SOCY 163: Global Corporations, National States
Prof. H. Shapiro
Copyright © 2001 B. A. Collie Collier
In Globalization From Below: The Power of Solidarity (GFB) the reader can find a relatively complete blueprint for social activism and global change. The book is clearly and straightforwardly laid out, first detailing what "globalization from above" actually is and its effects on the world today. Following chapters describe from where social movements gain their power, the various levels of conflict, the illegitimacy of presenting these complex issues as a simple corporate/national dichotomy, how to handle dissent within the newly emerging social movement of "globalization from below," the need to move from discourse as expressive function to concrete action, the strengths and weaknesses of loosely affiliated social networks united in a common goal of social change, where to find allies in both the long- and short-term, and how to handle attempts from "above" to defuse the movement. There is even a chapter containing a viable draft for a global program. On the less ideological side, the authors have included with their texts a well written and clearly laid out list of acronyms used, a helpful glossary, an index, and extensive footnotes.
I initially chose this book for review based on the title. For quite some time I've agreed with the concept that government comes from the consent of the governed, long before I knew it was a Foucauldian quote, i.e. "[P]ower comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations (Foucault p. 97)"
Through the slow cultural dissemination of non-hegemonic ideological concepts such as this I'd long ago personally rejected the (in my opinion) elitist view of the Frankfurt school -- even before I knew there was an actual school of thought exploring these aspects of culture. I did not believe I was so totally lacking in agency when faced with either governments or corporations, regardless of whether they were part of the "culture industry" (as I later learned to call it) or some other conglomerate group. I might feel disempowered, perhaps, but I certainly did not feel the theorized "anti-enlightenment" which Adorno asserted would helplessly occur to the corporately-controlled masses.
It is true that the culture industry might impede "the development of autonomous, independent individuals who judge and decide consciously for themselves (Adorno p. 28)." However, as a single example, I had severe ideological issues with the notion that only corporations could decide what popular culture was, when I could personally see so many instances where popular culture was made by the people and for the people.
In sum, it has often astonished me how few people seem to understand, or even realize there existed such a model of power relations as that theorized by Foucault in his now-famous quote. It is therefore perhaps understandable what an irresistible draw for me the title was. Not only might I be able to more fully explore this fascinating hypothesis, but perhaps I could also learn why the idea was socially so poorly recognized.
Throughout the book, clarity of layout and speech is (refreshingly) emphasized. The acronyms used are listed in the front of the book, and there is not an undue and confusing dependence on employing them within the text. The glossary in the back reviews both most of the acronyms, and gives a bit more information on certain difficult concepts. Hegemony, to give a single example, is frequently used and poorly understood in many of the texts I've read. However, in Brecher et al.'s glossary it is straightforwardly defined as "A preponderance of power. (p. 124)" While it is true this is not a complete and exhaustive definition of hegemony, it does give the reader a good working definition. Considering the book was obviously not written for an intellectual elite, and that the reference footnotes allow the curious to research further if desired, what more is needed?
Another helpful and clarifying technique the authors employ is the consistent use of lists throughout the book. For example, in Chapter 4, Handling Contradictions in the Movement, there is a well developed, clear, bulleted list of "themes" which need to be addressed in order to develop a "'grand bargain' ... among civil society groups, which integrates the needs of ordinary people in both [rich and poor countries] into a common program," i.e. themes such as allowing all peoples to make decisions about the future of the global economy; establishing global rules for minimum human rights, labor, environmental, and social standards; helping poor countries develop, but keeping that development within sustainable means; and fair redistribution of resources, both capital and technological.
Potential strengths and weaknesses both are dealt with, which I find contributes compellingly to the persuasiveness of the authors' arguments. For example, in another section of the same chapter the authors list and explain how to foster cooperation amongst disparate groups. Each of the points are positive and reinforce the need for cooperation -- but this is not blind optimism at work, nor are unpleasant facts of life simply jauntily disregarded. For example, the last point listed is the recognition that sometimes "[n]ot all conflicts can be eliminated." Yet even that 'weakness' of highly motivated, idealistic people is helpfully turned towards becoming a strength, when the authors note
Successful movements need to cultivate mutual respect for differences, an openness to compromise, an awareness that each of us is fallible, an agreement to disagree, and a willingness to pursue disagreements in appropriate forums that do not disrupt the cooperation needed in other spheres. ... Fostering cooperation is ... something that every movement participant can contribute to at every level.
Furthermore, there is a rational recognition of the need for flexibility in issues and actions such as those discussed by the book's authors. I found this a strength of the book, and considered its insistence on mutually respectful, diversity-encouraging discourse an extremely hopeful sign that the goal of globalization from below is actually feasible, and not just another expressive function of yet another social movement based on wishful thinking.
About the only real criticism of the book which I have is that not all of the desired global goals are as sharply defined as I might like. While this may sound contradictory to my previous statement concerning the authors' realization that this book is a rough draft that will need further revision, I nevertheless found myself wondering, on one or two issues, if there was perhaps a bit too much wishful thinking. For example, at one point the authors discuss full employment, situating the discussion within socially desired alternatives to full employment based on conventional economic growth. They note
The movement for globalization from below should pursue full employment based on an alternative development path: the environmental reconstruction of society. Such a path would actually reduce the kinds of production that are environmentally and socially destructive. Full employment would surely be both possible and necessary were working hours reduced, adequate services made available, and work redirected to meeting social needs in environmentally sustainable ways. Simply meeting the requirements of the climate change treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions would lead to a net addition of nearly 800,000 jobs in the United States. (p. 52)
This sounds like an extremely laudable goal... but I find the paragraph's internal logic a bit troublesome. Do we have any proof that the reconstruction of society will actually accomplish this job goal? If all these new jobs will be created by changing current environmentally-destructive jobs over to socially needed and environmentally sustainable jobs which will clean up our current mess... what will happen to all those jobs once the mess is tidied up?
To be honest, I would consider this an extremely clearly and straightforwardly written book of activist theory, not of specific issues to be addressed. However, there are many concrete, good examples given of successful usage of its suggested techniques, and it straightforwardly lays out a checklist of broad issues still outstanding, and means on which to achieve them, on which motivated activists can collaborate.
I'd have to say that after a careful reading and evaluating of the book I am none the wiser as to the "why" of people not grasping the Foucauldian hypothesis vis-á-vis assumed/granted authority, nor did the book give me any completely new conceptions of this theoretical model. Indeed, GFB is not a theoretically sophisticated work -- it takes one unreferenced concept and explores its possible social uses and ramifications. However, I do not believe that was ever its goal at all. I, for example, now have a far greater understanding in depth, if not breadth, of this particular ideological stance, as it applies to both social activism and power-knowledge issues. The reader will find no vaguely grasped conceptualizations in this book, no intellectually selective references. Instead the book contains a clear, well-crafted, and approachable explanation of the "how" of Foucault's hypothesis (although Foucault himself is never mentioned), followed by suggestions on how to use it, and specific examples of this usage in action, when applicable. Under those parameters, I would have to say the book is a complete success in achieving its apparent internal goals.
Unsurprisingly, since Foucault is never specifically addressed, there is also no mention whatsoever as to whether Foucault's theories of knowledge and power can or cannot actually be beneficial to discussing the oppressions of marginalized groups. To my knowledge this is a hotly contested subject amongst (at the very least) the feminist community. However, it would appear that by refusing to situate contested theory within their discourse on actual practice, the authors hope to sidestep that particular controversial debate. Furthermore, the authors appear to reject any assumption that theories must be fully commensurate with the feminist (or any other) activist agenda in order to be useful in examining oppressed/marginalized communities and their own personally-reflective discourse.
Indeed, the authors, like Foucault himself, seem to also consider power as being not only based in discourse but also dispersed through the complex network of relationships which make up any society, whether it be corporate or cultural. They do not deny that the power struggles may appear terribly unequal upon first perusal, but also seem to echo Foucault's suggestion that this perceived, granted authority is not exercised in a single, downward vector. Indeed, the impression I have received from reading Foucault, strongly reflected in GFB, is that in his view a critical component of power is freedom, regardless of whether or not it is recognized and/or claimed -- since power can only be said to create an effect if the object of power has the ability to resist that effect. As Foucault himself writes:
Power is not simply repressive; it is also productive. ... Power subjects bodies not to render them passive, but to render them active. The forces of the body are trained and developed with a view to making them productive. The power of the body corresponds to the exercise of power over it. Hence the possibility of a reversal of that power. (p. 217)
Thus, by choosing to use a treatment of Foucault's theoretical work without reference and regardless of academic contention, I believe the authors fascinatingly acknowledge this possible reversal of power in more than one sense. Not only do they recognize the oppressions of the corporately marginalized, but they also refuse, within their discourse, to marginalize intellectually. While I do not know if this is a witting or unwitting act on the part of GFB's authors, I do feel they thus open up far more potential theoretical frameworks which consequently become available to other intellectuals as well, were they willing to claim the personal agency of situating themselves in actuality within the framework of reference of the oppressed and/or marginalized. Indeed, Brecher et al. make frequent reference to the need for the organizers of social movements to constantly seek discourse with groups that have been socially "Othered," to prevent unintentional replication of existing forms of marginalization -- or in their own words:
[S]ocial movements, like the societies from which they grow, are marked by the prevailing inequalities based on race, class, gender, nationality, ethnicity, and other social divides. This requires appropriate forms of compensation, such as ... affirmative action regarding the role of such groups in movement leadership.
The book emphatically never mentions or claims any intellectual pretensions, and repeatedly notes that it is but a first draft of planning for globalization from below, which the needs and desires of individuals reclaiming personal agenda will modify and correct as necessary. The book carefully does not localize relations of tension in diverse domains (i.e. industry, the family, state institutions, forms of knowledge) but rather considers them the basis for "wide-ranging effects of cleavage" which can be successfully exploited within the disempowering, "top-down" globalization currently being practiced through narrowly capitalistic corporate agendas.
The authors explore the weaknesses of, and opportunities presented by, these tensions; explaining how (to use Foucault's words) such cleavage provides "a general line of force that traverses the local oppositions and links them together, to be sure, [but] they also bring about redistributions, realignments, homogenizations, serial arrangements and convergences of the force relations. (p. 94)" Foucault may have intended to explain societal hegemonic dominations with that statement, but it is equally (if not moreso) applicable to the creation of a new hegemonic power of the masses. It is, after all, through linked local oppositions that globalization from below will be successfully effected.
In essence, this is a book for the layperson; a primer on this particular theory of power relations, and how to most efficaciously use it to benefit any and all oppressed and/or marginalized social classes. I feel the authors have convincingly demonstrated, through their non-rhetorical, pragmatic, situated analysis, that power-knowledge relationships "not only produce knowledge, but also they suppress knowledge; within power-knowledge relationships, not only can talented rhetors empower themselves and their positions, but also they can disempower others and curtail their positions (Foucault p. 399)." In reflective, self-conscious, unified discourse the individual can take advantage of the faults and weaknesses inherent in corporate globalization; they can re-create globalization -- not as a re-institutionalization of existing hierarchies of disempowerment and greed, but rather as a self-responsible assertion of personal agency within a globally just view of sustainable development goals.
Last Updated: Mon Sep 10 2001