Is Global Civil Society Coming Down to Earth?

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Peter Waterman

By Peter Waterman
Ronnie D. Lipschutz (with Judith Mayer), Global Civil Society and Global Environmental Governance: The Politics of Nature from Place to Planet. Albany: SUNY Press. 1996. 365 pp.
Published in Transnational Associations, Issue 2/1999

In a review article written some years ago I argued that `global civil society' had had the misfortune of being transformed from an ideological formulation to an international policy slogan without passing through the forge of theoretical clarification or the sieve of public debate (Waterman 1996:170). If Lipschutz/Mayer had been available at that time I would have had to qualify this statement. Lipschutz is clearly concerned to see global environmental governance in terms of global civil society (henceforth GCS). I have no doubt that, in so doing, he is moving the concept beyond the previous somewhat superficial level of use/abuse (as in Waterman 1998:227-8). The question is now one of whether his understanding enlightens his subject matter - and/or whether the subject matter sharpens the concept.

For reasons I will later try to explain, this is a difficult book to summarise. Essentially, however, Lipschutz is concerned to demonstrate that what I might think of as the global environmental movement is better conceived of as the self-development of a GCS, with the latter implying a new system of global environmental governance (not government), and with the latter, again, dependent on globally-informed local activity. The book falls into three main parts, which could - though his practice undermines my distinction - be considered as theoretical, analytical and prescriptive. These parts are preceded by an introduction in which Lipschutz spells out his argument:

I write here about an emerging from of `global' politics and governance that is rooted in the civil societies of many different countries but is also, to a growing degree, transnational in its reach, articulated via a complex set of knowledge-based linkages and, at the same time sensitive to differences among local places [?] What I analyse here?is what is often called the `environmental movement', but is better understood as a transnational system of rules, principles, norms and practices, oriented around a very large number of often dissimilar actors, focused on enivronmental protection, sustainability, and governance. (Lipschutz 1996:1)
In so far as he is talking about global politics, the Lipschutz insistence on the centrality of the local in environmental governance becomes crucial: First, everyone's experience of the world is centred where they are: The `global' has no material existence except insofar as it impacts on the individual, who is ineluctably restricted to a single place at any one time (CNN, economic integration and global air travel not withstanding). Second, however, everyone is aware that the world is much more than the place in which they find themselves: Each `local' is part of a number of globe-girdling systems through which actions in one place can be transmitted and made known to other places? More to the point, the activities we ordinarily describe as `international' have no effect except as they motivate changes in the behaviour and practices of individuals, or groups, acting locally. (7)
It is in the theoretical part of his book that Lipschutz conceptualises `global civil society' in terms of agents acting collectively through networks of knowledge and practice. Such agency operates both in opposition to and in concert with states and the international system, but always in terms of rules governing resource regimes. In a sense, global civil society can be seen as part of a growing system of global governanace, rather than just an agent of reform, rebellion, or resistance [?G]lobal civil society?includes: (1) organisations or alliances that practice at the international or global level?(2) organisations that provide technical assistance to local groups engaged in resource restoration?and individual groups themselves; (3) individual groups that belong to national?or transnational alliances?; and (4) groups and organisations `in touch' with their counterparts elsewhere around the world or simply sharing an ecological epistemology. (49-51)
Lipschutz makes clear that although his GCS includes the environmental movement, this may itself be partly state-funded or state-linked, and a GCS must also be understood as including state agencies or agents of states concerned with the development of new forms of ecological governance. A GCS, he argues further, `interacts with states but tries to maintain some degreee of autonomy from them' (53). It tends to occupy spaces not directly state conrolled. The `code of global civil society' (ibid) denies the primacy of states and their sovereignty. It is global not only because it operates across national borders and in non-territorial space but also because of its increasingly global consciousness.

There is much more than this in the two or three theory chapters. Indeed, my feeling is that there is too much, as Lipschutz picks up - or picks issue with - a whole range of literatures, including, but not limited to those on ecology, ethics, international relations, anthropology and social movements! Indeed, in Chapter 7, Lipschutz even seems to be borrowing from Marxist political economy. Whilst this range speaks to the breadth of his scholarship, it prevents him from developing depth on his central concepts, as well as from placing his own ambitious project in relation to major worldviews/views of the world, or even to those addressed to a GCS (e.g. Held 1995), or even the global environmental problematic (e.g. Princen and Finger 1994) more directly. I will return to the conceptualisation later.

Whatever the shortcomings/excesses of the conceptual/methodological introduction, the decision to do national/local case studies in three distant and distinct world areas is more than felicitous. If the three old political/economic/ideological/strategic worlds are now demonstrably a single, if differentiated, ecological whole, the case for a holistic alternative makes itself. Lipschutz examines the US (actually a small part of northern and coastal California) and Hungary, and Mayer does Indonesia. The idea is that despite all the admitted and demonstrated differences of history, political economy, social movements and - of course - ecology, these locales reveal not only the common impact of globalisation but the global commonalities of local response, and the manner in which global environmental governance is being constructed in such locales (13).

The case studies do indeed reveal the differences/similarities, although no extensive compare/contrast exercise is built into the analyses. The value of the GCS concept (the last long quote above) is, howver, not well established here. This is for the following reasons:

  • the protean nature of the Lipschutz concept. It is predictable that either a) the global environmental movements, b) its ideas, c) its policies, and/or d) nothern state/international NGO agency funding, will have local influence: we need know who, what, which, to what ends and in whose interest;
  • the source of such `global' influence - which is in large part that of the US itself: this makes measuring such in a Californian case study problematic;
  • the here well-documented tensions and conflicts not simply between Lipschutz's different agencies but even between those most independent of national/international government and capital.

What would seem to be necessary is either a critical/self-critical concept of GCS, or additional concepts capable of dealing with autonomy, democracy, access, transparency, class, internationalism. And, most importantly, we would need address to the poor, or `the people', rather than either specific sectoral interests or the middle class (as in, for example, Taylor 1995). Due to these limitations, the influence of GCS on the Californian case is only asserted, that on the Hungarian case is revealed as extremely problematic. It is only the Indonesian case, in which parts of the environmental movement have established both intimate relations with the popr and a sophisticated critical relationship with external forces, that one can see at least the potential for local feedback into a till-now largely western-defined GCS.

As I have said, Lipschutz's book does not divide neatly. Following the case studies we actually have another theory chapter, in which the author wrestles with locale and identity in a globalising world. The globalisation part is where Lipschutz comes close to Marxist/Post-Marxist political economy/geography. The identity part is closer to the post-structuralist/social-constructionist tradition. In so far as the argument is conceptual, and does not flow out of the case studies, it surely belongs in Part I of the book. But never mind. It presents a comparatively straightforward and convincing case for the intimate relationship between (changing) identities and (changing ideas of) locale under the conditions of dislocation resulting from a careless and destructive capitalist globalisation. As Lipschutz himself puts it

The apparent paradox - a global civil society rooted in a highly particularistic Nature and place - is not as paradoxical as it might seem at first glance. (233)
Chapter 8, the last one, is about policy, in the sense of the kind of rules and institutions necessary to deal with the environment: ` Who rules? Whose rules? What rules? What kind of rules? At what level? In what form? Who decides? On what basis? (237)
Here, again, Lipschutz begins by discussing theory, or theories, about economic integration and political disintegration. He goes on to argue for the combination of local rooting and global networking suggested by his previous conceptualisation and analysis. There is here no such simple institutional fix as might be suggested by world federalism, nor by more complex theories on the democratisation of the global (for which see below).

Lipschutz suggests, rather than demonstrates or even argues for, a complex, multi-faceted and multi-levelled democracy. The insistence on the primacy of the local is qualified by a recognition of the dangers of particularism. The whole argument functions, I feel, mainly as a corrective to notions of global institutional reform, or even transformation, that forget where most people meet most people, and where most people are most confronted by both ecological deterioration and the possibility of doing something about this. What it, however, leaves us unprepared for are two products of 1998. One is the Pinochet case, in which, I would argue, a globalised liberal-democratic civil society demonstrated humane, progressive and -who knows? - locally transformatory impact. The other is the second of two collections on `cosmopolitan democracy' (Archibugi, Held and Koehler 1998), which argues forcefully for a multi-levelled democratisation and for a sense of global citizenship to empower ordinary people for effective participation at all such levels. In both cases, it would seem, the initiative rests largely with social movements for which Lipschutz has little time.

Although Lipschutz does not reproduce the binary opposition between the vicious global and the virtuous local that can be found in much environmentalist literature (e.g. Shiva 1993), he does, I think, allow for such by default. By this I mean that he abandons the international/global institutional level to capitalism and (inter-)statism, rather than seeing either as existing - or potentially new - spaces for a contestation that is both possible and necessary. The positive within his global exists only in the sphere of ideas, information and values, with their power to link and empower the local. At the same time, however, he either ignores or dismisses the very feature of globalisation that allows the discussion and transmission of such emancipatory and transformatory ideas. `Computer', `communication', `information' do not appear in his index. And, in the one place that international computerised communication between social movements is mentioned in his book (283, fn. 50), he dismisses its effect as `overrated' (c.f. Poster 1995). His GCS thus comes close to a life force or world spirit.

I think that we must trace these shortcomings back to the concept of a GCS offered. Such notions are being increasingly subject to the justified suspicion of the Political Economists, even if their concept of political economy is as protean as is Lipschutz' GCS (see, e.g., Pasha and Blaney 1998 for a critique of Lipschutz and others). I can take the Lipschutz stress on the centrality of the local, as well as on the necessity for thinking in terms of rules and governance. But these need to be informed by a sense of what on earth - and in the ether - is going on (Waterman 1999). And then to be empowered by a notion of GCS as space/place to be created and/or liberated from capitalism and statism (not to mention patriarchy, racism and environmental destruction).

Cyberspace, here, is actually the space of maximum freedom and creativity. There have been well-known - if problematic - demonstrations of its effectivity: the dialectic between the Mexican Zapatistas and their national and international sympathisers; the undermining and discrediting, if not destruction, of the Multinational Agreement on Investments; the international campaign of support to the Liverpool, UK, dock dispute, 1995-8, and the influence of the Liverpool website on following Australian and US dockworker struggles. This is not to dispute the stress on the local. But two points need adding to the Lipschutz argument. One is, of course, that the local is not what it used to be. What we are increasingly confronted with is globalised locales (Massey 1991), meaning local places in which local-national as well as local-local tensions (inter- or intra-) are complicated by the contradictory forces of globalisation (i.e. for better or for worse, for better and for worse). Another is that such locales must be privileged sites for popular struggle, since, as an Argentinean colleague once informed me, most of the population of Buenos Aires never goes beyond a 5-10 kilometre distance from home. (Yet, it also occurs to me, the severely localised Liverpool dockers did travel to such distant and exotic locales as Calcutta and Francophone Quebec). Global spaces and local places are class/power differentiated. My locale is qualified by the time I spend at the computer (writing pieces like this), and my capacity to travel from The Hague to Lima (where I drafted it). When I look at The (ecology of the) Hague it is in a very different way to that in which it is perceived and experienced by an elderly Dutch male resident of a rundown inner city area - or by a young second-generation Turkish resident of such.

I have strayed from the ecological. This is partly due to my relative ignorance of this and the movements/institutions related to such. Lipschutz provides us with plenty of food for thought here. But my view from outside this particular problematic enables me to also enquire whether, for Lipschutz, the global ecological problem/movement/governance is identical with a GCS, a privileged area within a GCS, or simply one of many possible contributors to such. He is not unambiguous here, though I suspect he leans toward the second position. I lean toward the third. But I am prepared to entertain arguments concerning the second. Regardless of any decision here, I am convinced that Lipschutz and his colleague have made a significant contribution to what is going to be a lively future debate concerned with bringing global civil society down to earth.

Santa Crus (CA), Lima, The Hague
December 1998-February 1999


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* Institute of Social Studies, The Hague