Global democracy and the war on terror

Mary Kaldor asks whether global emancipatory movements can coalesce to create a critical mass for progressive change

The first Global Civil Society yearbook was due to launch in New York at the United Nations on September 17 2001. The events of 9/11 did not only mean the cancellation of our event – they blew off course the whole project of ‘civilising’ globalisation. Just before 9/11 we felt that our ideas were entering the mainstream; both Newsweek and the New York Times expressed interest in attending the launch. Instead, the newly proclaimed ‘War on Terror’ betokened a return to sovereignty and geopolitics and to the marginalisation and sidelining of values, perspectives, movements, groups and tendencies that comprise what we call global civil society.

This month marks the publication of the tenth edition of the Global Civil Society yearbook. For us, the tenth anniversary offers an opportunity to look back over a decade of trying to explain, interpret, conceptualise, describe and measure the phenomenon that we framed as global civil society, and to reflect critically on what we have learned as a result of the research that was undertaken to produce the yearbooks. This anniversary edition was written during 2011 in the midst of a new wave of global civil society mobilisation – the Arab Spring, the occupation of squares all over the world, and, at the same time, the rise of the xenophobic right, accompanied by numerous riots and uprisings.

The question we ask is whether our project is back on course: whether today’s generation of protestors represent the harbingers of a new emancipatory agenda, or whether the opposite is the case, that social fragmentation and polarisation from above as well as from below could usher in an even more dangerous and divided world. Or both?

From the beginning we conceived global civil society as a ‘fuzzy and contested concept’ with both descriptive and normative content, and envisaged the yearbook project as a journey into unknown territory where we would discover unconventional ideas and sources of information and different ways of seeing the world.  For operational purposes, we adopted an empirical definition of  global civil society as ‘the sphere of ideas, values, institutions, organisations, networks, and individuals located between the family, the state, and the market and operating beyond the confines of national societies, polities, and economies.’ (GCS 2001, p.17). As the journey progressed, we became increasingly critical of the dominant associational notion of global civil society that is often equated with international NGOs. In the pages of the yearbook, we began to experiment with alternative, more normative versions of the concept: communicative power, for example, or the space where justice is deliberated, or a realm of civility and non-violence.

One way in which we chose to interpret civil society is as the medium through which individuals participate in public affairs, and through which they endorse or challenge the dominant discourse. It is a constantly shifting medium – sometimes characterised by consensus and sometimes by sharp polarisation and struggle, sometimes changing slowly and sometimes, in revolutionary moments, dramatically. Its concrete manifestations – as coffee houses or market places in the eighteenth century, town hall meetings and party conferences in the twentieth century, or Facebook and tent cities most recently – vary according to time and place.

In our yearbooks, we demonstrated that the 1990s were a period of consolidation for the post- 1968 movements. This was a time when a new post-1968 generation came to power and when the end of the Cold War fatally weakened the dominant ideologies of socialism and post-colonialism. It can be argued that the 1989 revolutions opened the space for the new narratives of the post-1968 movements and, indeed the very idea of global civil society – a kind of radical democratisation – could be said to be the big idea of the 1989 revolutions. In the aftermath of 1989, many of the actors in the new social movements transformed themselves into NGOs. If workers’ movements had turned into national institutions, then the new movements consolidated themselves within a more global environment. Our yearbooks showed a dramatic increase in the number of international NGOs during this period. Furthermore, much of the agenda of the post-1968 movements was formally adopted. Our yearbooks described how global civil society had contributed to a new global consensus on human rights, leading to the new norm of humanitarian intervention, the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), or to new treaties like the Land Mines Treaty. Likewise the emerging importance of climate change, or of addressing AIDS/HIV can be treated as global civil society achievements.

Figure 1. Source:GCS 2012.

Of course, this was also a time of triumph for the neo-liberal ideas of the right. Both the global market and global NGOs were agents in the intensifying process of interconnectedness. The new humanitarian discourse effectively was displacing an earlier discourse about social justice and was interpreted by some as a form of cooption – a way for the neo-liberals to salve their consciences about inequality.

It was only towards the end of the 1990s that a new anti-capitalist movement emerged. The protests at the G20 meeting in Seattle in 1999 represented the first dents in the so-called Washington consensus. The events of 9/11 and the proclamation of the War on Terror constituted a profound setback to the humanitarian agenda and a resumption of notions of sovereignty and unilateralism.  Subsequently, in contrast to the 1990s, the period of the 2000s was one of political and social polarisation in which movements, especially the Social Forums, mobilised both against the War on Terror and against the dominance of the global market.

The mobilisation of 2011, while building on the experience of the 1990s, signifies a very new phenomenon that is too early to interpret. Not only in the west, but also in growing parts of Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, today’s generation are the children of the Internet, the mobile phone and cheap air travel – the ‘globalisation generation’. As Moore and Selchow argue, for them, the Internet is not just a tool of communication and participation or a space for debate and exchange that is separated from the ‘real’ world but it is a set of resources, engagements and structures through which the world is constantly renewed; it is part of the everyday, with profound implications for political culture and how to understand it. The new generation can look sideways as well as backwards and forwards.   They know that the world is one fragile eco-system – and that while the nation state has a role to play, it is part of a broader global community. Above all, as has become so movingly obvious in Tahrir Square, in the streets of Syrian towns or even in the Yemen, most believe in non-violence as a fundamental guiding principle and in a new understanding of democracy involving horizontality, leaderlessness, and replaceability.

In Global Civil Society 2012, we describe developments in global civil society in very different fields – democracy and citizenship, peace and justice, and the economy and society. In this series of essays for openDemocracy, some of the authors reflect and expand on the subject of their chapters. Moore and Selchow suggest a reconceptualisation of the mainstream notion of the Internet with the aim of triggering a reconfiguration of political analyses and the naturalised assumptions and concepts that guide them. Ferenc Mislivetz and Bernard Dreano write about the crisis of democracy in Europe and what has happened to the Arab Spring. Moyes and Nash describe the twenty-first century disarmament campaigns – the new technologies and the new forms of violence with which civil society actors are engaged. And Robin Murray describes the extraordinary rise of what he calls the civil economy: the spread of social innovations, in reaction both to neo-liberal brutality and to state inflexibility as well as failure.

I hope that these very different perspectives and topics, along with the yearbook itself, will help to stimulate new thinking about how to re-imagine politics and social transformation in contemporary times and, importantly, about the role and impact of individual responsibility in finding ways to navigate and indeed surmount the current democratic crisis.

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics. This article was originally published by OpenDemocracy. All the previous editions of the Global Civil Society Yearbook except for 2011 are available in full online at

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