Social Threefolding – Channeling the Tensions Between Civil Society and State to Constructive Uses

Nicanor Perlas[1]

Civil society-government relations are becoming critical as civil society continues to shape world affairs. This is also true in the Philippines where People Power II, led by civil society, recently toppled a corrupt presidency and paved the way for a new government. To mediate its relations with the new government and the market, civil society is advancing the concept of social threefolding. To appreciate this approach, we need to understand the modern understanding of civil society—an understanding that is also operative in the Philippines.

Civil Society as Third Global Force in a Tri-Polar World

Modern civil society has issued two declarations of independence—one from the State and the other from the Market. Civil society consciously sees itself as a countervailing force against totalitarian tendencies in State and Market, which can produce unacceptable environmental, economic, political, cultural, social, human, and spiritual problems in society.

Civil Society is the third global force along with the State and Market. The WTO defeat of the combined powers of the State and Market by civil society in the “Battle of Seattle emphasizes this. We live in a tri-polar world, constituted by the forces of the Market, the State, and Civil Society. But what is Civil Society?

The Cultural Nature of Civil Society

All societies have three realms that are autonomous, but organically related with each other. These are the economic, political, and cultural realms. The Market is situated in the economy. The State is active in the political realm. The natural habitat of Civil Society is in culture. Markets have economic power, States use political power, and Civil Society mobilizes cultural power.

People move to action on the basis of their beliefs and values. Culture constructs and reproduces our deep-seated beliefs and convictions about justice, transparency, rights, gender, equity, empowerment, freedom, peace, democracy, environment and other elements of worldviews and values. Culture shapes our identity, giving meaning, direction and coherence to our actions and goals.

Civil society mobilizes cultural power against the State by either giving or withholding legitimacy. When it criticizes a government as corrupt, it deconstructs the cognitive and moral pretensions of a corrupt State. Civil society can also mobilize cultural power against the Market by influencing, among others, the demand for specific products through boycotts.

The Other Task of Civil Society

As a cultural force, civil society also has the task of visioning a new world and mobilizing its forces to realize this vision in action. To criticize a social condition is one thing. To create a new social situation is something else. Civil society needs to advocate for concrete societal reform by institutionalizing its cultural advocacy in the domain of economics and politics. To do this, Civil Society has to interface with State and Market. The interface between these three forces of society can therefore be viewed as a terrain of opportunity or a terrain of co-optation.

I will focus only on civil society-government relations. But the dynamics will be similar in civil society-business relations.


Unless necessary, civil society does not want to always be in a state of permanent mobilization against the state. It seeks to institutionalize its agenda and values in the political terrain. This can take the form of legislation, executive issuances, and concrete programs. In the Philippines, the opportunity to do this is unusually large.

For one, civil society basically installed the new government into power. As a result, the new government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has begun the process of institutionalizing participatory mechanisms sensitive to the needs of civil society. She has also appointed prominent leaders of civil society to be members of her Cabinet. In addition, she has strongly expressed her desire to incorporate civil society agenda into her platform for governance. Even Philippine legislative leaders have a high regard for civil society ideas and perspectives.


There are two important threats. First the engagement process can de-mobilize civil society. All its energies may be focused on the process of engaging government, thereby forgetting its other tasks both with civil society itself and with the economy—fiscalizing the market. Second, the engagement process can over-politicize civil society. This would turn civil society into a political organization, depleting the vitality of civil society.

Both are dangerous to civil society and even to government itself. One of civil society’s tasks is to defend culture and society. If civil society is de-mobilized or over-politicized, it loses its identity as an autonomous center of power in society. Without an active civil society, government begins its slow drift towards totalitarianism. Power is the steering mechanism of the state. Without civil society, there is no check to this power.

Social Threefolding—Appropriate Interaction of Civil Society, State and Market

Philippine civil society has advanced a social innovation that can respond both to the opportunities and threats of civil society-government relations. We call this approach social threefolding.

Social threefolding involves the coming together, either in dialogue or in partnership, of business, government, and civil society towards the pursuit of a common agenda. In social threefolding, a cultural institution, like a civil society organization, does not have to transform itself into a political institution to attain results in the political sphere. It can develop agreements with political institutions and rely on government capacity to carry out agreements.

Making Social Threefolding Operational

The following elements are necessary to make civil society-government relationships work: 1) mutual respect of differences; 2) parity in negotiations; 3) clear mechanisms of mutual support and accountability; 4) enabling communications protocols, face-to-face and electronic; 5) principles of unity and common agenda; and 6) covenant laying process of critical engagement.

The globalization process is too complex to be managed by government alone. Social threefolding advances good governance by involving the different sectors of civil society, government and business and harnessing the energy of the potential tension towards the creation of a free, just, prosperous, and sustainable world.


[1] Nicanor Perlas is President of the Center for Alternative Development Initiatives, a Philippine civil society organization and author of Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding.

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