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Synthesis/Regeneration 24   (Winter 2001)

Greens in Civil Society

by Larry Rinehart, the Greens/Green Party USA

Greens in the US are currently faced with several dilemmas, regarding the form of our organizational unity. The most obvious of these is the question of how the Party organization is to be structured, and whether G/GPUSA should surrender its title as a Party, while perhaps remaining as some other kind of organization.

Less obvious perhaps, is the question of how such a non-Party or extra-Party organization might ultimately constitute itself geographically, unconstrained by the kinds of borders that pertain to political, rather than cultural space. My intention in this article is to offer a few bits of a discourse which has been developing in recent sociological/political theory, and which I believe may shed some light on our dilemmas.

The crux of this recent social discourse is the distinction of civil society, as a domain of essentially communicative action, from both political and economic society. As Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato have it:

The actors of political and economic society are directly involved in state power and economic production, which they seek to control and manage. They cannot afford to subordinate strategic and instrumental criteria to the patterns of normative integration and open-ended communication characteristic of civil society…The political role of civil society in turn is not directly related to the control or conquest of power but to the generation of influence through the life of democratic associations and unconstrained discussion in the cultural public sphere…The differentiation of civil society from both economic and political society...focus(es) on relations of conscious association, of self-organization and organized communication. (CA:ix,x)

This model suggests that party politics and official power, like economic competition and capital wealth, are inherently limiting of the extent of moral and ethical activity that can be accomplished in their respective spheres. It also alludes to the importance of the "other kind" of organization, the public effectiveness of which has been on the increase since the late 1960's, sometimes called collectively the "new social movements."

Autonomous, voluntary, and indigenous associations within civil society using and expanding public discourse and public spaces for discourse are the differentia specifica of contemporary social movements…The sit-ins, boycotts, and freedom rides were aimed at influencing public opinion and thereby the courts to enforce federal laws and to invalidate as unconstitutional, local ordinances institutionalizing segregation. It was influence, not money or power, that was operative here. (CA:507)

There is often, I observe, an apparent bias toward the political framework in discussions of "whither Green unity?" The post-election mailing from the G/GPUSA Clearinghouse talks about building the Party, the Party. Yet, as Cohen and Arato remind us,

A civil-society-oriented approach could highlight two additional dimensions of contemporary collective action: the politics of influence (of civil on political society) and the politics of identity (the focus on autonomy, identity, and the democratization of social relations outside the polity) ... The salient feature of the new social movements is not that they engage in expressive action or assert their identities but that they involve actors who have become aware of their capacity to create identities…They have articulated the formal principle of an equal chance for all to participate in group processes through which identities are formed, and they have become self-reflective regarding the social processes of identity formation. (CA:509, 511)

However, as we decide to organize ourselves as we enter the first decade of a new millennium, we shall need above all to build a stable, polyvalent, multicultural, multiracial Green identity, as the people representing certain key values.

The civil society aspect of the movement needs and deserves an institutional form parallel to the political party aspect...

Andrew Shanks, a British theologian who has been bringing that discipline to bear on new-social-movement phenomena, illustrates the distinction between civil and political society by Hanna Arendt's contrast of parties and councils: "Political parties are designed as instruments for efficient and legitimated ruling, councils by contrast are designed to maximize the scope for free debate." (S:201) An enthusiastic advocate for the significance of civil society, Shanks even refers to communicative action as "antipolitics," observing that "liberated from the tactical constraints imposed by the quest for the power to rule, the practitioners of antipolitics need no longer be governed by dictates of calculating shrewdness." (S:206) He has also expressed the hope that

...there are signs that organizations operating in civil society are increasingly influential in public affairs...

...there would emerge a whole new mode of public debate-alongside that of party politics; debate focussing, far more, on questions of fundamental principle regarding the nature of ethical rationality. The aim, in the long run, would be to transform the whole context of the democratic process, and thereby help create a state of affairs significantly enhancing the chance of just and appropriate decision-making. (S:207)

Now theologians are notorious for their hopes; yet there are signs that organizations operating in civil society are increasingly influential in public affairs planetwide. Virginia Straus proposes calling these "CSOs" (for civil society organizations) instead of NGO's (non-governmental), which only says what they are not. (SR:235). Straus points out it was CSOs that brought about the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the UN in 1948. She goes on to note that

...more recently the movement of peoples associations has gathered strength from opportunities created by the UN itself…CSO forums were permitted to be staged alongside the governmental forums and became particularly active during the 1990's, developing their own agendas for action and pushing the states to make concrete commitments.

These people's associations proved to be adept at influencing state policy and also learned to network together and share information for the sake of common interests…CSOs have been speaking for some time about the possibility of establishing a CSO voice at the UN, exercising the kind of policy influence they did at the series of world conferences. (SR:235-238)

It seems to me that at least two conclusions can be drawn by Greens, enmeshed in our current rendezvous with destiny, from the foregoing sketch of the discourse of civil society: (1) The civil society aspect of the movement needs and deserves an institutional form parallel to the political party aspect; and, (2) A Green CSO could operate influentially in parallel with a Green Party, and CSO forums take their places at major Green gatherings and congresses, as in the UN model. As a corollary, I observe that the organization presently known as G/GPUSA, with its grassroots democratic structure and its battery of publications, appears well-positioned to serve such a role.

I believe there was an effort underway, before we were all swamped with the electoral frenzy, to pursue "NGO"/CSO status at the UN, for this organization.

In addition to the two conclusions I have drawn, there is a question that is raised by the civil-society approach to our organizational reflections: the question of geographical demarcation and federation. If GPUSA drops the "P," doesn't this change its relationship to "USA" as well, since the latter is after all a political state in political society? While the present organization is obviously based on the geographic distribution of these States, as a UN-registered CSO it might become open to representing locals and regionals from outside US territory, as well as to processes of federation.


CA   Jean L Cohen and Andrew Arato, Civil Society and Political Theory (MIT: 1992).

S   Andrew Shanks, Civil Society, Civil Religion (Blackwell, Oxford UK, 1995)

SR   Virginia Straus, "Making Peace," in Leroy S Rouner, ed, Civility (Notre Dame, 2000).

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