Stepping Beyond Civil Society: Prospects for the Multitudes of Resistance

Increasingly traditional civil society is relegated to a marginal, merely nominal role in the greater scheme of things. The discussion of civil society, its roles, functions and relevance for social order might be near the final frontier of meaningful advances in a democracy under the spell of globalization. The concept of civil society has become fixated on representative democracy and subservient to established political elites and economic hierarchies. By helping these elites to maintain antiquated institutions and processes of political order, civil society is draining itself of its democratic potential.

While civil society is still alive in the global arena, it is hardly well. In spite of such predicaments, new opportunities for democracy have arisen in the wake of the anti-globalization movements, set in motion by a multitude of actors who are exploring, developing, and advancing protest and challenges to today’s imperial mode of globalization. Now the universal ideal of democracy finds itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place: it cannot take root on the wastelands of imperial globalization, yet there is still little nurturing soil to be found on the fields of possibility. For now, civil society remains the vehicle of choice for social change.  However, it will need to step out and beyond itself in order to create sustainable development and unconditional democracy.

The Nutshell

All hands are raised in support of civil society. This is the fitting cover photo for Michael Edwards’ short book on the theory and practice of civil society. More often than not, civil society is a confusing concept, but Edwards is able to provide welcome clarity while covering a lot of historical ground in just 138 pages (Edwards, 2004).  In essence, Edwards’ holistic approach to civil society aims for consensus. It is a constructive approach, one that evolves into an agenda for ‘nurturing connections between civil society theories’. At its base is the recognition that “civil society is simultaneously a goal to aim for, a means to achieve it and a framework for engaging with each other about ends and means” (Edwards:110). The critical shortcoming of Edwards’ synthesis is its inability to provide a suitable basis for challenging today’s rule of neo-imperial globalization. Analytically mechanic, the holistic approach offered by Edwards remains stuck in political theory that is dependent upon a state system no longer in tune with the constantly shifting and emerging social and political constellations, coalitions and networks of public sphere actors and stakeholders. However this is equally true of his critics, such as Neera Chandhoke, who praise “Civil Society” as readable and finely nuanced. However, they cannot contrive anything beyond Edwards’ positive assessment of the prospects for civil society apart from resurrected party politics alongside rights-oriented citizens’ campaigns. (Chandhoke, 2005)

The state today is frequently a root cause of inequality and an institutional roadblock for advancing democratic civil society. The very concept of representation is no longer adequate to give expression to the multitude of societal voices, ideas and interests increasingly defined by cross-cultural and trans-national identities.  Most importantly, the notion of “sovereignty” is at odds with democratic aspirations and interactive practices expressed outside and beyond the classical nation state. In “Multitude,” Michal.Hardt and Antonio Negri critically examine how the crisis of democracy is at heart a crisis of the concept of sovereignty. They call for a new science of democracy: “Sovereignty in all its forms inevitably poses power as the rule of the one (society reduced to an artificial unity or ‘social body’) and undermines the possibility of a full and absolute democracy. The project of democracy today must challenge all existing forms of sovereignty as a precondition for establishing democracy” (Hardt and Negri, 2004:353). In order to understand new evolving organizational forms and political modes of expression, current conceptualizations of civil society obviously no longer provide satisfactory analytical frameworks.  Post-civil society is not a merely advanced or updated civil society form that exists alongside or in conjunction with our current political and economic systems. These systems of neo-imperial globalization impose bourgeois restraint and ‘civility’ upon civil society as a global enterprise and therefore inhibit, undermine and suffocate democratic alternatives with global demands and aspirations.

A global arena

Only when understood as the anti-thesis to globalization’s unsustainable and in essence, undemocratic systems, will civil society be able to live up to its global potentials and step outside of the boundaries of formally democratic and pro-forma representative, imperial-agenda driven consumerist society. Seen as an emerging multitude of interests committed to sharing and sustainably managing the global commons, society can be organized in all-inclusive manners, thereby stepping outside of the present realities of nation-state bound civil society. Yet even the notion of global civil society only partially overcomes the limitations civil society at the national level faces with regard to ensuring development and democracy. Laxer and Halperin have noted that “Like globalization, global civil society is mainly a normative and ‘strategic concept’, not an accomplished reality” (Laxer and Halperin, 2003).

Globalized capitalism to date, has failed to deliver most of its promises in its own homelands; it has delivered even less in most poor countries. The failure is clear enough by simply restating that the “Rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer”, when Forbes magazine celebrates more billionaires in our world this year compared to last year but never takes note of the parallel of more slum dwellers today than ever before in human history. It is precisely at this point where democracy theory needs to formulate a viable global project, one that is viable across economic regions and throughout different forms of social organization.

In the age of today’s Empire, established national civil societies are constantly losing independency and capacity to challenge Empire-supporting political systems.

German political economists Altvater and Mohnhaupt have pointed out that global governance has emerged as an attempt to regulate ecological and social limits of capitalist globalization, limits that are far harder to define than boundaries of nation states (Altvater and Mohnhaupt,1996). Historically, rights, freedoms and civic responsibilities have been associated with the nation state. Globalization in fact redefines territory-based relationships between citizens and states. Once unrestrained globalization reaches and exceeds ecological limits, it becomes hard to dispute its direct impacts on the lives of billions of people trapped in cycles of poverty. It becomes apparent that globalization runs on an unsustainable course counter-productive to its own reproduction.

Coming back to mainstream thinking on civil society, considerable theoretical shortcomings emerge when trying to explain trans-nation state dimensions of civil society. Authors like Chandhoke and Edwards do have a vivid sense of the current crisis of representation that is choking and frustrating democracy around the world. However, instead of lamenting the inefficacies of governments and how they often fail to meet their responsibilities in society, a critique of the state and its instrumentalization by capitalist globalization is called for. Clearly, a ‘good society’ cannot be brought about by depending on the good will of states with little or no interest in sharing resources and power or embracing multi-level and dimensional accountability practices. In a divided world, contradictions persists, even flourish as democratic social change happens only in leaps and bounds, with traditional and new stakeholders work alongside as well as diametrically opposed to one another. On the one hand,

“The powers of the nation state continue and formal representative democracy has expanded throughout the globe. Yet nation states currently display a very frail form of democracy because although everyone in principal has an equal voice it is a weak voice” (Diane Perrons, 2004).

To his credit, Edwards does point to the potential of global civil society to form networks for collective action. However he regards this only as a distant possibility. In part this hesitation is due to his view of global civil society as mechanically emerging, as an addition of new layers of non-state actors and their associations. Global civil society for Edwards, however desirable, remains an embryonic social movement and is too often merely issue-driven. Likewise when discussing critical theory, Edwards also misses the political practice inspired by the theory: the revolutionary momentum of 1968 to which critical theory contributed is not recognized, the immanent threat to the survival of bourgeois civil society that arose, is not acknowledged. In a reductionist manner, Edwards equates Habermas with critical theory, seemingly unaware that as a second-generation critical theorist, Habermas strayed considerably from the revolutionary political philosophy of Adorno and Marcuse.

While Adorno can prove to be quite a hard read, his critical analysis of capitalist society remains surprisingly relevant today.

“No one was better than Adorno at dissecting the psychic and emotional brutality of capitalism’s regimes of commodification and the increasing pressure it exerts on individuals to define themselves through consumption. This, he argued, led to the compulsion to shut off one’s capacity for empathy, whether with working people whose labor produces commodities (how could we shop at Wal-Mart otherwise?) or those whose homes, lives and futures are being sacrificed in the name of a market-friendly abstraction called ‘Iraqi freedom.'” (Jamie Daniel, 2005)

Critical theory challenged the straightjacket of alienating political representation; it did not settle for communicating about the forms, processes and degrees of exclusion from democracy. Thus it is only in the last sentences of the book where Edwards comes to acknowledge that 21st century manifestations of global civil society action (such as the World Social Forum in Brazil in 2002, followed-up on in 2005 and in 2007) are expressions of alternative forms of politics,”a new kind of society”(Edwards:111).

In order to understand evolving organizational forms and political modes of expression of this new society, current conceptualizations of civil society can no longer provide satisfactory analytical frameworks.  Post-civil society is not a merely advanced or updated civil society form that exists alongside or in conjunction with our current political and economic systems.

First steps beyond the arena

In the lopsided arena of North-South relations, development NGOs and their networks of partners have been stepping up to this challenge, not only to consolidate and defend developmental gains, but also to explore avenues for advancing global civil society and democracy. To no small degree, the critical contribution of partnership-oriented development NGOs and their networks rests upon their ability to promote grassroots-level activities that often stand in opposition to state-led or sponsored development work. As many developing country governments still lack vital resources and essential local capacities to implement well-intended policies, civil society organizations such as development NGOs often play pivotal roles in meeting persistent basic human needs. Implementing aid programs in response to locally defined agendas becomes as much an exercise in service delivery as a balancing act in meeting multiple, frequently conflicting development agendas.

Since the mid-1990s, NGOs active in development cooperation work have increasingly embraced notions of good governance and civil society strengthening in their program portfolios and implementation approaches. Enhancing local-level capacities to design, manage, implement and evaluate aid is the essence of local ownership and is generally considered essential for attaining aid effectiveness. Cleary, effective forms of development cooperation depend on the successful adoption of partnership approaches in aid relationships, on “ownership”, and “mutuality and shared identities” as best practices demonstrate. (Jennifer Brinkerhoff, 2002).

NGOs are often expected to “fill in the gaps”, even to mediate between citizen expectations and state unwillingness (and/or inability) to deliver stability, equality and social progress. Where these NGOs work in consort and in networks with like-minded global partners, they frequently do succeed in promoting forms of democratic global civil society.  Global commons, such as natural resources, human rights and democracy, can be claimed by global civil society actors; but in terms of asserting this claim, NGOs may simply lack the political muscle to safeguard and expropriate global commons from the fangs of predatory globalization.

Global civil society actors and their networks have an increasingly political role to play as actors of “the multitude”, as contributors to the possibility of democracy on a global scale. This is an open and expansive role, one that steps beyond the jealously guarded power spheres of nation states and their sovereignty preoccupations. It is a role that is irreconcilable with an understanding of civil society and NGOs as depending on some ill-defined goodwill and benevolence of nation states. NGOs, which through their global networks of partners endeavor to defend, promote and most importantly, extend democracy beyond the limits imposed by sovereignty obsessed nation state systems, are challenged to reduce dependency on states to function and flourish, to define political agendas rather than be subjected by them.

Contested ground, imagined spaces

With regard to culture and related identities, the modern nation state model that originated in the 18th century has already proven incapable of furthering the democratic ideal and associated political identities. It seems strangely archaic to assume that cultural differences or commonly attributed cultural identities neatly coincide with the nation states of today. Most, if not all nation states are home to a variety of broad-based cultures and a multitude of sub-cultures. These cross-cut and intersect through time and space, interacting randomly or on selected occasions. To define culture in relation to a nation state is an increasingly futile academic exercise. Cultural confrontation appears more of a political construction, with an assigned political purpose than it is associated with genuine conflict between populations adhering to particular sets of cultural traditions, norms and interpretations of society.

Thus, it is not far-fetched to see the typical nation state of today as deeply entangled in the fangs of armed globalization: it is far more of a functional necessity to the economic interests aligned with armed globalization, than it is in any way an ally to a democratic project on a global scale.

Crumbling arena

In the “homelands” of globalization, the power elites are continuously trying to propagate ad infinitum the myth of a natural link between free markets and democracy. From the perspective of democratic global civil society, this is nothing new and indeed political resistance must take aim at rejecting and persistently opposing such claims. Correspondingly, the economic structures and relationships that reproduce below one-dollar-a-day inhuman existence for half the world, while upholding extremely consumerist lifestyles for less than a tenth of global citizens, eventually harm all. Discontent with the contemporary globalization regime constantly arises and latently provides an explosive basis for social revolt. Hardt and Negri speak of “economic grievances” and observe:

“In each nation state, poverty is distributed unequally along lines of race, ethnicity and gender. … The construction of the global market and the global integration of national economies has not brought us together but driven us apart, exacerbating the light of the poor. …. Non-profit and religious charity organisations provide enormous assistance for those in need, but they cannot change the system that produces and reproduces poverty.” (Hardt and Negri:278f.)

Civil disobedience today needs to seek forms of internationalization that take aim at state systems which discourage, often even criminalize any insistence on civil liberties and the historic promise of socialist democracy. Yet it remains short-sighted to assume that a global civil society will succeed in asserting itself on par with the power elites that drive globalization. Such a view is counterproductive for advancing a global democratic project, as it can be convincingly argued that

“…contemporary conceptions of ‘civil society’ are based in idealistic notions of states, markets, freedom, rights, and citizen power and therefore, hinder rather than facilitate the attainment of deeper forms of democracy.” (Laxer and Halperin: 63)

The choices at hand in most parliamentary democracies are harrowingly few. Often more opinionated rather than truly knowledgeable about the inter-relatedness of political struggles around the world, citizens have begun to equate democratic freedoms with freedom of movement. Across the “free world” citizens too easily overlook the deepening social and political divides; they tend to accept the picture of freedom presented to them at face value.

Only when personal experiences of suspension and limitation of democratic freedoms mount does discontent form and occasionally lead to political protest from within. Such protest has increased in the wake of the aggressive unilateralism, “…or, rather, the exception posed by the United States within the global system, (which) thwarts all…reform proposals.” (Hardt and Negri: 304)

Emerging from the WTO protests movements against robber-baron globalization, and intensifying in response to the outright assault on civil rights in the post-9/11 world, a new mix of personal and collective experiences of political protests and resistance has taken root.

While such resistance is often issue-driven, it is likewise takes on a network-type of organizational form. Its actions maintain a high degree of spontaneity but are increasingly formalized in event form or cross-national action campaigns. The most important should be mentioned, staying plugged in to how, when and where they take on form and shape is almost a civic necessity.

The World Social Forum (WSF) that took place in Nairobi, Kenya this year is certainly a central movement of political dissent. Toward Freedom ran a report on this event in January (Dan Morrison, 2007). The MakePovertyHistory campaign against poverty and injustice will again be making its voice heard at the summit of the G8 states, this year held in early June in Germany. In North America, The MidWestSocialForum (MWSF) will hold an annual gathering in late June in Atlanta. The MWSF, a gathering of grassroots organizations, community activists, workers, educators, students, artists, and many others, sees itself as an open space for exchanging experiences and information, strengthening alliances and networks, and developing effective strategies for progressive social, economic, and political change.

The online portal Idealist, a project of Action Without Borders, links to over 59,000 non-profit and community organizations in 165 countries. It has recently stared an effort to launch a global network of people interested in social and political change, starting at the community level. Some 84 start-up meetings in over 30 countries are planned in the coming weeks. The Al Gore movie on climate change has allowed the debate to make its way into the world of Hollywood. And on the 7th of July, the issue will be propelled onto a global music stage through LiveEarth, bringing together more than 150 of the world’s top musicians for 24-hours of music from 7 concerts across all 7 continents.

Another, more “established” key driver of civil society in its many manifestations is, of course, Civicus. It will hold its next World Assembly, one of the largest annual civil society conferences, in Glasgow, Scotland, from the 23 – 27 of May, 2007. Equally established and a driving force, the global network of Oneworld, brings together more than 1,500 organizations from across the globe – to promote sustainable development, social justice and human rights.

Hopefully the momentum these and other democratic ventures generate will prove to be significant enough to permanently dismantle the neo-liberal globalization project. There are promising signs that the walls of the house of globalization are already crumbling even before the roof has been built. Some parts of the edifice may succeed in providing some shelter from today’s political storms, but temporary abode is little more than hidden homelessness. Rather than continuing to search for approaches to further spread and embed current forms of globalization, a new foundation for a completely new design of global relations and development are needed. Civil society, nationally and globally can no longer be satisfied with helping out to fix the leaking roof. It is time to move on and let the arena crumble like Rome‘s coliseum.

© Glenn Brigaldino



E.Altvater, B.Mahnkopf, Grenzen der Globaliserung, Münster, 1996

Jennifer M.Brinkerhoff, Partnership for International Development – Rhetoric or

Results? Boulder, 2002; For a short review of this book visit: D+C, 04/2005, p.174f., G.Brigaldino, Partnership: Living up to promises.

Neera Chandhoke, What the hell is “civil society”?, 17 March 2005, on OpenDemcoracy.

Jamie Daniel, book review of “Dialectics Of The Body: Corporeality In The Philosophy Of T. W. Adorno,” by Lisa Yun Lee, Routledge, 2004.

Michael Edwards, Civil Society, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2004; an online summary of the discussion in the book.

M .Hardt and A. Negri, Multitude – War and Ddemocracy in the Age of Empire, Penguin Press, 2004

G.Laxer and S.Halperin (eds.), Global Civil Society and Its Limits, New York, 2003

Dan Morrison (COA News), World Social Forum 2007: Critical Reflections, Unknown Directions, in Toward Freedom, 30 January 2007.

Diane Perrons, Globalization and Social Change, Routledge, London, 2004