Civil society transcends right-left gap

How will current US social and political trends - amid the rise of the right - affect the world in the decades ahead? Surprisingly, some sociologists say that they augur for curbing the excesses of national power and capitalist markets while strengthening the UN and other forms of global governance.

Though it sounds counterintuitive in an age of corporate globalization and US unilateralism, there is evidence of powerful social forces stirring that could do just that.

These are the forces of civil society - community groups, trade associations, labor unions, churches, and other voluntary associations in the nonprofit sector. Some sociologists who study them say they will broaden social consensus at home, and global governance abroad. The argument goes something like this:

Civil society carries the core values on which America was founded and on which civic-minded liberals and conservatives agree: democracy, honesty, fairness, transparency, safeguarding public health and security, etc.

When these values conflict with the bottom line or maintenance of power, corporations and government may jettison them. This leaves a values-vacuum that generates polarized, often futile politics along pro- vs. anti-corporate and pro- vs. anti-nationalism fault lines, leaving people feeling stymied and cynical.

But into the breach leap the forces of civil society, by which citizens reengage with issues. They bridge left-right impasses, appealing directly to core values, to doing the right thing regardless of profitability, political power, or ideological stereotypes.

Not only liberals embrace environmentalism or alternative energy - witness conservatives from Western states who oppose coal-bed methane or conservative columnists who support a gas tax. Not only conservatives want more jobs, fundamental tax reform, and smaller government - witness bipartisan support for cutting payroll taxes.

Many burning domestic and global issues are not "left-right" but "right-wrong" issues transcending party lines. Civil society, not politics or business, is increasingly where citizens engage them. With the unprecedented expansion and wealth transfer in the US and globally, civil society increasingly impacts markets and policymaking, evolving voluntary and transnational systems of governance that may someday alter our ideas of trade and national sovereignty themselves.

In fact, alterations are already under way. Big corporations support voluntary standards such as the CERES environmental principles. The nonprofit Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations sets and monitors standards of for-profit healthcare. The UN actively supports collaboration between global business and civil society, and even encourages NGOs to mediate international conflicts.

Granted, such UN initiatives may find dubious reception in Washington. Still, many Republicans as well as Democrats support the UN's vital global governance role. Though President Bush isn't expected to champion these kinds of issues at the 2005 world summit, going on this week in New York, elsewhere Bush officials do embrace the idea.

"Civil society participation makes democracies more pluralistic, representative, and responsive," USAID Assistant Administrator Adolfo Franco said recently at a conference on combating corruption. "The challenge for governments is to avoid immediately casting civil society aside as the opposition, and instead recognize that a sophisticated civil society can be an ally and partner of government."

The fascinating question is how the US will deal with this challenge as civil society grows. Will we stonewall it, or support its development? With oil prices high, the dollar low, federal and trade deficits ballooning, China ascendant, outsourcing rampant, terrorist recruitment a growing concern, and majorities throughout Western Europe and Canada criticizing US policy, how far can the US pursue unilateralism and globalization against a growing current of global opinion civil society development, and its UN exponents?

A new Pew Global Attitudes poll already shows the US viewed less favorably by the world than most other countries including China. In countries traditionally partnering with America, 59 percent view us negatively, while at home 57 percent of us are dissatisfied with America's direction.

Sooner or later - some sociologists believe it will be in the coming decades - we must come to terms with the broad, popular hunger for a social order that places core values above economic and political dictates of the bottom line. Through voluntary and transnational structures such as those the UN now advocates, the forces of civil society will transcend left-right divides and gain clout in markets and governments, including ours.

Severyn T. Bruyn is the author of 'A Civil Republic: Beyond Capitalism and Nationalism' (Kumarian Press, 2005).

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