The concept of an emergent global civil society (GCS), an identifiable public sphere of voluntary association distinct from the architecture of states and markets, has become voguish in some approaches to international relations and international political economy, and in the practices of global governance. This article seeks to reveal the limitations of the prevailing commonsense framing of GCS. Challenging the idea that we can isolate an unambiguous GCS sphere, we focus instead on the particular uses of GCS – on the practices that are shaped in its name. We make a number of interventions to emphasise the conceptual and political ambiguity of GCS. First, we shift the emphasis from GCS as a bounded ‘non-governmental’; space to GCS as precisely a means of making global politics governable in particular ways. Second, we question the assumption of GCS as ‘voluntary association’, asking what it means for GCS to embody or represent the interests of social groups. Finally, we raise questions of the image of empowerment through GCS, highlighting the power relations, tensions and contradictions at the heart of a transformative politics.