Civil Society and Its New Enemies

PRAGUE - Genuine civil society is the truest fundamental of democracy, a truth often forgotten in the heat of election campaigns. Although Communism could, every now and then, coexist with private ownership, sometimes with private enterprise, it could never coexist with civil society. So the most fateful attack that accompanied the installation of Communist power everywhere was an attack on civil society.

The freedom of speech that Communism suppressed overnight could, on its fall, be restored overnight. Restoration of civil society – the many parallel and mutually complementary ways in which citizens participate in public life – has been far more complicated. The reason is self-evident: civil society is an intricately structured, very fragile, sometimes even mysterious organism that grew over decades, if not centuries. After years of virtual non-existence, civil society, therefore cannot be restored from above, or by legal fiat. Its three pillars – private, voluntary associations, decentralization of the state, delegation political power to independent entities – can only be rebuilt patiently.

In the ten years of postcommunist transition our new political elites take either an apathetic stance towards rebuilding civil society or actively oppose it. As soon as these elites gained power, they became unwilling to surrender any of the state authority they inherited. Many democratic, even anti-Communist politicians are now, paradoxically, defending the overblown governmental powers that are relics of the Communist era.

This is why many schools, hospitals, cultural institutions and other establishments remain governed by centralized administrations, although they could have transformed themselves into organizations that the state would watch from a distance or support through transparent procedures. Debate on decentralization of the state has been dragging on for nine years without any government department displaying the willingness to transfer powers to regions or to municipalities without a fight. This is why taxation in our country remains excessive: the state has to pay for a thousand things which it would not have to pay if an advanced civil society existed, because citizens would pay for them directly.