The first seemingly precise and quasi-technical meaning of the word ‘governance’ is that it denotes a particular way of governing. The second, wider and more vague meaning is that it tends to denote the way of governing in general. However, in the latter, the accompanying adjective is often charged with giving a nod towards the first meaning, or towards something approaching it.
When we talk for example of ‘new’ governance, we oppose it to an ‘old’ one, which, by definition, is supposed to relate to the same concept. It is however, understood that the ‘old’ one was ‘misgovernance’: a governance that was not adequate for its concept. So, we are led back to the first meaning - that therefore we must try to better precise. It is most likely that it is through the bias of so-called ‘global’ governance that the word entered into the French language (or rather came back into, as, under the Old Regime, it denoted the royal jurisdictions). Whatever its origins, the bias mentioned lends the best angle for approach, as if, by enlarging it to planetary scale, the notion was to clarify the ways towards understanding and operating which characterise it and however remain analogous on smaller scales.
What is the common axe of the various authors who, at the end of the eighties or the beginning of the nineties, ‘launched’ the concept of global governance? Its coincidence with the end of the opposition between East and West which up until this point constituted the backdrop for international relations can without a doubt not just be put down to chance. These authors depart from two observations: i) an order (in this case a ‘global’ one) is necessary; ii) governments are not sufficient to ensure it. For all that, it is not about creating a new order from nothing. These authors are not utopianists, nor even people who want to rock or somewhat force the reality of things. They are rather analysts and observers who highlight the dominating principles and the fundamental tendencies already at work. In other words, they claim to provide the world with the image of what it really is (using what we call today ‘reflexiveness’). However, they do not stop there. These dominating principles must be, if not institutionalised, at least recognised - move them from reflexiveness to recognition. From descriptive, discourse becomes prescriptive, except that the prescription is supposed to originate from, not the authors themselves – who from observers would have become players – but from reality and from its gradual change. A politic, or at least a way of governing, is therefore suggested, which consists less in proposing an orientation or a direction, than in detecting the forces portent of this gradual change and facilitating its emergence, expression and encounter. Governance mutates imperceptibly from a method of analysis into a method of government.
If governments, in the common meaning of the word, are not or no longer sufficient to assure global order, what other authorities could contribute towards it? Precisely, the authorities, which in themselves and through themselves make up the order. In the strictest and cleanest sense of the word, we understand by governance the mecanism through which any society or organisation secretes its rules of action and conduct which allow it to self-perpetuate and grow. Perpetuation means viability, growth adds uninterrupted dynamism to it ( ‘sustainable development’, for example); through the success that they provide both are proof of the validity of the internal rules. The rules, conversely to those within a state, do not necessarily need to be set out by a legislator; they do not even necessarily need to be consciously accessible, it is enough that they produce conduct and action that lead to success in the order of the activity in question.
Ideally, failure would be enough of a sanction: ideal governance would impose itself, through force of circumstance, impersonally on every occasion. Practically, we will allow for the possibility of the existence of a controlling body, on the condition that it was content to make the rules spontaneously issued from the society or the organisation respected, without ever imposing them from outside. Governance is therefore, on this level, the self-regulation or the self-control of a sphere of activity. The market and business, in the way in which they are conceived by liberalism, are clearly models of this.
(This article synthesises a longer study by the same author. It can be found in French at the following address : Gouvernance : un concept ambigu)