contact  impressum 

Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding
by Nicanor Perlas


At the end of the 20th century, news of a watershed event flashed around the world. The global media reported the dramatic details of an unusual confrontation to hundreds of millions of listeners and readers. Some immediately saw that the event was a global social earthquake of the highest magnitude. Others understood only gradually that the foundations of the world�s social life had been shaken. Afterwards, important national and international gatherings would pay homage to the event, justifying their own visions, programs and activities in light of it.1  The event continues to haunt those responsible for the most powerful version of materialistic modernity that has ever expressed itself on this planet. This historic event is now known as the "Battle of Seattle."

Participants of the World Trade Organization (WTO) summit had arrived in Seattle confident to the point of complacency. Arriving along with them, however, were 50,000 demonstrators from all over the world and all walks of life, ready to offer well-organized, articulate resistance. By the waning moments of the last day of the WTO summit, as economic and government leaders from 135 countries tried desperately, and in vain to hammer out a new trade agreement, an unforgettable lesson had been etched in the psyches of the participants of the battle and the journalists who covered it.

The lesson was this: the fate of the world would no longer be determined by a bi-polar power struggle between business or the private sector2  (especially large transnational corporations) and the governments of nation states. The WTO had reflected this bi-polar power structure to its very core. Now, a third global force had emerged with elemental strength to contest the monopoly of the two other powers (economics and politics) over the fate of the earth. The third force was global civil society.

In Seattle, global civil society used cultural power to counterpoise principled cultural values against the narrow profit motive and economic power of many in the private sector and the control motive and political power of most government agencies. The outcome of the WTO talks was thus determined by civil society�s advocacy for such fundamental values as freedom, justice, democracy, respect for nature, spirituality, fair trade, and human rights�especially the rights of indigenous peoples and minorities.

The Battle of Seattle is the latest and most prominent expression of an ongoing global struggle that has become more and more visible in the past several years. The Battle of Seattle was about globalization and the global powers that are contending to shape it. The outcome of this struggle will determine how globalization will unfold on the earth in the coming decades of the 21st century.

The Story Line

The book has a story line that goes like this:

A pathological version of global development, known as "elite" or "corporate" globalization, is bringing untold misery to billions of people, while wrecking the planet�s ecology. To resist this onslaught, millions of people around the world, organize themselves. Eventually, global civil society emerges, becoming so successful that it joins business and government as one of the three major forces in the world.

Yet, like other heroes on a momentous quest, civil society endures many trials. Internal weaknesses begin to plague its ranks. Internal debates on the nature, tactics, and strategies of civil society begin to get in the way of its achievements. It can�t quite figure out what it is or where it is going.

Then, suddenly, amid all the struggles, clarity begins to develop. Civil society understands that society as a whole has three realms: the economic, the political, and the cultural. It realizes that it dwells in the cultural realm just as naturally as business dwells in the economic realm and government dwells in the political realm. It sees that it can wield cultural power to achieve its ends just as effectively as governments wield political power and businesses wield economic power to achieve their ends.

This new self-awareness leads civil society to some exciting discoveries. It finds that it is part of a massive cultural revolution going on around the world. It is a revolution that involves tens of millions of so-called "cultural creatives," individuals who are challenging the materialistic and hedonistic assumptions behind elite globalization. Civil society also discovers a transformative process, one that is potent enough to transform elite globalization into comprehensive sustainable development. This process goes by the name of threefolding. In threefolding, the three major powers of the world�business, government and civil society, mobilize their unique economic, political and cultural perspectives, talents, and resources to create a vastly different and more beneficial kind of globalization. Civil society also discovers that its counterparts in the Philippines have already begun a promising attempt in threefolding at the national level, an effort embodied in a document called Philippine Agenda 21.

Of course, civil society encounters more challenges along the way. "Rejectionists" within civil society do not want to have anything to do with business and government. "Critical engagers" have to discern whether the "tri-sector partnerships" proffered by government and business are opportunities for transformation or traps for civil society�s co-optation. The United Nations, the World Bank and other such organizations now launch initiatives to solve poverty and other social issues using the tri-sector partnership approach. Civil society has to judge these proposals one by one.

Will the planet succumb to the forces of elite globalization, bringing about the tragic "end of history"? Or will civil society overcome its heroic trials and usher in the beginning of an exciting new history?

The story ends with these questions. It cannot go any further. For the answer depends on the free acts of insight, perseverance, and courage of individuals�including the readers of this book.

A New World, A New Language

This story brings readers directly in touch with the new tri-polar world inhabited by three global powers. This new world uses a slightly different language in addition to the language of the conventional world. Therefore, to tell its story, and to help readers understand this new world, the book uses relatively new terms, such as cultural power, reflexivity, institutionalization, threefolding, tri-sector partnerships, and so on. However, the book explains each of the new terms in detail throughout the various chapters.

The exposition on the new language of the tri-polar world starts immediately in Chapter 1, which takes a detailed look at threefolding, the central idea of this book.

On the Relevance of the Book

I have written this book with the hope that it will shed light on current global social processes in a way that will help individuals and institutions to transform globalization into comprehensive sustainable development and create a better planet. To test the relevance of its themes, a shorter version of this book was made available last year on a on a semi-formal basis.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. In less than a year since the publication of the shorter version, I have met with over 2,000 people from many parts of Europe, the United States of America, Latin America, Asia, and Australia. It is they who encouraged me to offer these ideas to a wider audience through the formal publication of this book.

Chapter 15 of the book analyzes the U.N. Millennium Summit (September 6-8, 2000), an event that demonstrates the central relevance of many key concerns of the book, including the nature of civil society, its cultural power, and the importance of threefolding.3  The event exemplifies how global powers are starting to adjust to the vibrant presence of civil society. The U.N. event also shows why the different perspectives of and within civil society have to be harmonized. For these perspectives have tactical and strategic consequences that play themselves out in the real world.

Invitations to Dialogue

I have been thinking about the nature of civil society and threefolding for many years. Fortunately, I have not been thinking alone. I�ve had the chance to test the concepts with friends who are leaders in global civil society. I have also benefited from an extensive exposure to literature on civil society and threefolding.

A busy schedule, however, prevents me from fully expressing my experience on the subject within the confines of this book. So the book is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the subject matter. Nor is it a scholarly work where all the movements of thought are meticulously documented to their appropriate sources. Rather the book is an essay to advance a certain perspective on civil society and global developments in order to stimulate further reflection, discussion and debate.

I would deeply appreciate comments of any kind, positive or negative. In the back of the book is a bibliography for those who want to pursue the subject matter in greater depth.

Reading Suggestion for Busy People

I have some suggestions for those who do not have the time to read the whole book. Chapters 1, 2, and 3 form an organic whole. They all provide an overview of the book and its main themes. Claims that may seem extravagant in these first chapters are supported by further discussions and references in subsequent chapters. Chapter 1 discusses the framework of threefolding that underpins the whole book. Chapter 2 provides a kind of "executive summary" of the essential points of the book. Chapter 3 is a re-articulation of the key points of the "Executive Summary" but from the perspective of the Battle of Seattle.

After these three chapters, the reader may wish to go directly to Chapter 8, where key themes are expressed in light of developments after Seattle. Here, on-going splits in civil society, business, and government are discussed in the context of threefolding and the pursuit of authentic sustainable development. Chapter 9, "The Cultural Nature of Civil Society" along with Chapters 10, 11 and 12, in many ways, constitute the heart of the book. Chapter 12 especially strengthens the case of Chapter 9. Otherwise, the reader can go directly to Chapter 13, which describes the historical necessity for threefolding and develops the reasons for its importance. Chapter 14, "The Example of Philippine Agenda 21," shows how conscious threefolding is starting to be implemented in the Philippines. This chapter provides an important basis for developing a capacity to discern between authentic threefolding and other entry points to threefolding, including tri-sector partnerships (Chapters 15 and 16), that may lead to a distortion of threefolding and the subsequent co-optation of civil society by elite powers. To sum up, interested readers should probably read, at a minimum, this Preface, the first three chapters, Chapters 9 to 14. The rest can be explored when time permits. Readers interested in the recent global focus on civil society may also wish also to read Chapters 6 and 8, which detail the emergence of civil society as a global force.

Concluding Remarks

I hope that my civil society colleagues will make time for some reflection amidst fast-paced developments and activities, so that our actions can become more strategic and effective. And I hope that the book will introduce potential strategic allies in government and business to the nature and tasks of civil society. Through mutual understanding, the three key institutions of society�civil society, government, and business�can move, where necessary and appropriate, from their current mode of conflict and start undertaking the risk of collaborative work based on clear principles and impeccable integrity. A principled three-way partnership that evolves into conscious threefolding could begin to transform the forces of elite globalization to forces that advance truly comprehensive sustainable development throughout the planet.

Nicanor Perlas August 2000

Metro Manila, Philippines


1. See the proceedings of the meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last January, U.N. gatherings, and World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) documents, for a few examples. The details are easily accessed through the Internet.

2. The terms, private sector and business, are used interchangeably in this book. Transnational corporations (TNCs), medium-sized corporations, small businesses, partnerships, single proprietorships are all part of the private sector.

3. See Chapters 1 and 13 for a more detailed discussion on threefolding.