The determiners of legitamacy

Thursday, October 13, 2011

CNN has a blog post called Think Occupy Wall St. is a phase? You don't get it by somebody called Douglas Rushkoff, who they describe as a media theorist. In the post he makes the following rather strange claim, with emphasis added by me:
To be fair, the reason why some mainstream news journalists and many of the audiences they serve see the Occupy Wall Street protests as incoherent is because the press and the public are themselves. It is difficult to comprehend a 21st century movement from the perspective of the 20th century politics, media, and economics in which we are still steeped.

In fact, we are witnessing America's first true Internet-era movement, which -- unlike civil rights protests, labor marches, or even the Obama campaign -- does not take its cue from a charismatic leader, express itself in bumper-sticker-length goals and understand itself as having a particular endpoint.
The claim is strange because the Tea Party, which predates Occupy by over a year, was ignored by the media and was nurtured via the internet and social media in its formative stages. Further, as the 2010 elections demonstrated, it has been an effective movement even as it still largely relies on the internet, social media and email to coordinate its efforts.

The Tea Party is clearly the first internet-based movement. Why would a so-called media theorist miss its growth but see the Occupy Wall Street movement? It could be ideological blinders that prevented Rushkoff from ever even visiting the right side of the new media and so he missed its formation, or it could be something different.

In describing social organization there is a concept called the civil society. It originally meant voluntary social groups that existed outside of the realm of either the governmental or business spheres. Its exact meaning has always shifted; sometimes it has merely meant the third sphere of human society, sometimes it has stood as a synonym for 'good' society.

In its modern (post WWII) usage, its meaning has shifted into an even more subtle construct. The website Civil Society International defines it as follows, again with emphasis added by me:

Civil society is an unusual concept in that it always seems to require being defined before it is applied or discussed. In part this is because the concept was rarely used in American discourse before the late eighties and many people are therefore unfamiliar with it. In part it is a result of an inherent ambiguity or elasticity in the concept. (This is not so unusual. The apparently straightforward notion of freedom can in certain circumstances carry a meaning closer to license than to liberty.)

Perhaps the simplest way to see civil society is as a "third sector," distinct from government and business. In this view, civil society refers essentially to the so-called "intermediary institutions" such as professional associations, religious groups, labor unions, citizen advocacy organizations, that give voice to various sectors of society and enrich public participation in democracies.

But this does not solve every definitional question that the idea of civil society can give rise to. Many would hold that a free and vigorous press is an essential element in civil society. But  most newspapers and TV stations in the U.S. are run as for-profit businesses. Should they be counted as part of civil society, of the third sector, or should they be seen as part of the commercial world?

A second problem associated with the concept of civil society is this: Is it a strictly objective and descriptive term that, for example, treats the League of Women Voters and the Ku Klux Klan equally as "third sector citizen organizations"? Or does the concept of civil society imply other, related values: for example, a commitment to democracy and equal treatment of all citizens before the law? This would exclude the KKK, needless to say.

Or, a more difficult question of values: Is the idea of civil society consistent with substantial state subsidies for a large number of third sector organizations, as occurs in parts of Europe? Is it consistent with substantial corporate subsidies of many third sector organizations, as occurs in America?  Are there distinctively American and European (or French, Swedish, German, etc.) types of civil society?
 It should be noted that the above definition of civil society seems to leave its scope open as to whether any  forms of volunteer association -- the KKK included -- should be called an institution of civil society. However, in practice the modern definition most certainly has a moral dimension to determining what is and isn't a part of the civil society. That is, the KKK, regardless of the coyness of the above definition, would not be included as an institution of civil society under its modern usage.

Prior to WWII the difficulties of long distance travel and communications tended to limit civil society institutions to a national scale. However, after the war, as the world became a smaller place national groups with similar concerns began to merge into transnational organizations. These new groups proliferated in number and became the INGOs (International NGOs) of today.

Post-war international politics was dominated by the dual poles of the the US and the USSR. These two blocs dominated the stage of international affairs. However, when the Soviet Union collapsed there were some who thought they could replace the Cold War model of international relations by elevating the UN, not to the position of the World Government, but to the body that controlled world governance.

That was not as far-fetched an ambition as it now sounds in these post 911 days. Governments have sloughed off much of what they once did to the UN. Distant garrisons have become blue helmeted peacekeepers, UNESCO distributes aid, and so forth. At the time it was thought in some circles that it would be possible to create a web of international agreements that superseded elements national sovereignty.

The problem for them was that the UN was only intended as a meeting space for representatives of the World's various governments. Worse, most of those governments were dictatorships that did not have the legitimacy conferred by consent of the governed.

They tried to get around those problems by reaching back to the model of the Helsinki Accord's human rights monitoring committees and using that concept to confer upon INGOs the status of proxies for the unrepresented people of Earth. They converted the institutions of civil society into groups that could claim to represent and vote for millions of people.

Once you've made that modification as to what a voluntary civil society institution is -- once you've politicized it -- the Klu Klux Klan problem becomes clear; volunteer association or not, you have to delegitimatize it to remove it from the negotiating table. Of course no sane person can object to that, but we can also see where it leads. Shades of gray kick-in and sooner or later the arbiters of social society end up with only their allies sitting at that table.

You also end up with Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist extraordinaire, who can without irony wax poetic about the Occupy Wall Street groups while ignoring the Tea Party. Don't you know -- the Tea Party Groups are a violent, racist group of astroturfers that have no place in the constellation of civil society organizations.

Of course, it also leads to thoughts about what pests voters can be compared to your approved INGO proxies for them. After all, it's for our the good of the many.