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Altered States:the cultural politics of subjectivity in resistance to globalisation

Preamble and background to research

In the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation’s ‘research agenda’ for the Centre’s first five years, one of the means by which ‘globalisation’ can occur is described as by isomorphism - ‘the tendency to become alike’ (CSGR website). What may become obscured in this framing of globalising processes, however, is the significance of 1. the structural power differentials that influence and define the ‘likenesses’ that emerge via globalisation; and, 2. the ways in which the current trans-national spread of market liberalism might be considered a hegemonic cultural project, as much as one that is correctly defined and analysed within the realms of political economy.

Associated incursions into the ‘territories’ and spaces of cultural and individual identities have created conditions ripe for multiple assertions of difference and autonomy: for the emergence of resistance and protest against the homogeneity associated with globalising ‘forces’ in both the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds, and for the establishment of relatively invisible myriad and ‘glocal’ ‘disorganisations’ – with autarky, autonomy, and affective, as opposed to economic, affluence as their defining agendas (e.g. McKay 1998).

We need only consider a few well-known incidents occurring since the CSGR’s establishment in October 1997 to realize how significant these actors are in terms of both state expenditure and the compromised possibilities for the unchallenged management and promotion of the ‘global market’. In November 1999 tens of thousands of non-violent anti-World Trade Organisation (WTO) protesters were subjected to tear gas, pepper spray and plastic bullets by police in Seattle in an historic confrontation between ‘northern’ civil society and the perceived corporate rule of the WTO – the bill for policing being somewhere in the region of US$9 million (Barber 2000). Mayday protests in 2001 in London cost somewhere in the region of £20 million in lost business (BBC Choice 2002), while May Day 2002 saw major protests taking place in cities as far apart, and not only in a geographical sense, as Paris, Sydney, Manila and Caracas. Media reports from the G8 Summit in Genoa, July 2001, were dominated by police brutality against activists, the death of protester Carlo Giuliani radically stepping up the stakes in the possible consequences for individuals of expressing dissent against a perceived hegemonic nexus of state-supported, trans-national corporate capitalism. And with the trans-national but US-led ‘War on Terrorism’ ushered in by the events of September 11th, concern seems set to build further regarding an already compromised freedom for civil society to protest against the capitalization and privatization of spaces - from ‘the environment’ to ‘the self’ - and to address infringements regarding civil liberties and citizen privacy. In the UK this concern is heightened by the increased state powers conferred by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994, and recently by proposed increases in surveillance of civilian use of communications technology made possible under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000 (McIntosh, 2002).

Such dramatic and largely unpredicted events – as well as the heavy-handed and costly deployment of state resources to protect corporate (and private) property – could (and should?) be interpreted as having shaken the optimism associated with liberalism’s apparent arrival at ‘the end of history’ (Fukuyama 1991). Any analysis of ‘globalisation’ thus is incomplete without a nuanced appreciation of why the term and the process engender such anxiety and resistance among a large and diverse ‘global civil society’, comprising citizens of states experiencing an extremely wide array of possibilities for participation in the global economy.

From Susan George to Noam Chomsky, ‘anti-globalisation’ clearly has attracted some vocal and respected academic activists (e.g. Chomsky 1999; George 2001). At the same time, numerous international and national NGOs are aligning themselves with increasingly confrontational protests against current terms of trade, thereby further consolidating and in some sense legitimising what has become in itself a global social movement – as exemplified by the name of ‘globalise resistance’ used by a coalition of individuals and organizations in the UK taking a stand against the growing political and economic powers of global corporations (GR website). However, ‘anti-globalisation’ in many circles also has become synonymous with ‘anarchy’ and irrationality, a view well represented in the following quote from a Guardian article: ‘[t]he truth is that most anti-globalisation protesters articulate a political analysis too muddle-headed to withstand even the scrutiny of a Glastonbury chill-out chat. The foot soldiers of this movement are mostly amiable halfwits’ (Aitkenhead 2002).

This research proposal, therefore, takes as its starting point the following consideration: that if neither globalisation processes nor anti-globalisation stances are solely about questions of political economy or ‘formal’ democratic processes, then there is a legitimate need to look elsewhere in order to arrive at a nuanced understanding of factors leading to such vociferous resistance to the apparent globalising of a neoliberal political economy.

This raises questions relevant for emerging sites of resistance in both the developing and developed worlds. In the former, for example, processes leading to a ‘rolling back of the state’ (e.g. Structural Adjustment Policies), accompanied by a strengthening of the roles of trans-national corporations and donor-funded NGOs in influencing policy, are in some cases contributing to incidents of protest by civil society against what are perceived as these new constraints over self-determination (e.g. Sullivan 2002; Wignaraja 1993; Fowerakar 1995; Peet and Watts 1996). Further, and accompanied by the appropriation of trans-national discourses and funding released in association with the UN Decade of Indigenous People initiated in 1995, an increasing pattern seems to be for acts of resistance to be played out via identity politics within states, particularly regarding differing claims to land and resources, as well as in relation to conceptions of ethnicity and selfhood (e.g. Sullivan 2001a; Howitt et al. 1996; Norget, n.d.) In the developed world, a weakness of the state might be measured more appropriately by the extent of apparent citizen apathy and alienation regarding participation in national governance – for example, fewer than six people in ten voted in the last general election in the UK (McKie 2001). Voter apathy notwithstanding, thousands of individuals clearly have felt strongly enough about something to participate in major protests in numerous locations around the country and elsewhere under the banner of ‘anti-globalisation/anti-capitalism’.

Proposed research questions, theoretical frameworks, and methods

What can we surmise from this complex array of interconnected events and processes that have come to dominate the global transition into a new millennium? In pursuit of this question, and building on recent social science research in the superficially unconnected contexts of environmental policy uptake and protest in northern Namibia (Sullivan 2002a and b), and among participants in an ‘underground culture’ of anarchical ‘free party’ events held in various squatted premises in London and elsewhere (Sullivan 2001b, under review), I wish to address the following foci of research.

1. Subjectivity and political action

In what ways are anarchical political perspectives and actions influenced by, and/or emerge from, particular subjective experience/s? And to what extent might these contribute to a ‘non-place-based’ construction of shared experiential identities?

Conversely, to what extent are members of anarchical ‘disorganisations’ responding through protest action to ‘push’ factors that may culminate in social and economic exclusion?

Indeed, is it possible to disaggregate these processes, given that expressions of ‘alternative’ or autonomous constructions of ‘self’ in protests and other actions, however peaceful, are penalised and criminalised by states? In this sense it could be said that exclusion may emerge from, and be influenced by, assertions of difference defined against particular normative criteria (in governance as in other aspects of society) that, in terms of subjective experiences of ‘being human’, may have no overriding validity or legitimacy - other than their ability to be exerted via structures of power that are historically, culturally and contingently located.

In this primary area of the proposed research, I am influenced conceptually and philosophically by social theorists and philosophers such as Heidegger (1962 (1926)), Merleau-Ponty (1962) Lefebvre (1971), Foucault (e.g. 1990 (1961), 1977 (1975)), de Certeau (1984), Deleuze and Guattari (1988), Bey (1991) and Ingold (2000). My intention thus is to conduct empirical ethnographic work with ‘real people’ making ‘real choices’ within and in response to ‘real situations’ under the umbrella of the philosophical domain of phenomenology – defined here broadly as the social theory of subjective consciousness.

At this preliminary stage, the specific influences that I am interested in interrogating as significant in constructions of ‘the self’ and the role/s of this in guiding political intentionality, specifically in resistance to globalisation, relate to those that might be said to influence and perhaps challenge ‘conventional’ perceptions of mind:body and people:environment relationships. As such, the research will be further informed by ideas regarding the embodiment processes associated with both subjectivity, i.e. as knowledge and experience of the self, and intentionality, i.e. as actions emerging consciously from subjectivity (e.g. Csordas 1994; Weiss and Haber 1999; Crouch 2001).

Key areas of experience on which to focus might include, but not be limited to, the following:

Ø Perceptions of relationships with ‘Nature’/natural environment (cf. Ingold 2000), particularly regarding articulations of the place and rights of people vis à vis environment, and elucidation of experiential influences regarding such perceptions.

Ø Subjective experience of ‘altered states’, e.g. through dance movement and other body-oriented practices, participation in creative endeavours (visual art, performance, writing etc.), participation in non-doctrinal ritual, experiences influenced by psychoactives, etc.; and the possible translation of these subjective experiences into political stances and action. I draw here on a range of literature affirming the possible transformative possibilities of such subjective experiences (cf. Bourguignon 1973; Boadella 1988; Chodorow 1991; Jennings 1995).

Ø Personal histories and perceptions of exclusion from formal institutions/society.

Although I have worked extensively with quantitative social and ecological survey and analytical methods in the past (e.g. Sullivan 1999, 2000, in press), I propose in this research to draw on a range of qualitative approaches of which I also have experience. These would include participant observation in protest and other relevant circumstantial contexts, unstructured interviews, Internet/email communications, and recorded oral testimonies. Given the sensitive, individual and personal nature of the research foci as outlined above, I consider that these would be appropriate ways of both accessing and conveying depth regard the issues of interest and the research questions. The anonymity of participants and places involved with the research would be respected at all times, unless specifically requested otherwise.

My intention would be to further situate such material within a broader context defined and strengthened by the use of secondary and quantitative survey data, where relevant and available. I would hope in this regard to perhaps be able to draw on datasets compiled in research for the ESRC-funded Centre for Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics, for example regarding voluntary unemployment (e.g. Burchardt and Le Grand 2002).

Nb. To avoid possible misinterpretation, I would like to emphasise that this research endeavour clearly would not be an a priori attempt to validate naively the views of participants in ‘anti-globalisation’ resistance events. Instead, the intention is to better understand, from a strong research and theoretical basis, the ways in which individuals arrive at the views that have made ‘anti-globalisation’ resistance the strong ‘draw’ that it patently has become, in a range of disaggregated and dissimilar circumstances. My view is that such research is essential in generating understanding regarding the whys and wherefores associated with emerging dissent to what CSGR identifies as the ‘normalising rationality’ of both the phenomena and knowledge of globalisation processes (CSGR website).

2. Communications technology and the ‘disorganisation’ of anti-globalisation actions

If globalisation might be considered a qualitatively different societal process resulting in part from the radical transformations in communications technology in the past few decades (e.g. summarised in Higgott and Reich 1998), then to what extent should the same consideration also be applied to the ways in which an ironically but increasingly global ‘anti-globalisation’ resistance effort is able to organise/’disorganise’ in a similarly qualitatively different manner to conventional democratic engagement? Famously, the high profile of the Zapatista movement of Chiapas, Mexico, is a result of the use of the Internet to proclaim the movement’s anti-capitalism/anti-neoliberalism messages worldwide - the Zapatistas’ website alone has received more than 3 million ‘hits’ (EZLN website). At the same time, this has made possible the appropriation of concerns and narratives held by this and a range of social movements of ‘the south’ by ‘anti-globalisation/anti-capitalism’ discourses in ‘the north’.

The potential significance of the Internet and mobile telecommunications technologies in providing a means for empowerment of civil society surely is reflected by current attempts to increase surveillance of civilian and private use of these technologies (as noted above). At the same time, these technologies have been critical in enabling ‘anti-globalisation’ activists to coordinate activities in specific protest events, in both converging at sites of protest, and in communicating with each other in attempts to thwart police constraint (as specifically advised prior to this year’s Mayday protest in London (Mayday 2002 website)).

Depending on time constraints, I would like to pursue some issues raised by the use of communications technology via ascertaining use of mobile ‘phones, websites, and so on as tools in resistance to globalisation, and by exploring possibilities for conducting some sort of network analysis of this usage. In methodological terms, this is a new area for me that will require further research, thought and development, although clearly it is an emerging area of academic interest in social studies of mobile technologies (e.g. Jordon n.d.). From my readings regarding the organization of complex systems (e.g. Kauffman 1993, 1995; Cilliers, 1998) I am interested in drawing on theoretical ideas regarding connectivity and distributed networks to explore and consolidate further the notion of an emerging non-geographically-located ‘anti-capitalist/anti-globalisation’ ‘culture’ that conversely is made possible by the global availability of communications technologies.

Populations and locales of research

From the above it should be clear that at present I am interested primarily in pursuing research with members/participants of anarchist and autonomous ‘groups’ in Europe, and particularly within the UK. However, I view the work as something of a multi-sited ethnography that draws on outside perceptions of such ‘groups’, within both public and private institutions, among other sections of civil society and, importantly, as portrayed in the conventional media. The work is multi-sited in a further sense, however, in that I am interested in the uptake of information from social movements in geographically distance locations by ‘northern’ anarchist and anti-globalisation protesters, and at the communications that take place between ‘groups’ that otherwise are rather separate in terms of locality, culture, history and economic opportunity.


References cited

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