Martin Shaw

Civil society

From Lester Kurtz, ed, Encyclopaedia of Violence, Peace and Conflict, San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 269-78 (offprints available: email me)



Civil society: a sphere of association in society in distinction to the state, involving a network of institutions through which society and groups within it represent themselves in cultural, ideological and political senses.

Global civil society: the extension of civil society from national to global, regional and transnational forms, involving the development of globalist culture, ideology and politics.

Global political crises: local crises, typically wars, which come, often through media coverage, to have global political significance.

Hegemony: the cultural, ideological and political dominance, in civil society, of a social class or group or bloc of social classes and groups.

Post-military society: a society which has ceased to be dominated by war-preparation, and in which mass military mobilization and participation are replaced by high-technology professional militaries.

Social movements: collective actors in civil society distinguished by mass mobilization or participation as their prime source of social power, typically concerned to defend or change society or the relative position of a group within society.

Total war: a mode of warfare based on the mobilization or participation of society as a whole, in which society becomes both a major resource and a major target and warfare tends towards total destruction and genocide.


Civil society refers to a sphere of association in society in distinction to the state. The term has been used in a variety of ways, and this article will explore the meaning of civil society by examining the understanding of it in the modern social sciences and its relevance to the understanding of of violence, peace and conflict in major periods of modern history.


The origins of the concept of civil society lie in key phases of modernity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Then writers in classical philosophy and political economy began to distinguish systematically between the spheres of state and society. In feudal society, the same social relations between superiors and inferiors had embraced both production and family life, on the one hand, and political and military authority, on the other. With the dissolution of feudal relations, these two areas of social life became more clearly demarcated in modern conditions as ‘society’ and ‘state’. The term civil society was first used to distinguish a sphere in which social relations were based on the free association of individuals, rather than a fixed hierarchy of legal institutions. For classical writers like the philosopher Georg Hegel and the revolutionary theorist Karl Marx, civil society was an inclusive concept of ‘society minus the state’, and very definitely included what we would now call ‘the economy’. Civil society was defined, indeed, by the emergence of a distinct political economy in which individuals related to each other as independent agents rather than as people who filled prescribed social roles.

The major classical theorists had, however, different ideas about civil society and about its relation to the state. Hegel saw civil society as a sphere of contradictions which could be resolved in the higher institution of the state, which embodied the highest ethical ideals of society. Marx believed, in contrast, that civil society was a sphere of conflicts between competing private interests, and that far from being reconciled in the state, these conflicts would take the form of class struggles in which the state itself would be overthrown. (In Marx’s later work, the concept of civil society is largely replaced by that of the capitalist mode of production.)

Although these classical ideas of civil society are still influential, as we shall see, the concept has been refined by later writers in ways which have made it, while still a broad concept, arguably more relevant to contemporary social analysis. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, writing in the 1930s, referred to civil society in a more specialised sense than that of ‘society minus the state’. He argued instead that ‘between the economic structure and the state with its legislation and coercion stands civil society’ (Gramsci, 1971). Civil society for Gramsci was a set of institutions through which society organised and represented itself autonomously from the state. Although representative institutions of the economic sphere, such as employers’ associations and trade unions, were among the institutions of civil society, there were also churches, parties, professional associations, educational and cultural bodies. The economic sphere itself, with its functional institutions (firms, corporations) responsible for organising production, was not on this definition part of civil society.

Gramsci built a comparative theory of political change on this concept of civil society. He argued that whereas in the East, where civil society was weak, revolution might have succeeded through a direct violent assault on the state (as in Russia in 1917), in the West, where civil society was strong, this would not be possible. The institutions of civil society formed the ‘outer earthworks’ of the state, through which the ruling classes maintained their ‘hegemony’ or dominance in society. It was necessary to transform civil society, indeed to create an alternative hegemony of the subordinate classes, before it would be possible to challenge state power.

Gramsci’s hegemonic theory of civil society saw transformation as a cultural, as well as political, process, and specified an important role for intellectuals. According to Gramsci, each class developed its own intellectual groupings. While some traditional groups, such as priests and lawyers, continued from previous phases of society, many new groups had been created ‘organically’ through the development of capitalism - managers, educators, social workers, etc. These groups, playing central roles in the institutions of civil society, contributed to maintaining the existing hegemony. A counter-hegemony, which Gramsci conceived of in Marxist terms as led by the working class, would require its own organic intellectuals and beliefs.

Gramsci’s ideas were newly influential in the 1970s, both among Western social-science academics and in inspiring the ‘Eurocommunist’ strategy of the Italian and some other West European Communist parties. Another strong stimulus to the development of civil society thinking came around the same time from oppositional thinkers in the Communist states of East-Central Europe. In an interesting advance on Gramsci’s ideas, many oppositionists believed that because the authoritarian character of the Communist regimes made a direct challenge to their legitimacy very difficult, it would be easier to develop civil society based on cultural institutions which made an indirect challenge to the values of the system.

In the repressive atmosphere of the late 1970s and early 1980s, even this was difficult - although in Poland the autonomous trade union Solidarity developed as a mass national movement. In the more liberal situation of the later 1980s, however, civil society mushroomed in many Communist countries. The growth of autonomous cultural and social institutions played the role of preparing the foundations for a challenge to political power - very much as Gramsci had argued. As Communism collapsed and competitive party politics developed, however, key intellectual elites often moved from civil society to parties and the state, leading to a crisis of civil society practice and thinking. Nevertheless, the more advanced Central European countries, especially, are characterised in the late 1990s by much more extensive civil societies based on voluntary associations than was the case a decade earlier, although the political significance of these civil societies has changed.

Implicit in these ideas of civil society was the notion of it as a sphere of peaceful civility in contrast to the coercion, authoritarianism and violence of non-democratic states. At the end of the twentieth century the development of civil society is coming to be seen, therefore, as a significant criterion of the development of democracy. Democracy is seen as involving not merely the formal establishment of certain rights, institutions and procedures - important as these are - but also the consolidation of the social relations which support these. These supports include the development of an educated middle class and a framework of civil institutions which can support democracy. Just as in former Communist states, so in many countries of the ‘Third World’: as democratisation has advanced in the last decade of the twentieth century, the creation of civil society is widely viewed as a concomitant of democratic change.

Similarly in the West, the strength of civil society is often seen as a criterion of democratic health and stability. A central question in Western analysis, however, is the role of mass media in civil society. Traditional representative institutions of civil society, such as trade unions, parties and churches, have decayed in many Western societies, with membership and participation rates often (although not always) in decline. Even where some of these institutions remain strong, they exercise their representative functions to a large degree through mass media, above all television. Participation in Western civil societies (and democracies) increasingly depends on the openness of communications media. Media can be seen both as constituting the framework of contemporary civil society and as powerful actors within it. The centralized mass media of the early twentieth century are partially giving way to more participatory media, in which civil society is renewed.

There are key differences between media and other institutions, to do with the informational character of much media activity and the quasi-instantaneous communication between communicators and audiences. Most other institutions largely take for granted the information which their members or audience possess and are more concerned with influencing the value framework within which information is evaluated. Media, on the other hand, are always heavily concerned with communicating information, and have highly divergent relationships to evaluation. Much television eschews open commitment to value-frameworks (except those concerned with information), while at the other extreme, many newspapers are highly committed to propagandising particular values. In participatory new media like the Internet, a diversity of both information sources and opinions transforms these tensions.

Frequency of communication between media and audiences is another key differentiator between them and other institutions. Many newspapers publish daily, and television and radio broadcast continuously, sometimes updating news and interpretation hourly or even more frequently. Computer communication is virtually instantaneous. Political and religious leaders, educators, movement activists and other civil leaders, on the other hand, communicate with their audiences intermittently and update their analyses of specific situations episodically; they are not required in the same way to inform or comment regularly on any given situation. A related difference is that media news analysis claims, implicitly or explicitly, to provide a total context of information relevant to given situations (whether or not media do this is, of course, another matter). The views of political and religious leaders, educators, activists and others are ‘parts’ while the media provide the ‘whole’ picture. In this sense media contextualise and relativise the outputs of other institutions.


A primary tension in the development of civil society has been between the universal values which civil institutions have often professed - and which some see as characteristic of civil society as such - and the national forms of civil society which supplies much of their real content. Both religious ideologies like Christianity and secular political ideologies like liberalism, socialism and conservatism have fostered universal beliefs. Nevertheless, institutions like churches, parties, trade unions, schools and media have characteristically been highly national institutions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, civil society as a whole has been a national sphere, generally involved in mutually sustaining relationships with the nation-state. Civil institutions have generally fostered national versions of universal belief-systems and values, including loyalty to the state, and have been supported in turn by states.

In the second half of the twentieth century, much of the nation-state framework of civil society has been transformed. During the Cold War, both state and civil society changed in the West. National forms were maintained, but they lost much real significance. There was a huge internationalization of Western military, economic, cultural and ideological power. Western states increasingly shared frameworks for organising their monopoly of violence and their management of economic life. They created the conditions for massive processes of economic and cultural globalization. In this context, the old national civil society declined. The weakening of many of the forms which were most characteristic of it in mid-century - churches, mass political parties and trade unions - was partly related to this transformation of the national context.

Civil society has been partially renewed in new institutions which are less formal, less tied to particular social interests and less national. Sociologists have given most attention to ‘new’ social movements (i.e. those based not on class but around other social axes or issue interests). Mass-participatory social movements tend to be episodic, but there are other institutions - single-issue campaigns and voluntary organizations, especially global development and human rights agencies - which are more enduring if often less activist-based.

These non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are particularly important not only in that, although based in the West, they operate across the globe, but also because many (e.g. Amnesty, Greenpeace, Médicins sans Frontieres) are ‘globalist’ organizations with a specifically global orientation, membership and activity. There are however other major types of institutions which comprise the emergent global, regional and transnational civil society. These include formal organizations linking national organizations of parties, churches, unions, professions, educational bodies, media, etc.

The growth of mass media has also tended to transcend the nation-state context, and not simply because of trends towards transnational ownership and diffusion. Media also have different relationships to the tension between the universal values (religious, political, educational, informational, etc.) on which civil society institutions claim to be based, and their essentially national character, based on the aim of representing nationally-defined social interests and viewpoints. Insofar as media fulfil their function of providing information on the widest possible (i.e. global) basis, they inevitably tend to transcend the national limitations of state and civil society.

Although the worldwide expansion of civil society - in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and parts of Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere - has often taken highly national forms, it has rested on the globalizing forces of education and cultural diffusion. The present growth of civil society combines global and particularistic aspects - even the nation is a universal idea in the modern world.

These changes in civil society - the decline of some traditional national forms, the rise of global (or globalist) social movements, NGOs and media, and its worldwide expansion - have led many to discuss a movement from national to global civil society. Recent debates in international relations have extended the analysis of civil society to the transnational and global levels. They have often ascribed to it considerable normative and political importance, although they have not always dealt with the empirical problems involved in hypothesising ‘global civil society’.

Civil society and social movements have become leading concepts of critical theory, more sociologically-based approaches and especially of radical political visions in international relations. As international theorists have moved beyond not just realism but also neo-realist ideas based on economic interdependence, they have increasingly seen social movements as a third major category of international actor after states and transnational corporations. These movements have been seen as especially significant forms through which society outside the state is represented in the global and international arenas.

Social movements are seen as having unique characteristics, but in reality they have many features in common with the other civil society institutions to which we have referred. It cannot be assumed that social movements are more effective than other bodies in civil society: their relatively informal, spontaneous character brings advantages but also disadvantages in both the mobilization of support and the achievement of leverage. Linkages of social movements and informal networks (e.g. of women’s, gay and peace groups and movements) are only one kind of global development.

A particular problem in the definition of global civil society is to specify its relationship with state forms. The emergence of global civil society can be seen both as a response to the globalization of state power and a source of pressure for it. There is no one, juridically defined global state to which global civil society corresponds, even if a de facto complex of global state institutions is coming into existence through the fusion of Western state power and the legitimation framework of the United Nations.

The emergence of global civil society in fact corresponds to the contradictory processes of globalization of state power, and the messy aggregation of global and national state power which comprises the contemporary inter-state system. The forms of global state power are often inadequate from the point of view of civil society organizations - e.g. power can be mobilized to deal with what is seen as a problem for Western strategic interests (e.g. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait) but not coherently to deal with genocide, environmental crises, or world poverty. Civil society organizations often find themselves, at the end of the twentieth century, arguing for a different kind of crystallization of global state power from those favoured by state elites.

The development of global civil society, as of the global state, is moreover still limited. Civil society institutions are still generally defined in terms of national bases, and because of this there is a deep structural difficulty in their relationship to inter-state relations, let alone transnational forms of state power. These problems are especially significant in the case of social movements. Whether social movements are demonstration-based or mobilize utilizing a wider range of methods, they rely more on cultural impact than on articulated connections with the political system. The cultural strength of social movements derives partly from their location outside the formal party and parliamentary structures of the state; but this can also be a weakness when it comes to seeking particular concessions from the state.

The political power of social movements does not arise from occupying positions within formal political institutions (as in the case of parties) but largely depends on their cultural mobilizing power, i.e. the extent to which they can achieve symbolic impact on the streets and/or in the media. In the case of demonstration-based movements, leverage is dependent on the relationships between physical mobilizations and media coverage. There are cycles of mobilization within social movements, mediating the internal momentum of the movement and the politico-cultural context in which it is operating. It is very difficult for the leaders of a movement to ensure that the peak of the mobilizing cycle coincides with the greatest opportunity for influence on the state. Leverage is often a somewhat hit-and-miss affair.

If social movements generally have such difficulties with the state, then clearly they are greatly magnified in relation to interstate (rather than intrastate) politics. To influence interstate relationships, social movements need to move beyond the national base which is still their most common framework. They need, implicitly, to influence all of the states involved in a particular set of interstate relations, which in turn requires equivalent movements within each state and developed transnational linkages, including ideally a common strategy. All of these requirements represent an inherent strain on the resources of social movements, which typically respond locally, regionally and nationally to issues, expressing feelings and beliefs within these limited frameworks. The problem of international leverage expresses the general contradiction between the modes of bottom-up and top-down politics in its most extreme form, since interstate relations have traditionally been the area of politics most removed from popular or electoral influence.

Given these structural limitations of social movements within interstate politics, how should their role be understood? From the point of view of states (and hence also of statist theorists of international relations), social movements represent a relatively unpredictable (often even ‘irrational’) intrusion into the balance of power. From the standpoint of a broader conception of international politics, in which states are the organizing but not the only level of analysis, the effects of including social movements (and other civil society organizations) are to complicate ‘pure’ interstate relationships. James N. Rosenau (1991) has gone so far as to argue that we need to talk of ‘postinternational’ rather than international politics.

In this perspective, international politics is one sub-context of the larger framework of global politics. States can be seen as parts, in Justin Rosenberg’s (1994) phrase, of the ‘empire of civil society’ within which they originated and on which they depend. In this context, rather than seeing social movements or other civil society organizations as intruders, or categorising them residually as ‘non-state actors’, they are recognized as normal actors within global politics. As the increasing ‘turbulence’ of global politics and the relative decline in state autonomy break down the insulation of international politics from politics in civil society, international relations theorists are finding the ‘conceptual jailbreak’ to postinternational - indeed global - concepts more and more necessary.

Within recent international theory, both substantive and normative arguments have been developed concerning the significance of global civil society. It has been argued that international governance, in the late twentieth century, involves international organisations and global civil society as well as the system of states. The moral and political significance of global civil society has also been elaborated, in two principal ways.

On the one hand, writers like the Marxist Rosenberg and the Hegelian Mervyn Frost (1995) have revived classically inclusive concepts of civil society and argue correspondingly (in the former case) for a broad social transformation as the context of changing international relations and (in the latter) for an ‘ethical’ approach to international order. On the other hand, however, a broader range of radical writers have argued for approaches to global politics based on a concept of civil society closer to the narrower Gramscian approach. Richard Falk (1995), for example, argues for a ‘humane global governance’ based mainly on civil society, in the sense of civil associations and especially social movements, as opposed to the ‘inhumane global governance’ of states and multinational corporations. In his project, civil society is the core of a democratic ‘globalization from below’ to be counterposed to the dominant trend towards an authoritarian ‘globalization from above’. In this humane alternative, the development of civil society is seen as working against the militarism of the state system towards a democratic world peace.


This positive reading of the role of civil society in war and violence is only partially supported by a reading of the historical evidence - although is not to deny that the emerging global civil society of the early twenty-first century may have different relationships to war from those of the national civil societies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Perhaps because of the positive reading of civil society which characterises most of the literature, virtually nothing has been written on the role of civil society as such in the violence of the European empires and the world wars. We can however construct an argument from the vast historical literature on all aspects of social life in the wars of this period.

The study of ‘war and society’ has been a staple of modern historiography. Vast literatures analyse the ways in which warfare has hardly been an exclusive concern of states and armies, but has transformed and been transformed by social relations. From the mid-nineteenth century especially, warfare has been industrialised - adopting technologies from the civilian economy, as well as functioning as a motor of technological change in the economy as a whole. The relations between states and arms corporations have been a central facet of political economy since the late nineteenth century.

Beneath the surface of the pacific commerce which mostly reigned in Europe from 1815 to 1914 (if not in the United States where the civil war foretold later horrors), the industrial capitalist societies which developed in the nineteenth century engendered the classic modern form of militarism. Everywhere in Europe towards the end of the century, militarist ideologies flourished in social life: from the propagandist militarism of army and navy leagues to new paramilitary youth organisations and the militarist saturation of popular culture.

In this climate, no institution or profession of the national civil societies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries escaped militarization, although the degree and forms varied. Industry, schooling and religion showed the influence of military methods and values. Newspapers and advertising, and later radio and cinema, were often enthusiastically and voluntarily militarist, before they were conscripted to the cause of the nation-state. The paradigmatic social movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the social-democratic parties and trade unions, fell under the sway of militarism, putting aside the pacifist tendencies of their ideologies once war was declared.

In total war, civil societies took almost wholly national forms. The internationalization of professions and science, which had a long history even before the nineteenth century, largely succumbed to the nationalism of the early twentieth. As in almost all civil institutions, national content prevailed over universal forms. Internationalization prevailed only within military alliances, and even then was often limited by nation-state interests. The most that could be claimed was that the universalising values of civil society lent a special character to the war aims (and later Cold War aims) and political-intellectual culture of the democracies - as opposed to totalitarian Fascist and Communist states, where autonomous civil societies ceased to exist.

The historical sociologist Michael Mann (1996) has pointed out, moreover, that civil society hardly had a pacific character in colonial wars. Settler civil societies were often more militaristic (and racist) even than colonial empires. They generated their own systematic violence against indigenous populations across the continents wherever Europeans migrated, whether in North or South America, Africa or Australasia. Settler societies were often more aggressive towards pre-existing societies than were colonial states. They continued as sources of violence into the era of decolonisation, playing key roles in wars to defend white ‘European’ power from Algeria to South Africa.

Guerilla war involved a special version of the total-war militarization of civil society. Guerillas fought directly in and through civil society, hiding behind civil institutions just as states sought to secure them against guerilla takeovers.Guerilla war, even more than total war between conventional state military forces, was a form of warfare centred on the shape and control of civil society.

Total war, in both its major inter-state and minor guerilla forms, transformed civilian populations and their institutions into factors in warfare. Civilians and civil society became both instruments and targets of war. Total war thus developed an implicitly - and in cases like the Nazi Holocaust, explicitly - genocidal character. Wars were fought against peoples and cultures (for Hitler, the war was against the Jews as well as his conventional state adversaries). Attempts were made to physically exterminate peoples, to eliminate their ways of life and histories, and to abolish their civil society and institutions. In the militarization of civil society by total war, some versions of civil society triumphed, others were destroyed; all changed.


We have already seen that during the Cold War there was a significant internationalization of economy and society as well as of the state in Western countries (in the Soviet bloc, Communist internationalism was experienced as forced and led therefore to the reassertion of nationalism on the system’s demise). There was also, moreover, a major transformation of warfare. Total war in the form which had dominated the first half of the twentieth century declined. On the one hand, the total destructiveness and the genocidal character of war were accentuated by the development of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. On the other, however, these same systems made redundant the mass mobilization and participation of the total war era, inaugurating a ‘post-military society’. Civil society began to develop therefore beyond its dominant national and militarized forms in international and global directions, in which a new post-militarist character was strong.

We also noted that during this period, ‘new’ social movements developed often with implicitly or explicitly transnational and global reference. Some, like women’s movements, were movements with broad social and cultural aims which had a wide-ranging influence on international politics. Others, however, like peace movements represent the opposite case: movements with very specific political goals designed to affect the workings of the interstate system and particularly to affect the dangers of war and the possibilities of peace. The genocidal character of nuclear warfare, with its total threat to society, stimulated new mass participatory movements against state strategies.

Although peace organizations of various kinds have existed continuously for many decades, peace movements have tended to arise because of particular conflicts or crises. In recent times, they have been of two main types: to halt or prevent particular wars (most notably the Vietnam war) and to oppose particular weapons developments (chiefly nuclear weapons). Where women’s movements have grown in diffuse ways since the 1960s, peace movements have tended to rise and fall quite dramatically in conjunction with particular international crises. Nuclear disarmament movements for example emerged, primarily in Western Europe and North America, in two main periods (1958-63 and 1979-85) but almost disappeared in the intervening years and again in last years of the twentieth century. The movement against the Vietnam war, peaking from about 1966-72, was a quite distinct movement from the two nuclear disarmament movements, with as many political and organizational differences as similarities.

I shall concentrate on the example of the most recent phase of nuclear disarmament movements. These movements arose almost simultaneously in 1979-80 in a number of Western European countries, following the NATO decision to introduce new nuclear systems, especially cruise missiles, into five states (the United Kingdom, the Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium). From the beginning, although anti-nuclear campaigns arose locally and nationally within each of the states, the common framework of the NATO decision, while varied according to the missile installation timetable and national political situation, imposed a common agenda on the new European peace movements: to prevent the deployment of the new systems. In European states not directly affected, such as France and Spain, parallel movements arose with different national agendas. In the United States, a similar movement arose around the broader demand for a ‘nuclear freeze’.

These movements were successful in mobilizing large-scale demonstrations and influencing public opinion. While they imposed some delays in implementation, they failed however to prevent deployment of the new missiles, which was mostly completed by 1984; or in the American case, to secure a general freeze on new nuclear deployments. Ironically, new disarmament proposals between the superpowers, which developed from 1986 after the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR the previous year, appeared after the peace movement had gone into fairly rapid decline as a mass movement.

On a short-term balance sheet of the peace movements the failures were substantive and the successes, largely symbolic. Their influence on European public opinion was substantial: in all states designated for the deployment of cruise missiles, opinion poll majorities consistently opposed the deployments. They also influenced established civil-society institutions like social- and liberal-democratic parties, media and churches. The movements partially succeeded in their cultural goals: movement culture, in which pacifist, environmentalist/green and feminist strands were strong, which had a powerful impact on some groups of young people.

At a deeper level, the peace movements were less successful in shifting support for existing nuclear systems or for NATO, or in deflecting the broad US and Western nuclear strategy. The movements stimulated a different political climate around nuclear weapons issues, forcing governments to justify and debate their policies; the bottom line, however, was that they failed in their manifest political aim of preventing missile deployments. A major reason for this is revealing: despite the movements’ influence on both public opinion and opposition parties, the parties which adopted or were more influenced by their demands were resoundingly defeated in national elections (notably the German Social-Democratic Party and British Labour Party in 1983, the American Democrats in 1984).

The structural problems of social movements in the context of interstate politics largely account, too, for the failures of the peace movements. The mutual solidarity of NATO governments helped them to withstand the separate (and variable) pressures of their national peace movements. The European peace movements faced the difficulty that the major centre of NATO decision-making, the USA, was outside their reach. The difficulty of stimulating a large-scale parallel peace movement in the Warsaw Pact states was a major additional factor, since it enabled NATO governments to claim that for them to halt their deployments would be ‘one-sided’ disarmament in the face of Soviet weapons modernization.

Nonetheless, although the disarmament of the later 1980s arose primarily from interstate politics and from the domestic politics and economics of the Soviet Union, the peace movements were an important part of the context which produced these changes. First, the the peace movements stimulated strong popular support in Western Europe for detente and disarmament and so ensured Gorbachev of a positive Western European response to his disarmament proposals. Second, Ronald Reagan’s ‘zero option’ proposals for eliminating intermediate nuclear missiles, initially produced as a propaganda measure to help counter the peace movements, were picked up by Gorbachev and became an important element in the move towards agreement. Third, the small independent peace and human rights movements in Eastern Europe, stimulated by deliberate actions of the Western movements, helped to lay the foundations for mass opposition to the Communist regimes. This led in turn to the East German and Czechoslovak revolutions of 1989 which overthrew the system and completed the ending of the Cold War.

The 1980s began with one kind of social movement, the peace campaigners, on the streets of Western European capitals, and ended with another, the movement for democracy, on the streets of Eastern European capitals. These two movements, together, represented important moments in the complex processes - both within civil society and within and between states - which unravelled the Cold War system. Neither set of social movements could by itself claim direct and decisive responsibility for this change; but their actions contributed both directly and indirectly to the change. Any account of the end of the Cold War which seeks to interpret it without reference to them is certainly lop-sided. Peace movements and the wider civil society context which they helped to transform were significant factors in the processes of transformation.


With the end of the Cold War, there have been new, dramatic transformations of global politics, the longer-term results of which it is difficult to foresee in the late 1990s. Economy and culture have become significantly more globalized, due particularly to the removal of the major political barriers between the former Communist states and Western-led world economic and communications systems. War between Russia and the West has become almost as unthinkable as war between the major states of North America, Western Europe and Japan had become during the Cold War, although relations have not been fully stabilised (nor has the internal political structure of Russia).

The power of states has been widely seen as in relative decline - although these remain the pivotal and in many senses still the most powerful institutions of global politics. Many states have been subject to fragmentation. The Communist multinational states of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia have broken up - the first two amidst major wars. Many African states, including Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Zaire, have disintegrated at least partially through large-scale violence. Even Western states like Canada, Belgium, Italy and the United Kingdom have been subjected to disintegrative strains, even if those have so far been managed largely by peaceful political means.

The trends towards, and debate about, global civil society have developed significantly in the last decade of the twentieth century. Civil society has also had a new centrality to the what have been called the ‘new wars’ of the 1990s. With the diminution of classic inter-state conflict, most major wars of this first post-Cold War decade have been wars of state-fragmentation. In these wars, the central issues have often been the very composition of society and the character of civil society, as well as of the state. Two visions of civil society and its relations with the state have been in contest. On the one hand, ethnic nationalists have sought to define civil society and state in exclusivist terms. On the other, pluralists and democrats have contended for open and inclusive ideas of society and the state.

Ethnic nationalism has arisen because political elites - in many cases fragments of old (especially Communist) elites in new guises - have sought to maintain or carve out political power. They have exploited old ethnic differences to mobilize support and maintain legitimacy, and have utilized parts of the state and military apparatuses to create ethnically homogenous mini-states or fiefdoms. Many wars have been, like Hitler’s war against the Jews, wars against civilian populations and against civil societies and cultures. While these wars have often been against ‘other’ ethnic cultures, plural civil society has also been a key target of ethnic nationalism. In Bosnia, multi-ethnic Sarajevo, where intermarriage and ‘Yugoslav’ identification was relatively high, were a prime target of the Serbian nationalists. Intellectuals who organized pluralist civil institutions - local officials, teachers etc. - have often been prime victims of the new genocidal politics. So-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ - since the term derives from the Serbian practitioners of mass killing it is hardly adequate for social science - has targetted pluralists as well as people of other ethnicities.

Although many of these elements of the ‘new wars’ are not really novel - the history of the last 100 years is littered with genocides - the particular configuration of the genocidal fragmentation-wars of the late twentieth century is distinctive. The trends towards global and transnational forms of civil society work in these wars in a number of different ways. On the one hand, protagonists in these wars typically mobilise ethnic-national civil society in a trans-state and global manner. The Israeli state, for example, has long been dependent on the American Zionist lobby. More recently the Palestinians have also organized themselves with increasing effectiveness as a diaspora - not merely in the refugee camps of neighbouring states but in the wealthier West too. Irish Republicanism has long depended on Irish-American support; there have also been signs recently of its Unionist opponents organising in the USA. Serbian and Croatian ethnic-nationalisms were trans-state in the dual sense of being organised on a trans-republican basis within the former Yugoslav territory, and in drawing on the global Serb and Croat diasporas, again in North America but also in Western Europe and Australia. In these and other contemporary cases, the organization of civil society on an ethnic-national basis threatens to undermine the idea of a plural, often pan-ethnic civil society not only in the zones of conflict but also in areas of the advanced West where diaspora communities are strongly organized. The role of these civil societies in wars and even genocide shows a heightened tension between national and universal interpretations of civil values, which we noted existing in earlier periods.

On the other hand, some new wars have been transformed into global political crises in which civil society linkages have generated real support for victimized groups. Not only the protagonists of plural civil society, but the representatives of abused ethnic minorities, have begun to pressure Western states and legitimate international institutions to provide aid against genocide and violence. Because Western states often fail to perceive traditional strategic interests in the plights of victims of war and genocide, and are reluctant to commit people and resources to helping them, the appeal of the oppressed is often directed at Western civil society, and linkages between civil society in zones of crisis and in the West are strengthened. These links can be seen as elements in the forging of global civil society.

Two kinds of responses originating in Western civil societies have been crucial in generating support and protection. On the one hand, mass media have been the main agencies through which some (but by no means all) wars have become recognized as global crises, and through which political pressure for aid and intervention has developed. While the attention of mass media, especially television, to wars is undoubtedly selective, brief and episodic, and often led or circumscribed by the access for cameras and portable satellite dishes which determine picture availability, there is no doubt that it can have powerful effects. The intensive television campaign by news broadcasters during the Kurdish refugee crisis following the Gulf War, for example, helped push the American and British governments towards an unprecedented ‘humanitarian intervention’ in northern Iraq, which reversed their previous stance of non-intervention. The possibility and success of this campaign depended very much on the prior nexus of responsibility between Western leaders and Iraq, and in this sense was atypical. But elsewhere, media have still nudged governments, however unevenly, towards interventions, and once intervention has taken place, have made them aware of the responsibility that goes with it.

On the other hand, humanitarian agencies and campaigns and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been principal means both of mobilizing political pressure within Western societies, and of delivering aid within zones of crisis. Aid organizations mediate between donors and victims: in the zones of crisis, they are the physical representations of a substantial minority of Western publics who donate and raise funds for the downtrodden in war zones; within Western societies, they are the symbolic representatives of the victims, seeking to mobilize support. Aid organizations have some of the aspects of social movements: the goal of mobilizing a large popular base, and the aim of changing (if only in a limited ameliorative sense) social conditions. Of course, many agencies have longer-term development as well as short-term aid objectives, and some seek to organize people in a more campaigning mode to alter general perceptions of third-world problems. To this extent, these organizations operate in a social-movement mode; and yet their primary relationship to their supporters is a passive financial one. To this extent, they fail the participatory or mobilizing test of a social movement.

The international crises of the 1990s have indeed failed to precipitate classic social-movement responses in Western societies. The Gulf War produced only brief intimations of anti-war movements of the kind seen in previous Western wars (above all Vietnam); there have been few significant social movements in response to other global crises. It seems that movements arose over nuclear weapons and the Vietnam war because these issues could be presented as simple moral-political questions, in which the issues of responsibility were direct. Despite the enormity of the mass killings in Bosnia, Rwanda, etc., which were extensively publicized in the mass media, these sorts of situations neither appeared as simple, nor was there a clear nexus of responsibility involving Western governments. Their challenges did not fit, moreover, into established Cold War ideological paradigms: Western governments could not be represented so easily as ‘imperialist’, nor could the demand for military intervention to protect victims of genocide be accommodated simply within the pacifist, or at least anti-militarist, traditions of most social movement activism.

Traditional representative institutions in national civil societies, however, have hardly proved very responsive to global crises. Just as the zones of crisis, nationalist definitions of civil society have been partly reinforced, so in the West most civil institutions remain national rather than global in orientation. National ideologies are much more passive and open than in war zones, but parties, churches and other groups respond more to those crises which have national significance, for example where national troops are involved, than to the problems of victims. The transition from national to global civil society appears, from the experience of the new post-Cold War crises, to be in its early stages.

On the edge of the twenty-first century, therefore, profound changes in world politics are posing new dilemmas of war and violence in which the nature and role of civil society is very much a contested issue. Civil society is central to the new world politics of peace, but the relations between the plural, democratic idea of civil society and the national framework in which it has been cast require radical rethinking in a global era.



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