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Constructing World Culture: International Nongovernmental Organizations since 1875

George M. Boli and John: Thomas
Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA
0804734216 (hb)
US$55.00 (hb)

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The growing disjuncture between a world political system built around competing nation states, each driven solely by narrow national security and economic concerns, and an increasingly interdependent yet disorganised global economy is increasingly apparent. The latter is dominated by corporations wielding multiple powers, by vast, unregulated flows of money, information and capital and by a growing consortium of linked criminal networks. None of these economic spheres can be "managed" effectively by states acting alone. Indeed, their own national economies and social institutions are being progressively absorbed into the global system. Given that world government remains a highly uncertain and distant prospect, only new forms of global governance built around some form of representative assembly involving collaborating states, guided by common purposes and shaped by an active global civil society, can hope to provide at the world level some semblance of the regulative control and social justice that nation states once exercised within their own economies and polities. Instead, however, what most social scientists on world affairs perceive is something quite different: a system dominated by the ideology of state-centric thinking and a now unchallenged and highly unequal world capitalist economy protected by a core of rich nations and their satellites. Consequently, whole regions experience neglect and exclusion, urgent global problems are barely confronted and tiny cohorts of hegemonic powers protect what they myopically perceive to be their own interests assisted by the controls they exercise over key international governmental organisations (IGOs). Meanwhile, globalization depoliticizes people everywhere because the impotence of governments at national levels combined with the manifest failures to confront world wide crises through co-operation undermines the very notion of political accountability to citizens at all levels.

In welcome contrast, the eleven chapters in Constructing World Culture, categorically reject such pessimistic and narrow social science interpretations of world affairs. Breaking new ground, the book explores an impressive range of contemporary international nongovernmental organisations (INGOs) by developing an overarching theoretical framework into which each of the eight case studies are carefully grounded. Unlike established approaches the contributors begin with the assumption that a functioning world polity is already firmly in place and that INGOs are centrally involved in propagating and enacting the global culture and society upon which it depends. Firstly, they argue that INGOs are often rather successful in filling the governmental and policy vacuum at world level created by the disjuncture outlined above - either by shaping state and IGO policies directly or by mobilising world public opinion to place pressures on corporations and governments. Thus, a surprising amount of global governance is being exercised partly though and by INGOs and despite their chronic lack of resources.

Secondly, the readings provide some explanation concerning how and why INGOs are able to increasingly shape world affairs. For one thing, they draw upon the authority provided by their members' reputations for personal integrity and relatively selfless commitment to the attainment of global moral goals. This, in turn, confers legitimacy upon those national or global interests prepared to seek or co-opt their support. At the same time, their expert credentials and the specialised first-hand knowledge of local groups and problems accumulated by INGOs frequently renders them technically indispensable to reluctant governments and IGOs over an increasing range of issues. Such resources may even empower them to operate in virtual autonomy from state or business influence as, for example, in the case of the need for world-wide scientific and professional standardisation of technical specifications for a vast range of goods and processes.

A more profound reason for the ability of INGOs to shape world culture and influence global governance arises because the imperative possibilities inherent in Weber's modern legal rational authority can only be legitimately exercised by individual states over their territorial populations and not, by definition, in an unstructured anarchical order of competing sovereign states. In the absence of a higher authority capable of settling conflicts and imposing penalties, what can, does and indeed must operate at the global level, if viable, peaceful and successful global governance of any sort is to be possible, is the exercise of rational vountaristic authority. Here, autonomous, self directed individuals, armed with shared knowledge and committed to some notion of human improvement provide the only legitimate and possible building blocks for constructing social relations and creating ultimate sources of meaning. In doing so they understand that the attainment of their own interests is only possible, along with personal survival and security, if they respect the equal right of others to do likewise. Thus, the willingness to engage in collaborative actions culminating in shared notions of the good society are both a necessary adjunct to individual freedom and perfectly possible outcomes where free individuals come together including - increasingly - across national boundaries. Given that it is precisely this type of authority which provides the very starting point and rationale for INGO actions and goals, they have been able to take the lead in shaping and defining a distinctive and essential world culture.

Constructing World Culture was published before the events that took place at Seattle in December 1999. Nevertheless, its publication is timely and important precisely because it provides us with some of the theoretical insights and empirical data which we badly need in order to bring those events more closely into focus. It is regrettable, however, that this otherwise excellent book makes little attempt to engage directly with much of the recent and growing world-wide sociological literature on globalization - a word, furthermore, that merits no mention at all in the index.

Paul Kennedy
Manchester Metropolitan University

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