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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:
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:
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
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
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).
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.