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Civil Society in Question

by Jamie Swift

According to Jamie Swift, defining the term “civil society” is like trying to pin jelly to the wall. This particular jelly is as much in vogue these days as terms like stakeholder, collateral damage, and market correction.

Swift, a contributor to CBC Radio’s Ideas and author of works including Wheel of Fortune: Work and Life in the Age of Falling Expectations, makes a noble effort to define this slippery concept, but it keeps getting away from him. Indeed, in a world that spends more on golfing than it does on children’s social programs, the definition of civil society – ironically – includes both those organizations for whom a life on the links represents the highest social good, as well as those that try to help the 1.3 billion people living on less than a dollar a day.

Swift presents a historical analysis of the economic and social forces that have given rise to the idea of a civil society. This concept is at once praiseworthy for its practice in Bangladeshi agricultural co-operatives, yet dangerously deceptive when praised by right-wing forces who view the volunteer “charity” groups comprising civil society as the logical choice to replace state-subsidized social supports.

This book is not for the politically faint-of-heart; the material can be fairly dense. Compounding this is a choppy presentation style, which wavers from political essay to radio script. Yet for those willing to wade through, there are numerous moments of insight, along with remarkable stories of “third world” victories over megaprojects and colonial exploitation.

Ultimately, civil society at its best represents the opening of democratic space and true people’s power in a world dominated by the seeming omnipotence of fast-moving capital.

The real challenge is whether self-serving corporate giants or members of peasant food co-operatives shall rightly claim this amorphous “jelly” as their own.