Constructing ‘the anti-globalisation movement’ Catherine Eschle

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International Journal of Peace Studies, Volume 9, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2004
Catherine Eschle
This article interrogates the claim that a transnational anti-globalisation social movement has
emerged. I draw on constructivist social movement theory, globalisation studies, feminist
praxis and activist websites to make two main arguments, mapping on to the two parts of the
article. First, a movement has indeed emerged, albeit in a highly contested and complex form
with activists, opponents and commentators constructing competing movement identities.
This article is itself complicit in such a process – and seeks to further a particular
construction of the movement as a site of radical-democratic politics. Second, the movement
is not anti-globalisation in any straightforward sense. Focusing their opposition on
globalised neoliberalism and corporate power, activists represent their movement either as
anti-capitalist or as constructing alternative kinds of globalised relationships. Threading
through both my arguments is a normative plea to confront the diverse relations of power
involved in both globalisation and movement construction in order that globalised
solidarities be truly democratic. This is to challenge hierarchical visions of how best to
construct ‘the anti-globalisation movement’.
This article asks a deceptively simple question: is there a transnational anti-
globalisation social movement?
Some critics of the movement have already produced its obituary. They point to
the failure to rival the spectacle of the Battle of Seattle and, more fundamentally, to the
ramifications of the September 11 attacks. The space for protest is understood to have
closed down and the movement been thrown into an identity crisis (see discussion in
Martin, 2003; Callinicos, 2003: 16-19). I am not responding in this article to such
contentious claims, nor to the undoubtedly changing conjuncture for activism. Rather I
want to interrogate the more basic proposition that there has ever been such a thing as ‘an
anti-globalisation movement’.
This is not a particularly original course of enquiry, but it is one that has not yet
been undertaken in International Relations (IR) in a systematic way. Phenomena

Constructing ‘The Anti-Globalisation Movement’
associated with ‘the anti-globalisation movement’ have been widely discussed by IR
scholars (e.g. Falk, 1999; Gills, 2000; Sklair, 2002; Glasius et al., 2002; Held and
McGrew, 2002; Gill, 2003). Activist tactics, ideologies, and organisations may be
assessed (e.g. Halliday, 2000), but generally the focus is on non-governmental
organisations or civil society, global power and governance, or the politics of resistance.
This tendency to avoid the concept of ‘movement’ could stem from a tacit agreement
with those who fear it imposes totalising and hierarchical assumptions about anti-
globalisation identity and organisation (e.g. Esteva and Prakash, 1998: 13; Whitaker,
2003). The argument below contends that it is more accurate to think of movements as
heterogeneous and continually reconstructed. More pertinently here, I think avoidance is
more likely to derive from the general neglect in IR of ‘social movements’ and social
movement theory. Movements have traditionally been seen as located in the social and
therefore in the domain of sociology. They disrupt the usual categories of state-centric,
pluralist or structuralist IR and are difficult to assess through the dominant IR
methodologies of empiricist quantification, analysis of historical continuities or marxist
materialism (Eschle and Stammers, forthcoming).
This article does not provide a straightforward empirical (and empiricist) response
that recounts evidence of activism in order to trace the outlines of ‘the anti-globalisation
movement’. There are many surveys by activists and commentators that can be consulted
for that purpose, of which I will provide a short summary later. I want to focus more on
conceptual, methodological and political issues: what do the labels ‘social movement’
and ‘anti-globalisation’ mean? On what theoretical and empirical resources could we
draw to find out? On what basis have some interpretations become dominant over others?
What are the ramifications of intervening in such debates, for IR theorists as well as
In what follows, I adopt an eclecticism which is both pragmatic (given space
constraints and the lack of similar work in IR) and principled (derived from a belief in the
importance of paying attention to multiple discourses of activism and anti-globalisation).
I draw on various theories, including constructivist social movement theory and
feminism. I also foreground activist representations of themselves, from publications and
from the websites of the following groupings: Peoples’ Global Action, an anarchistically-
inclined network of local organisations, founded in Geneva in order to expand the
transnational solidarity work begun by the Zapatistas in Mexico; the World Social
Forum, a vast gathering of diverse activists held parallel to the World Economic Forum,
the culmination of a rolling process of national and regional activist meetings intended to
generate visions of alternative worlds; and the British group Globalise Resistance, a
membership organisation run predominantly by activists associated with the Socialist
Workers’ Party.
In the first part of what follows, I focus on the notion of a ‘social movement’. I
argue that a movement has indeed emerged, albeit in a highly contested and complex
form with activists, opponents and commentators constructing competing movement

Catherine Eschle
identities. This article is itself complicit in such a process – and seeks to further a
particular construction of the movement as a site of radical-democratic politics. In the
second part, I examine ‘anti-globalisation’. Focusing their opposition on globalised
neoliberalism and corporate power, activists represent their movement either as anti-
capitalist or as constructing alternative kinds of globalised relationships. Threading
through both parts of the article is a normative plea to confront the diverse relations of
power involved in both globalisation and movement construction, as many commentators
and activists are already doing, in order that globalised solidarities be truly democratic.
This is to challenge hierarchical visions of how best to construct ‘the anti-globalisation
movement’. I conclude by emphasising the importance of the self-understanding of
movement activists for theorising globalisation and resistance in IR.

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