In my last entry, I drew up a concise summary of the protest movement pushing back against the Georgian government’s proposed ‘foreign agent’ legislations. Let me try to contextualise this spontaneous uprising, which was not organised by oppositional political parties, and therefore could remain free from the swamp of divisions between politicians’ fan clubs. What will concern me here is what occupies a ‘central’ role in the discussion on Eastern Europe today: the role of civil society.
It is safe to say that the protest movement against the proposed “foreign agent” bill that would endanger the operation of non-governmental organisations, and that jeopardise the state of ‘civil society’ in Georgia, was defended by the civil society itself.[i] In this light, the timing of the proposal was more than appropriate: such legislation could crucially change the political landscape of Georgia just a year before the upcoming parliamentary elections. It is largely the case, since the oppositional parties are fragmented and weakened, that they are simply too busy with their internal conflicts to possibly represent the interests of the disillusioned masses.
Who is there, then, to take up on the burning issues that Georgian society as a whole needs to face and overcome, in order to complete the country’s ‘European integration’ and to finally gain an ‘EU candidate’ status? And why does this seem to be the single political issue that enjoys the unequivocal support of the people (over 80%)? The answer is easier than one might think, given the troubled history of Georgia and its Northern neighbour, the Russian Federation, coupled with the pressing existential risk of being a small, standalone ‘developing’ (impoverished, that is) country. In these days the situation does really seem unsustainably frightening, especially when one acknowledges the regressive rhetoric and policies of the governing party, as well as the already mentioned parochial clashes of the opposition. Thus, virtually all political actors organise themselves around this issue, from established parties through grassroots social movements to the large variety of NGOs active in the country. This being said, nevertheless, there are great differences amongst the positions, both in terms of political affiliation and the strategies/tactics mobilised. Some of the mushrooming activities in the capital city of Tbilisi have gained significant momentum in the last months, ranging from the setting up progressive LGBTQI+ positive art(ist-run) spaces to anti-capitalist community building and action groups in the fashion of the 2000’s alterglob movements. For the sake of fairness, it must be stated that these are still relatively small initiatives driven by engaged core communities (‘organic intellectuals’…?) and relying on funding from large international donors from the Rosa Luxembourg Stiftung to the Open Society Foundation. In other words, they belong to a social stratum that Kuba Szreder calls the projectariat. There are much larger institutions and NGOs, some of them progressive, some others far less so (led by technocrats to the neoliberal alt-right). But here I’d like to focus on the small, emerging ones for two reasons: (1) these are the ones I know the best, and (2) these are the ones, in my opinion, are prefiguring and building much needed fresh perspectives in the situation and mobilising subversive tactics.
As a postartistic practitioner invested in the possibility of the commons in the Eastern European (semi)peripheries I reckon that these are the organisations/organisms that will shape the near future of Georgian society. Or I hope they will.
These activities are all[ii] situated outside of the realm of professional party-politics. Therefore, the first phrase that comes to mind to describe them is that they are ‘civil society organisations’ (CSOs). But I have many problems with this notion. I was reluctant at the beginning to venture into the maze which has been built around this term, precisely because of its highly contested nature. But since in my dissertation I deal, in some detail, with the emergence of the liberal cultural hegemony in the period of the Eastern European system changes – which is largely considered to be the beginning of formation of a new civil society in the region – I believe I cannot spare the toil.
Let me begin by outlining the main point of contemporary Left critique, and then I’ll zoom out historically while keeping this perspective. ‘Civil society’ and its development is tied to the philosophical, socio-political, and economic transformation that countries in Europe underwent from the 16th century onwards. Given the global, colonial, and competitive development of these countries into a capitalist world-system and the hegemony of certain core countries within it (firstly Spain and Portugal, then England), this model has been exported around the globe, and treated as a system as universally given. Today, this integrated system of nation states and democratic capitalist markets defines the epoch, particularly in the former East, changing the very character of politics over the last two decades, East and West, North and South. Social struggles are no longer organised around class issues – that is, struggles to overcome capitalist exploitation – but rather around identities. And this shift has led to the repositioning of social movements away from what was immanent to the politics of the previous period: the struggle against capitalism. Instead of a class-based anti-capitalist struggle, we are left with a fragmented arena of smaller movements organised around ‘recognition’ and equality within the current democratic framework. Ellen Meiksens Wood, in her seminal essay from 1990, ‘The Use and Misuse of Civil Society’, articulates this point with clarity:
‘Civil society’ is generally intended to identify an arena of (at least potential) freedom outside the state, a space for autonomy, voluntary association and plurality or even conflict, guaranteed by the kind of ‘formal democracy’ which has evolved in the West. The concept is also meant to reduce the capitalist system (or the ‘economy’) to one of many spheres in the plural and heterogeneous complexity of modem society. (p63.)
To pave the way for a comparative perspective on civil society, it is important to start with sketching out the key differences between Western and Eastern societal transformations. Historically, there has been a great distance between the formation and development of the societies in the North-Western core and those in the pan-peripheries, due to what economists have called ‘uneven development’[iii]. This notion might seem problematic at first sight, given the assumption that the Western core countries are held to be, by definition, more developed. Nevertheless, it is impossible to avoid the issue of ‘unevenness’. To define this in more detail, then, will be my job in my next blog – without falling into the trap of developmentalism,
[i] To be precise, the fight continues: Lazare G., a 21-year-old person is facing 7-11 years in jail for allegedly throwing a Molotov cocktail during a fierce night battle.
[ii] For the sake of precision, one of the progressive groups, the ‘Young Greens’, did in fact officially become a political party in late 2022.
[iii] The term was coined by Trotsky and has been used, expanded, and detailed by a variety of scholars working in disciplines such as history, political economy, critical geography, and philosophy. My work is in line with ideas and debates shaped by Neil Smith, David Harvey, Immanuel Wallerstein, Robert Brenner, József Böröcz, Ágnes Gagyi, Márk Áron Éber amongst others.