Global civil society: the politics of a new world?

About the authors
Helmut Anheier is professor in the department of social policy at the London School of Economics, and co-editor of the Global Civil Society Yearbook 2003.
Marlies Glasius is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Amsterdam. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Global Governance, LSE, and an editor of the Global Civil Society Yearbook
Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics.

The first few months of 2003 witnessed a global popular mobilisation on a scale unprecedented in history. On 15 February 2003, some 11 million people demonstrated in approximately 800 cities all over the world (see the Global Civil Society Yearbook 2003).

A new generation was politicised, with young people walking out of school to demonstrate against the war in Iraq. Despite this energy, the anti-war movement was defeated. Within a few weeks, the United States and Britain had gone to war with Iraq. The United Nations was sidelined, the European Union immobilised by divisions of opinion.

The idea of a global civil society still seems as relevant as ever. But it is also clear that the global political environment has changed. The growth of social forums and the anti-war movement represents what social movement theorists call a ‘political opportunity structure’ – a new framework where individuals can participate and engage in global debates. In particular the social forums have become the institutionalisation of the ‘newest social movements’, from the so-called anti-capitalist movement to environmental, public services and migration concerns.

The rise of regressive globalisation

We have categorised the attitudes of governments, corporate leaders and global civil society groups towards globalisation as, variously, ‘pure’, ‘reformers’, ‘rejectionist’ and ‘regressive’ (on these categories, see here).

The most eye-catching and worrying development has been the rise of what we now call ‘regressive globalisers’. These are individuals, groups, firms, or even governments that favour globalisation when it is in their particular interest and irrespective of any negative consequences for others. Regressive globalisers see the world as a zero-sum game, in which they seek to maximise the benefit of the few (whom they represent) at the expense of the welfare of the many (whom they are indifferent to, at best).

This is the doctrine of the White House under George W. Bush. But it is not just found in government. Regressive globalism also characterises many religious and nationalist militant groups. These groups tend to favour nation-state thinking; yet they organise transnationally and grow both as a reaction to the insecurities generated by globalisation and by making use of the new global media and funding from diaspora groups.

Against the regressives, there are the reformers – groups or individuals who favour ‘civilising’ or ‘humanising’ globalisation. They tend to fight for globalisation of law and of people, whilst being more sceptical about economic and technological globalisation, which they want to reform. Reformers favour those dimensions of globalisation that benefit the many and in particular the marginalised.

The activists engaged in the new global civil society movements that come together in world, regional and local social forums have been divided between what we term rejectionists and reformers. Some in the anti-war movement, for example, oppose all forms of state-based humanitarian engagement on the grounds that it is a legitimisation of imperialism. And in the economic field, some people oppose free trade and free capital movements, while other activists want to strengthen the capacity of multilateral institutions to deal with humanitarian emergencies and contribute to global social justice.

The explosion of social forums

In the 2002 Global Civil Society Yearbook, we tracked in detail the first two World Social Forums (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil, the number of participants they attracted and the enthusiasm they inspired. At the second WSF, also in Porto Alegre, the decision was taken to disperse the idea of the social forum, organising regional and thematic forums, the ideas and conclusions of which would feed back into the WSF.

Even before this decision, there had been a first regional social forum in Africa and a national social forum in Costa Rica. A militant counter-meeting of Durban citizens decided to call itself the Durban Social Forum during the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

It is in Italy that the social forum phenomenon has especially taken off, partly inspired by the mass protest against the G8 summit in Genoa in 2001. Many Italians carried away from this event the idea of a social forum. There are now at least 170 (some say many more) local social forums in Italy.

In the first few years of the millennium, social forums have mushroomed across the world. The Asian Social Forum held its inaugural meeting in Hyderabad, India, in January 2003. Most forums simply adopt the format of the WSF, organising a one- to three-day event with workshops, panels, and plenary discussions on a wide number of topics. But organisers are experimenting with different forms: the Brisbane Social Forum operates on an ‘open space’ principle, which means the agenda is determined by participants on the day of the meeting; the Ottawa SF emphasises that it “is not a conference” but rather a carnivalesque manifestation, and the Tarnet (France) SF envisions its website as an interactive virtual social forum.

Some social forums, including those of Colombia, Madrid and Limousin, France, have become permanent organisations; others, such as Tübingen, Germany, have regular events they refer to as ‘social forums’.

Many of the social forums in Europe are organised to coincide with European Union summits of heads of state and government. The European Social Forums in Florence (November 2002) and Paris (November 2003) have been the biggest (with 40,000 and 50,000 participants respectively. The Philadelphia SF must be one of the smallest, meeting in a bookshop once a month.

In Britain, local social forums are only just getting off the ground. The Durham University Social Forum was probably the first in early 2003, in turn playing host to a larger regional North-East Social Forum in summer 2003.

Both the London Social Forum and the Manchester People’s Assembly/Social Forum held one-day forums with workshops and plenaries, attended by a few hundred people, from spring 2003; further local social forums are being set up or at least considered in several English cities.

A new horizon

This proliferation of social forums can be seen as a new stage in the development of what initially was termed the ‘anti-globalisation movement’, what Meghnad Desai and Yahia Said refer to as the ‘anti-capitalist movement’, but what is now also increasingly referred to as the ‘global justice movement’ (see: here and here).

The initial phase was one of protest, in Seattle, Prague, Genoa, Quebec, and many other cities. Some of it involved direct action. A smaller proportion was violent. There is no doubt that the media’s focus on violence, along with the sense that the protesters were expressing a more widely felt sense of unease, helped to put the movement on the map. Apart from the violence, the main criticism levelled at the movement was that it was just ‘anti’ – that it protested but proposed no alternatives.

The social forum formula has been an effective response to this criticism. The WSF defines itself as a space for “reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action.” Debates are not a means to an end, but the end itself. Social forums discuss proposals and strategies, but they do not produce unified ‘final statements’. The conscious emphasis on debate as a value in itself is particularly important in the post-9/11 world, where al-Qaida, other terrorists, and the Bush administration are successfully promoting violent confrontation instead of debate.

Related to the emphasis on debate is the fact that social forums promote new ways of organising. The informally-structured workshops foster the growth of horizontal transnational networks on particular issues such as water. The network form does of course predate the social forums, but it is still a discovery to members of more traditional organisations, such as trade unions, which have played an important role in many social forums.

The social forums are meant to be an experiment in democratic form, but the lack of structure too often allows old left leaders to grab the limelight and give the impression of speaking ‘on behalf of’ the participants.

The global anti-war movement

In 2003 disagreements on global capitalism, and indeed most ‘anti-capitalist’ activity, were overshadowed by anti-war activism. There was widespread agreement amongst anti-capitalist activists that, first, the war on terror and the war on Iraq in particular were linked to capitalist interests, and second, that resisting the war was the more urgent matter.

But there was also a problem. In the campaign against war on Iraq, the dominant figures have tended to fuse distinct issues – corporate capitalism and social inequality, United States hegemony, and the plight of the Palestinian people. Many of the spokespeople of the anti-war movement ignored the character of the former Iraqi and Afghan regimes. Some, such as veteran British socialist Tony Benn, even went so far as to visit Saddam Hussein, associating themselves with the genocidal dictator in their campaign against the war. This radical worldview is not shared by many ordinary people who took to the streets in protest against the war.

Moreover, because the social forums and the anti-war movements have emphasised self-organisation and/or minimal structure, it has been relatively easy for those on the traditional organised left to capture dominant positions and to be allowed to act as spokespeople.

It is too early to assess whether the most recent anti-war movement will be a lasting force in global civil society. There is the risk that it will be dominated by ‘rejectionists’, those who oppose the US role in the world but offer no alternative multilateralist mechanism for responding to repression, human rights abuses, or even genocide.

Reasons to be cheerful

Despite this cautionary note, there is reason to be optimistic about the future of the global civil society movement.

Throughout the 1990s, the dominant political force behind globalisation was a coalition between ‘supporters’ and ‘reformers’. Their influence was felt in transnational corporations, governments and intergovernmental organisations, as well as in global civil society.

This combination contributed to the growth and solidification of its infrastructure, characterised especially by the rapid growth of international NGOs and transnational networks. But it also came to be seen by many as involving the depoliticising and co-opting of global civil society.

In the era from Seattle to the war on Afghanistan, there was a huge upsurge in civil society mobilisation, in effect a coalition between reformers and rejecters of globalisation. They were more characterised by self-organisation and activism than dominant campaign groups in the 1990s. Their protests sent out powerful warning signals, which were just beginning to get picked up in the ‘global governance’ world, where reformers and supporters coincided, when the Twin Towers came down.

At the same time, rejectionists (generally on the left) have become increasingly powerful within global civil society partly because many activists have not yet come to terms with the rise of regressive globalism and believe they are still fighting against the powerful supporters of globalisation.

Precisely because the regressives propose a radical vision of the world, the reformers come to be seen as the establishment position and not the progressive position. Thus it is the combination of regressives and rejectionists that could lead to a world characterised by polarisation and violence.

This is not inevitable. By any number of measures, global civil society has been strengthened over the last decade. The most hopeful possibility is that there will continue to be serious space for the reformist strand of activism at the social forums so that global civil society will be able to offer a radical liberating vision that can compete with the regressives and rejectionists and eventually have some influence on American politics.