Reflections on Civil Society

by Michael Clough

The Nation magazine, February 22, 1999


Less than a decade ago, as the cold war was drawing to an unexpectedly sudden and peaceful close, it was easy to be optimistic about the state of civil society around the world and the prospects for global governance. Today, in the wake of a failed international intervention in Somalia, genocidal wars in Bosnia and Rwanda, financial crises in Latin America, Asia and Russia, and a nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan, fear and despair are fast replacing hope. Speculation about "the end of history," "democratic peace" and "new world orders" has been replaced by analyses of clashing civilizations, illiberal democracy and global chaos. Talk of developing new formulas and institutions is being drowned out by calls for stronger states, more great-power leadership and stronger international financial institutions. But attempting to create twenty-first-century versions of twentieth-century institutions founded on seventeenth-century assumptions is a recipe for failure. For better (and worse), our best and perhaps only chance to bring into being a more peaceful, humane and equitable world is to give civil society a greater role in governance. A major reason for the growing lack of confidence in civil society is that many of the civil societists- the activists, theorists and pundits who have been at the forefront of the debate-claimed too much too soon.

They celebrated the victories of people power in Eastern Europe, South Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere without fully comprehending how difficult it is to translate triumphs of opposition into lasting democratic successes-and hence were caught off-guard when leaders of the old Communist regimes succeeded in refashioning themselves as populist democrats and winning elections in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and the Slovaks chose ethnic independence rather than being led by the patron saint of civil society, Vaclav Havel.

The civil societists hailed the good works of a vast and growing network of nongovernmental organizations working on relief and development, human rights, the environment and other humanitarian causes without acknowledging the narrow strategic visions and limited resource bases of most NGOs-and hence failed to anticipate developments in Somalia, Rwanda/Congo and perhaps Sudan, where some NGOs have ended up unintentionally pursuing policies that have prolonged and exacerbated conflict.

The civil societists trumpeted the success of the anti-apartheid movement in the United States and other industrialized countries in helping to bring about changes in South Africa without understanding the complex domestic circumstances that made this victory possible-and hence were unprepared for the obstacles human rights movements ran into in campaigning for democracy in China and Nigeria. By overstating the magnitude of their early achievements, the civil societists have made it easier for their critics to discount civil society's big victories while ignoring its much less heralded small advances. Those include the establishment of thousands of indigenous health clinics, women's centers, educational programs and environmental initiatives throughout the world and slow but steady shifts in global awareness of the need for international action on issues such as global warming, AIDS and smoking. Ultimately, it is the accumulation over time of efforts such as these that will be the measure of the success of civil society, but this kind of change is slow and often almost imperceptible.

Growing doubts about the civility of civil society and a rising tide of chaos, war and revolution in places as physically and politically distant as the former Soviet Union, Congo, Kosovo and Iraq are causing many people to long for the good old days, when strong national governments maintained domestic order and provided for the general welfare, great powers kept international anarchy in check and international monetary authorities insured financial stability. But the good old days were never as good as they now seem, and even the best of yesterday's institutions cannot resolve today's crises, much less meet tomorrow's challenges.

Progressive nationalists and social democrats remain committed to the idea that strong, democratically controlled national governments provide the best way to limit private interests and protect the weak and disadvantaged. For most of the world, however, the dream of a strong national government is a chimera. In Africa, for example, existing political boundaries are poorly matched with societal realities, and neither African leaders nor the "international community" possesses the political will, social base, military capabilities and economic wherewithal that would be required either to change the boundaries or to fuse the societies within them. Absent such a solution, the best that can be achieved is weak democratic states that keep the peace by brokering among opposing groups and making as few demands as possible on society as a whole.

In the industrialized world, the barriers to the resurrection of strong national welfare states are very different: Economic regionalization, immigration and the growing importance of ethnic and racial identity are dividing most of these countries in ways that make it very difficult to negotiate social bargains on a national basis such as the ones that underpinned social democracy in the post-World War II era. In the United States, for example, none of the old simplifications-labor versus business, poor versus rich and black versus white-that underlay a flood tide of progressive legislation from the turn of the century through the early sixties can serve as the basis for a new national social compact. Differences between economies, social conditions and political power balances in the Carolinas, New England, the Upper Midwest, California, Texas and the other major American regions are now too great to be bargained away in Washington. Moreover, new national social compacts in the United States and Europe would almost certainly require restrictions on immigration, trade and capital flows that, in the unlikely event they were agreed to, could worsen economic and social conditions in the non-industrialized world.

Recognition of the limits of national government has spurred calls for the establishment of new international institutions- and, at one level, there is unquestionably a need to expand and strengthen international organizations and regimes in a number of functional areas. But there is little prospect that a reconstituted United Nations or some successor institution capable of imposing order on both markets and the unruly forces in civil society will ever come into being. The economic, political and strategic differences among the established great powers (i.e., the Group of Seven countries), the emerging great powers-especially China and India-and Russia are simply too great to imagine their reaching agreement on a new set of international rules and voluntarily giving an international body the resources and authority it would need to enforce them and govern effectively. This is true with regard both to security, where the biggest sticking points would include criteria for military intervention and control over nuclear weapons; and to economics, where the major hurdle would be reaching agreement on the role of international institutions in the economic affairs of individual states.

In the absence of strong international institutions, calls for the United States to exercise global leadership are certain to grow. Over the long run, however, the United States cannot and will not assume responsibility for the world. The list of reasons is long and obvious: After the fact, the moral case for early intervention in Bosnia and Rwanda seems strong, but this is seldom the case in the early stages of a humanitarian crisis. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the American public will ever be willing to pay a substantial cost in resources and lives to prevent conflicts that do not directly threaten them or their children. It is also not clear that, as China, India, South Africa and other emerging powers begin to assert themselves more, they will (or should) be willing to accept U.S. leadership.

What, then, is to be done? For libertarians and free-marketeers who believe that, left to their own devices, economy and society will right themselves, the answer is nothing. This Panglossian minority sees the decline of government as a reason for hope rather than fear. But, as anyone who has witnessed the horrors of Bosnia, Liberia and Rwanda can attest, the consequences of political anarchy can be as severe now as they were when Thomas Hobbes proposed a leviathan state as the best means of escape from a state of nature in which all live in constant fear of others. Nor are there grounds for believing that modern capitalism has evolved to the point that, if freed from the fetters of government, it would not reproduce the Dickensian conditions and specter of class warfare that spurred the development of the modern social welfare state.

The real choice is not between government and its antithesis or even between greater and lesser degrees of government but rather among different models of governance; and in this regard the biggest problem is the continuing tendency to equate effective governance with action by national states or some variant or combination thereof. New theories and forms of governance do not emerge quickly. For example, it took almost two centuries of war, commerce and theorizing for the idea of the sovereign national state to develop, and it took more than a century for the United States to evolve from a loose arrangement of states into an integrated modern industrial nation. It is for this reason that loose talk about "the end of the nation-state" seems so naive. The issue is not whether the national state is going to be around for a while (it will be!) but whether we should give priority to reinforcing it or looking for a replacement.

Even in the absence of a clear alternative, there are reasons, both theoretical and practical, to begin to shift away from the national state paradigm. There is now a fundamental disjunction between the assumptions about space, time, distance, identity, security, welfare, communication, warfare, production and exchange that underpin the seventeenth-century theory of the sovereign national state and the realities of governance and policymaking as we approach the end of the twentieth century. In the language of the philosophy of science, what we are witnessing is a degenerating research paradigm: Salvaging the core theory requires ever more effort to explain anomalies and discount disconfirming evidence. Nevertheless, the belief that there is no "realistic" alternative to the national state paradigm continues to dominate political discourse, discouraging the process of imagining alternatives and discrediting the imaginers. A better approach would be to recognize that we have no choice but to encourage postmodern Bodins, Hobbeses, Lockes and Grotiuses to imagine a new form of governance.

There are also immediate, practical reasons to question the national state paradigm. Paradoxically, the belief that only national states can solve important contemporary public policy challenges and resolve serious societal conflicts has become both a cause of conflict and a deterrent to responsible action by non-state actors. It is a source of conflict because it reinforces the perception that the state is crucial to the protection and advancement of the interests of both individuals and groups. This increases the perceived stakes involved in struggles to win control over the state. In fact, in the same way that the decreasing value of physical control over territory has helped to reduce the incentives for states to invade one another, devaluing the importance of control over the state would almost certainly reduce the incentives for groups within the state to fight civil wars.

The belief in the primacy of the national state also deters responsible action by non-state actors. It encourages them to focus their energies on finding ways to get national states, their own or others, to provide a service, solve a crisis or act in some other way to address a particular issue rather than to look for ways the group can act on its own. It also reinforces the tendency of organizations to think in narrow, self-interested terms rather than to take responsibility for the broader consequences of their actions. These two dynamics contributed to the debacle in Somalia, where human rights and relief groups created the demand for an ill-conceived intervention by the US government and then largely walked away when the situation deteriorated.

A final barrier to imagining the possibility of an alternative to the national state is the failure to recognize that the current crisis of global governance is as much a consequence of overcapacity as of under-capacity. National governments have not grown weaker; civil society has grown stronger. Now, more than ever before, other actors-regional, state and local governments; national and international NGOs; affinity and solidarity groups; transnational corporations; business, labor and professional associations; international agencies and organizations; and others-have the resources and leverage to promote or frustrate the ability of national governments to achieve particular objectives both within and beyond their borders. As a consequence, once an issue has gotten onto the international public agenda, the problem often is not inaction but incoherence. In Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda, for example, there was not a shortage of individuals, organizations and governments willing to act; the problem was that they often acted at cross-purposes. The challenge is not so much to increase the capacity of the state but to find ways to manage and mobilize the capacity of civil society.

The intellectual foundations of a new governance paradigm can already be discerned in the work of political philosophers such as Jurgen Habermas, management gurus such as Peter Drucker and urban planners such as Manuel Castells. But we are a long way from arriving at a consensus on a new governance paradigm. For the short to medium term, we must be prepared to live in a neither/nor world in which national states retain considerable power, but the authority and influence of both civil society and markets continue to grow exponentially. There are three guidelines that can serve as the basis for an interim approach to governance.

First, governments at all levels-local, national and international-have to become much more inclusive, collaborative and adaptive. In their dealings with the independent sector, most government officials now act as if they were either the director of a military marching band or the lead singer in a rock band. They need, instead, to behave more like the leader of a jazz ensemble, leading civil society by inspiration while providing space for independence and improvisation.

At the same time, civil society groups must accept the fact that being an increasingly important part of the governance equation carries with it new burdens. Like governments, they must be accountable for the consequences of their actions. NGOs, ethnic groups, private associations and corporations alike must recognize that society can no longer afford for them to operate according to the narrow, self-interested, rights-oriented calculus of classical liberalism. Instead, they need to join in creating a new global ethic of responsibility.

Finally, there is much that governments-and NGOs, corporations and individuals-can and should do to end poverty, oppression and war. But, as Mohandas Gandhi, Saul Alinsky and most of history's other great social organizers have emphasized, the only reliable option for the poor and disempowered is self-reliance. To continue to suggest that communities can count on the national state to promote equity, justice and security serves no purpose but to delay them from developing their own means of sustenance and protection.


Michael Clough, a research associate at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, can be reached at ebglobal@,

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