Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The New Transnational Activism (A Kasarinlan Review)

Sidney Tarrow. 2005. The New Transnational Activism. New York: Cambridge University Press. 276 pp.

First published in Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies 21, 2 (2006): 167-170.

Sidney Tarrow’s book, The New Transnational Activism, attempts to sketch a workable explanation of the ordering of contemporary resistance movements and mobilizations happening across the globe. The author perceives the timeliness of providing an explanation for this phenomenon not only because of the increasing number of social movements all over the world, but also of its link to globalization and to the changing face of international politics.

His main thesis in explaining contemporary activism is anchored on increasing internationalism and “rooted cosmopolitanism” in today’s political and social arena. At the macrolevel, internationalism refers to a growing network of international institutions, state and nonstate actors. This complex interplay of horizontal and vertical networks is the site of what he calls “transnational activism,” which is the creative use of the possibilities offered by these networks to form coalitions that cut across national borders. Rooted cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, works at the microlevel. It involves individuals who, despite their physical and cognitive separation from their geographical origins, remain very much connected. This phenomenon is largely the result of increasing opportunities for individual and group migration. The intertwined forces of internationalism and rooted cosmopolitanism render existing social and political boundaries volatile, yet allow for the framing of local issues in the global arena and the adaptation of global issues to local settings.

The author discusses the first direction of contemporary transnational movements—i.e., the “global in the local”—where mass actions against unfettered pro-globalization policies include groups that militate against different parochial interests that affect their local communities. Why does this happen? Although it may seem odd that such international space can actually be the location for staging domestic concerns, it represents a shift in the frame of reference for the struggle. Here, internationalism plays a role: it creates the context where communication with other groups beyond the local space becomes possible.

The creative process in this global framing happens through what he terms “structural equivalence,” which enables domestic actors (interest groups and coalitions) to link international activism with local mass actions, thus changing the very context of the contested arena. At the same time, domestic actors can frame their advocacies globally in order to direct pressures from the international arena to their respective local realities. Ample attention is thus given to urgent problems and concerns, providing the necessary impetus for mobilization.
Conversely, transnational activism also works in terms of the “local in the global,” where the use of the international as the space of contention redresses the complaints of domestic actors at the local level. Through the process of what Tarrow refers to as “scale shift,” local initiatives are transformed to include “broader targets, new actors, and institutions at new levels of interaction” (122). Relying on access to nondomestic information and connections made available by advanced technologies, the local struggle is externalized and projected internationally. The concrete result of such externalization is the formation of transnational coalitions among different interest groups, so that a pool of common resources, threats, and efforts to effect desired changes is produced in a larger space of discourse that goes well beyond local politics.

The prospect for these coalitions to become more institutionalized, however, is a more complicated issue, since not all coalitions, in fact, endure through time. Such “instrumental coalitions” may advocate common interests, but they do not have the necessary collective identity to go beyond instrumental bonds. Coalitions formed in the context of several factors—determined individuals, a growing collaboration among groups and institutions, and the coming together of political opportunities and resources—have greater chances of survival. Therefore, coalitions need to build “cooperative differentiation,” a form of solidarity in the public sphere and internal variability among other constituents, in order to achieve a degree of institutionalization.

The two prongs of contention in today’s international-globalist society demonstrate fundamental changes in the framing of new transnational social movements, both at the local and international levels. Internationalism, being the “informal framework” for transnational activism, makes possible the crossing over of practices associated with contentious politics from the local scene to the global arena, and vice versa. These processes produce new links, lines of divisions, coalitions, and practices, which in turn further change the interactions between governments, interest groups, and international agencies.

The author’s keenness in describing different processes that transform discourses of contentious politics is generally helpful to advocates with different local and global interests, so that struggles are framed in light of the changes occurring in the global sociopolitical scene. By doing so, the author is able to sketch a preliminary cognitive landscape of how activism operates and accomplishes its goals in contemporary society. Activism, as a form of intentional action, also adapts to change when individual activists and organized interest groups utilize situational changes in order to carefully frame their advocacies and mobilize a concerted program for addressing perceived inconsistencies and injustices in today’s public sphere.

Sidney Tarrow carefully balances his theoretically fertile analysis of transnational activist formations by identifying some problematic areas. He particularly points out the increasing risk of “representing” some sectors of society in public advocacies. As the frame of reference gets bigger and transactions become more complicated, advocacy groups have to reassess the actual relationship that they still want to maintain with the sectors whose interests they are willing to uphold and fight for. Extended networks and transactions generate a new wave of social control and repressive apparatuses. The increasing inability of national “agents of public order” to confront such contentions may prompt the formation of international alliances. One would find increasing attempts to regulate the flow of information using state-of-the-art technologies like the Internet and other online transactions.

The processes involved in “transnational activism,” its implications, and the social forces that alter the ways and means by which interest groups exert their influence in the public sphere, is a promising domain for research. Social scientists may find the preliminary explorations of the author worthy of closer investigation. For example, it would be interesting to assess the impact and effects of cooperation and conflict between different nation-states in the formation of transnational activist networks. It would also be profitable to apply, if not validate, the ideas offered in the book in studying the different forms of resistance, struggle, and coalition building in the Philippines.—Manuel Victor J. Sapitula, Instructor, Department of Sociology, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines-Diliman

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