Andreas Önnerfors | 27 January 2020
The global rise of ‘uncivil society’
The globalisation of world politics has derailed the state as the principal political agent in the international system. Despite a powerful (rhetorical) return of state agency underpinned by populist rhetoric–as the cases of the US under Trump, the UK under Johnson or the neo-realist governance of Putin amply exemplify-- there is nothing that suggests that the trend of decoupling power and territory will not continue for the foreseeable future. This is occasioned not least by globally shared burdens without borders such as migration, climate change, economic inequality and a host of existing and unpredictable violent conflicts. From an idealist position understanding of the international system, there has been an underlying normative assumption that agency exerted by transnational civil society is capable of mitigating some of these downsides or can even promote the positive universalist values of international order. The recent initiative to establish a world parliament can be seen as an example of this development towards inclusive global governance. National and local NGO’s and INGO’s are expected to compensate for larger policy failures through voluntary action. The efforts of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) – despite their systematic lack of accountability and resilience – have developed, and are likely to retain, a major role in off-setting deficits of governance through the delivery of political goods. However, it is possible to witness another, contradicting trend: the rise of a global ‘un-civil’ or ‘non-civil’ society, aggressively promoting particularism and abusing the inclusive universalism of the human rights framework for its own exclusionary purposes. These positions are coupled with populist meaning-making, the process by which these expressions are identified as performative representations of the ‘people’s voice’ from below.
Whereas there is no salient definition of uncivil society to date, several researchers have, over the last decade, noticed the emergence of a reverse ‘dark’ or even ‘dirty’ side of civil society. It is challenging to delineate any genealogy, but tentatively, it appears as if this flip side of civil society emerged in the counter-jihadist margins after 9/11. Movements like the aggressively Islamophobic “Stop the Islamization of Nations” (‘SION’, since 2012) were able to mobilize followers on a global level and branch out into a number of national organisations. SION defines itself on Facebook as a “Human rights organization dedicated to freedom of conscience and individual rights.” My personal definition of uncivil society would read:
“Uncivil society is a form of political self-organisation with four aims: 1) The removal of the normative ideal of a political community ruled by law. 2) The weakening of standards the universal human rights regime. 3) The promotion of aggressive and exclusionary principles of (populist) particularism. 4) The abuse of constitutionally granted liberties in order to promote their opposite, mainly in order to attack political opponents and to target perceived enemy groups. In organisational terms, Uncivil Society Organisations (UCSOs) mimic the features of CSOs such as names, organisational culture, symbols, forms of online and offline mobilization, PR, fundraising, voluntary action and internal as well external solidarity. Their claim is to represent popular political will without mediation.”
Performance of populist demands
In theoretical terms, UCSOs also place new types of demand on the international system based upon neo-realist and particularist convictions, a fundamentalist ‘idealism of realism’ and a shared meta-ideology of populist self-interest (which seems as a paradox). In the case of Europe, this trend has been observable for a while now. The idea of ‘ethno-pluralism’ and ‘mixo-phobia’ is, for instance, promoted by the pan-European youth movement of the ‘Génération Identitaire’ and its various national offshoots such as PEGIDA in Germany. Their ultimate goal is a continent constituted of ethnically segregated and purified territories but still united by a shared civilisation in which the cultural, racial and religious other has been eliminated or ‘integrated’ into the majority culture. Another feature that characterises these entities is the absence of any forms of societal elites or mediating instances of representation ensuring veto points, checks-and-balances in decision-making or objective legal accountability. Favouring organic metaphors, the radical right is convinced that matters of decision-making are an expression of unmediated ‘popular will’ and grassroots democracy, among the collective of likeminded nationals, born into the community. This ‘popular will’ is channelled by a leader who listens to and speaks the voice of the collective, who performs the people.
Hijacking human rights
Instead of opposing the human rights regime, another trend among internationally interconnected UCSOs is that they have weaponized their language and reverted their claims. From its eighteenth-century origins, the purpose of universal human rights have been twofold: to delimit the infringement of civil liberties from the side of the state (such as freedom of assembly or expression within the framework of civil and penal law) and to ensure access to or fulfilment of other rights from the side of the state (such as the more abstract rights to health and education). Human rights have also been designed to protect social minorities who are prone to discrimination due to ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or political beliefs. These major aims have now been identified by UCSOs as strategic tools to promote their exclusionary ideology. A number of such claims are made to, for instance, ‘free speech’, minority protection (the ‘white race’ is under threat) and even LGBTQI+-rights (so-called ‘homo-‘ and ‘femo-nationalism’).
A particularly toxic claim is that of ‘free speech’ since it is perceived as so fundamental and all-encompassing beyond the protection of minorities and their rights. Moreover, ‘free speech’ has branched off into sub-areas such as ‘academic freedom’, a loosely defined concept that aims to describe fundamental values of research and academic teaching. It is, in this respect, helpful to again remind of the historically intended remits of human rights, to define borders of infringement between state and individual, to enable the universal exercise of rights and to protect minorities. But as overwhelming expertise in the area of human rights has argued, freedom of speech is not a positive right in the sense that allows individuals ‘to say what whatever you like about whatever, when- and where-ever’. It is reasonable that states, for instance, restricts free speech if it incites violence and hatred against individuals and groups or due to any other reasonable public interest that is set out in law that, as such, is subject to potential contestation. However, there is almost no argument among UCSOs concerning the complexity of free speech as a negative right (ie., protection from state infringement), the infringement of the rights of other groups and individuals or the legality of restrictions in the light of punishable offences.
Freedom of speech defences
The major purpose that UCSOs push for their own version of ‘freedom of speech’ is to defend their own right to express and to disseminate offensive opinions against their antagonists and perceived ideological enemies. This emerges when analysing, for instance, the Danish so-called ‘Freedom of the Press’-Association (‘Trykkefrihetsselskabet’) which, for a while, had a Swedish offshoot. Another example is the German PEGIDA-movement. What is perfectly clear is that the claim of freedom of expression almost exclusively is made in order to attack Islam, ‘political correctness’ or ‘gender ideology’ of ‘cultural-Marxist’ fashion. This fits into a larger pattern of free speech defences of the far-right, analysed by Will Allchorn in a future publication. Allchorn characterizes “freedom of speech defences to justify the airing of both anti-migrant and anti-elite sentiments” as an “illiberal form of liberalism”, liberal speech is used “for illiberal ends”. By analysing the cases of Tommy Robinson (former leader of the English Defence League), Milo Yiannopoulos and Geert Wilders, Allchorn is able to demonstrate how “free speech defences are connected to other narratives of victimization and silencing”. When free speech activists are taken to court or questioned, the reaction is always one of victim reversal. They claim to be silenced whereas it is the content of their speech that victimises others. Secondly, free speech claims are “used to undermine the legitimacy of state institutions”. Whenever a case goes to court, “the notion of ‘political’ trials is used in order to […] de-legitimize […] the judicial process” and thus “eroding the foundations of the rule of law”. Allchorn’s qualitative comparison is substantiated by research in social psychology.
As a study at the University of Kansas has shown, prejudice, not principle underpins free speech defences of racist language: “the new study reveals a positive correlation […] between having racial prejudice and defending racist speech using the ‘free speech argument’“. Another important conclusion is that ”freedom of speech defences are unprincipled; it only appears for prejudiced people when it is needed.” Hence (but, of course, more research is needed) it appears as if free speech advocacy is a predictor of exclusionary ideas, its aim is primarily to defend offence. Last but not least, Gavan Titley, author of a forthcoming book titled “Is free speech racist?” highlights a number of paradoxes: one of them is that although there are enormous possibilities for free speech today, the question of what is allowed to be said has never been more contested. Another paradox is that the issue of free speech almost entirely gravitates around the defence of xenophobic and racist statements and other offences. Moreover, in the era of social media and digital dissemination, the competition for ‘being listened to’ is almost limitless. According to Titley, “lots of racism is articulated as defending ‘good things’ in societies […]” and thus racist and other outdated or defeated ideas are brought back to the public ground (not least to university campuses), contributing to their equalisation with other ideas. But by coupling the legitimate protest against racism with likewise legitimate freedom of speech defences, the radical right engages in “language games” with the rhetorical aim of blame reversal and victimization. Another strategy is that an over-focus on legal thresholds and on the dichotomy for and against freedom of speech deflects from more fundamental questions. We are in need of a proper definition of what speech actually is and what we mean by its contribution to society and the circulation of ideas, not least when confronted with its automated dissemination. For those working in academia, another take-away is that the initiatives to ‘strengthen academic freedom’ frequently follow the same pattern. The mobilization of ‘academic freedom’ around the globe is a laudable purpose in principle – with the risk of cloaking significantly more sinister aims than to promote freedom of inquiry and teaching. A case in point would be the Swedish organisation, Academic Rights Watch, declaring the noble goal “to watch over academic freedom in Sweden”. However, behind the façade, ARW represents a charitable foundation without any accountability, with an opaque organisational structure and a shady agenda.
UCSOs and International Relations
To conclude, international relations theories generally assume that the role of CSOs in the international system contributes to its stability. There is a normative expectation that CSOs are able to mitigate and balance the downsides of international realist and particularist politics with more idealist, universal and liberal approaches. However, since 2001, we have witnessed the quick rise of CSOs with illiberal and populist agendas. Since these organisations have yet be classified, I suggested that we might call them ‘Uncivil Society Organisations’ (UCSOs) who frequently engage in free speech defence as one of their primary aims. It is obvious that our positions regarding free speech have to avoid being trapped in an unproductive dichotomy that gravitates around legal thresholds (what is decent and offensive to say and what not?) or what types of restrictions that appear sound and justifiable (for historical and moral reasons). We should instead leave these divisive language games behind us and focus on the position of speech in political culture at large. In this vein, we need to acknowledge that UCSOs in the international system are hijacking human rights language to engage in stratagems of reversal on multiple levels.
Andreas Önnerfors is Associate Professor in the History of Sciences and Ideas at the University of Gothenburg. His research interests include populism, human rights, and far-right extremism in the international system.