Alterglobalization Movement - Meshwork Aspects

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See also: Alterglobalization Movement - Networked Aspects


Article: Notes on Networks and Anti-Globalization Social Movements


Prepared for Session on Actors, Networks, Meanings: Environmental Social Movements and the Anthropology of Activism 2000 AAA Annual Meeting, San Francisco, November 15-19. Arturo Escobar (Department of Anthropology University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)


Arturo Escobar:

"Anti-globalization struggles are best seen as horizontal, self-organizing meshworks of heterogenous sites/struggles brought together by diverse interfaces and catalysts, particularly NGOs and pioneering social movements (e.g, EZLN, PGA, Direct Action Network, others). New nodes are brought into the meshworks through strategies of interweaving that enable the construction of collective agendas and fronts of struggle, which subsequently become part of the localizing strategies of the particular social movements making up the meshwork (dialectic of localization and interweaving, see above). This dialectic is fueled by nonlinear dynamics that produce alternations in the scale and visibility of mobilization (e.g., Geneva and Montreal in May 98 and Seattle in November 99 were powerful attractors in this regard). Meshworks might (in fact, do) engage with hierarchical DANs as part of their struggle (e.g., WTO, the Biodiversity Convention, TRIPs, GMOs, TNCs such as Monsanto or Novartis, World Bank, G-8, etc.), which might act as catalysts of sorts. Meshworks might also include or hybridize with TSMOs and with transnational advocacy networks, but are rarely reducible to them. Meshworks are also actor-networks (actors in a net/mesh doing some work), in the sense that they involve human and nonhuman elements of all kinds. Meshworks can also be seen as apparatuses for the production of discourses and practices, that is, as creating discursive fields of action that harbor or capture a number of sites. Meshworks create flows that link sites which, operating more like fractal structures than fixed architectures, enable diverse couplings and forms of connectivity (structural, strategic, conjunctural) with other sites and networks. With Castells, it can be said that meshworks have a variable geometry in terms of the flows and nodes that make them up; against Castells, it is necessary to assert the fact that meshworks ordinate our of the space of places, even if they orient themselves towards the transformation of the space of flows.

Unlike the Latourian AN s, AGSM meshworks are not based on the purifactory operation of dividing nature/culture and us/them. And unlike Latour’s proposal for a non-modern constitution (one that would finally separate nature and culture, that is, a strictly anti-ecological constitution that presupposes a post-natural world), AGSM meshworks struggle for ecological practices of local and regional world-making, that is, for an integration of human and biological processes that does not wreck natural systems in the process. Meshworks, then, pursue a strategy of ecological design; this strategy is also a pluralistic strategy that recognizes difference-in-equality and renders obsolete the us/them distinction. For this double task, they bring to the fore existing local models of nature, culture and economy and project them in transformative directions for sustainable and pluralistic strategies of world making. Finally, meshworks of this kind are always cutting the network (or attempting to, at any rate), in light of political strategy, the dangers of repression, or for matters of political expediency.

It is not easy yet to fully characterize the dynamic that characterizes the formation of meshworks –the linking-up of new nodes and sites, the types of flows that are of importance, the scalar politics in which they engage. (Above all, this is of course a political, and politically sensitive, question). From the principles of nonlinear dynamics, some additional aspects could be highlighted in this regard, for instance the following: nodes are brought together in terms of certain types of functional complementary; this bringing together (interweaving) entails a dialectic of sameness and difference that activists have to take into account. Since nodes with/from different place-based cultural worlds are brought into contact, there is an inevitable effect of meshworking on the background practices of the subworlds involved (see e.g, Spinosa, Flores and Dreyfus 1997 for a discussion on this aspect in a different context). Conversely, meshworking enable social movements to propend for, and at times effect, important destratifications and reterritorializations of places, territories, regions, identities. Whether meshworks evolve “by drift” or according to carefully thought out political strategies is difficult to discern. But it appears to be the case that they tend to establish autocatalytic loops that drive the dynamic of self-organization, at least up to a point and some times against all odds.

The following is the argument I want to make about AGSM meshworks, in a nutshell:

a. The goal of many of the anti-globalization struggles can be seen as the defense of particular, placebased historical conceptions of the world and practices of world-making –more precisely, as a defense of particularly constructions of place, including the reorganizations of place that might be deemed necessary according to the power struggles in/within place. In an important respect at least, AGSMs can be seen as struggles for the defense of place and place-based ecological, economic, and cultural practices (practices of difference; see Dirlik, in press; Harcourt, in press; Escobar in press).

These struggles, however, are not only place based (and certainly not place-bound).

It is possible to talk about them as constituting subaltern strategies of localization (opposed to the strategies of localization by capital, which operate through quite different means; see Escobar in press) with three different components or dimensions to them:

1) place-based strategies of localization for the defense of local cultural models of social life (e.g., local models of nature and economy, ethnic and gender relations, etc.);

2) global strategies of localization through an active engagement with both DANs and resistance meshworks; and

3) shifting, inter-scalar political strategies that link identity, place, nature, and culture at local, regional, national, and global levels.

Said differently, social movements often engage in a novel politics of scale that is yet to be studied ethnographically. This ethnography should relate place-based, yet transnationalized, struggles to transnational networks of technoscience and capital, on the one hand, and to transnational meshworks of resistance, on the other.

b. AGSM meshworks face a double, interrelated struggle: for the defense of place-based cultural models of social and natural life against the delocalizing effect of global culture/economy; and against the ongoing restructuring of local worlds by global capital and culture (after O’Connor 1998). For this double task, they engage in two types of activism: place-based mobilizations in their node/site; and translocal mobilizations (both in cyberspace and f2f mobilizations, that is, both virtual and real) to resist, negotiate, or disrupt the conditions of the restructuring (hence the centrality of WTO as a target of struggle at present). The tension between this double set of demands is only resolved in the practice, by articulating activism at the place where the meshworker sits with activism at a distance, whether a tele-distance or “conventional” geographical distance. This articulation between place politics and cyber-geo-politics is a characteristic feature of many contemporary social movements (Harcourt, ed. 1999; Harcourt, in press; Ribeiro 1998; Escobar 1999). Said differently, AGSMs must struggle for a) the defense of place and constructions of place; b) the transformation of places away from place-based entrenched forms of power and domination (particularly gender and ethnic domination); c) the construction of coalitions through the engagement with translocal media and actornetworks, including cyberspace. In so doing, these movements are developing innovative models of political practice (Harcourt in press). As Dianne Rochelau put it, it is a matter of “the combination of people-in-place and people-in-networks, and the portability (or not) of people’s ways of being-in-place and being-in-relation with humans and other beings” (personal communication).

c. The political character of a network/ meshwork is not pre-given but depends on the articulations they might be able to establish with other struggles in relation to the antagonisms out of which they emerge (a la Laclau and Mouffe 1985). The political character of the meshwork is not given by the identity of the meshworker or meshweaver (Alvarez’s corrective). The politics of meshworking, thus, has to be found at the intersection of the emergent identities (women, ethnic and indigenous groups, peasants, new worker organizations, gay and lesbians, environmentalists, anarchists, socialists, etc.), all of which are transformed in relation to any previous definition by their very engagement with the meshwork), on the one hand, and the scaling effects the meshworks are able to produce, on the other. By scaling effects I mean the jumping of scales –from the local to the global– they effect in relation to the manifestations of the antagonisms of the social at each level. By scaling effects I also mean the “scaling-up” in terms of length and size of the networks, as in the Latourian conception. d. Finally, the result of meshwork practices and actions can be seen as the creation of parallel glocalities, defined as alternative configurations of culture, economy, nature, and identity, that is, of social orders (no matter how fleeting and precarious) that do not conform to the dominant organizing principles of neo-liberal capitalism and dominant modernity. The utopia of AGSMs is that of reconceiving and reconstructing the world from the perspective of manifold place-based cultural, ecological, and economic practices of difference. While it would be, of course, naive and ahistorical to think of subaltern-produced glocalities and meshworks “crowding out” the DANs or imposing their own demands for translation and their own “obligatory passage points” on the DANs, in a sense this is what is at stake. (The “crowding-out’ effect of meshworks can be visualized, for instance, wit the help of Stuart Kaufmann’s representation of chemical self-reproduction and autocatalysis in complex chemical reaction networks with phase transition, see Kauffman 2000: 36)

A final point of importance to academics and intellectual-activists. As part of their struggle, AGSMs produce important flows of information and knowledge that often times amounts to a veritable theoretico-political framework for local and regional world making, the defense of local worlds/places, and the progressive transformation of DANs and other forms of globality. The most well known example of this is the Zapatista theory of autonomy. Other examples include the PGA’s conceptualization of global capitalism, to which a number of social movements could be said to have contributed (see, e.g, PGA 2000; PGA manifesto). There are also theories of non-violent resistance, social theories of anarchism, alternative theories of development, sustainability and conservation, critical theories of GMOs and transgenic agriculture, and even alternative theories of the economy and markets are actively been produced. Some of these forms of knowledge concern matters of strategy, others the nature of domination, others the defense and re-construction of local and regional worlds. In some cases, these knowledge is produced at the intersection of conversations in the disciplines (geography, anthropology, ecology, political economy, feminist theory) and conversations within/among social movements, but this production, as we shall see, is governed by considerations that are of course more pragmatic than scholastic. The “academic” argument about this form of knowledge, however, is that the knowledge produced by the meshworks should be an important part of our (academics’) own theorizing and research agendas. It is no longer the case that some produce knowledge (academics, intellectuals) that others apply (social movements); these boundaries are completely disrupted at present, as movements become knowledge producers and intellectuals are called upon to engage more and more in activism." (