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Our Resistance Must Be As Local As Capitalism: Place, Scale and the Anti-Globalization Protest Movement

James DeFilippis

Department of Geography, King's College London,

Strand Campus, London WC2R 2LS

United Kingdom



Scale and Organizing Against Neo-liberal Globalization

Localized efforts in the anti-globalization movement

Where are/were the community organizations?

Implications of Disconnected Scales

Place, Locality, and Social Movements

Questions of Scale in Political Conflict

Local efforts and building a program for social change




I should begin by stating that the emerging, movement against neo-liberal globalization(1) is probably the most exciting development in my political life. The critical nature of this article should therefore not be viewed as a condemnation of this nascent movement, but rather as part of the critical self-reflection that is a necessary process in any movement. I should also state that while this is a global set of protests that I will be discussing, I am writing, as everyone does, from a particular point of view and about a particular set of experiences, primarily those of the United States, and as a participant in both the Washington and Prague protests -- and as a card-carrying member of Globalise Resistance. But there is a great diversity of organizations and people involved in these protests, and thus any generalizations about the protests are made, and should be read, with caution.

When the World Trade Organization met in Seattle at the end of November 1999 the occasion was marked by roughly 60,000 protestors representing a plethora of organizations and political and ideological goals. Their presence in Seattle made an immediate and important impact on American public life. Questions of trade and neo-liberal globalization, which had been all but invisible in public discourse, became issues that were discussed and understood to be controversial. Since Seattle, protests have accompanied the meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as well as the other global, and regional, institutions of global governance. Protests swept through the world since December 1999, from Bangkok to Washington to Chang Mai to Melbourne to Prague to Nice to the Hague to Quebec City to Gothenburg and Genoa, and on from there, leading some commentators to call the year 2000, "the year of global protest" (Bello, 2001). There is certainly nothing new about protests and civil unrest over global neo-liberalism and the institutions that promote and regulate it. And there are clearly echoes of both the anti-structural adjustment food riots that exploded in the global south in the 1980s (Walton and Seddon, 1994) and the Chiapas uprising that began in 1994, shortly after the codification of NAFTA in North America. But the emerging sets of protests are both new and different because they transcend any particular locality or nation. The protestors have rallied around the theme of "our resistance must be as global as capitalism." This has been more than empty, rhetoric. Instead it is a statement of both the organizers' goals, and an expression of the scale and form of organizing they are in engaged in. These are global sets of protests, and are accordingly organized at scales geographically larger than any locality or nation. And while this transcendence of smaller geographic scales offers the greatest potential of this new movement, it is also, I will argue here, somewhat problematic. In short, social movements need places in which to develop and prosper, and the privileging of the global scale over other, smaller, scales of organizing threatens to undercut the ability of the protests to realize the transformative changes that are its goals.

This article has two primary parts. First, I will briefly discuss the methods of organizing that have created the emerging anti-globalization movement. Second, and the bulk of this article, will discuss the implications of these forms of organizing and the issues of place and geographic scale that they raise.

Scale and Organizing Against Neo-liberal Globalization

The November-December1999 protests in Seattle marked the "coming out party" for anti-globalization politics. But neither the organizing methods used nor the political coalitions evident in those protests were brand new. Instead, both organizationally and politically there are longer histories there. The internet has played an incredibly important role in coordinating activities and serving as a forum for the exchange of ideas and information. In many ways the internet has been the central organizing mechanism for the anti-globalization protests. The potential of the internet in anti-globalization organizing emerged in 1997, when a French environmental NGO revealed the details of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), which had been negotiated in secret by the member countries of the OECD since 1995. This release led to its distribution around the web and a large coalition of NGOs opposed to the MAI emerged, and eventually won in their battle. This campaign, and not Seattle, marked the watershed for the internet's use in anti-globalization politics. In the period since Seattle, the internet has remained a vital forum for all facets of the organizing process, from the discussion of ideas, to the dissemination of information, and the coordination of activities.

Similarly, the political coalition that emerged in Seattle was not new, but had built over the course of a decade. The environmental NGOs that came together to organize Seattle probably first emerged as a network in the build up to the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. And in 1994, the World Bank's 50th anniversary was met by a substantial network of groups that came together to form the "Fifty Years is Enough" coalition -- which continues to play an active role in this protest movement. Even the "blue-green" or "Teamsters-turtles" coalition, that so stunned commentators in Seattle has its roots in their common opposition to NAFTA in the early 1990s. Thus the often disparate groups of environmental organizations, trade unions, democratic rights lobbies, and sustainable development groups, had all been on the same side during one set of fights or another over the course of a decade. What was different about Seattle was not that these various groups were in oppositional agreement, but that they came together to protest and used the context of a major international meeting, and its attendant media focus, to do so.

In the various sets of protests that have come since Seattle, and have spread around the globe, large-scale NGOs and national-level unions have continued to be the central figures. Accordingly, the problems of globalization have therefore been constructed and understood by the large-scale NGOs, and the protestors, as global problems caused by multi-national (or global) corporations and the global neo-liberal public policies which promote and support them. They therefore need to be confronted on their own terms and at their own scale.

We thus have a model of organizing in which large scale groups use internet-organized protests at multi-national institutional gatherings as their primary vehicle for realizing social change.

    Localized efforts in the anti-globalization movement

This is not to say that there have not been other forms of organizing around more localized concerns, because that would be an over-simplification of things (and, again, there is a great deal of diversity within the various organizations and actors involved). For instance, when the Bolivian government privatized the water supply to its city of Cochabamba, the price of water doubled almost immediately. In early 2000 the people of Cochabamba rebelled and took to the streets. They also, however, took to the internet, and through its use, thousands of people around the world exerted pressure on the corporation (Bechtel Corporation). As a result of this local and global pressure, the company withdrew and Bolivia re-nationalized the water supply to the city (Brecher, Costello and Smith, 2000).

Another example comes from the growing movement to get large institutional investors, like city governments and trade union pension funds, to boycott the bonds that principally finance the World Bank. Already some large trade unions, and several American city governments (San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley) have agreed, as a result of local political pressure, to not invest in World Bank bonds. A similar movement is currently growing in both Britain and Continental Europe (see Watkins and Danaher, 2001) -- although state structures, their inter-scale relations, and pension fund ownership and control probably limit the potential of this organizing strategy in Europe.

Also, I do not mean to imply that the protests have been devoid of local or community organizations, because that would also be too simple a description. Perhaps the most visible American community organization involved in the anti-globalization protests has been the Kensington Welfare Rights Union from Philadelphia. Through its summer 1998 nationwide bus tour that ended at the United Nations, and its spear-heading of the "Economic Human Rights Campaign," the KWRU had already become an organization that operated simultaneously on more than one scale when the protests erupted in Seattle. The KWRU was there, and also brought large numbers of people to the April 2000 protests in Washington.

But these examples, and the KWRU, stand out because of how exceptional they are. In general, the current anti-globalization protests have been disconnected from organizing at the local and community scales. And community organizations have by-and-large stood on the sidelines and watched the protests from a distance (Axel-Lute, 2000).

Where are/were the community organizations?

To be fair to the anti-globalization protestors, the lack of connection to community organizations is not simply a one-way street or solely the fault of national and international NGOs organizing on the internet. In the United States, the lack of connections is also a function of how community organizations themselves have changed over the last 30 years. While there is certainly not the time here to thoroughly discuss the trajectory of American community organizing, broadly speaking American community organizations have lost their social movement roots. Community groups founded in the mid 1960s were part of the radical, and participatory, Community Action Agencies, and were often embedded in the language of "black power" and "community control." In the 1970s they were generally founded as social movements opposed to practices such as redlining and the last remnants of "urban renewal." But by the 1980s and 1990s, most community groups had lost their radical and participatory character and had become Community Development Corporations (CDCs), which basically build affordable housing, and, in the larger ones, functionally act as community-scale Chambers of Commerce. In the process, notions such as "community control" have been replaced by "community-based assets," "non-confrontational organizing" and "social capital."

This political shift is significant because within the broad American community development world there are a host of social and institutional forms that could have a radical political potential. But because of the larger, neo-liberal, CDC political context in which they are embedded, that potential goes unrealized. In particular, community land trusts, community development credit unions, mutual housing associations, limited-equity housing co-operatives, and community-owned retail (like supermarkets), all, in their own, individual ways, fit into the broad set of politics that the anti-globalization protestors are interested in. These are all community-based, collectively and/or organizationally owned, and democratically controlled by their members. They are therefore very powerful examples of the potential for community control, economic self-determination, and meaningful economic democracy (see DeFilippis, 1999; Imbroscio, 1997; Williamson, 1994). But there is altogether too little interaction between these community-scale organizations and efforts, and the much larger-scale sets of protests.

The political implications of these disconnected scales of social organization, are significant and make up the remainder of this article.

Implications of Disconnected Scales

There are three primary reasons why, in order for the anti-globalization protests to become a social movement capable of transforming the global political economy, it needs to connect much more closely to local-scale politics and conflicts.  

Place, Locality, and Social Movements

First, if we accept Mario Diani's broad definition of social movements as "networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities" (Diani, 1992, p. 1) then the anti-globalization protestors need to pay closer attention to, and re-theorize local struggles.

On a simple level this is because most people's daily lives, and their experiences of employment, home, school, etc. are still localized. In thinking through these issues, I often come back to Doreen Massey's sobering reminder that, "Much of life for people, even in the heart of the First World, still consists of waiting in a bus-shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes" (Massey, 1994, p. 163). That is, despite all the rhetoric and excitement about hyper-mobility, globalization, and transnationalism, most people still live in localized contexts and with predominantly local-scale sets of relationships and interactions.

But the fact that people's daily lives are still largely localized has vital political implications. Clarke and Kirby argue for an understanding of "locality as a nexus of community, household, and workplace, which are essential components of everyday life and crucial organizations that shape political values and ideology" (Clarke and Kirby, 1990, p 394). The "shared collective identities" that are so crucial to social movement formation and development, can therefore never be divorced from the local scale of experience in people's lives.

Many researchers looking at the "new social movements," have borrowed from the Habermasian framework of "system and lifeworld" to understand their emphasis on issues of cultural autonomy and collective consumption. In this framework, the system and its instrumental rationality, have been colonizing the lifeworld and its communicative rationality. As capitalism has become increasingly globalized, so too has it become increasingly, and intensely, localized and intimate. It is reaching deeper into the lives of people, and social relations are becoming increasingly commodity relations. And while I would certainly hesitate before endorsing a Habermasian system/lifeworld perspective, it is clear that the issues of cultural autonomy and the goods of collective consumption play a central role in the anti-globalization protests. Again, however, place is vital in this process and as Miller states, "Place-based social interaction may provide the strongest basis for lifeworld construction" (Miller, 2000, p. 33).

None of this is meant to suggest, however, that there are simple dichotomous pairs that exist between the local/global and lifeworld/system. Nor is it meant to suggest that such dichotomies would be synonymous or run in parallel. Instead, it is obviously recognized that systemic forces operate in and through a variety of geographic scales. Also, people's daily experiences, while localized, cannot fully be divorced from social interactions that take place in and through much larger scales (for instance, watching the "Today Show" in the morning or CNN). At their best the anti-globalization protests' focus on systemic institutions demonstrate the interactions between the system and people's lifeworld experiences. And these protests have potentially opened a political space for anti-systemic projects rooted in the often more localized lifeworld experiences.

But in acting solely at the global scale, the protestors ignore the reality that common, collective identities are rooted in, and shaped through, place-based experiences and struggles. As Naomi Klein, responding with disappointment to London's recent May Day 2001 protests, put it, "There are clearly moments to demonstrate, but perhaps more importantly, there are moments to build the connections that make demonstration something more than theatre. There are clearly times when radicalism means standing up to the police, but there are many more times when it means talking to your neighbor" (Klein, 2001).

Also, the decision to prioritize international protests has very basic practical implications for local groups. Simply put, people and organizations in different places have varying amounts of political and financial resources that they can mobilize for any social movement action. The emphasis on large protests focused at both the global scale and systemic level excludes most low-income organizations who lack either the financial resources to attend (or even to have widespread access to the internet!), or the political luxury to focus on, and organize at, levels that are so much larger than their own lifeworld struggles -- around, issues like decent affordable housing and environmental justice. One of the key critiques leveled against the anti-globalization protestors is that they are overwhelmingly white and middle-class. In a powerful assessment of the Seattle protests, which has been widely read within the protest movement, Elizabeth Martinez (Martinez, 2000) asked the simple question, "Where was the color in Seattle?" In her answer to that question, she inevitably comes back the issues of the struggle being too divorced from the more immediate concerns of organizers in communities of color, and the racial disparities that characterize internet access.

Questions of Scale in Political Conflict

The second problem with the geographic disconnect between anti-globalization protests and local organizing efforts deals much more explicitly with issues of spatial scale. That is, the scale of any social relationship or social conflict is not a natural outcome of that social relationship. In fact it's not simply an outcome at all, but instead it is both a constituent component in the production of the social relationship, and also an outcome of that social relationship. Neil Smith has argued this point rather forcefully, and states:

"The construction of scale is not simply a spatial solidification of contested social forces and processes; the corollary also holds. Scale is an active progenitor of specific social processes…scale both contains social activity and at the same time provides an already partitioned geography within which social activity takes place. Scale demarcates the sites of social contest, the object as well as the resolution of contest" (Smith, 1993, p. 101)

Geographic scales are socially constructed, and their social construction has powerful political implications. For instance, is the lack of affordable housing in New York a local problem (due to gentrification), a problem of national government budget cuts, or a problem of the place of affordable housing in the global flows of investment capital? Well, it's a bit of all of those things. But how we understand the scale of the problem greatly influences how we organize to address it. Now the anti-globalization protestors have done an amazing thing by re-opening the global scale to contestation and challenge, and by insisting that neo-liberal globalization -- itself a political project deeply embedded in a politics of scale! -- is not a done deal to which there are no alternatives.

But by privileging the global scale as the unit of analysis and realm of political organizing, the anti-globalization movement is over-playing its hand, so to speak. Conceptualizing local struggles as simply expressions or outcomes of larger scale processes has four principal political implications. First, it conceptually devalues the importance of local political action. That is, if local situations are understood as just expressions of global, systemic processes, than to engage in local political action is to treat the symptom, rather than the cause. This, in turn, marginalizes localized struggles, and reinforces the gap between local and global struggles. Localities are not simply the products of globalization and capital mobility, but also producers of these processes. For instance, as part of their promotion of local economic development, and their efforts to attract mobile capital, city governments have become increasingly willing to invest public money in economic development projects (either directly through actual appropriations of dollars, or indirectly through tax abatements and subsidies). These public investments have had the effect of liberating capital from places because the risks associated with investment, and the losses associated with disinvestment, are now absorbed by municipal governments, and not capital itself. City governments, therefore, in their efforts to attract mobile capital, have furthered the processes of capital mobility. They have, in short, enabled a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, it ironically accepts too much of the rhetoric of the transnational corporations, and multi-national institutions that support them. This is an understanding of scale which is explicitly "nested" in which the global scale produces the outcomes of the smaller geographic scales. In doing so it erases the very real political, cultural and economic differences between places. Globalization is not at all the same thing as homogenization.

This is most clear in the rhetoric of "the race to the bottom" in which all the world's workers are thought to be moving towards a homogeneously impoverished level. This is both not empirically true (since the gaps between the North and the South are growing, not shrinking) and not particularly politically useful (since it denies the magnitude of the North-South divide -- as well as divides between and within countries in both the North and the South).

Third, and similarly, not only does this privileging of the global scale accept too much of the multi-national corporations' rhetoric, in terms of their views of scale as nested, but it also buys into their own framework of capital hyper-mobility and placelessness. In a recent talk, Saskia Sassen (Sassen, 2001) observed that these protests were taking place in the spaces and moments in which global capital needed to be rooted and place bound (that is, when the institutions which govern global capital meet). But this is precisely the wrong understanding of globalization and mobility. Many forms of capital accumulation are a good deal less mobile than most of the rhetoric of hyper-mobility would have us believe. And even mobility requires going somewhere from somewhere else. Very few processes of capital accumulation exist in the ether, independent of real places, worksites, and neighborhoods. And the exploitation inherent in capitalism is not at all new, nor is it a function of capital mobility. The inattention to forms of exploitation and oppression that are place-bound, and yet intricately and complexly inter-connected with the processes of globalization and capital mobility, significantly undercuts the political potential of the protests.

Finally, connecting with local scale efforts will force the anti-globalization movement into the much more politically mature position of realizing that the "global" is not simply the aggregate of millions of "locals." That is, it cannot be assumed that local oppositional struggles will somehow just add up to a global opposition. If place matters in shaping how people live in, experience, and understand the world, then those place-based experiences and understandings can powerfully fracture and divide the movement -- especially if there are not stronger linkages to various place-based struggles and conflicts. This is an extremely difficult and messy political reality that the movement must take very seriously.

All of this means that questions of geographic scale in the organizing of these protests must be reconceptualized. As David Harvey put it, "the choice of spatial scale is not 'either/or' but 'both/and' even though the latter entails confronting serious contradictions" (Harvey, 1998). For the protests to become a truly transformative social movement requires an explicit revaluation of local politics and the role of local struggles in producing the global political economy. In this way, the lessons from Cochabamba and the local World Bank bond boycott efforts are important. The Cochabamba effort, was a successful example of using global scale politics to transform a local political struggle. In this case, the scale of the conflict was transformed up by the organizers in Cochabamba who got the word out, and by the global activists who mobilized to put pressure on the company to withdraw. The local bond boycott effort explicitly addresses how the global scale can be an outcome of local scale political fights. These are both examples of jumping scales in a local political fight, and connecting the local and the global, but the directions of causality are inverted.

Local efforts and building a program for social change

The final reason why the anti-globalization protests need to connect much more closely with local organizing efforts relates to the ability to construct a program for social change. It is primarily at the local level, and often in the margins of the global political economy, that Michael Mann (1986) calls "interstitial locations" where new institutional forms, are being created, experienced, realized and learned from. Many of these new forms are in line with the broad political agendas of the protestors.

The anti-globalization protestors are currently facing the question which has been struggled over by just about every oppositional movement in history. In short, this is, "how do you build from a language of resistance?" This question is further complicated by the tension that always exists in oppositional movements that once they have decided upon a goal, or set of goals, does the movement stress the goals (the ends) or the movement itself (the means)? Closer linkages with local scale alternative forms of ownership and control can help to address both of these key questions. Gramsci, in his typically cryptic way, argued in The Modern Prince that:

"Anybody who makes a prediction has in fact a 'programme' for whose victory he (sic.) is working, and his (sic.) prediction is precisely an element contributing to that victory…Indeed one might say that only to the extent to which the objective aspect of prediction is linked to a programme does it acquire its objectivity" (Gramsci, 1971, p. 171).

What he is saying here is that only through participating in the construction of a new hegemonic framework can aspiring counter-hegemonic projects realize their goals. Or, in a simple paraphrasing of him by Cindi Katz, "we can predict the future to the extent that we are involved in making it happen" (Katz, 1995, p. 167).

There are decades of experience in constructing and maintaining forms of alternative, often oppositional, and potentially counter-hegemonic, forms of ownership and control in localities throughout the world, in both the global south and the global north, and I have already made reference to some of these in the United States. And while many of the protestors have looked fondly at these forms of localized efforts, the program for change that has emerged from the anti-globalization protestors, in contexts like the World Social Forum meetings (counter-part to the World Economic Forum) in Porto Allegre Brazil have remained fairly generalized and stubbornly disconnected from the knowledge and experiences embedded in these localized alternatives.


Over the very short period of 18 months, the anti-globalization protestors have used an explicitly global form of organizing to transform the public debate about neo-liberalism and economic globalization. But the problem with the framework, and method of organizing, is that while capitalism is certainly global, and must be confronted as such, it is also most definitely local as well. And the exploitation and oppression that are part of neo-liberal globalization, and which provide the moral and intellectual justification for the protests, are primarily felt at the local level. Despite this, it is clear that local and community organizations and organizers have largely passed on participating in the recent protests.

So while activists have constructed a forum to confront globalization, they (we) have done so without incorporating the work of place-based organizers, who struggle to mobilize people, and keep people mobilized, in the face of local inequities. It is these organizers who are needed in the fight against neo-liberal globalization. And they are needed not simply because movements need places to find their strength and their expression (although they do), but because social change cannot be realized solely through periodic protests. As Juan Gonzalez wrote from Los Angeles at the protests that surrounded the Democratic National Committee's meeting there in August 2000, "the road to fundamental change in American society lies not simply in disrupting our downtowns, but in awakening, organizing and providing some vision of a better world to our South Centrals" (Gonzalez, 2000).


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i. Throughout this paper, when I make an unqualified reference to globalization, or talk about the "anti-globalization" protests, it is simply a shorthand for the particularly neo-liberal form of economic globalization that is in process right now. There are certainly many other forms of globalization that can potentially be constructed.