In practice, some of the groups organising Forums do treat the Charter more flexibly, without much concern for the consequences. Only the World Forums held so far have strictly abided by the Charter of Principles; the same cannot be said of all the regional, national or local forums. There are cases, for example, of forums that have ended with final documents, been presented as organisations, and had spokespeople or coordinators. Others are not really ‘open spaces’ but rather events taken over by particular political forces. Others are organised from the top down only, as if they were seminars. One of the most flagrant cases of breach of the Charter had to do precisely with party and government participation. According to the reports of participants, the Socialist Workers’ Party and Ken Livingston, Mayor of London, played central roles in the organisation of the European Social Forum held in London in March 2005.

Social Forums and interconnectedness

Two chapters in this yearbook discuss directly the matter of global civil society’s infrastructure: how global it is in terms of actual on-the-ground presence and connectedness rather than rhetoric. The conclusions of Katz and Anheier’s chapter on international NGOs give a bleak response to this question. While international NGOs are nearly all connected to each other in one huge inclusive network, there is a ‘pronounced centre-periphery structure’. Moreover, the biggest clusters of INGOs mirror the centres of corporate and governmental power: New York, London, Washington, DC and Brussels. Hence, the network reproduces rather than counteracts the amplification of Northern over Southern voices.

First, there is a huge gap in the literature concerning the gendered composition of civil society, the gendered norms and practices prevailing among civil society organisations, and the barriers to the participation of not only women in civil society but also some men. There is no systematic, comprehensive disaggregated data available on the gendered make-up of civil society. How many male-dominated or female-dominated associations are there, and what kinds of issues, sectors or activities are these associated with? What do we mean by a gender-based organisation? What is the gender distribution of different kinds of formal and informal organisation? What percentage of volunteers and employees are women, and how does this vary across time, country context and sector? How do we explain the predominance of men or women in particular types of groups? What proportion of directors, trustees and managers of civil society organisations are male, and why are women under- or over-represented in different country contexts or at the global level? How has this changed over time? What legal or regulatory mechanisms facilitate the exclusion or inclusion of many women and some men from participating in civil society? Through what gendered norms and practices, such as the lack of childcare facilities or the times of meetings, are women effectively excluded from taking part in different civil society groups? How do gender relations within the household affect the way women participate and organise, be it in women’s organisations or other kinds of civil society groups? Although some of these questions have been broached in relation to state institutions and formal politics, their application to the realm of civil society requires systematic attention and research.

Third, the advent of highly flexible, multi-channel media systems, which in principle allow for greater circulation of public affairs information, may conceivably have the effect of reducing rather than expanding the broad distribution of news and information. Recent research by Prior (2002) and others suggests that increasing consumer choice, at least in the US media market, has come largely at the expense of news, the audience for which has been dwindling as entertainment-oriented outlets draw readers, viewers and listeners away in significant numbers. Tewksbury (forthcoming) finds a similar pattern in studies tracking users of news websites. With their newfound freedom to navigate media sites, users tend to seek entertainment and celebrity-related information in place of national or international news and public affairs. At the same time, the remaining audience for public affairs programming has fractured, as people look for news and opinions that match their own ideological commitments and judge the credibility of the press from their own ideological viewpoints (Pew Research Center 2004). Such findings fuel concerns about the centrifugal forces at work in new media systems, which may produce a pattern of one-sided information consumption and a widening gulf between the politically engaged and unengaged and thereby reduce the deliberative character of public opinion.

The democratic character of public communication and opinion formation can be difficult to maintain even in small decision-making bodies, as status and knowledge differences emerge, where those with unpopular views may prove reticent, and where racial, religious, or other cleavages prevent open and equitable exchanges (Mansbridge 1983). As communication systems expand, as participants in that system become heterogeneous and widely dispersed and as the problems at stake become more specialised and distant, the difficulties become all the more significant.

Third, civil society is a double-edged sword for feminists. It can provide a site for organising around feminist issues, for articulating counter-hegemonic discourses, for experimenting with alternative lifestyles and for envisioning other less sexist and more just worlds. With its organisations of self-support, community action, and voluntary care, it can foster solidarity, promote mutual support and prioritise values of care, respect and equality. Yet it can also be an arena where gendered behaviours, norms and practices are acted out and reproduced. As Anne Phillips (2002: 80) warns, the associations of civil society are relatively unregulated when compared with the state and therefore vulnerable to sexist and other discriminatory practices. Civil society can be the terrain of conservative ideologies that foster women’s dependency in the constricted space of the family as well as of emancipatory ideologies that aspire to gender equality. It offers fertile soil not only to liberal, socialist and radical feminists, gay and lesbian movements, and progressive men’s groups, but also to conservative women activists, anti-gay lobbies and patriarchal and misogynistic male groups.

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.

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 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).

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