380. "Can There be a Global Society?" Perspectives (January, 2002) v 25, no. 1 p 1.


Theory develops in many ways, including through quests for internal consistency, codification, and formalization. Another way it develops is in response to challenging questions posed by public leaders, policy makers, and the community at large, in which these people at least implicitly look to macrosociology(1) for guidance.

One such set of questions arises out of the recent increased interest in the development of a "global civil society". Many factors are said to have propelled such a development since 1990, such as the end of the Cold War, globalization, rapid communication technologies, the rise of English as a de facto lingua franca, thousands of new international nongovernmental organizations, a handful of transnational social movements, new supranational institutions (e.g., the proposed International Criminal Court and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), and an increase in the number and power of multinational corporations.

The same factors are said to diminish the capacities of national governments (especially all that are not superpowers) to manage their societal affairs, as well as to be behind an increase in transnational problems, including organized crime, trafficking in human beings, and environmental challenges. Hence the interest in finding new (post-national) ways of dealing with the problems.

The challenge for sociological (and communitarian) theory, as I see it, starts with the question: Can there be a global society? Before this question can be addressed, it is necessary to specify what a society is. There is no agreed upon definition of society. Some argue that the very concept is a fiction,(2) that all there is are individuals and the transactions and contracts they make. Others hold that societies are arenas in which classes clash, and that the very term seeks to falsely impose unity where none exists nor should exist. Still others maintain that society is a fruitful concept but view it as reflecting a pattern of distribution of powers (among elites and followers) and assets. Finally, there are those who add the sharing of a consensus on core values. (This presumes that a stable society must be ensconced in a state.)

I tried to show elsewhere, on the basis of four case studies, that for a society to be sustainable, three conditions must be met: it must have control of the means of violence that exceeds that of subunits; it must have a significant capacity to reallocate economic goods; and it must command loyalty in key, relevant matters that trumps commitment to subgroups or external ones.(3)I tried to show that only if these conditions are met is a society in the long run able to countervail centrifugal forces that exist in all social groupings, especially large and complex ones.

I will use the definition just outlined for the rest of the discussion, although, of course, the matter of what is the appropriate definition of society stands and the answer one's theory provides will affect all the deliberations that follow and many others.

Using, then, the three conditions as the criteria, whether or not a global society is beginning to develop (obviously it is not in place) is a matter for empirical study.

However, a corollary theoretical question remains: must societies in general, and a global one in particular, be ensconced in a state? The idea that the state may wither away is an old one, but has been put by Marx at the "end of history", and is considered by many as utopian-that is, sociologically untenable. However, the idea has received new currency recently with the rise of new technological developments. They have made possible the theoretical conception of a society (and within it, communities and organizations, corporations included) in which networks (of equals) replace hierarchies; information--power; and self-regulation--government through the state.(4) This conception has been held to apply particularly to cyberspace,(5) in which a growing proportion of social transactions is projected to take place.

More moderate and widely held theories, sometimes referred to as "governance without government,"(6) do not conceptualize a global society without government, but (a) view the global society as relying to a significant extent on transnational nonstate actors (e.g., many thousands of NGOs and social movements) to regulate itself, and (b) project that although national states and intergovernmental international organizations will play a role, a considerable part of their current role will be absorbed by smaller societal entities. Václav Havel writes, "the state... can go in only two directions: downward or upward. Downward applies to the various organs and structures of civil society to which the state should gradually transfer many of the tasks it now performs itself. Upward applies to various regional, transnational or global communities or organizations."(7) These theories also (c) point to the rise of global norms, some shared values, and world public opinion not only as societal factors but also as leading to new global laws that are enforced by national governments and to some extent by new or developing international courts. But all agree that a global state (or world government) is neither possible nor desired. For instance, Lawrence Lessig states without hesitation that world government is an "impossibility."(8)

The challenge for sociological theory is whether one can conceptualize a stable society not ensconced in a state. Historically, much has been made of the role of (domestic) civil society in protecting citizens from excessive intrusion by the state, and ensuring that the state will not weaken communities and voluntary associations and families by preempting their functions. In short, civil society has been viewed largely as a counterweight to a potentially overpowering state.

Less has been made in recent work (unlike the work of earlier social philosophers) of the benefits that civil society derives from the state. This is true, in part, because it is obvious that society benefits from the state, for instance by curbing inter-group and interpersonal violence. It also reflects the fact that there are relatively few empirical studies that examine the relationship between a community's ability to rely on its norms and informal controls, and the availability of laws and public authorities to back up these communal norms and controls. In addition, historically (especially in view of past totalitarianism and authoritarianism) more attention has been paid to protecting society from the state than to the state's nurturing of civil society.

If one grants that some kind of global state will be needed if the global society is to stabilize, the following questions arise: Will it have to be an encompassing one, akin to national states, or could it be limited, for instance, to security and to narrow economic matters such as trade, but not deal with reallocation of wealth and welfare? Could such a narrow global government be legitimated? And could such a government be legitimated without being subject to some kind of a world parliament? These theoretical issues are now, in effect, put to the test on a small scale in the European Union, which so far has formed largely an economic bloc, and the question arises whether or not it must move toward a full-fledged state (often referred to as a united states of Europe, a federation) to be sustainable. If the response is in the affirmative, to what extent could member nations and entities within them maintain a measure of autonomy (an issue flagged as a question of "subsidiarity") from the Union government? I do not presume that whatever we learn from the EU experience will necessarily apply to other regions, let alone the world, but it serves to highlight the challenging issues sociological theory might help to illuminate.(9)


Notes:

1. James S. Coleman, Amitai Etzioni and John Porter, Macrosociology: Research and Theory (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1970); Edward W. Lehman, Political Society: A Macrosociology of Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).

2. Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1935), 8.

3. Amitai Etzioni, Political Unification Revisited (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books), forthcoming 2001.

4. John W. Meyer, John Boli, George M. Thomas, and Francisco O. Ramirez, "World Society and the Nation-State," American Journal of Sociology 103 (July 1997): 144-81.

5. See John Perry Barlow, "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," Humanist 56 (May/June 1996): 18.

6. See, for instance, James N. Rosenau and Ernst-Otto Czempiel, eds., Governance without Government: Order and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992); Oran R. Young, Governance in World Affairs (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1999); See Jessica Mathews, "Power Shift," Foreign Affairs 76 (January/February 1997): 50-66; Václav Havel, "Beyond the Nation-State," Responsive Community 9 (Summer 1999): 26-33.

7. Havel, 27.

8. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 205.

9. See Chapters 19 and 20 of Amitai Etzioni, The Active Society: A Theory of Societal and Political Processes (New York: Free Press, 1968).

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