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13 June 2003

Global Civil Society

Strategic comments on "the path ahead" discussion paper

-- / --

Basis for following comments
Strategic metaphors
Descriptor vs Political movement
Frameworks for disagreement: beyond polarization
Who defines civil society?
Hard decisions
"Gated communities"
Exclusive appropriation
Gaian democracies
What next?
Related papers


The document Global Civil Society: the path ahead (2002) by David Korten, Nicanor Perlas and Vandana Shiva, is much to be appreciated as presenting a coherent statement inviting discussion at a critical period in the evolution of understanding about civil society and the alternatives to the dominant worldview. It offers a valuable counterweight to the arguments in support of that worldview and the strategies that it supports. It could also be considered a convenient summary of the arguments of Alternatives to Economic Globalization: A Better World Is Possible (2002) by the International Forum on Globalization.

The organization of these comments focuses first on the strategic metaphors which appear to frame the advocated approach. The use of "global civil society" by the authors to describe a political movement is then contrasted with its use as a descriptor of the diversity characteristic of the ecosystem of civil society bodies. Concern is then expressed regarding the need for frameworks of disagreement to move beyond the polarization which characterizes the authors' presentation. Questions are then raised as to whether the approach to governance provides for the capacity to make "hard decisions". The authors' recommendation for transitional protected zones for new kinds of socio-economic experiment is then disucssed in contrast to mainstream "gated communities". Finally concern is expressed regarding a disappointing tendency towards exclusive appropriation of positive attributes by the "global civil society" movement.

Basis for following comments

In making the comments which follow, it is useful to be clear where they are coming from. For many years I have been responsible for the continuing production and development several reference works of the Union of International Associations. These relate to the concerns of civil society. These include: Yearbook of International Organizations: guide to global civil society networks, profiling some 50,000 bodies and their networks and distributed online; Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential profiling networks of some 30,000 problems and strategies articulated by such international constituencies and also available online. Over the years I have endeavoured to articulate, through many reports [more], concerns relating to the facilitation of the activity of international networks in response to networks of problems and the challenge of finding new ways of articulating collective understanding of more appropriate strategies, notably through use of richer metaphors [more]. More recently I have strongly criticized, at some length, the United Nations initiative in promoting a Global Compact (see "Globalization": the UN's "Safe Haven" for the World's Marginalized ), manipulatively reframing its relationship to civil society, and seeking to marginalize those opposed to its views as "rejectionists".

Strategic metaphors

It is useful to focus on the metaphors that may be understood as underlying the proposed strategic framework. The following metaphors are deliberately explored as a device to reflect the strategic challenge in terms of familiar substantive issues which any complex of global strategies must necessarily address:

Descriptor vs Political movement

The main title of the paper, "global civil society", raises issues which the authors fail to address. As many have remarked, "civil society" has now become a phrase which is readily attached to the most disparate preoccupations. It is being successfully used by some to replace "NGOs" -- a term like "non-whites" with pejorative connotations that has been well-exploited to marginalize the bodies to which the label has been attached, whether they identified with the label or not.

There are other threads however that are only alluded to in passing by the authors.

The interference effects between these different threads has not helped clarify the nature of "civil society" which increasingly has the fuzzy positive attributes of "motherhood statements" beyond any reasonable challenge or criticism.

In this context, the point to be made here is that the authors fail to distinguish between:

In the first case above "global civil society" is used as a descriptor of an ecosystem whatever the varied strategies to which the constituent bodies subscribe. In the second case "global civil society" is a broad-based political movement which has appropriated the descriptive term, apparently for its own exclusive use. It clearly has the right to endeavour to do so, as in any marketing endeavour to lay optimistic claim to be the "best" product with which positive values are uniquely and exclusively associated. The authors deliberately appropriate the term to this end in statements like "global civil society emerged as a major social force in the final decade of the Second Millennium" -- thus obscuring the nature of its existence and activity prior to that time.

Is such "emergence" of global civil society to be understood like the tip of an iceberg of multifarious processes at every level of society to which little attention is normally given -- or is it a highly mediatised movement floating on the surface of public opinion and only elusively related to the real activities of citizens around the world? As with "NGOs", how many bodies relate to "global civil society" as a political movement, as opposed to being involved in a wide variety of global processes (including those beyond the preoccupation of the authors) for which "civil society" might indeed be an appropriate descriptor? Is it useful to stress the confrontational aspect of "global civil society" as a movement and a "threat" to "empire" -- thus obscuring the global role of civil society in sustaining the fabric of global society?

This then raises the key issue of the descriptors to be attached to two distinct sets of bodies:

The challenge is then not so much what is included under the label of "global civil society" but what is in practice excluded whether explicitly or implicitly [more; more]. Interesting test cases might include:

The groups most attentive to the defence of such borderline cases are bodies like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). It is not clear whether the authors would subscribe so forthrightly to the defence of the right to exist of bodies with whose views they fundamentally disagree. Nor is it clear what place they would give to them in "the path ahead" given their often destabilizing influence on the desirable strategy the authors endeavour to articulate.

Elsewhere the clarification of what is variously understood as involved in "civil society" has been discussed under the heading of "definitional game-playing" [more]. The term "conceptual gerrymandering" is also useful in that respect -- notably as applied in the case of "terrorism" [more], with which powerful forces are endeavouring to taint any initiative in favour of alternatives to the dominant paradigm. Given the current overriding appeal for a crusade against "evil", should the authors have done more to distinguish between "good" civil society and "evil" civil society to address the taint cast upon those "rejectionist" variants that do not subscribe wholeheartedly to the political framing of those opposed to the dominant paradigm?

But the conceptual issue is whether the authors effectively adopt an equivalent to the current American government strategy of "all who are not with us are against us". Given that those who are at the Davos Forum are considered as more central to the "empire" -- are those at Porto Alegre more part of "global civil society" than those who are absent? Are all who do not subscribe to the authors' articulation of "the path ahead" are necessarily to be considered as opposing it, namely as sympathetic with the "empire" whose strategies the authors deplore? Such binary thinking is much to be regretted in a complex society where the tools to deal with complexity are becoming more readily available.

Who defines civil society?

The most intriguing feature of "civil society" is the way in which various constituencies consider that they have a special competence and right to define what it is -- and attach descriptors. The authors do it in their paper. Scholars of civil society do it. Journalists do it. Intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations do it. Increasingly governments and political parties do it. Thus for the UN Joint Inspection Unit:

"A 'Civil Society' is the result of different components of populations and communities, and refers to the sphere in which citizens and social initiatives organise themselves around objectives, constituencies and thematic interests. They act collectively through their organisations known as Civil Society Organisations which include movements, entities, institutions autonomous from the State which in principle, are non-profit-making, act locally, nationally and internationally, in defence and promotion of social, economic and cultural interests and for mutual benefit. They intermediate between their constituencies/members, with the State as well as with United Nations bodies. They do this through lobbying and/or provision of services. Though belonging to the non-State actor category, they are different from the private sector and NGO as they may not be registered, may replace the public sector, are not always structured and often their members are not officially recognized".

There is no mention here of those bodies opposing policies favoured by the UN and the Bretton Woods Institutions and which had previously been labelled "rejectionist". Does the fact that they strongly object to some of these policies imply that they are beyond the pale of bodies to be defined as "civil"? How to distinguish between varying degrees of rejection, up to the degree implied by Al-Qaida -- as being part of "civil" society or not? What is the nature of "uncivil" society? Are those who make such judgements to be considered part of civil society?

And yet perhaps one of the most characteristic features of civil society is the lack of connection in the minds of "civil society bodies" with the label "civil society" as attached to them by any of the labelling bodies above. In fact it might be said that the very politicization of the process of defining "civil society" is indicative of the manner in which those to whom the label may be attached feel free at any time to define "civil society" in new ways that suit them -- and consider as irrelevant or outmoded the views of others on their mode of action or organization.

In this sense we may be witnessing a vital new phenomenon that echoes other developments in institutions and society. The phenomenon was perhaps first seen with respect to religion in that people now feel increasingly free to select or define their own religion -- much to the dismay of those who consider this heresy. It is seen in relation to "science" in that many now feel free to choose between explanations of different disciplines or schools of thought -- or to elaboarate their own explanations of phenomena, even using "pseudo-science". It is evident in the case of ideology. But the very notion of "alternatives" enhances the significance of this phenomenon in the case of social processes and modes of organization. Just as the notion of the nuclear family has rapidly evolved in a variety of ways over the past century, the notion of how to associate with others in groups, movements, partnerships and institutions is evolving according to different preferences.

Any body may now empower itself to pronounce on the nature of social reality to whatever audience it can gather and propagandize. If sufficiently empowered it may get legislation or social sanction to back up such distinctions and judgements -- or may seek to impose them by force.

But the most interesting feature of this is that those who seek to capture and freeze the living reality of others in this manner may be deluding themselves in very intriguing ways -- however coherently satisfying their discourse amongst those with whom they share their chosen perspective. Authoritative labels and maps may indeed be issued, but the members of "civil society" may neither be constrained nor guided by such devices -- perceived as outmoded and irrelevant -- and may function according to emerging guides and dynamics best characterized as "alternative". The social construction of reality may well have become so dynamic and variegated that efforts to describe what "civil society" is are somewhat equivalent to the the approach of generals of the classic period elaborating rigid military strategy in response to the shifting patterns of guerilla warfare. This is especially ironic for the USA whose military liberation was achieved by the alternative strategies of the guerilla forces facing the British redcoats -- a problem it now also faces in the "new kind of warfare" against terrorists using other modes of organization.

Frameworks for disagreement: beyond polarization

Like it or not, modern society has been somewhat successful in developing processes to deal with disagreement -- prior to the drama of 11th September. In fact the bodies most characteristic of "empire" have been successful precisely because of their ability to do so with increasing sophistication. Businesses typically have teams of people who work reasonably effectively even though team members may have little appreciation for each other. Is this the case with alternative movements who seem to favour a tendency for each to go off and "do their own thing" when consensus and agreement become elusive?

It is clear however that methods available to government and business for working with disagreement are no longer adequate to the challenge of the variety of constituencies -- as especially typified by "terrorists". The question is whether the authors can be considered as having articulated an approach that would be more successful in dealing with a wide range of disagreement so as to enable coherent strategies and initiatives to emerge where possible.

The authors discuss with approval the development of consensus with respect to their articulation of an alternative. But they do not distinguish any such process from that famously labelled by Noam Chomsky as the Manufacture of Consent (1987).

Specifically they appear to make no provision for an "opposition" as a valuable corrective to any future excesses of the strategy they advocate. More precisely, moving beyond a binary parliamentary model, how are groups with varying strategic commitments -- including even the strongest opposition to one another -- to be provided with an appropriate governance framework? How is opposition to be designed in -- to get the requisite variety for governance in complex situations? Is it to be assumed that optimal governance from the authors' alternative perspective is to be based on the absence of "opposition" in any form to the authors' articulation -- and reliance on "yes men" (or women)? Alternatively, if every viewpoint is to be welcomed, by what structures and processes are incompatible viewpoints to be reconciled?

The tone of the paper is characterized by a level of certainty and lack of doubt which is unusual for any group informed of the complexity of the challenges of the problematique and the human frailties of those who aspire to govern -- even with the best intentions. The lack of doubt concerning the merits of their insights and the capacity of any to govern in the light of them could be construed as a warning. For those who have had to deal with the arrogance of government officials over many failed Development Decades, this is more than a warning.

Whilst it may indeed be an important tactical device, the authors' presentation of the challenge in terms of an "epic struggle" between "two deeply conflicting world views" may well be unfortunate. It precisely echoes the binary thinking much criticized in the current American approach to "terrorism" -- "either you are with us or you are against us". In both cases the possibility that the drama of the times may have more than two sides is denied. In both cases there is a "right" side and a "wrong" side -- readily associated with "good" and "evil". This mindset favours the defeat of the current "dominating" paradigm -- with the emergence of the advocated alternative as the new dominant paradigm. In such terms this is not a change of mindset, just a change of dominator.

The discussion of the dynamics of the "epic struggle" would be more relevant if it recognized the extent to which the opposing forces are actually also features of every personality. There are too many examples of "empire" being manifest in charismatic manipulative leaders of alternative movements. There are also many examples of the force for "community" being very effectively represented in those one might otherwise love to hate. The challenge is how such simplistic polarization is to be transcended within richer frameworks -- whether for the individual, for groups, or for society as a whole [more]. The authors avoid this issue by appealing to transcendental values when it is their embodiment that has traditionally been the stumbling block.

It is unfortunate, whatever the tactical merits, that the authors rely on military metaphors [more] in articulating the challenge: "empire under siege". Clearly, in the birth of their "global civil society", the close association with confrontation with the security forces of "empire" must necessarily condition strategic thinking. The question is whether as a political movement it has any strategic resources to think alternatively in dealing with those that it defines as its enemies and targets. Can it demonstrate the capacity to form new kinds of partnerships with those that do not wholly identify with its agenda? What is to be learnt from ecosystemic relationships in this respect?

The war against terrorism can be considered an ultimate failure of global dialogue, and as an incapacity to develop methods of dialogue with opponents -- other than those based on terror and torture. The question must be raised as to whether "global civil society" can create environments in which new styles of dialogue are possible with "imperialists", with those opposed or indifferent to the changes sought, and between those with differing strategic views of appropriate change -- even when they claim to share values.

The "empire" that the authors criticize derives much of its strength and coherence from its exploitation of inequality. Can the movement that the authors represent avoid the trap of deriving its strength and coherence from opposition to those with contrasting values -- rather than from the quality and dynamism of the pattern of relationships amongst those with limited basis for consensus?

Hard decisions

Both government and business, like it or not, have learnt to deal realistically (in their terms) with the tough decisions -- of their choice. Their manner of doing so has evoked the legitimate protest of the authors. But the question remains as to whether any alternative approach to governance could elaborate a better approach to such decisions -- and to other decisions they might not wish to consider. Hard decisions have tended in the past to be extremely divisive in "positive" social movements -- and hence their fragmentation to avoid having to deal with them.

As indicated earlier, it is relatively easy to agree on abstract values like "peace" or "love" -- when there is no operational challenge to be dealt with in practice. It is quite another matter when groups have to act out of contrasting interpretations of such values without the possibility of focusing their frustrations on an evil "empire" that can be readily blamed for their inadequacies..

Similarly it is relatively easy to agree that something like "pollution", "violence" or "discrimination" is deplorable. Again, it is quite another matter when groups find themselves with different interpretations of what constitutes "pollution" and what should be done about it -- and by whom, and at whose expense.

The danger is that the authors text will succeed as a "manifesto" appealing to values in ways that do not need to be tested in practice. Cruelly put, the text could be characterized as an excellent manifesto for protest (manifestation in French) against "empire". But how could it better incorporate dimensions that would enable new forms of governance for constituencies with conflicting preoccupations?

Hard decisions are brought to a focus in issues of security when some have to be judged as inappropriate and constrained by others. The security forces of "empire" have continued to act excessively in many instances, compounding the miscarriages of justice that support them -- and have been criticized for doing so. The question for any alternative approach to governance is what new insights would enable a practical alternative approach to security consistent with the universal values articulated by the authors. There are relatively few case studies of security policies implemented by alternative groups. The well-publicized example of the Rajneesh group in Antelope is not encouraging. More concretely, the authors could usefully have touched upon the challenge of increasing prison populations as illustrating one unsatisfactory approach to dealing with those opposed to the dominant paradigm. Would they seek to imprison those who defiantly continue to practice according to the mindset of "empire"?

"Gated communities"

A fundamental weakness in the text is the absence of case studies demonstrating unambiguously and in practice the viability of the arguments made. This point can be countered in several ways:

It is interesting that the failures of the dominant paradigm, in the eyes of its elites, is encouraging the privileged to relocate to "gated communities" to protect their socio-economic lifestyle. Such gated communities are the counterpart to the experimental communities which have been an inspiration to those in search of alternatives to that paradigm. There are even suggestions to extend this nation-wide -- as with the "fortress America" and "fortress NAFTA" concepts.

The authors give valuable attention to the possibility of creating viable transition zones protected from the disruptive forces of the dominant paradigm. Without linking the suggestions to demonstration initiatives, these beg the question as to whether the alternative strategies recommended are as robust and attractive as the authors claim. So many well-intentioned initiatives of every dimension have collapsed or degraded that a more realistic assessment of such possibilities is required.

Exclusive appropriation

The underlying thrust of the authors' paper may be interpreted as making a degree of exclusive claim which reduces the merit of the argument as a whole. Special claims are associated with:

Such exclusivity is effectively set aside by the authors through the claim that "every person" is a leader of "global civil society". But this raises many undiscussed issues about the ways in which some are more empowered than others to polarize society's relationship to others -- at a time when there is widespread recognition that such polarization needs to be creatively transcended through new modes of thought and behaviour that the best and the brightest appear to have considerable difficulty in demonstrating in practice.

Others have commented on the dangers of the claims made by exclusive, or specially chosen peoples, who see themselves as having a special mission that sets them apart from the peoples of the world. This is a trap that could have been usefully avoided -- if "global civil society" is not to imitate the patterns, and repeat the historical errors, of those it so legitimately criticizes.

Perhaps this critique of the authors' articulation of global civil society can be most succinctly expressed by the concern that the movement is to a dangerous degree entrapped by the process described in the myth of Narcissus and his self-admiration [more]. There is no question of the "beauty" of the preoccupations of the movement. The challenge comes in its relation to the "beastly" qualities of "empire". Rather than seeking to destroy or imprison the beast according to conventional mindsets. In mythological terms again, this challenge might be usefully explored by extending the movement's preoccupation with partnerships and alliances to that of arranging a new kind of marriage between Beauty and the Beast [more].

Gaian democracies

The perspective of the Korten-Perlas-Shiva text is echoed and elaborated in a well-structured book by Roy Madron and John Jopling (Gaian Democracies: redefining globalisation and people-power. Green Books for The Schumacher Society, 2003). This is not the place to comment in detail on this valuable work. The point to be made however is that, like the Korten-Perlas-Shiva text, it successfully adopts a posture of documenting the failures of the mainstream approach and recommending a much-to-be-welcomed people-power approach.

But the Madron-Jopling study avoids any reference to challenges inherent in the people-power approach -- as so amply demonstrated by the fragmentation and problematic dynamics of the peace movement and of the environmental movement. It is not the fragmentation that is a cause for concern in itself but the assumptions made that coherent governance of any kind can emerge from such dynamics -- and that checks and balances can be successfully implemented and sustained in response to personality issues, free loaders, empire builders, and sophisticated exercises in manipulation and fraud. In fact it appears to be assumed that those associated with people power are in some way beyond such characteristics, that tend to be so charmingly described as "human nature". Or again, as with mainstream manifestations of such problems, they are framed as "exceptional" and in no way justifying criticism of the system that sustains them -- and usually ensures the impunity of the major offenders.

The assumptions of people-power advocates are humorously illustrated by a story regarding a pope presented with the plans for a splendid new seminary -- which he inspected with great attention. Finally he is reported to have inquired of the architects whether the seminarians were angels. When the architects were unable to comprehend the purpose of the question, the pope asked why there were no toilets in the whole building. The question to be asked of the visionaries of Gaian democracy -- especially in the light of the value they attach to environmental systems and sensitivities -- is how the effluent of "human nature" is to be integrated into such psycho-social systems.

In the case of the Global Monetocracy, so effectively criticized by Madron-Jopling, the "shit" is only too evident. But Gaian Democracy would seem to be for people "without shit" -- or "without shadows" from a Jungian perspective. From the latter perspective, this would be seen to be the exemplification of immaturity and lack of realistic understanding of the world and how communities and individuals operate within it. Surely there is a need to recognize the maturity of those who struggle valiantly with their own shadows and have to endeavour to compensate for leaders who derive their strength in large part from denying their own. Or is it to be assumed that both leaders and followers in Gaian Democracy will be "angels"?

Such a perspective can be usefully contrasted with the set of Viridian Principles, which include:

The reality of these issues should be explored in the light of the percentage of the population incarcerated in the world's exemplar of democracy -- and the percentage of the population there with a criminal record. Whether or not such a degree of incarceration and criminalization could be avoided in a people-power democracy, the challenge of managing activity that cannot be contained without incarceration needs to be addressed in any realistic proposal. This is especially the case because of the systemic isomorphism between recycling -- to be emphasized in a Gaian democracy -- and re-education and recidivism. More challenging however is the extent to which people-power democracies are vulnerable to non-democratic exploitation in the name of democracy and under the guise of populism. How is the emergence of such exploitation to be detected, its denial unmasked and effective remedial action to be undertaken? Is it seriously believed that intelligent and devious groups would be unable (in the name of the people and in the guise of principles they value) to manipulate societies, however decentralized, in ways that would be as bad (or worse) than in the current Global Monetocracy?

What next?

The Korten-Perlas-Shiva text was the subject of a comment by James Robertson (posted with it) who also commented privately on the above text. Beyond expressing general agreement with many of the arguments above, the key point he makes is to question whether the critique above "will help people to see what they should do if they want to play a part in bringing the human race on to a less damaging and destructive path of development than the one we are on now".

The above commentary on the Korten-Perlas-Shiva text was not designed with this as a prime objective. Rather it endeavoured to highlight modes of articulation which could contribute directly to inhibiting the emergence of viable approaches to "help people to see what they should do". There is no question but that the successful opposition to "empire" has forced the arrogant to listen and to worry -- and made them appreciate the extent to which they have lost most of the intellectual arguments.

The challenge comes with the need to move beyond opposition. It is at this point that the principled coherence of "global civil society" fragments in ways that are less than fruitful at the concrete level of praxis. Whilst the movement may be able to manage its opposition, it is far from clear that it can manage many of the functions which society currently relies on "empire" to handle. Thoughtful reservations regarding the necessity for some global organization of the movement have been expressed by George Monbiot (Stronger Than Ever, Guardian, 26 January 2003):

Most of the movement beieves that the best means of regaining control over political life is through local community action. A smaller faction (to which I belong) believes that this response is insufficient, and that we must seek to create democratically accountable global institutions. The debates have, so far, been muted. But when they emerge, they will be fierce.

The democratic challenge for the movement is the concern of Naomi Klein (Cut the Strings, Guardian, 1 February 2003) who sees the lengthy speechifying by "big men", at the most recent meeting of the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, as exemplifying what the movement was seeking to move beyond.

Most specifically the movementhas failed to demonstrate an ability to manage problematic issue areas in which constituencies favouring opposing strategies compete for scarce resources. Worse still, there is a marked tendency to systematically deny this and point to vague areas of principled agreement. "Global Plans" of every shape, size and detail may be offered in response. The challenge lies in why their take up is inadequate to the need.

The challenge of "what next" -- beyond the last demo -- calls for "new ways of thinking". Again there are many such on offer, again without any means of reconciling their incompatibilities in practice. Religions have demonstrated the tragic consequences, despite the dedication of their adherents.

My preferred suggestion in response to this challenge is the use of richer metaphor to enable articulation of richer and more appropriate strategies at any level -- whether in their conception, their comprehension or their execution, and specifically to provide the subtle connective tissue between what may appear to be incompatible initiatives. I have produced many papers on this indirect approach to sustaining the viability of alternatives ( in relation to global governance (

Perhaps of most relevance to the above critique is the light-hearted suggestion that we might consider how many complementary "languages" we need to sustain global governance, starting with four (see each with its great strengths and weaknesses. How about:

Such four-fold systems have long been a feature of psychometric testing of individuals -- based on the work of Jung, Myers-Briggs and Hermann. Most recently attention has been given by the Cognosis Consulting Group to a "Four Worlds" framework extending such approaches, and applying them to the "personality" of organizations (see Alex Benady. Organisations, too, can be put on the couch. Financial Times, 20 June 2003). This recognizes the critical importance of the "culture" of an organization -- none of which is considered better than another, although possibly one may be better suited to a particular style of challenges. What might this suggest in the case of the people-power initiatives of civil society? The four types they distinguish are:

Regarding, pozzy, neggy, luvvy and tuffy, the cited article suggests a further four languages. From this perspective, the Korten-Perlas-Shiva text was written in Pozzy --contrasting its preoccupations with use of Tuffy by "empire" -- and speaking for many who communicate best using Luvvy. The above comment is written in Neggy -- like many of David Korten's critiques. Within what language would one discuss the necessary movement between languages? In what language would one expect to understand the conclusion? How would one expect to combine insights from different languages? How does translation work? What if some group insists on speaking "French" when "everyone" is "of course" believed to understand "English"? Relying on any one language as a means of governing the world -- or oneself -- would seem to be a recipe for disaster.

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