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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 51 New Delhi December 10, 2016

Globalisation and Social Movement: Critique of a Critique

Sunday 11 December 2016

by Babika Khawas

In an attempt to analyse the relationship between globalisation and social movement this brief communiqué attempts to comment critically on the cliché—that itself emerged as a critique—anti-globalisation movement. As is well known, globalisation as a stupendous process has transformed everyday social reality by opening up newer avenues secured through the rapid flow of capital, technology, information, trade, ideas and other resources across the national borders. Social scientists largely viewed globalisation as a phenomenon that has compressed both time and space in its sway. Anthony Giddens, one of the most celebrated sociologists, defines globalisation as the intensification of worldwide social relations linking distant localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many thousands of miles away and vice-versa. In his depiction, globalisation emerges as a dialectical process happening in a two-way fashion. (Giddens 1996: 64) Globalisation and social movements indeed have a special relationship to share. While on the one hand globalisation fostered the possibilities of articulating a successful movement through its offerings in the form of free flow of ideas, culture, technology and the resources largely required for the length, breadth and propagation of a movement, on the other hand there have been resistances registered all over the world against global institutions, policies, programmes and agreements which are instrumental to the process of globalisation.

Globalisation has propelled many social movements and has also affected their structure and functioning especially in the case of New Social Movements which dwell upon the forces of globalisation for augmenting their agenda, strategy and spread. ‘Workers of the world unite!’ is in fact a claim that harps on globalisation in a certain sense. Gay Seidman cites the example of how trade union movements have long tried to build an international alliance of the working-class organisations to support his view that the international appeals in social movements are not new. The activists have sought help from abroad and many of them have worked across the border since the middle of the 20th century and appealed to international communities thereby encouraging universal norms to address social practices. (Seidman 2000: 344) Movements have often utilised tactics and strategies—that may not necessarily be local—to express grievances and build coalitions across borders.

However, besides facilitating social movements globalisation has faced serious challenges also in the forms of resistances launched by communities all over the globe. Porta and Diani hold the view that the transformation caused by globalisation in the social actions, culture of particular societies may lead to resistances from the local to defend cultural traditions against foreign ideas and their intrusions. Reactions of such variety are addressed by forms of nationalistic and ethnic movements, religious mobilisations and also by fundamenta-lisms. (Porta & Diani 2006: 51-52) Known through several epithets—like ‘global justice movement’, ‘global justice and solidarity movement’, ‘global democracy movement’, or simply as anti-globa-lisation movement—oppositions to neo-liberal globalisation are very heterogeneous and they also vary in terms of their strategies, organisations, and participants. The term is strongly contested amongst activists and many, if not most, reject the label ‘anti-globalisation’ entirely. (Eschle 2004: 71)

Despite differences what unites them is perhaps their ideological stance. These initiatives known either as anti-globalisation protests or as global justice movements are all protesting against the negative consequences of globali-sation. They vehemently oppose the phenomena associated with economic globalisation: the unfettered activities of the transnational corpo-rations, the increasing power of international financial institutions, the neoliberal policies of trade, privatisation, Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs), global retail chain, or the idea and practice of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). [Opp 2009: 337] Their ideological stance is self-explanatory—that they are against globalisation. One of the first of such a protest movement took place on June 18, 1999 in several cities and was called the ‘Carnival against Capitalism’. Perhaps the most well-known protest was the ‘The Battle of Seattle’ that took place on November 30, 1999 with more than 50,000 participants. Examples of such protests are abundant ranging from the developed countries to the developing ones. The huge protest in Mumbai that took place at the World Social Forum in 2004 is perhaps the first Indian case in point.

  Globalisation brings material changes and a change in the thought process of perceiving reality of the societies around the world. Those changes create a scope for the expression of contestation and for acts targeting to downplay the different facets of globalisation itself. Social movements against globalisation have had their manifestations in many parts of the world even in those countries that are considered to be the erstwhile colonies of the imperial powers. India too has experienced many such movements in various forms of resistances registered against the forces of globalisation. The movement against the Vedanta Resources plc—a giant mining company—fought by the tribals of Niyamgiri hills in Odisha in the recent past, and the fight taken up by the fishermen of Tamil Nadu in Kudankulam against the establishment of a nuclear power plant are good examples of such local resistances which were raised against the global forces. (Das 2015, Harikrishna 2013)

It is important to recognise that the anti-globalisation movements not only evolve out of the globalised time and space but they also operate within the limits of globalised economic, cultural, and geo-political power relations. On top of it what they actually challenge, oppose, or criticise is basically the form or content but not the praxis of globalisation. We are therefore left with a complex relationship between movement and globalisation—one in which the contending groups in their effort to challenge the structure actually reproduce its underlying principles. This is evident when we experience that anti-globalisation movements are not actually rejectionists but are more grafted towards formulating a critique of the current spell of globalisation by offering suitable cosmetic changes more in the form of alter-natives. The ‘global justice solidarity movements’ more often than not turn up as ‘empty signifier’ of mobilisations reinforcing the welfare state. In place of a movement that could have turned upside down the entire idea and practice of globalisation, we are endowed with alternatives that attempt to democratise globalisation. Neither are the anti-globalisation movements anti to globalisation nor are they even a movement in the real sense of the term. They are basically ‘mouthful’ slogans about ‘rhetorical oppositions’ characterised by their reliance upon the surveillance and pastoralist capacities of the modern welfare states in a Foucaultian way. Chomsky’s position is worth remembering here: he—in a 2002 interview to Toni Gabric—commented poignantly: “‘Anti-globalisation’ is a term of propaganda that should be dismissed with ridicule.” (Gabric 2002)

The broader lesson that emerges out of the contemporary manifestations of anti-globa-lisation movements all over the world is somewhat intriguing. It is argued here that the implications of ‘anti-globalisation movements’ seem to be dialectical in the Marxian way. As Marx put it in the Poverty of Philosophy, “What constitutes dialectical movement is the coexi-stence of two contradictory sides, their conflict and their fusion into a new category.” (Marx 1975: 105) No wonder that we are placed within the coexistence of the two contradictory sides of contemporary capitalism. We have witnessed during the last few decades a vigorous surge of international capitalism and its most enabling competence in spreading the ideal of democracy through all possible modes. During the same period we have also witnessed the emergence of its counterpart—the most competent groups clamouring for human rights, environmental conservation, and protection of people’s freedom from the different vices of capitalism itself. (Walton 2003: 225) These contradictions under-lying our contemporary social reality constitute what is remarkable about globalisation and social movement and what comes out of their conflict and fusion is an altogether new terrain of contentious politics that rules out the possibilities of any radical change and limits further the prospect of revolutions in an age of globalisation. 


Das, Prafulla, 2015, ‘Hill of Resistance’, Frontline, March 20. URL: http://www.frontline.in/the-nation/hill-of-resistance/article6951423.ece (accessed on 18.7.2016).

Eschle, Catherine, 2004, “Constructing ‘the Anti-Globalisation Movement’”, International Journal of Peace Studies, 9(1): 61-84.

Gabric, Toni, 2002, “On Escalation of Violence in the Middle East: Noam Chomsky interviewed by Toni Gabric”, The Croatian Feral Tribune, May 7. On-line resource, stable URL: https://www.chomsky.info/20020507/ (accessed on 20.9.2016).

Giddens, Anthony, 1996, The Consequences of Modernity, Cambridge: The Polity Press.

Harikrishna, K.S., 2013, ‘Waves of Resistance Never End at Nuclear Plant’, Inter Press Service News Agency, February 3. URL: http://www.ipsnews.net/2013/02/waves-of-resistance-never-end-at-nuclear-plant/ (accessed on 20.8.2016).

Marx, Karl, 1975 (1955), The Poverty of Philosophy, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Opp, Karl-Dieter, 2009, Theories of political Protest and Social Movements: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, Critique, and Analysis, London: Routledge.

Porta, Dontella Della and Mario Diani, 2006 [1999], Social Movements: An Introduction, 2nd edition, Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Seidman, Gay, W., 2000, ‘Adjusting the Lens: What do Globalisations, Transnationalism, and the Anti-apartheid Movement Mean for Social Movement Theory?’ in J.A. Guidry, M.D. Kennedy and M. N. Zald (eds.), Globalisation and Social Movements: Culture, Power and the Transnational Public Sphere, pp. 339-358, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Walton, John, 2003, ‘Globalisation and Popular Movements’ in John Foran (ed.), The Future of Revolutions: Rethinking Radical Change in the Age of Globalisation, pp. 217-226, London: Zed Books.

The author is a Ph.D student, Department of Sociology, University of North Bengal, Darjeeling (West Bengal) and can be contacted at e-mail: babikakhawas[at]gmail.com

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