Democratic Resilience: Civil Society Organisations as Key Actors.

Civil society and active citizenship are often idealized in their function for democracy. Many people and donors put some efforts into their dissemination. Now it is time to ask: What can civil society realistically do in order to respond to populism and authoritarian threats? Key actors for making a society under a democratic perspective resilient are strong, independent and democratic civil society organizations with a focus on a common good and on social impact.

Around the falling iron curtain in 1989 in the different parts of Europe citizens reflected on the concept of democracy and the relation between state and citizens. In Central Europe former opposition activists like Adam Michnik described in the mid 80ies how the idea of Civil Society as a bottom-up driven free practice of citizens became able to transform the dictatorship in a civil way. In this perspective it’s the citizens setting up a society. György Konrad gave even an utopia a voice: trans- and cross-national cooperation between societies on the basis of the shared cultural heritage and diversity consciousness, even across the system borders [KONRAD 1987]. In the Western parts of Europe such ideas emerged parallel, fueled by the idea of citizens participation as a corrigendum or as a needed enrichment of representative democracy, like expressed by Benjamin Barber [BARBER 1984] or Jürgen Habermas. Social change can be shaped collaboratively in a bottom-up way, this was the message of Solidarnosc in Central Europe, and protest movements and new types of political parties in Western Europe. During the same time, in the United States Robert Putnam published his influential book “Bowling alone“, proving the importance of “social capital“ accelerated through citizens horizontal action for well-functioning democratic societies. The idea behind this concept is that ongoing social practice is helping people to build trust which has a positive impact on their willingness to cooperate: “The greater the level of trust in a society, the greater the likelihood of cooperation.“[PUTNAM 2001: 28] The greater and more diverse the level of cooperation, the more enriched in terms of such social capital and democratic practice is a society. In a macro-climate of participatory experimentation, socio-political deregulation and internationalization the concept of “civil society”, “new engagement” or “active citizenship” became popular throughout the continent by scholars and politicians. The expectation was that the operating system of modern society will receive an update, new actors will arise which are not caught in the ideological perspectives of the past and improved collaboration across country and social borders will take place. Self-confident citizens were in this sense as well perceived as social innovators. Alain Turaine put it in the German DIE ZEIT 1999 these days, in 1999:

The ‘top down’ oriented democracy has shaped a new sphere. After parties and trade unions as the most important representatives of social and workers’ rights now a new kind of political actor is developing: the civil society.”

Alain Touraine

On European level there was hope, that as well the old geopolitical thinking can be succeeded – civil society organizations as a actor across the internal European borders. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in June 1992 in Rio or the World Social Forum 2001 in Porto Allegre became romantic symbols for the potential of INGOs, international non-governmental organizations.

Basically the term “civil society” is describing a social sphere where citizens are acting, expressing and organizing. This sphere of civic engagement is in a lot of functional concepts labelled as the third sector with the state as the first and the economy as the second sector. Following Putnam, especially those places and practices in the citizens’ sphere are relevant, where in form of cooperation, discussion and exchange bridges are built to other people and organizations (bridging social capital). In this way a democratic public is (self-)constituted.

As well developing bondages between people with shared interests, values and beliefs is crucial (bonding social capital). In this way civil society organizations (CSOs) with a shared identity can be constituted and strengthen the voice of their involved individuals.

Furthermore, the existence of free associations can only be powerful, when they intend to have a social impact and contribute to a common good. Systemically spoken, when they learn cross-sectoral collaboration by trying to reach out to other citizens, feeding their ideas and positions into other social sectors, in example into politics or economy as advocates, as hybrid organizations, or as watchdogs. Catching up the idea of deliberation, civic structures are aimed to sustain through a longer time, but with the purpose to support citizens in their regular engagement. So civil engagement is from this perspective of individual active citizenship a kind of regular update of the common democratic agreement, from institutional perspective a current picture of the civic culture.

1. Confidence in Democracy, Hope, Trust

In the light of the anti-pluralistic threats of civil society and politics since then a lot of this assumptions prove as not being very realistic. When a tank comes into your street, the critical voices calm down, like the Turkish or the Crimean example showed. When the donors show no interest in your region a CSO chair is often not able to substitute them and to maintain the work. When political protests emerge the old political players re-organize themselves, but there is no game-changer from civil society able to disrupt the political closure. Or, look to activists from the countryside, where citizens are often sceptical according to democracy, diversity or pluralism. Here the often used narrative of the ‘good’ civil society versus the bad governments or states is misleading, one has to do with peers with authoritarian attitudes not trusting one’s good intentions.

All these different phenomenons are connected with trust. One issue is the need of confidence in the persistence of democracy and independent civil practice. “Will there be solidarity from other citizens when I expose myself in a risky situation?” This could be a question of a citizen in front of military and violence like in Crimea or Turkey. “ A lack of confidence is often connected with distrust in the credibility of CSOs. What would these NGO people do with my time, passion and money if I’d dedicate it to them?” Víktor Òrban is seeking to multiply this suspicions with his 2018 election campaign connected with accusations against CSOs as “the speculators’ people”, serving the international financial capital’s interest.[EÖTVÖS KÁROLY INSTITUTE/HEINRICH-BÖLL-STIFTUNG 2018] As well CSO themselves are questioning their ability to influence the society, to gain social impact. “Am I able to organize coalitions from civil society when I want to step into politics and change the system?” Last but not least the lack of trust and confidence does not originate from the powerful authoritarian elites, it is appearing in the heart of the society “Why are they trusting an authoritarian clergy or populist politicians more than us, their friends and family members?” This is the question activists have when they talk about democratic values with uncles, parents or in local communities.

Therefore, a key aspect of democratic civil society is its trustworthiness and its ability to shape spaces where trust can be practiced and developed. Such places and organizations seem to be more able to resist to authoritarian threats and to transform situations into more civilized and democratic configurations, what might be a broad definition of democratic resilience.

This is easier said than done. Because the fundamental problem with generalized trust is, that we are used to build trust by using personal social relations. But in a society groups and communication is too large that all members would be able to do so: “in complex modern societies the individual needs permanently […] to make decisions taking into account the future actions of strangers.“[FUCHS/GABRIEL/VÖLKL 2002: 429] Trust is more and more disconnected from familiarity or intimacy.

But how can trustworthiness be generated without familiarity? One answer is – by setting up free civil society organisations. According to Offe their big potential is that they help individuals to build positive relations toward those their involved individuals don‘t have a direct relation with. Offe argues with the specific expectation of truth and moral: “Institutions generalize trust to the extent they commit their members to the virtue of truth-telling, and to the extent they monitor and effectively detect (intentio-nal, as in lying, or unintentional, as in erring) violations of that norm.” [OFFE 1999: 73] In their operations these trustworthy institutions are the trustee in both directions.

We trust our fellow citizens (or, for that matter, fellow human beings) due to the fact that we share a significant institutional space with a sufficiently strong meaning so as to make the overwhelming majority of ‘strangers’ among my fellow citizens worthy of being trusted because I anticipate them to be appreciative of that meaning.“

OFFE 1999: 75

Another possible answer is, that people need to understand, that trust is a behavior, which means recognizing that it is on me to influence the level of social trust by trusting in others. Under this perspective trust can be distinguished from hope or confidence. Hope is the most passive attitude [SZTOMPKA 1999: 24], confidence has a more detailed and reasonable foundation, but is still passive: “Because in the case of confidence one is not actively involved [..], it is possible to blame disappointment on others, the regime, the system, the propaganda, the falsified information, the faked credentials, and so forth, but not on oneself.“ Trust is an active attitude, directed towards another person. As well Luhmann distincts trust, hope and confidence by “if the proability of a disappointment depends from our earlier personal behavior or not.“[LUHMANN 2001: 149]

So if trust is grounded on active behavior, this implies one can learn or unlearn it. CSOs could perceive their work and the style of how they work as a space for active citizenship, concretely as a space for trustbuilding through co-creation, participation and sharing power. A key role and challenge seems here to play the consciousness about social diversity and diversity management.In the context of the current debates about populism, radicalization and social decrease of trust we might consider, that a lack of social trust is not the mistake of some individual actors. One of the well known paradoxes inherited in the idea of democracy is that trust-building is taking place in a dichotomy between trust and distrust. Distrust can as well be perceived as a kind of systemically required ability, as critical thinking ability in order to assess the trustworthiness of social actors. “Trust appears in its essence as result of successfully neglected distrust and this leads to a political-constitutional order, where trustworthiness is grounded in the multiplication of chances for effective distrust.“[SCHMALZ-BRUNS 2002: 11] Citizens and their organizations need to be aware about this needed balance and measure populist recipes with the same attitude of criticism like populists analyze the “too complex“ politics of “the others“.

In this perspective free association, incentives for cooperation and critical thinking are supporting the ability of citizens to develop a balanced attitude between on the one hand trust and cooperation and on the other hand distrust and opposition.Without doubts the populist approach is gaining supporters throughout Europe. The populists neglect the systemic need for such balanced trust-distrust mechanisms and all other complexities. Instead they artificially re-personalize trust relations:

“Populism has to do, first of all, with a re-personalization of politics. The trust in political leaders is based not upon the track record of kept and broken promises, not on their known programmatic proposals and the constraints and possibilities afforded to them by their office, but upon their personal style, appearance, and media skills, and their reputation[…]“

OFFE 1999: 77

It might be considered as the weak point of populists, that they have no sufficient answers to the complexity in social problems and as well that they lack the ability to communicate with the others in a dialogue. It seems to be that they substitute such kind of systemic understanding with decisionistic attitude, hostile antagonistic mobilization of citizens, or introducing an artificial permanent state of exception with ongoing campaigns against the internal and external enemies. In such situations civil society organizations might and must show, that they are trustworthy by responding to others, showing openness, prove how they represent an alternative moral with a civil culture and practice. Peaceful in their methods, open for dialogue but decisive in their civil courage to address important social is-sues in the sense of “robust civility”. A concept of civility which is self-limiting its users in terms of not to affect the dignity and rights of others, but robust in terms of openness, tolerance for free expression especially of less powerful and marginalized groups and for art and comedy.[GARTON ASH 2016]

Citizens’ self-organization plays a fundamental role for building safe spaces and instigating democratic change. Organizations seem potentially to be more resilient to authoritarian threats and be able to convert such situations into more civil and democratic configurations. This could also be a rough definition of civil resilience.

2. Civil Resilience

Governments change, the “social glue” and social capital generated by democratic-minded citizens sustains. Their interactions help us to shape a democratic civic culture in a continuing way. For achieving this, we need to examine the success conditions for collective self-empowerment of citizens via civil society organisations. And we might even need to go one step further. When social conditions become worse – a powerful civil society should in theory be able to transform a non-peaceful, anti-pluralist, less-democratic political practice and culture in the direction of pluralism, democracy and rule of law. On a systems level the mission of civil society actors is to co-create the civic culture understood as “attitudes toward the political system and its various parts, and attitudes toward the role of the self in the system.”[vgl. ALMOND/VERBA 1963: 12] Furthermore, according to Pye, civic culture can be seen as the whole mental map of a society according to citzenship “[…]The traditions of a society, the spirit of its public institutions, the passions and the collective reasoning of its citizenry, and the style and operating codes of its leaders are not random products of historical experience but fit together as a part of a meaningful whole and constitute a intelligible web of relations.”[PYE/VERBA 1972: 7] Following this broad definition of civic culture, democratic resilience is then describing the ability to influence, co-shape and transform this inner landscape of the society and of its citizenry, in particular, to shape the way how it manifests in procedures, styles or narratives. Therefore, we prefer to use the term civil resilience.

Civil Resilience is describing the civil society’s ability to resist challenges or threats and to convert a current state. In particular it is expressing how an organization is contributing to the civic culture by incorporating and promoting democratic principles, attitudes and processes.

Civil refers to who is responsible for inducing and organizing social change in a civil society. And it refers to the way discussions, negotiations and disputes are conducted. CSOs contribute to fairness, peace, non-violence, participation and collective solution orientation.

Resilience describes the ability of CSOs to adapt to new conditions, develop resistance and be able to renew by rethinking their actions, catalyzed through external impulses. This includes adaptibility, creativity, strategy and a theory of social change.

3. Resistance, collaboration, dialogue

There is a conceptual blurriness to what extent CSOs should be opposition, partners or even parts of the power. It seems to be plausible that those with a significant social, cultural and economical capital dispose power. Furthermore, the idea of active citizenship is including the idea of empowerment. It is clear that the line between powerful and powerless is not necessarily the line between state and civil society or economy and civil society. The different and not always transparent allocation of power is under democratic perspective an obligation for CSOs to transparency and fairness and to using their power in a meaningful way. Under this perspective in a democratic society as well parties have an outreach to civil society, then as hybrid organizations with a civic membership culture, feeding citzens‘ needs into the state and governance.

On the other hand, innovation, alternatives and democratic social practices can under some circumstances better grow under the condition of fundamental opposition, especially when political power is over-forming the civil culture and occupying civil spaces (Putnam mentions the Italian example, Michnik the Polish).

In any case, civil disobedience is not a cheap to have option because it requires a clear moral basis. “It is living from the power of non-violence and its ability to justify itself in regards to the content” [KLEGER 2013: 164]. The “civility of disobedience” is bound to criteria such like the consideration of material and immaterial effects, guidance to the goal, peacefulness and the relatedness of the action taken to the higher constitutional values.[KLEGER/MAKSWITAT 2014]

However, a fundamental opposition without an idea of how to transform society and how to shape dialogue will feasible fall back into a state of self-closure, self-reassurement and maybe even hostile antagonism. It will loose ties to the external world, to possible cooperation partners and be characterized more as a community of believers than a community of active citizens. Speaking with the Polish opposition member and later foreign minister Władysław Bartoszewski:

“An inseparable element of democracy is the will to achieve understanding – in other words the willingness to engage in dialogue.“

Władysław Bartoszewski

4. Key aspects of democratic resilience

What are the relevant abili-ties or key features resilient civil society organizations need to deve-lop? The following overview might describe them in a more precise way.

Institutional Trust

Organizations offer people opportunities to trust in others and they also prove this with their internal and external credibility. A network of trustworthy organizations constitutes democratic public sphere. Through this they mobilize and generate social trust by defining balance: between cooperation and competition, be-tween drawing people and building bridges between them to other social groups.

Systems & Political Thinking

Social life is an interaction of different spheres, logic and organizations. CSOs impacting entire society need to look at their mission, at the bigger picture and how they are contributing to it. Systems thinking encloses as well their ability to respond to the fundamental challenges of democracy and state with own internal and external behavior, in example regarding: the rule of law, corruption, fairness or solidarity. Democratic Resilience requires especially understanding of political issues and how one relates to the fundamental ethical-normative ideas.

Robust Civility

The ability to free speech and to constructive and peaceful engagement in conflicts can be described as robust civility, including the ability to (re-)establish such principles. As well concrete practices in order to prevent violations of these principles and measures enabling (especially marginalized) groups to speak publicly fall into this category, in example protest, demonstration, civil disobedience.

Inclusion and Democratization

Representation and participation require open spaces for individual engagement. Inclusive CSOs develop fair and participatory governance. They combine an inclusive attitude with democratic standards such as responsiveness, transparency or clear and legitimate responsibility.

Collaborative Impact

Around common sources common spaces are developing, this idea is rooted in the concept of the Commons. require common sources. If organizations are able to perceive themselves as democratic Commoners or part of a collective effort, they have the chance to contributing to new common goods, increasing their impact and developing cooperation competences. The ground for collective impact is shaped by open access, the search for win-win arrangements and the ability to organize as backbones of collective efforts.


Creating communication across media, the ability to campaigning, responding to negative campaigns and fake news are key especially for actors in authoritarian environments. Communication means the sum of of communication, behavior and design used for shaping the relations to the internal and external audiences.Although the majority of CSOs are not connected to politics and general democratic issues, the need to explain their relation to these. In example to demonstrate their theory of change, what kind of democratic change they are intending in their concrete working field and beyond.

5. Empowerment

If civil resilience is the ability of citizens to proactive, self-responsible, democratic-minded collective action, it can on an individual level be considered as civic competence. The term competence refers to the combination of knowledge, skills, values and attitu-des in order to enable citizens for this action.

“Thus,‘democratic competence’ is the ability to mobilise and deploy relevant psychological resources (namely values, attitudes, skills, knowledge and/or understanding) in order to respond appropriately and effectively to the demands, challenges and opportunities presented by democratic situations.“


The starting point is empowerment of individual citizens for public expres-sion and for proactive, targeted engagement in CSOs: Empowerment is a process of promoting skills in public social activity, cooperative organization, and involvement in public deci-sion-making. [COMPETENDO] It deals with questions like:

  • How do you gain power?
  • How do you use power?
  • How do you shape power relations?
  • How can you influence socially relevant conversations and decisions?

Another fundamental aspect seems to be that CSOs can offer spaces for creativity and co-creation.[ZIMMERMANN, LEONDIEVA, GAWINEK-DAGARGULIA 2018] CSOs might be places for envisioning and for initiative and offer such places to other citizens. [BACIGALUPO, KAMPYLIS, PUNIE, VAN DEN BRANDE 2016] Therefore, the question of qualitative participation comes more into foreground and the exclusive focus on their outputs like it was happening during the last decades must be questioned. Organizations need to define their purpose more as informal or non-formal learning spaces. Following the authors of the Competencies for a Democratic Culture, organizations are important supporting structures for democratic citizenship:

“While democratic institutions are not self-sustaining without an accompanying culture of democracy, it is also the case that democratic culture and intercultural dialogue are not self-sustaining in the absence of appropriately configured institutions.“


Rethinking their purpose under this priority leads CSOs to a new perspective on their clients or target groups, seeing more their potential as partners and members. The attitude shift might be explained through the slogan: Working with others instead for others. It is basically about sharing power and enabling the stakeholders to learn how to self-empower.

Resilient organizations are able to connect this openness toward the inside and outside stakeholders with a impact-oriented mindset. This includes to understand relevant discourses and to involve in them. Civil resilience is a counter strategy to the analysis delivered by Orysia Lutsevich for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia: “Bürger sind in weiten Teilen von öffentlicher Deliberation über wichtige Angelegenheiten isoliert, denn die lokalen NGOs haben sehr wenig Fähigkeit ihnen dabei zu helfen, Meinungen zu bilden oder die Politik, die sie betrifft, zu beeinflussen. Westlich finanzierte Organisationen sind nicht gesellschaftlich verankert und schaffen eine Art ‘NGOkratie’.” [LUTSEVICH 2013: p.4] A first step is that CSOs assess more critically to what extent they are part of a solution and of the problem. Another step would be to feel empowered to being part of a holistic (and necessarily political) democratic solution. The power of democratic change grows from thios attitude, required to follow the path of democratic change, paving the space for citizens engagement from the bottom-up.

This article is a modified version of the article “Democratic Resilience and Civic Education” published in: STEPS-Survival Toolkit for EDC in Post-factual Societies, Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe.


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