Civil society now

That democracy depends on an independent civil society is a bedrock assumption in political theory. In the USA, we've just held an election that will test this theory against reality.

Like so many people, I've spent the last few days trying to reconcile my feelings, my fear, my skills, my political beliefs, my social commitments, and my morality with the immediate and longer-term future that millions of my countrymen just voted for.

I believe we have to take the elected campaign at its word. The intention of the incoming administration is to take the USA back in time in terms of economic policies, racial equity, social justice, and its interactions with the rest of the globe. That's what the "again" meant.

Accepting that this vision has been handed the reins of power is daunting, but the past provides some perspective. We know how these types of choices have played out in the past. We can learn from history, our own in the U.S. and others' around the globe. We can look to previous generations and contemporary societies. 

We who disagree with all of the above intentions of the incoming administration need to fight against these plans at every level. We need to protect ourselves and our neighbors from already escalating street level violence while also working for structural change that could actually provide justice and opportunity.

Civil society in the U.S. will be tested in terms of its ability to hold the newly elected administration accountable, to stand for the rights of those who didn't support the election victors (in this case, the majority of voters), and to remain steadfast protectors of our individual and collective rights to free expression, free press, free assembly, and privacy. Again, there are things we can learn from and build with allies in the U.S. and abroad. What has happened here is not unique, it has unfortunate parallels and amplifiers in many places around the world, here and now.

But, there are elements of this moment that have no easy historical analogues. The role of cyber attacks and cross national government/NGO manipulation may have antecedents, but in today's versions we see the dangers of the scale, rapidity, and decentralized nature that are also our digital systems' great strengths.

We know our policies and regulatory frames are not ready for these challenges.

We know that most NGOs and nonprofits and civic associations are not equipped to manage and govern their digital resources in safe, ethical, and effective ways - either to protect themselves and the people they serve or to prevent themselves from becoming puppets of forces they cannot see.

Civil society doesn't have the luxury of time. The structures of civil society have been upended by the digital age - and not in ways that position us well to take on the tasks at hand. We knew what the demands were for digital civil society - and of democracies in the digital age - on Monday. But back then, we mistakenly thought we had  time to bring our institutions and legal practices closer in line with the nature of digital action. Today these demands are clearer to more people - and more pressing. And we've lost too much time already.




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