society is too closely embedded in an incestuous relationship with the state, with damaging consequences for the vigour of public debate. Autonomous organizations funded by their members provide a more authentic democracy than the plethora of government-financed groups who claim to represent an endless array of constituencies. Such a conclusion, however, is not likely to emerge from a government-funded initiative. 

Martin Loney is a former General Secretary of Britain's National Council for Civil Liberties. His latest book is The Pursuit of Division: Race, Gender and Preferential Hiring in Canada (McGill-Queen's University Press).


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