Manuel Castells on The Great Disconnect

In the Spanish publication La Vanguardia, Manuel Castells takes stock of the role of information and communication technologies as used by social movements against authoritarian regimes. In the context of the network society, Castells notes the great disconnect (pun probably intended) between the global connectedness of the global civil society and the protest movements on the one hand, and the futile attempts at controlling messengers and message by governments on the other hand. As Castells puts it, this is the “new specter haunting the hall power around the world: free communication across Internet networks”. It is a justice globalist imaginary versus old and tired nationalism.

As the recent protest movements have exposed, governments may try to censor, shut off networks, arrest or even kill but this is a wasted effort because whoever controls communication has power. Shooting the messengers (sometimes literally) did not stop the message. And even though democracies have free speech protections, they are not immune to trying to control what goes on on the Internet. In China, such control may take the form of blocking social networking websites but that does not stop blogs and chatrooms. So, governments are beginning to design systems to shut down the Internet and mobile networks when they fear a crisis. Ahmadinejad tried that in 2009 and Mubarak as well more recently.

There is no big button allowing a head of state to shut down the Internet (although the US Congress is considering such a technology, FSM protect us if they seriously get to it, keeping in mind the moonbats current in the House of Representatives). What Mubarak did, though, was simpler: to order ISPs to shut down. It was not a complete shutdown and it did not work because the global civil society then kicked into gear to provide substitute access and networks. So, there was no Twitter revolution but there certainly was a global solidarity network, composed of hacker networks, networks of volunteer computers, use of proxies, smartphones used as modems, connections routed via phone numbers and use of old-fashioned fax machines.

Castells notes the role of entities like Telecomix in keeping communication open with Egypt. Telecomix created a program that searched Google automatically to find all the possible phone and fax numbers that could be used to send information in and out of Egypt. In addition, Google and Twitter made available speak-to-tweets applications.

What mattered, for Castells, was the combination of a variety of media, including graffitis, printed materials and occupation of urban space, and face-to-face networks along with all the virtual activity and the central role of Al Jazeera despite the black-outs the network suffered. Ultimately, attempts at blocking the Internet proved costly and futile. Castells cites the OECD estimates of $90 million. The additional economic costs were estimated at $3 million per day. And, of course, it did not work. Information still circulated between urban space and cyberspace with no disconnect.

However, Castells notes that this is not what was decisive at the local level. What made the difference is that the protestors had lost their fear. The usual violence and intimidation did not work. He argues that, as with Iran, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco, Kuwait, Libya and Tunisia, the governments “have already lost the battle of/for the minds.” And the global networks made that disconnect very visible. And governments around the world should take note.

Edgar Morin for A New “New” Left or a Fourth Way?

In an article in Le Monde, Edgar Morin outlines why the Left is necessary in current times, why it has failed so far and the challenges it needs to tackle to begin solving the problems of what he calls the age of barbarity.

Morin starts from the idea that there may be a unity of origins in the Left but a diversity of development. The unity comes from the Enlightenment roots and the ideas inherited from the French Revolution and the republican tradition: the aspiration to a better world, the emancipation of the oppressed, the exploited, the humiliated, as well as the universality of human rights for men and women. This common origin, in European thought at least, led to three types of political thinking: socialist, community and libertarian. In this common past, one finds of course, the main Enlightenment thinkers (Voltaire and Diderot) as well as Rousseau, but also Marx an Proudhon for the socialist and social-democratic political forms, and Bakunin and Kropotkine for the libertarian forms.

The libertarian thought focuses on individual and group autonomy. The socialist thought revolves around social improvement while communist thought centers on the necessity of brotherhood and community. These currents are now, for Morin, in competition and they have been antagonistic in the past. It is time to rethink the Left for the current age.

The first challenge of the Left is, of course, globalization and the neoliberal age that unites technology and economic forms and has led us where we are today, into savage capitalism and biosphere degradation, along with warmongering from religious fundamentalists and nationalist xenophobes and the availability of weapons of mass destruction. These overlap to create very dangerous conditions.

But in Western European countries, it is not just globalization that can be blamed for the progressive dismantling of the welfare state, the massive deindustrialization / outsourcing / layoffs. Morin places the blame also on the incapacity of the Left and those who were supposed to represent the interests of the working class to provide an alternative to these challenges. In France, as Morin puts it, the communist party is a dwarf star, the trotskyist movement is long on critique of capitalism but short on alternatives and the socialist party… is there anything left to say on the sorry state of the socialist party?

More concerning, for Morin, is the disappearance of the “peuple de gauche”, that is the traditional groups that identified with any one of these three currents. Again, despite its diversity, the Left’s people was united on aspiring to a better world, based on fighting again labor exploitation, for welcoming the immigrant, defending the weak, and a concern for social justice.

Now, the main advocates for such a view – the school teacher as soldier of the Republic or the industrial union organizer – have seen their status degraded. What is left of this is a Left of the educated elite (“la gauche caviar”) that looks down upon the working-class, which then finds itself more at home in the racist and xenophobic parties where economic insecurity is translated into hatred against Arabs, Muslims, immigrants from Africa, etc. And so, one witnesses the success of right-wing and xenophobic parties in European countries such as Holland, Italy, Germany, and France. The lack of credible Left alternative is a component of the generalized crisis of legitimacy of parliamentarianism.

So, Morin advocates for a new Way (have we not heard that before?), one that unifies all the multiple initiatives taking place around the world to reform and revolutionize at the social, political and economic level. It is surprising that Morin does not mention the World Social Forum, in this context. All these initiatives – such as peasants and landless movements around the world along the lines of solidarity economics… also not mentioned by Morin – are completely ignored by dominant political parties and the media partly because they are compartmentalized.

Morin also advocates for local democracy. I have mentioned before my skepticism for this fetishism of the local. The local is not inherently more democratic than the national, regional or global levels. Many sources of oppressions are rooted in local communities and “traditions” invoked to reject universal human rights. Also, one only needs to look at the United States and its local political forms (such as elected school boards) to see how the local can go horribly wrong.

Morin also advocates specific criteria for hiring in public services administration as well as education and health care: compassion, empathy, dedication to the common and public good as well as concern for social justice and equity (which means no conservatives would need apply!).

Also, to the three threads of left-wing thinking mentioned above, one would need to add and environmentalist thread.

Finally, Morin thinks the first order of business is resistance to barbarism, that is every form of degradation by human beings against other human beings, resistance to subjection, contempt, humiliations for a better world. This aspiration has risen over and over throughout human history, and for Morin, it will rise again. I don’t think it will come from a core areas politicians (certainly not the current crop of US and Western European leaders), but more from people like Lula and other leaders from semi-peripheral or peripheral areas.

Revisiting The Global Imaginary

Last Summer, I wrote a two-part review of Manfred Steger’s book, The Rise of The Global Imaginary, truly one of the best books I have read in the past years.

In the latest issue of Global-E,  Steger revisits the relevance of the concept:

This short article is no substitute for the entire book that demonstrates in greater details the evolution of ideologies leading to a variety of global imaginaries. But in the context of the global economic crisis, fears of swine flu pandemic and new wars, the concept certainly has strong explanatory power.

Multi-Layered Spaces of Sports

David L. Andrews and George Ritzer, The Grobal in The Sporting Glocal, Global Networks, Vol. 7, No. 2 (2007), 135 – 153.

In this article, Andrews and Ritzer apply Ritzer’s concepts of grobalization and glocalization (originally from Roland Robertson) developed in Ritzer’s book The Globalization of Nothing to sports. The article repudiates the dominant dichotomy of the "global – local" used to conceptualized social phenomena as polar opposites without much overlap and with romantic assumptions of authenticity attributed to the local as opposed to the imperialist and culturally homogenizing global. Instead, the authors offer four cases of interpenetration of the global and local in the form of grobalization and glocalization:

  1. Indigenous incorporation
  2. Corporate re-constitution
  3. Universal differentiation
  4. Dichotomous agency

The concept of glocalization as the integration of the global and the local, for instance through cultural hybridization was developed early on by Roland Robertson. Glocalization is also implicitly part of Arjun Appadurai‘s global scapes:

  • Ethnoscapes (flows of people),
  • Technoscapes (flows of technology),
  • Financescapes (financial flows),
  • Mediascapes (flows of information) and
  • Ideoscapes (flows of ideas)

These flows operate across layers of the global system, from the most global to the most local and have differential impacts and uses depending on the space and groups involved. Ritzer’s point in The Globalization of Nothing was that as useful as glocalization is to conceptualize the interpenetration of the global and the local, there is a need for an additional concept that would capture another dimension of globalization:

"Grobalization focuses on the imperialistic ambitions of nations, corporations, organizations, and the like and their desire, indeed need, to impose themselves on various geographic areas. The main interest of the entities involved in grobalization is in seeing their power, influence, and in many cases profits grow (hence the term grobalization) throughout the world. Grobalization involves a variety of sub-processes – Americanization and McDonaldization, as well as capitalism." (TGoN, 15 – 16)

Taken together, grobalization and glocalization are the main processes that define globalization and they exist in tension so that neither truly ever prevails. What the four scenarios delineated by the authors show are four different ways in which the grobal and the glocal interact and intersect, offering thereby a more nuanced picture of globalization.

Indigenous incorporation

This scenario refers to the different ways in which pre-modern (and therefore local) forms of sports were progressively incorporated into the national state:

"The nation’s position at the forefront of the socially, politically, economically, and culturally transformative processes of urbanization and industrialization, led to the standardization, codification, and bureaucratization of many traditional sport forms first occurring within the British context. Britain’s imperial reach and aspirations (and such ‘imperialism’ lies at the heart of grobalization) at this time subsequently led to its popular sport forms (particularly association football, cricket, field hockey, and rugby, but also boxing, golf, horse racing, rowing, track and field athletics and tennis) becoming globally diffused along complex chains of global interdependency which derived from, and indeed helped facilitate, intensifying colonial and/or commercial relationships forged between Britain and the rest of the world." (138)

These initially indigenous (local) sporting forms were then diffused along colonial channels and given legitimacy through the association with Britain, that is, incorporated into the grobal process of British imperialism alongside political and economic forms. Not all sports were equivalent though, as the authors note, and involved different sporting habitus, such as the aristocratic and identity-marking cricket or the working-class association football. Wherever there were British crowds (and at the height of the British Empire, that meant a significant part of Africa and Asia), these sports were played according to established and standardized rules.

At the same time, these sports were also glocalized, that is, adapted to local conditions, as illustrated by the case of the adoption of cricket in the West Indies to become part of Indian culture and identity (see Bend It Like Beckham).

Further standardization occurred with the establishment of regional and global sport organizations (such as international federations) and the rise of international competitions.

So, we see at work two major processes of cultural globalization: universalization of particularism (through grobalization) as well as particularization of universalism (through glocalization).

Corporate Re-Constitution

Of course, the institutionalization of sport is accompanied by its commercialization and related processes:

  • Corporatization (management and marketing of sport for profit)
  • Spectacularization (sport as entertainment-driven experience)
  • Commodification (generation of sport-generated revenue streams)

This takes place in the context of expanding global capitalism, but here again, the authors distinguish a glocalizing trend alongside the obvious grobal one:

"The cultural orientation of late capitalism has led to a recognition and embracement, however superficial, of the particularities of the micro (city, region, or indeed, nation-based) marketplace. Presently, transnational strategizing involves the mobilization of the cultural differences earlier forms of global strategizing had sought to overcome." (141)

For instance, advertising campaigns for global brands more and more reflect some local traits or some recognition of the local culture so as to appeal not just to consumers attracted to the brand but also to consumers who are sensitive to local or national identities. Of course, this version of the local is filtered through corporate re-composition where only the least potentially offensive and most superficial local traits are adopted and adapted.

Universal Differentiation

Here again, the focus is on particularization of universalism. Think of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics or other global sport event. The Olympic Games are a global event par excellence but at the same time, they can be a vehicle for national interests (and not to mention for the expression of Cold War tensions, see 1980 and 1984).

And the Olympic Games opening ceremonies may have a global audience  (through global media and technological flows) but they are also the opportunity for the host country to display elements of national pride and showcase its capacity to put on a good show on the world stage (it will be very hard to top Beijing though). Of course, individual countries will pick and choose which event to broadcast to their national audiences, giving preeminence to competitions where national teams are involved with good chances of success.

Dichotomous Agency

The global commercialization of sports can trigger forms of resistance through glocal agency and processes as groups, organizations and individuals react to the increasing grobalization of sport as illustrated by the resistance against Murdoch’s News Corp commercialization of Australian rugby.

Finally, what these four scenarios highlight, for the authors, is a need for a more nuanced analysis of the various levels at which globalization operate: the actor, the local, the glocal and the grobal without normative judgments (local = good and authentic, grobal = bad and fake) that end up producing only Globaloney where the local actor is the heroic underdog poised against the gigantic and evil forces of global capitalism. Also to be avoided in this regard, for the authors, are the postmodern decentering attitudes that lead to the dismissal of the grobal as level of analysis.

Discover The Networks – Reticular Guerilla Edition

[Yes, the first part of that title is a lame joke that only a few people will recognize. Those who don’t don’t need to know anyway… for their own sake.]

One of the main benefits of blogging is when interesting people show up in the comments and add meaningful stuff to the post and/or the discussion. That’s what happened when Yannick Rumpala, who works at my alma mater, the University of Nice, albeit in a different unit (I was more of an odd duck here where I didn’t really belong), suggested a different line of discussion in this thread on Polanyi’s relevance. Rumpala linked to his post that itself refers to a manuscript available for download. It is this manuscript that I’d like to discuss here (of course, the paper is formatted in A4, so, I had to reformat it in US Letter, which means that page numbers for quotations will not be accurate).

The main idea of the article, as I understand it, is that a great deal of – mostly – sociological analysis has been devoted to what can be called, for short, the network society at multiple levels, from macro to micro. Rumpala’s point is that this analysis of networks (or reticular analysis, as he calls it) should be taken to the next level: the level of political project, form analysis to actions. He details the different levels at which the reticular analysis can be translated into political action and the possible consequences. As he puts it:

"When developed and extended, network analysis can be a tool of emancipation, both for knowledge and action, which could help counteract a feeling of powerlessness that is too widespread in people who have the impression of being subjected to domination without being able to find the root of the problem.

For example, rather than criticizing globalization, a theme that is largely debated, resorting to network analysis can be a way to more precisely understand the hidden forces that are supposedly behind this transformation. A phrase like "made in China" on a product already gives the buyer information, and for the imaginative mind, it can be an opening to a whole network, including manufacturers, carriers, importers, distributers [sic]… The idea is to go beyond mere imagination and trace these networks in a tangible way, generalizing this practice in order to go over and above the quasi-mythological tales that often describe our world and the new powers that are supposed to be running it." (3 in my manuscript)

What Rumpala calls for (and indeed, his paper reads a lot like a manifesto) is a movement of clarification involving reticular analysis, that is, tracing back the network structure to illuminate its nodes and connections and make them visible and expose the social relations they reflect. As I understand it, it is another way of re-embedding economic and market relations into their social structure (in this case, their networks of social relations), albeit a different one than the traditional formulations by Polanyi and Granovetter.

For Rumpala, this movement of clarification involves three steps:

  1. Tracing networks to gain a better understanding
  2. Using this understanding to choose one modality of action
  3. Intervening in networks

The detailing of these three steps constitutes the heart of the article.

The need for reticular understanding and analysis is especially necessary, for Rumpala, following Callon and Latour, when it comes to global capitalism. However, as much as Callon and Latour, as well as Manuel Castells or Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello have analyzed the Network Society, they have not taken the next step, which is to turn analysis into a political project. In other words, they remained at step 1.

Step 1 is not to be dismissed though, for Rumpala, as it is the necessary moment of knowledge generation to make visible the various levels of interdependence created by interconnected networks. Moreover,

"This knowledge is also useful for making the factors of heteronomy apparent, that is, the factors which are likely to have a rather strong effect on regulating individual and collective choices, or even reduce the ability to act. The position in a network or the simple fact of being part of it can indeed represent a source of structural constraints. (…) More broadly speaking, many of the elements that make up everyday life can be reinterpreted through an understanding of the network of choices." (6)

Rumpala gives the example of the Western consumer whose very act of consuming is not entirely under his control but embedded within a reticular structure reflecting social relations of production, distribution and consumption on a global scale, but also a structure that remains opaque in the act of consuming unless clarified. And indeed, reducing opacity of networks is one major goal of the tracing process.

This tracing process that questions the final act in the network structure (the consuming act, for instance) and reconstructs its reticular structure of production. In the process, one can identifies relationships of power between nodes: which nodes are more "central" than others, or more generally who’s in the network and who’s left out. Rumpala also calls this process "opening the black boxes" whether these are networks of global governance, terrorist networks, offshore financial flows or commodity chains.

[A bit of nitpicking on this particular point, I think Rumpala should be more conceptually careful, commodity chains are not exactly the same as networks and maybe should not be treated as such although the mode of analysis he suggests definitely applies to these chains.]

Here, Rumpala refers to David Held’s concept of multilayered and multi-actored global governance where a variety of social actors are involving in the tracing process, from NGOs to academic publications to supra-national agencies and to provide interventions when problematic information is unveiled. At the same time, traceability may require a global regulatory regime, for instance, for food products or pharmaceutical drugs. Such regulatory regime is only partial and unequally developed in different domains. Reticular analysis might reveal where it might be necessary to extend it.

When it comes to moving from analysis to action, Rumpala’s development are reminiscent of Giddens’s concept of reflexive modernity. For instance,

"Familiarizing oneself with how one is part of networks could lead to reflection, resulting in the possibility of being able to choose the networks one participates in. Each person’s life is made up of a sequence of connections that can be examined in a critical manner. The challenge would be to have a better understanding of the range of these connections so each person could clearly see his or her participation, voluntary or not, in certain networks.

Concerning ways of life, making purchases, for example, becomes less of a neutral act. Not choosing certain products when buying is a way to reject certain networks of production." (13)

This greater reflection is visible in the support for fair trade or organic goods as well as other forms of ethical or environmental consumerism (or to use Michele Micheletti’s term, "individualized collective action"). However, taking such ethical stances is only possible once one is in position to see the entire network of production behind the goods and services one purchases. In turn them it becomes possible to redefine the social and economic relationship between producer and consumer, as in the case of solidarity economics (already discussed many times on this blog).

At the same time, the point of social activism in favor of fair trade, local agriculture, organic production, solidarity economic, etc. is to affect the relationships within the networks of production, distribution and consumption. This can be done through labeling that reveals the tracing of products, or through classification that highlight the entire nature of the network (fair trade, no slave labor involved, etc.). This would subvert the logic of opacity that prevails in mass retailing.

And this is indeed the ultimate goal of this clarification movement: increase the possibilities of intervention and subversion of networks through activists networks:

"Being able to identify the production of forms of domination by certain networks is likely to create the conditions for the destabilization of these networks. Opposition becomes more easily imaginable once the restrictive relational structures have been made apparent. Challenging forced participation can contribute to  the undoing of the established networks by loosening the ties that had been formed." (17)

For Rumpala, a good example of this is the voluntary simplicity movement for whom refusal to participate becomes a form of resistance and subversion. This movement also points to the fact that if there is to be subversion of existing networks, then, alternatives have to be available. And one can already see that such alternatives have been proposed, discussed and sometimes implemented through fora such as the World Social Forum and other more local networks. Here again, global activism is multi-layered. It is a Durkheimian social fact in itself that the favored organizational form of such activism is also the network.

The overall goal, though, according to Rumpala, is influence both as means and end:

"Influence as a tactic of collective action has an interesting particularity, in that it can be part of a cumulative process. The interaction of different influences can allow a critical mass to be attained. The boycotting of certain products or certain businesses can be interpreted, from an individual point of view, as a refusal to connect to certain network. But above all, when a boycott is publicized and collective, it increases its power to influence. The boycott can dry up the profits of a market, and if a part of the market is deprived of its resources, there is a good chan[g]e that it will disappear or at least decline." (19)

Influence is central to the idea of citizenship in a democratic context. Insofar as clarification potentially increases reflective participation, it strengthens democratic citizenship. Citizens themselves can be conceptualized as nodes with a variety of connections to various levels of the social structure. The more information circulates through activist networks, making clarification more widely available, the more choices open. At the same time, the increase in networked activism opens the possibility of more and greater connections among citizens within and across borders, making the idea of global citizenship a realistic possibility.

As much as I find a great deal of the paper persuasive, I cannot help but being left with a few comments. First, as I mentioned above, this paper reads not just like a manifesto (nothing wrong with that), but also like a utopian one at that. After all, the possibilities of networks can also be used in the context of the surveillance society, as is already the case, or in the context of the transparent society. There is a definite dark side to the network society. Another dark side is the persistence of gross social inequalities that are the major obstacle to participation. Indeed, for a lot of people, especially in the Global South, opting out is not an option.

That being said, I think there is a very fertile field of conceptualization, research and activism that Rumpala very clearly exposes.

World Economic Forum V. World Social Forum on The Economic Crisis

Both the World Economic Forum and the World Social Forum have ended and, of course, the main topic under discussion has been the global financial crisis. What conclusions / solutions have they reached? Let’s compare and contrast.

World Economic Forum:

Translation: we have no idea what to do but we sure as hell don’t want to be regulated because that would be horrible… Because deregulation has worked so well!

World Social Forum:

Translation: capitalism is dead.

The other interesting aspects of this reporting are two-fold: the WEF, as reported, is dominated by older white men from Western countries + China (Desmond Tutu was the odd duck there, ruining the fun with his talk of how bailouts could solve the global poverty problem several times over). On the other hand, the WSF was clearly dominated by the populist (male) leaders of Central and South America. An interesting geopolitical snapshot.

I guess women and Africans are out of luck in the global era.

Global Spaces of Struggle – Human Rights

This is my review / summary of Micheline Ishay’s article in Globalizations , "Promoting Human Rights in the Era of Globalization and Interventions: The Changing Spaces of Struggle," December 2004, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 181-193.

A lot of discussions on globalization have revolved around the question of space. What spatial dimensions are relevant in the global era? What becomes of the local, communal, national, regional and global spaces? What are the mechanisms of power involved at each level… and no, the world is not flat. For Micheline Ishay, the question of space is not settled and this poses a specific problem when it comes to fighting for human rights. She starts with an observation made repeatedly when it comes to the Westphalian order and the national space:

"As globalization progresses, the state seems less able to ensure a fair diffusion of information and to secure the social environment necessary for real democratic debate. Forced out of the piazza popolare by corporate behemoths, progressives are either calling for the rebirth of local politics and communautarian solidarity, or for global action – both virtual and institutional. Whether progressive activities are now local or global, however,  civil society is in danger of being left at the mercy of tycoons. Movements animated by universal human rights principles (or democratic social forces) – as opposed to social forces animated by nationalist and religious fervor or exclusionary agenda – have been weakened as a traditional buffer to state authority. Left increasingly paralyzed by market imperatives and post-September 11 security concerns, human rights activism has been gradually superseded by new authoritarian trends." (181-2)

This fragmentation of activism and dilution of resistance are themselves a product of globalization and information technologies. Indeed, as Ishay indicates, new technologies tend to do two things: carve new spaces of resistance AND create new means of surveillance and power (state and corporate). Information technologies are no exception. Ishay sees this as an opportunity for new forms of human rights activism (the capacity to show case human rights violations on a global scale), but also as a threat as globalization reshapes the state, the civil society (the public sphere) and the private domain (the domestic sphere). The question becomes then that of implication for human rights activism.

Starting with the state, Ishay reiterates the main observation regarding the state: the nation-state has not disappeared under global conditions. What has happened is the weakening of the state’s capacity to promote and sustain public policies aimed at social welfare and redistribution. Moreover, even though we have seen the emergence of powerful global institutions, the transfer of power could only be done by states themselves, agreeing to de-state or de-nationalize (to use Saskia Sassen’s concept) their capacities.

Nevertheless, these global institutions still very much reflect the current distribution of power among states. Similarly, the capacity to project military power very much remains with the core countries (add China to the mix), except that military interventions now need some moral justification rather than the expression of raw  economic interest.

What remains though is the state’s capacity to exercise power and violence against its own citizens. And yet, according to Ishay, the human rights movement might have bought into the argument that the state was finished and that there are more productive spaces of struggle.

"The fact that the state is so porous to global market pressures should not imply that human rights activists should abandon in toto the state’s legislative and enforcement capacity to promote democracy and human rights. To do so would be to accept a reshaping of state power in which the strengthening of the coercive machinery to crush domestic and foreign opponents proceed in tandem with a weakening of welfare, workers’ rights, and democratic governance – a world designed to offer ‘carte blanche’ to corporate and geopolitical interests." (184)

What of the civil society then? That is, these non-state groups who participate in the public sphere of society. How has the civil society been reshaped by globalization? Because there has also been a lot of ink spent on a supposedly democratic civil society to be a counter-balance to corporate and transnational  institutional power. When it comes to human rights and the (global) civil society, Ishay identifies two trends:

A negative trajectory in the form of extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism at the expenses of social-democratic movements. Ishay also places in that category the demise of the unified redistributive agenda of organized labor and its replacement with fragmented identity agenda of a variety of movements, such as feminist, environmentalist, LGBT and all the ethnic movements.

A positive trajectory through the proliferation of human rights organizations at multiple levels as well as institutions as part of, or along with, the so-called anti-globalization movement.

What these two trends have in common is a rejection of the state and an embrace of the communautarian ideals as well as a rejection of economic globalization perceived not just as a redistributive issue (the movements are relatively insensitive to that) but as an cultural identity issue. However, fighting for human rights (as in the positive trajectory, not the negative one) in such a fashion leaves the space of the state fully open for corporate colonization and state human rights violations without much resistance.

Correlated to this, focusing on the local or the communal as the truly democratic space is an illusion as the local can be just as much a space of oppression as the national or the global. Indeed, religious fundamentalist groups’ emphasis on the "traditional" family structure always turns out to be implemented as horrendously sexist and patriarchal systems when implemented. Finally, the local or communal have no magic mechanisms that will defend them from corporate colonization and consumption culture.

The positive trend though, on the other hand, is visible through the emergence of a global human rights regime with a proliferation of human rights organization working on multiple spaces. As frustrating as this seems to activists, there is no doubt that the establishment of the International Criminal Court along with a stronger body of laws on war crimes and crimes against humanity, along with alternative mechanisms of conflict resolutions such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are positive development for the promotion of human rights.

For Ishay, this transnational institutionalism along with better and greater diffusion of information are a clear positive trend but how much power this will weigh against the influence of global institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank as well as the global civil society remains to be seen. One only needs to look at the impact of the War on Terror to see the ambiguities here and complexities here. This is especially true of the human rights community.

"Critical of the unchallenged economic and military hegemony of the United States and at the same time revolted by the inaction of other states in particular instances of gross human rights violations, the human rights community has been struggling to develop a more coherent position. In their simultaneous fights against the United States (or NATO) as self-proclaimed enforcer of human rights and against human rights violators, many welcomed (at least tacitly) the humanitarian interventions in Somalia and Haiti, deplored the indifference of the world, and particularly the paralysis of the United States during the massacres in Bosnia and the genocide in Rwanda, and criticized military interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq – despite the fact that targets of intervention were among the world’s worst abusers of human rights." (187-8)

The anti-globalization movement is also plagued with the same ambivalence over a progressive, coherent and unified socio-economic agenda. Indeed, identity issues can be more divisive and than uniting and any whiff of unified politics has a tendency to be trashed as neo-colonialist. In both cases, abandoning the space of the state might be a mistake.

Then, this leaves the domestic / private sphere. Ishay identifies several trends here:

"Social stability is challenged when both the family and civil society are in disarray. In the absence of democratic forces in the public space, should we be surprised that patriarchal control over women in Middle Eastern societies, a replica of authoritarian power on the domestic level, appeases and empowers Muslim men while diverting them from unleashing their frustration against the repressive state? Should we be surprised that in the absence of a vibrant civil society in the West, political interest, as in the United States, often takes the form of fascination with sexual politics? (…) Should we be surprised when the media mirror household concerns in the political realm, or when the affairs of the state are reduced to the politics of domesticity?" (189)

At the same time, the domestic sphere itself is being colonized by commercialism and commodification. in a way very reminiscent of Habermas’s colonization of the lifeworld by the system. The Western family is more than ever a consumption unit. In addition, the reach of the surveillance society has increased both from the corporate and the state and has penetrated deeper into individuals and households’ lives. The question of right to privacy in the context of the transparent society is very much a crucial one. Is there indeed a private sphere anymore? Paging Michel Foucault for a discussion on Bentham’s Panopticon.

"Protecting the space for critical thinking and privacy, as well as reallocating individual roles within the family in the direction of greater fairness, are important preconditions or revitalizing democratic participation in an increasingly consumer-oriented society. In general, new participatory arenas must be sought to enable citizens to resist the increasingly unregulated intrusion of the state and commercial interests into various arenas of social and personal activities." (190)

As Ishay concludes then

"The struggles for spatial interaction in the face of an atomized and repressed civil society have never been more important." (191)

And in this struggle, no spatial dimension (such as the national state) can be simply abandoned and left to commercial interests. At the same time, this struggle also needs a clearer and more coherent agenda.

David Held Was Prescient

Just as I was reading the article I shall discuss below on the need to reform the Washington Consensus system, I saw this great and very relevant cartoon that Carlos Serra had posted on his blog and I could not resist (other great comics by Gado are available on his website):


The article by David Held I wanted to discuss here is"At The Global Crossroads: The End of the Washington Consensus and The Rise of Global Social Democracy?" in Globalizations, May 2005, Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 95-113. Held is well known for his conceptualizations on global governance as he has published extensively on the subject. The article offered here is, to put it simplistically, a short version of his book Global Covenant: The Social-Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus.

Held’s conception of globalization is increased interconnectedness that created overlapping communities of fate as opposed to discrete national communities of the Westphalian order. Globalization is multi-layered and is not just economic, but political and cultural as well. The question of global governance is especially crucial for Held as greater interconnectedness involves a greater reach of a body of international laws dedicated to the promotion of justice. A great deal of this body of human rights juridical activity came about after World War II and the Holocaust.

"[Those involved in drafting these universal principles of human rights] rejected the view of national and moral particularists that belonging to a given community, limits and determines the moral worth of individuals and the nature of their freedom, and they defended the irreducible moral status of each and every person. The principles of equal respect, equal concern and the priority of the vital needs of all human beings are not principles for some remote utopia; they are at the centre of significant post-Second World War legal and political developments." (96)

The global crossroads mentioned in the title of the article refer to the dilemma faced by the international community: promote and extend this human rights regime, or let be eroded and dismantled. And Held is rather pessimistic (remember, that was in 2005 although I don’t think there is much reason to be more optimistic now). For Held, the human right regime is particularly threatened by four crises:

1. The collapse of the Cancún trade talks

And the correlative rise in bilateral and preferential trade agreements. This goes back to the fact that the global trade system is rigged against developing countries and therefore is of questionable legitimacy.

2. Little progress on the Millenium Development Goals

I have blogged extensively on the MDGs and the lack of progress is attaining these goals is a massive failure of the moral conscience of the international community. I would add that this is even more shameful now considering that the cost of reaching these goals does not compare to the money poured into the financial system to rescue the developed economies.

3. Little progress on a sustainable framework to deal with global warming

And the lack of real progress at Poznan shows that this is still an issue today and we are already witnessing some of the effects of this in the form of more frequent violent storms, resource wars (especially for water, oil and land) as well as climate migrants and refugees.

4. The threats to the multilateral order by the unilaterialism initiated by the US in Iraq

Incidentally, the change in administration might not change much on that. The additional problem is that other countries can use the same doctrine to go it alone against defined enemies, further undermining the multilateral order and weakening the UN system.

All these crises are both symptoms of increased interconnectedness and crises that threaten the global order. According to Held, what is missing is greater integration and greater commitment to social justice. This is so for two main reasons: the Washington Consensus and the Washington Security Agenda.

The Washington Consensus

This one is well known and rather well defined. It is understood as the underpinning of the global spread of global capitalism through liberalization. The Washington Consensus was promoted and pushed though global institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank who imposed conditions – structural adjustments – on developing countries, forcing them into integration into the global market.

This Washington-driven economic agenda has come under heavy criticism for a number of reasons and after years of being forced on developing countries, it does not have much to show for it. Held (99) cites three major points made by Branko Milanovic (2003: 679):

  1. How to explain why after sustained involvement and many structural adjustment loans, and as many IMF Stand-bys, African GDP per capita has not budged from its levels of 20 years ago. Moreover, in 24 African countries, GDP per capita is less than in 1975, and in 12 countries even below its 1960s level;

  2. How to explain the recurrence of Latin crises, in countries such as Argentina, that months prior to the outbreak of the crisis are being praised as model reformers;

  3. How to explain… ‘pupils’ among the transition countries (Moldova, Georgia, Kyrghyz Republic, Armenia), after setting out in 1991 with no debt at all, and following all the prescriptions of the IFIs, find themselves 10 years later with their GDPs halved and in need of debt-forgiveness.

So, on the one hand, the Washington Consensus failed many developing countries and at the same time, the countries that have experienced growth and development are those that stayed outside of that system (China and the emerging Asian tigers as well as India, for instance).

"There is much evidence to suggest that a country’s internal economic integration – the development of its human capital, of its economic infrastructure and robust national market institutions, and the replacement of imports with national production where feasible – needs to be stimulated iniitally by state-leg economic and industrial policy. The evidence indicates that higher internal economic integration can help generate the conditions in which a country can benefit from external economic integration (Wade, 2003). The development of state regulatory capacity, a sound public domain and the ability to focus investment on job creating sectors in in competitive and productive areas is more important than the single-minded pursuit of integration into world markets." (100)

The Washington Consensus has eroded the state capacity to promote internal integration, promoted the misleading view that there is only one path to development and growth and aggravated the major asymmetries of global market access and power and therefore made things worse for developing countries.

"Leaving markets to resolve alone problems of resource generation and allocation misses the deep roots of many economic and political difficulties; for instance, the vast asymmetries of life chances within and between nation-states which are a source of considerable conflicts; the erosion of the economic fortune of some countries in sectors like agriculture and textiles while these sectors enjoy protection and assistance in others; the emergence of global financial flows which can rapidly which can rapidly destabilize national economies; and the development of serious transnational problems involving the global commons. Moreover, to the extent that pushing back the boundaries of state action or weakening governing capacities means increasing the scope of market forces, and cutting back on services which have offered protection to the vulnerable, the difficulties faced by the poorest and the least powerful – north, south, east and west – are exacerbated. The rise of ‘security’ issues to the top of the political agenda reflects, in part, the need to contain the outcomes which such policies provoke.

The Washington Consensus has, in sum, weakened the ability to govern – locally, nationally and globally – and it has eroded the capacity to provide urgent public goods. Economic freedom is championed at the expense of social justice and environmental sustainability, with long-term damage to both. It has confused economic freedom and economic effectiveness." (102)

Attempts at reforming the Washington Consensus have been meek and unconvincing. For Held, the alternative lies with a social-democratic approach. Held defines social-democratic view as follows:

"Traditionally, social democrats have sought to deploy the democratic institutions of individual countries on behalf of a particular project: a compromise between the powers of capital, labour and the state which seeks to encourage the development of market institutions, private property and the pursuit of profit within a regulatory framework that guarantees not just the civil and political liberties of citizens but also the social conditions necessary for people to enjoy their formal rights. Social democrats rightly accept that markets are central to generating economic well-being, but recognized that in the absence of appropriate regulation they suffer various flaws, especially the generation of unwanted risks for their citizens and an unequal distribution of those risks, and the creation of negative externalities and corrosive inequalities." (103)

The problem is then how to extend social-democratic policies on a global scale in the context of diminished capacities of the states. That is the major challenge for Held: how to create a global social democracy based on transparency, accountability, commitment to social justice, equitable distribution of life chances, public management of global flows of various sorts, corporate governance and environmental sustainability. Held provides a fairly detailed laundry list to make this happen. And, again, the question of cost is no longer a valid one in the context of massive bailouts.

The Washington Security Agenda

For anyone who has been following the doctrines of the Bush administration, this is a familiar story of the US policy after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The choice faced by the US government was to either strengthen the multilateral order or to undermine it. We all know which path the administration chose.

"After 9/11, the US and its major allies could have decided that the most important things to do were to strength international law in the face of global terrorist threats, and to enhance the role of multilateral institutions. They could have decided it was important that no single power or group should act as judge, jury and executioner. They could have decided that global hotspots like the Middle East which feed global terrorism should be the main priority. They could have decided that the disjuncture between economic globalization and social justice needed more urgent attention. And they could have decided to be tough on terrorism and tough on the conditions which lead people to imagine that Al-Qaeda and similar groups are agents of justice in the modern world." (106)

They decided none of these things and the rest is history with side effects with long-term impacts and none of the issues above addressed.

In other words, both the Washington Consensus and the Washington Security Agenda are massive failure and this is even more visibly true now than it was when Held wrote his article. But Held does not end with this pessimistic diagnosis. He offers specific prescriptions for a global social-democratic agenda based on some basic principles:

  • Commitment to the rule of law and development of multilateral institutions

  • Generation of new forms of legitimacy for global political institutions for security and peace-making

  • Acknowledgment that ethical and justice issues based on the global polarization of wealth, power and income, the asymmetries of life chances

None of these can be solved by the market. Similarly, security must be reconceptualized from a narrow conception (protection from coercive power and violence) to a broader meaning (economic, political and environmental protection especially for the vulnerable). So, indeed, what Held suggests is a global social covenant to promote fair trade rules, more democracy at the global level, a more just and equitable world order. This is also means a more open mode of governance including the global civil society.

Held was indeed prescient when he wrote this article and the current disastrous financial and economic conditions should, if reason prevailed, mark the end of the Washington Consensus and the final days of the Bush administration should also be the final days of the Washington Security Agenda. However, Held was somewhat pessimistic then, and there is no reason to be less so now. Leadership on these issues will not come from the US. According to Held, the only other likely candidate for such leadership is Europe.

Using Polanyi to Understand Globalization

In a 2006 issue of Globalizations, Ronaldo Munck has an interesting article on the relevance of Karl Polanyi‘s conceptualization to understand neo-liberal globalization and the current social movements promoting  alternatives (Globalization and Contestation: A Polanyian Problematic, Globalizations, June 2006, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 175-186).

"What I am proposing is the possible usefulness of Polanyi’s problematic of the ‘double movement’ as a heuristic device for advancing our understanding of globalization and contestation at the start of the twenty-first century. (…) Its basic thesis is that: ‘Society protected itself against the perils inherent in s self-regulating market system – this was the one comprehensive feature in the history of the age’ (Polanyi, 2001, p. 80). It was hardly surprising that this broad sweeping ‘double movement’ thesis would attract attention, insofar as it provided support for the building mood that ‘another world is possible’ to that of neo-liberal market-driven globalization." (175-6)

"Another world is possible" being, of course, the rallying slogan of the alter-globalization movement, initiated by Susan George of the Transnational Institute and who wrote a book of the same title. For Munck, there is much in Polanyi’s conceptualization of the ‘double movement’ that should be useful to those who seek to create an alternative to the dominant neo-liberal globalization.

Under the ‘double movement’, the alter-globalization movement is not fighting the dominant ideology and economic system, it is actually ‘swimming with the current.’ Contestation against the system is built into the system.

"Protests against environmental degradation, the hypocrisy of ‘free-trade’ policies, or workplace closures may find a unifying thread in Polanyi’s ‘double movement’, whereby society resists its dissolution by a self-regulating market. Polanyi offers a discursive legitimation: it is not the seemingly quixotic anti-globalization movements that should be seen as ‘utopian’, but rather the socially disembedded self-regulating market that Polanyi describes as a utopian goal, in the sense that it simply cannot be achieved." (176)

In other words, contestation (progressive AND reactionary as well) is a ‘normal’ part of the system once the neo-liberal utopian view of never-ending bubbles (high-tech, housing, take your pick) and ever-increasing house prices. Once the self-regulating market part of the cycle has accomplished its ‘creative destruction’, then, mechanisms of societal protection are set in motion, pushed by social movements, as Munck rather than Polanyi, demonstrates (it is one of Munck’s observation that Polanyi paid little attention to social movements).

Finally, Munck considers that Polanyi’s narrow definition of socialism as the democratic component of the reaction to the self-regulating market has the potential to unify the different threads of the alter-globalization movements pushing for social change.

Munck defines the ‘double movement’ as follows:

"Polanyi’s problematic was based on the notion that a ‘great transformation’ at the start of the nineteenth century leading to the dominance of free market principles. But this social transformation led to a counter-movement through which society protected itself from the effects of untrammeled free market expansion. History thus advances through a series of ‘double movements’, according to Polanyi, whereby market expansions create societal reactions ." (177)

[My emphasis] Also, referring to "self-regulating market" allows for the idea that the market is never "free" but it is deeply regulated only outside of social governance mechanisms. The concept of free market is then a utopia. It can never be realized and if it were, the effects would be devastating on the environment and societies, to the point of destruction. In other words, this utopia is sustained by a discourse similar to religious fundamentalist dogma based on economic determinism that tends to exclude other non-economic factors.

From this perspective, globalization is the ‘natural’ extension of the market beyond national borders where the scale of economic relations got extended and intensified.

"The world, naturally enough from this perspective, becomes just one giant marketplace where everything and everybody can be bought and sold. Social relations are reduced to market relations. The ‘opening up’ of the world market becomes the raison d’être of development, with only some token gestures paid to social and human development." (178)

Key to this is the concept of embeddedness : the idea that the economy is embedded in social relations. This was especially the case in pre-capitalist societies wher economic relations are thoroughly regulated by non-economic considerations such as morality. The market order required a disembedding of social relations with an autonomization of the economy. At the same time, a reverse process occurs where social relations become embedded in the economic system through mechanisms such as commodification or marketization (I guess we could compare that to Habermas’s colonization of the lifeworld by the system). Non-economic factors and social relations pertaining to culture, community and other aspects of social life are involved then in what looks like another double movement: disembedding of economic relations from non-economic ones, and embedding of non-economic relations into market ones.

Indeed, this disembedding / economic re-embedding is an aspect of globalization that is heavily contested by alter-globalization groups, both progressive and reactionary. It is not surprising, in this context, to see at the forefront of the protests against neo-liberal globalization movements as diverse as a variety of localist groups ("the local community knows best" kind of groups… never mind that local communities can be just as  oppressive than larger-scaled ones… actually, protection against local oppression often come from national or regional authorities), nationalist movements / political parties, religious fundamentalist groups of various tripes along with groups more thoroughly grounded in global imaginaries.

This partly explains the lack of unity in the alter-globalization camp even though they are all societal responses to the social dislocations wrought by market forces unleased on a global scale and they all seek to re-embed social relations into a non-economic determinist order, be it based on fundamentalist religion or global human rights or global environmentalist paradigms.

These various social movements can be analyzed as the vanguard army of the second wave of the double movements. Societies can put in place various mechanisms. Between the 1930s and the late 1970s, Western societies witnessed regulations, protectionism, unionization, the development and expansion of the welfare state, strong labor relations regulations, appeals to patriotism and nationalism, etc.

When it comes to the contestation of neo-liberal globalization, the forms of contestation are different and the measures considered are of a different scales: new social movements invoking identities beyond social class on the one hand, demands for global governance ("global problems demand global cooperation and global regulation through global institutions") on the other.

Contestation of the neo-liberal economic order also occur through the promotion of alternative ideologies and here again, according to Munck, Polanyi provides useful pointers through his study of pre-capitalist societies and the non-market exchange types such as reciprocity ("sharing the burden of labour and through the exchange of equivalencies") and redistribution ("the allocation of goods takes place by virtues of custom, law or active central decision"). Such mechanisms (or their various combinations) are often promoted by alter-globalization groups, as, for instance, solidarity economics.

Similarly, culture is also used as a powerful tool of contestation as it is seen as a victim of social dislocation caused by market-regulated globalization.

"When people are dispossessed of their traditional means of livelihood, when customs and ways of life are disrupted and ‘alien’ cultural values are imposed this affects the very way in which people ascribe meaning to their condition. So, argues Polanyi, it is not ‘economic exploitations, as often assumed, but the disintegration of the cultural environment of the victim is then the cause of the degradation’ (Polanyi, 2001, p. 164, emphasis added)" (183)

And as mentioned above, contestation may also focus on political processes such as democratization or alternative forms of governance (localisms and religious fundamentalisms). Again, these movements can be either progressive or reactionary but they are unified in their contestation of neo-liberal globalization, or as Munck puts it, borrowing from David Harvey, accumulation by dispossession.

In conclusion, Munck makes the point that several aspects of Polanyi’s conceptualization need concretization as well as some expansion (such as a greater emphasis on social movements). Nevertheless, Polanyi provides extremely useful analytical frameworks to analyze both the Global Revolution (comparable in its impact to the Industrial Revolution) and the movements contesting it. This is an article that give a lot to think about.

Global Studies as Academic Field

In the electronic Global Studies Journal, Global-E, Sophia University sociology professor David Wank explores the idea of global studies as academic field (part 1 & part 2). This is of particular relevance to me as I am one of the people in charge of creating a center of global education at my college.

So, the basic question that Wank asks is whether "global studies" is an academic field in the first place. Is "global studies" a discipline? Does it have a clear subject matter? A clear research method through which it approaches and studies phenomena? These are questions that all institutions of higher education have to answer as soon as they start creating a global studies program. For Wank, these are traditional difficulties that all interdisciplinary programs face in discipline-based organizations.

Secondly, Wank raises the question of whether "global studies" is "old wine in a new bottle". What disciplines, now, do not recognize the importance of global and transnational phenomena and influences? How is global studies different than multicultural or area or comparative studies? Which, of course, gets us back to the question of the subject matter and methodology of global studies.

Third, Wank contends that global studies can be seen as part of the spearheading of the new post-Cold War neo-liberal order. I tend to disagree. From what I know of global studies programs I have studied, it seems that the opposite is the case. Global studies programs generally question the good and the bad about globalization from a variety of perspectives.

Of course, the central, organizing concept of global studies is globalization. Now, as soon as one uses that work, we’re in for lengthy debates about its meaning, its popularization or even its very relevance. Nevertheless, Wank and his department established three different frameworks of analysis for globalization:

  1. A world systemic framework that sees the world as a single order: some examples are Immanuel Wallerstein’s capitalist world system, John Meyer’s world cultural polity, and some concepts of global governance.

  2. A transnationalist framework that looks at flows and actions that move across two or more national state spaces. Examples are the works of Arjun Appadurai, Saskia Sassen and others.

  3. A third framework is global/local, which highlights how lives and processes in locales are constituted and animated by an awareness of being or existing in a global world: the works of Roland Robertson are seminal.

And what of methodology? Do global studies have a specific approach to their subject matter? On this, Wank is not clear. From his examples, it seems that global studies borrows its methodologies from its component disciplines. In which case, one can question whether it is a field in the first place.

Regarding curriculum, according to Wank, there are usually six types of courses offered in global studies programs:

Wank adds that any global studies program should have a strong critical component, for instance through the study of notorious globalization critiques (such as Naomi Klein or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) or the study of the alter-globalization social movements, as well as peace studies components and courses on alternative to the dominant orthodoxy (which makes sociology relevant , and yet underrepresented, in these programs that are usually dominated by economics or political sciences).

The usual frustration when reading such articles is that the analysis is mostly geared toward the creation of graduate global studies programs. But what of the undergraduate side of things? That part is usually left out. A major lacunae in my view.

Book Review – CauseWired

Causewired Tom Watson‘s CauseWired is a book that left me interested, inspired and annoyed at the same time. I’ll start with what I liked about the book and then addressed the reservations I have with it. But let me say up front that I found it a very interesting read (Watson knows how to write… heh, he’s pal with Lance Mannion,  and they all have their cool clique at Newcritics, and so, what did I expect?).

Anyhoo, back to CauseWired. CauseWired is about what Watson considers to be an emerging powerful trend: the rise of the online social activist sector.

“This book also suggests strongly that what some refer to as online social activism and others call peer-to-peer philanthropy is quickly becoming a sector, bound together by a growing critical mass in usership and an expanding acceptance in the worlds of philanthropy, politics, activism, and marketing. Indeed, the brief period of creation of the past few years (perhaps dating to the beta launch of DonorsChoose in 2000) is giving way to the next evolutionary phase of growth, and the permanent mooring of several important financial models on our greater economy.” (xxi-xxii)

CauseWired refers to the unleashing of online social activism thanks to the technologies of Web2.0 and the availability of a variety of platforms such as DonorsChoose, Kiva, GlobalGiving, MicroGiving (and let me add the one of right sidebar here, Children International), or social networking sites such as Causes on Facebook or There is no denying that these platforms and sites are attracting a lot of small donors to the point where Kiva regularly runs out of projects to fund and has to cap donations to $25. And for Watson, the meteoric rise and power of CauseWired is visible in the immense success of the Obama campaign and its use of Web2.0 technologies.

The central thesis of the book is this:

“Rapid advances in media and technology, in the ways people communicate, are changing how people support causes and how we respond to that underlying human impulse to help others, improve our communities and change the world.” (xxx)

Or more romantically,

“New technology and the human urge to communicate will create the basis for a golden age of activism and involvement, increasing the reach of philanthropy and improving the openness of politics, democratic government, and our major social institutions.” (19)

[As should be obvious, I am heavily into CauseWired… just take a look at the sidebars. And for those who read this blog, it’s obvious that I am a big fan of microcredit and a donor ot Kiva, GlobalGiving and Children International. I subscribe to Causes on Facebook and am a member of and LinkedIn.]

In a big part of the book, Watson retraces the genealogy of Causewired through the social entrepreneurs (in a broad sense) that got moved to use Web2.0 technologies to promote progressive social change. That is on the supply side. On the demand side, you now have the “consumers” of both causes and technology: people who are not content with just writing checks to the Red Cross or any other large conventional charity organization but want a real connection to the end point of their donation, not just as a matter of making sure that the money goes where it is supposed to, but also to be able to “see” and be “connected” to those they support.

For Watson, these consumers of causes and technology (or, as Watson calls them after Alvin Toffler, “prosumers”) represent a generational shift:

“The generalization of a materially obsessed generation masks a vital and important movement – a subtle shift in priorities and aspirations that will have a huge impact on the future of philanthropy. At no point since the student movements of the 1960s have young people worn their cases so openly – but this time around, the Facebook Generation is not fighting the establishment. They own it. For today’s superwired, always-on, live-life-in-public young Americans, the causes you support define who you are. Societal aspirations have so permeated the “net-native” population that causes have become like musical tastes, style choices, and “blog bling.”” (16)

These net-natives create or absorb causes through their networks via a variety of portals such as Facebook or MySpace. However, what is also obvious is that putting a cause badge on one’s Facebook profile is not the same as funding or engaging in any type of activism. It is the lowest possible form of activism (just a few clicks) but what it does is to reveal something about one’s identity and build social capital. The badges one displays, or the widgets one puts on a blog sidebar, are one’s public identity. Identity does not necessarily translate into action.

And that is an issue that Watson addresses repeatedly throughout the book: a lot of online activism has had a limited impact in terms of fundraising or sometimes, actual change: Katrina victims are still homeless, people are still being killed in Darfur, etc. When it comes to the money, big foundations and organizations still rule the day.

But there is no question that Watson is fascinated by the net generation and its alleged idealism all the while recognizing that they might not “do” much, as in No One is Innocent’s song,… it’s not a coincidence that I posted the clip on the eve of Obama’s election. There is indeed a convergence between Obama’s campaign and the net generation, not all I find inspiring or idealistic, as much as Watson does. However, there is no denying that the campaign itself was very astute in the use of Web2.0 technology in promoting the Obama brand / cause (which I think is what it is).

That being said, I found the book most inspiring when Watson goes through the different tools created and the experiences of social entrepreneurs and their projects. It certainly gave a me a lot of food for thoughts and ideas as to how I could promote a social entrepreneurship online structure at my college to promote alongside the new global / environmental / peace / leadership studies programs we are creating. And I certainly plan on making a lot of people read the book for that purpose.

Now, to the critical side of things. Some of the problems I had were with Watson’s depiction of the net generation, the general characteristics of this new philanthropy. Let’s see if I can articulate them.

Watson’s description of the net-natives (and, from experience, I tend to think we overestimate technological prowess) ignore something that I consider major: social class. Those young people who are in college, have access to the hardware to enjoy all the fruits of Web2.0 technology are privileged young people, which is why they have the luxury to create and build their social identities through the various portals. They have access and time as well as resources. Not everyone in that generation has that ability. Which is why I find general description of that generational shift profoundly annoying. What is described as the net generation is the upper middle to upper classes. The non-wired are disappeared. I do not blame Watson for focusing on the privileged, I fault him for not even mentioning that this is the demographics he’s talking about, not a generation. Those he discusses are indeed invested in causes because they are materially provided for and secure.

And while we’re on the topic of social classes, there are two other categories of people lying in the shadows of the CauseWired: those who make the hardware the net natives use, and the disadvantaged they are supposed to help. In the book, these are either absent or simply objects. The only subjects are the CauseWired, the net natives, those who invest in causes to help these Others, less fortunate. These Others are objectified as props in the construction of one’s identity through the causes one supports and promotes in Facebook or MySpace.

But let’s focus on the net-natives again. If Watson’s descriptions are accurate (as I believe they are, minus again the certainty of their technological savvy), the net-natives are pure products of what Habermas calls the crisis of legitimacy. They do not believe in governmental power to solve problems (although, having just come out of eight years of Bush/Cheney, one cannot be faulted for believing that), but that skepticism extends to conventional charities as well.

Similarly, the net-natives are a product of liquid society and individualization. They seem skeptical of institutional structures and power and want to be philanthropists on their own terms, individually. And I mean individually in the sense of, as Watson puts it, peer-to-peer activism, one person helping another, or one individual helping a project. This is philanthropy and activism in the age of global consumption (in all fairness, Watson does address that aspect): one funds a Kiva project in the same way one orders a pizza online, deciding on the criteria which will make the recipient worthy of the donor’s $25. It looks like th freedom to choose from the donor’s point of view, but what of the recipient? I guess we never know except for the messages of gratitude left on websites.

As I read the book, that other side of this was constantly on my mind especially considering the fact that for all the revolutionary nature of all this (and again, I believe it is), there is not necessarily much to show for all this online social activism. But, we have to acknowledge that this is a nascent movement and we’ll have to see how it survives the next few years.

And then, there’s Obama. I have to confess that I was not in the mood to read about Obama. I’ve had my fill. Again, there is no question that he was the candidate of the net generation and his campaign took advantage of web2.0 technologies better than any others. But here again, let’s not forget the other side of things: the massive support from the mainstream media and major financial donors as well as the major progressive blogs. And let’s not forget the massive leveraging of rank misogyny, sexism and ageism from the net generation. Let’s count that as part of his success as well. If anything, the web2.0 technologies facilitated the spread of the most disgusting misogynystic memes along with a very superficial promotion of policy. Obama was first and foremost a brand, enthusiastically, but also superficially embraced by the net natives. That is part of the story as well. Identity over action and policy.

But again, this has more to do with my own fed-up current state with regard to Obama because the case study of his campaign definitely belongs in the book.

So, yes, these are what I consider major issues with the book and its subject. But as I mentioned above, some sections were truly inspiring to me and I will recommend it to many people with whom I work.

Global Imaginary Rising

Paging Manfred Steger:

I would say that Gordon Brown is a bit late in the game as Manfred Steger made the case right here for Obama’s election heralding a new era based on a global imaginary different than that of the neo-conservatives and globalists.

We can also read this as a political move by a not-so-popular politician jumping on the bandwagon of a much more popular one. It still remains though, that Brown identified very quickly an Obama presidency as one infused with the global imaginary translating into more multi-lateralism and stronger global governance. In this sense, he is certainly trying to create a Brown-Obama axis with a global orientation that is markedly different than Bush-Blair. For instance, where Bush-Blair had the Global War on Terror, for Brown offers something different:

Note the shift to the realm of "ideas". Overall, gone is the dominance of military power as the main tool of the global order. We’ll see if this is truly an epochal shift when Obama actually becomes President.

After The Washington Consensus, The Beijing Consensus?

In Global-e, Michael Peters reviews the major postmortems offered by left-of-center economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, John Quiggin or Robert Reich. The consensus seems to be that we are due for an overhaul of the global financial system after what can be definitely be seen as a failure of the neo-liberal order.

And so then goes the Washington Consensus, to paraphrase a blog post by Tony Karon, written back in April.

And Peters concludes,

So, if the consensus seems to be that we can bury the neo-liberal order that has prevailed for the past 30 years of so, what next? What then? Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Alain Gresh suggests that we are now entering the era of the Beijing Consensus. What is meant by this phrase?

In other words, the Beijing Consensus represents a flexible (liquid?) structuration of relationships between nation-states, and here, Gresh asserts the failure of analysis of enthusiastic globalists who prophesied the end of the Westphalian order. In a non-polar or multipolar world, China may rise to dominance but not to hegemony and other countries of the Global South can also assert economic, political, or ideological power whereas the US, Russia and China still exercise military dominance.

Power in the Global Age – A Non-Polar World

In light of the current economic meltdown of massive and global proportions, (Sir) Adam Roberts raises the question of who has power in the global age and sees no rising hegemon.

Oh yeah, good times. How quaint this seems now, after Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the other US-sponsored hellholes, spiraling deficits and debt and whatever else we haven’t discovered yet. That post-Cold War undue optimism is now gone (it might come again with the election of Barack Obama at as US president, with a Messianic touch and religious overtones). Actually, that speech in 1992 might actually have been the high point of US dominance.

So, if the not the US, who could be the next hegemon. Several contenders get mentioned in the media on a regular basis as the new "poles" of the global system. Roberts is skeptical.

Why do we have to have poles in the first place? Because poles create an ordering framework in which we can fit almost every country (except the few wayward non-aligned countries). Change the poles and the rest of the countries will be realigned according to the new poles or centers of power. A non-polar world, as Roberts contends, is a scary one.

"Today, a notably wide range of possible risks and challenges appear to confirm the fragility of world order. The events in Georgia have graphically substantiated the built-in danger of the much-vaunted new principle for the conduct of international relations in the 21st century, the "responsibility to protect." As events have shown, this principle can easily be distorted and abused as a cover for the extension of national power, and may actually exacerbate the problems of international relations. In addition, possible threats in the next 30 years include climate change, population pressures, resource competition, the emergence of major new powers, nuclear proliferation, transnational terrorism, and religious and ideological fundamentalism. All could contribute to the outbreak of armed conflicts. The threats that we face lie also in ourselves and in our own societies — for example in our own poor management of intelligence and poor understanding of foreign countries and cultures.

Several of the threats faced today expose inadequacies in the policies of major powers. Nuclear proliferation is the most obvious case in point. The policy of nuclear nonproliferation on which so many countries have placed emphasis requires a serious rationale for why some countries should have -nuclear weapons and others not. Such a rationale is not impossible to develop but has been positively hindered by simplistic interpretations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a deal imposed by the nuclear powers (ignoring the major impetus of nonnuclear states in the negotiations for the NPT), or as a deal in which the nuclear powers promised to get rid of their own nuclear weapons completely (ignoring the extremely careful language that embodies a more limited and prudent undertaking). Nuclear nonproliferation worked for a generation partly because the Cold War alliance systems provided powerful disincentives for the development of nuclear weapons. Building a serious rationale for nuclear nonproliferation is one of the most difficult challenges faced in the nonpolar world."

However, for Roberts, there are reasons for optimism. We are now at a very high point in global cooperation and regulations and international standards abound. Globalization is the real thing with its multiple and multi-layered flows (or scapes to use Appadurai’s term). Relatedly, countries line up to become part of their respective regional bodies.

In spite of a very real crisis of legitimacy (which, actually, is directed more at the national institutions than at global ones), more and more social actors and entities operate under the frame of global imaginaries. So, for Roberts, the international (I would say "global") order is robust and not on the verge of collapsing and global cooperation is still the best hope for tackling our many pressing issues.

And then, there are the UN which, for better and for worse, is still the best there is to offer in terms of global governance through its many agencies. Too often our thinking onthe UN is limited to the Security Council and the General Assembly.

"Any attempt to capture the essence of the contemporary international system needs to encompass a clear and realistic view of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the United Nations. Different understandings of the United Nations’ actual and potential roles formed a fateful background to the European–US divide over Iraq in 2003, and are not yet resolved. A degree of common understanding could be based on recognition of four key points. First, the United Nations has been, and remains, an important framework within which states can act collectively, including in the security sphere. Second, the United Nations does not at present constitute anything approaching a complete system of collective security. Indeed, to present it in that light may damage the United Nations by placing a greater weight of expectation on the organization than it can possibly bear. In particular, it cannot possibly play a central role in a crisis, such as that over Georgia, in which one of the five veto-wielding powers is directly involved. Third, the experience of the United Nations in the past six decades confirms that there remains a need for certain states to take the lead if the United Nations is to act effectively. This has especially been the case so far as the use of force has been concerned. And last, the United Nations exists, and will continue to exist, in parallel with the evolving system of sovereign states and with other dynamic developments in international society. It is one element in international order, but not the sole basis of that order.

In short, the emergence of a nonpolar order forces us to confront what has always been a central truth of international relations: in different regions and crises, different states and combinations of states take the lead. "Variable geometry" is the rule. Russia’s action in Georgia illustrates how open to abuse, and how dangerous, such a situation can be. Variable geometry, as distinct from simple polarity, may be as much a part of the problem of world order as it is of the solution, but it is likely to endure."

My emphasis. Maybe we need to think of the global system in "liquid" terms, to borrow the expression from Zygmunt Bauman. But what seems to come out loud and clear from Roberts analysis is that we should not expect the rise of a new hegemon anytime soon but rather the rise of temporary leadership depending on the circumstances and localizations of crises.