Notes concerning Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and
Threefolding, by Nicanor Perlas (Quezon City, Philippines: Center for
Alternative Development Initiatives, 1999). Paperback, 145 pages.
Note: This article was written with the first (1999) edition of Perlas'
book in view. A second edition, greatly expanded, is now available. See
below for ordering information.
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The 1999 World Trade Organization protesters in Seattle were, on one view,
a bunch of aging hippies looking to get high on a nostalgic reprise of
their glory days. This may be a minuscule fragment of the truth, but
there is, I think, a much more profound reading of the Seattle
demonstrations and their aftermath: they are symptoms of a significant
social awakening whereby civil society is becoming conscious of its own
powers and opportunities. As Nicanor Perlas puts the matter in Shaping
In its contemporary form, civil society is the most important social
innovation of the twentieth century. It ranks in importance with the
invention of the nation-state beginning in the seventeenth century and
the creation of the modern market starting in the eighteenth century.
This is a breathtaking statement, and certainly counterintuitive for many
people today. Perlas makes it the task of his book to justify the
statement. I think he succeeds.
Gatherings of Power
That an awakening of some sort is going on can hardly be disputed.
Writing in the *New York Times* last December, Alan Cowell remarks on how
the nonprofit Global Witness, employing fourteen people on a budget of
$800,000, confronted the international diamond giant, DeBeers, employing
twenty thousand people on a budget of $3.4 billion. The result? DeBeers
reversed its corporate policy and began certifying the provenance of its
diamonds to ensure that they are not helping to underwrite local or
regional conflicts. Increasingly, Cowell observes,
with multinational corporations gathering unparalleled power as the
standard-bearers of freewheeling capitalism -- in many countries, more
powerful than the governments themselves -- they are being held to
account by shoestring advocacy groups like Global Witness....
The holding to account may not seem very significant in the overall scale
of things at this point. Yet, clearly something is afoot. NGOs (non-
governmental organizations) have been given a greater role in both the
U.N. and the World Economic Forum (the latter held annually in Davos,
Switzerland). Last July more than fifty corporations committed themselves
to high labor, environmental, and human rights standards by joining NGOs
in signing a U.N. compact. So-called "sustainable development investment"
in the U.S. topped $1 trillion in 1997, up by 85 percent from the 1995
figure. For many companies, Cowell writes, the clamor of NGO demands for
corporate responsibility "can seem almost deafening". These demands,
according to DeBeers spokesman Andrew Lamont, "are part of the twenty-
first century economic landscape".
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Most institutions of global governance were designed for representatives
of sovereign states -- a fact noted by last September's State of the World
Forum in New York, chaired by Mikhail Gorbachev. A Forum announcement
Successful global governance must include not only governments but the
private [commercial] sector and civil society as peers in a co-creative
process of discernment and cooperation. Only when these three major
sectors of society are included in the deliberations concerning the
human future will the answers we seek begin to emerge.
Again, a radical statement. Contrary to the thought expressed here, most
commentators have vested their hopes for the future in just two social
sectors. As the standard view goes: if you multiply the number of
democratic political states, and if you then let these states flourish
economically under a liberal capitalist trade and investment regime, you
will be bound to find the world a more harmonious and productive place.
Yet, as Perlas reminds us, "civil society was behind the collapse of the
Berlin Wall and the subsequent demise of communism". Attempts to aid the
former Soviet Union have also given us ample opportunity to see what
happens when you undertake the fiat creation of a democracy and capitalist
economy without the necessary cultural foundation to support it. Perlas
cites a World Bank statistic attributing sixty-four percent of the world's
wealth production to "social capital" and only sixteen percent to business
But are there really grounds for considering civil society a co-equal
participant with governments and commercial entities in shaping our social
future -- and, if so, what are the principles by which these three estates
can come into a constructive relationship? In his book, Perlas cites a
number of theorists who have analyzed an emerging threefold character of
society. Among them are:
** Michael Mann, “The Sources of Social Power” (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1986).
** Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato, “Civil Society and Political Theory”
(Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1994).
** Leslie Sklair, “Sociology of the Global System” (Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1995).
** Rudolf Steiner, “The Renewal of the Social Organism” (Spring Valley NY:
Anthroposophic Press, 1985).
I am not familiar with most of these works, and have only a casual
acquaintance with Steiner's notion of "the threefold society", which goes
back to the second decade of the twentieth century. But a certain way of
conceiving the three sectors of society, derived from Steiner, has for
some time seemed decisively important to me. It's a matter of grounding
our understanding of each sector in an aspect of human nature. The French
revolutionary slogan, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity", can point us in the
The social sphere of equality is that of the political and legal system,
in a narrow sense. It is the sphere where there must be no respecting of
persons, the sphere where we are all equal before the law, seeking the
same justice. It is rooted in the fundamental, inalienable dignity of
every individual simply as a human being.
Second, there is what Perlas calls "culture" (overlapping, but not
precisely equivalent to "civil society"). It's law is freedom, and its
accomplishments arise from the abilities of individuals whose
contributions must not at all be regarded as equal. The great
achievements of science, art, and religion, the institutions of education,
everything creative, everything aimed at truth and beauty, everything
value-driven -- all this constitutes culture. The values and insights of
culture cannot be legislated or coerced; they can be achieved and
recognized only through the freedom of the individual. They are what
prevent a society from descending into political totalitarianism or
In the third place, we have the economic sphere, whose central principle
is "fraternity" -- brotherhood and altruism. Here is where, engaging the
stuff of the world, one person works to satisfy the needs of another, and
in turn receives from the other the material to satisfy his own needs.
You may think it strange to characterize the "cutthroat, greed-is-good"
world of commerce as essentially altruistic. But I am pointing only to
the inescapable and defining principle of the matter: we do in fact work
for each other, and if we do not choose within ourselves to work in that
spirit, then we are adopting a schizophrenic stance. It may be that the
widespread occurrence of such a stance results from our failure, so far,
to bring economics into proper relationship with the other two domains --
as opposed to letting economics co-opt and degrade them.
Perlas poses the problem of "threefolding" this way:
We are having a massive global disagreement over dozens of issues
because the key institutions representing culture (civil society),
polity (the state), and the economy (the market) have no clear idea of
how society is constituted and what are their respective legitimate
roles and tasks within society. Lacking this understanding, they all
engage in trying to dominate social life when, in fact, each depends on
the very vitality of each of the other major subsystems of society they
are trying to dominate.
Keeping the Three Domains Distinct
Once you begin reflecting on the three aspects of the human being -- and
therefore also on the three aspects of our life in society -- you begin to
recognize how a great deal of social conflict arises from a confusion of
spheres. To take a rather minor case: every year or so in the U.S.
there is impassioned controversy over the worth of grants awarded by the
National Endowment for the Arts. "How can they spend my tax dollars for
Of course, one person's trash is another person's sublimity, and the point
is that people must choose their trash and sublimity for themselves, in
freedom. When the state makes these choices for us, it employs the power
of the political-legal sphere, where we must all be treated as equal, to
support a few selected projects of the human spirit, about which the
judgments of the rest of us will radically differ. There will never be
any way to avoid the socially divisive effects of such an overreaching by
We see similar issues more gravely at work in the Balkans and wherever
culturally engendered ethnic clashes are tearing societies apart. When
the political state impinges upon cultural freedom, leaving minorities
feeling that state control is essential in order for their own cultures to
find "breathing room" within the society, then ugly clashes for control
Likewise, I have previously mentioned how bizarre it is for Americans, so
obsessive about freedom of thought and speech, to accept government
attempts to shape the development of our very powers of thought and
speech. These attempts, of course, take the form of government control
over the educational curriculum -- which is quite different from the
state's proper role in simply assuring equal access to the education of
There are many other failures to respect the differing requirements of the
three social spheres. What happens when economic and political
institutions enter an unholy marriage is all too evident today in the
susceptibility of politicians to corporate influence and in the lack of a
legal counterweight that can preserve human dignity against compromise by
More positively, there is widespread and growing acceptance that at least
some strictly economic decisions should *not* be placed in the hands of
the state. The Federal Reserve's independence illustrates the benefits of
leaving such decisions ("What interest rate is demanded by current
economic conditions?") out of the hands of political officials, whose
self-interest could hardly help distorting their economic judgment.
As a final example, problems also arise when economics and culture are not
properly differentiated. Perlas brings the matter down to the immediately
recognizable, personal level when he cites an economist who was enamoured
of the notion of "opportunity cost" (the value of a foregone alternative
One day this economist decided not to go to a concert with his wife.
Since he was a consultant, he argued that he would experience an
opportunity cost of $200 per hour if he went to the concert with his
wife because that would be time away from his consultancy work.
To view our cultural life as a trading in commodities is to destroy it.
Cultural values and economic values are by no means exchangeable. The
attempt to subject culture to economics is, Perlas suggests, reflected in
such things as elevated divorce rates, crime, drug use, and other social
ailments -- none of which, incidentally, is without its economic cost!
The easiest mistake to make in thinking about social threefolding is to
picture the three aspects of society in a wooden, either-or sort of way.
One needs to bring a more flexible, imaginative mindset to the issues so
as to recognize interpenetrating realities rather than neat antitheses.
For example, no business is strictly and absolutely economic in nature.
There are matters of right in which every employee should be treated
equally (and the state will doubtless play a role in articulating some of
these matters). Similarly, there is a crucial place in every business for
the kind of culturally sponsored individual achievement that is a matter
of radical inequality among employees. Intel would not survive long if it
decided on proposed chip layouts by conducting a democratic vote instead
of by recognizing the unmatched achievements of its most capable chip
The interweaving of the three spheres is also evident in the fact that "a
spiritual culture is the ultimate source of political justice and an
essential prerequisite to the creation of a truly dynamic and productive
and ecologically sound economy" (Perlas). Each sphere, then, is rather
like an organ system of the human body. The circulatory system, for
example, needs to be recognized for its own particular character, and yet
the blood's fluid passes out through the capillaries to bathe all our
cells, and is continually exchanging substance through the cell walls.
You cannot say where the circulation ends and other systems begin, but you
*can* recognize that the principles of the circulatory system are quite
other than, say, the principles of bone formation. A thinking that can
distinguish without rigidly dividing is, I'm convinced, essential to any
productive understanding of society (and is opposed by the much-too-
brittle habits of thought encouraged by our engagement with technology).
There is probably no place you can look in society where you will not see
all three aspects of human nature at work. The human being is, after all,
a unity. But this should not lead us to ignore all distinctions. It is
certainly true that, when you look at a school, you will see, among other
things, an economic entity subject to the constraints and realities of
commerce. This is trivial. But the central mission of the school -- to
educate the student -- is not an economic one. The attempt to place an
economic value upon the student's educational achievement leaves aside all
of our highest striving, which has little to do with our earning
potential. Only those who fail to see this could make the disastrous
mistake of urging school privatization. Education should be neither
government-controlled nor commodified; it requires the independence and
freedom so necessary to every undertaking of the human spirit.
Different Forms of Power
How can the educational, scientific, religious, and artistic activities of
the civil, or cultural, sector effectively hold the balance against
globally triumphant, state-reinforced commerce? It is vital, I think for
the civil sector to remain true to its own character. While it will
certainly draw on the political and legal apparatus of the state, and
while it will doubtless engage in some forms of commerce, its own peculiar
power hinges on nothing more than its appeal, in freedom, to what is
highest in others. It's strength, you might say, lies in its weakness.
Possessing no great wealth and no power of the sword, it holds up ideals
that, throughout history, men have been willing to die for. "Ultimately",
says Perlas, "all forms of power struggles are struggles for meaning" --
so don't discount those whose primary trade is the trade in meaning.
Referring to the persecuted Chinese sect and its leader, Perlas notes that
Li Hongzli and the members of the Falun Gong movement are very quiet
and modest people. Yet they trigger flashes of fear and hatred in the
hearts of the highest political and economic powers in China. Why?
Because the communist leaders realize that they no longer control the
minds of tens of millions of Chinese. Li Hongzli has created a new and
more powerful meaning for many Chinese than Maoism.
In his New York Times article, Alan Cowell writes,
While corporations are generally able to deploy vastly greater
resources in public relations, litigation, lobbying and advertising and
are often skilled at co-opting adversaries, "it's not such an unequal
power relationship," an executive from a London-based mining
"You can be an $8 billion company or whatever," he continued. "But in
the court of public opinion the nongovernmental organizations start
with more credibility than businesses."
In an era when branding is thought by many corporations to be nearly
everything, a smudge on the brand counts for a great deal. "Consumer
tastes and preferences", Perlas notes, "are primarily formed in the
cultural realm". The opportunity exists, therefore, for an organization
such as Adbusters "to sow `symbolic pollution' on manipulative corporate
advertising to induce a critical attitude in the consciousness of
Perlas vividly illustrates the power for change emanating from the
cultural sphere. This power is increasingly acknowledged even in the
boardrooms of the largest corporations. He cites, for example, a talk by
Stephen Schmidheiny, who is director of the heavyweight World Business
Council for Sustainable Development. The Achilles heel of the
corporation, according to Schmidheiny, is demand, since without demand
there are no products to sell. The "new consumers", who are immune to
advertising, hold the corporation's fate in their hands.
Schmidheiny goes on to describe the emerging and unprecedented role of
employee conscience and family conscience. In Perlas' summary:
For the first time an increasing number of employees are asserting
their disrespect for dubious practices of corporations. Management at
TNCs [transnational corporations] are increasingly becoming concerned
that their top corporate secrets may end up in nameless brown envelopes
handed over to media or the corporation's government regulator. In
addition, the children of CEOs are increasingly becoming concerned
about the public conduct and image of the corporations that their
father[s] or mother[s] run. When the CEOs come home from work, they
find that civil society concerns are now part of their family dinner
The list of major civil sector campaigns to reign in transnational
corporations continues to lengthen. It extends from the long and
eventually successful boycott of Nestle to PepsiCo's withdrawal from Burma
to more recent actions against Mitsubishi (to prevent its encouragement of
illegal rainforest logging) and Monsanto (to shut down its "Terminator"
seed technology and keep unlabeled, genetically engineered products out of
the food supply). Perlas concludes that
CSOs [civil society organizations] can ... enter the halls of political
and economic power without feeling intimidated. They can enter the
vortex of transformation confident that their advocacy is steeped in
meaning, that central pivot of human existence and social life, without
which the world would rapidly descend into chaos.
Perlas, by the way, has been a significant actor in the "threefolding of
society" movement. He is head of the Center for Alternative Development
Initiatives in the Philippines, and has played a major part in successful
national and Asia-wide efforts to secure high-level recognition of the
role of civil society. He has received the Outstanding Filipino award, as
well as the U.N. Environmental Program Global 500 Award for Sustainable
Agriculture. He pursued farming in the Philippines until he realized that
he would have no future in farming if current globalization trends were
allowed to continue.
A Few Additional Observations
There are many aspects of Perlas' valuable book I have not touched on. I
conclude with a few miscellaneous notes:
** Nothing I have said here suggests that the views or actions of civil
society organizations should automatically be taken as correct or well-
advised. The requirement is only that society find a way to bring the
civil sector to the table, so that it can wield its particular sort of
influence based on the strength of its insight and wisdom.
** How the three spheres of society should be institutionalized is far
beyond me to suggest. The main thing is to avoid artificial, schematic
proposals, to watch what is actually happening, and to bring to these
developments a flexible, refined ability to reckon with the different
principles at work in the various social spheres. This sensitivity can
enable us to recognize, for example, whether a civil society initiative is
being true to its own nature.
** Healthy functioning within the economic sphere depends thoroughly upon
the vitality of continual, dynamic *exchange*. There are no political or
scientific principles that would enable one to specify, a priori, the true
economic price of a commodity. The price must emerge from the complex
givings and takings of myriad transactions. Even if, in special
circumstances, it were deemed necessary to impose prices from outside this
system, one would have to reckon with the inevitable distortions resulting
from the imposition.
This distortion, by the way, is quite a different matter from the
political system setting a minimum wage consistent with the basic
requirements for life in the society. Such an action will affect prices
without dictating them, much as a severe or lush climate will affect the
prices of agricultural products. There is no intrusion in the economic
sphere here, but a setting of background conditions that the economic
system must then factor into its prices.
** Referring to recent social science work, Perlas identifies "Cultural
Creatives" as the force behind the emergence of global civil society.
This group is said to uphold a distinctive set of values:
Ecological Sustainability (rebuilding communities, limits to growth,
stopping corporate polluters), Globalism (acceptance of cultural
differences), Women's Issues (against abuse of women and children),
Altruism, Self-Actualization, and Spirituality (forging a new sense of
the sacred that incorporates personal growth, the spiritual realm, and
service to others), and Social Conscience and Optimism.
Perlas mentions a massive social survey in 1990-91 purporting to have
uncovered a "postmodern shift" in North America, Britain, and various
Scandinavian and European countries. The shift includes "loss of
confidence in all hierarchical institutions; declining trust in science
and technology to solve problems; decline in traditional religious
involvement; greater search for inner meaning and development;
subordination of economic growth to environmental sustainability; cultural
pluralism; greater freedom for women".
Personally, I am never sure what this kind of survey data (or, rather,
interpretation of survey data) really tells us. Such collections of data
fracture reality so severely that they become a kind of Rorschach blot in
which the observer can see whatever he is looking for. Perhaps their
greatest significance lies in the way they can be used plastically to
frame a view of the future regardless of the current realities they point
to. And we will quite rightly embrace or reject such a view in terms of
its intrinsic worth, not in terms of the survey data -- which in any case
can tell us little about the direction we *ought* to move in, as opposed
to the directions we have previously moved in.
On his part, Perlas offers a wonderfully fitting vision of the future when
he concludes his discussion of Cultural Creatives by paraphrasing a
Filipino hero: in the end, there will be no tyrants because there will be
** Perlas sees the fundamental conflict between cultural creatives and
elite globalization as reflecting a disavowal of the "materialistic
framework" shaping globalization today. Many activists in the civil
sector share this rejection of materialism, whereby the cultural sphere is
dominated by a shallow consumerism. And as the cultural creatives enter
not only civil society but also business and government, a powerful,
threefold alliance will emerge "that is destined to change the course of
** My saying above that political-legal organs of the state should not
patronize the arts does not mean I believe the arts (and other cultural
activities) should remain unfunded. It's just that the funding must be a
matter of free giving by those who are convinced of the healthy creative
powers of the people and organizations they support.
One hopes that, in a properly threefolded society, there would be much
more support for culture. Our economic system is currently distorted by
the moral falsehood that gives the owners of corporations *unlimited*
claim to profits. (See "Who Owns Microsoft's Profits?" in NF #106.) The
"excess" profits can be viewed as the portion accruing, not from
individual efforts of the entrepreneurs, but from the educational,
scientific, and spiritual resources they have been able to capitalize on
from the larger society. If you place limits on the personal claim to
profits accordingly, then a fair share of these profits will more
naturally find their way into the civil sector. This will happen, not
because a central bureaucracy takes the funds and redistributes them, but
rather because every business owner is made, to one degree or another,
into a trustee for a philanthropic effort.
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You can order *Shaping Globalization* by sending US$20 to the Center for
Alternative Development, 110 Scout Rallos Street, Timog, Quezon City,
1103, Philippines. For further information, send email to
** "The World Trade Organization: Economics as Technology" in NF #106.
** "Do We Really Want a Global Village?" a chapter in *The Future Does Not
Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst*.
Steve Talbott is the editor of the NetFuture Newsletter. This article is from NetFuture Nr. 120, reprinted with the author’s kind permission.
Note: Rudolf Steiner’s basic book on the tripartite society, "Basic Issues of the Social Question" is available as an e-book from our E-Book Library: Basic Issues of the Social Question