Civic action and behaviour

Civil society is inconceivable without public opinion; public opinion is inconceivable without the media. But civil society is also about civil action, civil behaviour.

People have not changed in thousands of years. But in the last few centuries, people have become citizens. Everyone has human needs, concerns and worries, people act as people, as representatives of their culture according to customs and traditions. A traditional society is a society of people.

Civil society is a society of citizens. A person does not perform civic acts and actions all the time, but only in appropriate situations. These situations do not happen every day, not even every month. They occur from time to time. And not for everyone. People, simple people do not find themselves in civil situations, they pass by, or these situations bypass them.

Civil society ideologists rely on notions “the people”, “the whole people” and often misuse them. The whole people never comes out to demonstrations; the whole people never takes part in revolutions; individual groups of people revolt and individual citizens become involved in solving national and other political problems.

Citizens can involve other people in their collective actions, for whom those actions have a completely different meaning or no meaning at all.

The French revolutionaries mobbed the crowd to storm the Bastille. Who was in that crowd? Citizens? Not necessarily. They were just excited, angry people. Anger poured out in the storming of the Bastille, in the storming of the Winter Palace – it always pours out in some action like that. Good or bad, sensible or senseless. It is great if they are humane and civilized, not bloody and savage.

Civic action is somewhat different.

But first, let’s talk about the connection between public opinion and public behaviour and action. And this connection is manifested in different ways at all stages of the evolution of civil society.

  1. In the 18th century, the ideal of citizens, the educated part of society and revolutionaries was the direct democracy of Athens, republican Rome, and medieval urban communes.

But almost all of them understood that such democracy was no longer possible in the class society of absolutist monarchies.

Society at that time was rather complex. “The people” was already present as a category for a part of society, a larger part. But this category did not contain any indication of agency and political competence. It was not at all the same people as in the Athenian democracy, and not even the same people as in the Roman Republic. The people was taken into account only as elements, a mass of people capable of organising in crowds and doing something, which had to be reckoned with by the authorities and other constituents of society.

Actually, society was the “laity” – laical society. It took some effort to be part of the laical society – to “be introduced to the laity”. As a rule, it included a “high society”, which at first was identified with the court nobility, and later with upper strata in terms of property qualification and cultural capital. A poor poet, artist or scientist could be introduced to or “brought into the laity”. There were various circles, Masonic lodges, clubs or orders, guilds, secret societies and other societies which had survived since the Middle Ages.

Both “the laity” and “the people” were politically disenfranchised. Probably, except for England, where the nobility had political rights from the 13th century under the Bill of Rights. The Polish-Lithuanian nobility liberties was more of a medieval remnant. They did not meet the demands of the time. Being part of the laity did not mean anything, except for connections and acquaintances. Connections could open the way to clubs, from which political parties later grew.

In the 18th century, the popular crowds became an instrument of political struggle and political action. The Boston Tea Party and the storming of the Bastille were organised with the help of crowds.

The people in the crowd had an opinion. This is different from public opinion in the second half of the 19th century. Crowd opinion is a slogan that is picked up or a direction indicated for the use of force. Crowd opinion arises instantly when, amid emotional excitement, the crowd begins to chant a slogan planted by someone else. There is effectively no distance between the emergence of this “opinion” and the transition to action. A slogan or an appeal may instantly become an action.

This property of a crowd – an instant transition from words and opinions to action – is always valued by politicians and leaders. It was always considered very dangerous and unacceptable by thinkers and enlighteners (thinkers of the Enlightenment era). This was the ambivalent attitude of Immanuel Kant towards the French Revolution. He admired the values and aims of the revolution and resented the manifestations of mob revolt and their destructive behaviour.

  1. The organisation of society according to the principles of civil society, which took shape during the Enlightenment and became quite common in the 19th century, created a great distance between opinion and action. Some time had to pass from the formation of public opinion to its implementation in politics:
  • First, public opinion is formulated based on an individual opinion that has the potential to become popular. This too is a long process involving analytical work and criticism. Not so much according to Kant, but close to it; one can relate this stage to a critique of the power of judgement. Not all individual opinions may be accepted as judgments and not all private judgments may become a basis for public opinion;
  • The shaped public opinion has to go through public discussions according to the principle “score twice before you cut once”. Public opinion is always dialectical. Whatever the majority opinion may be, the majority itself is not a sufficient basis for adopting it as a basis for action. More often than not, the opposite is true: the majority opinion is the worst basis for political action and choice.

The ability of the crowd to shift instantly, without reflection or criticism, from opinion to action (from something on mind to something in kind) has often been used by the “laical public” and politicians in the struggle between factions, parties and approaches. But no one was going to allow the crowd (and basically all the people) to take long-term decisions and thorough political action. The crowd was used for destruction while creation was left to the upper classes.

Actually, after the liquidation of class barriers, these upper strata considered themselves to be a civil society. According to the results of reflection and comprehension of the Great French Revolution, civil society was identified with the bourgeoisie. Belonging to civil society was defined by property and cultural qualifications.

The bourgeoisie shared the values of democracy and the Enlightenment. On this basis, the right to vote was distributed as the main resource of democracy. Voting rights were granted to members of civil society (property owners and literate people capable of forming and criticising opinions and judgements before making a decision). The majority of the people, on the other hand, were disenfranchised.

The main lines of social division and socio-political conflict in the 19th century were:

  • Electoral rights;
  • Literacy and mass education.

Literacy and education were needed by all ruling classes in the context of the scientific-industrial revolution and industrialisation. But education led to the awareness of rights. Aware of their rights, the masses began to demand participation in governance to establish justice in the distribution of not only rights but also public goods.

The proletariat came to the fore and began to demand first a just distribution of public goods and then the right to vote to participate in the management of that distribution.

But some parties wanted the proletariat disenfranchised and destitute. They saw it as a “negative class”, as a potential huge crowd that could instantly go “from something on mind to something in kind”.

“The negative class”, or the class that has “nothing to lose but its chains”, is the main resource of the revolution. That is why it is negative, since it is only capable of destruction, of negative action. A fierce struggle has broken out over this resource, over the control of the “negative class”, between all kinds of political clubs, factions and parties. A mass of all kinds of words and slogans was hurled at the poor proletariat.

All sought influence over a class capable of rapidly organising itself into a crowd and creating an invincible social force. Preachers and demagogues from Christian prophets to anarchists, from Utopian socialists to the “scientific communists” Marx and Engels competed for this influence.

That competition for influence over the proletariat demanded the rapid spread of enlightenment and education of the class. That was the point of intersection of the interests of the revolutionaries and the bourgeoisie. A newspaper boom began. One-off leaflets, daily newspapers, magazines and miscellanies, pamphlets and books became the scene of political struggle. However, strikes, barricades, revolts and uprisings were not abandoned.

The ideological struggle for influence over the proletariat and the use of the proletariat as a “negative class” for their self-serving purposes to solve their political problems climaxed during the Paris Commune.

From that time the era of the dominance of bourgeois civil society began; the absolutist monarchies of Russia, Austria-Hungary and partly Germany continued to exist but became anachronistic.

During that period, the proletariat lost the qualities of a “negative class”, it became sufficiently educated and received electoral rights. And most importantly, it replenished civil society through its own clubs, parties and unions. Civil society becomes a “Tardian public” capable of criticism of any opinion.

The public could sometimes gather in crowds, but they were not the crowds capable of storming the Bastille, making revolutions and engaging in street fights anymore. The distance from opinion to action was expanding, and the rapid transition from words to actions was becoming very difficult. Some political forces were unhappy with this state of affairs. Future Bolsheviks, fascists and Nazis were yet to see their moment of glory.

Traditional society was living out its last decades. But archaic absolutist monarchies unleashed World War I.

  1. They lost the war. Absolutism was over. But who won that war?

The Russian monarchy fell first. But Russia did not have a strong civil society. Political forces came to power who managed to exploit the property of crowds – the instant passage from words to actions. All that mattered was to inculcate the simplest phrasing of opinion in society.

The Russian social democrats were very proud of the scientificity of their doctrine. But that doctrine was accessible only to a very narrow stratum, a small club. The members of that club called themselves “Bolsheviks”, “Mensheviks” and “professional revolutionaries”. They divided the rest of society into enemies (the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, the gentry) and the people (the proletariat and the peasantry, whom they viewed as a “negative class”, as a resource for quickly gathering crowds and pushing these crowds to destruction – “The earth shall rise on new foundations”). What should happen next was not communicated to the people, but substituted with ringing slogans. From 1917 onwards, civil society was abolished in Russia and totalitarianism set in. Radio and cinema substituted education; labour armies substituted society; battles for the harvest and labour records substituted everyday work.

In another defeated monarchy, republican rule and democracy are initially established. But communists and Nazis become the most powerful political forces. Both are supporters of “direct action”.

“Direct action” is justified by the ideals of direct democracy, but this is only camouflage. What the communists and Nazis really needed was a momentary transition “from words to actions”, from opinion to implementation.

But both the German communists and the rising National Socialists had to deal with a nation of many millions, rather than urban communities, as was the case in revolutionary Paris (Budapest, Vienna and other cities). The speaker could have the crowd in the square excited and lead it to storm a building. But one cannot expect to be heard from a podium by millions.

That’s where scientific and technological progress comes in. Hitler makes full use of radio and nascent aviation to move quickly across Germany. In addition to technical means, the Nazis are the first to master humanitarian technologies, namely Le Bon’s crowd theory and Tarde’s theory of the public, as well as Weber’s notion of charismatic leadership.

Not everyone can turn the public into a crowd even employing radio, as the leader speaking to a microphone and sounding from loudspeakers throughout a multimillion country must be endowed with charisma and unquestionable authority.

Totalitarianism was first established in Russia, which did not have a large proletariat. The lumpen, the demoralised army, impoverished peasants and the disoriented inhabitants of the national outskirts were used as the “negative class”. Crowds of declassified “Reds”, “Greens” and colourless bandits destroyed everything they could get their hands on.

But the Bolsheviks had no theory or schemes for building a totalitarian society. Stalin had learned this from Hitler in the 1930s. The charismatic leadership of the Führer-Chief was copied in the form of a cult of personality.

The victorious countries of World War I and the fragments of the Habsburg empire established unstable democracies. With industrialisation coming to an end, totalitarian tendencies appeared in these countries too. Dictatorial regimes were established in small countries of Eastern, Central and Southern Europe on the fascist model.

Who knows if the old democracies of the Old and New World could have withstood the onslaught of totalitarianism had Nazi Germany’s claim to world domination and the USSR’s striving for a world revolution not resulted in World War II.

The totalitarian regimes lost the war they had unleashed. Nazi Germany lost immediately, and the USSR survived several more decades of the Cold War.

Democracies and civil society proved victorious on a global scale. This victory was formalised in the Declaration of Human Rights, in the creation of instruments to control international relations and prevent wars – the UN and the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC).

  1. However, immediately after the establishment of international institutions of democratic control, global civil society faced new challenges.

Civil society was challenged not only by the totalitarian regimes in the USSR and China which had survived World War II, but also by the consumer society which emerged in the context of post-war rapid economic growth.

Having satisfied their need for “bread”, ordinary people in developed countries have felt an insatiable need for “circuses”, forgetting their civic duties. The technical side of meeting the need for the circus was satisfied by the film industry (the “dream factory”), replicated music, and the spread of television.

The attainment of universal literacy made it possible to give voting rights to almost the entire population, and civil and human rights were extended to the entire population of democratic countries. But having become universal, civil rights lost value in the eyes of ordinary people, yielding to material and “spiritual” (rather, entertainment and recreational) values of consumption.

Political parties and clubs immediately took advantage of this, turning elections into a show, and the exercise of civil rights into burdensome procedures that lost appeal in the eyes of ordinary people. Democracy degenerated into oligarchy and even plutocracy.

The values of the Enlightenment (modernity) – criticism, reason, discussion – are reinterpreted in postmodernist ideology.

While in the age of modernity and the formation of civil society public discussion based on critical thinking was designed to ensure social compromise and, ideally, to achieve social consensus, in the consumer society of the postmodern era, the value of dissensus is promoted, which makes discussion aimless and ineffective. Discussions are ritualistic, everyone stays with their opinions, no decisions are made, and they do not lead to action. Politics and governance are exercised by oligarchic groups.

By the late 1980s, nation-states (and civil society defined within the boundaries and frameworks of nation-states) were losing their influence in the world, giving way and primary role to transnational corporations (TNCs).

By this time, the theory of convergence of two socio-political systems – democracy and civil society, on the one hand, and socialism, on the other hand – became widespread.

But by the same time, the Cold War of these two systems ended, in which the socialist camp lost and collapsed. However, socialism and socialist ideas became popular in the countries of the “free world”, i.e. where civil society had existed for more than a century.

This dialectical situation had several consequences.

Oligarchs and plutocrats who brought TNCs to the forefront of national and international politics took control of civil society. Instead of self-organisation, volunteering and subsidiary responsibility for their decisions, civil society organisations (NGOs and NPOs) switched to funding by various foundations.

The first foundations which concentrated financial resources for support of civic initiatives were a structural part of the civil society. But gradually they became part of the state financial system and moved from fundraising (seeking and raising funds for their purposes) to guaranteed funding from state budgets. This enabled the state to control the activity of NGOs and NPOs, dictating their agenda and determining which projects received funding and therefore a competitive advantage over other initiatives and projects.

The history of the Soros foundations may be typical in this respect. The first Soros fund was established in Sweden to support the Czechoslovak Charter’77 back in the late 1970s. It was a typical civil society initiative. Afterwards, the Open Society Foundations operated in various countries and existed in this form until the mid-1990s, when even a billionaire lost the ability to maintain such a fund. The fund started to be financed from the state budgets and became accountable. The same thing happened with other private foundations of this type.

But the transfer of NGOs and NPOs under the control of states and governments was accompanied by a loss of influence on world politics by TNCs. States and supranational state structures (the EU, in the first place) regained their dominant role.

  1. At the beginning of the new millennium, civil society faced new problems. NGOs and NPOs, which had become the main form of civic activity, became bureaucratised and dependent on foundations and states. Real civic activity is forced to look for new forms for its existence.

This is not easy. Old forms like Masonic lodges and semi-secret societies have survived. They continue to exist, but rather as decorative and ritual elements.

Modernist clubs and associations have survived and even new ones have emerged, like the Club of Rome.

Many NGOs and NPOs are trying to regain the initiative and are taking over from foundations and state structures that are imposing their agenda on the organisations, and this struggle for the initiative is going on with mixed results.

The religious revival, the emergence of neo-Protestant churches and their rapid development in the 1980s and 1990s was in a way a manifestation of the search for new forms of civil society existence.

In countries where there is no stable tradition of civil society, new forms and types of organisation emerge. They sometimes take ugly forms (e.g. ISIS) and develop into a cascade of revolutions known as the Arab Spring.

The Ukrainian Maidan uprisings can also be seen in the context of the history and evolution of civil society.

The technical innovations of the digital age have their effect on innovations in civil society. The Internet as a means of mass communication is undermining the monopoly of television and making it impossible to control mass consciousness as it was in the 1950s and 1990s.

In our time, a complex conflation of modern and postmodern values, residual ideologies of the industrial and post-industrial era is emerging.

Perhaps researchers, sociologists and philosophers of the future can analyse our era in detail, finding a place for every phenomenon and event that we now experience, create or simply observe as witnesses. What we think of as innovation and try to adapt to will once be the historical past and archival material for people of the future.

But we have to live with it and act on it.

To understand it in the face of high uncertainty. To look for reasonable and effective ways of action. To build a civil society in the age of the Internet, digital technologies, global accessibility.

We have to think globally to effectively act locally.

We should do it in Belarus. This is our place of action.

However, before acting, it is necessary to think thoroughly about both the actions and their consequences.

All old templates and stencils will have to be discarded. And no one, except for us, will be able to offer us new ones.

Uladzimir Matskevich


In the series “Freedom and Thinking. Essays on Civil Society”.