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The Rise of the Global Civil Society
by Rene Wadlow
2011-01-15 10:03:44
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There is currently a great expansion of what can be called “The Global Civil Society”— a host of commercial companies, media outlets, and non-governmental organizations ((NGOs) whose activities cross State frontiers.  Often the staff members of these organizations come from a variety of countries and backgrounds. This global civil society is increasingly powerful though its power has been little analysed.

One analysis of the environmental and social justice aspect of the global civil society has been made by the English environmental activist Paul Hawken Blessed unrest: how the largest movement in the world came into being, and why no one saw it. (New York: Viking, 2007). Many of these ecological organizations have very local aims, but there is an awareness of the inter-relatedness of issues and that peace, environmental protection, ecologically-sound development and financial balance have global dimensions.

Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) whose birth anniversary we mark on 15 January is the ideological pioneer of the Global Civil Society, even if he is little quoted. Proudhon’s 1960 work Du Principe Féderalif (On Federalism) is his most lasting and important work. In it he develops his major themes: justice, liberty, equality, and the need to develop autonomous communities tied to each other by contracts— thus forming a type of federation.  Proudhon saw the need for links between many different types of units: towns, factories, workshops, cooperatives.  With such links among productive units, there would be less need for political governments, especially not centralized governments. While Proudhon’s examples were drawn from the two countries he knew best – France and Belgium – his vision applies well to the global civil society.  Proudhon can be best described as a “pluralist” holding that freedom of thought and expression, freedom of communication and movement will usually be better served in small, decentralized and voluntarily-federated communities rather than in the system of state nationalism growing in his day.

The global civil society is still feared by nationalistic governments who want to control NGOs and who use the external contacts of NGOs as a pretext to clamp down, especially on human rights activists who challenge authoritarian rule. Communication technology and increased mobility of individuals make such government control more difficult.  The global civil society is made of flexible organizations in loose partnership agreements but with a common aim of mutual empowerment.

The global civil society is a ‘power shift’ of potentially historic dimensions with bonds of trust, shared values and mutual obligations which cross national frontiers.  Proudhon was able to look realistically at the society of his time with its poverty and injustices, but he also saw signs of hope. His influence was carried on through such writer-activists as Michel Bakounine (1814-1876) and Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921) Thus today, we need to be able to analyse, communicate and work cooperatively to develop a global civil society based on the ethic of human worth and dignity.


Rene Wadlow, Representative to the UN, Geneva, Association of World Citizens

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