From civil society to political society? Should NGOs become parties?

A challenging article from Open Democracy, written by a Polish civil society activist Agnieszka Wiśniewska, who sees an increasing need for NGOs and "non-aligned" organisation to think about entering party politics. Her references are European (she is on the board of DIEM25), but we can easily map over to the UK. An excerpt:

For many years now I have been meeting activists in Poland and in Europe – people working in NGOs, social movements, informal environments and cultural institutions. Some are embedded in professional western NGOs that resemble corporations, some occupy theatres or take over factories. We keep on talking about our actions, engagement, about our goals. Recently, we have started talking more about politics, because it looks as if the time when civil society ran in parallel or completely separately from politics is coming to an end. 

Civil society is a great idea. In a perfectly liberal-democratic world, where parliament really represents society and its diversity, where politics (and the space between politics and business) is not always populated by the same people, and where political parties articulate interests and develop ideas (or at least take seriously what think tanks are telling them), instead of just serving citizens the daily pulp called ‘message of the day’ – that’s where civil society can do a lot. 

It can create a space to engage people in defending different values, in scrutinizing those in political power (in such an arrangement, guardian, ecological, feminist or social equality organizations deliver a wake-up call if problems arise, and mobilise citizens so that politicians, enlightened or not, have to deal with a given topic). It can also organize people with hobbies or those who love their local area. All of this can be done by civil society in a perfect world. But as it happens, we do not live in one.  

In our world, and this is clearly visible in Poland, social organizations, i.e. those that formally constituted the NGO sector, but also those working informally, have been reduced to playing the role of patching up holes in places on which the State has given up. Activists work with kids from difficult neighbourhoods, care for those with handicaps and bridge educational inequalities. The city halls or ministries sometimes even help them by providing some money – because this is good business for both cities and the State. Activists usually do more for less. 

At the same time, in our world, we have been persuaded that politics is ugly (or maybe it has itself shown us its ugly face, so that no decent person ventures there?). Civil society was to be strictly non-political, and to keep politics at a healthy distance. This even makes sense, since back in the 90s in Poland we had an opportunity to have true politics, democratic elections and local authorities that were close to the people… And so we understood the division of labour. It was theoretically sound. 

Unfortunately, something went wrong. Politics has become a media spectacle, and the social associations and foundations have succumbed meanwhile to an ailment known as grantoid NGO-isation. Law and Justice’s rise to power tipped the balance in our country (and Orban’s in Hungary). That ‘innocent’, apolitical time is now over.

More here.