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Book Review
Last Updated: 02/09/2004

John Keane, Global Civil Society, Cambridge University Press, 2003, ,ISBN 0 521 89462 X paperback pp.220

One read the latest work of Andre Gide, it was said, in order to find out what Andre Gide had been reading.  The same may be said of John Keane. Judging from his latest book Global Civil Society?, Professor Keane of the University for Westminster has been reading a great deal and much of it of considerable interest. But there are two problems with all this reading: the first is the finished picture he has painted with the brushes of so many splendid authors, and the second problem relates to what he has left out. A third problem arises from the title itself: Global Civil Society?


Should one read books with questions in the title?! Some of us like our professors to profess and not be quite so muddled. Muddle is reminiscent of the pre-Thatcher era.


First let’s have a look at the book’s overall picture. Having quoted a put down remark referring to Gide, this reviewer has probably used up all the quotes that are allowed in a short piece. However, Dr. Johnson’s remark about overwriting will not go away. (If you write a passage that especially pleases you, strike it out). Keane’s text suffers somewhat from over-writing, and from the kind of over-writing and over-referencing that now comes from sitting astride the information superhighway and risking being steamrollered by data and opinion, much of it produced for conferences, NGO websites and on-line magazines (like this one).


Dipping into the author’s ocean we find that he takes up the issue of violence in his Chapter, question-marked as with the title of the book, Paradise on Earth? Here he refers to a triangle of violence composed by nuclear states, uncivil (intrastate) wars and terrorism. But having read this section several times, the triangle fails to connect. None of the imageries work: triangles, kaleidoscopes, twisted alleys, archipelagos.


Thus the heavy readings, the neologisms and crypto-neologisms and acronyms (cosmocracy, turbo-capitalism, INGOs and BINGOs), the obvious contradictions (the use of violence to end violence, civil versus uncivil), and the many interesting but theoretically unconnected historical references all underline the second point about what is left out. What is left out is any element of a theoretical structural. A beginning, at the very least, would be to start putting economics back into the framework of discussion so that, as a start, political economy would begin to replace the restrictions imposed by the disciplines of Economics or Political Science. Readers in the area of civil society are urged to at least try Chapter 8 of Ehrenberg’s survey of civil society[i], which makes a serious attempt to put the economics back into the discussion of civil society. This process of putting the economics back in would at least insist that we see globalization as global capitalism, that global civil society would have to be seen as performing its function as a means of resolving conflict (however imperfectly) among capitalist interests but not among all conflicting interests of all people everywhere.


It is not surprising then, that Keane leaves the question mark in the title. Reading a bit more political economy might have helped get rid of it.

[i] J. Ehrenberg, Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea, 1999, NYU Press, 1999.