In his classic work, ‘The Great Transformation’, Karl Polanyi (1957) proposed the notion of a ‘double movement’, referring to the idea that, together with rapid expansion of the market, social control over this process is also on the increase. In other words, talk about free trade is met with increasing resistance by those who seek greater social justice and equality. The focus of this paper falls on social movements and on mass-based attempts to challenge the effects of neo-liberal globalisation. More specifically, the paper considers the people who comprise these movements. Who is mobilising against neo-liberal globalisation? Is it those who are most adversely affected by the negative consequences of globalisation, or is it the privileged few who can afford the luxury of becoming actively engaged in struggle. In the paper a distinction is made between local social movements, and so-called progressive global social movements. Such a comparison highlights the skewed racial composition of different social movements. In considering this issue, the paper suggests that global social movements are not as representative as they claim to be, and that in order to present itself as a formidable challenge to the other component of the ‘double movement’, namely capitalist expansion, the anti-globalisation movement, as it has been dubbed, will need to address its composition and profile.

Contact: Marcelle C. Dawson; Department of Sociology, RAU; md@rau.ac.za



‘Where are you from?’ asked the man at the youth camp. ‘South Africa’, I replied. ‘Ah’, he said, nodding his head, ‘You look Brazilian, and that’s why I was interested, because you don’t find many black Brazilians here.’

The excerpt above is from a conversation I had with a man from Porto Alegre, who had volunteered his services as an English translator at this year’s World Social Forum (WSF). The absence of black people at the WSF was something that I, myself, had quietly observed, and while some people shrugged their shoulders in response to why this was the case, others provided some interesting answers. This paper looks at global and local social movements, largely in terms of their racial composition, and attempts to shed light on the reasons for the profile of these movements. In so doing, the ‘globalisation from below’ thesis is critically analysed. In addition, the daily strategies for survival employed by the marginalised are examined in relation to social movement tactics. Furthermore, suggestions on how the racial profile of global social movements can be diversified are also considered. The discussion draws on personal experiences of the WSF, as well as theoretical and anecdotal offerings from other scholars and writers on social movements.

Social Movements: ‘New’ vs. ‘Old’, Local vs. Global

Before attempting to understand who is involved, it is necessary to grasp what they are involved in. A social movement, as a phenomenon, refers to ‘a collective, organized, sustained, and noninstitutional challenge to authorities, powerholders, or cultural beliefs and practices’ (Goodwin and Jasper, 2003: 3). While this is not the only definition of a social movement, it provides a useful starting point. Although increasing attention is being paid to social movements, it is not a new phenomenon. However, the nature of social movements has changed, hence the distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ social movements. Several authors (Nash, 2000; Goodwin and Jasper, 2003; Weeks, 1994) suggest that the 1960s marks the shift from ‘old’ to ‘new’ social movements. Others claim that a ‘radical break’ came in the 1970s (Boggs, 1995; Cohen and Rai, 2000: 4). Generally, however, the labour movement is regarded as an ‘old’ social movement, and movements that have emerged, and have become more prominent, since the 1960s, and particularly the late 1960s, are classified as ‘new’. Examples include the feminist movement, the anti-racism movement, youth movements, the gay and lesbian movement, movements around environmental issues, anti-war movements, and movements for the rights of indigenous people, to name but a few (Nash, 2000: 102). Gilroy (1987: 224), while not denying the importance of class, suggests that ‘although . . . new movements may challenge the mode of production . . . this is not their primary orientation. They are struggling not only for the reappropriation of the material structure of production, but also for collective control over socio-economic development as a whole.’ Similarly, Weeks (1994: 4) points to an ‘active rethinking of politics, refracted through and reflecting on, the impact of . . . social movements and identity politics of the past generation, around “race” and ethnicity, gender, lesbian and gay politics, environmentalism and the politics of HIV and AIDS.’ Moreover, Cohen and Rai (2000: 5), referring to the work of Touraine (1981) and Melucci (1989) argue that ‘old’ movements are characterised by a ‘formal, hierarchical structure’, and tend to revolve around labour struggles, ‘national self-determination and civic rights’. Furthermore, ‘old’ social movements are said to operate within the borders of the nation-state. In contrast, ‘new’ social movements are characterised by ‘grassroots, bottom-up, network based modes of organization’ (Cohen and Rai, 2000: 5, referring to Touraine, 1981 and Melucci, 1989). Partly due to technological progress, they are able to make use of new ways of organising, enabling them to mobilise on a global scale. Yet another distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ movements is that the former are said to do their work largely through formal political channels, while the latter operate through civil society and call for ‘changes in social values or life-styles’ (Cohen and Rai, 2000: 5). It must be noted, however, that emerging movements do not necessarily operate as ‘new’ social movements, especially as far as organisation, structure and orientation are concerned. In other words, ‘new’ social movements seem to have brought about a ‘change of emphasis, both of orientation and in terms of organisation and activities, rather than a completely new form of politics’ (Nash, 2000: 105).

A number of ‘new’ social movements have emerged in South Africa, and while some of them deal with seemingly new issues such as privatisation and water cut-offs, the majority of these movements are fighting the old struggle against capitalism, elitism and the exploitation of the working class. Examples of these local movements include the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), established in 1998 largely in response to the failure of the government to provide access to affordable treatment for those suffering from HIV/Aids. The Anti- Privatisation Forum (APF), formed in 2000, works to mobilise working class communities against the privatisation of municipal services. After 16 years of existence, the National Land Committee (NLC), which opposed forced removals during apartheid, is still working hard to help communities to gain access to land and resources. Similarly the Landless People’s Movement (LPM), which came into being in 2001, continues in its attempt to speed up the process of land reform. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), established in 2000, has played a substantial role in reconnecting the power sources of residents who have been targeted by Eskom’s electricity cut-offs. Jubilee South Africa, formed in 1998, has strong links with the international Jubilee movement, which is aimed at the cancellation of Third World debt. Other social movements include the Anti-Eviction? Campaign (AEC), established in 2000, and the Palestine Solidarity Committee formed in 1998.

Shifting the focus to global social movements, the paper considers the anti-globalisation movement and the World Social Forum. Global social movements refer to those movements that operate in a ‘global, as well as local, national and international space and involve networks of people around the world . . . pursuing far reaching social change’ (O’Brien et al, 2000: 12-13). The anti-globalisation movement provides a good example of how the networks between social movements can help to address the consequences of neo-liberal globalisation. In order to be effective, the different parts of the movement need to have strong transnational networks. Moreover, it is important for the local interests of global social movements to be aligned with one another to prevent fragmentation and internal divisions within the movement. The anti-globalisation movement, as an example of a global social movement, is said to offer a view of globalisation from below, and stands in contrast to the corporate, elitist globalisation from above. The impetus for this movement comes from ordinary people and their organisations and it aims to ‘establish new roles for leadership from the global “South”, and works towards constructing the new practices of global civil society’ (Gills, 2000: 9). In other words, the anti-globalisation movement proposes ‘new forms of activism, new ways of thinking about power, new economic models and new alliances’ (Cock, 2003: 2). This movement primarily challenges the defeatist position of ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA) to capitalist neo-liberal austerity. Alternatives to this view involve proposals that are discussed and agreed upon at the grassroots level, embracing the simple yet poignant notion of people before profit, which is exemplified by the achievements of the ‘new’ social movements discussed earlier.

The activities of the anti-globalisation movement, and other social movements, have been encouraged by the mass demonstrations around the world against neo-liberal globalisation, the most renowned of these being the ‘Battle of Seattle’. During this event in November 1999 over 50 000 protesters managed to put a stop to the proceedings at the WTO. The demonstrations in Seattle were followed by similar protests in cities across the globe, including Washington, Prague, Quebec, Genoa and Gothenburg for example. For the most part, these protests were aimed at challenging institutions of neo-liberal globalisation, such as the IMF, the WTO and the World Bank. These events have helped to encourage a culture of resistance amongst ordinary people who are no longer satisfied to sit back while their fate is decided by multilateral economic institutions. These are people who want to show their frustration with the failure of economic institutions and the government to bring about change. They want their own voices to be heard. The extent to which these desires are put into practice is debatable, and the discussion returns to this important issue later on.

A discussion on global social movements necessitates a look at the WSF, which is referred to by some as ‘the movement of movements.’ The WSF is an event that brings together social movements, activists, artists, musicians, NGOs and scholars from all over the world. It is aimed at increasing awareness of the negative consequences of neo-liberal globalisation, which are felt most profoundly by those living in the ‘global south’. It also attempts to put into practice strategies to combat social problems such as poverty, starvation and unemployment, for example, which are just some of the outcomes of neo-liberal globalisation. Throughout the discussion above, reference has been made to ‘global civil society’, ‘the global south’, ‘globalisation from below’ and ‘ordinary people.’ Who are these people and what is the extent of their involvement social movements?

‘Globalisation From Above’ and ‘Globalisation From Below’

Writing about the factors leading to the Industrial Revolution in England in the nineteenth century, Karl Polyani (1957), in his work, ‘The Great Transformation’, proposed the idea of a ‘double movement’. By this, he was referring to

the action of two organising principles in society. . . . The one was the principal of economic liberalism, aiming at the establishment of a self-regulating market . . . using laissez-faire and free trade as its methods; the other was the principle of social protection, aiming at the conservation of man and nature . . . using protective legislation, restrictive associations, and other instruments of intervention as its methods’ (Polanyi, 1957: 132).

Munck (2002: 17) argues that Polanyi’s work is becoming increasingly influential and relevant for understanding the world today, for Polanyi’s (1957: 76) assertion that ‘an unparalleled momentum to the mechanism of markets’ was matched with ‘a deep-seated movement that sprang into being to resist the pernicious effects of a market-controlled economy’, is as true of the world today as it was of the period that Polanyi focused on.

Using contemporary terminology, Polanyi’s (1957) ‘organising principles’ can respectively be referred to ‘globalisation from above’ and ‘globalisation from below’. ‘Globalisation from above’ indicates the actions of those who encourage downsizing, deregulation and cutting back on social spending, all in the name of increased profits (Brecher, Costello and Smith, 2000: 4). In contrast, ‘globalisation from below’ is concerned with the activities of those who are resisting the negative consequences of neo-liberal policies, and involves ‘people at the grassroots who are connecting their struggles around the world to impose their needs and interests on the global economy’ (Brecher, Costello and Smith, 2000:10). In line with Polanyi’s argument, alongside the expansion of ‘globalisation from above’ there has been an intensification of ‘globalisation from below’, as is attested to by the emergence and proliferation of social movements. This paper is concerned with those who are involved in resisting neo-liberal globalisation, and it asks two questions in this regard: who is most adversely affected by ‘globalisation from above’? And, who is involved in social movements seeking to mobilise against globalisation?

Non-benefactors of neo-liberal globalisation tend to be concentrated in the Third World (Bayat, 2000: 533; Brecher, Costello and Smith, 2000: 5). Brecher, Costello and Smith (2000: 7) argue that it is those who ‘have the least power to resist’ who bear the brunt of neo-liberal globalisation, for example, ‘women, racial and ethnic minorities, and indigenous peoples.’ Often, immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities are regarded as ‘scapegoats for the economic troubles caused by globalisation from above and indigenous people have had their traditional ways of life disrupted and their economic resources plundered by global corporations and governments doing their bidding’ (Brecher, Costello and Smith, 2000: 7). Bayat (2000: 533) refers to such groups of people as the ‘marginalised and deinstitutionalised subaltern’, and includes in this group ‘the unemployed, casual labour, street subsistence workers and street children. Marable (2000: 84) suggests that ‘black, brown and working people’ have been most devastated by neo-liberal agendas. Do these people wish to resist globalisation? Most likely, even though they may not call it by the name ‘globalisation.’ Are they the people who are at the forefront of struggles against globalisation? Not always. This vague answer lies in the ways in which local and global struggles are played out. In addressing these struggles, the paper focuses primarily on Martinez’ (2000) account of the protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1999. It also briefly considers the WSF, the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), and other arguments on who mobilises against globalisation.

The Glamorous Face of Global Struggle

In an article asking ‘Where was the Color in Seattle?’ Martinez (2000) attempts to ‘%5Blook%5D for reasons why the great battle was so white’. She points out that of the forty to fifty thousand demonstrators, only five per cent were ‘people of color’ (Martinez, 2000: 143), and asks, ‘How can that be, when the WTO’s main victims around the world are people of color?’ (Martinez, 2000: 141). Through discussions with various people participating in the protests, Martinez found several answers to her questions. One of the reasons given by ‘people of color’ was the fear of ‘brutal police repression’. Others mentioned that they could not afford to travel to Seattle. Some were unable to take time off work, and others could not find child care (Martinez, 2000: 143). The more interesting responses, however, came from those who were in a position to participate, but who chose not to. One of the main reasons given by this group of people was that they claimed not to know much about the WTO, and could not see how shutting down trade talks was related to problems of poverty, homelessness, unemployment and other hardships in their own communities (Martinez, 2000: 143). Related to this lack of knowledge, and a large part of the reason for it, was the fact that, in comparison to their white counterparts, black and Latino communities had no, or in some cases, limited Internet access. As a result, information on the WTO, and also on what was being planned in Seattle, did not flow through to many ‘people of color’ (Martinez, 2000: 143-144). Furthermore, many felt that they would be condemned by their own communities for travelling so far to fight an abstract battle, when there were more pressing needs at home (Martinez, 2000: 144). Lastly, there was an expectation that whites would dominate the protest, and this, coupled with the ‘legacy of mistrust of white, middle class activists that has emerged from experiences of “being used”, prevented some ‘people of color’ from taking part in the Seattle protests (Martinez, 2000: 146, quoting Coumba Toure, a Mali-born activist from the Bay Area, California).

With regard to the first of these two issues, some people suggested that perhaps even ‘activists of color’ would be discouraged from participating in the protest activities, since they would not ‘want to go to a protest dominated by 50,000 white hippies.’ (Martinez, 2000: 144, quoting Carlos Windham, a member of the hip-hop group, Company of Prophets). Moreover, ‘in the . . . local press coverage of the before the WTO meetings, not a single person of color appeared as a spokesperson for the opposition (Roberto Maestas, director of Seattle’s Centro de la Raza, quoted in Martinez, 2000: 144). This painted a rather uninviting picture for ‘people of color.’ Around the second issue, namely the feeling of ‘being used’, some people suggested that they did not merely want to be invited along for the ride. They wanted ‘people of color . . . to be central to the project’ and to be granted ‘real space’ which would allow make it possible for their issues were taken seriously (Martinez, 2000: 146). Some expressed the concern that white people, despite being eager to diversify the movement, did not really understand the concerns of and constraints faced by racial and ethnic minorities. They suggested that it was important for white people to realise that their lack of involvement in global protest was not only due to limited resources, and that there was, in fact, a far more intricate set of circumstances at play.

Turning now to the WSF, it can be said that, despite the relatively diverse profile of participants at the third WSF, especially in terms where they come from and what they do, race, class and gender biases were still present, even though the two previous forums had been criticised for the same reason. Commenting on the first and second forums, Teivainen (2002: 626) noted that

Gender and especially racial tensions created some internal controversies, particularly in the first forum . . . For many observers, both forums have been surprisingly ‘white’ events. The perceived whiteness is not only a result of the lack of large delegations from Africa, Asia and other parts of Latin America, but also because the average Brazilian participating in the forum is clearly ‘whiter’ than the average Brazilian.

Similarly, in his initial reflections on WSF III, Waterman (2003) argued that most of the people at the hotel he was staying at were ‘white, male, middle-aged and middle class.’ The explanations given for the absence of black people at the WSF were not that different from the reasons found by Martinez (2000). Many black people living in Brazil, let alone the rest of the world, could not afford to travel to Porto Alegre. Poor people had more urgent matters to attend to than going to protest against the phenomenon that is largely the cause of their predicament; they had families to take care of, jobs from which they could ill afford to be absent and communities to sustain. On more than one occasion, it was suggested that even younger people living in poverty stricken communities were not spared the responsibility of work and household responsibilities. (Incidentally, this was the reason given as to why universities in Brazil were such ‘white’ institutions).

The close relationship between ‘race’ and class necessitates a brief discussion on the latter in relation to social movements. The WSF and similar global events tend to use today’s big names in the struggle against globalisation, such as Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy as a major draw card to attract people, rather than the marginalised. Klaus Eder (1993: 145) boldly states that ‘it is the petite bourgeoisie that expresses the collective protest of the new social movements.’ He argues that this group of people places moral issues at the centre of protest and that the forms of protest tend to be ritualistic: ‘Protest action is simply the reversal of institutional action: not to be centralized, but decentralized; not to be legal, but legitimate; not formal, but informal; not to act strategically, but expressively’ (Eder, 1993: 149). Moreover, Eder (1993: 152) makes the claim that new social movements tend to move back and forth from being ‘moral crusade to political pressure group to social movement.’ Examples of such movements, according to Eder (1993: 150) include the peace movement, the environmentalist movement and the women’s movement. Eder (1993) tends to be rather critical of new social movements in light of their class composition; however, it is important to note that he is dealing primarily with global social movements. The snapshot presented above reveals only one of the faces of struggle. If the lens is focused more sharply, a different picture comes into the frame, namely the local struggles from below.

Lack-Lustre Local Struggles (but the light shines on)

Over a decade ago, David Harvey (1989: 302-303) commented that

working-class movements . . . racial minorities, colonised peoples, women, etc. . . . are relatively empowered to organise in place but disempowered when it comes to organising over space. In clinging, often out of necessity to a place-bound identity, however, such oppositional movements become part of the very fragmentation which a mobile capitalism and flexible accumulation can feed upon.

Concerned about the consequences of this fragmentation, Harvey (1989: 303) suggests that popular 1960s slogan, ‘Think globally, act locally’ should be re-introduced and re-emphasised. Waterman (1998: 240) is rather critical of Harvey’s assessment, and says that, while this may be true of movements prior to the 1970s, it is rather pessimistic for current and future movements. Instead, Waterman encourages us to ‘Think globally, act locally; think locally, act globally.’ By means of this modified slogan, Waterman (1998: 240) is encouraging ‘a recognition that relating to (distant) others is not what we do but who we are.’ This view may provide us with a more hopeful and positive picture of the nature of anti-globalisation struggles. The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee (SECC), for example, is a movement comprised exclusively of Africans, most of whom are older, unemployed people, and in a brief account of a SECC/APF AGM, Alexander (2003) also notes that most of the people attending were women. Despite being a ‘mini-mass movement’ (Alexander, 2003, quoting Claire Ceruti, a leader of Keep Left), SECC/APF have managed to establish very useful international links. Trevor Ngwane, chair of SECC, and secretary and organiser of the APF, calls for international solidarity to rid the world of neo-liberal policies (Alexander, 2003). Moreover, there has been a fair amount of international coverage of the activities of SECC/APF (see Alexander, 2003 for more details).

The SECC/APF example has been used to make two crucial points. Firstly, it is useful for pointing out the relevance and feasibility of Waterman’s (1998) adapted slogan. Secondly, and more importantly for this paper, it shows that local struggles are quite different in appearance from global struggles. Racial and ethnic minorities tend to be concentrated at this level of social movementism. Grassroots struggles that are fought in local communities cannot afford the luxury of engaging in ‘moral crusades’ and symbolic gestures as Eder (1993) suggests. It is true that some members and leaders of such local movements may be fortunate enough to have access to funding that enables them to participate in global events such as the WSF, but those who are left behind, and those who are not part of social movements, are usually the most marginalised and most disempowered groups, and it is these people who are faced with the more gruelling day-to-day struggles at the local front.

In an article addressing the ‘activism of the urban subaltern’ in the global south, Bayat (2000) asks the question: ‘How do the urban grassroots respond to their marginalisation and exclusion?’ He suggests that their response is neither fatalistic, nor does it represent slipping into ‘survival mode’ through attempts at ‘empowerment’ (Bayat, 2000: 538-539). Furthermore, Bayat (2000: 539-545) suggests that resource-sharing and mass resistance are inadequate explanations of real grassroots activism. Instead, Bayat (2000) puts forward the idea of ‘quiet encroachment’, by which he means

the silent, protracted but pervasive advancement of the ordinary people on the propertied and powerful in order to survive and improve their lives. This is marked by quiet, largely atomized and prolonged mobilization with episodic collective action – open and fleeting struggles without clear leadership, ideology or structured organization (Bayat, 2000: 545).

Bayat (2000: 546) acknowledges that ‘quiet encroachment’ cannot be regarded as a social movement per se but also points out that it should be distinguished from ‘survival strategies or “everyday resistance” in that . . . the struggles and gains of the agents are not at the cost of fellow poor or themselves, but of the state, the rich and the powerful.’ A delightful example of this is SECC’s ‘Operation Khanyisa’ (meaning’ to light’ in Zulu), which was aimed at reconnecting the electricity supplies of those whose electricity had been cut off, and the removal of newly installed pre-paid meters ‘so that consumers would still not be charged for electricity’ (Alexander, 2003). Bayat (2000: 549) notes that when these ‘everyday advances’ are threatened, the quiet encroachers start to defend their gains ‘in collective and audible fashion.’ This type of activism is where the real action against neo-liberal policies is centred, and most importantly, it is executed largely by those who are affected directly by globalisation’s backlash.

Conclusion: Joining the Dots

The discussion above suggests that although local and global struggles may be closely interconnected, and even though their aims and objectives may overlap, the similarities do not extend far enough to reach the racial composition of members and supporters. Global struggles seem to be dominated by white, middle-class people, who can organise over space, while local struggles are fought largely by racial and ethnic minorities, who cling to place (Harvey, 1989). This suggests that not all grassroots struggles can be labelled as ‘globalisation from below’, since the majority of those involved in global social movements are not really ‘below’, but could, more accurately be said to be fighting on behalf of those who are ‘below’. Instead, this global level of struggle could be termed ‘globalisation from the middle’ or ‘a movement from the middle’. Struggles on the local front, both those that occur under the banner of a social movement and those fighting beyond the boundaries of social movements, could be incorporated into the category called ‘globalisation from below’. Despite these differences, those in ‘the middle’ and those ‘below’ are not fighting opposing struggles. The gap between the two can be bridged and in so doing, neo-liberal globalisation will be faced with a far more formidable opponent than is the case at present.

Martinez (2000: 147) suggests that there needs to be ‘effective follow-up and increased communication between people of color . . . grassroots organizers, activists, cultural workers and educators.’ She also puts forward the idea of having teach-ins, workshops, study groups and conferences, during which information on global issues and global institutions such as the WTO, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is shared and disseminated (Martinez, 2000: 147). Moreover, both Martinez (2000) and Marable (2000) encourage the links between multilateral economic institutions and the dehumanisation of the lives of those living in the Third World to be made more explicit. As Marable (2000: 84) claims, ‘Black Americans’ and in a South African context, we could add Blacks, and especially Africans should be at the forefront of the debates about international trade . . . because there is an inescapable connection between . . . global inequality and the brutalization of the Third World and what’s happening to black and brown and working people here in the United States.’ A key factor in bringing those in the ‘middle’ and those ‘below’ closer to one another would involve an understanding by white people of the concerns and constraints faced by black people related to access to global struggles. Jinee Kim, a Bay Area youth organiser, astutely notes that it is important to ‘work with people who may not know the word “globalisation”, but who live globalisation’ (Martinez (2000: 148, emphasis added).


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