GN3 Editorial Comment:
Culture is the realm of ideas values, worldviews,
identity, ethics, art, and spirituality among
others. This is the realm of civil society and
cultural power in contradistinction to the
political power of government and the economic
power of business. The autonomous interaction of
these three institutions in pursuit of integral
sustainable development constitutes threefolding.
In the article below, the author points to the
rise of civil society in the U.S. context as an
answer to the "values-vacuum" created by narrow
pursuit of economic and political power especially
corporate-driven globalization and U.S.
unilateralism—a development with the power to
transform social life.
NEWTON, MASS. – How will
current US social and political trends - amid the
rise of the right - affect the world in the
decades ahead? Surprisingly, some sociologists say
that they augur for curbing the excesses of
national power and capitalist markets while
strengthening the UN and other forms of global
Though it sounds
counterintuitive in an age of corporate
globalization and US unilateralism, there is
evidence of powerful social forces stirring that
could do just that.
These are the forces of
civil society - community groups, trade
associations, labor unions, churches, and other
voluntary associations in the nonprofit sector.
Some sociologists who study them say they will
broaden social consensus at home, and global
governance abroad. The argument goes something
Civil society carries the
core values on which America was founded and on
which civic-minded liberals and conservatives
agree: democracy, honesty, fairness, transparency,
safeguarding public health and security, etc.
When these values conflict
with the bottom line or maintenance of power,
corporations and government may jettison them.
This leaves a values-vacuum that generates
polarized, often futile politics along pro- vs.
anti-corporate and pro- vs. anti-nationalism fault
lines, leaving people feeling stymied and cynical.
But into the breach leap the
forces of civil society, by which citizens
reengage with issues. They bridge left-right
impasses, appealing directly to core values, to
doing the right thing regardless of profitability,
political power, or ideological stereotypes.
Not only liberals embrace
environmentalism or alternative energy - witness
conservatives from Western states who oppose
coal-bed methane or conservative columnists who
support a gas tax. Not only conservatives want
more jobs, fundamental tax reform, and smaller
government - witness bipartisan support for
cutting payroll taxes.
Many burning domestic and
global issues are not "left-right" but
"right-wrong" issues transcending party lines.
Civil society, not politics or business, is
increasingly where citizens engage them. With the
unprecedented expansion and wealth transfer in the
US and globally, civil society increasingly
impacts markets and policymaking, evolving
voluntary and transnational systems of governance
that may someday alter our ideas of trade and
national sovereignty themselves.
In fact, alterations are
already under way. Big corporations support
voluntary standards such as the CERES
environmental principles. The nonprofit Joint
Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare
Organizations sets and monitors standards of
for-profit healthcare. The UN actively supports
collaboration between global business and civil
society, and even encourages NGOs to mediate
Granted, such UN initiatives
may find dubious reception in Washington. Still,
many Republicans as well as Democrats support the
UN's vital global governance role. Though
President Bush isn't expected to champion these
kinds of issues at the 2005 world summit, going on
this week in New York, elsewhere Bush officials do
embrace the idea.
"Civil society participation
makes democracies more pluralistic,
representative, and responsive," USAID Assistant
Administrator Adolfo Franco said recently at a
conference on combating corruption. "The challenge
for governments is to avoid immediately casting
civil society aside as the opposition, and instead
recognize that a sophisticated civil society can
be an ally and partner of government."
The fascinating question is
how the US will deal with this challenge as civil
society grows. Will we stonewall it, or support
its development? With oil prices high, the dollar
low, federal and trade deficits ballooning, China
ascendant, outsourcing rampant, terrorist
recruitment a growing concern, and majorities
throughout Western Europe and Canada criticizing
US policy, how far can the US pursue unilateralism
and globalization against a growing current of
global opinion civil society development, and its
A new Pew Global Attitudes
poll already shows the US viewed less favorably by
the world than most other countries including
China. In countries traditionally partnering with
America, 59 percent view us negatively, while at
home 57 percent of us are dissatisfied with
Sooner or later - some
sociologists believe it will be in the coming
decades - we must come to terms with the broad,
popular hunger for a social order that places core
values above economic and political dictates of
the bottom line. Through voluntary and
transnational structures such as those the UN now
advocates, the forces of civil society will
transcend left-right divides and gain clout in
markets and governments, including ours.
• Severyn T. Bruyn is the
author of 'A Civil Republic: Beyond Capitalism and
Nationalism' (Kumarian Press, 2005).