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paralyzed by market imperatives and post-September 11 security concerns, human rights activism has been gradually superseded by new authoritarian trends."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.

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.

What Brings Families Together? Power Outages and New Technologies

Power outages = people don’t have anything to do with themselves, so, they have sex = mini baby boom nine months later… correlation? Causation? You be the judge, via Le Monde. Here is the story:

In Massdriel, Netherlands, the number of births increased by 44% in September 2008 compared to the same month in 2007. Officials found that puzzling. Then, they remembered the power outage that affected that town for 50 hours, nine months before. In December 2007, an Apache helicopter had accidentally cut power lines that brought power to nine villages of the commune. Guess what happened during these two days of darkness?

Sorry Robert Putnam, we may not bowl together anymore, but according to this BBC report (and an increasing body of research), new technologies may actually bring people closer together:

This report also shows that nuclear families are the structure more likely to be closely connected (as in parents use these gizmos to exercise greater surveillance of their children, even when these are young adults). What this means is not just an increase in the level of contact but also a shift in the qualitative nature of these contacts. So, yes, communal times may have decreased (for a variety of reasons) but contacts are maintained through other means.

As I myself wrote, in his best-selling book, Bowling Alone (2000), political scientist Robert Putnam deplores the loss of American community. For Putnam, the decline in American participation in bowling leagues symbolizes the increasing disconnection between people as they retreat from all sorts of civic and community participation and engage in more isolated activities, such as passive television watching.

Indeed, data regarding membership in associations, political participation, and volunteering show a decline. Putnam deplores such a state of affairs as such community activities were essential to civic-minded socialization where social norms were transmitted.

However, if participation in traditionally household-based activities, such as bowling leagues and PTAs, show a marked decline, other forms of sociability have increased. New communication technologies allow for new and different forms of sociability. For instance, virtual or online communities are on the rise. The best example of rising online communities are Facebook, MySpace or Flickr.  Such communities are different in that they are not household-based but individualized. They provide a different type of socialization than traditional communities.

Virtual or online communities show that far from disappearing, communities are changing. Traditional communities are neighborhood or village-based. In the age of globalization, disappearing borders and unprecedented movements of population around the globe, communities are not disappearing but reconfiguring into geographically dispersed networks.

According to Jeffrey Boase and al (2006), such geographically dispersed communities are facilitated by new electronic communication technologies, such as emails and the Internet. Moreover, research shows that new communications technologies extend our social connections but deepen them as well. People who interact face-to-face also tend to call each on the phone and exchange messages via emails or instant messages or text messages. This phenomenon of using multiple media to communicate is called media multiplexity.

New communication technologies promote what sociologist Barry Wellman calls networked individualism. Networked individualism refers to the fact that, thanks to the Internet, individuals can get in touch with other individuals for all sorts of purposes. In this sense, online communities do not replace traditional communities but supplement them. People can find information or help or simply create relationships from traditional sources, such as relatives or they can tap into extended networks of other individuals.

In this sense, being socialized into the competent use of new communication technologies becomes an essential skill not only to be able to access the wealth of information available but also to be able to be able to build individual networks of relationships with and (not or) without face-to-face interactions.

In her study of the virtual community Cybertown™, Denise Carter (2004) challenges the notion that virtual communities are only poor and shallow imitation of the “real thing”, face-to-face interaction. First, Cybertown™ is an elaborate virtual environment, not just a chat room or message board. It has more than a million citizens from all over the world earning citycash from jobs. It is designed like any large city in the world, with plaza, cafes, post office and police. The residents live in the suburbs in private homes and they can have (virtual) pets. It is truly a social space where people develop friendships and throw parties at their houses, or go to clubs. Residents usually maintain consistent personae, keeping the same username and avatar (virtual character). Frequently, people who meet and become friends at Cybertown™ end up meeting offline.

For Carter, virtual communities are appealing because they do not rely on traditional kinship bonds (based on blood ties) but allow the development of chosen friendship ties. Friendship is not based on hierarchy. Moreover, where kinship ties are defined by tradition and customs, friendship persists based on the quality of relationships. In Cybertown™, people are specifically looking to build new relationships where gender, race and other ascribed statuses are irrelevant and where the quality of the relationship is the only criterion that matters. Moreover, the fact that many residents are able to sustain such friendship offline suggests that relationships developed online are not shallow but free from cultural and social constraints.

So, is all well and good and safe in the virtual world? Not quite. Another Le Monde article (whose link seems broken right now, I’ll update if necessary) explores how social prejudices may actually be amplified online as anonymous communications may protect individuals from the social disapproval and sanctions they might face in real life for overt expressions of prejudice. This will not be news to anyone hanging around YouTube or anyone who followed the American presidential campaign. There is no doubt that the Democratic primary unleashed an enormous amount of sexism and there is no putting back that nasty genie into the bottle. This has been analyzed expertly elsewhere, especially by Scary Smary Anglachel and over at Corrente, so, I won’t belabor the point.

The bottom line is that is we should resist oversimplified depictions of the way new technologies shape the way we interact, either to deplore the good old days where people REALLY communicated with each other (like any nostalgia, it’s largely reconstructed memory), or to project a socially liberated mode of communication, free from social determinations.

The uses of new communication technologies are still shaped by mechanisms of social stratification (the digital divide) and still allow people to easily project their prejudices as well as extending their social capital in a variety of directions on a global scale.

However, in these global mediascapes (to use Appadurai’s terms), not everyone is included and processes of marginalization and exclusion operate as well. At the same time, these have permitted the emergence of truly global social movements and facilitated the rise of the global imaginaries.

Barack Obama and the Global Imaginary

Guest post by Manfred Steger

[It is my great pleasure and privilege to welcome Manfred Steger for his first (and hopefully not last) guest post here. His latest book is The Rise of the Global Imaginary: Political Ideologies from the French Revolution to the Global War on Terror (review here and here).]


When the Democratic Party’s National Convention is held next week in Denver, one of its main goals will be to tell the ‘American story’ of its presidential candidate. “I am absolutely baffled that anybody would say that Barack doesn’t meet every single test of genuine Americanism when you consider his life story,” Tom Daschle told reporters recently. The former Senate Democratic leader was reacting to doubts about Obama’s “Americanism” which his opponents have been trying to imprint on the public consciousness. Indeed, it wasn’t just McCain’s attack dogs that growled at the Illinois senator’s lack of “patriotism.” Thanks to the impressive research efforts of an Atlantic Monthly reporter, we now know that Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist Mark Penn opined in a 2007 internal memo that he could not imagine America electing a president “who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and values.”

Questioning a candidate’s patriotism is not new in American elections, but what strikes me as unusual is the vehemence with which Obama’s global appeal and consciousness is derided by those who sneer at an African-American brought up in Hawai’i, Kansas, and Indonesia. His names, race, and multicultural background certainly play a role in these aggressive attempts to relegate Obama to the margins of the national imaginary. But there is more. For many Americans, the Illinois senator is the problematic personification of a dynamic generally known by the buzzword “globalization.” One of the consequences of the dramatic compression of the world since the 1990s has been the destabilization of the national. The mental and geographical maps that help us navigate our political universe no longer correspond neatly to the familiar order built over the last century on the foundation of the sovereign and self-contained nation-state. Faced with genuinely global problems like climate change, transnational terrorism, energy and food crises, and growing inequality, young and bright politicians like Obama who have seen beyond the cornfields of the American Midwest grasp that the national has become inextricably linked to the global. Thus, they have begun to translate into concrete political agendas what I call the “global imaginary”—a sense of a thickening world community, bound together by economic and cultural processes that are daily shrinking our planet.

Obama This is not to deny the staying power of the national over crucial aspects of social life. To pronounce the nation-state dead would be both inaccurate and foolish. But it would be equally myopic to close one’s eyes to the rising global imaginary. Most likely, the 21st century will be an interregnum in which the national and the global will co-exist uncomfortably. But as the eruptions of the global continue to sear the national, they not only change the world’s economic infrastructure, but also transform our sense of self, identity, and belonging. And this is where the quarrel over Obama’s “Americanness” comes in. Like no other U.S. politician before him, he reminds people that we’re already up to our knees in these difficult transitional times laced with multiple and extended affiliations, references, and identities. Clinging to the safety of traditional “Americanness,” many voters are afraid of the senator’s globalism while at the same time recognizing him as the harbinger of an even more interdependent world. Conversely, the rising global imaginary makes it easier for “foreigners” like French youths or German professionals to imagine Obama as one of their “own.” Indeed, the Democratic presidential candidate seems to possess a keen awareness of his unique role as a mediator between the national and the global. Addressing tens of thousands of Berliners during his recent visit to the German capital, he called himself in the same sentence “a proud citizen of the United States” and “a fellow citizen of the world.”

Manfred B. Steger is Professor of Global Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and the author of The Rise of the Global Imaginary (Oxford UP, 2008).