A Single Civil Society - nothing but a mirage?

Article published on Oct. 11, 2002
community published
Article published on Oct. 11, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Universal panacea or massive free-for-all, the concept of a global civil society continues to inspire definitions as varied as they are caricatural... To speak of a single civil society allows us to give the useful impression of consensus where in fact confusion reigns. At the same time, we risk masking reality itself with over-expression.

A Contested Definition

The history of the term 'civil society', generally hidden, is rich with teachings. Civil comes from civis, the citizen, the city. In 18th century English philosophy the term was merged, more or less, with the term (civil) State, as opposed to a state of nature. Hegel subjected the term to one restriction; in the philosophy of law, continuing the distinction between civil and criminal law, he opposes the State (the sphere of public interest) to civil society (the sphere of private interest, including trade). Anglo-Saxon settlers thus conserved this approach, which included the trade sector. A perfectly clear fact when we consider the often close links between private companies and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in the United States. In contrast, Europe tends to separate the market from civil society by limiting the term's application to NGOs. We are therefore dealing with a multifaceted notion that keeps a little of every one of its shifts of meaning. This is why we often highlight the role of civil society in the formation of civic responsibility, whilst disparagers of civil society often reproach the anarchy created when multiple interests clash. They evoke an orderly State, more calm and peaceful etc. The result is that we can argue about civil society until the cows come home without actually ever talking about the same thing.

Diversity: richness and/or disorder?

For strictly practical purposes, we can define civil society as a "political space in which associations, groupings, etc., seek to mould a certain aspect of social life". Included in this definition are all the various NGOs (environmental, development, human rights etc.), ethnic pressure groups, Trade Unions, religious institutions, local associations, etc... Despite this obvious diversity, we tend to reduce civil society to those forms know in the West. Thus the growth of sham NGOs in Africa, created to benefit from aid given by development organisations - because that is the physical form of civil society recognised in the west. Some abuse this aid, for example in Somalia it was finally notice that the local associations that formed Somali civil society were dominated by warlords.

One hopes, as long as the hopes inspired by the emerging global civil society exalt us, that civil society shall always be great and good... Yet, if we stick to the definition, Al Qaeda is also part of civil society. To accept this diversity and its limits is without doubt the first step to take in order to escape the current sterile debate, which sees defenders and detractors of civil society at once in the wrong and in the right. Yes, the mobilisation of anti-globalisation groups played an incontestable role in the failure of the World Trade Organisation talks in Seattle. The battles by human rights and environmental associations constituted a decisive factor in the consideration of human rights and the environment at the world level... But the success of these ideas rested on the conjunction of other factors too, and civil society does not only do good either.

An Illusion of Democracy?

And then, the ideal of a civil society at last global imposes that we do not celebrate too soon. For the moment, the formation of 'global public opinion' and participation in 'global democracy' remains the reserve of an associative aristocracy with the financial and mediatic means to make themselves heard... Yet it is not certain that ACF, Handicap International and the rest have a legitimacy superior to that of a local humanitarian association. Neither is it certain that the larger NGOs are perfectly representative of the proliferation of world civil society... But it is precisely in admitting the limits and the tensions inherent to actual civil society that we can begin to reflect on how to solve those problems.

The precondition would be to recognise clearly once and for all the intrinsic diversity of civil society: to speak of 'civil society networks' restores much better than a singular description the variety of theories defended and potential dialogues. The richness of the World Social Forum is exactly that it has no line of action, no rallying text, that it is an exchange where everyone can bring their contribution. It is also through this recognition of plurality that civil society could become a more complete democratic space.

Unity: a practical illusion

At any rate, despite the evidence we continue to talk about a single civil society. To postulate that civil society must be at ONE actually allows us to remain confined to a 'grey zone' of practical decision-making. Old style inter-state diplomacy sanctioned a single, authorised, empowered, legitimate, predictable negotiator. These criteria have largely been pushed aside now, as we have seen, by civil society networks. Their real importance in decision-making will happen through a complete shaking up of the international system, something that, let's be frank, no-one is ready for... From whence a dilemma, an all those hazy speeches on governance. International organisations and States sing the praises of civil society when they need to play the opening up of democracy card. In reality, this translates into the concept of 'ownership' through which the World Bank tried to buy back virtue for Structural Adjustment Plans, without any real change in the fact that they are imposing an imported model. ('Everything must change for everything to stay the same', this is well known...) The status of observer at the heart of international organisations, if proof of a certain opening up, is really reserved to the most powerful NGOs (representatives must be found somewhere), and they have no real weight in decision-making. We know that the current efforts are not sufficient. But to continue to envisage international relations under the single, legitimate and predictable interlocutor model permits at least for the moment the postponement of a huge upheaval. When civil society looks a bit greedy, we remind it of its lack of unity, its lack of legitimacy... to deny it any important part.

Civil society networks themselves do not escape this temptation of unity, proclaiming themselves the architects of 'THE global civil society', made to the measure of their dreams... yet continue to reason within the scope of inter-State thinking, which feeds the criticisms they always meet.

The concept of a single civil society seems to be the swan's song of an inter-State international relations system that refuses to die. The networks which criss-cross civil society upset the traditional diplomatic method, and it is evidently less costly to try and bring civil society back into an artificial unity than it is to reform the entire process of international decision-making. From now on, the beautiful consensus around the necessary consideration of 'civil society' only hides the reality of a misunderstanding - between the fears of some and the ideals of others. With the risk, eventually, of making civil society into the ghost of what was a democratic space.