Alter-Globalization: The Author Responds
“A proposal for a better understanding of the global justice movement.”
Geoffrey Pleyers, author of “Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in the Global Age”, writes:
I usually really appreciate your website and its articles. As you may imagine, I’m quite disappointed with the review of “Alter-Globalization” that was published on October 3.
There is no doubt that this book may have been improved in numerous aspects, including by a better integration of the four books King cites in his review. And I’m convinced that critical perspectives are much needed to enhance a better understanding of social agency in and of the world today.
“Alter-Globalization” is no exception to the rule that nothing is perfect and constructive criticisms are more than welcome. Some of the arguments raised by King are definitively appropriate: the research was still too much focused on the Europe , although a significant part of the research was conducted in Mexico and during eight World Social Forums in Brazil, Mali, and Kenya, with other case studies in Argentina and Nicaragua, and my knowledge of some parts of the movement is limited, particularly when it comes to Eduardo Galeano and US anarchism.
Mike King rightly underlines that “Alter-globalization” provides a perspective by a spatially situated author (European), which is notably reflected in the choice of case studies. For example, ATTAC-France was chosen as a case study both because it used to be an important actor in Western Europe (much more than in the US and most of the Global South) and because it reflected some structural tendencies of the more “instrumental” part of the movement: accurate analysis, economicism, theoretical alternative measures, strong leadership by committed intellectuals and a lack of internal democracy (at least before 2006).
“Alter-globalization” doesn’t pretend to provide a full panorama on the movement and needs to be completed by other researchers and activists analyses, particularly by people based in the Global South. This limitation doesn’t however invalidate the proposed analysis. The literature is broad and the movement huge and diverse. A single researcher will never be able to grasp all the many facets of the movement or the writings of all the research-activists.
In two ways, Mike King’s review goes, however, beyond criticism: its title and adishonest misuse of some quotations; the latter being a serious lapse, as it is the basis of intellectual rigor. Besides, it shows very little respect for the author,who, after all, is just another researcher trying to understand the alter-globalization movement. In this reply to his review, I will develop this two points, then state what some misunderstandings of the arguments developed in “Alter-globalization” and, finally and more importantly, briefly focus on an important debate raised by Mike King’s review. While he maintains that the alter-globalization movement is a bottom-up movement, “Alter-globalization” hypothesis is that the movement results from a complex encounter between creative grassroots actors who develop expressive forms of activism with citizens and intellectuals who share a more institutionalized approach of social change and have often implemented a top-down approach of social movement building.
1. First of all, what an aggressive title! If constructive criticisms are welcome and if this book needs much improvement, such a title doesn’t reflect the open-minded pluralist perspective that is at the core of the alter-globalization movement, a mindset that is as much needed in the general academic world today. The title of the review closes any possibility of dialogue and reflects both arrogance and a lack of respect for different ideas and approaches.
As stated in the introduction (p.13), the book doesn’t aim at giving a full panorama of the alter-globalization movement but instead focuses on proposing a heuristic perspective on the movement that allows us to understand some of its aspects. For example, why do highly educated, very individualized, urban young activists refer so much to the Zapatista movement, an indigenous movement for the defense of communities, even though most activists among the Zapatistas were illiterate before joining the movement? How can we understand the coexistence of long workshops where activists spend their week-end listening to economists and the happy samba/street parties in a same movement? What do they share? How do they connect to different cultures of politics? On this basis, the purpose of the book is to contribute to an ongoing discussion on the nature, strengths and limits of this movement, and, beyond that, to raise the fundamental question of social agency in the global age.
Besides, it seems that even Mike King has found some interesting aspects in the book:
political orientations or strategies Pleyers identifies as expressive and instrumental. This distinction between expressive and instrumental movements is generally helpful, illustrating an improvement upon the theories of social movements dominant in academia today…this framework is nonetheless a useful starting point for discussions of contemporary social movements
The heuristic distinction between “expressive” and “instrumental” political orientation is the central argument of the book. It may be improved and better developed, but if even M. King finds it “helpful” and a “useful starting point for discussions of contemporary social movements,” is it really such a bad way to theorize the movement? So why have the editors chosen such a merciless title?
2. The most problematic aspect of this review is the deliberate and dishonest misuse of quotations, such as by confusing the author’s words with affirmations made by the activists themselves.
King states “The Zapatistas defined the movement in 1994 as a war against oblivion, which is not just ‘throwing out slogans’ (page 119).”
The actual sentence on page 119 is:
This labour of expertise allows, at least in theory, the definition of
relatively precise and measurable objectives, in contrast to the often simple utopian ideas promoted by some alter-globalization actors, particularly those of the way of subjectivity: ‘more time must be spent making measurable and operational proposals than throwing out slogans (a leader of The Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC-France), World Social Forum (WSF) 2004)
The book clearly identifies this as a quotation by a leading activist. Neither I nor the quoted activist ever referred to the Zapatista movement as “just throwing out slogans.”
I have spent several weeks a Zapatista community and taken part in various meetings in Chiapas between 2002 and 2008, both in a community and for several meetings, and subsequently have no doubt that this movement has made a remarkable contribution to the alter-globalization movement and, more importantly, to a better world. The movement has improved daily life in communities and has provided the global movement with a concrete alternative culture of politics expressing how one may change the world. These major contributions are extensively discussed in “Alter-globalization.” This doesn’t mean that I would not underline some limits of the Zapatista movement, but I certainly would not accuse them of “just throwing slogans.”
3. When he declares “Pleyers’ position is Eurocentric: the idea that intellectuals are the brain of the movement and protesters are the body (page 114) reinforces race and class norms about who is fit to think and lead,” King uses the same trick. Here is the real quotation in the book:
Strongly rejected by activists from the way of subjectivity, who promote the direct implementation of the movement’s democratic values and a horizontal internal organization, the distinction between ‘grassroots activists’ and intellectual leaders is clearly assumed by many engaged intellectuals: “The alter-globalization movement is like a human body. Committed researchers are the head of the movement and the masses that mobilize for events like Seattle are its legs.” (An activist-researcher from the French Globalization Observatory, interviewed in 2000).
It is particularly dishonest to attribute to me the idea that intellectuals are “the brain of the movement and protesters are the body,” as it is a quotation that illustrates the perspective of a few intellectual activists, a perspective that is then analyzed and criticized in the following pages of the book.
For an activist, this deliberate misquoting shows a regrettable lack of honesty. For a scholar, it constitutes a serious professional fault, as a correct use of quotations is the basis for intellectual rigor and is an indispensable element of any debate (and certainly of a review!).
4. Connected to the last point, there are some clear misunderstandings. I strongly disagree with several interpretations of the book, particularly that which details the role of intellectuals and NGOs in the movement. For example, Mike King states that
“Alter-Globalization” consistently makes the argument that the movement was started and led by intellectuals who were made legitimate in the eyes of existing political powers by the existence of popular protest.
That’s untrue! While some committed scholars have played a role in the movement, for instance, in the creation of the World Social Forum, “Alter-Globalization” clearly shows that they are not at the center of the movement. It is the main argument of chapter 6 and of the article “The World Social Forum, a Globalization from Below?,” published in “Society Without Borders” in 2008. If you don’t have the opportunity to have a look at that chapter right now, just have a look at the first two pages of the book. It starts with a collection of notes on protests that may be considered as some of the starting points of the alter-globalization movement. The first protest is a farmers demonstration in Bangalore, the second one the Zapatista uprising. The anti-G7 protest in Birmingham comes in the third place, with a clear mention of its mixed participation by both intellectual-NGOs and cultural activists (Reclaim the Street…). Then, and only in the fourth place, intellectuals, ATTAC and NGOs campaigns around the MAI in 1997.
There are several other statements in this review with which I fully disagree, among them the fact that I “exalt a group of self-proclaimed experts.” The aim of the book is actually to analyze the strengths and the limits of this culture of politics and I’m actually far more critical towards them than toward the expressive part of the movement. King disputes me by claiming “the multitude of movements of workers, and the precarious all over the world seek a different type of legitimacy,” but this is precisely my point! In a movement based on experience and expressiveness, any delegation of experience is impossible and not desirable. Different forms of legitimacy are thus emerging, based on experience rather than on representativeness and numbers. This debate is re-invoked upon several occasions throughout the book.
Once again, I agree with Mike King that many of these points could have
been more or better developed. But it is unfair to write that these debates are not present in the book. They are actually at the center of the book itself.
5. There is however an important point of debate raised by Mike King. He maintains that “It [The alter-globalization movement] was, however, a bottom-up movement, a radical and democratic movement opposed to neoliberalism and all of its institutions and policies, not primarily out of rational expertise in international finance, but from the experience of suffering under the processes and policies of neoliberal globalization.”
Most of the literature, including several of the four books cited in the review, clearly identifies the alter-globalization movement with these bottom-up, expressive, horizontal actors and networks.
The hypothesis I defend in “Alter-globalization” rather considers the movement as the encounter between these innovative bottom-up actors and other actors that maintain a more hierarchical, top-down logic in their opposition to the Washington Consensus and their aspiration for a more democratic world. Since the very start of the movement, the two trends have been present: in the Zapatista movements (see for example the communiqués in 1994 and 1995), in Seattle and, for sure, at the World Social Forums. The WSF was initiated by networks dominated by committed scholars. However, since the very first meeting, the legitimacy of these committed scholars and their hierarchical way of organizing the forum has been contested both by the farmers movement, “Via Campesina,” and by activists that wanted the forum to be a more prefigurative and performative space. These activists organized their own autonomous spaces within the forum (notably in the youth camps) and had a considerable influence on the way the WSF was transformed and became, at times (notably in 2004 and 2005), more horizontal and participatory. I tend to see these two trends as both opposed and complementary. “Alter-Globalization” proposes to analyze each of these political cultures and their encounter in global justice events.
One good way of forming your own opinion on this debate is to have a look
at the book. If you do not have that much time, at least consider some other
reviews. Here are a few links:
Mike King responds:
I completely stand by my analysis of “Alter-Globalization” and will defend my position with the use of the author’s own words, frames, and omissions. As I said in my review, it was not my intention to write a critique of this book. However, I do have an obligation to write something that is honest, both to what I know of the movement from 15 years of studying and organizing and, more importantly, to the movement itself. The book is inherently Eurocentric on numerous levels; the ideas contained within the quotations and the reference that purportedly suggests questionable scholarship are in direct conjunction with Pleyers’ arguments in those sections and are echoed throughout the book in Pleyers’ own words, as I will briefly demonstrate. I can understand how my critique has been taken personally, and how Mr. Pleyers has chosen to attack me professionally and intellectually in retaliation. I am confident that anyone who understands what Eurocentrism looks like and/or has any knowledge of these movements will see credence in my analysis.
To Begin: A False Start
The first of Pleyers’ two critiques of my honesty and integrity refer to something he knows I had nothing to do with. The title, “How not to theorize the alter-globalization movement,” was given to my review by the editors, a reality to which Mr. Pleyers was made aware by the editors before he wrote his response. I am at a loss as to why he would begin an already questionable critique based on a supposed attribution to him of others’ ideas by chastising me for a title he knows I had nothing to do with. This does not get to the heart of the matter, which is likely more interesting.
I have been charged with dishonestly using references to illustrate Eurocentricity pervading the book. Pleyers cites two examples – one where the Zapatistas are seen as doing little more than “throwing out slogans” on page 119, and a metaphor that sees expressives (mostly people of color) as “the body” of the movement and European intellectuals as “the head” on page 114. The argument is that my use of the quotation on page 119 and the general reference on page 114 are dishonest, that I am using the quotations of others to attribute ideas to Pleyers that are not his, when all he was doing was illustrating various activists’ perspective. In both of these specific instances, Pleyers is either using the quotation to sum up an analytic point being made in his voice (p. 119), or he is providing summary evidence to support the position of the other quotation, reinforcing and legitimating the claim which is inherently Eurocentric without ever qualifying it in any way. Outside of the context of the paragraphs, these quotations are embedded in the over-arching themes of the book which offer a tremendous amount of evidence that speaks to the elitism and Eurocentrism that Mr. Pleyers’ is trying to refute.
The Expressive / Instrumentalist Duality of Oppressed Action and Expert Thought
So that the readers get a better sense of the terms of this debate and the book, and so I can contextualize my critique and situate these quotations by using the normative statements of Pleyers himself, I will begin with the theoretical frame. The dichotomy between expressive and instrumentalist approaches within the movement is defined as expressives pursuing a “logic of action” (p. 36) and instrumentalists pursuing an approach “founded on technical and abstract knowledge, expertise and popular education.” Pleyers does offer critiques of both, and he does offer a range of quotations to simply develop the two positions, outside of his analysis. The two references in question are in keeping with the limitations of the assumptions of the author and the Eurocentrism, whether intentional or not, contained therein, not a misreading of the text. Neither of the two references are taken out of context, as I will show.
The idea that the Zapatistas, and expressives more generally, are simply “throwing out slogans,” and that they are not engaged in grounded, strategic politics, pervades the text. Pleyers does find some usefulness and authenticity in the expressive approach, and praises the Zapatistas on more than one occasion, but his overall dismissal of them is clear in what he says and what is omitted, the latter including an honest attempt to understand the knowledge of expressives as political and strategic, on their own terms, or on any terms, since they are not seen as possessing real strategy or politics (p. 98). All of page 98 is a discussion of the extremes that define the expressives, who are either paralyzed by private efforts to overcome internalized social control and oppression or, alternately, engaged in a conflict with systemic forces and institutions where “the adversary becomes an enemy with whom all dialogue is rejected” (p. 98). There is a dismissal of the feminist notion that the “personal is political” or the Foucaultian notion that power is diffuse – which is an inherent part of any social movement. Alongside this there is an erasure of radical politics as a “politics” at all because they don’t fit into some liberal, European cosmopolitian notion of the political. Subcommandante Marcos’ joking notion that we should put the rich in jail (p. 98) is beyond the pale for Pleyers. Pleyers provides his analysis of these primary tendencies of the expressives:
The way of subjectivity oscillates between these two poles of opposition, each of which effectively makes conflict disappear. In both cases, the relationship with the adversary is not deemed important. The pole of opposition is weakened to the point of removing the movement from ‘contentious politics’ (McAdam, Tarrow & Tilly, 2001), towards a self-centered expressive movement”(p.98)
If conflict has “disappeared,” or has been erased by the author, there can be no politics. If there is no politics there can also be no strategy. While Pleyers notes experiential knowledge among expressives, there is no discussion of politics or knowledge that is understood in a way that is practical or strategic or politically effective. He speaks of cultural and social transformation in a general and undeveloped way, put in a way that sees those things as lacking political leadership and relevance. This strategic/political ground upon which the expressives stand – which includes the vast majority of actors in the Global South – is foreclosed upon by the above quotation by the author, and in other passages.
I am not saying that Pleyers levels a frontal attack on the expressives or that he lacks any critique of the instrumentalists. Some of the limitations of the text may be a case of making the data fit the theory, by simplifying certain movements and ignoring others so they are ‘feeling’ and not ‘thinking’ movements. The works of Francesca Polletta and Winifred Breines theorize these types of movements and the idea of prefigurative and expressive politics, in general, in a way that gives the reader a full sense of the worldview and vision of activists defined as expressive, as well as their politics and strategies, and the mutually constituted and strategic relationship among these factors. The inability of “Alter-Globalization” to recognize practical knowledge deployed in political struggle among the expressives, and its lack of appreciation for the various visions and strategies of the multitude of anti-colonial struggles, indigenous struggles, and various radical struggles (not to mention the risks assumed and daily fight to survive in many cases) is more than an oversight, whether intentional or not. This is particularly the case when the instrumentalists are largely defined and legitimated by this supposed lack of applicable knowledge among the expressives.
Context of the “Slogans” Quotation
The actual quotation in question, in relation to the Zapatistas, is a quote from an ATTAC-France leader which Pleyers’ uses to punctuate a point which he was making at length (119), in his own voice. Pleyers himself says that experts provide rational knowledge and feasible strategies to the ‘utopian’ ideas of the expressives, whom he describes in the last section as lacking feasible knowledge or strategy. The following quotation is Pleyers defining the instrumentalists against the limitations that he has argued characterize the expressives. For Pleyers, the function of expertise:
…is to construct ‘rational’ theoretical alternatives and show the relevance and feasibility of these alternatives, in order to prove that it is possible to act, and that rational and coherent measures can be taken. This labour of expertise allows, at least in theory, the definition of relatively precise and measurable objectives, in contrast to the often simple utopian ideas promoted by some alter-globalization actors, particularly those of the way of subjectivity: ‘more time must be spent making measurable and operational proposals than throwing out slogans’ (a leader of ATTAC-France, WSF 2004) (p.119, italics in original)
As you can clearly see, not only is this quotation not taken out of context, but it is muted compared to the broader point that Pleyers is making, which emphasizes that it is the job of (European) experts to construct rational politics and practical strategies for expressives that are incapable due to their “simpleness.” Where the ATTAC-France quotation is primarily dismissive, the broader context, the point Pleyers is making, is doubly Eurocentric in not only speaking for subaltern people, but actively denying them a voice, so as to legitimate and normalize the process.
The Head / Body Metaphor
The second reference that is alleged to have been taken out of context is on page 114 and again involves an ATTAC quotation that is part of the author’s own argument, one that pervades the entire text, including the very definitions of expressive as action and instrumental as knowledge discussed above. For reference, ATTAC, a policy reform organization with limited influence or even name recognition outside of those circles, is mentioned more than any other group by a wide margin. The quotation is not attributed to Pleyers in my review, for I make general reference to the mind/body metaphor, which included Pleyers’ analysis as well as the quote. The idea that he is making an argument where the experts are the brains and the masses are the brawn (on 114) is supported by the whole middle paragraph where Pleyers’ own words preface the quotation and then lend quantitative data to validate the argument. After a quotation about protests being catalyzed by expert analysis (found in numerous places throughout the book), Pleyers himself goes on to extend the argument by giving data illustrating that a debt relief petition got the most signatures in history, lending support to the claim that experts are the voice and that people support them by protesting. The same metaphor of mind/body is found in numerous parts of the book, also in Pleyers words.
In the concluding remarks to Chapter 5, the head/body dualism is mentioned again in Pleyers’ voice, and again the experts are filling a void of knowledge and strategy in a way that erases the radical politics that defined the movement as well as the political agency of the majority of the people involved in the movement. Pleyers outlines this supposed coalescing of capabilities and roles: “Expertise and democratization can mutually reinforce each other: experts share their knowledge with citizen-activists and benefit in return from the legitimacy of a social base and the influence of numbers as well as expertise” (p. 128). In a political struggle defined as a pure, rational battle of ideas within existing institutions, and not a social struggle, the experts help the people by telling them what to think and the people support the experts (or the experts can simply assert this) in exchange for the knowledge they have been given.
In the section titled “Committed Intellectuals: Intellectuals as Entrepreneurs of the Alter-Globalization Movement,” Pleyers lays out not only the clearest articulation of this mind/body split, but attributes the formation of the movement to Western intellectuals:
Their [experts’] role was crucial in the initial stages of the movement, during which their work helped to arouse the indignation of citizens over the consequences of Washington Consensus policies. Building and internationalizing the new movement relied largely on the prestige and fame of committed intellectuals, on their legitimacy as experts in their fields and on their international affinity networks. (p. 135)
For decades structural adjustment had been pushing hundreds of millions from hungry to starving and from the countryside into slums; I don’t think they needed someone to tell them to get angry. Some groups have been resisting ‘globalization’ for centuries. I am not trying to engage in fuzzy definitions of movement origins. It is, however, widely held that the Zapatista uprising in direct response to NAFTA, their subsequent Encuentros, and the formation of Peoples’ Global Action catalyzed various groups into a coherent movement. Instead we get a story of famous experts starting the movement, something I have never even heard intimated in the wide range of books I’ve read on the movement.
I feel like I have clearly situated the quotation and the reference in more than sufficient context, honest assessing the points Pleyers was making in those paragraphs and throughout the book. I give the author the benefit of the doubt that these flaws are simply blind-spots rather than overt preoccupations, and that there was probably an element of theoretical tools forcing the author’s hand in some spots for the sake of conceptual clarity. Nonetheless, I stand by the integrity of the scholarship of this review and the defense. Social movements are contentious, and their study should be as well. My critique grows out of my commitment to rigorous theory and scholarship that both resonates with its subject matter and is useful to the people it analyzes, not out of a sectarian impulse or to make personal attacks.
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