Archive for April, 2013

Civil Society and Accountability

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

“Civil Society means accountability”. Sounds good. Good election slogan. What is accountability? What is civil society? Is this interrelated? Is here something wrong?
Civil society is an amoeba, that came into literature in the late 18th century. Some people say that it is the leftover of ALL minus FAMILY, minus BUSINESS, minus STATE. Other people do not say what it is, but make themselves and others belief that that they know what it is by repeating the term all the time. Again others use it as a description of an Elysium, as something what has to be achieved. Some people use the term as an analytical category, others as an aim; and this makes it so difficult to agree on what it is.
When I first heard the word civil society, I thought: “What would be the opposite? Probably a martial society!” Civilians and warriors are usually considered to be antagonists, isn´t it? Here are the good guys, there are the bad guys – everything is clear. But is the world like this? No. Things are usually mixed. Thus, I looked out for warriors of civil society. I had not to search for a long time; I understood that politics is a kind of permanent fight in an arena, which we usually call civil society. I personally “liked” most of all this idea of civil society as a kind of arena, in which, we – actors, protagonists or gladiators, sponsored by different interest groups – fight for our lives by amusing the audience.
And accountability? Probably, accountability is the ability to account. Hence, there is this call for duty in the word: somebody has to account to somebody. Or, in order to stay in the metaphor used above: Accountability is one of the standard weapons that is used in the arena of civil society. To make this clear: Accountability is not a standard weapon in aristocracies, in tribes, in armies. Hard to imagine, how the entourage of Louis XIV would require that the sun king should report to the yard on his last travel expenses. Impossible to think that clansmen would require from the chief that he should draw up an inventory list. And an officer, who would answer on a command from his general with the sentence “Of course, we can take height 211 – we make you a special price” would either face military trial or psychiatric treatment. In martial societies, there is no deal, there is no choice, there is no freedom of contract – and consequently, there is no debit and credit. There are only budget decisions, and measures to enforce budget execution. The standard weapons in these “older” societies are draggers, sables or pistols on forty steps. As a rule of thumb, we can say that societies of non-accountability regulate their affairs not through accounting but through duels or bloodshed. Heroism is part of these societies. Heroism is not part of the civil calculation, as Hegel mentioned.
In our days, the request for accountability challenges authorities, without risking much. We can require accountability to the public from each and everybody, and in requiring so, there is no disadvantage for us. The risk is on the side of those who have to account. In a civil society, who has to account to whom? The citizens have to report their income to the state. State officials have to report to its citizens. Greenpeace requires Shell to report to the public. Members require Greenpeace management to report on the usage of funds. Directors require their employees to report on their work time. Trade unionists require employers to report on their financial position. Donors require donees to report on the usage of funds. Who is, in this arena, not accountable to nobody?
It is, in democracies, the people who is not accountable to nobody. This is probably the deeper reason why democracies have this ugly attitude to live on the account of future generations. Nobody can hold citizens accountable for their irresponsible decisions. Nobody? Ah, future generations can hold previous generations accountable for their sins. It is this time lap of 30 or 60 years that causes so much problems in our systems of accountability at the moment, I believe.
Accountability makes the arena of civil society bigger, by drawing spectators into the ring. Yesterday, Mr. Bill Gates thought, that he is only accountable to the tax inspection. Today, the public believes that Mr. Gates is accountable for the deeds of good, which he is doing. This means that not the donee is accountable to the donor, but the donor to the public. The same will happen to other institutions who thought to be only spectators of the fights, down there, in the sand of the arena. There is no place to hide even for the Churches. The Vatikan is subject to requirements of financial transparency – have we ever heard of this in the last two thousand years? The public even requires transparency in the secret service. And even Swiss banks are leaking. The hunger for accountability is breathtaking. It is accelerating.
The last extension of the civil audience was to give all internet users the possibility to raise their thumb – did somebody mention the coliseum like metaphor behind the “thumb up”-button of Facebook? The like-button makes that civil society is everywhere. Everybody could be drawn into the arena, at every moment.
But there is one tricky thing in this: You cannot expect from these gladiators that they respect the border line between arena and audience. At one day, the gladiators might jump over the wall and a handful would be enough to change the rules of the game. The interrelation of accountability and civil society is, it seems, not a stable one. On the long run, unlimited accountability may undermine civil society. The consequence is that a civil society which is interested in its stability should probably limit accountability. Is there a majority for this?

For reference we recommend C. Schmitt, Legality and Legitamcy , Duncker & Humboldt, 1st issue Berlin, 1932.
Frank Fabel, CPA