The distinction or opposition between power and violence is not as apparent to the reader of Arendt’s book if both are seen through the male lens that has become conventional to us. However, the evidence that women tend to participate in public life in supportive roles, and in community-based roles suggests that many see power very much as Arendt outlines, as about collaboration and cooperation, and are uncomfortable with exercising ‘power over’. In a recent field trip to explore civil society participation in the midst of Colombia’s protracted violence and war, I asked the Casa de la Mujer, a feminist group based in Bogotá, whether they had generated their own vision of power. I am struck by how their analysis echoes that of Arendt:
Women must ask themselves, do they want to replicate exclusionary practices or encourage other types of political practices? Participation is about developing the commonality in our needs and how to negotiate individual and collective needs. Do we come together to put forward our needs or do we want to be exclusionary? Our proposals are not just for women, but for our families, for everyone. What type of political practices do we want to build? How do we not repeat other practices, including those among women? Power is denied us, how do we recognise the power of others? I don’t know whether we have an alternative idea of power. We work on subjectivities. I cannot be democratic if I don’t construct myself as a democratic subject. How as women do we build more democratic subjects? How do I find a balance between my personal interests and my collective interests? We need to reflect on new practices. This is a slow process. Families and schools are very authoritarian. We come from anti-democratic communities and the Church too. There is little acceptance of differences. We are very fundamentalist, left and right. The new subjectivities can materialise in new political practices. This question is in dispute in feminism. Power for what? Do we want power for human beings? Yes, but not that of men, based on exclusion. We want a power that permits men and women to reach agreements. That doesn’t mean that women are only victims. It means a construction. What is in us, which also reproduces exclusionary practices? Being victims takes away our own responsibility. In our work with women and violence, we think women are victims of violence. But we also analyse our responsibility, not for being beaten, but for not leaving the situation. We don’t say women have to deal with their situation alone, we are not talking about guilt, but that something in our subjectivity makes us accept these situations. How can you transform the situation? At least you can take action and go to a doctor or a lawyer. Power is passed on through valuing the autonomy and self-esteem of women. We don’t just suffer power. (Personal interview, Casa de la Mujer, Bogota, 1 April 2005)
Arendt’s distinction between power and violence is dependent on a particular understanding of power, one that appears counter-intuitive. Power for Arendt emerges when people decide to act together. Arendt is attempting here to distinguish between human interactions which originate from a prior acceptance of the right of the Other to exist, a reciprocal recognition that nevertheless can lead to actions to restrict the freedom of existence of the Other (that is, power over the Other), and one which seeks to deny recognition of the Other through pain on the Other’s body and/or mind (the exercise of violence). Arendt’s sense of power is actually profoundly different from conventional understandings of power, which I would argue derive mostly from masculine experiences and conceptualisations. For Arendt:
Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to him being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. (1969: 44)
Gendered and bounded space as obstacles to understanding violence
In an influential book, The Sexual Contract, political philosopher Carole Pateman (1988) discussed the gendered character of the construction of our understanding of ‘private’ and ‘public’ spheres in the course of the European project of ‘modernity’. The emergence of the idea of ‘civil society’ bifurcated the ‘public sphere’ into two, that of the ‘state’ and that of a ‘privatised’ sphere of ‘public’ associational life, or civil society. The private domestic sphere of the ‘home’ was then another spatial construction which like civil society was to be autonomous from the state, but not subject to critical public scrutiny either by civil society or by the state. ‘Civility’ was a discourse for the bourgeois public sphere and the new social bonds of public associationalism which emerged in the late eighteenth century (Howell and Pearce 2001). The freedom of the individual and of that individual in ‘his’ home was established in the course of these bounded imaginings of space: ‘A man’s home is his castle’ became a popular dictum. Another was a ‘woman’s place is in the home’. These sayings reflected the effort to fix the relationships within as well as the boundaries of the gendered space of castle/home.
This has profound implications for the legitimacy of violence. The outside has become the inside. Dar al-Harb no longer exists. There is no external realm of war. Hence the rules of war no longer apply, only the much more stringent rules that traditionally applied to domestic violence. Here, classical Islam has more to teach us than the just war tradition. Since the whole world is a community, everyone is, in effect, a Muslim. Thus the way force is used against dissenters is subject to severe limitations – the limitations that apply to policing in the Western tradition. In a single community, there is no such thing as foreign aggression – violent attacks are crimes or human rights violations. Force is legitimate, under domestic law, in self-defence or to save a third party. But this refers to direct defence, not the kind of ‘pre-emptive’ or long-distance defence claimed both for air strikes and suicide bombers. Killing of both combatants and non-combatants is wrong. Those who commit violent acts should be arrested and judged in a legal framework. Killing of non-combatants is wrong whether deliberate, as in the case of suicide bombing, or accidental, as the Americans, Israelis and Russians claim.
If global civil society is to have a mission at this historical moment of humanity it would be to recapture the power of language and to regain its ‘civilising’ role, providing a forum for deliberative democracy, re-rooting legitimacy in civil society and highlighting the importance of the politics of presence, not merely representation. The fact that after 9/11, and in the midst of the launch of the war on terrorism, dialogues took place across boundaries, and scholars from the American and the Muslim sides (neo-conservatives and Saudi intellectuals) exchanged statements, even if they were confrontational rather than conciliatory, contributes to the expression of conflicts through words rather than bombs. Intellectuals in Germany and France issued statements against the war in Iraq in which they defended and clarified the concept of Jihad and just war in Islam, and detached it from terrorist acts. There were also many micro and macro inter-cultural and inter-faith debates that emerged and developed rapidly (Blankenhorn et al. 2005; Boase 2005). This circle of global civil society activities was often overlooked because anti-war demonstrations and other marches and campaigns attracted more attention, again due to their visual or even screen-cyber ‘spectacular’ nature.
This thinking has many parallels with the ideas of civil society developed by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Adam Ferguson, as well as later thinkers such as Hegel. They understood civil society as a realm of conflict characterised, according to Hegel (1820/1942: 182A), by ‘waves of every passion . . . regulated only by reason glinting through’. They stressed the importance of a constitutional framework for managing conflicts, of the free use of public reason by autonomous groups and individuals, and of intermediate organisations that could channel grievances and voice criticism.
An exploration of the classical Islamic logic of civility might contribute to developing a more critical assessment of globalisation, help to foster civility in its original meaning and to curb violence. In Islam, violence and civility, or war and peace, are human social phenomena that are bound by time and context, and are both envisioned as part of the development of human history, though peace is seen as a virtue and a goal. War and the resort to violence are seen as an evil but, because they are expected to occur, pre-emptive measures should be taken to manage and minimise them, with the aim of reaching a peaceful settlement. This is a major logic running through many aspects of the Sharia’a, whether ruling over personal disagreements within the family or violence erupting within the community and even in times of military conflict.
Recovering the concepts of peace and civility
The term ‘civil society’ seems to have lost the civilising connotations of ancient and Enlightenment meanings. It tends to be defined as a ‘third sector’, between the market and the state, and is often subsumed into emerging globalising concepts like ‘governance’. Increasingly, it is being judged by criteria of efficiency and competitiveness that match the measures of success in business. And it is often considered desirable to bring civil society into partnership with the state, although it is not clear whether this will help to ‘civilise’ the state, or whether civil society will be co-opted by governmental policies and decisions that are far from being ‘civilised’.
Contemporary jihadists also have a very reductionist view of what Jihad means. For them, Jihad is a war for the extension of Muslim identity, with no restrictions or red lines like those observed by early Muslims (cutting people’s throats in front of cameras is clearly un-Islamic for any lay Muslim), whereas for classical thinkers it had much more to do with the values and political system associated with the acceptance of Islam, the ideas rather than the identity of Muslims. Indeed, there is no such thing as a holy war in Islam, because no war is holy, and nothing is more sacred than human life. Likewise, the concept and function of the realm of Islam–realm of war dichotomy, which is mentioned frequently as established doctrine upon which the legacy of war against the opposite abode was legitimate, has been grossly exaggerated and often misrepresented. The notion of Jahilyya, which characterises the pre-Islamic society (realm of war), refers in classical Islam to the ignorant and uncivilised conduct of those who do not know or understand the values of Islam, and who are prone to fighting among themselves and violating the rules of war set later by Muslims. One can even say that it refers to a non-civilised society, on the assumption that Islam laid the basis of a new civility. Just like everyone else, they are born with knowledge of God’s will but have not yet learned how to recognise and use that knowledge. As pointed out above, Jahilyya strongly resembled the Enlightenment notion of the state of nature.
This notion that power and violence are opposites echoes similar distinctions that are to be found in both classical Islamic thought and in the ideas of the European Enlightenment. Classical Islamic thought distinguished between the realm of Islam dar al-Islam and the realm of war dar al-harb. The realm of Islam was a community characterised by a political authority, whose authority derived from the rule of law Shari’a and a social contract Bay’a. Islam was a system of values contained in the Qu’ran and the Hadith (the sayings and practises of Prophet Mohammed) and interpreted by scholars Ulama. It was based on a notion of human reason, later taken up in Enlightenment thought, which was derived from individual knowledge or awareness of God’s will that is imprinted on human consciousness. Within the realm of Islam, the use of force was condemned because violence causes instability, challenges the legacy of the elected authority and results in chaos and civil war (Bagh’ii, Fitnah). The towering Shafi’i jurist, Abu al-Hasan al-Mawardi (d. 450/1058), includes among the definitions of the realm of Islam (dar al-Islam) not only legal conditions but also human and socio-political security dimensions; thus he defined the realm of Islam as any land in which a Muslim enjoys security and is able to protect himself, even if he is unable to promote the religion (Jackson 2002: 37). This is one of the definitions used by contemporary scholars to explain why Muslims in the West should be loyal to the nation states in which they live, even if those countries are not Muslim majority countries. The realm of war referred to an arena of irrationality and ignorance where there was no single political authority, and tribal conflict was endemic; and it was vis-à-vis foreign political enemies that war was permitted under certain circumstances.
Framing the debate: some methodological considerations
Should the West, Russia, China, India and Islam enter into discursive relations explicitly seeking new principles of coexistence, for example, re-zoning declared areas of decency, regionalising public–private divides, finding minimum entitlements? Are these matters solely for bilateral civilisational negotiations? Is civil society the arena where the new principles with emerge, or will it descend into violence transcending states? Amartya Sen (2006) argues that the politics of global confrontation should be wrested from civilisational partitioning of the world in favour of recognising the choices open to persons in their multiple identities. Civil society is the arena where such identities could be negotiated.
We owe to Norbert Elias (2000) the disclosure of the intimate connections between modern Western notions of civility in interpersonal relations and public behaviour in the growth of centralised states in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He pointed to the standards of behaviour required in the princely courts that regulated and removed the resort to violence in interpersonal conflict and that stemmed from the ruler’s claim to monopolise the means of violence. Many princes ruled effectively over no more than city states, and Max Weber (1914/1978: 1239) drew attention to the revolutionary effect of mediaeval cities in dissolving feudal bonds and creating the free association of citizens. ‘Stadtluft macht frei’, was the old adage, ‘city air makes free’, a principle understood by black people fleeing their masters in nineteenth-century United States as much as by mediaeval serfs escaping their lords.
Civil society and violence in historical perspective
We want to emphasise the mutually defining nature of violence and civility in social life which renders our ‘apparent ironic alternation’ possible. Even in its absence, violence always threatens to occupy the space that civility vacates. Thomas Hobbes viewed violence as primordial. Life in his state of nature was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, peace being secured in civil society. Modern experience has taught us to be less confident. We know that the simplest societies can manage conflict, while conversely the potential for violence is ever-present in the most modern societies.
On the face of it, Indymedia is a clear recent example of global civil society: a global network that links various new sites of news, opinion and debate on political issues within a global frame, and in a way, as Pickard illustrates, that was in principle impossible without the Internet. Indeed, the Indymedia network deepens global civil society in two ways, as Pickard shows: first, by offering a new type of media practice, a new type of ‘newsroom’ much more open to the contributions of non-media professionals; second, by a highly de-centered process of policy making and decision making, which encourages local initiative and adaptability. But this initial success generates major questions for the long-term: how far will Indymedia’s implicit challenge to traditional news production values be taken? Under what conditions is Indymedia’s distinctive media and political practice sustainable and for whom in particular? These questions become even more acute when, as Pickard notes, we recall that only one fourth of the 150 IMCs worldwide are based in the South, just as ‘global civil society’ has from the outset been dominated by the North (Anheier, Glasius and Kaldor 2001: 7).
Thus, in its full ambit, the term ‘global civil society’ encompasses movements that are not particularly ‘civil’ (the jihad videos discussed by Thomas Keenan), that emerge initially out of national politics (the NRA discussed by Clifford Bob), that involve an implicit cultural politics rather than an explicit formal politics (Nigerian video-films discussed by Jonathan Haynes) and that challenge existing media power as much as political power , sometimes through online networks (Indymedia discussed by Victor Pickard) or through novel combinations of traditional media (Nigerian video-films circulating among wider global diasporas).
So, taking civil society first, and even if we leave aside old debates about whether civil society actors must operate outside both market and state, there is a question about what those actors must do to qualify as ‘civil society’. Marc Williams defines ‘civil society’ as ‘that voluntary sphere in which individuals come together from outside the state and the market in order to promote common interests’ (2005: 347, added emphasis). If so, we need to ask, how ‘common’ do those interests have to be, since the wider ambition of the ‘global civil society’ debate is to identify processes that help broaden democratic politics. Just as some fear that Habermas’ public sphere ideal may fragment into countless unconnected ‘public sphericules’ (Gitlin 1998; Sunstein 1999), so too, when looking at possible examples of ‘global civil society’, we need to ask whether they are connected or at least connectable: if not, as Clifford Bob notes, it may not be a broader civil society or democratic politics that is being built. Uncertainty over the ‘civil’ inevitably overlaps with long-term debates about the boundaries of the political, as Bart Cammaerts notes in his discussion of ‘culture jamming’, which is? far from traditional electoral politics. Turning to the ‘global’, the global potential of political debates in the digital media age is a given, but there are many modalities of the global: globality of interactions or networking, globality of the issues or reference-points under discussion, and globality of ultimate political goals (Williams 2005: 350-351). Once again, this chapter illustrates that variety. And finally, if behind the prominence of the term ‘global civil society’ lie shifts not only in global economics and politics, but also major advances in communications technology (Williams 2005: 353), then there is an uncertainty about how exactly new media – which new media, and in which combinations? – are sustaining global civil society. For, as this chapter makes clear, we cannot grasp media’s contribution simply by looking at ‘civil society media’, useful though that term might be in some contexts (Hintz 2006).
This chapter has attempted to address the full range of global civil society; the result is a huge, and at first bewildering, diversity. I want to look back over the chapter, and argue that no less a diversity must be encompassed if the empirical complexity and normative promise of the term ‘global civil society’ is to be fulfilled. I will end with some suggestions for how our engagement with this diversity can be developed further.
In 2007, the most interesting frontline for investigating this phenomenon is what has been called the ‘global jihad’, with its dogged commitment to integrating highly professional media production, particularly on the Internet, into its core activities. The interest is both epistemological and political. Jihad media presents a basic challenge to the will-not-be-televised paradigm, and in doing so encourages reflection on what advocates of global civil society had hoped for, or expected, from a more accessible and pluralised media, whether television or the Internet.
The reality is more complex. In many cases, one NGO’s solution may be another’s problem. Their autonomous and largely closed communication networks make it easy for the rhetorical temperature to rise. Once unleashed, the blogs of war quickly create distrust among contending networks. As a result, direct confrontations, in print or in person, resemble a slanging match more than the rational deliberation and respectful dialogue so dear to many theorists of national and international democracy (Risse 2000; Habermas 2001; Dworkin 2006). Often these controversies serve important purposes for the protagonists: stoking attention to their issues, mobilising their base of support, demonstrating their fighting skills, and securing their organisational leadership. Because activists seek to influence policymakers, rather than making authoritative policy decisions themselves, most have few incentives to restrain their demands or compromise with their foes. At best, political realities may sometimes compel moderation. But with promulgation of new policies and evolving power relations, the opposing sides continue their dueling indefinitely.
All of this raises questions about how communication technologies affect global democracy – and the nature of global civil society itself. In some ways, the entry of groups such as the NRA and WFSA into the global arena makes for greater democracy. New voices add to the marketplace of ideas. Theorists of global civil society need to open their eyes to this diversity and its implications for democratic practice. For too long, progressive NGOs have identified themselves as ‘global civil society,’ and sympathetic academics have fueled this perception (Wapner 1996). On this narrow empirical base, elaborate theories of transnational politics have then been erected. This creates the impression that global civil society is thick with like–minded groups harmoniously cooperating to fight corporate greed and state power: they may disagree over strategy, but all fundamentally agree about the world’s problems.
In so doing, two important characteristics of global civil society are highlighted. First, is the creativity of actors, from their adaptation of new technologies, and tactical use of mainstream media and political processes, to their art practice, performance and humour. Second is the ‘bewildering diversity’ of global civil society that, as Nick Couldry points out in the conclusion to this chapter, encompasses actors from all parts of the political spectrum, whose philosophies, aims and strategies may differ markedly. The diverse array of case studies presented here defies distillation into a single model. Couldry emphasises the importance of linking such communicative practices to processes of decision making if global civil society actors are to have impact and to be sustainable.
The current communication environment is frequently characterised as one that lends itself to alternative voices finding a platform, an audience and an organisational network capable of creating communicative power. Some of the limitations of such an environment have been touched upon above, but four key areas of civil society activity to improve the public sphere, through and with media, should be outlined.
New technologies and the fragmentation of the public sphere
The Internet has created a limitless matrix through which ordinary people can exercise communicative power, establish shared spaces for discussion and dialogue, and where tapestries of communication between old and new media, traditional and twenty-first century communication networks are constantly rewoven.
Never before have new territories for claiming (and possibly confining) public space emerged as rapidly as they have over the last two decades, with the emergence of the internet, and the allied technological revolutions of mobile telephony, satellite broadcasting and communication, and the host of other applications (blogs, vlogs, wikis etc.) that make up what is termed Web 2.0. These issues have been discussed in previous editions of the Yearbook (see Castells et al. 2006; Naughton 2001) and elsewhere in this publication; here attention will be paid to the links between new and traditional media in opening public spaces and enhancing communicative power.
Later this chapter explores the many limits, constraints and setbacks of the media liberalisation wave of the 1990s, as well as many countervailing forces, but it should be acknowledged that, for much of the world’s population, the last decade of the twentieth century and since witnessed an unprecedented inflation of the public sphere.
On the other hand, as a tool of political communication texting has a serious limitation: it allows short messages to be copied and distributed quickly and widely, but it permits very little editing or elaboration based on the original message. It is suited for simple coordinating messages such as specifying the time and location of a gathering and what to wear (black clothes, in this case). However, it is highly insufficient for civic deliberation. With SMS, the messages were ‘mechanically augmented but semantically unaltered … producing a “technological revolution” that sets the question of social revolution aside’ (Rafael 2002: 409–10). ‘Texting is thus “revolutionary” in a reformist sense’ (Rafael 2003: 410). If a real revolution were to take place that fundamentally altered a social structure, it would most likely involve other media, including not only the internet, which has been accompanying the cell phone in most political mobilisations, but also traditional mass media and interpersonal communication.
Further, no effort has been made in this chapter to consider radical alternatives such as abandoning the United Nations as a site of struggle for a better world. The slogan of the World Social Forum, ‘another world is possible’, does not entail rejecting those features of the existing world order that hold some promise for the present and future. The United Nations, despite limitations and disappointments, remains a source of hope for improving the circumstances of humanity. It deserves the attention of global civil society, both in appreciation of its substantial achievements and to monitor its failures to uphold the UN Charter and the rule of law. The progressive reform of the UN is an integral aspect of any plausible programme for the extension of democracy and the material foundations of human dignity to disadvantaged states and regions, as well as to the world. In a broader sense, a more effective and democratic UN is indispensable to building a world order premised on the ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ school of thought (Archibugi 2003; Archibugi and Held 1995).
At times, the role of global civil society is to incubate an idea or initiative until the intergovernmental moods shifts into a supportive mode. This occurred in relation to criminal accountability for political leaders. Governments gave the initial push after the Second World War at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, but then backed off. This commitment to accountability was kept alive in America and Europe by activists during the cold war who relied on this framework of laws to oppose wars of aggression and improper weaponry and military doctrine and tactics. And then in the aftermath of the cold war, with the break-up of former Yugoslavia and the brutalities of the conflicts in Africa, a new intergovernmental set of initiatives revived the idea of accountability, even leading, against some geopolitical objection, to the formation of an International Criminal Court. In relation to UNEPS, it may also be necessary to push the idea and then wait patiently until a propitious conjuncture of happenings engages political forces throughout the world.
Even if civil society actors are restricted to those that affirm positive world order values, the initiatives taken by a given actor or individual may be corrupt, not reflective of democratic procedures, and regressive in impact. Therefore, a critical posture needs to be adopted by those who purport to discuss the United Nations from the perspective of global civil society.
The Role of Civil Society: UN reform or human development?
In the background is the question of whether civil society actors should devote their limited energies and even more limited resources to this debate on UN reform or concentrate most of their efforts on grass-roots contributions to human betterment. This is an old debate that revives the view that civil society undertaking to shape a consensus on UN reform via the report of an independent international commission had led nowhere, and were largely ignored within the United Nations itself (Commission on Global Governance 1995). In contrast, the report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, essentially a civil society initiative although with ties to states, adopted an approach to humanitarian intervention that has now been taken over by the official bodies developing reform initiatives within the United Nations (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001). The issue of UN reform overlaps with and is intimately related to discourses on ‘global governance’ (examples include Falk 1995; Anne-Marie Slaughter 2004; Amitai Etzioni 2004; David Held 1995). It is notable and appropriate that Global Civil Society 2004/5 features as its lead chapter a contribution by Kenneth Anderson and David Rieff that counsels international NGOs to give up the pretensions associated with claiming the existence of ‘global civil society’ and stop trying to play a role in the construction of global governance. In their words:
. . . international NGOs should give up their claims to represent global civil society, give up their dreams of representing the peoples of the world—indeed, devote fewer of their resources to advocacy and more time and care to the actual needs of their actual constituencies, and re-establish their claims of expertise and competence. (Anderson and Rieff 2005: 36)
Communicative power and the public sphere
There is a substantial literature on notions of communicative power and communicative action, most famously developed in the context of Jurgen Habermas’ argument around the development of the public sphere (Habermas 1983, 1987, 1988, 1989). This chapter, which is more concerned with trends and actions than concepts, leaves discussion of the many debates around Habermas’ and others’ work on the public sphere to other contributors to this edition (see for example, the Introduction). However, it does argue that these debates are increasingly relevant in the context of twenty-first century events and trends.
This chapter will explore how civil society and democratic engagement is mediated through the media and communication technologies, how this is changing and what is driving those changes. It will focus on the efforts – including those of various global civil society actors – to engage and challenge the media by creating alternative forms of mediated communication, and engaging with existing mainstream media. It will also describe how rapid changes in the media present new opportunities for communicative power and action, as well as many new obstacles to a democratic public sphere.
If, as Neera Chandhoke argues (Chandhoke 2002; 2005), civil society is the public space in which people meet, discuss and engage with politics and public policy, then the media is an essential determinant of the success of civil society as a creator of public spaces, and of how effectively people’s voices can be heard. Manuel Castells argues that ‘media have become the social space where power is decided’ (2007: 1).
This does not mean that there are no strong disagreements. There are, and they have become louder and louder in recent years. This raises several issues. First of all, is it possible to link up the different peoples of the WSF as an embryonic form of a counter-hegemonic civil society? Second, how to transform the areas of widely shared consensuses into calls for collective action? Third, how better to explore the implications of both the agreements and the disagreements? For instance, should disagreements be the object of specific discussions in the WSF? How to conceive of the relationship between participants and organisers (the International Council, IC, and the International Secretariat, IS)? How to articulate such diversity with the common core upon which the WSF builds its identity and eventually develops its capacity to act?
A space, by contrast, has no leaders. It is just a place, basically horizontal, like the earth’s surface, although undulating. Like a square, it has no owner – if the square has an owner other than those who use it, it becomes a private territory. Squares are generally open spaces that can be visited by all those with any kind of interest in using them. They have no other function than the function of squares, offering a specific kind of service to those who frequent them. The longer they last as squares the better for those who make use of them to achieve their respective aims.
However, underlying thinking and discussions about the nature of the Forum and its position in the array of forces present in the world today there linger thought-provoking questions stemming from an assertion that shapes way the Forums are organised: in order for the struggle against triumphalist turn-of-the-century neo-liberalism to be effective, it must go beyond the paradigms of political action that prevailed throughout the twentieth century. That really is a bold assertion. Is such a paradigm change really necessary? If so, is the present method of organising the Forums the best way to bring about that change?
This is where global civil society comes in. The idea of human security can connect many of the global civil society activities described in this introduction, from social justice and climate change campaigns to disaster relief and campaigns against political violence. Because the concept applies to the community of human beings, it offers the potential for expressing a global precautionary principle. In Global Civil Society 2004/5 we redefined global civil society as the medium through which one or more social contracts are negotiated by individual citizens and the various institutions of global governance (national, international and local) (Kaldor, Anheier and Glasius, 2004/5:2; Held 2004) This is an ongoing process involving debate, argument, campaigning, struggle, pressure, information, and a wide range of groups and individuals. One scenario is the further instrumentalisation of global civil society as a partner in a top-down effort to contain risk. The alternative scenario is a combined effort to confront everyday dangers of poverty, insecurity and environmental degradation. Human security could be a powerful framework for global civil society in framing these risks in transformative ways.
Top-down views of the functions of civil society include three broad perspectives that have become prominent in recent years. First, NGOs have become part of new public management and mixed ‘economies of welfare’ that involve public and private providers. New public management approaches see NGOs as closely linked to welfare state reform or welfare state alternatives. Second, civil society is seen as central to ‘civil society-social capital’ approaches, specifically the neo-Tocquevillian emphasis on the nexus between social capital and participation in voluntary associations of many kinds. Third, from a wider social accountability perspective, civil society is an instrument for achieving greater transparency, heightened accountability and improved governance of public institutions. The ‘other genealogy’ of civil society, that which describes its functions in terms of counter-hegemony and contestation (Howell and Pearce 2002: 31-38; Kaldor 2003), is left firmly out of the picture.
Government reform and civil society: the risk of instrumentalisation
Not all encounters between civil society and the state are dramatic tales of miraculous victory or bloody defeat. Global civil society also faces more conventional risks, such as being instrumentalised by governments and international organisations. For example, heads of state at the Sixth Global Forum in Reinventing Government, held in Seoul, 23–27 May 2005, and attended by several thousand representatives from 140 countries, made repeated calls for governments to work with civil society in meeting the growing gap between social needs and public resources. In an address delivered by Undersecretary Moreno, Kofi Annan called for a global government-civil society consensus on development as part of a ‘system-wide exercise’; the Prime Minister of Korea stressed the link between civil society and governmental reform and accountability; the President of Brazil emphasised that civil society and engaged citizens were at the centre of policy action locally as well as globally; and leading government officials from countries and organisations as diverse as Tanzania, Thailand, Iran, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Italy, South Africa, the European Union and the OECD stressed the role of civil society in forging efficient systems of public-private partnerships in service delivery, the contribution of civil society to greater transparency and accountability, and greater social inclusion. While many scholars are beginning to problematise the idea of civil society as a panacea (Chandhoke 2005), diverse government leaders continue to be all the more enamoured of the concept.
Like the public and domestic ‘sites’, civil society, too, is made up of a diversity of associational forms, varying in their size, purpose, duration, values, ideologies, degree of formality, and interconnections with the market and state. These can range from burial societies to single mothers’ groups, trades unions, animal rights’ groups, football clubs, business associations, global social movements, and world social forums. What unites these diverse units is the dynamic of voluntary solidarity. For civil society to sustain itself, people need to be able to associate voluntarily (in contrast to the ascriptive ties of the family) and to have a common reason to associate. We prefer here the concept of ‘sites’ to sectors, as the term allows for more fuzzy, porous and evolving boundaries than the more compartmentalised, legalistic and rigid image that ‘sector’ evokes. Furthermore, we conceptualise these sites as concentrations of power galvanised by distinct dynamics – in the case of the state, the dynamic of coercion and regulation; in the case of the market, the dynamic of profit and accumulation; in the case of the household, the dynamic of material and affective provisioning; and in the case of civil society, the dynamic of voluntary solidarity.
Developing a conceptual framework
In her insightful and novel analysis of the organisation of production, Diane Elson (1998: 5–6) argues cogently for a model of political economy that includes the domestic. Using a tripartite model of the private, public and domestic sectors, she demonstrates how the circuits of the market (through which goods, services, money and labour flow), of taxes and benefits (through which income transfers and public goods flow) and of communications (through which information, rumours, ideas, values and meanings flow) connect these sectors and channel the flows between them. At the same time the sectors feed into these channels. To illustrate, the market feeds commercial values through the communications network, the state transmits regulatory values, and the domestic feeds provisioning values. These values in turn can have positive as well as negative dimensions. Thus, the domestic sector may feed in values of caring and giving as well as of patriarchy (Elson 1998: 6).
Though feminist theorists have not paid much attention to the relationship between civil society and the family, it can be argued that conceptualising the family as inside or outside of civil society has consequences for the way we theorise civil society and gender, and indeed for practical strategies around gender emancipation. Arguing, as Pateman does, that the family is ‘at the heart of civil society’ challenges modernist and voluntarist views of civil society, which posit civil society-type organisations as free of clan and familial ties and obligations. Taking the family as crucial calls for a gender analysis of civil society and state institutions. It thus strengthens the idea that civil society discourses, spaces and organisations as well as state organisations and practices are shaped by, and in turn reproduce, particular configurations of gender relations. Moreover, it places organisations based on ethnicity or blood ties within the scope of analysis by civil society researchers, a dilemma that has been captured in the works of researchers in Africa.
Feminist political theory and civil society
Although the family forms an important element in Habermas’s account of the transformation of the public sphere, so distinguishing Habermas from many contemporary writers on civil society, feminist thinkers such as Joan Landes, Mary Ryan and Nancy Fraser have challenged the normative ideal of a (bourgeois) public sphere as open and accessible to all. Joan Landes (1988) argues that gender became the main axis of exclusion in the new republican sphere in France through discursive practices that belittled women’s participation in political life. Mary Ryan (1998: 195–222) challenges Habermas’s depiction of a decline of the bourgeois public sphere by documenting the movement of North American women into politics from the early nineteenth century onwards. In doing so she subverts the masculinist, bourgeois concept of a single public sphere and highlights the profusion of counter-publics that were neither liberal, nor bourgeois, nor necessarily male. In defence of the normative concept of public spheres in actually existing democracies, Nancy Fraser (1997:136–7) argues that any adequate conception of the public sphere has not only to bracket social differences such as gender but also to eliminate social inequality.
One of the few contemporary writers to engage more systematically with the family in relation to civil society, public spheres and the state is Juergen Habermas. In his discussion of the transformation of the eighteenth century bourgeois public sphere Habermas distinguishes the family from civil society (understood as the realm of commodity exchange and social labour) and state. For Habermas (1989: 46–7) the family is both a precursor to civil society and a site of intimacy that maintains the illusion of autonomy, voluntariness and humanity despite its embeddedness in the market economy and its role in reproducing social norms and values and patriarchal authority. In tracing the decline of the bourgeois public sphere through the processes of urbanisation, the rise of the welfare state and mass democracy, Habermas (1989: 154–5) paints a picture of a weakening, income-dependent and consumerist family that loses its functions of social internalisation and welfare protection, and becomes increasingly disengaged from social production.
Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as Rousseau, Ferguson, Paine, and de Tocqueville, counterposed civil society not only to the state but also to the family, though they paid little attention to the latter. In their conceptualisations of individual rights, freedom and civil society, they operated with a gendered notion of the public based on the abstract individual male. For Hegel the (patriarchal) family and the state form the two hierarchical poles between which civil society is located. As economic relations are integral to civil society, civil society is defined as both non-state and non-family. Hegel excludes the family from civil society not only because the family is the first context in which the abstract legal person is situated but also because the family is assumed to be a unity, based on love, without any conflict between its members, and from which its (male) head enters the world of civil society (Cohen and Arato 1995: 628–31, n. 48). Among contemporary writers on civil society the Hegelian distinction between family and civil society is, whether implicit or explicit, commonplace (see, for example, Carothers 1999: 207; Diamond, 1994: 5; White 1994: 379; Hawthorn 2001: 269–86; Van Rooy 1998: 6–30).
And yet the unexpected happened. The virtual consensus in favor of gun control started to be challenged in blogs and websites. A variety of arguments opened up a process of heated discussion. Opponents denounced the approved legislation as a false, simplistic solution to the complex, dramatic problem of violence, arguing that it reduced government responsibility to ensure public safety. Others spoke about risks to individual freedom and civic rights. Blogs and virtual communities were created overnight. Friends and colleagues shared emails about contrasting points of view.Ideas were confronted in an extensive conversation that spread to the workplace and many households. People who usually took stands along clear-cut lines started to defend conflicting opinions. With the opening up of television prime time for both sides to argue their case and with mandatory voting, the debate expanded to the entire population.
This subordination of the diversity of citizen action to the political imperatives of a uniform, state-centred strategy of radical social transformation challenges civil society’s constituent freedom and autonomy. Citizen participation is multiple, fluid, diverse and, in a way, it is precisely in its lack of organisation – a reflection of the growing complexity and fragmentation of contemporary societies – that its strength resides. Civil society is not, nor can it be, a political party. Its goal is not to achieve or exercise state power. Nobody speaks for civil society, nor has the power or capacity to define who is part of it or who is excluded from it. It is, by its very nature, a contested political space, an arena of debate and innovation, criss-crossed by the conflicts and controversies present in society. It cannot be appropriated by any single political project. Its most visible face is made from organisations and movements. However, today, this organised dimension, no longer accounts for the range and diversity of citizen action. This classical notion of civil society has to be reframed and enlarged to take into account emerging actors, processes and spaces.
1. Western liberal ideas
This group of ideas is pursued by Western liberals in a non-Western setting have campaigned for democratisation based on the defence of the political and civic rights. They are a small but visible minority threatened with severe persecution by their rulers. Their language is the language of democracy, rights and the rule of law. Perhaps the embodiment of this set of ideas is Aung San Suu Kyi, who has become a global symbol for a non-violent struggle for democracy and against repression in Burma, on a par with the South African leader Nelson Mandela. For most of the time since the 1990 electoral victory of her National Democratic League (NLD), which the military junta refused to recognise, Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for her beliefs. The Lady, which is how the Burmese call her in deference, describes what she is fighting for:
Genetically engineered civil society
Katherine Verdery (1996) contends that since the demise of communism, Western capitalist societies have come to believe that they have a monopoly on truth and can therefore dispense wisdom about how to build the ‘proper’ forms of democracy and capitalism. This, the critics charge, led to the promotion of a single (i.e.Western) model of civil society that ignores other traditions and understandings (Parekh 2004: 22). According to Thomas Carothers, ‘Democracy promoters pass through these countries [in Africa, Asia and the Middle East] on hurried civil society assessment missions and declare that “very little civil society exists” because they have found only a handful of Westernised NGOs devoted to non-partisan public-interest advocacy work on the national side’ (Carothers 1999: 248). Since donor-defined civil society (that is, professional NGOs) did not exist in many places or was believed to have been tainted, donors engaged in a process of building society from scratch (Mandel 2002: 282).
Challenges and obstacles to democracy promotion
In analysing why the transitions to democracy have not yielded the expected results, a common claim is that a society’s propensity or ‘fitness’ for democracy is predicated on its cultural and geographic proximity to the West (Nodia 2002; McFaul 2002). Ernest Gellner (1994), for instance, argued that the concept of civil society is inapplicable in certain contexts, including in non-Western patrimonial societies and in tribal societies (Gellner 1994). He questioned whether civil society could exist in Islamic societies. Others, such as Elie Kedourie or Serif Mardin, have also claimed civil society is a Western dream that does not translate well into Islamic society (Mardin 1995, quoted in Sajoo 2002) or that Muslims have nothing in their own political traditions that is compatible with Western notions of democracy (Kedourie 1992). Meanwhile, in the context of the post-socialist countries in Eastern Europe, ‘transitologists’ often ‘invoke “culture”, that amorphous, omnibus concept’ as an explanation for why certain Western policies or blueprints have been resisted (Burawoy and Verdery 1999: 14). For instance, in Bosnia, culture or ethnic mentality were cited as reasons for the inability to embrace civil society development and democratisation. David Chandler discusses the disparaging ways in which the Bosnian people and society were viewed by some international actors and internationally funded local NGOs. They perceived Bosnian society as ‘deeply sick’, ‘feudalistic’ or as ‘the flock’ (Chandler 2004: 240–1). He argues that this focus on the perceived incapacities of Bosnians is only one side of the story and that greater attention must be paid to the ‘failing within international democratisation practice itself’ (Chandler 2004: 228).
While the growth and presence of NGOs is undeniable, increased activism should not necessarily be seen as the result of democracy promotion programmes for two reasons. First, much of the civil society activism at the global level comes from organisations based in or operating in the global North; far fewer Southern organisations are engaged in lobbying and advocacy at the global level. It still tends to be the ‘usual suspects’ (that is, well-established, Northern-based organisations) that are engaged in global activism and included in consultations with intergovernmental organisations. For instance, only 251 of the 1,550 NGOs associated with the UN Department of Public Information come from the global South; the remainder are NGOs from the global North (Wild 2006).
A survey of European bilateral and multilateral democracy promotion policies from 2001–6 by the Fundacion Para Las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (FRIDE) also found that there was sufficient complexity and diversity to make it difficult to speak of ‘the European approach’ (Youngs 2006: 25, emphasis in original). Of the seven countries surveyed (Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK), there was variation in the levels of ‘democracy-related competence’ and ‘manpower allocated specifically to democracy promotion responsibilities remained limited’, with Sweden having the most clearly articulated democracy promotion policies (Youngs 2006: 16–17). While various European bilateral donors, including the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (SIDA), actively support and engage with civil society actors through their programmes, they tend to view democracy as a means by which to eliminate or overcome poverty (DFID URLa; URLb) or as a means for achieving peace, justice and human rights (SIDA 1997). Democracy is not discussed as a matter of principle or centrepiece of policy, as in the US context discussed above.
While scholars continue to debate the virtues, relationship and contributions of civil society to democracy (Chandhoke 1995), in the 1990s donors began actively supporting civil society strengthening programmes, driven by the belief that the relationship between civil society and democracy is natural and inevitable (Howell and Pearce 2002: 51). Driven by policy influenced by neo-Tocquevillian thinking, it was believed that through financial and technical assistance to civil society, democracy could be built. When conducting interviews with donors in Armenia in 2002–3, I was struck by the fact that none of my respondents from donor agencies who were engaged in democracy promotion programmes ever questioned whether civil society should be strengthened as part of their democracy building efforts; the question was always how it could best be done. Indeed, as the transitions progressed in all the former socialist countries, the radical democratic ideas and visions of civil society that had emerged in the 1980s dissipated, giving way to more established and less revolutionary neo-liberal ones. Subsequently, civil society became a project that was implemented in the name of democracy building, which eventually led to the projectisation of civil society (Sampson 2002). While this approach has led to the phenomenal growth in the number of NGOs, it has not generated genuine participation or public debate. The following quote, cited by Timothy Garton Ash from an Eastern European colleague, sums up the projectisation which occurred in the 1990s: ‘We dreamed of civil society and got NGOs’ (Garton Ash 2004).
In the 1980s Jürgen Habermas’ work on civil society also became quite influential in academic circles. Habermas’ notion of the communicative public sphere envisaged a space where people could discuss matters of mutual concern and learn about facts, events and others’ opinions (Habermas 1996). As opposed to de Toqueville’s vision in which public opinion was treated more as ‘a compulsion toward conformity’, for Habermas public communication had the potential to provide the space in which the general or public interest could be rationally and critically discussed (Habermas 1992: 133). Although Habermas saw this potential in the ideal model of the public sphere, he also expressed concern with the colonisation of the ‘lifeworld’ that undermined the progressive potential of the project (Howell and Pearce 2002: 57). Nevertheless, Habermas went on to search for the emancipatory possibilities of civil society and subsequently triggered a debate, which continues today, about civil society, democracy and conceptions of the public sphere.
While the neo-Tocquevillian position was influential in donor policy circles, it should be recalled that the Latin American and Eastern European intellectuals, dissidents and activists were far more inspired and influenced by the ideas of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. For Gramsci, civil society was more than political economy. He questioned the economism of the Marxist definition and went on to invert Marx’s vision by arguing that ideologies come before institutions and that ideology is the force capable of shaping new histories (Bobbio 1988: 88). Gramsci placed the emphasis on civil society’s politically relevant cultural dimension (Cohen 1999: 214) and considered civil society as the space for the (re)production and contestation of hegemonic as well as counter-hegemonic discourses. In both Eastern Europe and Latin America civil society referred to autonomy and self-organisation, with an emphasis on withdrawal from the state and the creation instead of ‘islands of civic engagement’ (Kaldor 2003: 193).
David Rieff also criticises the ‘dogma holding that civil society strengthening is the key to creating and sustaining a healthy polity’ (Rieff 1999). He views the rise in popularity of civil society in the late 1980s and 1990s as being part of wider trend of the privatisation of the state and the shrinking of overseas aid budgets, and argues for a greater focus on the nation state than on civil society.
Nearly two decades have passed since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and presently there is widespread acknowledgement that democracy promotion efforts in various regions, including the former Soviet Union, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, have failed to produce democratic regimes, and that the anticipated vibrant, independent civil societies do not exist. Even in countries where civil democracy promotion efforts are considered a success (for example, Eastern Europe) there is growing cynicism towards civil society (Hann 2004: 47). Furthermore, there is a rising backlash against democracy promotion as the euphoria and optimism that accompanied the collapse of Communism and the end of the Cold War have been replaced by disillusionment. In spite of the emerging pessimism and backlash, donors and policy makers describe democracy as a universal value and right (Ferrerro-Waldner 2006; McFaul 2004: 148; UN Democracy Fund [UNDEF] URL). Such is the popularity of democracy today that even ‘despots’ (Rieffer and Mercer 2005: 385) and ‘tyrants’ (McFaul 2004: 151) who are suspicious of Western-led democracy promotion, pretend to be democrats or claim they are charting an evolutionary (or revolutionary) transition to democracy.
Since the early 1990s, programmes strengthening civil society, in particular American, have excluded political associations and parties (i.e. political society) in an attempt to appear non-partisan and to avoid accusations of ‘playing politics’ (Ottaway and Carothers 2000: 12). Instead, although donors have recently sought to expand the definition of civil society to include more actors than just NGOs, in practice civil society was often equated with the development and growth of NGOs and as a result, the infusion of donor funding and focus on civil society strengthening throughout the 1990s led to an unprecedented and exponential growth in the numbers of NGOs worldwide. Many have referred to this as the ‘NGOisation’ of civil society.
Behind all this lies a significant factor that enables civil society to be ‘global’, indeed, may force it to be global: the changing nature of communications technology and practice. Transformation in communications technologies has always had implications for organisational strategies in the sale and consumption of goods, in the political process and finally in the large-scale formation of public attitudes. Changes in strategy are intensified when technology shifts are combined with large political upheavals, altered demographies and changed concepts of law. Satellites, the Internet and other methods of exploiting new production and distribution technologies are exactly the phenomena that undermine old cartels and are the predicate for forming new ones. Brands become global, films are conceived in a worldwide market, banks become massive and transnational, religions think of multi-state markets, nations see themselves in global competition for hearts and minds and even museums think widely across boundaries. Many groups – the International Committee to Ban Landmines and Falun Gong are examples that demonstrate the wide spectrum – increasingly have a global focus because they realise that a widely distributed consensus, among elites or among broader segments of society, is often essential for their growth and success.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, democracy promotion means imaginative responses to demands from global civil society. The best form of empowerment is success, the knowledge that engagement leads to meaningful outcomes. Action designed to fulfil an emerging global social contract or covenant – the consequence of numerous debates, campaigns, arguments taking place all over the world – offers a political project that can help to recast democracy at local and national levels. A good example of what is meant by this is the enlargement of the European Union. The European Union can be understood a new type of multilateral organisation at a regional level, promoting, as it were, regional public goods. Membership of the European Union for newly emerging democracies has become an appealing political project that does take democracy forward. In the same way, a global social covenant could offer a political project for ‘civilising’ globalisation and pressing for global public goods like resource redistribution or global action to tackle climate change that represents an alternative to backward-looking sectarianism.
First of all, administrative tools and money need to be guided by communication, by debates at local, national and global levels. The aim of substantive democracy promotion is to help create and protect political spaces where projects and procedures can be discussed and negotiated. Bureaucrats tend to favour ‘capacity-building’ and measurable outcomes. Yet the most important role that outsiders can play is facilitating discussions and meetings and responding to local agendas. This may mean less rather than more funding. But it does require more ambitious efforts to create channels through which ordinary people and the associations they form can have access to political authority at all levels.
At a moment when democracy at a national level appears to be ‘hollowing out’, the informal political sphere is increasingly active through NGOs. This includes those operating at local levels and those with global brand names like Oxfam, Human Rights Watch or Greenpeace, as well as a new wave of global social movements like the Social Forums, the anti-war movement or Islamist and other national or religious movements. Moreover new types of informal policy making are being pioneered on big global issues like social justice, climate change or war. These are being tackled through consumer practices (fair trade or carbon miles) or through volunteering (delivering humanitarian aid, acting as civilian monitors).
The language of civil society which expressed these aspirations was reinvented simultaneously in Latin America and Eastern Europe, in societies struggling against authoritarianism and militarism, although the East European discourse is better known. In both cases, there was a similar emphasis on human dignity and on ‘islands of engagement’. The intellectuals in both regions understood civil society as something distinct from the state, even anti-state, a rolling back of the state in everyday life. And they linked this idea with transnational concerns – opposition to the Cold War and to National Security Doctrines that were prevalent in Latin America, and the belief that the reinvented concept of civil society had global relevance. In both cases, these ideas expressed a practical reality: on the one hand, the growth of international legal instruments that could be used to criticise the state and, on the other hand, involvement in transnational networks of activists with North America and Western Europe, which helped to protect these islands of engagement and through which these ideas were debated, refined and exported.
Up until 1989, the definition of civil society was territorially bounded. Moreover, civil society was considered to exist only in part of the world – primarily north west Europe and North America. The reinvention of the concept of civil society in the 1970s and 1980s was linked to the wave of new social movements that developed after 1968 – the generation described by Ulrich Beck (1998) as ‘freedom’s children’. These movements operated outside formal party politics and were concerned with new issues – gender, environment, peace and human rights. They were harbingers both of more radical demands for democracy – autonomy, participation, self-organisation – but also growing global consciousness, the sense of a common humanity. They also made use of the emerging infrastructure of globalisation – air travel and improved information and communications technology.
In contrast to democracy, civil society is no longer territorially bounded. Like democracy, civil society is one of those terms that has very many definitions and the discussion about definitions is part of what civil society is about. I define civil society as the medium through which social contracts or bargains are negotiated between the individual and the centres of political and economic authority. Civil society is a process of management of society that is ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’, and that involves the struggle for emancipatory goals. Civil society, of course, includes reactionary groups as well – people struggling to preserve traditions or those who have exclusive agendas – but it is the site where all these issues are debated and negotiated. Civil society makes possible governance based on consent where consent is generated through politics. Substantive democracy is only possible where procedural democracy is accompanied by and indeed constructed by a strong and active civil society.
This is not to say that communication necessarily means taking local advice. Often that advice is conflicting and may involve special pleading. But communication and dialogue are both key to empowering civil society and shaping democracy strategies. Money and administrative instruments can be useful where they are a response to bottom-up demands. But they are less likely to be effective where they are based on exporting particular models of democracy or supporting particular pro-Western factions.
How then, might we understand global publics and world opinion and their role in constraining or shaping state actions? The purpose of this chapter is twofold. First, we explore the concept of world opinion. Drawing from discursive conceptualisations of publics and public opinion, we distinguish global publics from global civil society. The latter is primarily a structural concept, represented by a variety of non-state institutions and organisations, while the former is of a more virtual and ephemeral nature, a complex function of widespread discussion and emergent patterns of association. Second, we turn to global media systems, examining the ways in which world publics depend upon these systems for their modes of interaction and development. Here we briefly consider recent trends in communication and their implications for the behaviour of publics on a global scale.
Time for gender and civil society theorists to tango
There are many reasons why it is time to interrogate more closely the relationship between gender and civil society. The first and perhaps most obvious reason for feminist theorists and practitioners is that women have been significant actors in the theatres of civil societies across the world. Often excluded from state institutions and male-dominated politics, women in different historical and cultural contexts have found it easier to become active at the local level through, for example, community organisations, self-help groups, traders’ associations, faith-based organisations, mothers’ groups, or campaigning. It is on this terrain that women activists, including feminists, have articulated their demands, mobilised around issues such as the right to vote, dowry, land rights and domestic violence, and created networks of solidarity. The spaces and institutions within civil society can exclude women, but they also have an emancipatory potential, which feminists can and do make use of.
Nevertheless, it is curious that there has been so little interrogation of the relationship between gender and civil society, within either feminist or civil society theories. This is surprising not only because each set of theories would have much to gain from the other in terms of theorisation and practical knowledge but also because organising around gender relations can constitute in different historical and cultural contexts a significant part of actually existing civil societies. This chapter addresses this lacuna. It begins by laying out the reasons for promoting a closer encounter between gender and civil society theory. It then explores what this would mean for the way in which civil society and gender are theorised and conceptualised. In particular, it develops a framework for conceptualising gender and civil society that highlights the interconnectedness of sites of power and the constant flow of socially constructed male and female bodies through a circuit of gender relations. Finally, we map out the practical and theoretical issues that deserve further investigation and action.
When east European intellectuals such as Václav Havel and Adam Michnik seized upon the vocabulary of civil society to articulate their dissent from overbearing Leninist regimes, they could not have known how much political and intellectual interest in the notion of non-governmental public action their choice of concept would generate. Appropriated for diverse and often discordant ideological ends, and used empirically to refer to an array of referents, the concept of civil society has been subject to ongoing assault, with criticisms ranging from its apparent vagueness to its historico-cultural specificity. Nevertheless, politicians, activists, government bureaucrats, and intellectuals across the globe continue to embrace the discourse of civil society to explain and justify their differing visions of the world and their courses of action.
It does seems likely that there are multiple global public spheres when it comes to climate change, partly determined by political boundaries and partly by political predilection, but they do stand in connection with each other. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, may be presumed to penetrate into the different spheres. The subject has in all likelihood gone beyond the level of the attentive public, and begun to impinge on the awareness of what Price calls ‘mass audiences’. While the debate on ‘whether’ is polarised into two camps, the debate on remedies is far more varied, lively, and indeed deliberative. However, participation is very uneven, causing actors in global civil society to do much perilous speaking ‘on behalf of’ potentially threatened populations in parts of Africa or the Pacific islands. It is clear that, probably due to a combination of influential reports and unusual weather, the climate change debate has experienced a sudden elevation to the higher regions of political agendas. To what extent policy and citizen behaviour will be affected remains open.
The climate change debate is an interesting case for the hypothesis of a global public sphere, in that mutual accusations of shutting down debate are an integral part of the debate itself. There is no doubt that the environmental mainstream would in fact like to close part of the debate, namely that part that still questions whether climate change is occurring and whether it is caused by human behaviour, in order to move on to discussing policy and behavourial change. Continuing to give air to the climate change sceptics gives politicians somewhere to hide, and obstructs progress on the latter half of the agenda. But from the vantage point of the public sphere as a form of democratic practice, any attempt to shut down other voices is problematic. What, if any, should be the limits to what can be debated in a global public sphere, and who sets the limits? Holocaust denial is criminalised in many countries, although in Iran it is government policy. But can climate change denial really be likened to Holocaust denial? Climate sceptics see such equivalence as only a first step, and warn darkly of eco-dictatorship, predicated on the notion that human beings will not adapt their consumptive behaviours willingly.
It is in the practices of activists themselves where we find responses adequate to the challenge posed by that the unprecedented levels of the power of capital. For instance, as Victor Pickard describes in Chapter 10, Indymedia is committed to radical democratic practices in its networks both locally and globally, yet whether this is adequate to the task of democratising global governance is open to question when, as Clifford Bob shows, the same technologies are open to the National Rifle Association and, as Thomas Keenan describes, are central to the idea of global Jihad. Deane shows that activists are now going beyond attempts to practice deliberative democracy within their own spaces, to address global governance structures with the new norm of a ‘right to communicate.’ Yet that right has to be guaranteed in some way and the dilemmas around which the debate between Lippman and Dewey revolved, between management of information, individual participation and democratic decision making are ever more acute in a world confronted with global issues that require collective responses. Global civil society is forced to engage with state structures if it is to secure their democratisation. It has to take communicative democracy to the centre of state power if it is to build global governance and redress the inequalities that stand in the way of adequate action on a global scale.
These critiques seem to undermine the possibilities for new democratic forms based on civil society-as-communication. But there may be a rescue from a quarter that political theorists tend to neglect: actually existing global civil society. The ideal of a public sphere, or multiple spheres, of decision making based on communication and deliberation, has escaped from the clutches of the theorists into the real world. Global civil society as-is may not correspond to the ideal of a public sphere where free and equal deliberation takes place between all global citizens. But what one does find in global civil society is some adherents to the ideal, and numerous shaky attempts to practice it.
Finally, even if an ideal-typical public sphere were taking shape in global civil society, one may wonder how it could eliminate the tendency to concentrate power. Instead of the kind of formal equality of access that the ideal type of the? global public sphere requires, what is developing, in Monroe Price’s analysis, are precisely the kind of inequalities of power that correspond to the formal equalities of market capitalism. Everyone going around expressing opinions, even freely and equally, is not enough. A democratic theory must also have something to do with decision making. In Habermas’ conception, public opinion was somehow informing governmental decision making. How this link operated was always a problematic aspect of the theory, but it has not been theorised at all for the messy power landscape of political globalisation.
These constraints are of course multiplied at the global level. Discussions of inequality of access to public debates often focus rather crudely on geographical representation. The ‘North’ is over-represented, the ‘South’ muted. But many more subtle exclusions also operate. Almost without exception, the ‘voices of global civil society’ belong to an English-speaking, university-educated, computer-literate middle class. Within that class access to information is limited again by the commercial logic of websites and search engines. As Vincent Price points out in Chapter 1, Google channels the bulk of users to a set of sites produced mainly by the big media corporations. James Deane in Chapter 8 provides an extensive review of the tendencies towards the appropriation of communicative power and the consequent contraction of the public sphere. He highlights the use of the ‘war on terror’ to restrict freedom of expression, the concentration of media ownership, dependency on advertising, and a growth in number of outlets that actually stifle genuine diversity of opinion.
Not only is participation limited, it is typically limited in ways that confirm existing power imbalances: ‘under conditions of structural inequality, normal processes of deliberation often in practice restrict access to agents with greater resources, knowledge, or connections to those with greater control over the forum’ (Young 2001: 680). Even at the very local level, Young sums up a number of barriers to participation by ‘anyone with an interest’:
Even when a series of public hearings are announced for an issue, people who might wish to speak at them need to know about them, be able to arrange their work and child care schedule to be able to attend, be able to get to them, and have enough understanding of the hearing process to participate. Each of these abilities is unevenly present among members of a society. (Young 2001: 680).
The UN Panel on UN-Civil Society Relations follows in this tradition. It describes participatory democracy as a process in which ‘anyone can enter the debates that most interest them, through advocacy, protest, and in other ways’ (UN 2004: paragraph 13). But a few pages later it acknowledges that there are practical constraints: ‘if the United Nations brought everyone relevant into each debate, it would have endless meetings without conclusion’ (2004: paragraph 23).
In Habermas’ ideal public sphere, ‘access is guaranteed to all citizens’ (1989: 136). But access is in fact limited in many ways. First there are those who explicitly exclude themselves from deliberative fora they deem illegitimate. As Iris Marion Young puts it, they typically ‘make public noise outside while deliberation is supposedly taking place on the inside’, although sometimes they ‘invade the houses of deliberation and disrupt their business’ (Young 2001: 673). These disrupters, well-known figures in global civil society, can still be considered as part of the public sphere. They do after all ‘aim to communicate specific ideas to a wide public’ (2001: 676). They do, however, test the limits of the public sphere-related conception of civil society, particularly when the method of disruption is violent (see Albrow and Anheier 2006). Much more numerous are those who cannot participate. First, access to global public spheres is still restricted by governments (see Chapter 5). Beyond deliberate obstruction by states, there is a wider problem with participation. As Ricardo Blaug puts it wryly:
Whether due to there being simply too many of us, to the excessive complexity and interdependence of the problems we face, to a perceived inefficiency of deliberation, or to a perceived lack of ability and motivation on the part of the demos, democratic theorists since Plato have taught us that the people, while being sovereign, require structures that limit their participation (Blaug 1999: 132).
Keane describes global public spheres as:
sites within global civil society where power struggles are visibly waged and witnessed by means other than violence and war: they are the narrated, imagined non-violent spaces within global civil society in which millions of people at various points on the earth witness the powers of governmental and non-governmental organisations being publicly named, monitored, praised and condemned, defying the old tyrannies of time and space … [but] few of these are reducible to the dynamics of rational-critical argumentation about matters of sober truth and calm agreement. (Keane 2003: 169)
Apart from the notes of caution inserted by Habermas and others concerning the application of the ideal-typical concept of the public sphere to reality, the new enthusiasts also tend to miss the fact that for Habermas, and even in the seminal work on civil society by Cohen and Arato (1992), the only imaginable relevant context was the state. Their public spheres end neatly at the border, civil society is national, and the formation of public opinion only relates to decision making by government and parliament. Habermas saw ‘the potential for self-annihilation on a global scale’ (1989 : 235) as adding emphasis to Kant’s call for a ‘cosmopolitan order’, but this was only within the frame of a world of nation states.
The Saddam images fed into a debate that immediately became global. But it has no global institutional locus. Is this the new global public sphere, where a global public opinion takes shape? Do the new communication possibilities realise democracy beyond the nation state or does the very proliferation of media channels result in a fragmentation that undermines any public sphere? Habermas re-centred the issue of democracy in the nation state on the possibilities of full and free communication in the public sphere. We ask whether developments in the media of communication and their use now require us to rethink democracy for global society. If we do now have a global public sphere can we be sure that democracy will inspire its debates? These are our concerns in Global Civil Society Yearbook 2007/8.