How Not to Theorize the Alter-Globalization Movement
Scholarship that fails to analyze the motivations and strategies of most actors in a social movement and instead exalts a group of self-proclaimed “experts,” who the author readily admits were alternately dismissed or hated as charlatans by a broad swath of the movement, does not provide an account that is honest to the history of that movement.
By Mike King
I was drawn to political sociologist Geoffrey Pleyers’ “Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in the Global Age” due to having participated in the struggle against global neoliberalism and to possessing an overlapping interest in academic accounts of the movement. I was further interested in a text that seeks to understand the social and historical contexts that shape both movements’ abilities to make social change and their self-understanding of that ability. The book is structured around competing visions, strategies, and goals within the alter-globalization movement. This appreciation of both historical and social contexts, as well as social movement strategies, are two dimensions of social movement studies which are typically conspicuously absent.
The book centers around two differing strategies of social change from within the movement against neoliberal globalization in the 1990s and 2000s: 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, theories that do not adequately address social movements’ ideologies and cultures, their related strategies, or how and why these dimensions change over time or during the course of social struggles.
Expressive politics value lived experience over technical, “expert” knowledge, and see means and ends as inseparable. Expressive movements are prefigurative and attempt to create local counter-institutions as well as ways of organizing and relating to each other that seek to build a new society in the shell of the old. Expressives typically reject instrumental, bureaucratic and/or undemocratic forms of organizing, breaking with both reformist strategies and authoritarian or top-down models of revolution.
Instrumental movements, on the other hand, are built around rational argument and logic, informing pragmatic political solutions based on “expert” knowledge and reasoned appeals to existing political structures. Another way to see this is as a divide between contemporary radicals and liberals within the alter-globalization movement, though Pleyers does not emphasize this distinction. Indeed, the author misreads the shift that has taken place within contemporary movements, especially the alter-globalization movement: that which moves away from instrumentalism and towards expressive politics.
Expressive actors are a more localized and radical segment (typified by Pleyers as the Zapatistas, the Argentine Piqueteros, and squatters and anarchists in the North). The instrumental segment of the movement was a set of experts, intellectuals and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): organizations like ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens) and the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt. Pleyers uses the dichotomy of expressive versus instrumental to describe the two tendencies and their related theories of agency and social movement strategies. But all dichotomies and categorizations have ambiguities and blind spots which obscure understanding. For instance, the Zapatistas exist in a very different context than European squat-punks and anarchists, and radical intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Eduardo Galeano, or Immanuel Wallerstein have very different politics and self-understood roles than most NGOs. But this framework is nonetheless a useful starting point for discussions of contemporary social movements. Unfortunately, Pleyers’ analysis falls short on several fronts. The question of agency is more or less boiled down to strategy and the ideological self-understanding of social movements, being largely devoid of a structural analysis or appreciation of subject position, privilege, or history.
“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. Most other accounts of this history make no claim whatsoever that the movement was started by expert/intellectuals or led by NGOs; most actually see a clear and deliberate move away from privileged voices as a prevalent, if not defining, aspect of the movement. 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; it is also empirically false in terms of the nature of the movement, as I have already argued. Not only is this focus on elite “experts” Eurocentric and inaccurate, it goes against fundamental tenets that ran across almost all groupings in the alter-globalization movement: that we are all leaders, that the most valuable knowledge comes from the oppressed, and that the world we want is created from below, in the streets, in the community, and in counter-institutions–not in token speeches, “speaking truth to power,” delivered by academics or self-appointed “experts” to a World Trade Organization (WTO) or International Monetary Fund (IMF) meeting, whose members could not care less.
If a political center, or universal point of reference, had to be named in the movement, it would be the Zapatistas, not the European intellectuals or NGOs that Pleyers puts forward. The emergent politics of the movement were multiple, as they are in any movement, but were generally very similar to the Zapatistas and were based on a clear rejection not only of neoliberalism, but also of liberal reformism (where Pleyers’ “experts” would fit), as well as old Left models of vanguard-driven revolution (the more militant instrumentalism). You see this in Peoples’ Global Action: the peasants’ and workers’ movements all across Latin America, Africa and Asia; the modern socialism in Venezuela, Bolivia, or radical democracy in several cities in Latin America which grew out of this movement; and in anarchist, anti-authoritarian, and many Marxist formations in Europe, the US and the rest of the world.
Nonetheless, Pleyers’ critique of expressive politics is mostly useful. He critiques a tendency towards inwardness and concerns with internal dynamics that can paralyze groupings and even lead to political disengagement or irrelevancy. This critique is well-levied against certain lifestyle politics in the North, but I find this appraisal of the Zapatistas or Piqueteros off-base in a way that suggests a lack of political understanding even more than a simple political difference, or political baiting.
Books like “We Are Everywhere”; Eddie Yuen, Daniel Burton-Rose and George Katsiaficas’ “The Battle of Seattle: Debating Capitalist Globalization and the WTO” and “Confronting Capitalism: Dispatches from a Global Movement”; or David Graeber’s “Direct Action” offer the reader analytic frames as well as a mix of direct writings from alter-globalization movements around the world and/or ethnographic data. Pleyers’ effort to both bring the alter-globalization movement into the view of academic social movement theory and to broaden that theory by including divergent strategies and political orientations constitutes a step forward in terms of academic theory. However, these other books listed above, largely written for a social movement audience, do a better job of not only accurately describing the movements, but also in providing the reader with useful theoretical and analytic tools for understanding the movement.
While on a theoretical level this discussion of expressive vs. instrumental is mostly helpful, Pleyers lacks a solid understanding of the ideology and culture of most actors in the alter-globalization movement. One could critique, for instance, the Zapatistas for not successfully reversing neoliberalism in Mexico or chide Reclaim the Streets (street party/occupation/protests) for lacking an ability to institutionalize counter-power, as Pleyers does, but he doesn’t do it on their own terms or from an understanding of their experience and ideology, and the strategy which is derived from them. For a text that posits that politics is simply a battle of ideologies (page 156), misunderstanding the core of the dominant ideology of the alter-globalization movement is a fatal flaw.
The Zapatistas and most other alter-globalization actors are engaged in a what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called a war of position, a political and ideological struggle over ideological meaning, political common sense, and the moral authority and power that flows from them. Pleyers simply looks at ideology, missing the political and cultural struggle dimension Gramscian hegemony is rooted in. The Zapatistas, as well as most people in the alter-globalization movement, are not inward or myopic (though admittedly some are); most seek a truly democratic social revolution from below. This necessitates a change in socially accepted ideas and practices, as well as the building of a multitude of local movements and counter-institutions — a strategy that dispenses with vanguards, politicians and “experts” of all stripes and seeks to build a radical political culture from below, which Pleyers never really addresses. One can dismiss this strategy as naïve or utopian, but one must analyze the actual political culture, strategy and praxis of a movement in order to properly make claims about it. Pleyers does not do this.
As Gramsci shows, existing political power is about hegemony, which is a mix of force and consent based on legitimacy. Social movements seeking to gain hegemony also seek legitimacy, but the expressives and instrumentalists pursue two radically different types of legitimacy. This distinction is not found within Pleyers since the expressives supposedly lack the knowledge or capacity to even pursue political legitimacy, and radical political legitimacy from below and dual power institutions and moments are not discussed. Pleyers argues that expert-intellectuals had legitimacy in the eyes of the existing neoliberal institutions and elected politicians because they had a “rational” argument and presumed to speak for the whole movement. The expert-intellectuals were (supposedly) seen as legitimate in the eyes of the existing political order. These expert-intellectuals were not proposing a new social order; instead they were promoting policy reforms (taxes, debt relief, etc.). This made them the “legitimate” alter-globalization grouping in the eyes of the State, of politicians, and of the supra-national governing bodies like the IMF and the WTO. It was not because of the superiority of their ideas, but because those ideas could be used to delegitimate or co-opt a vibrant, radical movement outside their security fences, that they were seen as legitimate.
The other books I mention above all point to the fact that groups like the Zapatistas, Piqueteros, Brazil’s Landless Peasants’ Movement, the Oaxaca uprising, the participatory budgeting movement, Cochabamban water warriors, the multitude of movements of workers, and the precarious all over the world seek a different type of legitimacy. They pursue radical democracy from below, and their legitimacy is derived from the community — from ordinary people who are participants, not constituents. Social movements are not primarily about opposing ideas; they are primarily about opposing social groups and forces struggling over resources and power.
Lived experiences and material conditions determine what ideas resonate and what ideas do not. From there, people have the capacity to act; to relate with others; to tear down or to build up. The alter-globalization movement was a diverse movement, a “movement of movements.” it was composed of various people, with many experiences and political tendencies. It 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, or being in active solidarity with those most affected. Right or wrong, the goals of the alter-globalization movement were for a radically different globalization, not for a non-voting seat at the WTO’s table.
The Zapatistas defined the movement in 1994 as a war against oblivion, which is not just “throwing out slogans” (page 119); it is a statement of fact rooted in the layers of structural violence the Zapatistas and billions of others face every day. Scholarship that fails to analyze the motivations and strategies of most actors in a social movement and instead exalts a group of self-proclaimed “experts,” who the author readily admits were alternately dismissed or hated as charlatans by a broad swath of the movement, does not provide an account that is honest to the history of that movement. This is the case whether you are a radical or a liberal, and whether you believe that global justice would be epitomized by federated, democratically decentralized communities or a redistributive tax on currency speculation.
Mike King is a PhD candidate in Sociology at UC – Santa Cruz. He is currently working on a dissertation on gang injunctions and can be reached at mking (at) ucsc.edu.
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