Globalization versus Social Movements: Towards a New Alliance?

by Ian Angus

Department of Humanities
Simon Fraser University

With the emergence of substantial internationally-organized protests at recent meetings of the WTO, the IMF, the Summit of the Americas discussion of FTAA, and other international free trade regulatory agencies, social movements have managed to re-politicize the measures taken to promote the unrestricted movement, accumulation and realization of capital. This is in clear contrast to the mood in Western capitalist nations after the fall of Communism in 1989, when the announcement of the ‘end of history’ anticipated an era of social consensus on the fundamental organization of society. Clearly marking the end of complacency in this regard, a recent ''Globe and Mail'' editorial (28/10/2000) recognized that, nowadays, “polemics mirror those that accompanied the rise of national capitalism a century ago.” Global capitalism, while still dominant and making new strides in breaking down social barriers to investment and realization of capital, is not unopposed. However, I will argue that capital in its current globalizing phase is not ‘returning’ us to the classic conflicts of 19th century capitalism, so that the classic critique by Marx could again be deemed accurate (barring a few updates).1 Rather, the current conjuncture of globalizing capital must be confronted and theorized in contemporary terms that would be adequate to explain its new and emerging features. It is the task of critical intellectuals to abandon not only the obscurantism and platitudes of neo-liberalism, but many certainties of the Left as well, in order to define and aid the opposing forces whose emergence we are witnessing today. This is not to say, of course, that the current situation is utterly new—if there could ever be such a thing—but that the form of old issues has mutated sufficiently that they need to be addressed anew. In this sense, this essay re-treads the classic issue in socialist political thought of the relationship between universality and particularity, which can also be phrased as the claim that equality does not mean sameness, or identity. It is this relation between a plurality of particularities and an emergent universality that is at issue in the current opposition to neo-liberal, free trade globalization.

My argument has two internally connected emphases: the nature of the system and some thoughts on the opposition. By reason of its double emphases, what I have to say will tend to waver between apology and hope, perhaps even prayer. This is the character of a political discourse, that it weaves together, or wavers between, what has made my life liveable and what may make the world liveable for all of us.

I would like to address several key themes for an alternative hegemony—I was going to say “an alternative hegemony in Canada today” but, as I think we know, the nation-state, and even the nation itself, is being de-stabilized in the current confrontation. The controversy thus embraces Canada, what Canada will be, and its role in the global world-order, and is for that reason not simply ‘in’ Canada. To this extent, it renders problematic the whole field of concern that has defined Canadian Studies. I have argued before that a ‘rhetoric of lament’ was constitutive of both Red Toryism and Left-nationalism “insofar as it uncovers the historic failure of Canadian government to provide the policies that might lead the country from a cycle of dependence towards an independent economic and cultural existence.”2 It is now too late for lament. Or, better: since history’s final page remains to be turned and the project of a communitarian and independent polity still awaits its redemption, when we begin to lament the loss of lament, we enter the space of the contemporary confrontation. A political discourse must describe the confrontation itself, but it does so from within the confrontation.

I will focus on three themes: first, whether the current global system should be conceptualized primarily through ‘technology’ or as ‘capitalist;’ second, the contemporary political confrontation between the neo-liberal, free trade, vision of globalization and the emerging opposition which is based on an alliance between social movements; and, third, the role of intellectuals in this confrontation.

My argument depends on a two-tier conception in which certain issues can be traced back to the institution of modernity as the domination of nature for human purposes and others to the specifically capitalist form of this domination. The answer to the question of whether the system should be called ‘technology’—or, as I would rather say, ‘technicity’—versus ‘capitalism’ is ‘both,’ but not ‘both/and.’ ‘Both’ because capitalism is the globally dominant form of ‘technicity,’ even though it is not the only possible form, but not ‘and’ because this form is not on the same level as that of which it is one form. Modernity, as technicity, is the over-arching phenomenon, I will argue.

However, it is key to my argument that these two tiers, or levels, bear an interesting and complex relationship. Thus, even though modern technicity is the fundamental phenomenon, this does not mean that the political issues of specifically capitalist globalization are irrelevant to technicity. Nor does it mean that technicity is totally determinant of the main features of global capitalism. In short, I want to propose a conception of the relationship between these two levels in which there is not a one-way determination from the most comprehensive to the most specific, nor a determination in the reverse direction, but rather a complex dynamic of mutual determination which I call a ‘constitutive paradox.’3 The coherence of everything that I will say today depends upon the theoretical viability of this conception of the relationship between two levels of significance.

We can define the first, more restricted, tier to refer to the institutions that are defined and held together by global capitalism. The second, more extensive, tier refers to the processes which constructed and reinforce modernity understood as the domination of nature for human purposes. At this level, global capitalism can be compared to fascism and Communism as alternative forms of modernity. More restricted political comparisons—such as that between free trade neo-liberalism and redistributive social democracy—also illustrate the fact that the general structure of modernity can take different institutional forms. The widest issues of contemporary politics are about the preferred form which modernity should take. For simplicity, we can thus refer to the ‘institutional form’ of globalizing capitalism in distinction from the ‘general structure’ of modernity. These are the two tiers.

One could describe the general structure of modernity as ‘limiting’ the political options available at the institutional level. Or, one could assert the ethico-political importance of the available political options within the general structure. Both of these emphases, while correct as far as they go, pose the issue one-sidedly in terms of the influence of one ‘level’ on the other. I want to describe the relationship between levels as one of reciprocal determination or influence (which is not the simple addition of two one-way determinations) and here, perhaps, the metaphor of tiers or levels breaks down. My argument is that these two tiers are in a relationship that can be called a ‘constitutive paradox.’ A relation of constitutive paradox comes into being when there is a mutually-referring, hierarchical relationship between two levels of abstraction, but this hierarchy cannot be stabilized and reverses itself. Thus, at one moment, modernity is the context for the specific form of capitalism and, at another, capitalism is the context for the expansion of the project of modernity. The reversal of the content/context relationship means that the self-referential relation between two levels becomes paradoxical. This paradox is constitutive of social relations. It is no less effective for being paradoxical.

Now, I want to return from this theoretical kernel of my argument to my three themes: should we understand the system as ‘capitalism’ or ‘technicity’? how should we understand the confrontation between neo-liberal globalization and social movements? and, what is the role of intellectuals in this confrontation? But first, in order to open up this discussion in the way that the new features of the present demand, I want to sketch briefly those aspects of Left discourse that must be left behind.

1. Beyond the Certainties of Radical Discourse

Since capitalism has now officially become controversial again, it would seem that the Left could re-assert the main lines of its classic critique of capitalism. However, a valid contemporary critique must be as contemporary as its object. There are six components of the Left’s critique of capitalism, that are now obsolete or, at the very least, need to be radically questioned. While their origin, and often clearest expression, is in Marxism, these ideas have a life well beyond any political orthodoxy. Here, I can just list them with only the barest commentary:

1. The project of changing capitalism into a more free and egalitarian, post-capitalist social form has generally been tied to the notion of historical progress, the idea that each successive social formation improves on its predecessor. History as a whole is thus characterized, at least implicitly, as the story of the growth of freedom and, insofar as the freedom of one is taken to be linked to the freedom of all, as the progressive attainment of human equality. The notion of progress is rooted in a Eurocentric focus of history and in a conception of the domination of nature for human purposes that has become incredible.

2. The locus of social change has been placed almost exclusively at the level of the politics of the nation-state. Even though the factory was understood as an important, even crucial, site of struggle, the locus of change between social formations was tied to the conquest of state power in both revolutionary and social-democratic traditions.

3. Related to this state-orientation, there was no theory of bureaucracy, nor the problems of how to manage a large and complex society, as an independent problem for modern societies whatever their capitalist, socialist or Communist form. The apparatus of the state was seen as capable of being turned toward other ends and, correlatively, as not involving distinct problematic prerequisites of its own.

4. Again related again to this state-orientation, the industrial form of production with its military-like internal organization was regarded as an attained form of progress and, therefore, as not a point of political contestation. The organization of work, especially its hierarchical structure, was not questioned—even when it was argued that worker’s representatives should sit on factory, or company, boards. While this is perhaps clearest in Lenin’s and even Gramsci’s acceptance of Fordism and scientific management as simply ‘rational’ forms of factory organization, it also functioned as an assumption within social democracy.

5. The notion that social change issues from the confrontation of well-defined classes, despite the ethical motivations of a majority of socialists, served to stifle the ethical impulse and to derail thinking about how it could be institutionalized and encouraged. The notion that the working class is the priviliged agent of social change, and that socialism can be seen as an immanent development of the contradictions of capitalism, served to cloud the practical politics of how change could be instituted.

6. Finally, and this is more an absence than an assumption, there was no concept of democracy as general participation in everyday decision-making. Whether in the Leninist conception of the party or the social democratic reduction of politics to representative parliamentary politics, the concept of democracy was not opened up to expansion. It was either derided as ‘bourgeois’ or simply accepted as the only viable form of ‘democracy.’

These six features of the socialist opposition to capitalism define the limits of what can be called the ‘discourse,’ or ‘imaginary,’ of the Left in both its revolutionary and social democratic forms. Certainly, left-wing activists and thinkers will be able to quote to me exceptions to these generalizations and point to groups who contested them in practice. The Council Communists, anarchists, certain trends within social democracy, the co-operative movement, the ‘refusal to work’ tendency, and many more, departed from one or more of these assumptions. Nevertheless, these groups and tendencies did not influence the mainstream of the critique of capitalism, especially with regards to how such groups thought about their own activity. In many cases, there was a remarkable divergence between the practical activity of such groups and the discourse, or imaginary, that they articulated. For example, the politics of the New Left was primarily a politics of new social movements, as we would call it now, even though it was articulated in terms of ‘anti-imperialism’ and Marxism. Indeed, I would argue, if I could take more space, that to the extent that this ossified language became hegemonic within the New Left, its creative politics degenerated. In any case, this six-point schematization is not meant to denigrate decentralizing and democratic tendencies in the history of socialism but rather to argue that, despite their marginalization, they must become important to us again now. Indeed, it seems to me that the very extent to which previous groups and tendencies questioned these assumptions of Left-wing orthodoxy, is the measure of their importance to us today.

In our current situation, we need to break with the assumption of progress, of an agent defined by capitalism that achieves progress, and the notion that such progress takes place primarily through the established institutions of the nation-state. We need to think of history more in terms of a break than continuity, more as a regress to be avoided than a completion of progress, and more in terms of an ethical imperative that stands outside history than a competition for control of the industrial and state apparatus. We need to wonder more fundamentally who, and why, agents strive for change and, perhaps most important, we have to cure ourselves of an obsession with success—even though despite, or perhaps because of, this obsession, success has been a very occasional experience indeed.

2. Technicity and/or Capitalism?

The phenomenon of neo-liberal globalization expresses itself politically primarily as the pressure to reduce to zero restrictions on the movement, investment and realization of capital. Such a reduction, the pending globalizing hegemony would instruct us, would allow the free flow of resources and goods around the world without the obstructions that nation-states, regions, cities and communities sometimes attempt to put in place. The image of the world contained in such a proposal is of a complex closed sphere of inter-connected circuits, what one might call a ‘cybernetic totality,’ or a ‘self-referential closed system.’

This image of a self-referential closed system is deeply rooted in the modern imagination. It depends on the objectification of the world accomplished by modern science and technology. Prior to the notion of combining all factors through the streamlining of communication circuits, all factors must be unloosed from subjective, unthematic participations, or what we might call local attachments. This process of abstraction and objectification produces factors which can then be linked into a system. Unlike a pre-modern conception of knowledge, in which each objectified component refers back to its origin in pre-scientific experience and forward to its teleological goal, a cybernetic conception refers to the ‘horizontal’ relations between distinct factors whose process of formation is assumed and left uninvestigated. Horizontal relations between factors can be unified into an (ideally) closed system precisely insofar as the process of abstraction and objectification is itself obscured and left out of the conception of knowledge.

It is this conception of a self-referential, cybernetic, systemic relation between factors that provides the image of the world proposed by the pending globalizing hegemony. It is no wonder that computers and the so-called ‘new economy’ play a role in this hegemony much larger than its role in the economic reality of actual people. Free trade capitalism proposes itself as the best, or even only, form in which globalization can take place. In this sense, it can be called ideological insofar as it attempts to define competing forms as simply irrational from the beginning and, thereby, narrow the terrain of political argument.

Every self-referential system of sufficient complexity, and a global system must obviously be complex, has, what we can call ‘nodes’ that link the circuits of the complex organization. The stock market is an important node, for example, in which the industries that extract resources necessary to production are linked to sources of capital that can finance resource extraction. The nation-state is another node, in which, to take only one example, the educational prerequisites of the workforce required by a global economy are linked to resources and organizations that can provide such education. Another important node is advertising, in which consumption preferences, but, more important, the stimulation of consumption levels themselves, are linked to products. The circuits of the global system are all interwoven. They pass through nodes which organize the system by relaying and translating the exigencies of one circuit into information for another. Nodes are the internal perceptual organs of the global body whereby it monitors its own state and attains, or attempts to attain, a temporary equilibrium.

Contemporary political discourse is primarily about the role of such nodes, and their relative importance, in the global system. At the present time, social democrats are mainly concerned to emphasize that the nation-state and its redistribution of wealth is not an ‘external’ drag on the system, but plays an important role in providing the prerequisites for its functioning—like an educated workforce, for example, or the funding of health care through a state system that reduces the drain on private industry. Neo-liberals, of course, are engaged in a one-sided polemic against the state node as a merely unnecessary ‘interference’ in the system. However, even they do not envision the elimination of police forces or de-regulation of the stock market. The nation-state will remain a significant node for the forseeable future; the arguments are over what its role will be and what will be its source of funding.

In this way, neo-liberalism attempts to narrow the debate on political alternatives over the form which globalization will take. It proposes ‘free trade capitalism’ as the only rational form of a global order. Nonetheless, there are a much wider range of alternatives available for the key nodes of the global system. It is important to remember that the system is not yet in place. The pending hegemony is oriented to globalization as an active process and thus perhaps necessarily overstates its position in order to marginalize the more balanced views that might slow the process in the short term. Even the Globe and Mail editorial (28/10/2000) pointed out that labour does not move over national borders with the ease of capital. One important politics of the nation-state node will be the extent to which all labour might legally move internationally, thereby undermining the distinction between legal and illegal labour that decisively affects the level of wages. Nonetheless, all the political alternatives oriented to positioning and streamlining the nodes presuppose the rationality, desirability or inevitability of the global information circuit.

If the free market hegemony is only one form of the emerging global cybernetic system, then it is necessary to sketch the outlines of the system which stands behind the constrained spectrum of contemporary politics. In this, I am not much interested in the question “how does it work?” but in the conditions which are necessary for the system to exist as a system. The system in question is one that aims, to the greatest extent possible, to be a self-referential and self-regulating cybernetic system encompassing, in the first place, the production-consumption circuit and, insofar as this circuit is the dominant one, other social circuits. As a starting point, I suggest that all human dwelling involves an ontological relation between a form of society, a form of labour, and a form of nature. I say ‘a form of’ because the historical and cultural forms of these ontological relations vary considerably. Notwithstanding these variations, however, inter-related forms of society, labour and nature constitute the primary level of all human dwelling.

In this context, I can only state without preamble or proof that the dominant contemporary form of society is consumer society, the dominant contemporary form of labour is scientific technology, and the dominant contemporary form in which humans appropriate nature is as a storehouse of resources. These three forms are inter-related such that, for example, the growth of scientific technology through the development of modern science occurred in tandem with the critique of any immanent teleology in nature such that it became conceived as devoid of intrinsic value and was taken to be merely a means toward humanly posited ends. Similarly, the profusion of manufactured objects required by consumer society requires a continuous development of technologies in order to bring new goods onto the market. Also, the lack of any concept of an inherent natural limit to human action reinforces both the proliferation of new technologies and the reorganization of human self-conceptions of identity through consumer activities. This triad of ‘consumerism—scientific technology—resources’ comprises a unique contemporary form of human dwelling. It is overlaid on other forms that have not yet completely disappeared, the most important being the most recent: production-oriented capital, but remnants of feudal, tribal and other forms of human dwelling still remain. Nevertheless, the institutional prerequisites of the unique contemporary form of dwelling represented by this triad are in place and can be expected increasingly to draw into its ambit and displace earlier forms.

I have thus suggested that the ‘free trade capitalism’ advocated by neo-liberalism attempts to narrow the range of political alternatives available within the current system by proposing a hegemonic alliance that marginalizes the claims of communities. To oversimplify, the only nodes that they acknowledge are the stock market, the police powers of the state, and the stockpiles of information in computer banks. There is nothing necessary about this politics and the opening of other possibilities through the defence of communities is an essential contemporary task. However, there is also a deeper question that pertains to the direction of contemporary society as a whole toward the image of the self-regulating system rooted in modernity as such. It is much more difficult to say what, or even whether, contemporary politics can address this issue, rooted as it is in long-term historical and institutional trends.

I am thus proposing a two-tier conception of society: the first pertains to the alternatives that vie for hegemony and aim to steer the system through affecting the nodes where its circuits overlap. This is the realm within established institutions where the battle against neo-liberalism is largely fought through rhetorical and political attempts to gain hegemony. Underneath this manifest level, arise questions concerning the institution, in an active sense, of the prerequisites of the system itself: How and why did consumer society emerge? Why is labour today continuously pushed into the form of scientific technology? Why does nature appear as without inherent worth, as merely a stockpile of resources? Instituting as the bringing-into-being of such prerequisites is outside, or, better, beneath the politics of hegemony.4 It is difficult to say what politics, if any, might delay, or even genuinely question, such deep-seated historical commitments. This level of deep-seated historical instituted meaning is sedimented in practices and organizations to such an extent that they often seem inevitable even though they have made our society take the specific form that it has taken and are thus tokens of its historical and cultural particularity. Every hegemonic politics is a foreshortening of the possibilities inherent within historical sedimented institution and achieves its difference from other hegemonic projects precisely by the character of its foreshortening. Difficult as it is to imagine without underestimating the prodigious nature of the project, contemporary social movements have come to question the historic institution of contemporary dwelling as well as the foreshortening proposed by neo-liberalism.

3. Social Movements: A Necessary Interruption

The two-tiered conception of society that I have proposed helps to clarify some tensions within contemporary social movements, tensions which I believe illuminate the complex character of the turning that we are experiencing in our time.

Social movements intervene in the self-referential system established by the circuits of consumerism, scientific technology and natural resources to interrupt the formation of the identities of the subjects produced and reproduced within the system. Subjectivity is an essential part of the system’s self-referentiality and reproducibility. The system exists through the externalization of humanity and nature such that they can appear as factors within a self-referential system cut off from the sources of these factors in spontaneous creativity. As such, it must reduce and reproduce subjectivity, not as this creative source, but as a factor internal to the system.

Subjectivity thus appears in three distinct points of the system. Subjectivity appears as a ‘resource,’ whether human or natural, that can be utilized by scientific technology to produce objects for consumption. Subjectivity appears as the consumer subjectivity which reproduces itself through choices to buy that form an identity for the individual consumer within the multititude of differential options offered by the market. Subjectivity appears as the scientific subject that works for the corporation in its use of technology to bring new goods onto the market that will stimulate desires for new consumer identities. Thus, subjectivity is not a single factor within the system but a plurality of subject-positions that function in the production and reproduction of the system. The system proffers possibilities for identification through which identities are constructed that reinforce the components of consumerism, scientific technology and natural resources. The system which is externalized ‘is’ subjectivity itself, formed through externalization into a systematic organization of ‘factors.’ Social movements intervene in this self-reproduction of the system, first, to ''interrupt'' its reproduction, second, to propose new possibilities for identification, and thus, third, to dislocate the self-referential reproduction of the system. The new subjectivities constructed within social movements open other possibilities, other futures, by redefining the present.

There is, of course, a constant tendency to turn the processes and results of social movements back into factors of the system. Movements, and the individuals who comprise them, remain subject to the systemic processes that attempt to interpolate them as factors. The struggle between new identifications and factors goes on within each person, who can never definitively step outside the system, but who, given the break enabled by social movements, is engaged in identifications that escape being defined as factors of the system. Thus, social movements are subject to an ''accomodationist'' tendency whereby they are pushed to consider their realistic place within the world-system—despite the fact that, if they had considered such ‘realism’ at the outset, they would never have got started. Social movements must always be re-started, for it is at their inception, in the moment of new identification, that their distinctive importance lies. Alongside the accomodationist tendency, there is this continually rediscovered necessity to start again, to be born again, to ''propose otherwise''. It is no wonder that the metaphors of birth and life spontaneously emerge wherever social movements interrupt the system. There is also a third element of social movements, which is not quite a third tendency, which comes out when the ‘otherwise’ hardens into a definite plan, rather than being a perpetual willingness to start again. It is, what we might call, a ''negative utopia'': the environmental movement might regard the human ability to dominate nature as simply a mistake, a characteristic simply to be expugned, which would, of course, eliminate along with it that which is distinctive about human beings. The feminist movement might regard patriarchy as a simple fall from the grace of a female-dominated society that would erase what is distinctive about men. This tendency, or ‘hardening of the otherwise into a negative utopia,’ inhabits contemporary social movements because of their necessity to maintain their ‘otherwise’ against the accomodationist tendency of the system. Luckily, the tendency to a negative utopia is always being undone by the most basic aspect of the movements themselves—the desire to go elsewhere, to overflow the channels provided, that encounters a diversity that will not fit within the negative utopia. Despite the tendencies towards accomodation and negative utopia, social movements discover and rediscover themselves in the simple desire to ‘propose otherwise,’ not to fit in the self-reproducing circuits.

In the face of the neo-liberal assault, many critics have returned to a defence of the welfare state to argue for its continued viability in the era of globalization. While there is certainly a place for intervention in the global economy by the nation-state, the problem is rather the deeper and wider one of how to revitalize and re-invent community regulation at all levels of society and in relation to a plurality of communities. This question has a further dimension: can the plurality of social movements combine to produce a ‘total’ alternative to global capitalism? There are two distinct issues involved in this question. First, how can such a form of combination occur which would not erase the particularity of each movement and community? Second, what model of change would be adequate to the contemporary situation? With respect to the latter question, I have argued elsewhere that a strategy of ''displacement'', rather than revolutionary overthrow, is appropriate.5 Here, I want to follow up the question of the form of combination between movements that could make a new hegemonic alliance possible. Of course, this is a political question whose answer can only be found in the fortunes of political activism. Recent anti-globalization mobilizations on the streets of Seattle, Prague and Québec City have brought home, even to the editors of the ''Globe and Mail'', that such a politics is already underway. My attempt is simply to articulate theoretically the significance of events that are already going on.

4. The Principle of Association

In conclusion, then let me take up two related issues: Who would be the ‘subject’ of the emerging alliance? What would be its principle of association?

A politics of alliance refers to the relation between constituted groups and does not inquire into the processes or principles of their formation. The individual, or person, can be a member of more than one group. It is the cross-membership, or multiple identity, that constitutes the ‘person’ who is involved in the politics of the new alliance proposed by social movements. The international, or post-national, ‘person’ is a member of a plurality of communities, each of which embraces different principles of internal association and pursues different purposes. This implies a redefinition of the ‘person’ as the inter-section between a plurality of communities, not as a liberal ‘individual’ constituted outside community and only subsequently, and instrumentally, entering into it. This plurality of intersecting communities overcomes the closedness of traditional communities and insists ''de facto'' that communities adapt themselves to the possibility that their members may leave, which functions to strengthen the rights of participation within communities. The post-national person thus can postulate the importance of ‘community’ as such to human life, independent of a specific community, which raises the question of the recovery of ‘belonging’ in a new form.

The principle of association that is emerging between groups in the alliance against the globalization of free trade does not address the internal constitution of the groups themselves but is oriented rather to the ‘external’ conditions for alliance between differently constituted groups.6 How can, or do, particular groups form an alliance without subsuming their particularity into the alliance? I think that the emerging alliance uses what we might call a ‘neo-Proudhonian’ conception of Federation as the basis for free association. Here is Proudhon’s definition.

Federation from the Latin fœdus, gen. fœderis, that is to say, pact, contract, treaty, convention, alliance, etc., is an agreement by which one or several heads of a family, one or several communes, one or several groups of communes or states, bind themselves by mutual and equal agreements for one or several determinate aims, for which the responsibility falls specifically and exclusively on the members of the federation. [T]he contracting parties … not only bind themselves … they assure themselves individually more rights, liberty, authority, and property than they give up … Any agreement … that demands the associates’ total effort deprives them of their independence and forces them to devote themselves solely to the association … .7

We may note that the question of the internal organization of the group is not addressed at all by Proudhon in this context. Also, it is important that federation is for a determinate or delimited goal, such that the organization remains distinct and is not merged into a larger association. For this reason, Proudhon’s concept of federalism seems closer to the idea of an alliance, rather than what we normally think of as a Federation, or Confederation. The constituent groups retain their particularity because the alliance is for temporary and limited purposes. The alliance remains permanently tentative and must court the agreement of the constituent groups by appealing to the reasons that each particularity has for entering an alliance. Thus, the alliance cannot become a power over the constituent groups.

A more difficult question would be when, and how, the alliance could expel a group. This limit would be reached when a given constituent group, either through its internal actions on its own members or by external actions, broke decisively with the mutual understanding upon which the alliance depended. It seems clear here that the internal actions of a given group, insofar as we restrict ourselves here to the principle of alliance itself, must be largely, or even entirely, outside the jurisdiction of the alliance. To this extent, the new anti-free trade alliance may need the aid of certain liberal principles concerning the rights of individuals, that it does not generate from itself. With regard to actions oriented outside the group, such actions must clearly not contradict the mutual understanding of the alliance—though it need not necessarily further them. Being an autonomous group, which allies with other groups for limited purposes, a given group clearly reserves to itself the right to have purposes different from the alliance on the sole condition that they do not contradict those of the alliance. There is clearly room for a great deal of debate here as to whether different actions are contradictory to the general purpose or not. One of the main politics of alliance will concern the extent to which other, heterogenous purposes of other groups are merely different or should be seen as contradictory.

What are the “determinate aims” (to use Proudhon’s phrase) of the anti-free trade alliance? I have argued above that, in general, the commonality in question is the defence of various forms of community, especially those constructed by, and within, social movements.8 More specifically, recent observers have defined the alliances that activate what they call “globalization from below” as the “violation of widely accepted norms.” “When widely accepted norms are violated, it can cause concern in many quarters, including both those directly affected and other people who believe in the violated norms. A network of those concerned may form or an existing network may take up the issue.”9 This observation—in a manner similar to the principle of alliance which doesn’t ask about the internal constitution of groups—does not address the origin or legitimation of norms. It assumes norms to be already existent and with some social force and points out that it is their violation that is a galvanizing component of the alliance between groups. The determinate aims of the alliance are thus rooted in widely shared ethical norms and an analysis of the fundamental processes by which they are being systematically violated.

5. Five Tasks for Intellectuals

One major role of intellectuals in the current confrontation does not diverge greatly from the time-honoured task of the intellectual: critique—showing the limits of the current system in the exploitation and misery that it causes.10 A second task in the new alliance is to bring into relief the new features of the alliance and, even more important, to think through the implications of current practices. These two traditional tasks of critical intellectuals include showing the systemic injustices produced by the system and aiding the opposition by attempting to bring its practice to greater theoretical clarity.

But, while these traditional tasks remain important, they are no longer sufficient. Due to the plurality of groups and discourses in the alliance, the intellectual must take on the additional task of translating the norms being violated to different communities. This may enable the reasons imbedded in their different particularities for embracing the common principle of alliance to ground a new conception of the ‘public’ as the interaction between, and alliance of, communities.

A fourth task can be defined in relation to the violation of norms. It is crucially important now to oppose the pervasive tendencies to cynicism and hectic consumption through the recovery, preservation and appropriation of ethical norms themselves. Such norms are imbedded in the religious, philosophical and political traditions that are being liquidated today by the corporatization of artistic, cultural and intellectual life—not least, though not solely, in the universities. In this, it is not so much a matter of preserving specific norms themselves but of preserving the cultural heritage whereby norms have been, and are, formed.

A fifth task: continuing the project of Canadian Studies. The importance of the preservation and critical appropriation of cultural heritages brings me back to the issue that I posed in passing at the outset—that the role of Canada, and the Canadian cultural-political heritage, has become questionable in the context of the global alliance against the globalization of free trade. Here, I think, it is important to view the cultural and political heritages of nations imbricated in the historical construction of Canada as important resources for the ethical norms whose violation is now at issue. In extensive interviews with young Canadians, Myrna Kostash recently found that, when they said ‘Canada,’ it was imbued with a content of social justice that they experienced as endangered today.

If, by the old political culture, the pre-revolutionary political culture, we mean the Canada in which the institutions and morality of the public interest dominated over the private, there is at least anecdotal evidence from my interviewees … that the public space in which that interest had agency has not been completely evacuated. These are instances of the reiteration, after so many years of a grim morality of survival-of-the-fittest, of something like hope. There is the persistent identification with the idea of Canada as a shared ‘commons’ of social consciousness.11

This may be the most important task for those of us involved with ‘Canadian Studies’ today—to uncover, preserve and critically continue those traditions that have contributed to opposing and leavening the corporate agenda through the construction of communities.


1 Such as is apparent in, for example, James Laxer, ''In Search of a New Left'' (Toronto: Penguin, 1997) especially at pp. 192, 146.

2 Ian Angus, ''A Border Within: National Identity, Cultural Plurality, and Wilderness'' (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1997) p. 31.

3 I have previously discussed the concept of constitutive paradox in ''(Dis)figurations: Discourse/Critique/Ethics'' (London and New York: Verso, 2000) pp. 36-49, 51-2, 124-6.

4 For an elaboration of this concept of institution, see Ian Angus, ''Primal Scenes of Communication: Communication, Consumerism, and Social Movements'' (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000) pp. 4-6, 189-91.

5 Ian Angus, ''A Border Within'', pp. 182-5, 191-3.

6 This is not to say that the principle of association has no implications for, or influence or, the internal constitution of groups. As I have indicated briefly in the preceding paragraph, ‘communities’ take a different, more ‘open,’ form when they exist within a field of communities. This is the reason why, to take one example, contemporary multiculturalism is not simply a defence of traditionalism.

7 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Federal Principle (1863) excerpted in ''Selected Writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon'' (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1969) pp. 106-7.

8 I have presented this argument for ‘community versus market’ as the locus for contemporary antagonisms (as distinct from class versus class, for example) recently in “Subsistence as a Social Right: A Political Ideal for Socialism?” in ''Studies in Political Economy'', Spring 2001.

9 Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith, ''Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity'' (Cambridge: South End Press, 2000) p. 110.

10 In case it should be supposed that I am here ridiculously inflating the role of university professors, let me clarify that the term ‘intellectuals’ is used here to refer, in a Gramscian sense, to anyone who accepts the task of articulating and clarifying social practice, especially social change. Some in universities may accept this role, but I take it as obvious that very few do. I also take it as given that the greater number of intellectuals in this sense are activists whose base is in social movements themselves.

11 Myrna Kostash, ''The Next Canada: In Search of Our Future Nation'' (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2000) p. 317. Paragraph separation omitted.

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