#15O and the transnationalisation of collective action

951 cities in 82 countries (see map)

The appeal for global change today, 15 October 2011, constitutes a fundamental change in collective action. This is a new form of activism. The current crisis, of multiple and substantial consequences (see our last post here), has set the political opportunity. Individuals and organisations from all over the world have so far had an outstanding success in mass mobilisation. The outrage is palpable. The reaction is uncontrollable. The question is: What should and can we do now? How do we construct and frame the alternative?

In the last few years, analysts have observed a new dimension of activism that della Porta and Tarrow (2005) labelled as ‘transnational collective action’, that is, a collection of “coordinated international campaigns on the part of networks of activists against international actors, other states, or international institutions”. So far, there hasn´t been a univocal understanding of the meaning of the ‘transnational aspect’ of collective action. Dieter Rucht (1999), for example, considers that in order to qualify a movement as transnational it is best to rely on the criterion of organisational structure. Mario Diani (2005), alternatively, believes that the actual test of the global dimension of a social movement is not the density of the collaborative exchanges and not even the shared interest in the same themes, but rather the level of identification and solidarity between the constitutive parts of the movement.

The new form of transnational action (beginning with the so-called ‘Arab Spring’) is testing all the assumptions and theories on collective action. Today we are witnessing the coordinated mobilisation of thousands of people from all over the world, sharing or perceiving common interests and identities. Rightly or wrongly, these people, ‘united for #globalchange’, are relying on an ‘attribution of similarity’ (Sidney Tarrow and Doug McAdam 2005): they interpret that they all suffer similar grievances and that they all share a basic common identity that transcends national borders. This interpretation is particularly visible and key messages like ‘we are the 99 per cent’ or ‘real democracy now’.

Neil Stammers (1999) defines social movements as “collective actors constituted by individuals who understand themselves to share some common interests and who also identify with one another, at least to some extent. Social movements are chiefly concerned with defending or changing at least some aspect of society and rely on mass mobilisation, or the threat of it, as their main political sanction”. Charles Tilly (2004) distinguishes three constitutive elements of any social movement: public campaign around collective claims on target authorities; some sort of strategic political action; and the public representation of what he calls “WUNC”, namely, “statements, slogans, or labels that imply worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment”.

Today we face a coordinated transnational campaign of a global social movement. The transnationalisation of collective action is now a reality that cannot remain unobserved. Global activism has experienced a ‘scale shift’ (McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly 2001), that is, a “change in the number and level of coordinated contentious actions leading to broader contention involving a wider range of actors and bringing their claims and identities”. In 1999, Gary Marks and Doug McAdam wrote about the paradox of collective action in Europe: while the EU plays an increasing role in most policy areas and notably in economic policy, contentious action has mostly remained constrained to national borders. The widespread call to walk to Brussels to target major European institutions all at once may help solving this paradox.

The emergence and development of social movements, both domestically and transnationally, is explained by the conjunction and interaction of three broad sets of factors, whose weight may vary in different places and times: a) political opportunities (and constraints), b) mobilising structures and c) framing processes. The current crisis provides the political opportunity for action and reaction. The proliferation of internationalised organisations that play the role of loudspeakers of domestic claims, and the multiplication of horizontal connections among local and transnational groups (with the help of Internet and social media) provides good conditions for the creation and consolidation of mobilising structures. (Just a quick remark here: Activists must recall that partnerships between international and local groups don´t happen in a milieu of equality; the relation between groups from the Global North and those from the South is a ‘dependent relationship’). The real challenge now lies in the framing processes, defined as “the conscious strategic efforts by groups of people to fashion shared understandings of the world and of themselves that legitimate and motivate collective action” (McAdam, McCarthy and Zald 1996). This newborn global social movement must find out how to move from a ‘negative’ to a ‘positive’ discourse. We need to ‘ration’ our anger and think seriously and strategically about the solutions and the ideas that will inspire these solutions. This turn will probably require broad global vision and locally relevant answers. The success of this global movement depends upon the originality, feasibility and transformative potential of the proposed alternatives.

Koldo Casla



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