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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Naming the Enemy: Anti-Corporate Movements Confront Globalization, by Amory Starr, London: Zed Books (2000), xvi, 268 pp..

 

Reviewed by David Skidmore, Department of Politics and International Relations, Drake University, Des Moines, IA.

 

Despite, or perhaps because of, its wild diversity, the anti-globalization movement has in recent years emerged as a force with which to be reckoned. Leaders of the major institutions of global economic governance, including the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the G-8, can find practically no city in the world where meetings will not be plagued by rowdy demonstrations and the scent of tear gas. Pressure from anti-globalization non-governmental organizations (NGOs) played a role in the failure of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) negotiations, the collapse of efforts to launch a new "millennium round" of global trade negotiations and resistance in the United States congress to granting President Clinton unfettered fast track trade negotiating authority. The anti-sweatshop movement has harried Nike and a number of other corporations into promising improvements in labor conditions at the factories that produce their goods. Protests stemming from the Shell Oil Company's alleged complicity with government repression in Nigeria forced Shell to develop a new corporate code of conduct regarding human rights issues. A number of other firms have followed suit. The list of these and other recent successes is impressive.

Yet the anti-globalization movement has thus far mostly focused on slowing the juggernaut of corporate globalization and resisting the most egregious of governmental and corporate abuses. What has yet to emerge is a coherent and widely accepted vision of an alternative future. Amory Starr's provocative book surveys and assesses both the concrete goals and the philosophical worldviews that animate many of the groups involved in the struggle to craft an alternative to globalization as it is currently taking shape.

This is not simply another review of "the debate" over globalization. Starr accepts without question the damning critiques of globalization that have originated with others. Her focus is on the varieties of resistance to globalization and where they may lead. Globalization itself is treated as symptomatic of a deeper and more insidious disease; namely, the domination of modern political, economic and cultural life by large, powerful, globe-spanning corporations. Big business firms serve as the "agents" of globalization and should, in Starr's view, be considered the primary targets of popular resistance.

Starr's survey of more than a dozen distinct popular social movements assesses the degree to which each places anti-corporate motivations at the center of its ideology and strategic vision. In keeping with the book's rather blunt title, Starr's treatment of these popular social movements focuses on "... how they understand their enemy, and how they envision rebuilding the world" (p. x). Relying heavily upon organizational web sites as her primary data source, Starr limits her attention to movement rhetoric and ideas, leaving aside any attempt to "evaluate the movement's size, scope, practices or chances for success" (p. xi). In general, Starr reserves the most praise for those groups which explicitly treat corporations as "the enemy," while chiding groups that are insufficiently anti-corporate in their rhetoric.

Starr classifies each group or movement under one of three "modes" of resistance to corporate globalization: 1) contestation and reform; 2) globalization from below; and 3) delinking, or relocalization. The author explicates the logic underlying each mode while illustrating the diverse uses to which this logic or strategic perspective is put by various groups falling under each approach. A theoretical chapter at the beginning of the book draws upon various sorts of critical theory (e.g., Marxist, feminist, post-modernism, etc.) to identity useful concepts for the analysis of agency and structure in relationship to understanding anti-corporate social movements. A final chapter draws comparisons across the movements examined earlier in the book and summarizes the author's own conclusions about the merits of various approaches to constructing an alternative to corporate-globalization.

This is a dense, difficult and often frustrating work. The audience for Starr's book is uncertain. Activists will likely find the book's structure and prose too academic in nature to suit their tastes or needs. Many scholars, on the other hand, will dismiss the book as a heavy-handed polemic. Some parts of the book, especially the theory chapter, are almost unreadable,1 although the flow improves considerably when Starr reports in relatively straightforward fashion on what grassroots activists are actually thinking and doing. The book's argumentative and often militant tone will irritate some while inspiring others. Substantively, this reviewer found far more with which to disagree than to agree, as the following critique will suggest.

In fairness, however, it must be said that Starr's book serves a number of laudatory purposes. It is one of the few works to attempt a broad survey of the loose coalition of anti-globalization groups and movements that first captured public awareness in the streets of Seattle during the 1999 meeting of the World Trade Organization.2 More importantly, Starr's book is a powerful stimulus to thought and debate. One wearies, after a time, of the staid, cautious and, frankly, dull conventions of academic writing. Surely the vast tide of scholarly books and articles on the amorphous topic of globalization in recent years already includes more than enough specimens of the sort of bland, repetitious and pointless work that fails to either inform or provoke. In the course of reading Starr's contribution to this body of literature, however, the present reviewer found himself alternatively enraged, amused and challenged. Hours after laying down the book, one continues to imagine oneself engaged in an energetic verbal sparring match with a forceful, opinionated opponent. That is itself refreshing.

Nevertheless, the book's weaknesses outweigh its strengths. A good place to begin is with Starr's three modes of resistance. Each of these categories is home to a bewilderingly eclectic variety of movements. Land reform, peace, human rights and cyberpunk movements are all lumped together as examples of "contestation and reform." The "globalization from below" mode encompasses the environmental, labor, socialist, Zapatista and anti-free trade movements. The anarchist, sustainable development, small business, sovereignty and religious nationalist movements are placed under the "delinking" mode. This scheme gives rise to considerable confusion, starting with Starr's conception of what constitutes a "movement." It seems odd to consider "small business" a social movement - much less an anti-corporate movement. The term "cyberpunk" would seem better adapted to describe a literary genre or perhaps a cultural sensibility than a consciously organized movement. The Zapatistas are less a distinct movement than revolutionary group that has affinities with a number of broader movements, such as the indigenous rights or land reform movements. Treating apples and oranges as if they were like units leads to strained comparisons and conclusions.

Moreover, the three modes are themselves inadequately conceptualized. The first two modes, in particular, are insufficiently distinct from one another. "Contestation and reform" is meant to characterize movements that seek to constrain and redirect corporate practices through external pressure, such as state regulation or consumer boycotts. The second mode - "globalization from below" - is not so much an alternative to the first mode as an extension of it beyond the boundaries of the nation-state. The second mode foresees the development of a global civil society that will unite around common humanitarian goals, such as peace, justice, ecological protection and human rights. Given that capital mobility places serious constraints on effective action by individual states, second mode movements seek to strengthen global institutions that embody the legal and moral principles they support. Only global structures of control can guarantee that corporations are left with no place to hide. There is no compelling analytic reason to distinguish between these first two modes. Each seeks to tame the excesses of market capitalism by subjecting corporations to democratic control at either the national or global levels.

The third mode is, however, quite different from either of the first two. Third mode movements seek not to control corporations but to banish them from liberated territories. "Relocalization" or "delinking" would reverse the process of globalization, instead centering market activities and political authority in the hands of local communities, each free to chart their own distinctive course. From a third mode standpoint, the principle problems of modern life concern issues of scale. Large-scale, centralized structures of economic and political power, including big corporations, nation-states and international organizations, all serve to render authority more distant from the control of average people and communities. The most important challenge, from a third mode perspective, is to wrest power away from large, impersonal and bureaucratic institutions and relocate decision-making at the level of local communities, which operate on a human (and humane) scale of social organization.

Starr is not content to merely report on the philosophical and strategic visions of the movements she sets out to investigate. She freely dispenses her own praise and criticism of various ideas, proposals and actions. Given the book's stated sympathies toward grassroots social action, Starr is surprisingly harsh in her judgments about many of the most well established progressive movements. Starr treats the micro-credit movement as a debt-trap for the poor. Peace groups who advocate the conversion of military industries to peaceful uses are criticized for buying into the industrial paradigm. Starr chides the anti-sweatshop movement for treating the abuse of workers as a case of corporate deviance rather than the product of a broader systemic logic. "Fair trade" campaigns organized by human rights groups to improve the terms of exchange for Third World producers are denounced for sustaining Southern dependence upon the North while encouraging consumerist habits among the wealthy. Environmental groups that negotiate with corporations in the interest of moving the latter toward greener production processes, technologies and products are denounced for collaborating with the enemy and legitimating corporate power. The movement for sustainable development is guilty of buying into the concept of "development" and ignoring the fatal contradiction between the latter and any meaningful concepts of ecological or cultural sustainability. Organized labor is dismissed for its complicity with the existing corporate-dominated political and economic order.

The heroes of Starr's book are those movements that have demonstrated uncompromising attitudes toward the corporate order, such as hackers ("Hacking can be heroic" (p. 76)), anarchists and Zapatistas. In contrast with most leftist commentators, Starr also embraces religious nationalist groups, such as the Christian/Patriot movement in the United States about which she states:


The movement has a number of legitimate political and political economic concerns about local economics and politics. Like religious nationalism elsewhere, the Christian/Patriot movement has racist elements, and, like movements elsewhere, panicked accusations of racism are being used to delegitimize core concerns and proposals, which are democracy, populism and the rights of locality (pp. 141-142).


Religious nationalists, whether right wing Christian fundamentalists in the United States or militant Islamic movements elsewhere in the world, should be viewed as potential allies or converts because they share with the left a suspicion and active resistance to pro-capitalist states, corporations and international organizations. Starr notes, for instance, that the Freemen and the militia movements in the United States hold "conspiracy theories" that "differ little from left-wing analyses, emphasizing the Trilateral Commission, the New World Order and GATT" (p. 142).3

In general, Starr shows a clear preference for third mode movements over those associated with either of the first two modes. She rejects the "Lockean" and "Keynesian" character of first mode reform movements. Reformers hold out the promise of a refashioned social contract, one encompassing business, workers and popular movements and largely administered by a liberal democratic state. Starr, however, dismisses the idea that any social contract structured along these lines could possibly serve popular interests. Instead, Starr asserts, "social contracts are ameliorative. They pacify the working class temporarily to facilitate relatively undisrupted pursuit of capitalism and are rescinded as soon as politically possible" (p. 171).

Second mode visions of "globalization from below" are also flawed, in Starr's view. Movements in this mode want to use centralized and bureaucratic international organizations and agreements as instruments to impose universalized and standardized conceptions of rights and duties on a world of diverse cultures and values. Despite the anti-corporate thrust of second mode movements, the bland, homogenized future they envisage would locate power and authority in global bodies even more distant from the control of average people than at present.

Reformers in both the first and second modes are too often tempted to collaborate with the enemy; namely, corporations. Although reformers challenge corporate practices, too often their strategic objective is some sort of negotiated deal in which corporations and their critics work out a solution acceptable to all. Starr characterizes this attitude as "dangerous" on the grounds that the process of negotiation is itself a way of "legitimizing" the corporate order (p. 79).

"Coming to the table to negotiate often means accepting the corporate project, therefore negotiation tends to benefit corporate interests. Negotiation brings activists into a process of collaboration with the company, gets them invested in a non-oppositional process and changes the issues of 'salience' from siting (or not) to technical issues of operation, safety, and so on" (p. 157).

Starr's critique of first and second mode reformers is overdrawn. Given existing power relations, negotiation with states and corporations is an inevitable phase in the struggle for social change. To the degree that they are successful, movements that begin with militant street action must alter their tactics and rhetoric as their issues move into the mainstream. As popular movements gain moral capital with the public at large, they come to pose threats to the legitimacy of states and firms. But this moral leverage can only be translated into real change through a process that involves bargaining with one's adversaries. Compromises are inevitable once the struggle reaches legislatures and boardrooms. As Starr suggests, the resulting changes are piecemeal in nature and both states and firms recover a degree of legitimacy from the process. But social movements that adopt an uncompromising stance - refusing to cash in their moral chips - risk either repression or irrelevance. Successful revolutions are rare, and more uncommon still are those revolutions that actually fulfill the initial dreams and promises of the revolutionaries. It is not surprising that most grassroots movements eventually settle for partial (but meaningful) victories.

Starr's uncompromising attitude stems in part from the way in which she defines the modern corporation:

'Corporate' as an adjective refers to the operating principles typical of such enterprises, such as prioritizing profit and growth over all other values; profiting on uncosted externalities, such as the environment, quality of life, environment, worker's health, stable jobs and community; and pursuing the homogenization and increase of consumption in order to maximize markets. (p. xiv)

While not inaccurate in broad outline, this picture fails to account for the fact that corporations vary in the degree to which they engage in anti-social behavior. In their search for profit, not all corporations employ sweatshop labor, or dump toxic chemicals or collude with states to deny human rights to local communities. The prevalence of such activities differs depending upon the nature of the industry, the type of products produced and, most importantly, the external constraints firms face. Corporations are vulnerable to outside pressures brought by socially-minded consumers, investors, the media and state regulators, each of whom controls assets crucial to corporate survival and success.

Corporations are not inherently evil. Indeed, the modern corporation represents an agglomeration of social assets - knowledge, technology, organization, and capital - that are crucial to the management of modern economic life. The chief challenge is how to reconcile private control of these assets with public interests. In principle, at least, this should be achievable by creating a web of democratic rules, constraints and obligations that steer corporate practice - in short, by fashioning just the sort of social contract that Starr rejects but to which most contemporary social movements aspire in some form.

This brings us to the heart of Starr's argument - her advocacy on behalf of third mode movements. Starr's uncompromising attitude toward contemporary states and corporations, her critique of "globalization from below," her defense of religious nationalism - all of these become comprehensible once we understand the values and assumptions underpinning her own preferred alternative future.

While corporate globalization is the ostensible bogeyman of Starr's story, the real villain is modernization itself. Among the prominent features of modern life that Starr denounces are science and technology ["scientists are nearly always wrong about the things that matter" (p. 127)], the green revolution, bureaucracy, the contemporary state, liberal democracy, economic growth ["Growth as a definition of development has failed utterly" (p. 14)], urbanism and consumption. In many places in the book, Starr identifies with a pre-modern vision of locally self-sufficient village-level communalism. Her intellectual and moral roots lie in the 19th century romantic tradition and in anarchist intellectual currents of the same period. For Starr, "delinking" and "relocalization" are necessary starting points for recreating imagined utopias that draw upon rural, pre-industrial traditions. Starr stresses the importance of conceiving political economy in terms of some sort of "moral order" (pp. 145, 190), which is one reason that she defends religious nationalist movements and rejects critiques that associate rural village life with parochialism and intolerance. Her neo-traditionalist vision reflects a longing for the return of human-scale communities in a world that is all too centralized, rationalized, bureaucratized and dehumanized.

From the standpoint of devising a practical program of social change, the drawbacks of this vision are palpable. The often grim realities of pre-modern rural life, whether in the past or the present, are a far cry from Starr's romanticized ideal. Starr's protestations that religious nationalism can be reconciled with the values of tolerance and pluralism are unconvincing given real-world evidence to the contrary. Most obviously, Starr's vision is profoundly ahistorical. There is no going back (or forward) to a world untouched by the pervasive influence of modernity. Nor can the process of globalization itself be reversed or undone. While is it quite feasible to relocalize some sorts of decision-making, "delinking" in the sense of cutting the bonds of interdependence across communities and restoring genuine self sufficiency is untenable. Nor is it apparent that many people would prefer this sort of world.

Starr's "back to the future" style vision thus fails as a viable political project. Nevertheless, this yearning for some escape from the "iron cage" of modernity is one with which many people can identify and has provided the basis for recent post-modern cultural and intellectual movements.

As Starr's survey demonstrates, there exist a wide variety of sometimes clashing ideas about both strategy and goals among the many groups and movements seeking to resist or alter the trajectory of globalization. While this diversity robs such efforts of cohesion, coherence and clear direction, it also contributes to a more vibrant and inclusive grassroots politics and leaves open many options for the future. There is no need to impose premature closure on the direction of struggle. Pluralism is messy, confusing and unpredictable. But a decentralized, open-ended politics makes sense under present circumstances as humanity sorts through the uncertainties and implications of a complex process of globalization.

NOTES:

1 An example: "The Foucauldian tug-of-war positions his recognitions alternately as liberatory rupture of the idea that political economy structures the rest of our social institutions, or as merely adding, along the lines of the Frankfurt School, further useful analyses of exactly how the structure structures" (p. 2).

2 Two other excellent books, published before the Seattle protests but covering much of the same ground, are Keck and Sikkink (1998) and Smith (1997).

3 This, in Starr's view, is a recommendation, not a criticism. Starr herself at one point affirms the view that "There has been a conspiracy" (p. 8).

REFERENCES CITED:

Keck, Margaret and Kathryn Sikkink, 1998. Activists Beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics. Cornell: Cornell University Press.

Smith, Jackie, 1997. Transnational Social Movements and Global Politics: Solidarity Beyond the State. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.