The power of civility

A paper for the Committee on Civil Society Research in Sweden
coming out of the seminar ‘Global Civil Society : More or Less Democracy?’
organised by the Committee at the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, on January 22 2007[1]
Jai Sen, March 2007

Abstract :

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.

We need to both define and dispute global civil society.[2]

The note inviting this paper asks a provocative question :

The key question that we would like to address is: What are [the] implications for democracy of the increasing number and activities of NGOs, social movement organisations and private foundations globally – whether we choose to conceptualise these as ‘civil society’ or not?[3]

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,[4] 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.[5]

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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.


Civil and incivil

In this section, and in order to understand the roles being played by what is called ‘global civil society’, I try to deconstruct the term ‘civil society’ and to comprehend it in terms of the meanings it holds for the struggle for building other worlds. While, as above, I acknowledge the historic roles of civil societies in democratisation, and while I agree with Peter Waterman and Jan Aart Scholte that the term and concept of civil society is too useful to be just discarded,[9] I believe that the social and political reality of civil society is riddled with power relations that need to be clearly read, and that only on this basis can we begin to assess “[the] implications for democracy of the increasing number and activities of NGOs, social movement organisations and private foundations globally”, let alone define the basis of a more emancipated civil politics.

I first suggest that ‘civil society’ is not what the text books say it is, that neutral (and neutered) “space between the individual (or the family) and the state”, but rather just what the term says it is : Civil society – a society or community that is ruled by norms of ‘civility’; a section of society that has become – in its own terms, and by its own definition – ‘civilised’. In such societies, there is – by definition – little or no room for deviants, for sections that do not follow the rules of being civilised, which is a rule that is in turn also set by those who consider themselves to be civil and civilised. To the contrary, the civilised feel threatened by those who do not conform (and who they therefore term ‘anti-social’, ‘deviant’, ‘wild’, and ‘uncivil’) and by the very existence of an uncivil, and so they seek to subjugate it, convert it, tame it, civilise it; if it becomes sufficiently docile and domesticated, to then ignore it; and on the other hand, if it is too assertive, to attempt to destroy it, exterminate it. (Only in the most civilised ways, of course.) In short, it is – in their understanding – the historical task of those who arrogate this term to themselves, to ‘civilise’ society and to establish a civil order – which most centrally means to establish hegemony over all those who (and all that) they consider to be uncivil.

In my earlier writings on cities, I used the term ‘unintended’ for a phenomenon that is somewhat related, in an attempt to describe and denote the dynamic tension that exists between different worlds in cities and to argue that the unintended are today in fact building separate, parallel societies, and ‘cities’, of their own, but through a complex dynamics of relationship with the intended world.[10] But given the new and contemporary resonance to the term ‘civil society’, the terms civil and uncivil – and as I will argue, incivil – become far more relevant.

Some of the most infamous examples of this are the treatment of the Indians of Latin America, the Aborigines of Australia, and the First Nations in Canada and the USA, in the course of civilising them in ‘the great cause of civilisation’.[11] But this behaviour is not only a function of what we understand as colonisation; it is equally true of the behaviour of civil societies within their own societies – such as the manner in which the civilised gentlefolk of, say, The Netherlands ‘treated’ and ‘processed’ the Dutch peasantry and working classes in special ‘homes’ even as recently as the early 20th century, teaching them reading, writing, dressing, table manners, and bathroom manners in their attempt to ‘civilise’ them into ‘proper’ citizenship.[12] As others have shown, all so-called ‘civil societies’ have historically emerged through intensive processes of civilising societies, in particular through the establishment of enforcement agencies such as the police and also through the establishment of such homes and institutions where these ‘unruly elements’ were ‘civilised’. But this is identical to the treatment which aboriginals across the world have been subjected to.[13] Colonisation, and the process and treatment of ‘civilisation’, is thus not something restricted only to the domestication of other lands.

In this narrative, the ‘civil’ are those who are otherwise referred to as the middle classes and above, and earlier as ‘the gentlefolk’ (and where in English we still use the term ‘gentleman’), and in the part of India I come from, Bengal, we have the term bhadralok, the ‘proper’ or ‘well-mannered’ people. But beyond this, the ‘civil class’ is a class that sees itself as permanently in power. (In Bengal, this has not changed notwithstanding having a government of the Left in power for the past thirty years continuously, and who might otherwise have been expected to challenge such an order. This record itself speaks for the power, reach, and resilience of civility.)

The norms that are established (read imposed) by the civil to define and enforce civility of course vary from context to context, and are also mediated by other processes – ranging from insurrection to globalisation -, but I suggest that in all cases the term ‘civil society’ most meaningfully refers to those sections of society who are considered by some self-appointed guardians to be ‘civil’, or ‘civilised’; and who struggle to impose this order of civility on others, both those immediately around them and in other contexts that they are attempting to colonise and domesticate.

Civil society does not act alone in exercising this power. In order to do this, it invokes the power of the state, with which it is umbilically linked. Contrary to the popular impression of so-called ‘non-governmental organisations’, and perhaps because of the term itself – that they tend to be independent of, and often even critical of, the state – civil society needs the state in order to maintain order in society, very much to protect and promote its own existence; and as seen so clearly in our own times, the state also woos civil society in order to do its – often dirty – work; both in the North and the South.

As explained by Martin Shaw, civil society is thus not only “a sphere of association in society in distinction to the state, involving a network of institutions through which society and groups within it represent themselves in cultural, ideological, and political senses”, but crucially also where, in the terms developed by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, “the institutions of civil society [also form] … the ‘outer earthworks’ of the state, through which the ruling classes maintain their ‘hegemony’ or dominance in society”.[14] In terms of power and the exercise of power, civil society and the state are therefore interlinked.

In addition, the process of ‘civilising’ and domestication is not only directed at the incivil and the uncivil; it is also a process of internal domestication within societies, more generally, that is used by nation states, imperial states, and the sections of civil society that stand with them to shock, awe, and bring into line the populations that they believe it is their right to rule over. In contemporary times for example, the so-called ‘War on Terror’ post 9/11 has been widely used as a means not only of stigmatising and then waging war on particular peoples and nations but also of creating and cultivating a climate of fear and suspicion within national societies and in global society in general, so that all those less brave – and all those more dependent on the state – are cowed into silence and submission and/or a flag-waving nationalism.

Along with this however, buried prejudices about ‘the others’ – read ‘the incivil’ – are today tending across the world to be surfaced and reinforced, and what were earlier touted to be great historical experiments in liberal, tolerant multiculturalism are collapsing.[15] In a sense therefore, the dark side of civilisation and domestication is not only the imposition but also the implosion of civility. Civility tends to devour itself.

These processes are in turn being accompanied by another phenomenon that is domesticating us in other ways, and again making us suspicious of ‘outsiders’ and of others with other ways of living. Increasingly, we are today faced with world alarms around pan-epidemics – but accompanied by the demand that subject populations must accept lower levels of civil liberty in exchange for their greater ‘security’.[16] Far from resisting them, these steps and the repressive and divisive political and social culture that is implied are also being widely internalised within and propagated by civil societies across the world.

Let me now explain why I use what might seem to some to be derogatory terms but which in any case are clearly provocative, ‘incivil’ and ‘uncivil’. I purposely use these terms, in an insurgent manner : First, in order to focus on the dialectical reality of civility; second, in order to make clear not only how ‘we’ see ‘them’, as ‘the other’, but also ‘ourselves’, and to make ‘us’ constantly conscious of this; third, in order also, by contradistinction and opposition, to signal the resistance of such peoples to the singular and hegemonic norms of the civil – and indeed, to implicitly suggest that there are many civilities, many different forms and modes of civilisation; and fourth, to politicise the term ‘civil’ and to draw out what I suggest is its political reality. The distinction I will draw in a moment between ‘incivil’ and ‘uncivil’ is also with this same dynamic in mind, and while not suggesting that these divisions are permanent and unchanging or that these terms should be cast in stone, I believe that using them is useful in order to achieve these objectives.

In support of my usage, I cite the example of my experience of using this term with Dalit activists in India. As is now fairly widely known, the term ‘Dalit’ means ‘oppressed’ and is one that that Dalits themselves use in preference to, say, Gandhi’s term Harijan (‘children of god’). But whereas I have found that Dalit activists easily grasp the meaning of the term ‘incivil’ and also its dialectical meaning and usage, ‘civil’ activists and researchers tend to object to it – as indeed, some do even to Dalits calling themselves oppressed. To use North American slang, they just don’t seem to get it. But this is precisely the struggle : To see the world from the other’s point of view, and especially from that of the oppressed.

As I see it, in reality this dynamic plays out as a function not only of class but also of caste (occupation determined by descent), in those contexts where this applies (right across south Asia, reaching deeply into southeast Asia, covering a billion and a half people); of ethnicity and race, which need no explanation; of faith and cosmology; of sexuality and sexual preference; and also of language.

So in short, those who constitute ‘civil societies’ are in general middle or upper class, middle or upper caste, white (or at least, ‘fair’, and where in many societies ‘fairness’ of complexion is something that the upper castes and classes aspire to), and male, actively or passively practising the dominant religion in the region and speaking its dominant language; and people of colour and of other differentiations and preferences who are allowed by such sections to join them. And those who constitute the ‘incivil’ – as perceived and stigmatised by the civil – are the lower classes, the lower castes (and the outcastes), and in general people of colour, and especially the black, and all those of other languages, faiths, and preferences, other than those who have been successfully domesticated and ‘civilised’ – but where such people are often also then left hanging in a tragic middle world, a second-class denizen.

In these terms, the gender division and discourse is less obvious, and perhaps needs a more nuanced discussion than I am capable of. But one could easily say that it also applies here, in the same and in many other ways. Think, for instance, of the (male, civil) association of ‘the feminine’ with ‘the wild’, the uncontrollable, in so many cultures, and in so many religions; the systems put in place to ‘husband’ and control this nature; and in particular the structure and ideology of patriarchy that is so widely prevalent across the world, South and North, where women are seen only as property and as vehicles for reproduction of the (hu)man species, therefore justifying the system of ‘husbanding’ and domestication, and – just as the ideology of the state dominated by civil society does – giving men the license to inflict domestic violence on them, as and when they feel it is required.[17]

Having put forward my larger point, I want now to also draw a line between what I am referring to as the ‘incivil’ and the ‘uncivil’.

As has been widely recorded and we will perhaps agree on without problem, a large proportion of the ordinary people of the world who ‘civil societies’ see as ‘the incivil’, are in all societies forced by prevailing social and economic conditions to resort to taking part in what are termed (by civil society and the state) as being ‘informal’, ‘illegal’, and ‘unauthorised’ activities. This includes having to live in often sub-human extra-legal settlements or practising extra-legal occupations, or migrating illegally. But this happens only because social and economic exclusion, persecution, and devastation leaves them with no options – but where they are then criminalised and stigmatised by state and civil society for their actions.[18]

Beyond this however, but interacting with it and sometimes overwhelming it, lie other worlds of exploitation, such as child prostitution, bonded labour and other slave trade, trade in organs, the drug trade, and religious fundamentalism; broadly, where the criminal, the mafia, and the criminalised lumpen rule – those who in India are referred to as the ‘anti-social’ but where in more analytical language refers to people who are involved in activities that constitute what Deepak Nayyar and Julius Court refer to as the ‘public bad’.[19] (And as these authors point out, just as there are ‘global public goods’, there are equally ‘global public bads’ – and where racism, militarisation and the arms trade, and war should surely also be included in this list.)

On the other hand however, all over the world we are now also seeing these sections, the incivil, who have been historically oppressed and marginalised, organising themselves – and where in contexts such as Bolivia and India, where they constitute the majority of the population, they are slowly not just accumulating but also asserting power, often (though not always) in insurgent ways that challenge the ruling civil society. As I see it, these historically unintended worlds are new societies in the making – and of their own making and on their own terms.[20] This also includes building ‘NGOs’ very similar in nature, structure, and perspective to civil organisations, but imbued with their own values.

This is of course not a linear process, nor automatically successful in emancipatory terms. There is plenty of evidence already available of inversions and implosions, in particular on account of the leadership of such sections adopting and reproducing the laws and customs of their former oppressors. But these are hiccups; there is surely no question that we are today at a new threshold of human history, a historic deepening and widening of democratisation of local and national societies and of global society that is being undertaken not by civil societies but by the incivil of the world.

Without elaborating further here on this complex point, I suggest that we need to make a distinction between these two realities, incivil and uncivil, and that this is of vital strategic consequence to the task of building other worlds. It seems to me one of the shortfalls of academia that although there are now countless publications in this broad area of civil society, there seems to be little attempt to look structurally and politically at this phenomenon and to develop terminology that can distinguish such realities; and equally, and although they are constantly surfacing, those of us more in social and political movement also tend to easily to gloss over these issues.

As a contribution to this rethinking, I would like to propose that we adopt the terms ‘incivil’ and ‘uncivil’, using ‘incivil’ for those who are oppressed, victimised, but building insurgent societies, challenging earlier power structures dominated by the civil; and ‘uncivil’ for those, though also resisting civil society and subverting it, whose motives and work are far more limited, material, and in general criminal and exploitative. It is also the case that for people in such situations, the dividing line between ‘incivil’ and ‘uncivil’ is often blurred – but I believe and suggest that we need nevertheless to recognise that there are at least three worlds, and crucially, that they co-exist in dynamic tension.[21]

In other words, I suggest that we need to find other ways of looking at what we call ‘civil society’ – other lenses; that we need to recognise that it is a political concept charged with meanings; and that we need to use it as such.

Many of us have worked and struggled with these questions for many years, without a clear approach as yet[22]. It is perhaps difficult to people belonging to civil societies, and especially to civil societies in the North, to stand back and see it dispassionately; but we need to. When asking the question a decade ago as to what could be an alternative to the kind of assault that the state and civil society had once again unleashed on the unintended in Kolkata, I myself phrased it in terms of how one could achieve a ‘civilised transition’ to another future.[23] I now realise that I have to rethink my language, and what I actually meant to say – because the achievement of a ‘civilised transition’ too often signals not emancipation but domestication and subjugation.[24]

At the very minimum, I believe that we should look closely at and draw from the concept of transcommunality that has been developed and put forward by John Brown Childs, and at his proposal that we need to move from working with a politics of conversion to an ethics of respect – an ethic that recognises and respects the diversity of the world and the integrity of the self-image of ‘the other’[25].


The World Social Forum as an arena of global civility

These dynamics are not abstractions but play themselves out in daily social and political life. In order both to illustrate this reality and also to develop it, I want to look briefly at the World Social Forum, precisely because it is widely regarded as an important contribution to global democratisation.[26]

At the risk of taking several liberties at once, I suggest – on the basis of my research on the history and dynamics of transnational civil alliances, and more recently on the World Social Forum – that there is much reason to believe that this broad sketch of a process of ‘civil’ domination also applies all too widely to emerging civil alliances and to the World Social Forum.[27] Beyond this however, an examination of the WSF also yields some insights into other but related tendencies to civil corporatisation and civil power.

Looking first at the question of civil domination, this is not to say that indigenous peoples such as the Aborigines of Australia or the Indians of Latin America, or the Dalits of India and south Asia, are not also establishing transnational or global alliances – they are;[28] but it is to suggest that the centres of power in global civil alliance are still very strongly located in the North, and in the ‘North within the South’, among middle and upper castes and classes and among white males; and that transnational incivil alliances are also still all too dependent on these power centres – and even if some of them are very aware of this centrality and of the reality of power, and sometimes try to strategically work with it.[29] And beyond this, wherever mixed alliances have appeared to take shape, or even in most of the big actions even in multicultural contexts such as the US (such as Seattle in November 1999 or Washington DC, April 2000), Canada (Quebec City in 2001), or the UK (Gleneagles 2005), people of colour, indigenous peoples, and/or in general the incivil have so far hardly been seen; and that by and large, all these initiatives are still dominated by members and organisations of ‘civil society’.[30] These are and remain hard realities and reminders of transnational civil alliance and action today.

Equally, and despite some change during the Mumbai edition in 2004, this question of colour is also true of the World Social Forum. This is despite the fact that Brazil (where the Forum was born) is such a mixed society, and was also the case, for example, of the European Social Forum that was held in London in October 2004 despite the rich intercultural character of that city and country today.

Even in the case of the Mumbai Forum, which has been so widely celebrated (especially by people from outside India) as being a place where ‘the masses’ came out and where the Dalits of the country asserted themselves, the social reality is that all those who came belonged to what can be called third generation, ‘NGO’ Dalit organisations and not to the main, first and second-generation mass Dalit formations that remained sullenly away from such constructs of Indian and world civil society – unlike, to take a parallel example, the communist parties and their mass fronts, which are largely led by the civil.

This dynamic also plays itself out in terms of faith. Despite Mumbai being a huge metropolitan city with a significant Muslim population, they were very few local Muslims present at the 2004 Forum, and – in a country where Muslims constitute the largest ‘minority’ and one of the largest such populations in the world – there were none at all in the WSF India Organising Committee, and it was openly accused of discrimination and domination[31]. No less striking is the fact of how much of an attempt was made by the leadership of the Forum, all of the majority faith, to tame, suppress, and downplay this sensitive question when it was raised instead of addressing the huge contradiction that was so obviously there in front of them.[32]

Equally, in a perceptive and courageous essay Anila Daulatzai has shown the highly orthodox and regulatory roles that secularism and feminism, which so many in civil societies today consider to be articles of faith, play even in a context such as the World Social Forum.[33]

The issue of colour and race presumably did not apply in the same way for the polycentric Forum that was held in Bamako, Mali, in January 2006, and nor was it the case for the World Social Forum held in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2007 (at least, as discernible to an outsider like myself). But the events that unfolded in Nairobi, of – on the one hand – the exclusion of the members of popular movements, and on the other, the commercialisation of the Forum, clearly point to the fact that similar exclusionary dynamics also play themselves out in such contexts, too; and make it necessary for us to reflect hard on the social dynamics of the WSF.[34]

Even this brief survey suggests clear patterns that reinforce my more general argument. But even as I argue this however, I accept completely that there are many individual organisations and actors within civil societies, and perhaps especially those associated with the emerging global social justice movement, who are struggling to break out of these confines, and that the boundaries are therefore not always so clear. But I nevertheless believe that the deep dialectic of ‘civility’ is an issue that all those who are in transcultural and transnational alliance building need to engage with, and that in order to grasp its meaning, we need to look at the question of civility in more structural terms.


Moving on to look at the question of civil corporatisation, and again taking the WSF as an example, I believe that we are already at a stage where we are seeing that the Forum as Forum is showing tendencies of turning in on itself and becoming corporatised and ossified. (I say this even though I have myself also argued that the WSF is an extraordinary example of a process in organic emergence, in terms of learning from its experience.[35]) Since I have already presented these arguments in more detail elsewhere,[36] I am here only going to summarise my points :

  • The history of the WSF shows strong tendencies towards corporatisation, including the articulation of increasingly strict rules for participation. Examples are the requirement at one point, for membership of its committees, of a written declaration of adherence to the Charter of Principles of the Forum; and the coercive question to those registering for the Mumbai Forum in 2004 as to whether or not they agreed with the Charter of Principles.
  • The tendencies also include an increasingly entrenched discourse about the ‘representativeness’ of the International Council – and even though the Charter of Principles declares resonantly that the WSF is not a representative organisation and does not seek to represent world civil society.[37] Ironically, this discourse is there despite the long-standing non-democratic and non-transparent organisational culture of the IC, which therefore constitutes such a profound humiliation of all that the Forum otherwise appears to stand for. (This however might now change, with a Resolution finally being accepted in the WSF International Council at its meeting in Nairobi in January 2007 regarding the need for an assessment of the internal functioning of the World Social Forum and to define a set of organising principles for this. It remains to be seen what the Committee set up to do this does, and whether it is alive to these and the other related issues discussed in this paper.)
  • This behaviour is also manifested in the degree to which the WSF has become real estate at local and national levels, especially for those with political ambitions, and – despite protestations to the contrary in its Charter of Principles – it is often a piece of territory to be struggled over, to be gained and to be retained, almost any cost. The experience of the WSF in Mumbai in January 2004, and then of European Social Forum in London in 2004, are classic examples of this;[38] and where in most cases the leadership of the Forum once installed never changes – because there are no procedures established for doing so.
  • We need also to recognise that those who are in the leadership of the WSF – as, for instance, manifested in the membership of its International Council – are also in the leadership of practically all other significant civil alliances and coalitions at global, regional, and national levels; not only among NGOs but also social movements. On the one hand, this has been the driving logic behind the expansion of the IC; on the other it makes the IC a powerful body (despite the WSF’s Charter again saying that it does not see itself as a locus of power) – in effect, a supra-board of the civil world.
  • Over the years, the leadership of the Forum has frequently behaved like that of organised and increasingly orthodox religion. It has its priests, its faithful constituency, and its rituals, and its priests have often expressed alarm at the suggestion that non-believers – in this case, people who are not staunch opponents of neoliberalism – should be allowed into the Forum. At such times, the Forum feels very much like the temple of an orthodox sect.[39]
  • There are constant calls for the Forum to be ‘constructed from the grassroots’. In principle, this sounds good; but in practice, this idea is interpreted not as direct democracy but as a process of delegation from the bottom up to the top, in the classic conceptualisation of a world political party. In the ESF in London in 2004, at the session on the future of the ESF and the WSF, the two strongest calls were for strengthening the struggle against war – and for the formation of a world party.
  • Accompanying this, there are also increasingly strong calls for the articulation of a clear political programme for the WSF – so that it can behave ‘as one body’.[40]
  • And finally, and notwithstanding the declared progressive political intentions of these calls, the social reality of the Forum is that it remains largely led by white males from middle and upper class and caste sections from around the world; and that on the other hand, those who are the greatest victims of capitalist globalisation, race, caste, communalism, and patriarchy – all the empires that the Forum has arraigned itself against – barely attend it. (As already mentioned, this assertion is not contradicted by the seemingly overwhelming presence of Dalits at the Mumbai Forum in 2004.)

In short, the spirit of chaos, openness, and consensus that characterised the Forum in its early days is tending to get lost and progressively replaced by what seems to be a far more categorical, hierarchical, and corporate (and civil) structure.

Taking a step back, I make these observations not to comment on the Forum as such but on trends that I perceive in global civil cooperation more generally.[41] (Nor to malign the Forum, an experiment that I respect a great deal.) Cutting across my concerns, I also believe that ‘representative democracy’ – where processes such as the Forum might attempt to embrace incivil societies by ensuring their representation on its committees – is not an answer. This may be a necessary step, but the principle has to be political : A shift in the agenda of the Forum (and of other such processes) towards being a process built, predicated on, and centred in the lives and struggles of those it seeks to embrace. We are still a long way from that.


The role of NGOs : Globalisation from below ?

Certain further points come out of this, for the purposes of this paper. One, it is in these terms that we therefore need to take a deeper look at the roles of NGOs, or civil organisations – the vast majority of which belong to civil society and are led by middle and upper caste and class males – and at the critical roles that are today attributed to them not only by private foundations, which is more understandable, but also by so many analysts. Taking only as an example the work of Muto Ichiyo,[42] while it is clear from the writings of this visionary thinker and political strategist that he is by no means unqualifiedly celebrating them, as some authors do, and to the contrary he is challenging them to review their role in society, on the other hand we need, I believe, to look far more critically at the proposition that he and others put forward that NGOs can and will play the role of helping “the people” come forward, towards a “steady but systematic replacement of NGOs with people’s organisations as the representation in the global arena”.[43]

While I would like to share this hope, my experience and research into transnational civil politics suggest that in practice, the reverse of this has been happening and will continue to happen.[44] While one result of NGO mobilisation is greater participation by ‘the people’, another is that such organisations, and their leadership, tend also to move to constantly more powerful positions, often behind the scenes, at national and global levels. We therefore need to be more aware of the structural dynamics involved in such situations – and to be sceptical about the possibilities of this happening without much greater mobilisation on the ground, among ‘the people’ – and by the people themselves, such that they are capable of challenging civil tendencies.

In particular, and flowing out of the arguments I have placed above about their roles, we need to recognise that civil organisations – as a sector or category; there are always exceptions – are not disinterested actors but agency in history for the introduction and installation of civil values. This is, and will necessarily remain, their agenda.

Second, and perhaps most fundamentally, I believe we need to stand back and look at civil organisations in perspective, at a time of dramatic social change – and to assess their role and contributions in this perspective.

We today live at a time when the incivil – and the uncivil – are, more than ever before in history, themselves independently and insurgently building their own organisations and their own transnational coalitions and alliances within and beyond ‘national’ societies (but where in many cases, they also reject the concept and project of the dominant ‘nation’ within which they find themselves located and which they seek now to transcend). In some cases these initiatives are emancipatory and progressive, and in others, regressive – just as in the case of civil society. But in relation to the much celebrated phenomenon and thesis of ‘globalisation from below’ therefore, in which civil organisations have been projected a playing the key role, I believe we need to recognise that this is not globalisation from below (GfB) but globalisation from the middle; but more importantly, and beyond this, that the real globalisation from below is taking place in very different ways and largely quite independently from the celebrated version.[45]

I am speaking here not of a single parallel world, or a simple or single parallel process of building other worlds. I believe that we need to shift our gaze and bring into focus the reality that the world is changing (and has always changed) in myriad ways, and not only through and as a result of (and in reaction to) neoliberal globalisation (which GfB is largely focussed on). We need, I suggest, to recognise that myriad globalisations have taken place in history and are today taking place – and crucially, that both incivil and uncivil societies all over the world are taking part in this drama, both independently and also interdependently with yet other actors such as institutions of faith. The world-changing role of former African slaves over the past two centuries, in so many arenas, is just one example.[46]

In making this assertion, I openly acknowledge my admiration for the idea of a globalisation from below, as first put forward by Richard Falk and then developed and elaborated very substantially by Jeremy Brecher and his colleagues in their landmark book on the subject.[47] But I asked precisely these questions to Jeremy and his colleagues back in 2000, while commenting on the manuscript for their book.[48]

Their reaction was while accepting my point, it would take another book to achieve this. In my understanding, this work remains urgently to be done, and it is only by engaging with and relating to this issue, and with the other issues I have tried raising here, and in the terms proposed by Childs as mentioned above,[49] that civil organisations can begin to authentically take part in the larger, wider processes of democratisation that are now opening up. But that unless they do this, they will in effect compete with them, and thereby – and precisely on account of the power of civility – undermine them, and however valid their own concerns and articulations might otherwise be.[50]

Equally possible is the well-established practice of civil organisations co-opting (and thereby civilising) incivil movements and tendencies. As just one example of stark differences of praxis, there is a world of difference in the manner in which many Dalit organisations perceive neoliberal globalisation – of potentially being one more force to blow open the caste structure that has imprisoned them for a thousand years, and which they regard as their primary issue – versus the formal ideology of the WSF and the alter-globalisation movement; but where the WSF never objects to their presence, despite the contradiction, and to the opposite celebrates it. This can be compared to the difference that arose in the independence movement in India, where the founder of the Dalit movement, Dr B R Ambedkar, refused to accept that colonialism was the only enemy of the Indian people and insisted that the movement – led by the Gandhi, Nehru, and other civil actors – accept the dismantling of caste as an equal task; but it came to a head only when he insisted on this.

Third, we need equally to recognise, in this context of competing alter-globalisms, the degree to which the leadership of international NGOS, private foundations, and also of many social movements promoted by such organisations is today coagulating into what has many of the characteristics of a powerful transnational class. Just as in the case of corporations, these characteristics include key individuals (mostly males) across the world being on the boards of each other’s organisations, thereby building every-larger webs of interlinked control.[51] For the good of both civil and incivil societies, it is essential that we read, comprehend, and spell out this phenomenon in political terms.

And fourth, we need also to recognise that the recent phenomenal growth and expansion of transnational civil organisations (“NGOs”) is not only a result of spontaneous association but also as a function of more flexible strategies by the US government in securing global hegemony through the dominance of the Washington Consensus.[52]

In conclusion, and as I see it, emerging global cooperation among civil social and political actors – collectively referred to as ‘global civil society’ – is at one and the same time a crucial vehicle for transnational civil solidarity and therefore, in this more limited sense, for the democratisation of world politics; but seen through the lens of the historic larger and wider democratisation that is today beginning to unfold, of incivil societies coming into their own, and of the power of civility, it is arguably also – because of the dynamics of civility and its internal tendencies of corporatisation – an instrument for the consolidation, strengthening, and imposition of historically unequal social and political relations and of entrenched interests. In the terms of the question asked at the outset of this paper therefore, I suggest that it is – in a larger historical perspective, and unless challenged to make major shifts in its politics – arguably contributing today to less democracy, not more.