Indiscreet as war on terror

March 22, 2002

John Dunn searches for definition in the yearbook of civil society.

Just what is "global civil society"? Seen through the eyes of the editors of this inaugural volume of its personal yearbook, global civil society is in the first place a historical phenomenon, but it is still more a source of much-needed hope. Like every historical phenomenon it can be defined, with varying degrees of caution, by inspecting change and persistence over time. Like any source of hope, it can be interrogated or criticised, embraced or spurned, in the endless practical struggle to create a less dismaying future.

In this case, however, neither line of inquiry is in a position to start off from agreed or self-evident features of the human world at any time or place; and the two lines of inquiry naturally diverge drastically and with some insistence. Clearly, the volume's editors are determined to have their cake and eat it: to measure global civil society and define its essential characteristics; to acknowledge its vividly disputed character, while nonetheless vindicating its claims to loyalty, sacrifice and devotion; but above all to speed it boldly on its way. This is an extremely full agenda. It is also a somewhat incoherent one.

It would be easier to judge the extent of its incoherence if it were clearer what the term meant in the first place, or if the three editors had contrived to come to a firmer agreement with one another on how they proposed to employ it within these pages. For the hapless and patient reader, accordingly, global civil society comes out by the end not just as an inordinately vague and diffuse phenomenon, but as an even vaguer hope. En route, several of the individual chapters discuss comparatively determinate issues of evident current importance, and do so in a fresh and informative way; and the extensive tables that make up the final third of the book, however undependable some of the figures that they convey, are often stimulating and suggestive. What no one who reads it could derive from their labours is a reasonably definite sense of what has changed in the world already through the coming into existence of a global civil society, or of just what the latter's shadowy emergence has so far done to improve the circumstances of collective human life, let alone of what we can reasonably expect it to prove to be able to achieve in future.

No doubt it is in some sense true, as the editors observe at one point, that "civil society has increasingly occupied the emancipatory space left by the demise of socialism and national liberation". But this tells us more about the dispersion of a phrase than it does about the condensation of a social and political phenomenon. It could scarcely be further from identifying a sequence of practical political and social achievement. The emancipatory space in question is better conceived as a lacuna in political rhetoric, or, more generously, in political imagination. It is far from being a liberated area in the real world, with its own clear map coordinates: more like spin than like Chiapas.

What has made the concept so promiscuously attractive is not merely its inherent fuzziness (though the editors are quite right to note that this does encourage users with very different tastes to see their own values reflected back to them in its tactful mirror). More decisively, it is the dual lure of tracing the spread of novel institutions and activities, and identifying with this expansion while doing so: of merging one's sense of self with what at least appears to be a real and benign movement of history. But this is the song of the sirens. To close your ears to its melody, you must separate the question of how the patterns of human interaction have changed over time in the course of globalisation from the issue of which (if any) aspects of these changes provide good reason for optimism about the human future. Global civil society is none too good a formula for bringing either into focus; once blandly invoked to refer to both, it fatally obscures clear views of either.

Society itself scarcely names anything very definite in the first place, and hence needs to draw such determinacy as it ever musters mainly from the spatial or political frames tacitly invoked in mentioning it. Civil society, a term of Roman provenance with a long and chequered history, has in its day been employed to refer to comparatively definite ways of viewing social, political and economic relations or situations. But by now, these usages, as John Keane's chapter makes all too clear, have become too blatantly discrepant to offer definite guidance to anyone. Global civil society further bloats this surfeit of meaning, stretching it explicitly beyond any worldly spatial or political frame, and tilting it cheerily towards the future. It continues to carry the resonances of city against countryside, citizenship against subjection, civilisation against barbarism (perhaps since September 11, security against terror); but it now takes the whole wide world for its own. You can hear in it a bid for authority, for power and for at least a measure of spiritual deference. But you will hear no clear or frank answer to the question of what this authority rests on, what would render its empowerment legitimate, or how its implicit claim to spiritual deference could conceivably be vindicated. Politically speaking, therefore, it has become above all a call to complicity, but one notably unforthcoming over the scope of the complicity in question or the range of pre-determined foes that necessarily accompanies it. In this guise it is every bit as indiscreet as a "war against terrorism" - a common struggle to drive incivility from the globe, with no clear mechanisms for adjudicating what is civil and what is not, no definite structure of authority or power to concert its forces and bring these to bear on its myriad enemies, and nothing beyond itself to account to for its judgements or actions.

Perhaps, though, this is to take a loose phrase altogether too seriously. Perhaps we should hear it better and understand it more accurately if we viewed it not as a deep and normatively pregnant concept that history has laboured long and hard to create (such as the state, or, if you prefer, the family, or the free individual person), but merely as a serviceable facility for self-description, a deliberately nebulous label of convenience, a nom de paix .

Whose conveniences, on this evidence, does it best suit? For example, does civil society embrace or exclude economic enterprise pursued in the hope of profit? If it excludes such ventures, does it also exclude those who own their capital, those who happen to be paid by them, or everyone who depends on either category? Does it exclude all those whose pay reaches them directly or indirectly through state budgets: not just all public officials and state employees of particular sovereign states, but everyone, whatever their legal status, whose employment or income stream depends at one or two removes on state budgets?

You could defend, with honourable historical precedent, virtually any choice within this space; and global civil society would swell or shrink dramatically along with your choices. Alternatively, you might try to define it through its spatial epithet - not as those whose income happens to derive from the breadth of their engagements, but simply through the amplitude of their concerns. This might offer a more engaging pole for identification; but it would deplete the prospective power of the residual groupings and remove any obvious justification for excluding a good many public officials, not merely from within the ranks of international agencies, but also from particular nation-states.

Not all the chapters of this volume require coherent answers to this initial question. The most illuminating, Diane Osgood's impressively lucid and thoughtful analysis of the political response to plant biotechnology, could be rewritten effortlessly without a mention of global civil society. Meghnad Desai's and Yahia Said's incisive resume of the politics of anti-globalisation movements is more concerned to set the scene for them than to clarify their sources. Mary Kaldor's level-headed assessment of a decade of humanitarian intervention deals principally, appropriately enough, with the effectiveness of state agency. The best discussions that do focus on the term itself (such as Frances Pinter's sober survey of the funding of global civil society organisations) define it extremely narrowly. The very worst, Keane's unsteady and bombastic whirl through the history of the concept, cannot bring itself to define the term at all (no doubt because any definition will expose the definer to hatred, ridicule or contempt from a wide variety of angles).

At least in its narrowest sense, the term does lend itself to systematic study. Global Civil Society picks out, above all, the unofficial component of the global good-works industry and highlights the value of studying its ramifications within the ranks of state employees and among the public at large (perhaps, too, increasingly, among the senior executives of transnational businesses). It registers the changing economic and technical ecology that has supported the expansion of this component since 1945, and emphasises the need to track and assess more accurately how effectively it has contributed to enhancing human flourishing across the world. While remaining as global as ever in its concerns, civil society itself comes out as geographically pretty concentrated, centred mainly in rather few countries (notably Denmark, Sweden and Norway).

This certainly suggests a closer affinity with some forms of state and economy than with others; and it mildly discourages the temptation to see its expansion as a free movement, across space and time, of superior information and the more edifying human passions. But it does also register an important, and on balance moderately encouraging historical phenomenon. Global civil society so understood is no solution to the riddle of history (let alone geography). It is at best a mild palliative for a range of lesser difficulties or ills. But it is at least there to study. It already affects many parts of the world quite extensively. Much of it appears genuinely to wish, amid its many other concerns, to learn how to affect these and other human settings altogether more benignly. In itself it deserves neither more credulity nor more suspicion than the state itself (for reasons impeccably explained more than 300 years ago). As with the state, we should keep a close watch on it as these yearbooks go by.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

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