Civic society versus the State and the Market

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It is important to bear in mind that CS is a richly variegated conglomerate of different groups, interest, and ideologies. Its attitudes to the market and state, as well as other pillars of the global system, are therefore as varied as its methods. What many of the civil society organisations have in common, though, is the very sophisticated use of the so-called ‘soft force’.

Whereas the state has at its disposal numerous power instruments ranging from acts of law to the use of repressive forces, civil society has no such options. What the initiatives and organisation of civil society do have at their disposal, however, is legitimacy and public trust. Even though activists can neither force acts of law nor spend as much money as numerous private players, they are neither ignored nor weak as a partner.

P. J. Simmons published a study in Foreign Policy magazine in 1998 in which he summarises four main methods that non-governmental organisation apply to influence national governments, international institutions, and local as well as multinational businesses.

The first of them is the capacity to create agendas – come up with new topics, pursue them and fight for their resolution. This capacity is not a new one: history has seen campaigns for abolition of slavery; for the Human Rights Charter in 1945; the campaign for a ban on land mines that culminated in 1997 with a Nobel Peace Prize; or campaigns for development aid, fair trade, and debt cancellation which dominated the G8 agenda last summer.

The capacity to negotiate results is the second strength. The Environmental Defense Fund has negotiated a compromise with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development between the need to protect the environment and the business interests of private firms; the NGO Communita di Saint Egidio was able to negotiate peace in Mozambique by means of informal negotiations.

The third capacity of non-governmental organisations is to strengthen or undermine the legitimacy of other players. This ability stems from the trust that the public has in NGOs. The Make Poverty History campaign, organised by NGOs on the occasion of the British presidency over the G8, is an interesting example of political pressure that CS exerts on official political representation. To a great extent, the legitimacy of the political representation depended on how it would react on the campaign demands. The whole world’s attention was concentrated on Gleneagles in Scotland. The message was clear: we need debt cancellation, we demand the USA back at the Kyoto Protocol negotiation table, we demand more development aid for Africa, we demand more equitable rules for international trade. Had the political representation failed the public, it would have lost its votes and trust. The Europe-wide boycott of Shell after the Brent Spar scandal is another example of how civil society can mobilise the moral sentiment of the public to support, or handicap, other players.

Fourthly and finally, NGOs are capable of yielding results where the governments fail. The professional conduct of NGOs on the one hand, and their neutrality on the other hand, have thus enabled the Red Cross to provide political prisoners with healthcare, and the OXFAM to extend help to war-torn regions.

In general terms, it can be said that the capacity to construct a symbolic reality and to mobilise the moral sentiment of the public while distinguishing between the good and the evil are the most powerful weapons of civil society as well as examples of its soft force.