A WORLD FOR ALL?
Global Civil Society in Political Theory and Trinitarian Theology
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2011 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
A World for All? Thoughts on Global Civil Society
When historians look back on our times, they are sure to note a most remarkable development: the end of the world that was familiar to Adam Smith. When Smith, in Wealth of Nations (1776), famously analyzed the market economies of the Atlantic region, he supposed that industries and services of all kinds enjoyed a "natural protection" from foreign competition, thanks to geographical distance. The world of Adam Smith was influenced by a political economy in which business was mainly "homespun," and it remained so well into the twentieth century. It was a world of shallow integration: arm's length trade in raw materials, goods, and service among independent firms and by means of international movements of capital.
Our world, by contrast, is caught up in processes of deep integration. This intensive integration—I have argued in Global Civil Society? (2003) —is heavily responsible for stimulating a new global awareness. Business is a bridge, and often enough a battering ram, a force that breaks down barriers among peoples, cultures, and geographic regions. There are other globalizing forces at work, including efforts at cross-border political and legal integration and civic initiatives and social movements, but business is undoubtedly a prime mover in fostering strong images of ourselves as involved in a great human adventure, one that not only is carried out on a global scale but also stimulates a new awareness that we are being drawn into a global civil society.
These three unfamiliar words, global civil society—a neologism of the last twenty years—were born at the confluence of a number of overlapping streams of concern among publicly-minded intellectuals at the end of the 1980s. Of special importance were the revival of the old language of civil society, especially in central-eastern Europe, after the military crushing of the Prague Spring; the heightened appreciation of the revolutionary effects of the new galaxy of satellite/computer-mediated communications (captured in Marshall McLuhan's famous neologism, "the global village"); the new awareness, stimulated by the peace and ecological movements, of ourselves as members of a fragile and potentially self-destructive world system; and the world-wide growth spurt of neoliberal economics and market capitalist economies structured by deep integration. Fed by such developments, talk of global civil society has become popular among citizens' campaigners, bankers, diplomats, nongovernmental organizations, and politicians. World Bank documents welcome "the opportunity to work with civil society"; the Asian Development Bank similarly speaks of the need to "strengthen cooperation with civil society"; and even the World Trade Organization (WTO) declares its support for dialogue with the world's civil society institutions. In these and other contexts, the phrase "global civil society" tends to become protean and promiscuous, to the point where some observers understandably grow skeptical and begin to ask: what do these words actually mean?
There is general agreement that talk of global civil society is a response to rising concerns about the need for a new social and economic and political deal at the global level. And parallels are sometimes observed with the early modern European invention of the distinction between government and civil society, which emerged during the period of questioning of the transcendental foundations of order, especially of monarchic states claiming authority from God. Beyond this elementary consensus, many discrepancies and disagreements are evident. Some writers, policy makers, and activists see in the idea of global civil society a way of analyzing and interpreting the empirical contours of past, present, or emergent social relationships at the world level. Others mainly view the concept in pragmatic terms, as a guide to formulating a political strategy; still others view it as a normative ideal. In practice, these different emphases often crisscross and complement each other. Yet since they can and do also produce divergent types of claims, it is important to distinguish among them and, as far as possible, to avoid mixing them up and producing confusion.
Given the versatility of the term, which is surely one of the reasons for its rising popularity, it follows that its different usages should not be conflated, as is typically done when the words global civil society are flung about in vague, simplistic, or tendentious speech. This is the point at which an attempt carefully and prudently to define global civil society must be made. Allow me to try my hand, initially by using it as ideal-type concept—as an intentionally produced mental construct or "cognitive type" (Umberto Eco) that is very useful for heuristic and expository purposes, for naming and clarifying the myriad of elements of a complex social reality, even though it cannot be found in such "pure" form anywhere within the social world itself. When the term global civil society is used in this way, as an ideal-type, it properly refers to a dynamic non-governmental system of interconnected socio-economic institutions that straddle the whole earth, and that have complex effects that are felt in its four corners. Global civil society is neither a static object nor a fait accompli. It is an unfinished project that consists of sometimes thick, sometimes thinly, stretched networks, pyramids, and hub-and-spoke clusters of socio-economic institutions and actors who organize themselves across borders, with the deliberate aim of drawing the world together in new ways. These non-governmental institutions and actors tend to pluralize power and to problematize violence; consequently, their peaceful or "civil" effects are felt everywhere, here and there, far and wide, to and from local areas, through wider regions, to the planetary level itself.
I should like to look carefully at six elements of this rather abstract definition. Considered together, these tightly coupled features of global civil society mark it off as historically distinctive. To begin with, the term global civil society refers to non-governmental structures and activities. It comprises individuals, households, profit-seeking businesses, not-for-profit non-governmental organizations, coalitions, social movements, and linguistic communities and cultural identities. It feeds upon the work of media celebrities and past or present public personalities—from Gandhi, Bill Gates, Primo Levi, and Martin Luther King to Bono and Aung San Suu Kyi, Bishop Ximenes Belo, Naomi Klein, and al-Waleed bin Talal. It includes charities, think tanks, prominent intellectuals (like Tu Wei-ming and Abdolkarim Soroush), campaigning and lobby groups, citizens' protests responsible for "clusters of performances," small and large corporate firms, independent media, Internet groups and websites, employers' federations, trades unions, international commissions, parallel summits, and sporting organizations. It comprises bodies like Amnesty International, Sony, Falun Gong, Christian Aid, al Jazeera, the Catholic Relief Services, the Indigenous Peoples Bio-Diversity Network, FIFA, Transparency International, Sufi networks like Qadiriyya and Naqshabandiyya, the International Red Cross, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network, the Ford Foundation, Shack/Slum Dwellers International, Women Living Under Muslim Laws, News Corporation International, OpenDemocracy.net. Considered together, these institutions and actors constitute a vast, interconnected, and multi-layered non-governmental space that comprises many hundreds of thousands of more-or-less self-directing ways of life. All of these forms of life have at least one thing in common: across vast geographic distances and despite barriers of time, they deliberately organize themselves and conduct their cross-border social activities, business, and politics outside the boundaries of governmental structures.
Second, we can say that global civil society refers to a vast, sprawling non-governmental constellation of many institutionalized structures, associations, and networks within which individual and group actors are interrelated and functionally interdependent. As a society of societies, it is "bigger" and "weightier" than any individual actor or organization or combined sum of its thousands of constituent parts—most of whom, paradoxically, neither "know" each other nor have any chance of ever meeting each other face-to-face. Global civil society is a highly complex ensemble of differently sized, overlapping forms of structured social action; like a Tolstoy novel, it is a vast scenario in which hundreds of thousands and millions of individual and group adventures unfold, sometimes harmoniously through co-operation and compromise, and sometimes conflictually. Like all societies in the strict sense, it has a marked life or momentum or power of its own. Its institutions and rules have a definite durability, in that at least some of them can and do persist through long cycles of time. Global civil society, as I try to show in Global Civil Society?, has much older roots. Most non-European civilizations have made contributions to it, and the effects upon our own times of early modern European developments—the ground-breaking workers' movements and pacifist traditions, and the growth spurt of globalization during the half-century before World War One—are easily observed. The institutions of present-day global civil society, like those of any functioning society, both predate the living and outlive the life-span of this society's individual members, every one of whom is shaped and carried along in life by the social customs and traditions of this global society. In various ways, the social actors of global civil society are both constrained and empowered by this society. These actors are enmeshed within codes of unwritten and written rules that both enable and restrict their action in the world; they come to understand that many things are possible, but that not everything goes, that some things are desirable, and that some things are not possible, or that they are forbidden. Within global civil society—which is only one particular form of society—social actors' involvement in institutions obliges them to refrain from certain actions, as well as to observe certain norms, for instance those that define what counts as civility.
Civility—respect for others expressed as the acceptance of strangers and the willingness to live and work with them—is a third quality of this global society. Different civilizations entertain different notions of civility —they each make civil persons, as John Ruskin said—but, because our world is comprised of intermingling civilizations that are not in any sense self-contained or "pure," global civil society is a space inhabited by various overlapping norms of non-violent politeness covering matters of indirection, self-restraint, and face-saving. This society is a complex and multi-dimensional space of non-violence, though it is by no means an irenic paradise on earth. On the outskirts of global civil society, and within its nooks and crannies, dastardly things go on. It provides convenient hideouts for gangsters, war criminals, arms traders, and terrorists. It contains pockets of incivility—geographic areas that coexist uneasily with "safe" and highly "civil" zones, dangerous areas like the Strasbourg district of Neuhof, with its crumbling buildings, walls splattered with graffiti, and streets littered with car wrecks; the Los Angeles suburb of South Central, considered by many a "no-go area," whose night streets are owned by murderous black, Latino, and Asian gangs; and whole cities like Ahmadabad in Gujurat, where in early 2002 many hundreds of people, mainly Muslims, were killed and wounded by semi-planned rioting, sabotage, and ethnic cleansing, helped by local police with blind eyes. The spaces of freedom within global civil society also enable individuals and groups to network, in the form of criminal gangs that run world-wide industries. The contemporary formation of terrorist networks that crisscross "home" and "abroad" would be unthinkable without the help of global civil society. Another example is the sale and sex trafficking of young girls and boys—an industry that is now contested by both governments (as in the 1996 Stockholm declaration of 122 countries against all forms of child sexual exploitation) and social campaign networks, like Plan International and End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafficking. What is interesting and important about such social initiatives is that they specialize in repairing the torn fabric of global civil society. They work for greater mutual respect, human dignity, and compromise among different ways of life. They organize against harmful prejudices (for instance, the belief that sleeping with a child can give protection against, or even cure, HIV infection), and they press political authorities to engage in legal and policing reforms which serve to restrict access to predator groups like tourists, businessmen, and soldiers on overseas duty. The implication of this third point is clear: global civil society is not just any old collection of ways of life that have nothing in common but their non-identification with governing institutions. Factually speaking, this society encourages compromise and mutual respect. There is (to speak literally and metaphorically) plenty of room within its walls for people who believe in God, as well as for religious people for whom the idea of a creator God is anathema, as well as for people who feel only diffuse respect for the sacred, as well as for people who believe in nothing else except themselves. Insofar as these various actors have a more or less deep sensitivity towards violence and violence-prone institutions, they enable global civil society to be "civil" in a double sense: it consists of non-governmental (or "civilian") institutions that tend to have non-violent (or "civil") effects.
Exactly because global civil society harbors many ways of life it means many different things to those who live their lives within its structures. This is its fourth quality: it contains both strong traces of pluralism —and strong conflict potential. To speak (as some do) of a "world order" or "one world" or "a global community" is misleading: the world is in fact sub-divided in two basic ways by the emergent global society. First, its civilian institutions place limits upon government. Global civil society serves as a cross-border brake or potential check upon various forms of government, and especially absolutist political rule. All governmental institutions, from local councils through territorial states and regional and supra-national institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, are now feeling the pinching effects of this civil society. Meanwhile, secondly, scuffles and skirmishes over the distribution of socio-economic power also regularly take place within global civil society itself. These contests typically become visible through media coverage, which attracts witnesses to both local and world-wide disputes concerning who gets what, when and how. In this way, global civil society functions as a monitoring and signaling platform, from which both local matters—mimicking the butterfly effect that has been held responsible for fluctuations in whole weather patterns—can assume global importance, and global-level problems (like nuclear weapons, terrorism, the environment) are named, defined, and problematized. A sense of "the world" and "humanity" as complex and vulnerable totalities consequently strengthens. But global civil society—contrary to its communitarian interpreters—does not resemble a "global community" (Etzioni). For its participants, rather, this society nurtures a culture of self-awareness about the hybridity and complexity of the world.
The heterogeneity of global civil society works against enforced unity. It throws into question presumptions about spontaneous sympathy and automatic consensus. It heaps doubt upon claims (famously associated with Seneca) that all human beings are "social animals." This complex society is not a space wherein people naturally touch and feel good about the world. Certainly that happens. Dressed in the clothing of honest pilgrims, young people take time off, travel the world, odd-job, sleep rough, sleep around, wonder and marvel at the complexity and beauty of the world, just like a satisfied botanist observing and contemplating the extraordinary complexity of plant life. Others meanwhile dedicate their lives to charitable or volunteer work by putting their minds and hearts to work with others. They speak of compassion and practice it. Yet despite all this, the world of global civil society can be tough, calculating, and rough 'n' tumble. It looks and feels expansive and polyarchic, full of horizontal push and pull, vertical conflict and compromise.
Excerpted from A WORLD FOR ALL? Copyright © 2011 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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