The Dark Side of Civil Society

The idea of civil society was reintroduced into both political and academic discourse in the late 1970s to describe two parallel political developments. First, there was the emergence of new opposition movements that challenged communist rule in East–Central Europe. Their leaders rejected Marxist revisionism and advocated reviving a pluralist associational sphere and building autonomous social networks (a parallel polis) as a strategy by which to defy the totalitarian state. Organizations such as the Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR) in Poland and the Czechoslovak Charter 77 demanded respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

They also developed a new discourse centred on the notion of inalienable rights, societal self-organization and unequivocal support for liberal democracy and the rule of law. In their activities they espoused transparency, public debate, non-violence and reforms based on negotiations and compromise. They defined their mission as non-political, rejected utopianism and political maximalism, and endorsed the simple ethical postulate of ‘living in truth’ proposed by Vaclav Havel. In Poland, they also urged broad, inclusive alliances across traditional class and political divisions, including those between the church and the left, and between the workers and intellectuals. The Solidarity movement in Poland embodied all these principles in its challenge to the Polish party-state in 1980–1.

Second, political ferment in East–Central Europe was preceded by a period of intense social and political activism within Western democracies. New social movements emerging at the end of the 1960s and 1970s challenged paternalistic welfare states and criticized the encroachment of bureaucracies and markets into the public domain and private lives. They protested the shallow nature of Western democracies and championed excluded groups and minorities. They also sought to reconstitute a pluralist public realm where citizens would be free to debate critical issues, pursue their passions and interests, and reassert their individual and collective identities.

Despite their different intellectual origins, political concerns and ideological optics, these two political currents converged around the idea that the independent public sphere, with its associational domain and individual autonomy, needed to be defended from rampant commodification and bureaucratization in the West and from the totalitarian ambitions of the communist state in the East. The concept of civil society provided a good frame for understanding these concerns, goals and political practices, since it was articulated by thinkers who were concerned by threats to liberty and were searching for the optimal model of relations between states, markets and societies. These theorists range from the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment to Tocqueville, Gramsci, Habermas and Gellner. They shared normative concerns emphasizing liberty, freedom, justice, equality, tolerance, individualism and pluralism.

In the 1980s and especially during the 1990s, the idea of civil society acquired a rarely challenged positive connotation. Social scientists and policy makers assigned civil society a key role in driving progressive social, political and economic transformation. Robust civil society was considered a panacea against a wide variety of social and political ills. Its quality, density and strength became a major yardstick for assessing the condition of a democratic system. It was widely believed that without a system of associations mediating between kinship groups, markets and the state, individuals would be less effective in articulating their common interests and identities, and society would remain politically stagnant and vulnerable to corruption and authoritarianism.

Vibrant civil society was seen not only as a guarantor and defender of freedom, equality and justice, but also as a mechanism for improving the institutional performance of democracy. As Robert Putnam (1993: 182) put it, ‘Tocqueville was right: democratic government is strengthened, not weakened, when it faces a vigorous civil society’. As a result, Tocqueville’s apotheosis of American associational life as a shield against tyranny replaced Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism as the self-evident truth guiding change-oriented political activism. Paradoxically, this belief in the inherent virtue of a robust associational life based on voluntary participation and solidarity came to be shared by the political right and left, by liberals as well as the foes of liberal politics, and also by politicians and intellectuals. President George H.W. Bush, in his speech to the Republican Convention in 1988, compared America’s voluntary associations to ‘a brilliant diversity spread like stars, like a thousand points of light on a broad and peaceful sky’. In the social science literature that followed, civil society emerged as the main driver of democratic transformation, a source of high-quality democratic performance and an indispensable actor in disaster relief, poverty reduction, welfare provision and the fight against political corruption.

Reflecting this consensus on the beneficial role of civil society organizations in political and social life, Larry Diamond (1994: 7–11) listed a number of specific functions that make them essential in strengthening and protecting democracy: they limit state power and make politicians accountable; provide alternative channels for political participation; increase citizens’ political skills and efficacy; promote a better understanding of the rights and obligations that constitute democratic life; foster the development and communication of democratic norms; provide channels for articulation, aggregation and representation of different interests and identities; mitigate political conflicts; provide training and experience for future political leaders; facilitate non-biased monitoring of political activities and government policies; advance the development and provision of information; and help build political coalitions and improve the functioning of the state. No wonder that civil society has become a focus of scholarly attention, and its strengthening around the world – an urgent priority.

Consequently, in recent decades foundations, states and international organizations have spent billions of dollars on building civil society and supporting its projects. The promotion of civil society has become a crucial aspect of development aid for countries recovering from civil wars and decades of authoritarian rule. And it has been considered the best hope for introducing and consolidating liberal political institutions, fighting poverty and protecting human rights. Since the 1990s, Western governments have significantly increased their support for domestic and international NGOs, promoting the expansion of their role and institutionalizing a formal partnership between civil society organizations and the state in the provision of social services. An increasing amount of official development aid has been dispensed through NGOs. Private foundations supporting liberal causes have strengthened the capacity of watchdog organizations monitoring governments. Transnational NGOs have become formally recognized consultative partners to all international and multilateral organizations, in the process emerging as influential political actors in their own right that support progressive causes around the world.

In turn, authoritarian rulers of various stripes have become increasingly concerned about the growing influence of Western-backed NGOs and have reacted by imposing an array of new regulations and constraints designed to limit their role and access to resources, or else banned them altogether. They have also actively promoted the top-down process of building alternative civil society organizations and movements supportive of government policies. Thus, the civil society arena has become a domain of intensifying political competition and struggle. Paradoxically, the authoritarian rulers’ fear of civil society organizations, coupled with efforts to restrict their activities, has reinforced the general belief in their unquestioned role in promoting and protecting democracy.

Yet the neo-Tocquevillian, overly affirmative views of civil society’s role and impact have not been universally shared. Nancy Bermeo (2003) rightly noted that the previous generation of political scientists viewed active civil society as posing a threat to democracy rather than a support for it, especially in countries with weak political institutions. In his influential book Political Order in Changing Societies (1968: 87), Samuel Huntington noted that ‘societies which have high levels of middle-class participation have strong tendencies towards instability’. From this perspective, robust civil society and its actions may not always be beneficial or supportive of democratic outcomes, but may also destabilize and endanger democracy, precipitating an authoritarian takeover. In fact, a number of important historical cases exemplify such an outcome.

Sheri Berman (1997), for example, argues that organizationally robust and politically divided civil society exerting pressure on the deficient political structures of the Weimar Republic after World War I might have been one of the important preconditions for the Nazi takeover. Similarly, Dylan Riley (2010) shows that development of robust civil societies in Italy, Spain and Romania not only did not produce stable democracy but instead undermined their nascent liberal regimes and facilitated the rise of fascism. Arguing against Robert Putnam’s conclusions about the benefits of dense social capital and strong civil society, Riley demonstrates that some regions of Northern Italy that had dense social capital became hotbeds of Italian fascism. Finally, examining European experiences, Bermeo and Nord point out that ‘burgeoning civil society translated into a democratization of public life in certain instances but by no means always’. Moreover, ‘civic activism may well be the bedrock of democratic life, but not all civil societies, however dense and vibrant, give birth to democratic polities’ (2000: xv–xvi).

All these arguments belong to a neo-Huntingtonian perspective whose basic premise is that in places where political institutions are not able to accommodate a proliferation of voluntary associations, nor to translate popular demands via democratic channels of interest articulation, nor find remedies for civil society’s politicization and polarization, the development of a strong and mobilized civil society may give rise to authoritarianism or fascism. Thus, there is a dark side to the strength of civil society and its activity. In specific political contexts, civil society actors may even facilitate the demise of democracy and contribute to an authoritarian takeover. In fact, authoritarian leaders often ride on the back of a robust and mobilized civil society and maintain their power with its support.

Neo-Huntingtonian arguments emphasize the structural/institutional deficiencies of political and party systems that make the actions of civil society actors potentially destructive to democracy. Yet, there is another set of arguments focusing on the features of particular civil societies that may have a potential toxic impact of on democracy. Such arguments emphasize the organizational characteristics of civil society and the normative orientations of its actors. The prevalence of certain types of organizations within civil society (large corporate actors, fundamentalist religious organizations, extremist political movements) may increase the risk of an authoritarian takeover as well as providing stability to authoritarian rule. Similarly, illiberal and exclusionary ideologies may provide fuel to civil society activities that not only accelerate political polarization but also endanger the stability and the very existence of democracy. As Stanley Hoffmann once quipped when commenting on Robert Putnam’s ideas of social capital, ‘it is not important how many choral societies a country has but what kind of songs they sing’. In fact, in the past many civil society organizations supported anti-liberal and anti-democratic agendas, advocated exclusionary national and religious identities and endorsed violent tactics to accomplish political goals. Chambers and Kopstein (2001) label such organizations in the contemporary US as ‘bad civil society’. Kopecky and Mudde (2003) call them ‘uncivil society’ and Richard Youngs and his co-authors (2019: 11) define them as ‘conservative civil society’. As they argue, ‘the rise of conservative civil society poses serious challenges to liberal democracy’, since ‘conservative activism is the search for protection – protection from change, from outside economic pressures, from new kinds of identities and moral norms. Curiously, these groups generally want a stronger state and more robust government intervention to provide this protection.’

Such groups and organizations are a part of the civil society landscape in all contemporary societies. In specific places and times, especially with the support of governments having authoritarian ambitions, uncivil or illiberal parts of civil society may grow and expand from the margins of associational life to colonize the domains of public space surrendered by other actors. Protected and supported by the government or other powerful social actors, they monopolize civil society activities. In extreme cases, this leads to profound cultural and subsequently political polarization and to the emergence of the ‘pillarized’ civil societies that Phillipe Schmitter (1997) diagnosed as a potential threat to democracy. Pillarization is the vertical segregation of civil society into distinct compartments with limited interaction across a dividing boundary (religious, ethnic, political). This creates the potential for social conflicts, contentious mobilization and political instability. In fact, the recent rise of populism can be traced to the emergence of pillarized civil societies across the world. In the 1980s and 1990s the so-called ‘culture wars’ became common in many countries. Cultural polarization should be considered a precursor and a necessary condition conducive to the populist political movements and parties we see today. As Youngs (2019: 7) observed, ‘in many countries in the developing and postcommunist worlds, as well as in long-established Western democracies, conservative forms of civic activism have been multiplying and gaining traction. In some cases, new conservative civic movements and groups are closely associated with illiberal political actors and appear to be an integral part of the well-chronicled global pushback against Western liberal democratic norms’.

Moreover, the technological and digital revolution plays an important part in this growing polarization and in facilitating the emergence of the illiberal pillar of civil society. A fragmented media landscape and the expanding social media scene facilitate the pillarization process by enabling smaller groups and movements to mobilize and communicate by building separate cultural silos with their own narratives, symbols, and ‘alternative facts’. Thus, social media can be as much a tool of liberalization as a facilitator of cultural wars and of the pillarization of civil society.

The emergence of pillarized civil societies has crucial political consequences. Their actors, driven by a zero-sum vision of politics, fuel cultural and political polarization and undermine centrist political parties. They are the source of political instability and electoral backlash against liberal values and the affiliated political forces. They provide foot soldiers for protests against liberal elites and in support of emerging populist parties. In turn, illiberal and conservative pillars benefit from the electoral successes of such radical populist parties. Where populist parties take over the government, liberal pillars are constrained and starved of resources, while public funds are allocated exclusively to the organizations belonging to conservative and illiberal pillar of civil society. Moreover, the legal framework regulating civil society activities is purposefully altered to restrict the liberal pillar and to expand opportunities for illiberal movements and organizations.

The playbook for governments with authoritarian ambitions includes: licensing NGOs by tightening registration procedures and reporting requirements; starving them of resources by prohibiting foreign funding; centralizing resources for civil society activities under state control and changing funding priorities; stigmatizing liberal NGOs through, for example, introducing so-called foreign agent laws; aggressively favouring organizations that are ideologically aligned with the government by providing additional funding and friendly regulations; escalating repression and intimidation of civil society activists from the liberal pillar and shielding activists from the illiberal pillar from prosecution for illegal and violent acts; restricting the rights of assembly and protest by imposing cumbersome regulations; introducing censorship and controls on media and the internet; bringing civil society organizations under state control and expanding the domain of ersatz social movements and government-organized NGOs (GONGOs). All these actions can be described as re-etatization of the illiberal pillar of civil society. Such re-etatization results in the hardening of boundaries between the pillars of civil society and deepens its ideological polarization, fuelling political conflicts in the short run. In the long run, it may provide the organizational and cultural foundations for an authoritarian takeover.

Nowhere is the Schmitterian dilemma of pillarized and polarized civil society more apparent than in contemporary Poland. After 1989 Polish civil society was reconstituted with considerable speed and determination as the result of four distinct and overlapping processes. First, the initial years of transition witnessed the process of reconstitution and recombination in which the dense network of social organizations inherited from the old regimes adapted itself to new democratic conditions and a large number of new organizations and social initiatives sprung up across the country. In parallel, a process of de-etatization was underway, with the state relinquishing or losing control over professional and social organizations. Polish civil society also experienced de-corporatization, a process in which large professional organizations and trade unions lost their privileged role in civil society and in politics, along with their influence on policy-making. Thus, during the first two decades of post-communist transformation, Polish civil society grew rapidly. Its centre of gravity shifted from large, formal membership-based organizations, such as trade unions and professional associations (mostly inherited from the old regime), to a highly varied sector of small, professionalized NGOs that rely on voluntary involvement and diversified, decentralized funding that is both public and private. Their activities spanned the entire range of services, objectives, goals and styles of action similar to those present in developed democratic societies. And these organizations had a decidedly liberal and pro-European orientation. Finally, during the first two decades of the 21st century, civil society has become increasingly professionalized, resulting in the emergence of tens of thousands of highly specialized NGOs and foundations. These mostly small organizations are run by professional staff and rely on public funding, fundraising and volunteers. They focus on a wide range of local and national issues and initiatives and operate in a well-structured and (until 2016) friendly legal environment.

Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004 led to the internationalization of its civil society. This process had both symbolic significance and tangible economic consequences. It signaled to civil society organizations the possibility of transcending national boundaries, forming links with like-minded partners in other EU countries and supporting transnational causes. The process of Europeanization changed both the structure and institutional culture of numerous organizations. It also opened significant funding opportunities (both from official EU sources and Western civil society partners) for different initiatives and projects.

Based on the sheer number of newly registered organizations, the growth of Polish civil society since 1989 has been remarkable. Up to the year 2000 the rate of new registrations was exceptional, and since then it has stabilized at a relatively high level of around 5,000 organizations and 800 foundations per year with no major declines. By 2018 the Klon/Jawor Association, an infrastructural NGO, had some 140,000 new civil society organizations in its database. New NGOs have emerged in all sectors of civil society and in all types of localities. At the same time, the survival rate of associations from the old regime has also been very high. These two trends together produce a relatively dense and consistently growing civil society. Moreover, the number of Poles who have participated in voluntary and charitable activities has expanded considerably. In recent years, over 20 per cent of Poles declare they have volunteered and over 50 per cent of them have donated money to charitable causes. This is on par with levels registered in some established Western democracies.

Yet since the early 2000s, Polish civil society has experienced increasing organizational and ideological pillarization as a result of the emergence and institutionalization of a conservative, nationalistic, anti-liberal and religion-based network of organizations. They have their own national and local media, social networks, symbolic frames of reference, political narratives and resources provided by the Catholic Church, right-wing political parties, conservative foundations and individuals, and increasingly by the Polish state after it was taken over by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in the 2015 elections.

The illiberal, nationalistic pillar of civil society was a late arrival in the development of civil society in Poland. Although nationalist and extreme right-wing organizations and movements were marginal and weak during the first decade of the post-communist transition, the clerical sector of the illiberal pillar was gradually gaining strength and resources. The single most important organization of this segment of civil society – Radio Maryja – was founded as a local radio station in 1991 and quickly spawned a dense network of organizations across the country. The Lux Veritatis Foundation, founded in 1996, was the first significant supporter of extremist religious and nationalist organizations and initiatives. The debate and referendum on the new Polish constitution in 1997 became a pivotal moment that galvanized anti-liberal and anti-European forces and movements in support of traditional values, Polish Catholicism and nationalism.

Churches and religious institutions have become a significant factor in sustaining the faith-based pillar of civil society. Both the Catholic Church and other denominations have created networks of organizations tied to churches. They have formed a diverse system of national, regional and local organizations that are controlled to a varying degree by the church hierarchy. These grassroots organizations usually have small, informal memberships. The most popular types are prayer and charitable groups, as well as groups organizing sport and leisure activities. They are usually created jointly by parish priests and lay people. The Catholic Church Statistical Institute reported that in 1998, there were already some 40,000 such organizations with over 2 million members in total. By 2008, their number had increased to over 60,000 and membership reached nearly 2.7 million. These organizations not only focused on local activities but have been increasingly present in the country’s politics. They were able to initiate and coordinate spectacular nationwide campaigns, such as collecting some 7 million signatures for a petition in support of Radio Maryja in the late 1990s, organizing a get-together of Radio Maryja families in Częstochowa in 2005 with some half a million participants, or the Rosary to the Borders event in 2017. The latter brought together one million Polish Catholics who took part in a massive collective prayer organized in 4,000 prayer zones along the full length of the Polish border, including the beaches of the Baltic Sea and at international airports, to fend off immigrants (see Kotwas and Kubik 2019).

The institutionalization of the clerical sector belonging to the illiberal pillar of Polish civil society was followed by the emergence of a whole plethora of movements, organizations and media outlets representing extreme right-wing, nationalist, xenophobic and homophobic ideas. They support traditional family values and fundamentalist Catholicism and represent themselves as heirs of the traditional Polish extreme right from the inter-war period. Since the early 2000s, this set of loosely connected newspapers, clubs and associations institutionalized a dense network of relations, enhanced their media presence and developed political alliances with right-wing political parties. The growth of this extreme right-wing sector of Polish civil society has been fuelled by the migration crisis in Europe, which has not affected Poland directly, but has engendered anxiety further exacerbated by anti-migrant rhetoric often utilizing traditional anti-Semitic tropes. The intensification of nationalist and anti-liberal sentiments has been facilitated also by the prolonged legitimacy crisis of the EU and its institutions. As a result, illiberal and nationalistic forces have become visible in protest politics, and their quest for ‘xenophobic normality’ (Graff 2009) has been increasingly successful. This is most vividly illustrated by the Independence March on 11 November 2015, organized around the theme of ‘Poland for the Poles, Poles for Poland’, and by the Polish government’s decision to join forces with extreme right organizations in the Independence March in 2018 (Kotwas and Kubik 2019).

The institutionalization of the illiberal/nationalist pillar of Poland’s civil society took yet another crucial turn in 2015 with the presidential and parliamentary elections in which the right-wing, populist PiS won the country’s presidency and the parliamentary majority. The new nationalistic government fomented a constitutional crisis by failing to observe the decisions of the Constitutional Tribunal and by engaging in a controversial partisan takeover of the public media, other public institutions and boards of state-owned companies. It also launched a crusade against liberal values and organizations and institutions that supported such values. As a PiS leader recently stated, liberal ideas ‘threaten Polish identity as well as survival of the Polish nation and of the Polish state’. Since in his view these ideas have nothing to do with Polish national identity (Polishness) and they are imported from the West, Polish society must be grounded in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and ‘questioning the church’s fundamental role in Poland is unpatriotic’ (Baylin 2019). Thus, the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections exacerbated existing cultural–ideological divisions between the two pillars of Polish civil society. On the one hand, elections legitimized and reinforced the national–religious–populist camp now associated with the new government, and on the other, they mobilized the liberal, pro-European opposition. Both pillars have deep and wide roots in society and media networks, which is reflected, for instance, in their ability to mobilize large groups of people and support self-organization of citizens.

After its 2015 election victory, the PiS government lent its full political and economic support to the illiberal pillar of civil society. In December 2016 Poland’s vice-premier Piotr Gliński, speaking to Gazeta Polska clubs (organizations associated with one of the most militant nationalist newspapers), declared: ‘You are the true Polish civil society. Thanks to your efforts Poland is changing and the Polish government is able to preside over the country’s responsible and stable development’. Government-controlled resources have started to flow to such organizations as well. State-owned companies have been directed to place their advertising only in the illiberal/nationalist media. At the same time, these companies started limiting their support almost exclusively to organizations and initiatives belonging to the illiberal pillar of civil society. As recent data on advertising in the print media by state-owned companies shows, their support for the right-wing media has increased substantially since PiS came to power. For example, Gazeta Polska had received 91,000 zlotys from such advertising in 2015. This increased to 8.8 million in 2018. Similarly, while advertising from state-owned companies provides only 0.37 per cent of the liberal weekly Polityka revenues, it provides 44.85 per cent for Gazeta Polska and 39.77 per cent for the weekly Sieci Prawdy – the two most important publications of the illiberal camp. Thus, the pillarization of Polish civil society was followed and reinforced by the re-etatization of its illiberal pillar through the active involvement of the government in supporting illiberal organizations and initiatives. This in turn reinvigorated liberal advocacy groups and media and gave rise to new NGOs, such as the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD). Since 2015, Poland’s liberal organizations and movements have successfully mobilized thousands of people to show their opposition to PiS policies and to defend the rule of law in Poland. Yet their ability to defend the liberal order has been weakened by the solidifying alliance of the state, church and illiberal civil society. This is an alliance whose interests are well protected in a system in which democratic checks and balances have already been seriously undermined.

The process of re-etatization, which was designed to benefit and strengthen the illiberal pillar of civil society, has political, legal and economic dimensions. First, the various sources of funding for civil society organizations and initiatives have been centralized under the newly established National Institute of Freedom, which has been formally charged with supporting nationalist causes and ‘patriotic’ civil society organizations. As a result, long-standing public support for various liberal organizations, cultural institutions, campaigns and artistic events has been significantly reduced. Many civil society organizations have been forced to replace state funding with private donations to continue their work. The legal framework regulating civil society activities has also been altered. For example, the new law on public gatherings favours organizations associated with the government and the church over citizen movements associated with the political opposition. Increasingly, activists of liberal movements and organizations, as well as journalists from the liberal media, have been intimidated and harassed by the security forces and by public prosecutors to deter them from pursuing investigations and expressing critical views of the government and its policies. Meanwhile, members of xenophobic and neo-fascist organizations involved in illegal activities and violent acts are shielded by state-appointed prosecutors who delay investigations or refuse to press charges.

Thus, after three decades of democratic transformation, Polish civil society has evolved into a deeply divided and polarized entity with two distinct organizational pillars representing antithetical value systems, visions of politics and scenarios for Poland’s future development. Moreover, the unholy alliance between a state with its authoritarian ambitions and the illiberal/nationalist pillar of civil society has created new opportunities for far-right extremism to flourish, intensified Poland’s culture wars and changed the underlying structure of Polish politics. As a result, Poland is drifting towards authoritarianism and away from European democratic values. Although the cultural and political pillarization of civil society has become a distinct feature of the contemporary political landscape across the world, Poland’s predicament may well be a crucial testing ground for the power and consequences of the dark side of civil society.

Grzegorz EkiertHarvard University
24 June 2019

Grzegorz Ekiert is Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Government at Harvard University, director of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and senior scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. His research and teaching interests focus on comparative politics, regime change and democratization, civil society and social movements and East European politics and societies. His current projects explore civil society development in new democracies in Central Europe and East Asia, state mobilized contention in authoritarian and hybrid regimes and patterns of political and economic transformations in the post-communist world. He is the author or editor of six books, edited volumes and special issues of journals. His papers have appeared in numerous social science journals in the US, Europe and Asia and in many edited volumes. He is also a member of the Advisory Board of the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, an external examiner in Politics, Public Administration and Global Studies at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the Club of Madrid Advisory Committee.

This essay has benefited from an ongoing research project on the development of civil society in Poland, co-directed by myself and Jan Kubik. Some of the early results of our work have been published in Ekiert and Kubik 1999, Ekiert and Kubik 2014, and Ekiert, Kubik and Wenzel 2017.


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