Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 238 | Mayo 2001



Globalized Civil Society: From Below or from Above?

The debate on the limits, possibilities and opportunities facing civil society today is an open one. The issue was discussed during the World Social Forum in January in Porto Alegre, Brazil, which brought together spokespeople and representatives of civil society around the world.

François Houtart

The concept of civil society is very fashionable at the moment. It is so widely accepted as to allow all kinds of interpretations, while at the same time covering all kinds of ambivalences. When the World Bank talks of civil society it is referring to a completely different reality than the one expressed by the Thai Poor People’s Forum or the Brazilian Movement of Landless Peasants using the same term. It is necessary to analyze this term away from the slogans. Civil society is the arena for social struggles and thus for defining collective challenges, but before reflecting on how to build it we should first take a close look at the different ways the concept is currently interpreted.

Three conceptions: From above,
from below and from the angels

The concept of civil society has evolved a great deal throughout history. In the Renaissance it opposed the concept of Natural Society and meant an organized social order that was civilized, rational and hence superior. The English philosopher John Locke included the state within civil society and Adam Smith defined it as covering everything that was socially constructed, including the market and the state. Hegel viewed it as the social space located between family and state, while Marx defined it as the collection of social relations in which economic relations conditioned all others. According to Antonio Gramsci, economic relations include two realities: political society and civil society. Civil society consists of institutions that bring together individuals and are geared to producing consensus: school, the mass media and religious institutions. In Gramsci’s conception, civil society is located between the prince and the merchant, between state and market.

This brief look at the historical evolution of the concept shows how it has changed meaning according to the changing conceptions of society. Today, when we examine the different positions, we discover three main orientations: a bourgeois conception of civil society, from above; a conception I describe as "angelic" because it defines civil society as a regrouping of all the "good guys"; and a grassroots conception, from below. No concept is innocent, neutral or aseptic, particularly if it serves to define the functioning of human collectives and the relations that exist within those collectives.

The bourgeois concept:
Three hands of civil society

Civil society is an essential element of the bourgeoisie’s class strategy. It is the arena in which individual potentials are developed, and thus the space in which freedoms are exercised, the main one being freedom of enterprise, considered to be the source of all other freedoms. Enterprise is considered the fundamental pillar of civil society, to which are linked the main ideological institutions that play a role in social reproduction: school, religions, the mass media, the non-mercantile sector as a whole (privatized public services) and, above all, the organizations geared to make up for the system’s deficiencies.

Within this perspective, the state’s role is limited to three functions: providing a legal framework that guarantees private property and the exercise of free enterprise; ensuring the functioning of social reproduction (education and health); and guaranteeing personal safety. In the words of Michel Camdessus, the man who until recently ran the IMF, three hands are at work in society: the invisible hand of the market, the organizing hand of the state, which imposes the rules of the game, and the compassionate hand of charity, which takes care of those who have been excluded.

The implacable logic of this thinking has been incorporated into the capitalist market economy’s logic, according to which the market is a natural phenomenon rather than a socially constructed relation. It is thus necessary to guarantee that the market function with the greatest possible freedom, without obstacles—particularly those imposed by the state—and in accord with strict internal ethics, which will allow it to fulfill its role as universal regulator of human interrelations.

But the market cannot be dissociated from production, as goods and services are what is being exchanged. And that is still valid even today, when exchange value is gaining an increasing advantage over the other values and the speculative nature of financial capital appears to provide it with complete autonomy. In the capitalist economy, the social relations of production establish a class link inexorably subjected to the law of competition.

In the bourgeois conception, strengthening civil society means favoring freedom of enterprise, energizing the business-oriented social actors, reducing the role of the state and reproducing the social relations—which have now been globalized—that ensure class domination. As these social relations in both production and exchange are viewed as natural, it is proclaimed again and again that there are no alternatives.

This logic gives birth to the following strategy regarding civil society: promote a network of institutions, concede private status to the ideological apparatus and promote voluntary, non-rebellious organizations. This allows the social demand of the weakened classes and groups to be institutionally channeled and fragmented. In such a situation it is relatively easy to co-opt certain voluntary, religious or lay organizations, orienting them mainly toward actions aimed at alleviating poverty and its social effects.

The effects of implementing this conception of civil society from above are already noticeable. As the market becomes the universal norm for the functioning of human relations, it not only structures the field of consumption but also that of culture. This unleashes a series of displacements: of politics toward the market, of development toward growth, of the citizen toward the individual consumer and of political commitment toward cultural references (ethnic identity, gender and religion). Civil society is depoliticized and politics grows increasingly virtual relative to the market. The social movements seek their identity only in their own field, breaking with political tradition, while certain NGOs ferociously cultivate an anti-state ideology and religious movements multiply, devoid of any social projection and centered only on individual salvation.

One needs to be quite aware of what the bourgeois conception of civil society implies. The similarity of the vocabulary should not deceive us. When the World Bank, the Davos World Economic Forum or certain governments speak of civil society, it has nothing to do with the civil society that the social movements present in Seattle, Prague or Porto Alegre have in mind.

The angelic concept:
Denouncing abuses, but not the logic

Numerous circles close to us share the "angelic" conception of civil society. According to this perspective, civil society is made up of organizations generated by disfavored social groups, by NGOs, by the non-commercial sector of the economy and by institutions with community, educational, cultural and health interests. It is a kind of third sector, which is autonomous in relation to the state and capable of counterbalancing it. It is the organization of citizens, of all those who desire good and try to change the way things are in an unjust world.

According to this frame of thought, society is made up of collections of individuals grouped together into superimposed strata that are claiming an equivalent place. While the objectives pursued by civil society’s components respond to real needs, this conception does not lead to any change of order in social relations because it fails to recognize the existence of unequal relations, the reproduction of which is indispensable for the maintenance of the capitalist system.

This conception of civil society does allow for leading social fights, however. The abuses of the system are denounced and its arbitrary characteristics palliated, but this does not lead to any criticism of its logic. For this reason, the conception easily becomes a receptacle for anti-state, inter-class, culturalist and utopian ideologies, in the negative sense of the terms. While a desire to change the paradigms of society is expressed, the actions turn out to be ineffective over the long haul.

In certain ways, this conception of civil society coincides with the bourgeois one, and the institutions that hold it are thus frequently co-opted by transnational corporations, the World Bank, the OECD or the International Monetary Fund.

The grassroots concept:
Fragmented fights with a concentrated adversary

The grassroots conception of civil society is an analytical one, which means that it reads civil society in terms of social relations, which is in itself a political act. The term "analytical" implies understanding and assuming that civil society is the arena in which social inequalities are constructed, and within it are institutions and organizations that represent very divergent class interests. And that if this is true, it won’t be enough to change hearts to automatically transform societies. Although it is still important to change hearts, other power relations also need to be created.

Undoubtedly the social relations of today’s capitalism are no longer the same as they were in 19th-century Europe, and this has important effects on civil society. The direct relation between capital and labor has been deregulated by the economy’s liberal orientation. Capital-labor relations are the minority in the societies of the South, where populations are directly integrated into capitalism through the macroeconomic mechanisms of monetary policies, the debt, the price of raw materials, new technologies, the concentration of companies, the globalization of the market and the volatility of financial capital. These and many other factors, while not breaking the capitalist logic, have helped spread its effects through space and time. There are increasingly fewer frontiers and it is hard for social protection to fend off the decision-making powers that are outside of state control. With no spatial frontiers, time is no obstacle for financial transactions, while the social consequences of those transactions linger a long time.

The social relation of capitalism is now less visible, more diffuse, and it affects the models of social struggle. There are poor populations today in which the corresponding class struggles do not exist, with workers defining themselves first and foremost as consumers and social groups weakened by the economic system reacting according to their ethnic, gender or caste identity—the dalits of India—without making the link with the economic logic that is the source of their precariousness. Individual struggles multiply, but most remain geographically or sectorally fragmented in the face of an increasingly concentrated adversary.

New control mechanisms
and a greater awareness

The market imposes relations of inequality on civil society. The dominant groups act globally, using states not for redistributing wealth or protecting the weakest, but rather for controlling populations (migrations, social movements and popular civil society) and serving the market. The mechanisms are diverse and often progressive, running from monetary policies to free trade treaties, from judicial reforms to educational reforms, from the privatization of social security to privatization of health services, from the reduction of research subsidies to the reduction of support for grassroots organizations, from the suppression of publicity for the leftwing press to the control of telephonic communications, from the weakening of the progressive sectors of religious institutions to the subjecting of NGOs. They seek to order and domesticate the state and the UN organizations and control civil society, which they allow to encourage dynamism and plurality as long as it does not effectively question the capitalist social relation.

A greater social awareness can be developed based on this kind of analysis. There is a civil society from below, the expression of disfavored or oppressed social groups that are gradually experiencing and discovering the causes of their situation. This is the civil society at the core of the resistance being organized and gradually globalized today. This is the civil society that is claiming an organized public space at the service of all human beings and not just a minority. It wants to turn into citizens those who have been reduced to nothing more than producers or consumers, those struggling in the anguish of informal economies and those seen as a "useless mass" for the globalized market.

Ecologists, pacifists and
a proliferation of NGOs

The importance of the events we are living through should not be allowed to make us forget history. Social movements did not emerge yesterday. Resistance to capitalism, to colonialism and to the markets’ wars of conquest marks the stories of the different peoples of the Earth. For almost two centuries the workers’ movement was the paradigm of social struggles. Peasant uprisings shook societies, particularly with the introduction of agrarian capitalism. Countless autochthonous peoples, whom we now refer to as the first nations, opposed the cultural and physical destruction to which they were subjected in the face of mercantile expansion or the conquest of their territories. Meanwhile, feminist movements have been reacting to the exploitation of women at work and their exclusion from the right to citizenship since the 19th century.

So what’s new today? A first new element appearing on the scene is the resistance by ecological movements. The environmental destruction has provoked numerous reactions, the result of a rejection of the destructive relation between market and nature, which found no alternative in a socialism that rapidly defined its objectives around the need to develop the productive forces to catch up with capitalism, a tendency that worsened considerably over the last 30 years during the neoliberal phase of capitalist accumulation. The majority of movements to defend nature are increasingly linking the prevailing economic logic to ecological problems.

Numerous pacifist movements emerged during the Cold War that adhered to an anti-war tradition dating back to the end of the 19th century. Although this represents another original contribution, or new element, these movements are experiencing a certain stagnation as conflicts are now located away from the main centers of globalization. Events such as the Gulf War and the war in Kosovo, however, have rekindled memories and remind us that economic imperialism cannot function without an armed wing, whether it is called NATO or Plan Colombia.

The multiplication of NGOs—a new term for a pre-existing reality—is another novelty and has resulted in a nebula of organizations emerging from civil society. The NGO reality is hybrid and ambivalent as they range from NGOs that are organized by or let themselves be used by the dominant system to those that identify with social struggles and express genuine North-South solidarity.

Globalized capitalism happy with this ideology

In sum, they include old social movements of a union or political bent and new movements (women’s, indigenous and environmental defense movements, movements for cultural identity, NGOs, voluntary organizations and the like) that cut across class relations while being inevitably marked by them. It is sometimes hard to see clearly in this proliferation of initiatives, but it is necessary to do so. Clarity and sound criteria are needed if civil society from below is to act effectively within each nation and on the global level.

Postmodern thought is very comfortable with this confused and dispersed "forest," which it interprets as the end of what it calls the great challenges, assimilating the study of societies with linguistics to express the end of systems and of the great structures with their corresponding overall explanations. It replaces them with immediate history, the intervention of individuals in their direct surroundings, the multiplication of "small tales" and personal initiatives.

In response to Promethean modernity, to the totalizing discourse, it falls into an atomizing reading of reality, perceived as fragmented, with an inexplicable genesis and an insignificance in relation to a historical whole. It thus paints civil society as nothing more than the sum of movements and organizations in which multiplicity alone would be enough to confront a totalitarian order of a political or economic nature. Globalized capitalism, which has managed to construct the material basis of its globalization as a system thanks to communications and computer technologies, is absolutely delighted to see the development of an ideology that announces the end of systems. Nothing could be more useful to it.

However fundamental its criticism of the modernity promoted by capitalism, postmodernism cannot help us analyze contemporary civil society, or help energize it as a source of resistance and efficient struggles. The current fragmentation of struggles reveals both the consequences and the strategies of the capitalist system.

It’s not enough to denounce abuses;
one has to criticize the system

The criterion for analyzing the multiple initiatives that make up civil society from below will be their anti-systemic character: to what extent does each social movement or nongovernmental organization help question the logic of the capitalist system within its own particular area? Within this logic landless peasants are rejected today more than ever when land is being turned into capital; the autochthonous peoples represent the first victims of structural adjustment programs; women are crushed by the weight of a poverty that aggravates patriarchal relations; the middle classes have grown more fragile as a result of monetary policies and speculative financial transactions; the organization of health has been impaired by the sector’s subjection to mercantilism; children are expelled from schools because of the elitist conception of education; social policy is devastated by the yoke of the foreign debt; cultural heritages have been decimated by a systematic Americanization; the media is domesticated by economic interests; researchers are limited by the demands of profitability; art is reduced to its exchange value; agriculture is dominated by chemical and agribusiness multinationals; thousands of animal and vegetable species are becoming extinct and the environment is being degraded by a form of development defined exclusively in growth terms…
The movements and organizations of civil society from below should work to de-legitimize the economic system. It is not enough to condemn its abuses, something done not only by ethical bodies, Christian churches and spokespeople for the other main religions, but also by certain representatives of the capitalist system itself, because they know that these abuses are endangering their system. It is necessary to denounce the logic that leads to abusive practices and necessarily results in social contradictions and the impossibility of responding to the economy’s essential function: ensuring the material base for the physical and cultural life of all humanity.

It is a question of searching for alternatives rather than palliatives, which may alleviate poverty in the short term but are like the vines of tropical forests that grow back out of control after one or two rainfalls. It is not a question of seeking alternatives within the system, like the third way that the reformist media pursuing the illusion of "humanizing" capitalism so appreciate. It is about achieving a post-capitalist economic organization. In reality it is about an indispensable long-term project with a utopian dimension—the kind of society we want to construct—that includes medium-term projects and short-term objectives. The elaboration of such a project is the real task facing civil society from below.

What kind of civil society and what public spaces do we want to promote and build in response to the globalization of capitalist social relations? The guidelines are clear, even when the action to be taken is not easy and the adversary is so powerful. Five orientations can guide us. The first four are based on the very definition of civil society from below and the conquest of public spaces at any level, and the fifth concerns convergences.

Systematic actions and the
awareness of being utopian

The first orientation is the search for a systematic action that regroups all of those in various fields of collective life, with their ups and downs, successes and failures, achievements and errors, that are helping to construct a different economy, a different kind of politics, a different culture. Civil Society from below also needs intellectuals to constantly redefine with the social movements their challenges and objectives. It should formulate its own agenda so it does not trail behind the world decision-making media. It will also have to produce its own expressions and culture, just as many other movements have done in the past. This "other Davos" here in Porto Alegre is one such expression.

The second orientation for civil society from below is to discover that it is the bearer of utopias that mobilize, rekindle hope, are built on the concrete foundation of social struggles, are not exhausted by their concrete translation and remain like a beacon for both collectives and individuals. It is the bearer of utopias because it takes up the great lay humanist and religious traditions alike. We should not ignore, as has frequently happened in the past, the enormous reserves of utopia contained in the great religious movements when they are not selling illusions, when they do not exhaust themselves in institutional logic identifying faith with ecclesiastical apparatus and in the search for power. Because when they inspire and motivate social commitments, when they emphasize the liberating nature of their theologies, when they draw attention to the ethics of individual behavior, they are a very important element in the construction of a new society. We should not reject, but rather vindicate, the great socialist ideals, which, while undoubtedly shaken by dramatic experiences, are more necessary than ever in the face of capitalist barbarism.

Alternatives in all fields
and a political reevaluation

The third orientation is that civil society from below should be characterized by the search for alternatives at all levels, from the great political conquests to everyday life, including international organizations and the United Nations, the daily life of those living in poverty, material life, cultural life, respect for nature, the organization of production, development and consumption. This is a considerable challenge that demands long-term work, although its premises have already been established.

The fourth orientation has to do with conquering public arenas, linking up with politics. Without politics, action is sterile...or at least limited. It is a question of constructing a correlation of forces that allows decisions to be made. This is the condition for the establishment of a true democracy that, while including the electoral dimension, is not limited to it but covers the whole public arena, including its economic aspects. This presupposes a political culture and a learning experience that social movements have not always bothered to obtain and that must confront a real devaluation of politics. It is probable that in the future the new correlation of forces will be built by a plurality of political organizations acting in harmony.

The fifth orientation is related to convergences. Globalizing resistances and struggles is an immediate objective. It is not something abstract and artificial, but rather very concrete. The great multiplicity of movements and their fragmentation could be an obstacle, depending on the extent of the atomization, but could become a strength if instead of simply joining together, juxtaposing, they enter into a functional convergence as happened in Seattle, Washington, Bangkok, Prague, Nice and Davos. The year 2000 has been one of convergences that the coming years will serve to consolidate. Meanwhile, it will be necessary to provide these convergences with the means to operate, in terms of both analysis to perceive the challenges, objectives and methods for producing a world seen by its peoples and intercommunication through the progressive construction of an inventory of social movements and their networks. This is one of the tasks that the World Forum of Alternatives is proposing to carry out.

Saving the pessimism for better times

The affirmation of civil society depends first and foremost on its definition, from below. This grassroots conception of civil society can only be globalized to the extent to which it exists locally, as convergences presuppose a prior existence. There are numerous concrete models of actions on the local and international levels and they can only be defined by committed actors in various fields: in the organization of social relations, in communications, in culture and in the environment. A new situation has been created in Porto Alegre: a common conviction, a new culture capable of questioning the "only way of thinking," and it represents a new hope. As Eduardo Galeano put it here in Porto Alegre, "Let’s save the pessimism for better times."

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