From Global Civil Society to Global War: A Decade of Disequilibrium

A decade ago, coming off of parallel research projects on what some were then calling “global civil society,” we responded to a request from the SSRC that we contribute to an online forum on the impact of 9/11 from our work on transnational contention. We observed that, as “the ‘rally around the flag’ effect [had] spread from the United States to other countries, especially Canada and Western Europe, international activists [had] moved into a retreat-and-reflect mode, increasingly questioning the viability of their repertoire of transnational tactics.” While we did not dismiss the continued relevance of global activism, we argued that the immediate post-9/11 period might encourage a “healthy regrouping” or a rebalancing of political-protest energies as activists moved away from spectacular mass global protests and crafted new responses to international problems through the work of national politics. What we did not anticipate was that there would be limited to no rebalancing in the domestic or global civil society community. Instead, what we would experience over the next decade was a palpable and growing disequilibrium in civic life as traditional political and economic constraints and countervailing forces gave way to the excesses of war, market orthodoxy, and political vitriol.

From Economics to War: The Limits to the Global Civil Society Project

The scale of American overreaction to 9/11, highlighted especially with the consolidation of a national-security state to complement an ever-growing and influential military-industrial complex, has brought us, after ten years, to a near-permanent state of war. Yet, events at the time suggested a different trajectory for the United States than the twenty-first-century warfare state into which, arguably, it has evolved. Initially, during the time period between 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq, global activists appeared poised to use the leverage of global antiwar public opinion to effectively constrain the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” initiatives.1

At the time, many observers assumed that the turn-of-the-century growth in global activism would morph into a global antiwar movement to challenge Bush’s policies. These observers could not be faulted for their mistake: indeed, if terrorism and war were replacing economics as the master frame for activism,2 then the February 2003 global protests against the impending US invasion of Iraq seemed to herald the staying power of global civil society. Millions of citizens participated in coordinated demonstrations around the world against the war preparations, with no less a popular authority than the Guinness World Records listing the three million who massed in Rome alone as the largest protest in history.3

Yet, the protests did not succeed in stopping the US invasion of Iraq, and as the decade wore on, the antiwar energies of global activists seemed to fade, most noticeably in the United States, where progressives assumed continued antiwar mobilizations would be unnecessary with the election of President Obama in 2008. Many transnational activists who gravitated into the antiwar movement had hopefully joined former Vermont governor Howard Dean in what he called “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” (reinvigorating an expression coined by Senator Paul Wellstone in his 2000 presidential exploratory campaign) when they entered the toils of domestic politics, yet they were unprepared for the economic crisis of 2008–2011 and had no answer to the advent of the Tea Party. What had been a lively, if incoherent, wing of the transnational global justice movement largely disappeared into domestic American politics.4

The Great Disequilibrium

Ten years after 9/11, we also are struck by the marked imbalance in state–civil society relations, as we have just experienced a massive growth in the powers of the US government. This decade has witnessed the growth of an invisibly expanding web of non-military but partially militarized industries around Washington, DC. In a series of investigative articles, the Washington Post in July 2010 described the vast national-security apparatus created since 9/11, one that “has become so large, so unwieldy, and so secretive” that it “amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight.”5

Seven decades ago, political scientist Harold Lasswell worried about the growth of what he called the “garrison state.”6 Lasswell’s worry was not only the growth of the military and its increasing intrusion on what had been civilian functions of government; he was also concerned at the militarization of sectors of civilian society. According to Lasswell, writes Samuel Fitch,

“In the twentieth century the political elite of industrial societies has become increasingly dominated by specialists in violence. These are typically not traditional military elites, but modern military professionals with extensive expertise in management, technical operations, and public relations. . . . National security therefore requires a conscious effort to maintain domestic morale and legitimates symbolic manipulation and coercion as necessary instruments for internal control.”7

The momentum of global activism and the potential for political agency also have receded against a backdrop of both seemingly unrelenting global economic turbulence and a resurgent US state that has intensified to an unprecedented degree its preparation for and practice of warfare. Writing in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we did not anticipate the extra-constitutional ramifications of the Bush Doctrine: the operationalization of preventive war, extraordinary rendition, warrantless domestic surveillance, “enhanced interrogation,” presidential signing statements, and the legacy of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. When we suggested somewhat hopefully that there was little need for pessimism—that globally oriented activists always worked most effectively on native ground, supported by the opportunities and resources of their home societies—we could never have expected that a Democratic president elected with a platform that rejected the Bush administration’s policies would further expand US military spending and counterterrorist overseas activity.

The costs of this decade of the global War on Terror go beyond revived debates over the separation of powers and the entrenchment of the “Imperial Presidency.” It truly has been an unprecedented decade in many respects for the military-industrial complex. It is remarkable, for example, that the Pentagon’s budget has risen for thirteen consecutive years. Overall spending on defense between 2001 and 2009 increased by 70 percent, US defense spending over this decade rose from 30 percent to 50 percent of total worldwide defense spending, and US spending on defense averaged $250 billion more annually than it did during the height of the Cold War.8 A new 2011 report issued by Brown University’s Costs of War project estimates that ten years after the declaration of the War on Terror, the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan have cost approximately 225,000 lives and between $3.2 trillion and $4 trillion.9 And perhaps it will come as no surprise to anyone concerned about growing US indebtedness that the costs of the wars have been financed almost entirely by borrowing, with $185 billion in interest already paid on war spending and another $1 trillion in interest possibly accruing by 2020.10 And yet, the targets of the War on Terror only continue to expand—from Pakistan, to Somalia, to the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in Yemen—while the means of delivering reprisals against purported terrorists undergo further modernization.

Indeed, it is the Obama administration’s penchant for increased use of drone warfare in growing numbers of asymmetrical conflicts that further distinguishes this past decade from earlier eras, especially the Cold War. Without underemphasizing the threat posed by Al-Qaeda, the dramatic increase in defense spending and the burgeoning costs of war are unprecedented, and drone warfare marks a further radical turn in the history of war. With little public discussion, the United States has further erased the boundaries of war’s beginning and end, as unmanned drone aircraft have now been used in airstrikes to kill suspected militants in at least six countries: Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen.11 What we find especially troubling—beyond reports of increased loss of civilian lives along with those of the militants targeted in counterterrorist drone strikes—is the lack of sustained public debate over the many legal and moral questions surrounding drone warfare, as well as, more broadly, the major public-policy trade-offs associated with the construction of this national-security state.

This escalating process of historically unprecedented spending, modernization, and expansion of US warfare, intelligence gathering, and surveillance capabilities is one of the more notable contributions to what we would call the “Great Disequilibrium.” By this term we refer to a palpable imbalance that has evolved in many different spheres of life today in the United States, a sense that we are missing counterbalancing forces that might respond correctively to trends and events that have destabilized the American regime and democratic process. The list is long (and herein not conclusive):

  • the record length of and skyrocketing spending on warfare, including the unrestrained forays into extrajudicial killing via drone warfare;
  • deepening inequality not seen since the 1920s, accompanied by growing poverty and increasing and near-record unemployment from the ongoing effects of the Great Recession;
  • growing national indebtedness, crumbling infrastructure, decaying schools, spiraling higher-education costs, and declining public investment; and
  • deteriorating federal and state government revenues at a time when the richest Americans (and multinationals) pay a considerably lower share of their incomes in taxes than at any time since World War II.

Half a century ago, citizens looked to the state and to domestic actors and policies—political parties, the labor and civil rights movements, regulations supportive of social protections—as countervailing forces designed to limit national tendencies toward extreme economic or political disequilibrium. Today, in the midst of such visible deterioration in income, opportunity, and even national image, these countervailing forces are in retreat, with a surreal politics of theater playing out across the American political spectrum that exacerbates a growing democratic deficit. From the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United ruling that removed barriers to massive corporate funding and manipulation of electoral campaigns, to cratering public confidence (especially toward Congress) in the capacity of our political parties and politicians to find meaningful solutions to the serious challenges facing the country, to the recent debate in Congress over raising the debt ceiling—where a tiny Tea Party minority provided cover to a Republican Party unwilling to compromise on any revenue increases despite widespread and significant public majority support—there is a gnawing sense that our political regime may no longer be up to the task of responding pragmatically to the myriad of challenges facing us in the twenty-first century.

Is a New Transnational Politics Possible?

On the eve of 9/11, while we remained somewhat skeptical, many observers held out great expectations that global democratic collective action would provide a new countervailing force to counter the inequities of globetrotting multinationals and fluid capital. In the age of neoliberal globalization, much faith was placed in an emerging constellation of global civil society forces as a new means for helping to recover citizen control over public life. We do recognize that there have been, over this past decade, remarkable changes in world politics as non-state actors, WikiLeaks networks, and communications technologies via Facebook and Twitter have challenged the primacy of the state in the international system. Yet, while arguably a more plural and differentiated international system is evolving, the developments in the United States since 9/11, the expanding War on Terror, and continued global economic turbulence have seemed to confirm our misgivings about the transformative potential of the global civil society project.

For those who care about transnational activism, then, our reflections herein cannot hold out much hope. Yet here and there are stirrings from unexpected quarters that give us some hope for a possible renaissance of transnational activism. First, although the American wing of the global justice movement has been much weaker than advocates had expected, that movement is still lively in Western Europe and Latin America and shows signs of spreading to Africa, where two of the recent meetings of the World Social Forum have been held.12 Second, some observers have taken heart from the launching of an American wing of the World Social Forum, in Atlanta in 2007 and Detroit in 2010.13 Notably, the US Social Forum process in Detroit provided space for the organizational efforts of dozens of groups that formed the People’s Movement Assembly on Food Sovereignty—eventually evolving into the US Food Sovereignty Alliance—whose work today contributes to the transformative efforts of the transnational food movement to promote popular democratic control over the global food system.14Third, the extraordinary spread of digital media over the decade since we first wrote may have many—and contradictory—outcomes, but at a minimum, it is creating a new form of “connective action” alongside older forms of collective action based on social-movement organizations and NGOs.15 These may seem like thin reeds on which to build a new edifice of transnational organizing, but when we think of the surprisingly rapid transnational diffusion of the Middle Eastern and North African revolutions in early 2011, which have now toppled dictators from Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, we should be prepared for surprises.


Jeffrey Ayres is professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Saint Michael’s College, Vermont. He is co-editor of and contributor to two forthcoming books, North America in Question: Regional Integration in an Era of Economic Turbulence and Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food, both with the University of Toronto Press. His current research considers how global transformations are affecting practices of regional and local governance.

Sidney Tarrow is Professor Emeritus of Government at Cornell and visiting professor at the Cornell Law School, where he co-teaches a course on “The Constitution and Society.” He has just published a third, revised and expanded edition of Power in Movement and completed a collection of essays, Strangers at the Gates: States and Social Movements in Contentious Politics, both with Cambridge University Press. He is currently working on a project on “human rights at war.”

  1. Lynne M. Woehrle, Patrick G. Coy, and Gregory M. Maney, Contesting Patriotism: Culture, Power, and Strategy in the Peace Movement (Latham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).
  2. John Feffer, “The Age of Activism,” Foreign Policy in Focus, March 15, 2011, http://www.fpif.org/articles/the_age_of_activism.
  3. See Stefaan Walgrave and Dieter Rucht, eds., The World Says No to War: Demonstrations against the War on Iraq (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
  4. Jennifer Hadden and Sidney Tarrow, “Spillover or Spillout? The Global Justice Movement in the United States after 9/11,” Mobilization 12, no. 4 (2007): 359–76.
  5. Hendrik Hertzberg, “Open Secrets,” New Yorker, August 2, 2010, 17. For the original article, see Dana Priest and William M. Arkin, “A Hidden World, Growing Beyond Control,” Washington Post, July 19, 2010, http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/articles/a-hidden-world-growing-beyond-control/. The Post has created a website to track this “national security industry” at http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/.
  6. Harold Lasswell, “The Garrison State,” The American Journal of Sociology 46 (1941): 455–68.
  7. Samuel J. Fitch, “The Garrison State in America: A Content Analysis of Trends in the Expectation of Violence,” Journal of Peace Research 22 (1985): 31.
  8. Fareed Zakaria, “Yes, Let’s Cut Defense,” Washington Post, August 4, 2011.
  9. Eisenhower Study Group, Costs of War, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, http://costsofwar.org.
  10. Costs of War project, “Estimated Cost of Post-9/11 Wars: 225,000 Lives, Up to $4 Trillion,” news release, June 29, 2011, http://news.brown.edu/pressreleases/2011/06/warcosts.
  11. Greg Jaffe and Karen DeYoung, “U.S. Drone Targets Two Leaders of Somali Group Allied with Al-Qaeda, Official Says,” Washington Post, June 29, 2011.
  12. See Donatella della Porta, ed., The Global Justice Movement: Cross-national and Transnational Perspectives (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007); and Jackie Smith and Ellen Reese, “The World Social Forum Process,” Mobilization 13, no. 4 (2008): 373–94.
  13. Go to the US Social Forum website at http://www.ussf2010.org/node. Also see Jackie Smith, Jeffrey S. Juris, and the Social Forum Research Collective, “We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: The U.S. Social Forum in Context,” Mobilization13, no. 4 (2008).
  14. See Peter Andrée, Jeffrey Ayres, Michael Bosia, and Marie-Josée Massicotte, eds., Globalization and Food Sovereignty: Global and Local Change in the New Politics of Food (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, forthcoming).
  15. Lance Bennett and Alexandra Segerberg, “Digital Media and the Personalization of Collective Action: Social Technology and the Organization of Protests against the Global Economic Crisis,” Information, Communication & Society (2011), in press.