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Global Civil Society and Global Justice

Global civil society organisations in their quest to ensure global justice for the deprived, the marginalised, and, especially, the victims of globalisation, have succeeded in drawing the world's attention to an impressive extent. However, the imperatives of global justice must configure the presence of the other essential factor that can ensure a just world: democracy. In their endeavour to seek justice and to "speak for" the victims, civil society organisations must also extend to their subjects, the voice to express and shape their own agenda.


Global Civil Society and Global Justice

Global civil society organisations in their quest to ensure global justice for the deprived, the marginalised, and, especially, the victims of globalisation, have succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to an impressive extent. However, the imperatives of global justice must configure the presence of the other essential factor that can ensure a just world: democracy. In their endeavour to seek justice and to “speak for” the victims, civil society organisations must also extend to their subjects, the voice to express and shape their own agenda.


hat would global civil society (GCS) look like if we were to conceive of it visually? It would probably appear as a gigantic marketplace in which various ideas, projects, causes, issues, campaigns and movements are on offer; the space of perchance limitless political options, and the sphere in which activists and democrats can choose which particular mast they would like to hoist their flag onto. A word of caution may be necessary at this point: like any space in which multiple projects unfold, global civil society is both plural and contested. Not all projects sit comfortably with each other, many speak past each other, others jostle with each other, and yet others are involved in struggles for hegemony. The politics of GCS is about the politics of affirmation as well as that of conflictridden encounters, the politics of solidarity as well as that of confrontation. Here we see protests against globalisation as well as struggles that seek to render globalisation softer. Kaldor, for instance, accepts that only a few of the protestors at the by now famous “battle for Seattle” were actually against globalisation; the others wanted to reform international trade and financial institutions as well as make them accountable.1 And the same phenomenon is echoed at various World Social Forums. “Another world is possible”, goes the slogan. However, according to one newspaper report, “delegates bristle at the WSF being called the ‘anti-globalisation’ meet”. They argue that they are not meeting here to register protests but to work out concrete proposals that will be superior to what will be floated at the New York meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF).2

But this is what the generic concept of civil society is about; civil societies possess no one attribute, no one core, and no one moral disposition. Civil societies are spaces which house a mélange of different projects. This may be the strength of civil society; it is also possibly one of its major weaknesses. For if the forte of civil society is openness and accessibility, then can we assume that everything that is good makes it way into civil society, and that other not so desirable projects are barred entry? I am reluctant to believe this, much as I would like to, simply because some of the most odious and openly fascist comments against religious minorities in India, are to be found in cyber-networks which bring non-resident and resident Indians together in the politics of resentful and angry majoritarianism. And that global networks also connect patriarchal, racist, and “terrorist” groups is not unknown.

In other words, there is nothing intrinsically democratic about civil society. Civil society has to be rendered democratic in and through sustained engagement with undemocratic groups. It is this precise understanding of civil society; as a deeply contested domain that had been foregrounded by Hegel. For Hegel, the inhabitant of civil society is the “concrete person who is a totality of wants and a mixture of caprice and physical necessity”.3 Here, emancipated from familial bonds, men tend to follow their own gratification and behave selfishly. The project of civil society can easily be wrecked. Yet modern bourgeois society provides the means of its own redemption. In the course of the actual attainment of selfish ends...there is formed a system of complete interdependence, wherein the livelihood, happiness, and legal status of one man is interwoven with the livelihood, happiness, and rights of all.4 This countervailing tendency in civil society enables universality to moderate and prevail over rank selfishness. But this principle of universality, suggests Hegel, is implicit rather than explicit, implied rather than articulated and recognised. It, therefore, needs to be consolidated and institutionalised through a system of mediations. The space for the reconciliation between distinct and even incompatible projects of particularity and universality is civil society. For these reasons civil society is the theatre of history.5

Let us, for the argumentative moment at least, wish away the uncomfortable fact that “actually existing” global civil society is not only plural but also polarised and disconnected, and hoist our particular flag onto campaigns for human rights, humanitarian aid, anti-war, anti-nuclearisation, anti-poverty, and anti-authoritarianism, all of which seek to deepen democracy. These campaigns (I am reluctant to term them social movements because the groups involved in these campaigns do not politicise people or search for a mass base) can be considered to be democratic, but considering that practices often, if not invariably, deflect from the text, should democrats not be engaging with this activism from the vantage point of the concept of democracy? This of course begs the question: what exactly are we speaking of when we speak of democracy? And what is the vantage point that our preferred version of democracy brings to bear on the evaluation of global civil society? I deal with this question in the latter part of the paper, here let me hasten to add that to critically engage with the practices of global civil society from the perspective of democracy, howsoever partial this perspective may be, is not to suggest that we would be better off without activism in this sphere and of this sphere. Much of this activism has made the world less horrid, less exploitative, and less gloomy for the inhabitants of the south.

However as Gramsci had warned us, whereas civil society is a necessary prerequisite of democracy, actually existing civil societies do not always promote democracy. Gramsci had argued that the state institutionalises invisible, intangible and subtle forms of power through multiple social practices in civil society, through educational, cultural and religious systems and other related institutions for instance. Political society disciplines the body through its penal codes and prisons, but civil society disciplines the mind and the psyche.6 For this reason, civil societies, particularly global civil society which exerts so much influence over us, have to be appraised from the perspective of what the basic presuppositions of democracy are. This is what this essay seeks to do.

I Global Justice and Global Civil Society

The concept and the practices of global civil society have been in much of current literature, associated with globalisation, global governance, and cosmopolitan democracy.7 I would suggest that the deeper logic that informs activism in global civil society is that of global justice. Why would activists and international NGOs (INGOs) spend much of their time and physical and mental energy struggling for justice for the worse off in remote parts of the world, unless their activism was inspired by a deep sense of obligation towards the impoverished, the oppressed, and the marginalised? Certainly the rich conceptual domain of global justice cannot be reduced to the practices of agents in GCS. In any case, practices prove a poor measure for engagement with theory, simply because practitioners seldom stick to the script authored by reflective and critical philosophers. Yet engagement with these practices might conceivably aid us in adding some, perhaps significant, footnotes to these theories. Undoubtedly these footnotes might not appear all that significant to philosophers who are involved in the time-consuming and back-breaking task of trying to summon up a more just world. But as a fellow traveller, who is simply fed up with excessive theoretical concentration on closed and claustrophobic ethnic communities as an alternative to the depredations of the nation state, and who is in search of wider horizons of human commitment, I might just have the right to add such a footnote. Let me at least try.

Though the concept of global justice has been approached from different perspectives, philosophers generally agree on the following three interrelated and overlapping propositions. One, that our commitments to others cannot be confined to members of our own national community, simply because national borders are arbitrary and therefore morally irrelevant. Besides in today’s globalised world, our lives in some way or another touch the lives of people who are the unknown and perhaps the unknowable. As O’Neill argues, each of us pursues our interests and goals in full consciousness that others do the same, within the space of shared practices and specific institutions. Our pursuit of interests is, in part, based upon the actions of others insofar as we are dependent upon them, because we formulate our goals and our tasks and our expectations of outcomes in the context of other human beings. In a world of global interconnectedness, the scope of the actors we implicitly assume in many of our actions is global. Our actions are conditioned by and contribute to institutions that affect others, and their actions contribute to the functioning of institutions that affect us. “In our world, action and interaction at a distance are possible. Huge numbers of distant strangers may be benefited or harmed, even sustained or destroyed, by our actions, and especially by our institutionally embodied action, or inaction. Perhaps we have obligations not only to nearby but to distant strangers, or rights against them. Many people – let us call them (loosely) cosmopolitans – think that we have such rights and obligations, and that justice extends beyond borders”.8 Because our actions assume others as conditions for our actions, we have made moral commitments to these persons.

Secondly, as Pogge9 in great detail and to great effect has told us, transnational social structures, which govern the multiple transactions of an interconnected world, are heavily tilted in favour of the already advantaged and against those persons who are already disadvantaged. Since the central idea of moral cosmopolitanism is “that every human being has a global stature as an ultimate unit of moral concern,” those of “us” who are committed to justice, would do well to try and rectify these wrongs. This can be done in two ways, by (a) critiquing unjust global arrangements, and (b) by recognising our obligations to those who suffer the consequences of this highly inequitable world order. Thirdly, it is time that the principles of justice, originally designed for national communities are extended to people across borders.10 In short cosmopolitan philosophers argue that there is a deep asymmetry in the global sphere inasmuch as some people are rendered more vulnerable to coercion, domination, and deprivation by structured relations. Whereas everyone in the system of structural and institutional relations stands in circumstances of justice that give them obligations with respect to all the others, those who are situated in positions that allow them to do more to ameliorate the conditions of the vulnerable, should do so.11

I think these formulations have wrought a marvellous transformation in the way we conceive of our relationship to others, who might well be the unfamiliar, the unknown, and the potentially unknowable, but to whom we are connected in various ways, by globalised structures of production and reproduction of material, symbolic, and cultural goods, and by unfair structures of international institutions which favour the already fortunate and disfavour the already unfortunate. Our obligations to others stem from the fact that we are unable to conceive of ourselves, our projects, our values, in abstraction from other human beings wherever they may be situated in terms of national communities. The problem, however, is that some human beings are unable to pursue their own projects. They are condemned to, at the most, aiding other persons when they seek to realise their own projects.

Let me put this point across in another way. We value human beings, simply because human beings are capable of making their own histories, even if the history they make is not the one they chose to make in the first instance. But numerous human beings are simply not in a position to make their own histories; they are but compelled to provide support structures that enable other privileged human beings to make their histories. Think of ill-paid children and women who work in unhygienic and badly lit sweat shops in the metaphorical “Third World”. Their life job is to help others – the owner of the sweatshop who wreaks a profit out of

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007 cheap child labour, the trader who exchanges products for a profit, and the shop owner in search of profit – realise their own life plans. What do we owe these human beings, what do we owe undernourished children who work in the export-oriented carpet factories of India because the owners of these factories refuse to employ adults? What do we owe families of farmers who have committed suicide in India in the last two years because the state bound by a global contract not to subsidise farmers in the third world, has drawn back from its obligations to the rural poor? And what do we owe workers in the abusive, revolting and dehumanising informal sector, who fulfil the desires of customers at home and abroad for designer items?

There are two ways in which we can answer this question, and both these ways are not exclusive of each other. We could argue, firstly, that those who are in a position to make their own histories, or at least those who benefit from the ways in which our collective histories are made, are obliged to those who lose out because

(a) the latter are unable to make their histories, and (b) because they have lost out in the collective histories that are produced and reproduced in and through a myriad of transactions, some material, others symbolic, and yet others midway between the material and the symbolic.12 Secondly, we could believe, with some justification, that our life job is to think out the ways in which the victims of history can realise agency, so that they can speak back to a history which is not of their making. Though the two resolutions of this question are not exclusive and unconnected, I suspect that the main thrust of global civil society activism lies in the answer to the first question, and pays scant heed to the latter. There may be very good reasons for this choice, I am here more concerned with the implications of this choice. One of these implications is that a preoccupation with obligations can crowd out other dimensions of the human condition. These dimensions are best discerned through an inquiry into the practices of global civil society.

Consolidation of Global Civil Society

Global civil society has heralded, according to many scholars, a major shift in world politics in a number of ways.13 For one, by mobilising against multilateral institutions in particular, and globalisation in general, international NGOs who tend to dominate global civil society have foregrounded the tremendous imbalances of the world system. The most dramatic manifestation of global civil society was to appear in what came to be known as the “battle for Seattle”. At the end of November 1999, massive protests involving some 700 organisations and about 40,000 students, workers, NGOs, religious groups, and representatives of business and finance brought the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) at Seattle to a shuddering halt. The WTO was prepared to set in motion a new multilateral round of trade negotiations. But collective anger at the relocation of industries to the south, at the unsafe and abusive work conditions in the factories and sweatshops found there, at environmental degradation, and at widespread exploitation, which exploded in a series of angry demonstrations, brought this to a stop. These demonstrations were hailed by some scholars as “globalisation from below” or as the herald of a new internationalism.14

There were two aspects of the “battle for Seattle” that proved significant for the consolidation of global civil society. First, for the first time hitherto single-issue groups coalesced into a broad-based movement to challenge the way the world trade and financial system was being ordered by international institutions. Second, whereas in the late 1960s protest groups in the US and in western Europe had targeted the state, at Seattle they targeted global corporations and international economic institutions. The protests themselves bore the mark of collective ire and resentment at the way in which globalisation, which had been set in motion two decades earlier, had intensified inequality and injustice. And matters did not stop here. Mass protests have become a regular feature of annual meetings of the WEF, the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO.

For instance in July 2005, angry antiglobalisation protestors fought a running battle with the police, as the G-8 or the leaders of the richest nations gathered in Gleneagles for the purpose of tackling poverty in Africa. Several activists attacked shops and businesses that they saw as symbols of unbridled globalisation; and others accused leaders of the developed world of exploiting the issue of poverty to improve their own images. Hundreds of protestors planned to lay siege to the venue of the summit, even as Bob Geldof, the pop celebrity who spearheaded the campaign, vowed to snatch victory for the cause. The meet was presaged by concerts to focus attention on the persistence of poverty in the countries of the south particularly sub-Saharan Africa. A web site, www.g8rally, allowed people to participate in an online protest. By the first day of the meet on July 7, 2005, more than 65,000 people had signed the protest circulated on the web site.15 From June 68, 2007, even as the leaders of the G-8 met in Heiligendamm, Germany for the annual summit, a series of protests, which had swept the world in the months leading to the meeting, threatened to wreck the meet. The venue of the meeting was closed off to the outside world, and no one could approach it by air, sea or land. Novel methods and vocabularies of protest against unjust processes of globalisation have captured the attention of the international media, and generated considerable excitement at the idea of renewed political activism. And the phrase “global civil society” has become an integral part of political, corporate, and technical vocabularies.

The other issue that has been catapulted onto the global agenda is that of norm setting. Traditionally, states, holding aloft the banner of sovereignty and state security, have resisted any intervention by outside agencies in matters concerning their own citizens. Today global civil society actors act as guardians of a morally informed consensus on the minimum that is due to human beings, across borders. For this reason alone, global civil society agents, particularly INGOs, have acquired tremendous legitimacy and authority as upholders of a moral canon16 against power hungry states and profit-driven markets. It is not surprising that when global human rights organisations speak, the rest of us, particularly those of us who live in the south, listen. When these organisations suggest (through non-targeting) that human rights are alive and kicking in our part of the world, we are reassured. And when human rights INGOs testify that violations of rights have taken place in a particular country at a particular time, the government of that country has reason to quake. And it should quake, but that is not the issue at hand.

The issue at hand is a different one. Activists in global civil society claim to “stand in” for the inhabitants of worlds scarred by exploitation, poverty, and illbeing, and claim to speak for their interests. It would definitely be churlish to dismiss these claims, but perhaps we as democrats concerned about the moral standing of persons in conceptual and moral frameworks, need to ask this particular question: what is the status that is accorded to persons whose needs and interests are being represented in global civil society? After all INGOs more often than not have their own ideas of what should be done and how should it be done, what constitutes a human rights violation and what does not, how environmental issues need to be tackled, and how women and other marginal sections should be empowered. INGOs more often than not have their own pre-programmed agendas, they more often than not speak a highly specialised language that may well be incomprehensible for the inhabitants of the very worlds which they “speak for”, and they definitely have their own ideas of what is politically permissible and what is not. Do persons whose needs are being “represented” have any voice in the forging of these agendas?

On the contrary, human beings who have experienced injustice in their daily lives are perhaps denied the opportunity to frame their responses in their own terms, on their own ground, and in their own languages, simply because the political initiative has been hijacked by often bureaucratic and well-organised INGOs. To phrase the point starkly, associational activity at the global level tends to acquire a life of its own, a life that may well be quite distinct from the everyday lives of persons who do not speak but who are spoken for. People are arguably disempowered rather than empowered when highly specialised, professional, civil society actors tell them what is wrong with their daily existence and how they should go about resolving the problems of their collective lives.17

Admittedly, some global civil society actors have initiated novel ways of bringing the problems of everyday existence of poor and impoverished people of the third world onto international platforms, and propelling them into the glare of the media spotlight. But can all this substitute for an activity we call democratic politics? This question of course begs another question, what is democracy about? Let us briefly turn to the idea of democracy to see what is being missed out in the general euphoria of global civil society.

The Idea of Democracy

Democracy is of course the elusive concept in the vocabulary of political theory; the veritable will o’ the wisp, which defies most endeavours to pin it down in either neat categories or definitions. Focus on minimalist conception of democracy; that democracy establishes peaceful procedures for the transfer of power from one set of elites to another, and we are confronted with the troubled question – is that all that there is to democracy? Is it enough that citizens come out of their homes, their workplaces, and their recreational spaces to vote for their preferred representatives once in five years, and then withdraw from the public realm? Or we can argue that substantive democracy is about equality and freedom, rights and justice at every site of human interaction, whether the household, the workplace, or social associations. But then, what is so distinctive about the field, the activity, and the project of politics in the democratic mode?

Though, always, the fuzzy line between politics in the public domain and politics in the private domain, has been successfully challenged by feminists, as well as those who confront social marginality in the form of race, class, or ethnicity, arguably the rules of every activity in society are set by an activity the ancient Greeks called “political”.18 For unless the political sets appropriate rules, workplaces or the family might not have a whiff of a chance to achieve democracy. Correspondingly, it is at the site of the political that particular and discrete projects of a society are able to realise coherence.

Let me phrase the point this way; a given society consists of a number of distinct projects, say, the household, the economy, the public sphere of civil society, and culture. But society is not a sum of these distinct projects; it is not an additive entity, simply because the political lends unity to projects marked by different sorts of activity. This is because the political provides a broad framework for these activities. Various projects are rendered coherent because political activity seeks to

(a) unearth and hold up for inspection rules that govern the social whole, (b) interrogate and engage with these rules if necessary, and (c) move towards the forging of new rules that are just, precisely because they are oriented around normative values such as freedom, equality, rights, and justice. Conversely, the process of sighting rules, interrogating them, reworking and constituting new rules grounded in justice, freedom, equality and rights, is what constitutes the political in a democratic mode. The search for new rules, which are politically feasible as well as normative, sets the frame for other activities: social, economic, cultural, and even personal.19 Democratic rules, in other words, enable us to interrogate as well as recast practices in discrete fields of human activity.

But, rules, howsoever normative they might be, cannot be produced and reproduced once and for all. There is, in democratic politics, no notion of an original Hobbesian social contract which binds citizens in perpetuity. The terms of the contract have to be constantly renegotiated, even as new insights on what it means to be a citizen in a democratic world emerge onto political horizons. Is the right to private property an absolute good, or should it be balanced by social well being? Should a democracy promote the rights of cultural communities to maintain and replicate their distinct practices? And if so, what is the relationship between the right of the individual to freedom, and the rights of cultural communities? How do we resolve the tension between the right of society to benefit from goods such as energy and irrigation which big development projects bring in their wake, and the right of communities that are displaced, to their habitat? Should capital punishment be outlawed in civilised societies? Should a society officially sanction abortion, euthanasia, or pornography?

These are contentious questions and need to be debated at different times and places, in light of fresh perceptions, and the fashioning of new political angles on the issue. Democratic politics is not static, it is processual. Notably, it is not that important that a democratic political community arrives at a final decision on various issues, it is more important that participants keep a dialogue going. For it is precisely participation in shared discourses that is of value because it allows citizens to make their own histories, and makes for agency because it allows these citizens to speak back to a history which is not of their making. Secondly, political activity encourages citizens, who may be otherwise, far removed from each other by the exigencies of everyday life, to come together and participate in a shared discourse on what a good society is, and how it can be realised. Economies, societies, and cultures might well divide people, but democratic practices enable citizens to transcend constructed divisions and symbolic boundaries; howsoever invisible and symbolic these boundaries may be. Thirdly, participation in a shared, public, and accessible discourse, establishes the “political

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007 competence” of ordinary men and women. This again is valuable, because the activity establishes that it is not the state that has monopoly over definitions of what is democratic, the political public can do so as well, and perhaps better. Fourthly, participation compels state accountability. It is difficult to think of modern states, possessing as they do, an inexorable “will to power”, voluntarily submitting report cards to citizens, unless a strong and vigilant press, public opinions, campaigns, and movements compel them to do so.

This notion of democracy might perchance help us to answer the question raised above – what are the other dimensions of the human experience that we need to take note of? What do human beings dream of, need, and aspire for? Though there are no easy answers to these questions; it seems to me that liberal theory provides us with one answer: human beings desire to pursue projects which make their lives worthwhile. To repeat the point made above, human beings desire not only to make their own history; they wish to negotiate histories not of their own making in order to effect the transformation from subject to agent. Democracy promotes this particular end because it lays down procedures and establishes institutions, so that human beings can participate in the making of decisions that affect their individual and collective lives.

This may not always happen, and states which claim democratic credentials can prove alarmingly constricting, but then democracy is a project, which does not have a determinate end because citizens inspired by democracy are constantly in search of new possibilities, new goals, and new strategies that can help seek emancipation from all that hampers the human spirit. Like all projects, the project of democracy requires as an essential precondition intentional and purposeful action by ordinary citizens in the space of civil society. And it is this purposeful intentional action that makes for aware and self-confident human beings because these human beings acquire agency in and through politics. And thereby ordinary men and women make the transition from subject to citizen.

Of course a direct relationship between the citizens and the state, or direct participation in political activity, the way Aristotle conceived of it for instance, may well be a non-starter for three reasons. For one, most societies are too large and too complex to admit of direct participation, secondly demands/perspectives/interests are plural as well as conflicting, and thirdly the specialised and highly inscrutable nature of modern legislation, and administration, proscribes direct control over policy. Consequently, interests need to be represented by an agent who mediates between the two basic protagonists of our democratic text, the citizen and the state. For these reasons, the representative forms the key player in democratic systems. Democracy is presumed on a triadic relationship between (a) citizens, or rather the interests citizens hold and assert in, and sometimes against, the body politic, (b) the democratic state, the legitimacy of which institution is premised upon its responsiveness to popular demands, and (c) the representative who mediates between citizens and the state. Although representation has chronologically preceded democratic participation, guilds, aristocracies, and professional groups have been represented in proto-democracies (for example in the English Parliament, before the extension of universal suffrage), ever since the establishment of full blown democracy, democracy has been seen synonymous with representative democracy.

On the other hand, the institutionalisation of representative democracy has propelled anxious questions about representation: how is the representative expected to discharge his or her mandate, as an advocate, as a mediator, or as a proxy? Since a given constituency will necessarily contain plural and oft conflicting opinions, perspectives, needs, and interests, how does our representative go about representing these plural interests in forums of decisionmaking? Do agents in the business of representation represent all these interests, or do they filter through the brew of interests, privilege some, downgrade others, articulate some, and leave others unarticulated? That is, do not representatives exercise an enormous degree of autonomy, and thereby power, when they select which of these interests is to be represented? Is this choice perchance dictated by party agendas? And what of the interests that remain unrepresented? Are these interests, perhaps those of the disprivileged sections of society – women, the poor, ethnic minorities, and in India the lower castes

– fated to be unrepresented in and through the power equations of a particular society. For it is well nigh impossible that representatives are untouched by power equations, which constitute societies, and which thereby influence all arenas of human activity. Moreover, are representatives capable of advocating the interests of that section of the constituency to which they do not belong? Can, for instance, a male representative put forth the interests of women? Is it possible for him to understand women’s life experiences before or even as he represents her needs and interests? Can an upper class/caste representative do justice to the interests of the lower classes/castes? Can someone belonging to the majority community even comprehend the needs, desires, and aspirations, or indeed the oppression of ethnic minorities?

Whatever be the doubts expressed about the satisfactoriness and the competence of modes of representation, anxieties about questions about representation are always concerned about deepening democracy. How best can we ensure citizen participation? How best can we assure that the representative represents the multiplicity of opinions, particularly the voices of the marginalised which are articulated in the participative sphere of democratic politics? How can we make certain that citizens and their interests are best represented, and through what procedures and modalities? The constant fear among democrats is that representatives might water down democracy. Today the paradox of contemporary democracy is constituted by the fact that whereas representatives have not proven democratic, agents in global civil society particularly INGOs, which are in the business of deepening democracy, are not concerned with representation or indeed with the antecedent activity of democratic participation.

For it is precisely participation that is devalued, when global civil actors commandeer political initiatives, and constitute human beings as consumers of agendas finalised elsewhere. For we must ask this uncomfortable question of even the most well-meaning of NGOs: who was consulted in the forging of agendas? When? And how where the persons spoken for consulted: through what procedures and through what modalities? Were they consulted at all? Do, in short, global civil society actors actually represent people, particularly of the third world? Or are they self-styled spokespersons of people who do not have even a remote chance of influencing these agendas? What we, in short, see is the collapse of the idea that ordinary men and women are capable of appropriating the political initiative. What we see is the appropriation of political programmes in favour of the agenda of the global civil society actor. Frankly, it is unclear whether INGOs strengthen or weaken the political competence of ordinary women and men.

Take the other staple of representative democracy: accountability. To whom we may ask, are the international NGOs accountable to? Witness, for instance, the response of Lori Wallach, whose organisation Public Citizen orchestrated the battle for Seattle. In an interview published in Foreign Policy, she was asked the following question: “You’re referring to the idea of democratic deficits in multilateral organisations...Some people argue that nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) like yours also have a democratic deficit – that you also lack democracy, transparency, and accountability. Who elected you to represent the people at Seattle, and why are you more influential than the elected officials...?” Her answer was the following: “Who elected Mr Moore? Who elected Charles Barshefsky? Who elected any of them?”20 This, to put it mildly, is no answer simply because it evaded the issue. In another question she was asked who the Public Citizen is responsible to. “Our members”, she replied. “How do they express their oversight?” “Through their chequebooks”, she replied, “they just stop paying their membership dues.”21 Note that no longer are people expected to realise selfhood in and through associational life, their participation is confined to the payment or withdrawal of membership dues.

We have cause for unease. For much of the leadership of global civil society organisations appears to be non-accountable to their members, many of whom are passive and confine their activism to signing petitions circulated via e-mail. Also note that, whereas we see huge crowds during demonstrations against the WTO or in alternative forums such as the World Social Forum, between such episodes, activity is carried on by a core group of NGOs. It is possible that participants in demonstrations are handed a political platform and an agenda that has been finalised elsewhere. This is hardly either democratic or even political, it may even reek of bureaucratic management of participatory events. It may even render people, as suggested above, consumers of choices made elsewhere.

We also need to wonder how democratic the organisations of global civil society are given the great inequalities of resources between the north and the south. “If western civil society is the core of global civil society, just as the western state is the core of the global state”, argues Shaw, “how do non-Western voices become heard? (…) How far can non-Western voices make themselves heard directly? In what ways are they filtered by western civil society, and how is their representation affected by the specific characteristics of western civil institutions?”22 In short, since a great many of these organisations are beyond the reach of democratic representation, the idea that a definable system of authority is even notionally answerable to the democratic will has been seriously compromised. All evidence suggests on the other hand that organisations are not internally democratic or weakly so, that they promote conformity, and that they are indifferent to notions of democratic citizenship.23

IV Wrapping Up

Though the critique of global civil society is certainly not applicable to theories of global justice, the question remains the same. According to the philosophers of global justice, the fact that we belong to a common humanity gives us enough reason to owe others who are badly off, or that living a good human life requires serving the community by helping human beings who are in need, by promoting the concept of justice and universal human rights, just political institutions, and equitable market relations. The moral commitment to helping human beings, the majority of whom belong to the postcolonial world, or the duty to help foreigners who are starving or suffering, are sharply opposed to theories which stress exclusive duties to compatriots, and reject parochial cultures. The position is unassailable, but we must, for reasons of democratic necessity, add a second string to our conceptual bow: what about the persons who have lost out? Apart from being subjects of obligations, do they have any other status in moral theory? Do they not have the right to acquire agency, to speak back to history, to make their own histories?

Certainly, the world will be a much better place if wars are prevented, if the demands of energy companies do not result in wars against oil-rich states, if human rights can be promoted, if the depredations of capitalism in eternal search of profit are held off, if poverty is abolished and the right not to be poor enacted, if the environment is made liveable for future generations, and if steady income, health, and education is provided to all in and through formulations on the globality of obligation. The world might even become democratic if people were provided with basic goods to satisfy their basic needs, so that they do not have to beg for what is rightfully theirs. But do our democratic imaginaries stop short at this? Surely democracy is much more than x owing y a deep sense of obligation, though this sentiment is certainly an essential prerequisite for a democratic society based upon equal concern and respect for other human beings. This is the minimum we expect of democracy. But democracy is also about enabling people to articulate their needs, their aspirations, their desires, their interests, and their perspectives, so that they can participate in the making of a good society. Democracy is about recognising the political competence of the public to set agendas, and to put forth alternative visions of what a desirable society looks like. Democracy is about engaging with the state, it is about the right to protest, and above all it is about the right to participate in the political domain. It is this aspect that might have gone missing in all the elegant and passionate prose on global justice.

I have little to offer by way of wrapping up this argument, in any case no argument is fully wrapped up, argumentative communities are communities of fate, condemned to replay and repeat arguments that have been conducted earlier in the same space or in other times and spaces in the same or in related guises. All that I wished to do is to unravel the global civil society argument to perceive the one factor that theories of global justice ought to take into account. This observation, let me hasten to declare, is not dictated entirely by the fact that I belong to the south in which many of the unfortunate victims of history that philosophers feel so strongly about live, though it may well be. But what is the issue is that our strongest formulations on what we owe people, can, with the best of intentions, lapse into formulations that do not conceive the recipients of obligations as actors in their own right.

There is certainly no reason why philosophers based in the west should battle with anything else than their own uneasiness at the mess created by their own countries. But coming from India where a majority of people live in utmost misery, disempowerment, and hopelessness, I am more concerned about the ways people can stand up and speak back to history. Not that they do not speak back to history,

Economic and Political Weekly July 21, 2007 perhaps we caught up in our own vocabularies given by modernity cannot recognise these voices. But I would like to see a perfectly just world, where the inhabitants of the south can also begin to think what they also owe humanity, and when they can side by side with the inhabitants of the north engage in discussions about what is a just social contract. Is this an impossible dream? Not I hope for defenders of global justice.




1 Mary Kaldor, 2000, ‘Civilising Globalisation: The Implications of the Battle of Seattle’, Millennium: A Journal of International Studies, Vol 29, No 4: 105-14, p 112.

2 The Hindu, February 3, 2002, 10.

3 G W F Hegel, 1942, The Philosophy of Right, translated T M Knox, Oxford Clarendon Press, para 182.

4 Ibid, para 183.

5 Neera Chandhoke, 1995, State and Civil Society: Explorations in Political Theory, Sage, New Delhi, chapter 4.

6 Antonio Gramsci, 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, International Publishers, New York, p 261.

7 Representative writings are those of R Falk, 1999, Predatory Globalisation: A Critique, Cambridge, Polity Press, and the collection of essays in D Archibugi and D Held, eds

Cosmopolitan Democracy: An Agenda for a New World Order, Cambridge, Polity.

8 Onora O’Neill, 2000, Bounds of Justice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, p 187, chapter 10 for the full argument.

9 Thomas Pogge, 2002, World Poverty and Human Rights, Cambridge, Polity, p 169, chapters, 1, 2 and 3 for the full argument.

10 Pogge for instance suggests that nationality is “just one further deep contingency (like genetic endowment, race, gender, and social class) one more potential basis of institutional inequalities that are inescapable and present from birth. Within Rawls’s conception, there is no reason to treat this case differently from the others. And so it would seem that we can justify our global institutional order only if we can show that the institutional inequalities it produces tend to optimise (against the backdrop of feasible alternative global regimes) the worst social position”, Thomas Pogge, 1989, Realising Rawls, Ithaca, Cornell, p 247.

11 Such as Charles Beitz, 1979, Political Theory and International Relations, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, Princeton.

12 Think for instance of the global media. Today the media is the source of immense material gains from all those who stand in a relation of ownership to the media, owners, managers, advertisers, and the dissemination companies

– cable networks for instance. But the media also performs a powerful symbolic function in shaping our sensibilities and the way we conceive of the world and our role in this world.

13 Lipschutz, Ronnie, 1992, ‘Reconstructing World Politics: The Emergence of Global Civil Society’, Millennium: A Journal of International Studies, Vol 21: 389-420; also Richard Falk, Robert Johansen, and Samuel Kim, 1993, ‘Global Constitutionalism and World Order’, in Richard A Falk, Robert C Johansen, and Samule S Kim eds, The Constitutional Foundations of World Peace, Albany, SUNY Press; Neera Chandhoke, 2002, ‘The Limits of Global Civil Society’ in Marlies Glasius, Helmut Annheir, and Mary Kaldor edited Global Civil Society 2002, Oxford University Press, Oxford, chapter 2.

14 See Mary Kaldor 2000, ‘Civilising Globalisation: The Implications of the Battle of Seattle’, p 106.

15 Times of India, July 7, 2005.

16 It is estimated that whereas in 1948, 41 INGOs enjoyed consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN, by 1968 the number had gone up to 500. By 1992 we were to see the Economic and Social Council consulting 1,000 or more NGOs. If we add to this number NGOs that interact with other bodies of the United Nations, and which often participate directly in the proceedings, the number rises to tens of thousands It was, however, at the turn of the 1990s that we were to witness a veritable explosion of NGOs which, networking across national borders, propelled critical issues onto international platforms. It is perhaps not surprising that global civil society has come to be dominated by NGOs, even though other actors, such as political activists networking across borders and anti-globalisation movements, play an important role in this sphere. It is indicative of the power of the nongovernmental sector that civil society has come to be identified with NGO activism both in influential tomes on civil society and in policy prescriptions of international institutions today. For details on the increasing power of INGOs see William Korey, 1998, NGOs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York, St Martin’s Press. For a critical evaluation see Makau Mutua, 2001, ‘Human Rights International NGOs: A Critical Evaluation’ in Claude E Welch (eds), NGOs and Human Rights: Promise and Performance, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, pp 151-63

17 Neera Chandhoke, 2003, The Conceits of Civil Society, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

18 Notably, for Aristotle, political activity is always ethical; politics is the pursuit of the good life.

19 Arguably, the codification of democratic rules as the sine qua non of a given society provides the reason for, and the justification of struggles which seek to fight domestic violence or child abuse.

20 Foreign Policy, 2000, ‘ Lori’s War’, Spring, 29-55, p 36.

21 Ibid, p 39.

22 Martin Shaw, 1999, ‘Global Voices: Civil Society and the Media in Global Crisis,’ in Human Rights in Global Politics, edited by T Dunne and N J Wheeler, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 214-232, 223.

23 See Ann C Hudock, 1999, NGOs and Civil Society: Democracy by Proxy?, Polity Press, Cambridge, for a trenchant critique of NGOs.

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