Civil Society and the New Global Order

By Scott London

The debate over globalization has focused to a considerable degree on political and economic forces, on the activities of governments and businesses and the dynamics of states and markets. What tends to be overlooked in these discussions is the role of civil society — or the "third" sector — in shaping local, national and, indeed, global affairs. Civil society can be described as the networks of citizens and non-governmental organizations that create a political community — that realm of society that exists outside the direct influence of the marketplace or the state. In a seminal essay in Dissent magazine (Spring 1991), Michael Walzer defined civil society as "a space of uncoerced human association and ... the set of relational networks — formed for the sake of family, faith, interest, and ideology — that fill this space."

Civil society plays an increasingly pivotal role in shaping the post-Cold War world. It had a central part in the shift from communism to Western-style democracy in the former Soviet world, for example, and it is having a growing impact on global movements like the rise of environmentalism, the push for human rights, and the backlash against economic globalization.

In the following article, I survey three articles that address the vital role of civil society in shaping global affairs today. In the first, political philosopher Benjamin Barber examines the impact of global citizen movements, arguing that a new form of borderless activism is emerging today under the banner of transnational non-governmental organizations. In the second, economist Hazel Henderson maintains that international citizen movements represent one of the most powerful and undervalued forces for social innovation today. Finally, in an essay adapted from a public speech in 1992, Vaclav Havel makes an eloquent case for what he sees as a new civil ethic emerging in the post-communist era. Each of these articles speaks to the profound and growing importance of citizen movements in creating a more peaceful and sustainable world in the 21st century.

In "Globalizing Democracy," Benjamin Barber argues that the debate over globalization has paid insufficient attention to the role of citizen-led groups. "We are entering a new era," he writes, "in which global markets and servile governments will no longer be completely alone in planning the world's fate." He cites numerous examples in which citizens have reshaped public debate worldwide, including the campaign against land mines, efforts to protect dolphins from the tuna industry, and the "microcredit" movement in which small loans are made to women in developing countries to help them start businesses.

According to Barber, these sorts of movements are having a tremendous positive impact and deserve greater international attention and support. Not only do they promise a measure of "countervailing power" in the international arena as a bulwark against reactionary movements, such as the ultra-Right wing politics of Pat Buchanan or France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, but they also embody a sort of global public opinion. In Barber's words, "they put flesh on the bare bones of legalistic doctrines and universal rights.... These new transnational civic spaces offer possibilities for transnational citizenship and hence an anchor for global rights.

While Barber is generally optimistic about the growing influence of these civic movements, he cautions against overstating their importance. "These transnational civic projects should not fool us into thinking that Amnesty International or Medecins Sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders] are the equivalent in clout of AOL Time Warner or the International Monetary Fund."

This is a powerful argument and one which I believe deserves greater attention, especially as a counterweight to Thomas Friedman, Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and other high-profile observers of globalization who have little, if anything, to say about the role of citizens in shaping a new borderless world for the twenty-first century.

As a maverick economist and respected futurist, Hazel Henderson has been making this case for over a decade. In "Social Innovation and Citizen Movements," she examines the growing international significance of the voluntary, civic, or "third" sector comprising various types of innovative citizens organizations. She pays special attention to non-governmental organizations. NGOs range from local service clubs, chambers of commerce, and professional associations, to international human rights organizations and global electronic networks. The rise of these types of organizations is "one of the most striking phenomena of the 20th century," she asserts.

One of the most distinctive features of NGOs, in Henderson's view, is that they are oriented toward "preferred futures" and "invoke the possible by mapping social potentials." By contrast, corporations and government-sponsored institutions are usually developed to meet preestablished social needs. In this way, NGOs often serve as precursors to national and international governmental institutions by prodding legislators to respond to pressures at the grass-roots level.   In addition, NGOs are often quick to find creative and innovative alternatives to social problems. They can network across national borders, as well as corporate and government boundaries, thereby enabling rapid syntheses of new or previously overlooked information. Government and corporate elites, on the other hand, "often remain ignorant of viable policy alternatives, insulated within top-down hierarchies" from the "inconvenient" views of citizen organizations and the public at large.

Henderson observes that NGOs are usually founded on a "trickle-up" model — the very opposite of the "elitist, technocratic, trickle-down' promoted by traditional economic development theorists." In this respect, they constitute a "priceless social resource" by "offering new paradigms to societies stuck in old ways."

Henderson believes that the world has become too complex for the traditional global and national institutions. The proliferation of international citizen organizations, transnational corporations, global satellite communications, media companies, and electronic securities and currency trading is gradually undermining the sovereignty and competence of nation-states. "Only when the UN is reshaped," she says, "together with other needed global structures, can a more limited but effective form of sovereignty be exercised by nations."

Henderson concludes with a brief discussion of the necessity in any complex system for feedback and input. She stresses the need for "the retooling of democracies" to accommodate a greater role for the public in the decision-making process. She cites Joseph Tainter's findings that "hierarchies collapse and leaders topple because of lack of feedback from the governed, i.e., they lack the requisite complexity and receive too little valid, reality-tested information."

What Henderson does in these pages is present an inspiring and persuasive case for citizen participation. She describes not only the unique characteristics of citizen movements and how they differ from the mechanisms of government and the free market, but she shows that they are more receptive to constructive social change than either the state or private enterprise.

That said, she may be overly optimistic about the actual influence of citizen-led groups. As Benjamin Barber points out, the power of transnational NGOs cannot hold a candle to the influence of international bodies such as the World Trade Organization or multinational corporations such as Nestle and Coca-Cola. Still, that does not mean we should ignore civil society as an emergent and increasingly significant global phenomenon.

Like Barber and Henderson, former Czech president Vaclav Havel sees a growing role for citizens and civic organizations in shaping global affairs. In an essay adapted from an eloquent speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in February 1992, Havel declares that we are moving into a new era in world affairs, one that has little in common with "the older systems of order forged in Helsinki, Yalta, and Versailles." What this change represents, he says, is not only the collapse of the Cold War system, but the emergence of a profoundly new global ethic.

"The end of communism is, first and foremost, a message to the human race," Havel insists. "It is a message we have not yet fully deciphered and comprehended. In its deepest sense, the end of communism has, I believe, brought a major era in human history to an end. It has brought an end not just to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the modern age as a whole."

This modern age, as Havel defines it, is characterized by the Enlightenment notion of a clockwork universe that is rationally ordered, subject to universal laws, and capable of being understood by scientific means. In political terms, this ethos expressed itself in systems, institutions, mechanisms, statistical averages, and totalizing ideologies of all kinds.

"Communism was the perverse extreme of this trend," he says. "It was an attempt on the basis of a few propositions masquerading as the only scientific truth, to organize all of life according to a single model, and to subject it to central planning and control regardless of whether or not that was what life wanted."

We are not yet free from this approach to human affairs, according to Havel. It still lives within our political and economic systems, our institutions, and even our habits of mind. Yet there is something altogether new emerging around the world. It expresses itself in a new openness. What we need now is to give voice to that impulse, he says. We need "a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith in the importance of particular measures that do not aspire to be a universal key to salvation."

His concluding words embody a faith shared by both Benjamin Barber and Hazel Henderson in the capacities of the individual citizen: "In a world of global civilization, only those who are looking for a technical trick to save that civilization need feel despair. But those who believe, in all modesty, in the mysterious power of their own human Being, which mediates between them and the mysterious power of the world's Being, have no reason to despair at all."

Beneath the somewhat esoteric metaphors, what Havel is expressing is a politics of hope, a politics of the future, a politics in which the attitudes and actions of every individual have an important place and function. It is an openness to change, to uncertainty, and to the possibility that the best is yet to come. The question he leaves unanswered is this: Do we, as citizens of this new era of human history, have the faith to go forward into the unknown, to create a global future that reflects our dignity and highest potential?

It is a question without an answer, of course, but one worth asking all the same.

Articles cited in this Essay:

  • Benjamin Barber, "Globalizing Democracy," American Prospect, Sept. 11, 2000
  • Hazel Henderson, "Social Innovation and Citizen Movements," Futures, April 1993
  • Vaclav Havel, "Politics and the World Itself," Kettering Review, Summer 1992