By Nicola Bullard
When thousands of peaceful protestors shut down the WTO meeting in Seattle last year, the rich and the powerful realised that they had a problem. Not only were the dissenting voices were getting louder and better organised, but even some of the formerly consenting voices were being raised in anger. Something had to be done, and quickly!

At first the police in Seattle tried to dampen the protestors with tear gas and brute force. Not only didn’t this work but it guaranteed media and public sympathy for the vast majority of peaceful protestors. Clearly a different tack was needed, something more subtle. The broad outlines of this new approach had been emerging before Seattle, but the elements of the strategy became clear only in the weeks following the ministerial meltdown.

At first, everyone from Mike Moore, director general of the WTO, to Klaus Schwab, president of the World Economic Forum and the inspiration behind the annual gathering of the global elite in Davos, talked about ‘engaging civil society’. For Moore what happened in Seattle was a public relations problem. People are simply uninformed or, in his terms, we are suffering from ‘globaphobia.’ All we need is to have our fears allayed and our faith (appropriately enough) in globalisation restored.

Others, such as World Bank President James Wolfensohn and US President Clinton, responded by promising ‘globalisation with a human face’ by which they mean… Well, who knows what they mean. It sounds like the same old song to me, except that there are some new verses about good governance, poverty alleviation and civil society participation.

But from other quarters, there has been some harsh criticism of civil society, and of NGOs in particular. This comes from the media (of the English language press, The Economist and the Financial Times stand out) and even from ‘Third Way’ politicians such as the UK’s secretary for development cooperation Clare Short. Amongst their charges they accuse the protestors in Seattle of working against the interests of the poor, imposing a ‘Northern’ agenda on the South, and even of undermining the legitimacy of elected governments from the Third World. This view is captured perfectly by The Economist cover photograph of a young Indian girl with the headline ‘The real losers from Seattle.’ Apparently the UK government and the establishment press know what is in the interests of poor people.

All of this is contradictory and deliberately so. What we are seeing is the application of the tried and true strategy of ‘divide and rule.’ The goal is simple: to split civil society into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘civil’ and ‘uncivil’. The ‘good’ are those who accept the overall direction of globalisation (with a few adjustment here and there, such as environmental and labour clauses in trade agreements) and behave nicely when they are invited to meet with the rich and powerful. The ‘bad’ ones are those who don’t. And by manipulating the divisions within civil society (which do exist, of course) they aim to marginalise and weaken the progressive elements, that is, those of us who fundamentally disagree with the current allocation of economic and political power.

What is civil society?

The term ‘civil society’ has become almost meaningless in popular usage and at best it is a very loose term meaning different things to different people. What is useful for our purposes is civil society as a political idea and, in this context, Gramsci’s idea of civil society is key.

Antonio Gramsci, one of Italy’s greatest gifts to the modern world, conceptualised civil society as one element in a three-part framework comprising the state, the economy and civil society.(1) He saw civil society as the primary locus for creating ideology, for building consensus and for legitimising power, that is, for creating and maintaining the cultural and social hegemony of the dominant group by consent rather than coercion.

In his view, civil society is not benign or neutral, nor is it the ‘moral compass’ that points governments and corporations in the right direction. It is the arena where conflicting interests (that is, class interests) are contested and, short of direct domination and coercion, the state and the market must gain the consent of civil society for their legitimacy. In the end, whoever captures ‘civil society’ captures all.

In this there are two essential elements. First, the class dimension which recognises that civil society is made up of competing groups, each vying to protect and promote their own interests. Second, and related, is that dominant groups (in our case, those who benefit from neo-liberal globalisation) will use certain groups in civil society to gain legitimacy, and they will attempt to discredit, silence or dismantle those who withhold consent or challenge their power. Understanding this makes it much easier to understand why the rich and the powerful are suddenly so interested in ‘civil society.’ It also explains the apparently contradictory attitude of the elite who, at one moment talk about ‘engaging civil society’ but, in the same breath, discredit certain groups by claiming that they are not representative or democratic, or that they are property destroying anarchists, or that they are working against the interests of poor people, or that they are trying to assume the role of the state, or that they are pursuing narrow interests, and so on, and so on.

Some of these claims we should take seriously. Many of us work for non-government organisations and we should question the role and the position that we have assumed for ourselves: Who do we represent? What are our interests? To whom are we accountable? Are we simply perpetuating the dominant system by playing out the roles assigned to us? Do we act as filters and interpreters of other peoples’ voices, and in so doing, stop those voices from being heard in their authentic language? Are we willing to give up our privileged positions and declare whose side we are on?

But most of this criticism self-serving, a part of the ‘divide and rule’ strategy. More importantly, though, we have to remember that these are the very questions that corporations and governments have failed to answer.

The many voices of civil society

Civil society does not have one voice: they are many and diverse but we do not always hear that diversity. Often the voices of the North drown out the voices of the South. And here I am not referring to the geographic North and South, or even to the traditional North South divide as a product of imperialism, but an emerging North-South paradigm.

This new paradigm grows out of the view that neo-liberal globalisation produces winners and losers in both the traditional North and in the traditional South, and that political analysis and action must emerge from an understanding of the interaction between specific local circumstances and the wider international setting. In this sense, then, solutions will need to be both cosmopolitan and communitarian, to marry universal values and solidarity with a commitment to pluralism, diversity, self-organisation and self-determination. And we do not all share the same objectives or even political views.

A good example of this is the issue of labour rights clauses in the WTO. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the American Confederation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) are at the forefront of a campaign to insert core labour rights into the WTO regime. They argue that this will protect workers and stop the ‘race to the bottom.’

At first glance this seems like a good idea: of course workers should be protected. But a second, more critical, look shows that the strategy is deeply flawed. First, by pursuing this objective through the WTO the ICFTU is conferring legitimacy on an international economic system which – at every other turn – squeezes and exploits workers. Second, it disregards the fact that many of the WTO agreements prohibit or restrict the power of national governments to implement policies which would improve the conditions for the mass of workers, especially those in the agricultural sector who comprise 59 per cent of the workforce in the Third World. Finally, and critically, it completely ignores the decisive role of footloose capital in keeping wages low and pitting worker against worker.

While governments on both sides manipulate the debate to gain political mileage, organised labour is using the ‘core labour standards’ campaign to protect the interests of its members, especially those of First World workers whose jobs are threatened by cheaper Third World labour. While packaging self-interest as solidarity is disingenuous, no one can criticise the ICFTU for looking after its members. But the ICFTU represents a tiny (and relatively privileged) minority of the world’s workers and we cannot expect it to find the solution to unemployment in the South. We need to challenge their strategies and, at the same time, find ways of mobilising all workers in solidarity, rather than a few through sanctions.

The beginnings of an alternative approach exist. Some members of the AFL-CIO, such as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, national unions such as the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions and organisations of predominantly Third World workers, such as the International Fishers Collective, see that there’s a bigger struggle going on, over who controls the economies of developing countries, and what development program they can follow. These are the groups with whom we should be forming long-term political alliances while at the same time trying to shift the policies and positions of the dominant labour organisations.

Marriages of convenience

To date, the progressive forces in civil society have been able to work in coalitions with more conservative, or even occasionally hostile, parties to achieve short term political objectives (for example, the alliance between the progressive NGOs in the US and the far right in Congress to limit President Clinton’s discretionary power to ‘fast track’ trade liberalisation.) But these ‘marriages of convenience’ are short-lived and loveless. We need long-term relationships based on solidarity, a shared vision and a shared future.

First, we need to know what we stand for (this is hard) and what we want (this is even harder!). We have to make sure that we organise ourselves in ways that embody the values we are fighting for: we must be tolerant, democratic, open and transparent in our dealings, and prepared to be accountable for what we say and do. We must be committed to education, to sharing power and to mobilising our forces for political action, and we must be prepared for the consequences of that (for example, the Greens in Germany have shown that the road from political movement to political party to politician is indeed rocky).

But, most importantly, we must acknowledge that we are involved in a struggle over power and ideas.

Corporations and the state need our endorsement; they need us to vote for them, to buy their products, to pay our taxes, in short, to ‘play the game’. What scares them most is the ‘uncivil’ civil society – and I don’t only mean the anarchists who understand the powerful symbolism of property (and of its destruction) — but any group which threatens the status quo.

And they do have something to fear. In the past four or five years some tremendously important mass movements and social organisations have emerged which are rooted in a thoroughgoing and sharp critique of the human and environmental destructiveness of neo-liberalism.

They include the National Alliance of Peoples Movements in India, the Landless Movement (MST) in Brazil, the Forum of the Poor in Thailand, the international peasants’ alliance La Via Campesina, the emerging international network of ATTAC, spreading from France to Senegal to Brasil, the Jubilee movement, the indigenous peoples of Ecuador who held power for three hours in January this year, and the Zapatistas. (2)

These mass organisations are also part of civil society, but they are the part that keeps the corporate executives and politicians awake at night because they are the voice of the people. They reject the status quo, they do not think that globalisation can be given a ‘human face’ and they do not believe that simply linking labour and environmental clauses to the WTO will solve the problems of jobless growth, mass unemployment and poverty, insecurity and environmental devastation.

All over the world, there are peoples’ organisations grounded in their daily struggles and experiences, but sharing a common analysis of the destructive anti-people and anti-nature forces of global capitalism. These experiences are not confined to the South. Many in the rich North, in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, know how it is to be without a job, without a home, without power, and to have culture and community replaced with consumerism and competition – these are the common experiences of people everywhere.

Accommodation or alternatives?

After Seattle, the system is looking very shaky: the WTO and the International Monetary Fund are in crisis, the EU-US are squabbling over trade and who gets to be boss of what, and no one dares think about what will happen when the Wall Street bubble bursts. The Good Ship Globalisation is sailing in rough and uncharted seas.

Meanwhile, civil society is being courted by the international institutions, the UN agencies and governments and even by corporations, all of them are hoping to shore-up support for their agenda. Certain groups in civil society will always support the establishment, and others will find an accommodation.

However, for many millions of people it is not a question of finding an accommodation, it is a question of finding an alternative. This will not happen through wishful thinking or moral virtue. What we need is a political programme and a political strategy.

Civil society is political and we are part of that politics. If we really want things to change, we have to start by breaking the old rules, and by being a lot more ‘uncivil.’

* Nicola Bullard is the deputy director of Focus on the Global South, an international non-government policy research and advocacy organisation based in Bangkok, Thailand. This paper was presented at the Manitese Congress ‘Nuove regole per il nuovo millennio,’ Florence, Italy, 18-20 March 2000.

(1) Cohen, Jean L. and Arato, Andrew (1992), Civil Society and Political Theory, Chapter 3. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London , England.

(2) See Patrick Bond’s excellent paper ‘Their Reforms or Ours: The Balance of Forces and Economic Analysis that Inform a New Global Financial Architecture,’ in Bullard, Bello and Malhotra (eds.) Global Finance: New Thinking on Regulating Speculative Capital Markets, Zed Books, London