Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

Table of contents

Citizen Associations in Social Movement: Taking Back the Offensive

, by JOBARD Jean-Baptiste

It is difficult to examine the strengths and limitations of citizens’ movements— and thus to weigh, more specifically, the expectations that may reasonably be placed on how much associative action can contribute to ecological and solidaristic transition— without contextualizing the moment (especially when it is experienced as a “turning point”) in a long-term historical process. The format of the present article allows no more than a hit-and-run history, but this analysis only seeks to illuminate various association development scenarios that we will lay out in a second part.

To address the central question of how associations contribute to social progress in our neoliberal society, two elements of definition must be established. The first refers to Bourdieu’s description of neoliberalism as a utopia (in progress) of unlimited exploitation (on a planet whose resources are limited) through a political program that aims at destroying any collective structures opposing pure market logic. [1] A simple project, summed up in two sentences by Margaret Thatcher: “There is no such thing as society” (in other words, there are and should be only atomized individuals, thus the collective is not in order) and “There is no alternative,” also known as T.I.N.A.

Where does collective opposition fit in the order established by the neoliberal political project? What role for counterfire from the organizational structures Bourdieu speaks of, such as the Nation (which, as the sociologist noted as early as the turn of the twentieth century, “was less and less able to act,” [2]), collectives defending worker rights, unions, associations, cooperatives, and even the family ? We are concerned here more specifically with associations within social movements, a concept defined by Erik Neveu as “movements expressing tensions, unease, problems, or questions, reflecting the voice of those who find it difficult to have their voice heard through the ballot, media, or political or administrative authorities.” [3]

The dawn of a sixth historical phase of associative action?

To understand, let us look back, not to 1901, [4] but 110 years earlier. In France, the history of freedom of association begins, strangely enough, by a pure and simple ban: in 1791, the Loi Le Chapelier prohibited forming associations of individuals because “the principle of sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the Nation” according to the very words of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. Inspired by the liberalism of the Enlightenment, the revolutionaries of the time thought that in the Republic, one and indivisible, citizens must not be separated from the Nation by intermediary bodies.

However, from the beginning of the industrial era into the 19th century, many informal groups and associations emerged. [5] If they were illegal until 1901, they were also extremely active in creating a particular form of practical solidarity as a simple matter of survival through mutual aid. Pierre Leroux defined it as a “democratic solidarity” based on citizen equality, as opposed to “philanthropic solidarity” (making a spectacular comeback these days) based on the principle of charity, with no desire to challenge the (inegalitarian) established order of things: the hand that gives always remaining above the hand that receives.

So, until 1848, this consubstantial bond between solidarity and democracy was under development; a bond that illuminates how, as our system of social protections is weakened (particularly associations and their part in it), our democratic system itself is endangered. The first half of the 19th century, described by Eric Hobsbawm as “the age of revolutions,” was also that of associationism: the common melting pot from which arose today’s world of activist citizens’ associations, but also syndicalism (Loi de 1884), mutualism, and cooperationism. Indeed, the bloody repression of the “people’s spring” in 1848 put an end to the notion of three things as indissociable from each other: institutional political action to convey demands and proposals; the power of economic citizenship (particularly through the appropriation of the means of production, or even of consumption and distribution); and social justice in its everyday, prosaic form.

After this pioneering solidaristic and popular associationism, the second great historical phase (towards the end of the 20th century) subordinated these various associative forms to the slow, gradual construction of the welfare State characterized by the rule of law.

There were two fundamental changes. First, citizens’ social, political, and economic proposals conveyed through their associations (e.g. the claims, particularly economic claims, raised in the Canut revolts of the 1830s), started to be dissociated from one another. Indeed, social-democratic productivist logic is based on a sharp distinction between the economy, entrusted to capitalists and the for-profit private sector, on the one hand, and social services, entrusted to the State. In this view, social progress is achieved through economic growth, while the government should only act so as to enable market forces, while extracting and redistributing a portion of the produced wealth to reduce inequities and ensure a certain degree of social justice.

In this State-Market binary, associations become instruments complementing and extending the social State; and thus, its dependents. At that time, the deeply egalitarian principle of the first phase of associationism fades away. In fact, the social State does not conceive its action along horizontal relations and reciprocities between equal citizens, but rather in a vertical, top-down administrative design for redistribution, leaving little room for users or citizen initiatives of reciprocal solidarity.

After World War II, the Welfare State accentuated this phenomenon; evolution in the associative sector (especially salaried association staff) entailed an increased dependency on the government. A second crucial moment occurred, with a paradox. During the years of growth and reconstruction, associations’ increased means for action came hand in hand with a decreased autonomy, in comparison with the first historical phase in the early 19th century.

Starting in the 1970s with the weakening of Keynesianism, then the collapse of political systems claiming to be of Marxist inspiration, the rise of neoliberalism was first proclaimed in the intellectual sphere (by thinkers such as Hayek, Friedman, and the Mont Pelerin Society), then in politics (with the elections of Reagan and Thatcher, and the Washington Consensus [6]). The tenets of neoliberalism would travel far and wide (to Chile and other South American countries, to Africa), confirming a thesis later expressed by Jürgen Habermas: that of a contradiction, or an intractable tension, between developing capitalism (which creates inequalities) and promoting democracy (which postulates equality), this aporia contradicting the very social-democratic logic described above.

The neoliberal project consists of reducing the State’s scope of action, the public’s field of action, and, fundamentally, limiting democracy. It sees associations as an obstacle to this rationalization; they must be corralled into a subsector of a competitive economy, becoming suppliers of a kind of low-cost public service (“poor associations becoming poor suppliers… for the poor! [7]). This is the very opposite of what Harbermas describes, with his concept of autonomous public space (i.e. organizations arising from non-profit initiatives, certainly under private right, but seeking specifically to serve the public interest and thus participating in political work).

Like tectonic plates, great historical phases may overlap when they collide. At that time, the heritage of previous periods was still strong enough to retain a broad consensus that certain sectors should not and were not subject to the law of profit and maximization of gain: social services, cultural initiatives, education, humanitarian aid, and international solidarity… That consensus was shattered during the following phase of “second generation neoliberalism.” This postulated that the market had not only an invisible hand but an “invisible heart,” [8] and that therefore “the world is on the verge of a revolution [9] in the way society’s knottiest problems are resolved.” Now “doing well and doing good are no longer considered incompatible.” [10] A revolutionary (in the etymological sense) neo-philanthropy is now ruled by the forces of finance, with investments “benefiting from entrepreneurship, innovation, and capital, as well as market forces, to do good” … Is this the modern logic of win-win? Not so for associations in any event, pushed into the market as they compete with corporations as well as among themselves (starting in the 2000’s, there was not only a drop, but a shift in public funding; it is now based on government request for proposals (RFPs) and orders rather than subsidies, i.e. support for citizen initiatives. Associations are thus reduced to merely implementing public policy decisions… not made by them). The snare tightened even more with the tax reform of 1999, reversing the burden of proof: in contradiction to the terms of the Loi de 1901, associations are no longer considered a priori non-profit; they must prove that they are, or be taxed as businesses.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the situation grew even worse. The idea that“the historical importance of the public subsidy approach entering an era of economic constriction requires major change” has been advanced as a justification for France’s new funding instruments for associative action: Anglo-American-style impact investment funds. [11] Despite their cost, lack of proven effectiveness, complexity, and opacity, they are widely implemented, with the well-turned argument: “because we are in socio-economic transition, we are going to have to invent new social approaches, and shift from social spending to social investment while preserving public interest objectives. [12]

Social business for a start-up nation combines with the old idea of a program in which social entrepreneurs’ economic efficiency serves the public interest. In this perspective, associations are considered more or less pathetic anachronisms which have failed to solve social problems (even when “an insane amount of money” is spent on them, as Emmanuel Macron put it in June 2018). This is what Jean-Marc Borello , author of Capitalisme d’intérêt general (“Public interest capitalism”), clearly expressed : “Like it or not, within 10 or 15 years, there will be 10 times fewer associations, but they will be 10 times bigger! [13]

This 2013 prediction has at least partly come true. Studies show a bipolarization of the associative world ([very] small and mid-sized associations have been disappearing or hanging by a thread, particularly after the mass layoff following the termination of subsidized employment contracts in 2017; meanwhile, “large” associations, operating increasingly by market logic, continue to grow).

In reality, given its double unsustainability (social and environmental), the system of “public interest capital” cannot prevail: in the face of the unbearable increase of social inequality, on one hand, and of ecological catastrophe, on the other, massive support for this political project is completely unrealistic. The time is ripe for the last historical phase to emerge: the phase of the authoritarian drift.

In Europe, the unease caused by the shrinking of the democratic space is such that a consortium of private foundations funds programs allowing actors from civil society to react. Thus, following the example of Italy, Poland, Great Britain, and Hungary, L.A. Coalition Libertés Associatives is a recently-created French organization that aims at documenting the obstacles, attacks, and repressions to which actors working in different sectors (social, health, culture, legal aid, youth, sport, environment, etc.) are subjected.

Collectif des Associations Citoyennes taking part in a protest in Paris. Credit : Jean-Baptiste Jobard (CAC).

The weakening and destabilization of associations, their instrumentalization or even repression, their commodification, are no cause for fatalism or despair: things can still be turned around. But how?

Towards a 21st century associationism?

The first condition simply refers back to the previous section: writing its history. This means finding in the DNA of associations created two centuries ago, elements with the potential to remobilize the associative world to both bring social protection into today’s context and strive towards individual and collective emancipation. As history is written by the victors, vae victis, this isn’t an easy task, particularly in light of the double distortion (liberal and Marxist [14]) to which it has been subject. Nonetheless, this work is essential: historically contextualizing our heritage of social struggles restores our pride, which is a powerful weapon in political combats. If history has made us what we are, then we can make something out of what history has made us… To write one’s own history is also an attempt to define the future we want, as we lay out different desirable scenarios. This task invites a collective approach. [15]

The second condition is to begin humbly and to start with oneself. If we want to be the change we want to see in the world and if, as Gandhi put it: “there is same inviolable connection between the means and the end as there is between the seed and the tree,” let us then uphold the same consistency between our values, principles of action, and actions. It is a tremendous endeavor to translate this stringency into the internal functioning of associations, but it has one great advantage: it is immediately accessible and it is up to us to take it up. How are decisions made in an association? How can everyone be included and participate? Volunteer employers, professional staff, what new ways of working together can be invented? In short, how far can we take associations and the “democracy labs” they represent?

In the early 1900s, Jaurès aspired to throw “the Republic into the workshop.” Within associations, our modern workshops, how can the “res publica”, the public affairs, be self-managed? Whether it be through already existing and available practices and uses (particularly from free/libre and opensource software [FLOSS] activists) or interesting concepts (for instance, the way stimulating considerations on cultural rights through the Fribourg Declaration interact with conceptual developments regarding the commons following Olstrom’s analyses), associations may still contribute to the actualization of the very notion of citizenship.

A third challenge: to increase associations’ ability to contribute in the wider context of public action, including public services. In other words, fighting for the associative world also means fighting for public services, particularly through pro-active efforts to define under what conditions co-construction dynamics can be most successful. [16]

Fourth issue, related to the above: to invent a new funding structure for associations. As mentioned above, today’s repression on freedom of association was fostered by an underlying structure established over the years, through the reduction and alteration of public funding. A logic of elites and clientelism, based on asymmetrical bilateral relations between funder and funded, has reached some extremes. With the pandemic and the utopias of “when all this is over,” other modes of association funding seek to emerge (attribution by joint committees, funding for public inquiries and citizen initiatives managed in new ways, etc.). In short, another way of funding associations is possible, including by challenging the existing fiscal frameworks.

The fifth condition is to maintain the very essence of associations: their non-profit nature. In other words, against the constant expansion of the market, there must always be a non-mercantile economy. The question is still, how to ensure non-profit initiatives have the means to match their ambitions without chasing profit, performance, and productivity. Part of the answer is collaboration, which is the main motivation for projects such as Transiscope (a shared digital initiative mapping tens of thousands of interconnected alternatives, updated in real time). Another way to raise the issue, is asking how, in two, five, or ten years, we could facilitate and fund an even greater number of locally-developed solutions to systemic crises. How could they be upscaled and become systematic?

If David doesn’t choose the right slingshot, he has no chance of beating Goliath… The sixth condition for reviving associations, then, is choosing the right weapons, modest though they may be. And, if there is no slingshot at hand, sometimes a lucky grain of sand jams the machine. Then it’s a matter of combining global analysis with local and/or practical solutions. For instance, when Framasoft, a French association, conceives digital tool substitutes to Google’s, it highlights at the same time the political fight it is waging against the dominance of GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft).

In this political and ideological struggle, a crucial battle plays out on semantic grounds; the seventh condition is to fully participate in this war of words, as has long been urged by popular education organizations and collective projects, such as the one led by Transrural with the publication of Le pouvoir des mots (“The Power of Words”).

The eighth condition is to collectively find many other conditions: naming one’s opponents, finding allies, ensuring autonomy in the ability to evaluate (giving value, i.e., etymologically, life forces) one’s action, coordinating scales of intervention (e.g. helping migrants locally but, at the same time, thinking collectively, as with the États généraux des migrations [17], on national or even international level, as with the Dublin Regulation), or inventing a thousand other ways to amplify resistance and alternatives to the acceleration of capitalist time [18] and thus counter the groundswell of ressentiment [19]… And, as it is surely too late for pessimism, [20] as Daniel Tanuro might say, let us emphasize that tomorrow’s associationism will depend on our ability to fulfill these conditions for success (whose identification must be continued and refined) to facilitate a renewal so as to overcome the danger of the current situation and what it may entail in terms of self-censorship and, especially, resignation.


[1Pierre Bourdieu, Contre-feux (propos pour servir à la résistance contre l’invasion néo-libérale), Liber-Raisons d’Agir, 1998.


[3Erik Neveu, Sociologie des mouvements sociaux, La Découverte.

[4Translator’s note: 1901 marks the vote of a major bill in France history, laying the legal ground for “associations” as a type of non-profit organization publicly established and recognized.

[5On this underrecognized history, see Michèle Riot-Sarcey, Le procès de la liberté (une histoire souterraine du XIXe siècle), La Découverte. Also see Stan Neumann’s documentary mini-series, “Le temps des ouvriers” (particularly the first two episodes, “Le temps de l’usine” and “Le temps des barricades.”)

[6The Washington Consensus of the 1980s put an end to the previous paradigm, established by the Philadelphia Declaration of 1944, which affirmed that a lasting peace could only be established on the basis of social justice and that, therefore, economic progress was worthwhile only if it served that objective.

[7From interview with Julien Chandelier “Un monde associatif en alerte” (in preparation)

[8Speech by Sir Ronald Cohen reproduced in the Sibille report “Comment et pourquoi favoriser des investissements à impact social (innover financièrement pour innover socialement),” 2014.

[9See the very significant title of candidate Macron’s book laying out his program.


[11See many analyses by the CAC, for instance our roundtable in Le Monde, “Quand le social finance les banques et les multinationals,” on the SIB-CIS.

[12Interview given to Youphil : “Jean-Marc Borello : trois idées pour sortir de la crise,” October 2011.

[13Interview of JM Borello in Politis, President of SOS, member of the executive office of La République En Marche. JM Borello has also been called the «Bernard Tapie du social ».

[14See Chapteer 1 of JL Laville and M. Riot-Sarcey in Réinventer l’association (contre la société du mépris), Édition Desclée de Brouwer.

[15See JL Laville, P. Coler, G. Rouby and MC Henry (eds.) Quel monde associatif demain (des limites actuelles de l’action associative aux moyens de les dépasser), to be published May 2021, particularly C. Chognot’s “La prospective pour concevoir l’alternative.”

[16See the research-action work done, particularly by the CAC with other organizations and universities on co-construction, particularly the FRAISSE report, “Co-construction de l’action publique: définition, discours, enjeux et pratiques.”

[17Translator’s note: The États Généraux des Migrations is a French national platform of most of the organizations and associations working to protect and promote migrants’ rights.

[18Harmut Rosa, Résonance (une sociologie de la relation au monde), Édition La Découverte.

[19Cynthia Fleury, Ci-gît l’amer (guérir du ressentiment), Édition Gallimard.


Jean-Baptiste Jobard is the coordinator of the Collectif des associations citoyennes (CAC), established in 2010 to fight against the commodification of civic organisations and the reduction of their role to that of executors of public policy. This collective brings together activists from different backgrounds (culture, social, environment, sport, international solidarity, etc.) committed to building a more sustainable, participatory and inclusive society.