Ulrich Beck’s Power in the global age provides a carefully constructed set of concepts and a language that should prove invaluable in advancing our understanding of politics in the age of community. Pointing to economic and technological changes I discussed in a previous blog entry, he argues that the age of the nation-state has been superseded by a cosmopolitan age, which he also calls the second modernity.
His point is that, as freer trade and modern communication technologies are making it easier and easier for money, corporations, goods, people and ideas to cross national boundaries, the ability of national states to control what goes on within their borders is diminishing. In this cosmopolitan age, the only means open to both states and civil society for defending their interests is to escape national confines through international political action.
National states can do this – in fact are already making experimental forays in this direction – through such mechanisms as the World Court, the land mines treaty and the Kyoto Accord. In discussing what civil society can do, Beck focuses primarily on the ability of consumers to organize themselves internationally and launch boycotts as a deterrent against such things as unfair labour practises and civil liberties violations. Examples of such civil society initiatives would be the well-known work of Amnesty International and the Clean Clothes Campaign, dedicated to the improvement of working conditions in the global garment industry.
It is difficult to lead the way, as Beck is doing in this important book, and easy to fire pot-shots at the leader. By way of building on Beck’s work, more than criticizing it, therefore, I argue that it makes more sense to think of grassroots-based global action as being community-based, rather than emanating from civil society, with the proviso that communities are not necessarily spatially based. Your neighbourhood, your city, and your metropolitan area are all communities, but so is the internet, the Jewish, Vietnamese, Islamic or Eritrean community in your city, and Amnesty International.
My reason for preferring “community” to “civil society” is that, as national boundaries become more porous, it becomes increasingly important for any community – not just civil society organizations – to organize internationally. City governments are doing this, for example through the widespread practice of twinning with other cities to promote economic co-operation.
In the face of the mobility of corporations, and of money, many communities of all kinds – including spatially-based communities and communities of interest – have been quick to pounce on globalization as a culprit, but much slower to recognize the new possibilities that globalization opens up for their defence of their own interests. In order to see the full potential, however, we need to break out of the category of “civil society” and look at the possibilities for all sorts of communities – cities, represented by their governments; neighbourhood organizations and labour unions; ethnic communities, consumer groups and more – to exploit their capacity for international organization.
In future blog entries, I want to consider both what we can learn from such initiatives as the Clean Clothes Campaign and what some of the possibilities might be for global labour organization, but I’ll leave you now with a story of a Canadian-Panamanian grassroots-based political action that hints at the vast scope of possibilities for global grassroots political organization. This story appeared on the front page of the Winnipeg Free Press on May 1st, 1994.
In the 1990s Patrick Mooney of Brandon, Manitoba, was executive director of Rural Advancement Foundation International, a small organization dedicated to the conservation and sustainable use of bio-diversity, and to the socially responsible development of technologies useful to rural societies. His organization opposed the patenting of genetic material. One day he discovered on an internet site that the United States Department of Commerce had applied for world patents on the cell line of a 26-year-old Guayami Indian woman from Panama.
A cell line is a sample of cells removed from the body that can be reproduced in a laboratory and that provide an inexhaustable supply of DNA – the genetic code of the person in question. Apparently scientists believed that this woman’s DNA embodied characteristics that might be used to develop a marketable means of preventing certain kinds of cancer. Obviously, the purpose of the patent was to make it possible to commercialize any discovery.
Upon learning about the patent application, Mooney contacted the Guayami General Congress in Panama City and learned that, though the woman had participated willingly in the research, she had not given permission for the patenting of her cell line. The aboriginal congress protested and, under pressure, the US government withdrew its patent application.
This is one small example of how previously powerless and isolated groups can use the technology that is associated with globalization to combine forces in pursuit of common objectives. As the internet expands and more and more people gain access to it, these opportunities will multiply. It will take imagination to discover them and a great deal of hard organizational slogging to exploit them. What’s more, these possibilities will be open to all kinds of communities, not only the ones you or I might approve of. But they are there for the taking, and they offer new opportunities for overcoming the sense of powerlessness many experience in the face of global change.
Want to find out more? Look up:
Ulrich Beck. Power in the Global Age: A New Global Political Economy. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005.
Christopher Leo. “Deep Federalism: Respecting Community Difference in National Policy.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 39:3, 2006, 481-506.