Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Chris Rumford (2001) 'Confronting 'Uncivil Society' and the 'Dark Side of Globalization': are Sociological Concepts up to the Task?'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3, <>

To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary

Received: 6/11/2001      Accepted: 26/11/2001      Published: 30/11/2001


International terrorism is frequently categorized as one element of 'uncivil society' or as the 'dark side of globalization.' The paper examines these concepts, finding them unhelpful in understanding the context for the September 11 attacks in the US. Their weakness derives in large part from the uncritical usage of the terms 'civil society?' and 'globalization' characteristic of much contemporary sociological work. In consequence, sociology is in danger of being marginalized from public debate about the most important issues of our day.

Civil Society; Dark Side Of Globalization; Globalization; International Terrorism; Uncivil Society


Terrorism is part of the dark side of globalization
Colin Powell

One notable feature of responses to the events of September 11 has been the determined struggle to come to terms with the massively destructive and hitherto unsuspected[1] capabilities of international terrorism. The sheer ambition and effectiveness of the terrorists, not to mention the loss of life, physical destruction and widespread trauma that it occasioned, has created the need to search for terms, concepts and analytical frameworks appropriate to the task of understanding the magnitude of the attacks.

Terrorism, and more particularly transnational terrorist networks, are frequently categorized as one element of "uncivil society" or a key feature of the "dark side of globalization." These two categories correspond well to the positions adopted by Noam Chomsky and Christopher Hitchens, as outlined by Steve Fuller in his "rapid response" article in Sociological Research Online (6:2) (Fuller 2001). He identifies a split between the two anti-establishment figures in their reading of the events of September 11th. Chomsky's view that the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were acts of retaliation against the US for its support of repressive regimes in the Middle East is consistent with the "dark side of globalization" thesis. In short, the US should bear a measure of responsibility for bringing problems upon itself; what other commentators have called termed "blowback."[2] Hitchens, on the other hand, emphasises the difference in values between Islamic fundamentalism and the West. In other words, the "uncivil society" notion that there are those who exist (or place themselves) beyond the realm of acceptable human behaviour.

This paper examines the concepts of "uncivil society" and the "dark side of globalization," finding them inadequate responses to complex issues. Both have a sociological provenance, and as sociologists we ought to be concerned by the ways in which these terms are employed. It is not sufficient to say, however, that it is simply a case of sociological terms being taken up misguidedly or being only partially understood. The real weakness of the terms "uncivil society" and the "dark side of globalization" lies in fact that they are derived from the uncritical and unreflexive usage of the terms "civil society" and "globalization" which characterizes much contemporary sociological work. In sum, sociologists have preferred the notion of civil society to other ways of apprehending social spaces, even when the spaces under consideration are transnational or global (Rumford 2001). The conceptualisation of transnational social space has remained relatively underdeveloped in a sociology still in thrall to a rather liberal (and national) interpretation of civil society as a unified and coherent space of inclusion. Alternative understandings of society within a postnational or transnational frame, such as Beck's (1994) "subpolitics," Albrow's (1996 and 2001) work on the liberation of territorial locality, Soysal's mapping of the postnational (Soysal 1994 and 1997), Urry's (1999) sociology of flows, and Delanty's (1998) notion of society as a space of dissensus, have not been embraced wholeheartedly by other sociologists.[3]

With the idea of globalization the problem is that despite the strong tradition within sociology and anthropology conceptualising it as a wide-ranging and complex series of processes occurring over a long period of time (Robertson 1992), an economistic reading has become predominant of late.[4] Sociologists have rather ignored the availability of a multi-dimensional and cultural understanding of globalization, investing heavily in the economistic interpretation instead (for example Deacon 1999, Hirst and Thompson 1996). This situation has come about because for many sociologists the current concern with globality has emerged from an engagement with the economism of World Systems Theory, and/or the primacy of the idea that the effects of globalization can best be measured by the changes it has foisted upon the nation-state as an economic actor. Probably the most influential and widely read sociologist of globalization is Manuel Castells, for whom globalization is driven by "strategic economic activities" integrated "through electronically enacted networks of exchange of capital, commodities, and information" (Castells 2000: 348).

Terrorism as "Uncivil Society" or the "Dark Side of Globalization"

"Uncivil society" is a catch-all term for a wide range of disruptive, unwelcome and threatening elements deemed to have emerged in the spaces between the individual and the state, and which have become increasingly difficult to control and regulate, particularly when they extend across national borders. Uncivil society is a constant threat for civil society. According to Keane (1998: 137) civil society contains within itself "no shortage of spaces of interaction for vigorous activities operating at a distance from state institutions." In contemporary discourse, examples of "uncivil society" range from child pornography, right-wing extremism and anti-globalization protestors, to the general lack of social consensus and civic values which many believe characterize contemporary western societies. What they have in common is the threat that they are perceived to represent to the proper order of society and the common good. Similarly, there are those for whom the advent of the "information society" represents "uncivil society" and constitutes both an opportunity and a threat (ESC 2001). Whilst containing the potential to revolutionize economic growth the "information society" also contains the possibility of new winners and losers, inequalities and insecurities, divisions and disparities.

"Uncivil society" also has a transnational dimension. In the words of UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, networks of terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime are all forces of "uncivil society" engendered by globalization. The forces that made possible the emergence of a global civil society also, unfortunately, facilitate the transnationalization of "uncivil" elements. There is a strong link between the growth of "uncivil society" and the "dark side of globalization," which in Annan's view comprises the global "uncivil society" that is rapidly growing as a result of the transnationalisation of uncivil forces. The "dark side of globalization" is best thought of as the "unrelenting growth of cross-border illegal activities that threaten the institutions of the State and civil society in many countries" (Calvani 2000). In other words, terrorists, traffickers in drugs, women and children, and organized crime utilize global networks and flows for their own ends.

This discourse is lent support by the "champions of globalization," former US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. For both, globalization can be a force for good. For example, in his 2 October speech to the Labour Party conference (the "state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world" speech) Tony Blair made clear the positive force that globalization represents. His prescription for Africa involved aid untied to trade, debt write-off and investment. In return African nations had to "do a deal" and deliver "true" democracy, and an end to human rights abuses and dictatorship. The politics of globalization, Blair emphasised, places a moral duty on the international community "to uphold the principles of democracy, peace, stability and development wherever in the world they are under threat."[5]

For his part, Bill Clinton stated recently that globalization can win the war against terrorism, but only if western nations are willing to spread the wealth they generate more equitably, thereby developing a greater number of partners in the world. According to Clinton, what the world needs in the wake of the September 11th attacks is more globalization. The west should foot the bill to raise living standards in the developing world: "solving problems like the growing gap between rich and poor 'the dark side of globalization' - has become even more urgent."[6] What is significant about these declarations is that the dichotomous nature of globalization seen as an economic process driven by global trade is reiterated: globalization can be a force for good, or it can reveal its "dark side."

May the Force be with you

Not all effects of globalization are positive; not all non-state actors are good.
Kofi Annan

Another notable feature of responses to the events of September 11th is the way in which the notions of "uncivil society" and the "dark side of globalization" are brought together in prescriptions for what should be done about the threat posed by international terrorism. Bluntly, what is needed is more globalization and more civil society. The international coalition against terrorism hastily assembled by US President George Bush and British prime Minister Tony Blair which has resulted in support for military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, represents a fight against the "dark side of globalization," a struggle which takes place on a global terrain. In Bill Clinton's phrase "globalization can win the war against terrorism." In the same vein, Kofi Annan (Annan 1997) has argued that, "forces of 'uncivil society' can be combated only through global cooperation, with the help of civil society."

One important consequence of the responses to the events of September 11th is that it will become more difficult for sociologists to assert alternative conceptions of globalization and civil society. As Naomi Klein has suggested, the war will make it more difficult to be publicly critical of globalization: "people are afraid that being critical of the market is seen as being anti-American, even treasonous."[7] It is not simply that these definitions gain strength from being articulated in the discourses of public figures who command a global audience, but also because they are wrapped in such a persuasive package. Globalization is good: it is only its "dark side" that is bad. "Uncivil society" is that which civil society seeks to eliminate. Such a construction not only benefits from its enviable neatness and appeal to common sense but it also taps into popular and powerful understandings of good versus evil (another strong theme in the diplomacy surrounding the Bush/Blair coalition against terrorism). For example, it calls to mind the "Star Wars" narrative of the "force" having its "dark side."

Sociology is struggling to retain intellectual possession of concepts which it has in large part helped nurture and shape. The idea that globalization refers to the global economy and civil society is the best way of protecting and enhancing liberal and democratic politics is now largely invulnerable to criticism and virtually beyond debate. In the face of current developments what is needed is an invigoration of the sociological commitment to study society, whether local, national or transnational, and to debate which concepts are best suited to this task. Similarly, globalization has to be shown to be more multi-faceted and all-encompassing than can ever be accounted for by the idea of the world as a global market. There is a lot at stake. Not only does sociology face being alienated from its own concepts, but by failing to act runs the risk of being marginalized from public debate about the most important issues of our day.


1 Revealed for example in Colin Powell's statement on counterterrorism delivered to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary, Washington, 8 May 2001. < /2001/SS01-008.htm>

2 See "Blowback chronicles" by Giles Foden, The Guardian 15 September 2001. <http: //,4273,4257158,00.html>

3 Political science has also contributed to the conceptualisation of transnational space in non-economic terms. Axford's (2001) work on transnational networks, Scholte's (2001) conceptualisation of global civil society, and Held et al's(1999) "global transformations" thesis are particularly worthy of note.

4 According to Robertson (2001), "The current tendency to regard globalization in more or less exclusively economic terms is a particularly disturbing form of reductionism, indeed of fundamentalism. Nowadays invocation of the word 'globalization' almost automatically seems to raise issues concerning so-called economic liberalism, deregulation, privatisation, marketization and the crystallization of what many call a global economy."

5"Blair's global vision," BBC News 2 October 2001. <>

6"Clinton says globalization can win war against terrorism," Anchorage Daily News October 30 2001.

7 Quoted in Anchorage Daily News October 30 2001.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001