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The False Dawn of Civil Society | The Nation

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The False Dawn of Civil Society

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All the major nations seem to have emerged from the cold war weaker and more incoherent than they were when they entered it. And for good reason. The course of the world economy has been deeply subversive of the established structures of power. But as Robert Hormats, the vice chairman of Goldman, Sachs & Co. International, observed, nobody controls globalization--certainly not national governments, as was demonstrated by the inability of the British government in 1992 to protect the value of the British pound against speculators led by George Soros.

About the Author

David Rieff
David Rieff, a New York–based journalist, is the author of eight books. He is working on a book about the global...

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Such perceived and real loss of power has been followed by a loss of legitimacy. It is now politicians who are the supplicants and corporate executives who are viewed as the dispensers of wisdom and authority and the holders of real power. The European Union countries were not able to muster the resolve to end the Bosnian war, but they were able to launch European monetary union at the behest of corporate Europe--an event that in many ways was European capitalism's end run around a half-century-old social contract between capital and labor, now seen to be interfering with the corporate bottom line.

In the United States, a renewed ethnic consciousness has led to what seems like a flowering of a multiplicity of allegiances; in Western Europe, the subsumption of nation-states in the project of the European Union, as well as the arrival of large numbers of nonwhite immigrants for the first time in several centuries, has produced similarly subversive effects on the legitimacy of the nation.

Faced with such confusions, is it any wonder that the ideal of civil society, which does not seek to oppose this fragmentation but rather to capitalize on it, should have become so important? Add to this civil society's seeming moral dimension, and the stew becomes well-nigh irresistible.

Furthermore, this blend of economic and democratic determinism has combined easily with a deep fatalism about the future of the nation-state. Political scientists constantly assure us that we have been going through the most profound change in international relations since the establishment of the Westphalian order in the seventeenth century. Nations have been clearly less and less able to affect investment flows and have thus been judged to be turning into hollow shells. And the future of supranational institutions like the UN system is seen as being, if anything, bleaker still. Better make a virtue of necessity and insist that the new medievalism of civil society, with the NGOs playing the role of the guilds in fourteenth-century Italy, would be an improvement over a world of etiolated nation-states in which even that sine qua non of state power, a monopoly on violence, is in many cases no longer assured.

A world in which the Enlightenment project of universal values seems to have been reduced to human rights activists' demands for more stringent and binding international legal regimes was bound to be drawn to a faith in localism and single-issue activism. In fairness, the perception of the weakening of the nation and of the impotence of international organizations has not been mistaken. What has been misplaced is the belief that a network of associations could accomplish what states could not.

Proponents of the effectiveness of civil society point to examples of the successful opposition of popular action to repressive regimes or state policies. People power in the Philippines, the Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, the recent campaign to ban landmines--these are the great success stories of civil society. But it was always an empirical stretch to claim that these historic events were proof that human betterment would henceforth mainly be the product of the struggles of dissidents and grassroots activists.

The idea of civil society has been most coherent when applied to nations where citizens needed protection from a repressive state, as was the case in the Soviet empire. But in other parts of the world this paradigm is either irrelevant or of distinctly secondary importance. There are parts of Africa where a stronger state, one that could bring the various bandits and insurgents to heel, might be of far greater value. It's tempting to add that the United States, after more than two decades of seemingly inexorable privatization, is a country where strengthening the state's role would be preferable to hoping that NGOs will somehow be able to take up the slack.

The suggestion that civil society can cope where nations have failed is, in fact, a counsel of despair in such instances. Without a treasury, a legislature or an army at its disposal, civil society is less equipped to confront the challenges of globalization than nations are, and more likely to be wracked by divisions based on region and the self-interest of the single-issue groups that form the nucleus of the civil society movement.

Why should fragmented groups of like-minded individuals be more effective in, say, resisting the depredations of environmental despoilers than a national government? Remember, the ideal of civil society is being advanced not simply for the developed world, where to a large extent it exists already, but for the world as a whole. And yet, as we know from bitter experience, the leverage of grassroots activists even in the United States, where there are courts to turn to and media to beguile, is not enormous. One can admire the efforts and sacrifices of activists in the poor world without losing sight of the fact that their countries would be better off with honest and effective governments and legal systems, and with militaries that stay in their barracks, than with denser networks of local associations, which may stand for good values or hideous ones.

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