Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Erosion of Civil Societies and its Effect on Democracy

This week I am taking a slightly different tact from my regular post. I guess you could call this almost an essay.

For a paper I recently completed for one of my courses I had to read an American political scientist named James C. Scott. Dr. Scott teaches at Yale University and is an expert in peasant politics, and the power of the state in relation to the voiceless elements of a given society. In his 1985 book, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia, Scott argues that the cultural element is a key consideration to revolt and protest. Complicated networks of dependency and interrelationship in a peasant society led to informal organization and effective resistance to oppression.

This dovetailed strangely with some of the materials my students have been using on their final papers. One of the chapters in the text they have been using discusses the importance of civil societies in Victorian Canada. The Coles’ Notes are that civil societies in early nineteenth century Canada helped those with limited political voice, and who were marginalized overall, be heard and contribute to the democratic process.

The final element that has been rattling around in my head of late is the report released by Samara Canada called The Real Outsiders. The study focuses on Canadians who are somewhat disengaged from traditional democracy in Canada. Samara’s report received quite a bit of media attention and editorials in response to its overall assessments.

One of the contributors to this discourse mentioned the importance in the decline of civil societies to the decline in democratic participation. Having all of these different notions banging around inside my head led me to draw some conclusions to the changing patterns in Canadian society and democracy overall.

Someone commenting on the report from Samara pointed out that the decline of civil societies has made the entry point in democratic involvement quite high. Fifty years ago most members of a community were members of a number of local organizations. Religious organizations, charitable groups, local governance groups, school councils, unions and volunteer associations allowed people to serve their communities and organize without entering formal democratic politics. In addition these organizations allowed individuals to lobby for policy choices and gain experience leading organizations, paving the way for more involvement in public life.

Today, civil society seems remarkably weak to me, at least based upon my own anecdotal observations and experiences. The decline of church attendance, and other traditional non-state institutions could be a serious impediment to democratic participation. Democratic governance can be extremely esoteric to new initiates. The role the federal or provincial governments play in our daily lives may not be immediately apparent, much of what is apparent is normally annoying – poor infrastructure, ineffective bureaucracy, parking tickets, etc. Motivating people to plunge into the complicated system can be daunting. On the other hand the mission and purpose of community groups and their effectiveness is quite obvious. Experience on a smaller local level can be leveraged to greater political participation. I particularly wonder about the impact on young people. These community organizations, traditionally, would be the gateway to greater participation.

Since the 1980s with the rapid growth of globalization the traditional groups within society have seen real erosion. Members of our society are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and have limited connections to their communities. Scott spoke of the importance of local culture, but local traditions have broken down dramatically overtime. New subcultures and digital societies have sprung up now that people have the freedom to organize themselves based on their interests instead of their geography, or culture.

We participate in groups of like-minded people, with like-minded interests, but we no longer know our neighbours or local needs. The erosion of civil society likely means that we are less committed to our communities. Sometimes it can feel like we are a nation of 34 million individuals, with only the vaguest of common interest and connection, the province even more so, 12 million strangers that happen to have the same geography. Our technological isolation from each other may be the root of this disconnect, given how local society is so key to political organization.

Perhaps now it is time for us to less enamoured with the idea that we can talk to anyone on the other side of the world, but that we should reach out to people just outside our doors. 

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