Global Civil Society and the rise of the civil economy

The last thirty years has seen the re-emergence of a civil economic challenge, side by side with the advance of globalisation, as a distinct strand in the development of global civil society. Don’t underestimate its longterm significance in the glacial shifts now taking place in the world economy.  

Robin Murray
3 May 2012

Global Civil Society: the three words mark out a field and an aspiration. Global rather than national, civil not the state and corporation, society not the individualism of the late consumer market. It names a civil challenge to unrestrained globalisation. 

In this sense, the Global Civil Society yearbooks have shown the extent to which global civil society has developed. Part of it evokes on a world scale the civil response to a previous period dominated by market utopian policies that Polanyi described, in his account of early industrialising Britain in the 1830s.  Then it was the Chartists, now it is the occupy movement, and the innumerable campaigns that have multiplied since globalisation took hold in the 1980s. Like the Chartists, they are contesting the new order politically. 

The civil economic challenge 

Alongside the Chartists, there was also a movement to develop a civil economic challenge. It gained traction in the 1840s when Owenite and Chartist weavers launched their co-operative shop in Rochdale. They intended it to be the first step in creating an alternative economy in which, in their words, labour would employ capital rather than capital labour. Within fifty years the movement they inspired had grown from a sapling to a forest. There were over a thousand independent retail societies, as well as a wholesale society with dozens of factories, farms, a bank, shipping lines, and even tea plantations in what was then Ceylon. Together they had become one of the largest corporations in the world. The co-operative movement was part of a much wider civil economy – part mutual, part charitable - that grew as a counter to the effects of industrial capitalism in nineteenth century Britain. 

This civil economy was sidelined in the twentieth century, as the state took over many of its functions. But the last thirty years has seen its re-emergence side by side with the advance of globalisation and as a distinct strand in the development of global civil society. In some eyes it remains peripheral to the main drama of states and corporations, reflecting if anything a fragmentation of social power and the hollowing out of the state. This is to greatly underestimate its long term significance in the glacial shifts now taking place in the world economy.

There are three principal currents in this re-emergence. First there has been a surge of initiatives by those marginalised by the market. It is a worldwide phenomenon, yet its roots are local as is its orientation. Some are defending an existing way of life in the face of a liberalised market, like the peasant farmer co-operatives and credit unions that have grown so rapidly since the mid 1990s. Others are trying to create a new one - in fishing villages that have lost their fish, or towns their industries, in abandoned inner city areas or whole regions – even countries – whose economies have hit the road blocks of IMF austerity. In these cases there have been a mass of innovative responses - alternative currencies, micro finance, food box schemes, bartering clubs, radio stations, energy and housing co-ops; or, as in Argentina, the widespread (and successful) takeover by workers of abandoned factories (the fabricas recuperados). 

The focus on the local applies equally to a second current. It too has mushroomed in the past thirty years, not at the margins but as a challenge to the very models of production and consumption in the mainstream itself. The environmental movement is one example. It has explicitly argued for a reversal of the global to the local as a feature of a new paradigm, and this principle has been put into practice in a remarkable surge of environmental enterprises (a recent catalogue lists 110,000 of them). They include community recycling projects, zero energy housing, community supported agriculture, socially owned water systems like Welsh Water, and so on.  

There are a host of other spheres where similar things are happening, new co-operatives in social care and in schools for example, or in sport where local self government is contrasted with unrooted, financially driven control of football and rugby clubs. Like the nineteenth century co-operators, the common aim is to show that another way is possible.


Sometimes, as with fair trade, these locals are linked in global trading networks. Some, like Habitat for Humanity, or Freecycle have diffused their particular model through quasi franchises.  But such civil versions of global corporation are relatively few. Rather globalisation appears to have provoked its opposite, explicitly local alternatives. Yet anyone who has been involved in them will be aware that there is one respect in which even the most local is global - communications. Local activists compare experiences, and share methods and information. Just as the railways and the penny post enabled co-operators and trade unions to become national networks in the nineteenth century, so the internet has allowed the re-emerging civil economy to become global. And it has become global and collaborative in that component of the economy which has become so central to contemporary production – intelligence. The traditional environmental slogan ‘think globally and act locally’ can be rephrased as ‘click globally and produce locally.’ 

Intelligence lies at the heart of the third current – a new civil cyber economy. Linux and similar open source projects are the result of global civil collaboration. So is Wikipedia and all those growing number of projects that are based on the ‘crowd sourcing’ of ideas.  The web has swept away the geographical and property frontiers of information. We have now not just Medecin sans Frontiers and Engineering sans Frontiers, but Information Sans Frontieres taken to a new level.

Whereas the diffusion of information is limited in the private economy by intellectual property, and in the public economy – too often – by the interests of administrative protection, the civil economy has a common interest in sharing information. This is the first reason that it can no longer be considered marginal. Anyone still in doubt should note that 60% of the world’s basic software makes use in one form or another of the products of open source methods. 

Common goods

The significance of treating information as a common good goes well beyond software and encyclopedias. It sets free a major source of social innovation and diffusion. Schumpeter saw the private market economy as the main driver of technical innovation. The civil economy is a principal driver of social innovation.

This is the case not just for particular methods and services – like the hospice movement or micro credit – but for whole systems of production. The revolution in information and communication technology has opened up strikingly different ways of organising things. Energy, for example, can be produced on a twentieth century model by giant power stations or by a distributed system composed of a multitude of local and household generators (like solar panels or even the batteries of hybrid cars) linked by smart grids. Centralised versus distributed: this is a battleground even more profound than that between public and private. It is being fought out in food and farming, in health care, water, education, the media, retailing, and not least finance. 

The civil economy has been a pioneer of distributed systems. From the nineteenth century onwards it has connected the local, self-organising cells of a co-operative shop, or milk farm, or credit union through specialised consortia and federated structures. This has been the basis of the contemporary success of the co-operative industrial districts in Italy and Spain, of co-operative windmills in Denmark, and of co-operative banking all over the continent. It is the architecture of the 12 million strong livelihood co-ops in Japan, and historically of co-operative retail in Britain. It is an architecture that combines the benefits of micro autonomy – creativity, flexibility, and motivation – with intermediary support institutions that require larger scale such as market research, dedicated colleges, and specialist research centres. And it is one that is gradually being recognised for its significant role in the greater economy; it is not for charitable reasons that 2012 is the United Nation’s International Year of Cooperatives

Lost in translation? - the civil economy and the state 

Some of the social innovations developed in the civil economy are adopted by the private market and/or the state. But they often suffer in translation; micro credit, for example, as developed by the Grameen Bank, has been gravely abused when taken up by private bankers. The point being that the civil economy operates on quite different principles. It has different goals, motivators, relationships, and forms of ownership, governance and finance.  It hasn’t yet had an Adam Smith to set out its distinct character as an economy.  What we can say is that it is particularly suited to those intractable problems that the state and the private market as they are currently constituted have found it so difficult to resolve: climate change, hazardous chemicals, waste, obesity, chronic disease, ageing and social care more generally.  

The civil economy and the state are not substitutes. Both commonly have the same ends, but they are force fields subject to different pressures and shifts of power.  At some moments the state supports the civil economy, at others it turns against those it regards as a threat. Even during a supportive phase, the rules governing public commissioning create a barrier between the state and the civil sphere.  One of the challenges is how to re-integrate the two – through new forms of public-social partnerships, and through involving civil society more closely in the shaping of the public economy.

Indeed it may be that the civil economy may provide new inclusive models for the administration of the state. Since the 1980s there has been a worldwide search for an alternative to market liberalism. The structures and advances of the civil economy are a good place to start.


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