The power of civilityBy: Jai Sen, March 2007 on: Mon 11 of Jun, 2007 14:56 IST (10533 Reads)
The power of civility
Some critical reflections on global civil society
While acknowledging the roles that national and global civil societies have historically played and continue to play in the democratisation of national and global societies, this paper argues that in a larger perspective, and in relation to a wider and deeper democratisation that is today unfolding across the world with other sections of societies taking the lead, global civil society is in reality tending to play some rather negative roles in terms of this larger and deeper global democratisation. This, it argues, is on account of the dynamics and dialectics of the historical project of civil society of building civility, and moreover because of the tendency to corporativism that exists within civil society during the present phase of neoliberal globalisation and of the emergence of the leadership of international and transnational civil organisations as a transnational class. It also puts forward some preliminary propositions for a shift to an alternative politics.
The note inviting this paper asks a provocative question :
In this essay, I try to engage with this question by critically looking at two issues : One, the dynamics of power relations of the building and exercise of civil society, especially in relation to social movement and alliance, and two, the dynamics of global civil cooperation. I hope that this discussion can contribute to finding answers to some aspects, if not all, of the question, and perhaps also to building a vocabulary for doing so.
Because I ask hard questions in this paper of civil society and civil organisations (I prefer to use this term than the more conventional ‘non-governmental organisation’ since I see no reason to describe a category by a negative, and moreover defined only in terms of government), I start with an open acknowledgement that they have played key roles in history in the democratisation of local, national, and global societies. The very emergence and process of crystallisation of civil societies from feudal and pre-capitalist societies was itself a major step in this process (and is continuing to be, in some parts of the world), and equally, in a world ravaged by war and by violence, civility has a crucial role to play. Notwithstanding this however, and as I will explore in this paper, I suggest that this process, and the power of civility, has also always been structurally suffused with what in effect are profoundly anti-democratic undercurrents; and that today - at a time when the world is dramatically changing, with new actors on the stage, and even though civil organisations continue to play important roles in many fields – this power threatens to undermine processes of a deepening and widening democratisation that are opening up.
The contribution of civil societies and civil actors have included the role of the bourgeoisie in the 19th century in the abolition of the slave trade and in other major social reforms in societies both of what is today called the North and the South, to the great democratic breakthroughs of that century in Europe, to the beginning of the gaining of equal rights by women in the early part of the 20th century, to their many contributions to national liberation struggles across the world during the 19th and 20th centuries. More recently, it has included their contributions to the articulation of the historic Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the mid 20th century; and it continues on today with the contribution of countless civil organisations at local, national, and global levels, in so many fields, and in large part devoted to the deepening of realisations of rights and freedoms won over this past period.
Largely as a function of changing material conditions over the past three decades (since the 1970s), including the development of radically new and globalising information and communication technologies and far more affordable international travel, we have also seen the thickening of regional and civil alliances at regional and transnational, global levels, the emergence of new, more complex forms of civil alliances, and also of more open-ended processes of association such as the World Social Forum and the People’s Global Action.
The gradual but progressive articulation of strategic alliance across borders since the 1970s has in fact been a remarkable phenomenon, in many ways beautiful to behold. Often emerging from and struggling against the most brutal and dehumanised circumstances, human beings have found ingenious ways of reaching across the walls that have imprisoned them (and that imprison us all in our various ways and contexts, but some much more so than others), and their call has found resonance in other parts of the world. Sometimes it has also happened the other way, where individuals such as anthropologists have uncovered the most grotesque circumstances taking shape, such as in the Amazon in the 60s and 70s, have brought this to world attention, and have thus brought about linkages. Think of almost any field now, and you can see this happening. It is an extraordinary phenomenon.
This process has now reached a stage where political scientists are suggesting that these processes – these civil organisations and formations, separately but taken collectively, and in coalitions and alliances – are contributing to nothing less than the restructuring of world politics. Another image, that some civil activists seem to enjoy revelling in, is the much-quoted suggestion in the New York Times in 1999, after the Seattle demonstrations around the WTO, that the emerging global social justice movement now constituted ‘the other world power’.
In this paper however, and while acknowledging the many contributions of civil societies, I look critically at the question of power relations within such processes and at the contradictions of civility. The question and the power in our times of conventional market corporations, and of (market) corporativism, have been well explored, as has been the question of the corporate State. But for some reason, when we talk of ‘power’ we automatically refer to the state or the market. What I want to do here is to attempt a parallel exercise, to look at power not among and between state and market and of their power over society, but at power within the non-state world and among and between non-state actors. In particular, I look at how non-state, civil cooperation is today tending towards global corporation and hegemonic corporativism – and away from cooperation; and where I argue that this tendency is linked to the historical role of civil society.
I do this at two levels. First, I look critically at the dynamics of the power realities in civil society, through interrogating the question of ‘civility’ – which I argue is central (though not alone) to the exercise of power in the non-state world (and also the state, but that is another story).
Second, I critically reflect on emerging global civil cooperation, alliance, and networking – in other words, what is loosely referred to as ‘global civil society’ - in terms of power relations, taking the World Social Forum as an example.
By addressing these questions, I try to critically reflect on the democratic options that global civil society is in reality offering us. I offer this essay and its questions as a challenge to practitioners and theorists both in the civil world and in what I term here the incivil world.