The Shifting Grounds for Transnational Civic Activity

Since the terrorist attacks rocked the United States on September 11th, for most Americans the state has become a welcome buffer against the anxiety and uncertainties of a new age of biological attacks. This has had a profoundly negative effect on the transnational activists who challenged neoliberal globalization in the late 1990s. As the “rally around the flag” effect has spread from the United States to other countries, especially to Canada and Western Europe, international activists have moved into a retreat-and- reflect mode, increasingly questioning the viability of their repertoire of transnational tactics. The climate of resurgent statism; the advantage being taken of the post September 11th climate by advocates of neoliberalism; and the disarray in the transnational activist community combine to offer the occasion for a reflection on the impacts of September 11th upon the “global civil society” project that framed transnational activism between the Battle of Seattle in 1999 and the Genoa police riot of July 2001. That project was already being questioned by troubled activists before September 11th for the opening it offered to violent radical groups and to reactionary responses to them. 1 Our questioning goes deeper than tactics and their repression: we argue that – especially in the heightened state-centric nature of the world after September 11th – the most fruitful targets for transnational activism are – as they have always been – within the state.

Escalating Repression

The first factor of concern among transnational activists is the escalating crackdown on dissent, both in the United States and elsewhere. Although it predated the September 11 attacks to the police clashes with antiglobalization demonstrators from Seattle to Genoa, the repressive threat is now intensifying. In the United States, amid heightened surveillance and preemptive strikes, alternative political views have quickly become heresy. 2 Under the rubric of “Homeland Defense,” the new anti-terrorist legislation, known as the U.S.A. Patriot Act, gives government agencies broad police powers. As a cowering press lionizes the Bush administration for its war in Afghanistan, a supine Congress has accorded it sweeping new authority to conduct “sneak and peak” searches, expand wiretap authority, and give the FBI wider access to personal records. Similar style legislation has been passed or is being contemplated in Canada and across Western Europe. And in Singapore and Malaysia, authoritarian regimes welcome the heightened international atmosphere of fear to crack down on domestic opponents. These moves raise legitimate concerns of a new state-centered but internationally diffused and targeted McCarthyism.

Just as sobering for activists is the increased penchant for state authorities to equate protest against neoliberal policy initiatives with the violent terrorism of September 11. Italy’s Prime Minister Berlusconi, smarting from international criticism of his crackdown on peaceful demonstrators at the Genoa summit, saw a “singular coincidence” between the anti-globalization protestors and the terrorist attacks in Washington and New York City. Praising the superiority of “our [read: Christian] civilization,” Berlusconi equated the anti-globalization movement with radical Islamic terrorist groups for their hatred of “Western civilization and the Western way of life,” 3 as his government was ironically moving away from Italy’s traditional pro-European stance.

Across Europe, the American-inspired search-and-destroy mission against Islamic radicalism has heightened fear among immigrants and given racist and xenophobic groups a new lease on life, legitimating their calls for immigrant exclusion. Prime Minister Blair of Britain has become so unflagging in his unflagging support for the American war on terrorism that he has ignored the domestic reforms his party promised in the last election. In the Middle East, after a gesture at even-handedness, the American government has ignored brutal Israeli attacks on civilian and Palestinian Authority targets and supported Prime Minister Sharon’s strategy of conflating Palestinian aspirations with the actions of Islamist terrorists. The Israeli peace movement – already stifled by the violence of the Intifada- has been paralyzed by the tightened Israeli/Washington anti-Islamist axis.

Resurgent Neoliberal Globalization

What of globalization and its discontents? As national publics reel from safety and security concerns, the terrorist attacks have given supporters of neoliberalism a rare window of opportunity to push their corporate trade and investment policies. Immediately after September 11th, U.S. Trade Representative Zoellick demanded that Americans choose between free trade or terrorism. Then, at the APEC Summit meeting in Shanghai, President Bush told business executives that the key to fighting terrorism is the promotion of free trade and unrestricted commerce. Following this, Federal Reserve chairman Greenspan noted that the terrorist attacks had made it urgent that the WTO trade talks in Qatar succeed. 4 As recently as December, presidential fast-track authority – defeated by a labor-environmental coalition in 1997-98 – was resuscitated. By a single vote, the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives reauthorized this power, with the Republican House leadership successfully reframing a vote against fast-track as an unpatriotic act. 5

The Global Civil Society Project

For activists and supporters of transnational contention, the September 11 terrorist attacks have led to shocked silence or compliance with resurgent nationalism. But these events also provide a fortuitous opportunity for a reasoned reassessment of the “global civil society” project that guided the transnational movement through the 1990s. Appropriating the language that guided eastern European dissidents against state socialism and Soviet hegemony through the 1980s, that project emerged both as an intellectual response to globalization and as a collective action frame for NGOs campaigning against neoliberalism. In Eastern Europe, the civil society project provided a bold orienting frame that could bring together nationalists, democrats, democratic socialists, environmentalists, Catholics and nationalists against a regional hegemon.

Transferred to the transnational sphere, the concept had a similarly positive function of bringing together advocates of environmental protection, supporters of regulations to combat climate change, indigenous rights campaigners and advocates of sustainable development in North and South. But in the absence of an overweening power and faced with the multifaceted nature of “globalization” and its discontents, it was always intellectually weak and politically confused.

For a start, beneath the stirring rhetoric of fighting for a “global civil society,” the project was most often operationalized through the highly institutionalized forms of international NGOs that gravitate around international institutions and operate through lobbying, information exchange, and personal influence. 6 As such, it failed to encompass the more contentious forms of collective action that began to appear across the globe in the mid-1990s. The movement was thus unprepared for the violent clashes between police and demonstrators from Seattle to Genoa, clashes that the media invariably blamed on the demonstrators and that authorities were able to instrumentalize to delegitimize the entire antiglobalization movement.

Second, the global civil society project seldom specified the causal links from globalization to civil society groups or to the episodes of domestic contention in which they were involved. These links might be fairly direct – for example, as in the case of the anti-WTO protests. But they are often indirect or hard to imagine – as in the human rights movement that aims its fire, not against “globalization” but against dictators and torturers; or on the religious groups that have moved to center-stage after September 11th. If we derive transnational social movements directly from globalization, we will risk muddying a clear understanding of some of the most pressing problems in the world today – dictatorship, religious repression, abuse of human rights, and – since September 11th – resurgent hegemonic nationalism.

Third, the global civil society project has had from the beginning a secular, progressive bias. In focusing attention mainly on four main families of secular, western-dominated activity in the Third World – the sectors of human rights, the environment, indigenous rights and development – it largely ignored the “nasty” transnational movements that have much more impact on the world today. Not only that: from the international support mobilized in the North in favor of the Chiapas insurgency on, it overstates the supposed liberating potential of the Internet, overlooking the persistent inequities rooted in geographical and resource differences, commonly referred to as the “digital divide.” 7

Moreover, as the debates over the Kyoto protocol, FTAA, and MAI have demonstrated, the ultimate actors reining in neoliberal globalization are states, not transnational NGOs or social movements. After all, while transnational activism helped to focus the spotlight on the secretive MAI talks, it was France and its decision to pull out of the talks in 1998, which ultimately doomed the accord. Moreover, currently the most impressive roadblock to the successful completion of the FTAA is not the notable transnational educational and lobbying activities of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, but the formidable and growing objections of Brazil to U.S. domestic trade policies, as well as the potential fallout from Argentina’s recent economic tailspin and its shift to the governing populist Peronist left.

To be sure, it was with the encouragement of their corporate lobbies that Northern states orchestrated the rise of the neoliberal trade regime in the 1980s. But that regime possesses no power of its own; it is only states – and the pressure that movements can put on states – that may in time act to redress this regime’s now exposed deficiencies. It is of limited help to the cause of the subaltern peoples of the South to direct the energies of activists towards an abstraction like “global civil society” and away from the states that shape the policies of international institutions.

It is true, as Michael Edwards recently wrote, that “acting alone, governments cannot confer legitimacy on global decisions, since legitimacy rests on public trust, and public trust requires a consensus between societies on how to manage the costs and benefits of globalization.” 8 Civil society groups have also served as “critical communities,” placing new issues on the agenda and bringing them to the attention of decision-makers and the public. But barriers to a genuinely global civil society remain rooted in inequities in representation, communication and citizenship that are reflected in, and defended by the current state system. In the post-September 11th world, and in the face of an American administration that has successfully harnessed intergovernmentalism to a hegemonic state project, the fulcrum for movement activism will increasingly be the state.

This is no warrant for pessimism. First, activists who turn from the transnational realm to their own countries return there with the experiences, the contacts, and the collective action frames they have gleaned from their transnational networks. The European anti-GMO campaign against both the EU’s labeling policy and the policies of national states provides a good example. Second, while currently in retreat mode, it is unlikely that the momentum of transnational activism will disappear, for such activity will certainly prove to be part of the solution to the indelible divisions over wealth and power that continue to mark the world. The recent success of activists at the WTO Qatar meetings, whose lobbying convinced reluctant trade delegations from the North to create exceptions to trade-related property rights for patents of key drugs to battle AIDS and other debilitating diseases especially affecting the South, provides but one illustration of the persisting utility of transnational civic action. Just as transnational social activism and the movement against neoliberal globalization affected public debate in helping to halt the MAI, to delay the WTO millennial round, and to force FTAA negotiators to release a public draft of the once secret text, it will increasingly highlight and push for reforms to the anti-democratic aspects of the neoliberal trade regime.

This is no call for retreat to the dubious security of national politics. But transnational activists have always been “rooted” and not rootless cosmopolitans, working primarily in national contexts while they were fruitfully engaged in transnational networks. 9
In the anti-bank campaign of the 1980s that forced the World Bank to create its Inspection Panel; in the anti-landmine campaign of the early 1990s; in the defeat of the MAI in the late 1990s: transnational activists operate most effectively on native ground, their activities buttressed by the resources and opportunities they find in their home societies.

Transnational civic activity after September 11 may be undergoing a period of healthy regrouping, pulling back from spectacular but unpromising areas of activity to those where it can make a difference, like opening up northern markets to agricultural products from the global South or sorting out the differences between northern unionists and southern workers over core labor standards. Movements are undergoing both a tentative identity shift from international to national social movement sectors and working towards the domestication of transnational frames and repertoires. Any reassessment of the prevailing limits of transnational civic activity should be matched by a sober appraisal of the constraints bearing down at all levels of civil society and on the capacities and resources that the past decade of transnational activism has bequeathed on its successors in the new century.

  1. See Luke Peterson, “Civil Society Groups Being to Question Tactics Used at Trade Talks,” The Toronto Star, 3 August 2001; for after September 11 ruminations, see Dennis Bueckert, “Political Activists, Environmentalists Feel Chill of Anti-Terror Campaign,” Canadian Press, 27 October 2001.
  2. Bill Carter and Felicity Barringer, “In Patriotic Times, Dissent is Muted,” The New York Times, 28 September 2001.
  3. Steven Erlanger, “Italy’s Premier Calls Western Civilization Superior to Islamic World,” The New York Times, 27 September 2001.
  4. Leslie Wayne, “For Trade Protesters, ‘Slower, Sadder Songs’,” The New York Times, 28 October 2001.
  5. David E. Sanger, “Using the Battle of Terrorism for Victory on Trade,” The New York Times, 7 December 2001.
  6. See, for example, the excellent work of Robert O’Brien, Anne Marie Goetz, Jan Aart Scholte and Marc Williams, Contesting Global Governance (Cambridge: 2000) in which the umbrella term “global social movement’ is used to signify the international NGOs that challenge the Bank, the IMF and the WTO. Pp. 13-15.
  7. See, in this regard, Judy Hellman’s “Real and Virtual Chiapas: Magic Realism and the Left,” in Socialist Register 2000 (Merlin).
  8. “The Mouse that Roared: We’re Witnessing the Birth of a New World Politics,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 3 January 2002.
  9. See Sidney Tarrow, “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Towards a Sociology of Transnational Contention,” on http://falcon.arts.cornell.edu/sgt2/contention/default.htm; and Jeffrey Ayres, “Global Civil Society and Transnational Protest: No Swan Song Yet for the State,” Chapter Two in Gordon Laxer and Sandra Halperin, eds., Global Civil Society: Idyllic New World or False Promise (in preparation).