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Southern Africa Report Archive

Political scientist Veronica Schild responds to an ensuing argument between Colin Leys and Jonathan Barker in earlier editions of Southern Africa Report. In this article she presents Chile as a case study showing how civil society has not changed but simply acquiesced in response to a neo-liberal state. Schild points to Barkerís mishandling of Gramsciís theory of hegemony as the key factor that weakens his argument. (dkc)

vol 13 no 4

Their hegemony or ours? Schild Replies to Barker
Veronica Schild

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 13 No 4, August 1998
Page 25



Veronica Schild teaches in the Department of Political Science at the University of Western Ontario.

The key issue in the exchange between Colin Leys and Jonathan Barker carried out in the pages of this magazine (April 1996, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 17 - 21 and September 1997, Vol. 12, No. 4, pp. 20 - 23) is what should the tasks be for Left intellectuals in these neo-liberal times. Should intellectuals make a distinctive contribution to the urgent "task of analyzing globalization, alerting our society to its real meaning, and working out and propagating a new post-capitalist social project"? This is what Leys suggests. Or, should they abandon a self-ascribed privileged perspective and rely on the "analysis, information, and moral thought" offered by activist groups already engaged in countering the effects of capitalist fundamentalism, as Barker suggests? Furthermore, without denying the negative dimensions of capitalist restructuring Leys highlights in his text, Barker suggests that markets are not at all bad for democratic politics for they bring people together in non-hierarchical ways and get them talking. What's needed is controlling the market, and "even on an international scale it is worth thinking about the ways market power can be balanced and supervised by social and political controls." But who should do this thinking, and what form should it take?

Barker dismisses Leys' appeal to what he calls the "special Gramscian notion of hegemony," and counter hegemony, as not only not useful but also "totalitarian." For Barker, the notion of hegemony amounts to the "widespread real acceptance of a set of ideas," and for him "even this usage evades the crucial question: by what political process and under what rules of discussion and what distribution of power is that acceptance achieved?" This is not Gramsci's special notion of hegemony, however, but simply a variant of the dominant ideology thesis. In fact, Barker's argument suffers as a result of his mishandling of Gramsci. Leys answers Barker effectively on the question of counter-hegemony: unless a counter-hegemonic project emerges, local resistances are likely to be easily outflanked and, in any case, very far from emphasis upon such a project being inherently totalitarian there is no good reason why counter-hegemony cannot be developed and sustained democratically.

Equally important, however, is the fact that a more fine-grained sense of, precisely, the nature of hegemony might have led Barker to locate his own discussion of "the local" a little differently. For the primary question preceding Barker's own "crucial" question is one of who sets the rules and under what conditions. This needs to be tackled, and I will seek to do so - cutting against the thrust of Barker's own analysis - through a discussion of the way in which grassroots initiatives and struggles in Chile have been transformed into cultural resources for the neo-liberal state. As I shall show, this is another way of critiquing the assumption, implicit in the celebration of the local to which Barker subscribes, that "civil society" (taken to be a free-standing realm) is what matters for understanding meaningful democratic possibilities.

Indeed, for many disenchanted Left intellectuals the idea of civil society has come to replace older preoccupations with determinants of political action like the state, parties, and class-based organizations in work about cross-class organizations. It is true that the voices of subordinate peoples were often not heard in many of the old-style discussions on the Left, especially the voices of women, who, we may add, were almost always silenced. And yet the celebration of multiple voices in which Barker partakes is coterminous today with a perverse, even willful, forgetting of the centrality of the state and thus of the need to engage with it. I consider this kind of historical amnesia among Left intellectuals (as I will now demonstrate) to be an abdication of our role, and one I find increasingly morally reprehensible.

The Chilean case

I have studied the travails of popular organizations in Chile, specifically poor and working-class women's organizations, for the past twelve years. The transformations these myriad local initiatives have undergone have led me to wonder what has happened to the activism which I, like Barker, found so promising from the point of view of democratizing democracy. These last eight years of civilian rule, with Pinochet and the armed forces still hovering over the manacled democracy they made possible, have witnessed significant changes in the aims, and the discourse of popular organizations. In fact, the expertise of "grassroots" activism and of the supporting NGOs (with their cadre of "organic" intellectuals) - the unsung but oh so pivotal element in most, if not all, grassroots initiatives which many of us insist on rendering invisible or in collapsing with the grassroots - is being harnessed for projects which have little to do with genuine autonomy and local democracy. Popular organizing is contributing important resources to what the government and international agencies for development (e.g., the World Bank) and for cooperation (e.g., solidarity NGOs) are doing with "the poor" in the names both of sustainable development, and of decentralization and local empowerment. It becomes, in fact, part of a formula designed to make a profoundly inequitable economic system - still premised on state protection of capital and savage "flexibilization" of labour - politically sustainable. Similar transformations are also taking place in the rest of Latin America's Southern Cone, and I gather also in South Africa, with parallels in other parts of Africa and in Eastern Europe.

A good example of this transfer of capacity from grassroots organizing to the state is the new, innovative social programmes aiming to "help the poor help themselves." These include a panoply of initiatives including technical and financial support for micro-enterprises, skills training, and a range of programs inviting inhabitants of poor communities (read here, as usual, mostly women) to participate in community self-development. This transfer of expertise has also involved the migration of "experts," both from NGOs and from the popular organizations themselves, into those government agencies and private foundations (e.g., party and church-based) in charge of developing and implementing neo-liberal social policy agendas. Committed Left intellectuals engaged in action research during the dictatorship, much of it funded by agencies from abroad, have found a new home in government. So have many of their "footsoldiers": working-class people, predominantly women, who were always the direct link between these NGO professionals and their clients, the popular organizations.

With the turn to civilian government, most international funding agencies and solidarity NGOs shifted the bulk of their funds to other "needier" parts of the globe - a story repeated in other countries of Latin America. Those funds still available are now channelled through the government with the purpose of strengthening "civil society." Their real purpose, however, is to make the model of capitalist accumulation imposed by Pinochet's dictatorship politically sustainable. As a result, many NGOs were shut down, and those that survived did so by turning themselves into private corporations and consulting firms. Today they compete with each other to supply the government, and the private charity world, with technical expertise on topics ranging from popular education, gender sensitive analysis, and innovative urban planning to community health. Others specialize in developing and evaluating government social programs, and yet others have become "executive agents" for many of the government's newfangled, decentralized social programs.

Working-class people, meanwhile, are busily engaged in projects of "self-development," most of which they have to compete for from an array of fondos concursables (competition-based funds), made available by private foundations, local governments, ministries, and social agencies. According to these programs, "the poor" take responsibility for their own development by complementing with their free labour the offer of funds made by various levels of government. This work takes many forms. Micro-empresas (micro-enterprises), for example, are very widespread. Vast numbers of people are making a go of them, typically recruiting the whole family, including children as young as five or six, and hiring friends and neighbours to help with the chores. Government-sponsored community self-development projects are the most celebrated. Men and women are volunteering their free labour for projects designed to improve the quality of life in their own neighbourhoods: paving streets, creating green areas and soccer fields, and building community and day-care centres. It goes without saying that they have to manage these activities on weeknights and weekends, when they are not at work improving the neighbourhoods of the better off.


What few people want to do when talking about these changes taking place in Chile in the name of "modernization" and self-development, of autonomy and empowerment of the poor, is to ask the question: Why? Why must poor communities subsidize their own development while others do not? Why is the government, with the support of foreign donors, and increasingly the World Bank, so keen on promoting so much effort in exchange for such meagre resources? Why are so many committed professionals, formerly of the NGOs and presently engaged with the agencies of the state, so enthusiastically supportive of these initiatives? And lastly, why are poor and working-class people, who aimed so high with their efforts to organize for a meaningful democracy, for empowerment and autonomy, on the whole not resisting this appropriation of their initiatives for other ends?

What is clear to me from these transformations underway in Chile is that the agencies and practices of neo-liberal states are deeply implicated in the constitution of a common discursive framework, including the grammar which enables women and men to talk and to struggle for a better life. Whether or not people "believe" the line about autonomy and empowerment pushed by private and public sector agencies peddling much needed resources, assistance, and work opportunities is beside the point. The real point is that, by and large, these new terms of participation are not changing the very material and cultural contexts in which people's lives and struggles are framed. To return to Barker's image of markets, the very existence of such spaces, which he values highly, depends on a series of rules, regulations, permits, and fees controlling who can use the space to sell goods, when, and for how much. These enabling structures (and the hegemonic framework they provide) may tend to get lost from view (and from analysis) in the hustle and bustle of people going about their daily business, but must we also ignore them? It was Antonio Gramsci who reminded us that civil society is inconceivable without the state, that civil society and the state are two sides of the same coin, and that both are implicated in hegemonic projects. Their hegemony, or ours? It is impossible to sweep that question aside. Today, perhaps more than at any other time in this twentieth century, Gramsci's culturally rich notion of hegemony is crucial to helping us grasp the magnitude of the transformations afoot in our world.

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