Third System Associations

From P2P Foundation
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Proposed Definition

Marc Nerfin:

"Contrasting with governmental power and economic power —the power of the Prince and the Merchant—there is an immediate and autonomous power, sometimes evident, sometimes latent: people's power. Some people develop an awareness of this, associate and act with others and thus become citizens.* Citizens and their associations, when they do not seek either governmental or economic power, constitute the third system. Helping to bring what is latent into the open, the third system is one expression of the autonomous power of the people.


Third system associations are formed by citizens whose situation in society, and/or some personal reason, whether intellectual, moral or spiritual, makes them anxious to improve their lifes, individually or collectively, and that of others. Social history suggests that individual motivation is more important, collective motivation more ardent, and the combination of both stronger. A worker usually remains a worker, and his/her reasons to be active in a trade union are part and parcel of her/his social existence. The same holds true for members of ethnic minorities (or majorities). A woman has even deeper reasons to be a lifelong feminist activist. But not all workers, all women, and so on, become citizens, and the personal motivation is always essential. Motivations are many, but observation of the third system as it currently unfolds—i.e. beyond its 'traditional' manifestations like the trade unions—suggests that there are only a few deep-seated mobilizing themes; peace, women's liberation, human and peoples' rights, environment, local self-reliance, alternative life-styles and personal transformation and consumers' self-defence as well as, in some industrialized countries, solidarity with the people of the Third World, including refugees and migrants, and, in Eastern Europe, or at least in Poland, a new form of trade unionism" (


Marc Nerfin:

"The multiplicity of forms under which these associations appear correspond to the diversity of motivations and circumstances. Because they reflect the autonomy of the people, associations are often allergic to the forms defined by the establishment. The term is therefore used here, purposely, in a rather loose sense. Many associations are officially recognized and/or registered, with a formal constitution, membership, committees, channels for reporting and accounting, etc. Others are just ad hoc gatherings of like-minded individuals who occasionally share ideas and experiences through a roundrobin letter. In between, the spectrum includes all other possible configurations: some are underground; others do not care about their legal status and just exist; a few even resemble political parties, such as the Greens in Western Germany,e,8 but are still part of the third system as long as they do not exercise executive power. There may also be groups of marginal shareholders who try to voice social concerns in a transnational corporation.

Quite a few, especially in Buddhist and Christian cultures, have a spiritual foundation. Some have a few members only; others constitute vast movements, occasionally assembling several hundreds of thousands of people. In short, third system associations are as diverse as societies themselves. Citizens and their associations usually act in a determined space—local, regional, national, multinational, global—but also, and increasingly so, in several spaces simultaneously. Amnesty International, to take only one example, acts in the global space through representations to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in the national space through pressure on governments, and in the local space through the many groups which 'adopt' a political prisoner and campaign for his/her liberation. Whatever makes citizens join forces and wherever they take action, third system associations/activities can be considered under a few broad, nonmutually exclusive and non-comprehensive clusters.

Some are geared to the realization of a project intended to respond to a crisis situation, to solve a specific problem or pursue a more general objective: organizing people, especially the poor;f improving their daily lifeg or their environment;h extending technical or financial support to local initiatives;i promoting popular theatre;j linking education with production;k ensuring equal access to jobs; decreasing working time, opposing construction of a | nuclear facility (or the deployment of missiles); reconverting the manufacture of arms into that of socially useful goods;l preventing the export of dangerous drugs to the Third World or the careless storage of toxic wastes; campaigning for the liberation of a political prisoner; sharing appropriate technologies;m building new North-South relations;n facilitating the exchange of experiences through networking and cross-cultural dialogues; or searching for alternatives. In the Third World, there is a new and growing tendency among intellectuals,o including womenp and lawyers,q to serve the people. Advocacy activities may be seen as constituting a second cluster. Associations may be formed to advocate peace,r a new world order, the New International Economic Order or a federalist world; a world without hunger; s a new approach to international security; better terms of trade for Third World countries; the recognition and effective respect of minority rights;t breastfeeding;u consumption of local products; Another Development in health; equality in opportunities among individuals and societies; protection and enhancement of the environment; ecodevelopment; cultural pluralism and respect for the Other; reform to strengthen the United Nations...

A third cluster of associations deals with accountability ('those who hold power must be held accountable for the consequences of its exercise') and the necessary mechanisms. The Permanent Peoples' Tribunal and its predecessor, the Russell Tribunal, are examples as far as the Prince is concerned; the International Organization of Consumer Unions,w IBFANx or Ralph Nader's Corporate Accountability Research Group and its Multinational Monitor as far as the Merchant is concerned.

The three types of activities usually imply some underpinning policyoriented research and have a broad educational role, and some associations devote themselves primarily to such functions. The association's activity often takes (exclusively or not) the form of a publication such as, to chose examples in the feminist movement, the Latin American ILET Fempress, the African La Satellite, the Tribune or the ISIS periodicals, or the Samizdat in USSR, third system activities not being limited to the West or the South.


The phrase 'third system' in the sense accepted here, and in the practice it is system associated with, was coined in September 1977. It was first embodied in the title of the 'third system project' carried out between 1978 and 1980 by the International Foundation for Development Alternatives as a contribution to the elaboration of the United Nations International Development Strategy for the 80s.35,v As implied in the definition used here, the concept extends well beyond the modest context of its origin.

The association with the phrase 'Third World' is not only deliberate: as a matter of fact, both phrases come from the same source; both are meant to evoke le Tiers Etat, 'the third estate' of the French ancien régime. Before the 1789 revolution, French society comprised three 'estates', the nobility, the clergy and the third estate, i.e. the vast majority. Alfred Sauvy was the first, in 1952, to use the phrase 'Third World' to refer to the periphery, or the South, a phrase which has since then gained wide acceptance.42* However, 'third system' is conceptually closer to 'third estate' than 'Third World' is to either. The latter concept is geo-political; it concerns countries. The former two are socio-political; they concern people, and that is what the third system is about.


The third system is thus not coterminous with the people. It brings together only those among the people who are reaching a critical consciousness of the role they may play. It is not a party or an organization, but the movement of those associations or citizens who perceive that the essence of history is the endless effort for emancipation by which we grope towards mastery of our own destiny, an effort which is, in the final analysis, coterminous with the process of humanization of man (in the generic sense). The third system does not seek governmental or economic power. On the contrary, its function is to help people to assert their own autonomous power vis-à-vis both Prince and Merchant. It endeavours to listen to those never or rarely heard and at least to offer a tribune to the unheard voices.


Networking is the other approach to third system linkages. There is nothing new in its practice: since the beginning of history, some people have always been in touch with others on the basis of common values and interests. What is new is that networking becomes progressively global because of the new perceptions of the oneness of humankind, and because technology makes it possible: air travel and the photocopying machine, and the tapes, and now, in a new revolution, telecommunications.

Above all, networking already offers a concrete alternative to conventional institutions serving Prince and Merchant. These are usually designed and operated in a pyramidal manner so as to provide for hierarchical relations between a centre and a periphery, a leader and those led (even when centres or leaders are the product of some consensus). They are the vehicle of the exercise of an outer power over others. They rest on a vertical division of labour between bureaucrats and membership. They nurture disabling professions and dispossess people. They are internally and externally competitive and foster bigness. They seek and dispense information rather than facilitating communication. They breed conformism and dependence. They are change-resistant and self-perpetuating. As a whole, they hinder rather than enhance freedom.

In sharp contrast, networks operate horizontally. Their centres are everywhere, their peripheries nowhere. Networking simply means that a number of autonomous, equal and usually small groups link up to share knowledge, practice solidarity or act jointly and/or simultaneously in different spaces.

They exercise an inner power over themselves. Based as they are on moral (as distinct from professional or institutional) motivations, networks are cooperative, not competitive. Communicating is of their essence. They ignore coordination as a specialized task. Leadership, if and when needed, is shifting. The raison d'être of networks is not in themselves, but in a job to be done. When there is one, they set themselves up. They adjust quickly to changing circumstances. They are resilient in adversity (for instance, that one entity is coopted by the establishment does not affect the whole). When they are no longer useful, they disappear. They are transient. Moving outside mainstreams and beaten tracks on somewhat marginal paths, they learn from each other to look elsewhere and beyond the conventional and the immediate. Being multidimensional, they stimulate imagination and innovation. They foster solidarity and a sense of belonging. They expand the sphere of autonomy and freedom.

The source of the movement is the same everywhere—people's autonomous power—and so is its most universal goal, survival. But the latent power of people materializes only here and there." (

More Information

  1. Civil Society