Global Civil Society - Third force in which direction? Or,the implicit contradiction of an idea

Seminar Paper 2007 9 Pages

Politics - Political Theory and the History of Ideas Journal


Third force in which direction? or, the implicit contractions of an idea

When looking at a ‘black and white picture’ one rarely realizes, without closer inspection, that hardly any pure black or white can be found on the emulsion. Rather varied degrees of grey give the picture its contours on a two-dimensional medium. The conventional term is as Aristotle’s manifested in the law of contradiction, widersprüchlich.[1] The idea of a ‘global civil society’ (GCS) does not differ from the observable contradiction between concept and fact of B/W photography. The widely accepted conceptualisation of GCS as the following argument will show, might be useful as an analytical tool; it does however obscure implicit contradictions of the idea itself. Its terminology, it is argued, can be a reductio ad absurdum if not cautiously used and reflected upon in any given context.

As a neologism, Keane observers, GCS is ‘becoming fashionable’[2] continuing to justify its conceptual usage ‘as an ideal type, for heuristic purposes’. Whilst dismissing its western origins ‘and the possibility that it imposes alien values’ as irrelevant consideration.[3] Keane not alone in his reduction and in his benign outlook of the ideal type, treads on a swampy path when he goes on to see ‘invisible governance’ as an example of civil society outside its western original in the Batswanan kgotla system of chieftain domination.[4] Without aiming to dismiss the recent achievements of actors in GCS, the aforementioned example of the kgotla highlights how actors of civil societies function ‘within inherited structures of power that they may modify or alter but seldom transform’.5 Thus as this paper will illustrate the fallacy of ‘contemporary thinking’, which as Chandhokes shows ‘gives us a picture of a global civil society that seems to be supremely uncontaminated by either[5] the state or that of markets’.[6] In other words the grey notion of GCS cannot be conceptualized without the black of the market and the white of the state [or vice versa].

The first part of the paper will shed some light on the history of civil society. Showing how the concept is on one hand based in western roots and on the other how scholars have battled to perceive civil society as part of, distinct from, or even perpetuating state and capital power structures. These contradictions as the second part will demonstrate, are still unsolved in modern conception(s) and by no means concluded. For instance the (neo)-liberal view remains powerful, and is contrasted by a neo- gramscian or radical view. Thirdly, Global Civil Society is both fact and emergent at the same time. It is embedded in statist structures and economically dependent, however carries transformatory possibilities. Lastly, GCS as an idea is normatively inconsistent. Thus in conclusion the idea of GCS continues to be contested by many internal and external variables, which more often than not renders its notion a shade of many greys.

‘All the social sciences suffer from the notion that to have named something is to have understood it.’[7]

The idea of ‘civil society’ (CS) in terms of its meaning and significance has over the last centuries ‘varied according to historical context’, while ‘the form of political authority’ has limited its scope.[8] During the seventeenth and eighteenth-century, scholars did not draw a distinct line of demarcation between civil society and the state. Only later beginning with Hegel who defined ‘the realm of difference, intermediate between the family and the state’ was civil society detached from the polity of the state.[9] Marx, on the other hand equated Bürgerliche Gesellschaft with the bourgeois society, which included the market.[10] De Tocqueville not using the term itself separated ‘associational life’ from church and state in his influential work on American democratic practices.[11]

Later in the wake of nationalism, during the last century, Gramsci noted in turn in his prison diary:

‘It should be remembered that the general notion of state includes elements which need to be refereed back to the notion of civil society (... state = political society + civil society), in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion.’[12] [13]

His conceptualisation, in turn gained prominence in the 1970s and 1980s among activists in Latin America, as well as in Eastern Europe as a means of justifying the struggle against totalitarian regimes ‘endowing it with a heroic quality when the Berlin Wall fell’. It was at this historical juncture that CS became a key element of the ‘post-cold-war Zeitgeist’.

As Carothers notes how modern contemplations of the idea of CS ‘reflected changing economic realities: the rise of private property, market competition and the bourgeoisie.’ Which was further due to the growing demand for ‘liberty, as manifested in the American and French revolutions’.[14] Thus, in light of its history, civil society and its conceptual development ‘goes hand in hand with the emergence and evolution of capitalist market economy’ and its command over all other social and economic forms.[15] This separation of the idea of ‘liberal civil society’ from the private sphere gave in Rosenberg words way to ‘the empire of civil society’ as it is widely propagated today.[16]

The last two decades have since, alongside economic globalisation and the end of the era communism, fostered the construction of ‘a nascent global polity’ which is as Falk concludes ‘already partly extant, yet remains mostly emergent’.[17] However, as Chaichian critically observes, the revival of civil society has been embraced by western governments and affiliated donor agencies in an ‘eclectic and non-critical fashion’.[18]


[1] Note: Law of contradiction: ‘One cannot say of something that it is and that it is not in the same respect and at the same time.’ Or put in context, unless it is grey and not a mixture of black and white, which is at first sight paradox but is in fact an oxymoron itself (without the conceptualisation of its accepted understanding as a mixture).

[2] Keane, John, ‘Unfamiliar Words ’, in Global Civil Society?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, page 1

[3] Ibid, page 30

[4] Ibid, page 39

Note: Not only has Keane misspelled the term he also does not seem to realize, as observed in many kgotla meetings myself, that the kgotla system merely acts as pro forma consolidation of monarchical hierarchies amongst the Tswana tribes of southern Africa.

[5] Chandhoke, Neera, ‘The limits of global civil society’ in Helmut Anheier, Marlies Glasius and Mary Kaldor (eds.) Global Civil Society, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, page 52

[6] Ibid, page 36

[7] Geertz, Clifford, ‘Islam observed: religious development in Morocco and Indonesia’, Chicago, 1968, page 23

[8] Carothers, Thomas, ‘Thinking again: civil society’, Foreign Policy, Winter 1999-2000, page 1

[9] Kaldor, Mary, ‘The discourse of civil society’ in ‘Global Civil Society: An answer to war’, Polity Press, Oxford, 2003, page 17-18

[10] Marx, Karl, Engels, Friedrich, ‘Die buergerliche Gesellschaff und die kommunistische Revolution’ in Ausgewaehlte Werke Band III, Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1969, page 537

[11] Op cit, Kaldor, page 19

[12] Gramsci, Antonio, ‘Selections from the Prisons Notebooks’, edited and translated by Hoare Quintin and Smith Geoffrey, International Publishers, New York, 1980, page 263

[13] Op cit, Carothers, page 1

[14] Carothers, Thomas, ‘Thinking again: civil society’, Foreign Policy, Winter 1999-2000, page 1

[15] Chaichian, Mohammad A. ‘Structural Impediments of the civil society project in Iran: national and global dimensions’, paper represented at the 19th annual conference of the Center for Iranian Research and Analysis (CIRA), Toronto, 2001, page 20 accessed online on the 10th of August 2006 at http://cos.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/44/1/19 page 20-21

[16] Rosenberg, Justin, ‘The empire of civil society: A critique of the realist theory of international relations’, Verso, London, New York, 1994, page 131-134

[17] Falk, Richard, ‘Global Civil Society: Perspectives, Initatives, Movements’, Oxford Development Studies, 26:1, 1998, page 99

[18] Op cit, Chaichian, page 20-21


ISBN (eBook)
File size
565 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
The Australian National University
Global Civil Society Third



Title: Global Civil Society - Third force in which direction? Or,the implicit contradiction of an idea