Planetary Geostructures

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Jose Ramos:

Planetary Geo-Structures

"In this section, I discuss the coupling of human structures and the eco-systemic spaces in which they interact. This is the context in which counter publics (and the SEAs which make them up) are situated. The theoretical combination of structure and geography, is referred to here as ‘geo-structure’, and follows an emerging body of literature that attempts to integrates our understanding of human and ecological systems (Latour, 2005; Raskin, 2006; Robbins, 2004; Salleh, 2009). This is depicted in figure 2.5 through what Raskin calls ‘Human Ecological Systems’.

Figure 2.5: Raskin’s (2006) Model of Human-Ecological Systems

There have been over 200 social forums since the first in 2001 (see Appendix B). They have been as thematically diverse as the world is culturally and ecologically diverse.1 They have taken place across five continents and in over 120 cities. Such geo-graphical diversity, located across space and time, makes generalising such a process very difficult. We cannot locate a universal statement of the WSF ‘vision’ or its alternatives from only one place and one time. Social forums, and the alternatives that are presented through them, differ depending on the context. The Karachi forum reflects its social ecology, while the Caracas forum reflects the context there. Social ecologies of counter hegemonic actors do not reflect one unitary ‘system’, or one vision, but rather a tapestry of social ecologies of counter publics, each which emerges from the uniqueness of the structural (cultural, political, economic, etc.) and ecological (geo-graphic) contexts they exist in. This requires a movement away from abstract universalism.

Figure 2.6: Raskin’s (2006) Model of Human Ecological Sub-Systems

As seen in figure 2.6, a variety of ‘subsystems’ are part of a larger planetary geo-structure. Each forum community exists in a particular context, what Raskin calls a ‘Human Ecological Subsystem’. Each subsystem has its attendant ecological makeup and attendant human structures (e.g. cultures, political processes, economic systems). Understanding forum communities also requires an appreciation of the diversity of human-ecological systems and subsystems.

Toward a Multi-Spatial Vision

Santos addresses the ‘logic of abstract universalism and global scale’ through what he calls the ‘ecology of transcales’ (Santos, 2006, p. 25). The ecology of trans-scales aims at ‘recuperating both hidden universal aspirations and alternative local / global scales that are not the result of hegemonic globalization’ (Santos, 2006, p. 25), and challenges ‘the monoculture of the universal and of the global’ as ‘the scale adopted as primordial determines the irrelevance of all other possible scales’ (Santos, 2006, p. 17). He argues, the discourses for hegemonic globalisation attempt to portray unity and convergence around core western concepts linked to neo-liberal globalisation, such as the primacy of the ‘market, democracy, rule of law, individualism and human rights’, which are in fact fraudulent and excessive universalisms that do not correspond to an empirically problematic globalisation (Santos, 2006, pp. 25-26), as ‘the knowledge we have of globalisation…is less global than globalisation itself’ (Santos, 2006, p. 14). His sociology of absences attempts to show what has been hidden as scale, by recuperating both, ‘hidden universal aspirations’, and ‘alternate scales’. In contrast to the representation of (universal) convergence, this aspect of the sociology of absences shows divergences (Santos, 2006), where what is revealed as alternate universal aspirations are – social justice, dignity, respect, solidarity, community, cosmic harmony…..’ (Santos, 2006, p. 26). He argues universalisms are located in particular social contexts – and this ‘expands the scope of localised clashes among alternative or global aspirations’ as ‘there is no globalisation without localization… as there are alternative globalisations there are also alternative localizations’ (Santos, 2006, p. 26). Just as ‘world’ social forums reflect local concerns, ‘local’ social forums reflect global concerns.2 In this way Santos refers to the ‘alternative localisations’ that have hidden global aspirations, and which make up diverse articulations of ‘alternative globalisation’.

This allows a view of ‘localised globalism’ to emerge, as both ‘the impact of hegemonic globalisation on the local’ as well as the disempowerment of the local, and the locals’ relegation to a secondary effect / epiphenomena of ‘global forces’. Through Santos’ sociology of absences, we seek to understand what in the local is not just ‘reducible to the effect of the impact’ as well as detecting ‘oppositional globalizing aspiration[s]’ (Santos, 2004b, p. 26). The local is re-constructed as both that which resists assimilation into global capitalist production and culture, and that which impacts upon the global as a force in its own right, with its particular and contextually specific aspirations for an alternative globalisation(s). As well, the ecological challenges that localities face are foundational in revealing the ‘political ecology’ (Robbins, 2004) that is implicated in such challenges and which actors aim to transform. What has empirically emerged in this study has been the way that different geographies / localities express distinct social ecologies / relational fields of counter hegemonic actors, processes and visions, depending on the geo-structural contexts they are situated in, as well as the real yet tenuous relations and associations between differing social ecologies embedded in far flung planetary geo-structures, (for example between participants in Australian Social Forums and those at World Social Forums or Asiatic forums).

This is underlined by Latour, who argues we must ‘localise the global’ (Latour, 2005, p. 173), as ‘global’ is often used in social theory as a surrogate ‘actor’ capable of any force, of any structure, or any dynamic a social theorist imagines. Instead, Latour argues we must find the local correlations among any proposed ‘global’ dimensions. For Latour there is no casuality, no agency nor actor without its locality. A global context should not be assumed a priori, but must be traced and connected across localities: ‘There exists no place that can be said to be ‘non-local’. If something is to be ‘delocalized’, it means that it is being sent from one place to some other place, not from one place to no place’ (Latour, 2005, p. 179). Its reciprocal movement entails ‘redistributing the local’, meaning a locality is in no sense local in itself, but generated from a network of connection which are non-local. Interactions are not local in various senses: they are not isotopic (‘what is acting comes from many other places’); they are not synchronic (interactions embody ‘folded’ time); they are not synoptic (not all the actors and interactions are visible, nor countable); they are not homogeneous (interactions come from heterogenous sources); and finally they are not isobaric (they do not exert equal pressure or influence). Thus he writes: ‘the notion of a local interaction has just as little reality as global structure’ (Latour, 2005, p. 203). ‘Stretch any given inter-action and, sure enough, it becomes an actor-network’ (Latour, 2005, p. 202) beyond the categorical certainties of both local and global.

Figure 2.7: Aspects of Geo-Structural Locale

I attempt to capture this in figure 2.5, in which we can understand locale as both based in local geo-graphic / ecological contexts (upper right), and local human structures - cultural, political, economic - (upper left); but as well it is in relationship with non-local geo-graphic / ecological contexts (bottom right), and non-local human structures (bottom left). Each forum community, as an expression of an emerging social ecology, reflects a locality that is situated across these four aspects of geo-structure.

By extension, social forums as expressions of localised counter hegemonic aspirations are interlinked with each other in complex relational fields as part of the AGM, which are neither purely local or global, but 'planetary'. As Latour suggests, so called 'local' actors may be non-local, refer to non-local social issues and problems, may use open source software developed by a ‘global’ / de-territorialised community, may have important links with non-local actors, may be composed of non-local resident / migrants, may have been inspired by examples from 'abroad'. Thus in the WSF(P), social alternatives emerge as part of a planetary process in which many localised counter publics, some more dense or formed than others, are embedded in diverse geo-structures across the world. These localised counter publics are at once connected to other nodes and networks in the planetary matrix, linking them together, while each is bound to communities that are tied into geo-graphic locations, bioregions, and political economic regimes. As Santos argues, ‘alternative localisations’, expressions of counter hegemonic SEAs, are foundational in making possible the more abstract concept of alternative globalisations, and an AGM as a cognitive generalisation.

Cognising Structures

Once we become aware of how actors as part of this process are contextually-geo-graphically situated, we can more easily appreciate how they cognise structures in context-specific ways. The alternative localisations that contain alternative global aspirations contain a diversity of ways in which structures are cognised by different actors. Our cognition of structures pertain to how we conceive of formative aspects of reality, through the categories that are used to distinguish social life, the notion of structures / deep structures / superstructures that underpin societies, ‘units of analysis’, metaphors that frame the world we see, and generally what are considered essential, unchanging and perennial aspects of the world. They are as diverse as the concepts of race, caste, class, gender, state, nature, species, etc, They arise from our embodiment in the world, social groups, disciplines, cultures, and more generally are expressions of the worldviews we are embedded in. As Thompson writes:

All narratives, artistic, historical, or scientific, are connected to certain unconscious principles of ordering both our perceptions and our descriptions (Thompson, 1987a, p. 13).

Inayatullah uses the term 'unit of analysis' to describe how such orderings play a role in conceiving of social change; they are not universal features of reality, as 'cultures universalize their own categories onto other cultures; their success is based on political, technological and economic factors, not a priori universal factors' (Inayatullah, 1997c, p. 180). He argues we need to look at the construction of categories and ordering, 'how... the ordering of knowledge differ across civilization, gender and episteme'. He asks: 'what or who is othered' and 'how does it denaturalize current orderings, making them peculiar instead of universal' (Inayatullah, 1998, pp. 818–819)? An appreciation for embodied actor cognition of the structures they are implicated in and the structures they aim to change challenges essentialist or definitive notions of specific structures and scales that are specific to the WSF(P).

Linking Agency and Structure in the Development of Counter-Publics

To better understand localised actors in geo-structural contexts, Boulet’s framework for understanding levels of ‘action contexts’ is useful. In his study of community development interventions Boulet developed an approach to conceiving of social reality based on levels of ‘action-determinants’ within a consideration of structure and agency, which acknowledges that distinctions of space / time should not be seen as separate essential domains, but rather as ‘holographic’ contexts (Boulet, 1985, pp. 234-235). He argues: ‘Levels… are not precisely and accurately separable; they interpenetrate and are in themselves and between themselves mobile and dynamic…’ (Boulet, 1985, p. 244). His approach is to conceive of the whole and the parts simultaneously, to show the micro in the macro, and the macro in the micro, ‘to construct a framework allowing to avoid false dichotomizations and “specializations” and to perceive interventions not only on the most proximate level, (e.g. “either” micro “or” macro), but in their implications on all levels / contexts of constitution of acting’ (Boulet, 1985, pp. 234-235). In this way Boulet conceives of three levels in the constitution of ‘acting (or “structuration”, or of [re]production of global society, or of explication of the overall implicate order) which exist as a “virtual” and holographic order’ (Boulet, 1985, p. 245). This includes the ‘everyday acting / structure’, the ‘political economic acting context’, and the ‘level of institutional mediation’ (Boulet, 1985, p. 245).

Table 2.3: Boulet’s (1985) Three Levels of Action Contexts

Within the various geo-structural locales where counter publics emerge, we can see these virtual levels as windows into how political economic regimes, institutional domains, and fields of subjectivities work simultaneously in a dynamic process of mutual re-enforcement, sustainment and reproduction. As an extension of this view, an analysis of diverse counter publics needs to acknowledge how actors are complexly implicated in structures of power.

What I have observed through the WSF(P) was the way in which powerful institutions indeed underpinned both the capacity for the WSF(P) to succeed, and made possible alternative movements of change and counter-power within the macro spaces of social or political-economic regimes. While the WSF charter prohibits governments and corporations from entering the forum space, (and cultural institutions and actors are indeed privileged, along with social movements and intellectual celebrities) ‘progressive’ economic and political institutions, which share values through the WSF(P) and alter-globalisation, have in many ways provided the foundations for such a process to succeed and continue. A structural focus through this analytic lens allows an identification of the institutions within particular geo-structures which support counter hegemonic actors, or more ambitiously how structures can contain / embody alternatives and form part of a field of counter hegemonic actors.1

Implication in Power

The movements for another globalisation are fundamentally concerned with both politicising and transforming power structures (Teivainen, 2007). We therefore need a way to think about what structures of power mean in respect to globalisation. For example, in Sklair’s analysis, the current global system is composed of three main spheres of power, the economic, political and cultural, and through this we witness the emergence of new structural synergies of domination (Sklair, 2002, 2005 ). This is carried forth economically through transnational corporations, politically through an emerging transnational capitalist class, and culturally through the ideology of consumerism (Sklair, 2005 pp. 58-59). As Mills explored half a century earlier through his analysis of the circulation of power in the US between economic, military and political domains (Mills, 1956), Sklair points out the emerging structural synergies in capitalist globalisation. Korten, in a similar fashion, points out his vision of needed structural (cultural, political, economic) alternatives (Korten, 2006). In table 2.4 I use both Sklair’s and Korten’s distinctions as examples of how alternatives presented within the AGM are structural in nature.

The WSF(P), as an expression of AG, is a platform for economic, political and cultural transformation. More importantly, however, social alternatives do not exist in the somewhat ambiguous territory of (global) civil society, but are directed at a variety of structures (Robinson, 2005a; Sklair, 2002, p. 315). For counter hegemonic alternatives to have the possibility of becoming social realities necessarily requires that institutional anchors are created. The ‘ecology of productivities’ articulated by Santos’ (Santos, 2006, p. 27), which includes alternatives toward participatory democracy, fair trade and equity, are alternatives that require structural transformations to occur. The development and sustainment of alternatives must also find its structural synergies across these domains of economy, politics and culture (and other categories), albeit as counter or different to the dominant system. Indeed, Ponniah discusses the ‘WSF vision’ as the radical democratisation of these spheres of power (Ponniah, 2006).

Thus while the WSF espouses a privileged domain for ‘civil society’, the substantive direction is in both providing the space and possibility for new ‘structural couplings’ – synergies – to emerge between key spheres, such that a field of self-politicising counter power can emerge, become resilient and influential in democratising core aspects of institutional life. In this sense alternative globalisation means linking both non-institutional counter publics (such as forum spaces) and structural synergies of counter power that are also institutional. This view presents the WSF(P) as a tapestry of interlinking social ecologies which facilitates alternative formations of structural power. As an interactional domain, forums express a ‘critical’ methodology in building social capital (Gilchrist, 2004, pp. 4-7; Mayo, 2005, p. 50), by opening up opportunities for interaction, informational exchange and collaboration as a counter point to the elite social capital represented by the Davos WEF (Lapham, 1998). Both counter hegemonic synergies of structural power in combination with non-formal and grassroots spaces and mobilisations are needed to make counter publics, and the SEAs within them, viable, durable and potentially transformational."