Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in the Global Age.

A recent book conceptualises the Alter-Globalization Movement within a sophisticated framework that helps shed some light on social and historical processes of neoliberal globalisation and its dialectical counterpart. Geoffrey Pleyers, 2010. Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in the Global Age. Cambridge, Polity Press.

The World Social Forum (WSF), a convergence of social movements and civil society organisations, will host its 9th global event in Dakar, Senegal, from the coming 6th to the 11th of February. Organised since 2001 in opposition to the World Economic Forum (WEF), it aims at representing values and imaginations of the future which are alternative to those of the wealthy capitalists, their ideologues and political supporters who meet for the WEF in the Swiss resort of Davos.

Social and political activists meet in the WSF global, regional and local events to exchange experiences and plan for actions, to devise campaigns and strengthen their lobbying influence and political clout. Its global gatherings have seen a growing support of participants. From the initial ten thousand who joined the organisers of the first WSF in Porto Alegre Brazil, to the 130,000 in the Indian edition, held in Mumbai in 2004, to the over 170,000 convened in 2009 the Amazonian city of Belem do Para, Brazil. Global events were organised in Nairobi Kenya, Karachi Pakistan, Bamako Mali and Caracas Venezuela. Regional Forums gathered participants by the tens of thousands in, among others, Hyderabad, India, in 2003, Florence 2002 and, recently in 2010, Detroit United States.

The WSF’s main innovation is the development of a horizontal “open space” in which the role of leadership is consciously limited to extol the creative potentialities of un-mediated relationships between different actors unconstrained by rigid political manifestos. The open space developed forms of political organisations introduced by the Alter-globalization movement since the mid 90s. Its networked, horizontal and open logics allow for the engagement of diverse social and political activists in unprecedented ways: trade union and environmental activists, alternative sexualities and religious activists, gender and indigenous activists to mention just a few.

The next WSF in Dakar, promises to be one more memorable event. Its focus will be on the design of “A New Universality”. Such inspirational call aims at articulating a vision towards “rebuilding relations between humans, the environment and living beings on the basis of justice, solidarity and diversity, by giving precedence to groups and social categories which have suffered most from the dominant hegemonic model during the last five centuries, that they may have a voice. The people involved are in particular workers, peasants, diasporas, migrants, women, ‘native/autochthonous’ peoples, peoples struggling for independence and groups struggling for economic, social and cultural rights and for gender equality” (WSF 2011).

Its sheer size, its geographical reach and the design of an innovative institutional architecture to contribute to the consolidation of the Alter-Globalisation movement have contributed not only to inspire activists but to interest commentators and researchers. Some of those researchers, close to the foci of the Alter-globalisation movement and its several instantiations, developed groundbreaking scholarly work from a privileged “field” position. Some researchers indeed transgressed the boundaries between research and engagement and while contributing to robust theorization on the nature of global societies and their transformations have also participated in the movements they study and worked to influence those processes in so doing challenging the alleged separation between theorising and acting for change. Researchers have reported the global movement since its inception and worked with it to develop theories that reflect the innovative social practices articulated by it. The multiplicity of the embodiments of such movement may be daunting for the traditional social scientist but examples are flourishing of a growing body of compelling scholarship that both unveils complex historical and social dynamics and inspires transformative practices.

The Alter-globalisation movement is not only a space of engagement and research. It is a complex and often contested arena. The WSF is not a fully liberated space, leadership is stated and contested, differences negotiations often stall and conflicts explode highlighting profound tensions in search of mediation. The Alter-globalization movement seems to be, at the same time, an inspiring set of movements, organisations, and activists that can collectively inspire global transformations informed by deeply felt values of equality and justice and a space of conflicts that risk not only to tear apart the nascent network but to confirm the hegemony of the dominant ideology, neoliberalism, social arrangement, capitalism, and imaginations of the future that the Alter-globalizers oppose.

As Pleyers would advice, in his compelling book, Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in the Global Age, the Alter-globalisation movement, of which the WSF is one of the most coherent institutional expressions, is engaged in a social and organisational process of individuation. The Alter-globalisation movement is in search of an identity. It is developing its personality, it is becoming an actor. However, Pleyers warns that such process might not, eventually, give birth to a fully institutionalised historical actor as in the past has happened to social movements like international labour, feminist or environmental movements and fragment instead to give rise to other potential process of individuation the outcomes of which cannot, at this stage, be foreseen.

The process of individuation of the alter-globalization movement, the process by which it will (if at all) become an actor in world history, is expressed through the challenge of mediating its two main souls. As Pleyers convincingly puts it, the Alter-Globalization movement is expression of at least two profoundly different trends which he calls “way of subjectivity” and “way of reason”. One focuses on subjectivity and creativity, the other on reason and rationality as privileged paths to become actors in the global age. The process of individuation that Pleyers details describes Alter-globalization as fragments negotiating (often through conflicts) their mutual recognition and their contribution to its overall identity as a historical actor.

Timely, well researched, accurate and theoretically sophisticated, Pleyers’ book is a crucial addition to the bookshelf of activists and scholars interested in understanding and transforming the world. Alter-Globalization is both an instrument of sophisticated investigation and the outcome of a decade of direct engagement with movements and visionaries who struggle for a more just and equal planet. Pleyers’ engaged scholarship aims at, on the one hand, contributing to reformulate the global political imaginary and the notion and practices of global citizenship and, on the other hand, at reconfiguring the meaning and practices of activism itself.

The amount of first hand material is impressive and it reflects over a decade of engaged research in Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia. Pleyers’ case studies span from the Zapatistas with its charismatic leadership, its communal focus, its global networks of supporters and its rootedness in the Southern Mexican states of Chiapas, to small activist collectives in Liege, Paris, London and Buenos Aires; from large NGOs like Global Citizen to bureaucratic activist initiatives like ATTAC. At the same time, the material used in the book has been gathered while contributing to the development of theories and practices of change “in the field”, together with the activists whose work and whose conceptualisations are reported and on which Pleyers’ further systematization is constructed.

Such abundance of first hand material and uncommon narrative skills familiarise the reader with the activists’ language, practices, way of thinking and aspirations and depicts faithfully the social environments in which they act. After few pages it becomes clear that profound differences can be noticed in ways in which society and change are theorised, theory and practice are conceptualised, visions and goals are articulated and acted upon within the Alter-Globalisation movement. Relatively smaller collectives of activists focusing on small scale activism around environmental issues or collective consumption of organic food products focus on practices that immediately reflect their vision of change and their projection of visionary futures.

Larger, more complexly organised and often bureaucratic actors focus their struggle on the management of specialised expert knowledge. Such knowledge, the acquisition of which requires privileged access to education and material resources, aims at offering to the potential ally and to the policy maker a reliable picture of both the current conjuncture and of the alternatives proposed and their feasibility. If the way of subjectivity stresses the relational nature of existence, knowledge and transformation, the way of reason resists the domination of capitalism by mobilising comparable and opposite information and knowledge understood as symbolic “capital” whose accumulation is crucial to build political clout and social status.

In the first section of his book, Pleyers illustrates the role of libertarian and autonomous direct action groups, loosely organised in small affinity groups and horizontal networks often arranged in virtual spaces of communication over the internet, in articulating the path to alternative forms of socialization through a stress on the subjective dimension of existence. He recounts experiences, visions and organisational practices of a wealth of groups over a period of a decade that further illustrate the internal variety of discourses, lifestyles and imaginations.

In a similar manner he focuses, in the second section of the book, on traditional NGOs and movements’ organisations to illustrate the path to another world through reason. The activists of the way of reason engage concepts and representations of citizenship through technical and abstract knowledge, expertise and popular education. NGOs and think tanks take advantage of strategic funding and expert knowledge to propose convincing global scenarios on the basis of analysis grounded on established theoretical frameworks. They process huge amounts of data extrapolated by complex social and environmental contexts and process them to show the incompatibility between the current social and ideological hegemony with the survival of humanity. Against the pathological irrationality of the current exploitative social arrangements, a rational way to a global transformation is indicated centred on more aware and participatory forms of global citizenship based on knowledge and a sophisticated political consciousness.

While this is a thoroughly balanced account, Pleyers suggests that the truly innovative way to another world rests with the way of subjectivity as the way of reason is partly lead by an instrumental, unaccountable and vanguardist leadership often ideologically twisted and self-appointed. Pleyers’ argument is compelling, the alter-globalizers of the way of reason and the globalizers share the very foundations of social conceptualisation and politics (rationality and democracy); the former are claiming to be better than their opponents in designing and running the world in a rational and democratic way.  The true innovators are those who are able, as the saying has it, to think outside the box and imagine emancipated social relations and autonomous subjectivities. Their relational conceptualisation of knowledge may be “better” than the instrumental one of both globalizers’ and alter-globalizers’ of the way of reason.

Whereas for narrative reasons the two trends that make the Alter-globalisation movement are treated separately in consecutive sections of the book, Pleyers stresses in several occasions how often these apparently incommensurable tendencies are embodied within the same instance. Emotional and relational politics is not completely foreign to the organisations of the way of reason, just as rationalisation of militant activism and autonomous lifestyles are not at all denied among the collectives of the way of subjectivity. Pleyers accounts for a variety of relationships between more or less institutionalised actors within spaces of convergences like demonstrations and Social Forums illustrating how, though analytically separated within the confines of the book the two ways are indeed often intertwined in the daily practice of activism.

Moreover, Pleyers accurately details how the most inspiring moments of the Alter-globalization movement were when both souls negotiated joint activities. He details the terms of the alliances that lead to the demonstrations in Seattle, Genoa, Prague and Gothenburg just to mention few from the repertoire he studies and pays thorough attention to a possible institutionalisation of such alliance in the World Social Forum. The terms of this alliance might have been challenged as in the case of the European Social Forum in London in 2004 in which the composition of the conflict between activists of the way of subjectivity and reason could not be accomplished and two parallel forums were organised instead, but Pleyers study is utterly convincing and theoretically robust, albeit it prefigures scenarios rather than laying out alleged structural necessities of history. Such alliance is neither necessary nor inevitable; indeed, the tensions between the two trends might tear the current movement apart and reformulate processes of individuation that may lead to other and unexpected, at this stage, historical actors.

The implications of Pleyers’ arguments are twofold as they engage both scholarly literatures and can ultimately contribute to the individuation of the Alter-globalisation movement as a historical movement with a transformative potential. Pleyers uses a convincing methodology to articulate his arguments. He highlights apparent contradictions to unpack complexities and unveil more sophisticated ways to look at problems and by submitting apparent paradoxes he reformulates traditional matters of concern (both scholarly and activists). So for instance, why the majority of activists are middles class and those most affected by neoliberal policies do not engage with the movement? Why are women less represented than men, especially in the way to reason? Why is the same for people of colour, indigenous people and other marginalised categories?

Moreover, Pleyers illustrates and further substantiates through activists’ experiences the theoretical positions of scholars of global societies who have discussed such apparent contradictions between political being and societal progress but have appeared uncertain about how to bridge their theories with actual transformative daily practices of conflict and mediation of those contradictions. In a nuanced and robust manner, Pleyers engages the intellectual intuitions of authors like David Held, Antony Giddens, Charles Tilly, Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin, Alain Touraine, Jürgen Habermas, John Holloway and Mary Kaldor (among others) providing those theories with an horizon of direct relation with the life of struggle and imagination of activists and engaged citizens, infusing them with new life and with the power to inspire the practices of transformation they invoke. Indeed Pleyers positions his experience and his book as a bridge between the often divided worlds of scholarly theory (reason and rationality?) and activist practice (subjectivity and creativity?).

Pleyers offers answers to practical questions with deep theoretical import: how is solidarity built with a view to consolidate effective social capital in order, in turn, to strengthen democracy (asks Putnam)? To illustrate a potentially successful way to such dynamics he offers the example of neighbourhood network building in a Catalan city. How the capacity necessary for aware political citizenship can be created (asks Amartya Sen)? Pleyers provides a convincing example by another activist collective in Liege. How can the conviviality crucial to ignite appropriate institutional processes be realised to build a truly cosmopolitan world (asks David Held)? Pleyers shows how conviviality in activist groups is both practice and objective, a daily way of practising Gandhi’s precept of being the change they want to see in the world.

There are other important theoretical contributions that can only be mentioned here: the adoption of a cosmopolitan methodology beyond limiting methodological nationalisms, the reflection on the theoretical and practical content of categories like activism and citizenship and their negotiation in the life of actually existing movements and networks.

This kind of scholarship is what the Alter-globalisation movement and indeed the world deserve: an engagement with fundamental social and individual dynamics like individuation, autonomy, emancipation and the transgression of the boundaries between rationality and emotions, between theory and practice, between being and change. Bridges like the one Pleyers builds across apparently incommensurable divides are being built currently by WSF activists. The Dakar WSF is indeed inspired by the suggestion that a new universality, a new global alliance, could be built on the awareness that deeply subjective experiences of pain and oppression like those caused by historic and contemporary slavery, exploitation and discrimination are constitutive of the will to emancipation and freedom and these can and do articulate themselves across individual and social divides through both empathy and reason. As Pleyers suggests, if the Alter-globalization movement aims at transforming itself and the world it might pursue further awareness of these dynamics and stipulate alliances across its real or perceived, individual and social, boundaries in order to achieve its individuation as a truly historical actor.

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One Response to Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in the Global Age.

  1. Pingback: Alter-Globalization: The Author Responds | Left Eye On Books

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