Social Movements In A Global Political Economy

Social movements result when networks of actors relatively excluded from routine decision-making processes engage in collective attempts to change "some elements of the social structure and/or reward distribution of society" (McCarthy and Zald 1977:1,217). The critical components of most successful social movements include: organizing and mobilizing resources, framing their grievances and goals, and engaging the political opportunity structures that constrain or enable social change. In this chapter, I will focus mainly on organizing/mobilizing and political opportunity structures.

Local and domestic/national social movements have been the primary scholarly emphasis since the study of movements by sociologists began in the nineteenth century. But with the continued proliferation of transnational movements, recent scholarship has paid more attention to this phenomenon than ever before (Smith et al. 1997). When it becomes clear that one society's actions impact another society, or an organization (e.g. a corporation) based in one nation affects people's lives and environment in another, we must expand our scope of study to include the transnational nature of movements in the modern era. Thus transnational social movement organizations (TSMOs) specialize in "minding other people's business" (Tarrow 1998:189).

Social movements have become quite sophisticated in their understanding of globalization and in their efforts to combat its associated negative social impacts at multiple levels. Some scholars view the structure of globalization itself as facilitative of the development of global forms of resistance (Hardt and Negri 2000). What tactics and strategies are movements developing in a globalizing world? How effective are transnational social movements at producing change? What are the targets of social movements and why does this matter? How do race, class, and nation intersect to produce political barriers and openings for TSMOs? How does expanding urbanization impact and link peoples of the global North and South? These are some of the questions I explore in this chapter and that scholars of movements have only just begun to consider.

TSMOs are largely based in the Northern Hemisphere for reasons of access to global decision-makers in world cities such as London, New York, and Washington, D.C., but also because the telecommunication and transportation infrastructure in these nations are often more supportive of rapid and intense utilization by activists who may need to communicate or mobilize on very short notice. And while the leadership of most TSMOs is native to the global North, there are also a number of activists from the global South who live in the North and work for TSMOs there. There are also a growing number of TSMOs in the South, particularly in urban centers like New Delhi, Manila, Durban, Penang, and Chiang Mai. Northern and Southern environmentalists have long acknowledged that, in order to successfully engage the political and economic proponents of globalization, they must collaborate.

Social movements must mobilize resources—funds, technology, people, ideas, etc.— to achieve their goals. TSMOs are rarely successful if we narrowly define success as a major change in a specific policy within a nation state (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Smith et al. 1997). But they are increasingly relevant in international policy debates, as they seek to make not only policy changes in international law and multilateral conventions, but also to change the terms and nature of the discourse within these important debates. These conventions include, for example: the Montreal Protocol (on the production of ozone-damaging chemicals), the Kyoto Protocol (on global warming), the Basel Convention (on the international trade in hazardous wastes), and the Stockholm Convention (on the production and management of persistent organic pollutants). In each of these cases, TSMOs are often a critical source of information for governments seeking to learn about a problem, and their presence raises the costs of failing to act on certain issues, thus increasing the possibility of government accountability. In a global society where a nation-state's reputation on a range of matters can be tarnished in international political and media venues, TSMOs can have real impacts. Specifically, when information disseminated becomes a part of common wisdom, such "popular beliefs .are themselves material forces" (Gramsci 1971:165). That is, meaning systems can support or challenge systems of structural and material control (Moore 1993). This is a critical point because, as urban political ecologists have argued, social movements are struggling over cultural meaning systems as much as they are fighting for improved material conditions and needs (Escobar 1992).

Resource mobilization is only part of the story. One must also have (or create) an opening in the political process in order to realize a movement's goals. In most of the research on social movements, the political opportunity structure consists mainly of the following dimensions:

1 The relative openness or closure of the institutionalized political system.

2 The stability of that broad set of elite alignments that typically undergird a polity.

3 The presence of elite allies who sympathize with or support social movements.

4 The state's capacity and propensity for repression.

(McCarthy 1997:255)

Keck and Sikkink (1998:7) define the political opportunity structure as "differential access by citizens to political institutions like legislatures, bureaucracies, and courts". I contend that this model is rooted in a "state-centric" perspective (McAdam 1996:34). Political process research tends to present the state as the primary movement target or main vehicle of reform. Many movements indeed share this state-centric orientation. However, numerous movements today increasingly view the nation-state as weak—no longer a natural ally or enemy—and sometimes as just one of many players (if not a marginal player) in their struggles for change. Thus, the primary targets and major sites of reform are no longer centred solely within traditional political institutions. The state and the political elite are only one component of the political process and are sometimes circumvented by movements seeking to challenge more powerful institutions, such as large corporations.

During the 1990s, several international free trade agreements among nations emerged for the purpose of removing obstacles to trade and commerce and allow the unencumbered mobility of commodities and currencies around the globe. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) produced governance structures that would successfully weaken environmental laws (among others) among member nations. Under such a system, state sovereignty and policy-making capacity are formally subverted as non-state institutions (i.e. supranational trade organizations heavily influenced by corporations) are authorized to rule on a vast range of laws on behalf of private investors and corporations. These global structures have direct impacts on citizens and social movements across nations, independent of elected officials' efforts to close or open the traditional political process. These developments present major challenges to social movements and nation-states. Thus, in the wake of these free trade agreements, if movements (particularly labour and environmental) continue to focus on the nation-state (and its sub governments) as their sole target, they will have misdirected much of their energy.

In light of this changing political and economic terrain, I have proposed a modification of the political process model—a political economic process perspective (Pellow 2001). This extension of the political process model recognizes the close links between traditional political institutions (e.g. states and legislative bodies) and economic organizations (e.g. corporations and international financial institutions) and their interactions with social movements (McAdam 1996). It emphasizes the power of private capital over nation-state governance, and acknowledges that corporations are often the primary targets of social movements, both domestic and transnational. In other words, movements must confront both state and corporate entities, because these are the primary institutions shaping the system of power in a global society. As Peet and Watts (1993:240) point out, scholars of political ecology have paid considerable attention to this phenomenon, as they are "concerned with institutions and organizations in the context of shifting configurations of state and market roles".

For urban political ecologists, this is all part of a much broader on-going discussion and analysis of neoliberalism and its effects on urban spaces and politics. Smith (2002:433), for example, argues that while there is no question that the state's economic power is eroding, its political and cultural power may not be. Activists have made use of this shift in creative ways. The political power of states is critical, for example, when considering efforts to achieve social change at the global scale. Hence the intense level of resources many TSMOs have put into negotiating international environmental treaties— which are supranational institutional configurations.

The state's precarious economic position may provide other spaces for grassroots movement innovation as well. Consider Isin's (1998), view that neoliberalism is not just a form of state retreat, but also a complex set of changing technologies of power "whereby citizens are redefined as clients and autonomous market participants who are responsible for their own success, health, and well-being" (Keil 2002:582). If we accept this model, then it makes perfect sense for citizen-activists and social movements to engage in "venue shopping" (Baumgartner and Jones 1991:1050) for the institutions whose reform will give them the most bang for their political "buck". This is precisely what transnational social movement organizations do—targeting corporations, international financial institutions, and other venues—when the state fails to provide access to paths for reform. To a great degree, these dynamics have been with us for a long time. For example, the central challenge for movements in this context is best summed up in the following question: "What role can civil society play in a world where governments and corporations have reigned supreme for centuries?" (Burbidge 1997).

Why does all of this matter? The importance of understanding the shift from state to corporate power in national and global politics is critical because states are a form of governance (at least in democracies) that are supposed to be accountable to the citizenry. Corporations are not. The only constituents to whom they are accountable are the firm's stockholders. In fact, as long as they are in compliance with local and national laws, they are free to make decisions that exploit and abuse workers, communities, and consumers, as long as their shareholders are satisfied. So if institutions of this ilk are making decisions about the public good and the general welfare of a population and its environment, we are faced with a troubling reality. This is particularly acute in urban areas where poor, working class, immigrants, and people of colour are concentrated in economically deprived and politically less powerful enclaves that are frequently burdened with the environmental cast-offs of production and urban consumption patterns. No form of pollution embodies this dilemma of urban environmental racism better than electronic waste.

0 0

Post a comment