A revolt to live: post-structuralist anarchist resistance against the G8.

Author:Farrer, Linden
Position:Group of Eight


In the summer of 2005 the Group of Eight most industrialised nations (G8) held their annual summit, this time at the luxurious Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. Despite a concerted public relations offensive aimed at persuading people that the Summit was about helping the poorest in the world, this meeting was met by resistance from a broad range of protesters, just as previous meetings had been for almost a decade. This paper argues that an ethnographic approach offers a suitable means for understanding a movement (or 'movement of movements') that is often perceived in network terms. It then gives an ethnographic overview of how activists at a set of convergence (meeting) spaces organised themselves, and what their motivations were for being there. It ends by arguing that the anti-globalisation movement has two broad divides, with one side being well connected to the state and political parties, and the other being socially experimental in terms of its culture, and characterisable as a form of post-structuralist anarchism.


1.1 Overview

Anthropology from its inception attempted to understand cultures from the perspective of the 'native', and generally carried out its work to uncover the cultures and social systems of 'exotic and distant peoples'. Yet a plurality of developments going under the title 'globalisation' have increasingly put a strain on anthropological theory that sometimes lapsed into treating cultures as bounded, unchanging and pristine. Whereas in the past, the native might have been considered as 'settled persons whose lives could be conceptualized in terms of cultural wholes of shared values and meaning, unfolding within a closely linked web of integrated social relations' (Olwig, 1997:18), anthropologists now argue that the notion of the native is 'anthropological imagination' (Appadurai, 1988:39) and that the entire world should be viewed as one global space in a state of flow (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992).

Two issues have been raised by the increasingly apparent processes of globalisation. Firstly, the development of theory that seeks new perspectives from which to view these processes and examination of what the plurality of seemingly valid perspectives might actually reveal. Secondly, in response to the difficulties posed by theory that increasingly gives emphasis to the transient, interconnectedness and complexity of social life, a search for methodologies suited to such emphases. These issues are at their most salient when conducting research on cultures that appear ungrounded and unbounded, and it is to one such movement (or movements)--the so-called anti-globalisation movement--on which this study concentrates.

1.2 Globalisation and Social Movement Theory

It is possible that the anthropological coming-to-terms with processes of change and the permeability of 'bounded' social and cultural entities may have occurred as part of the natural development within the discipline. (1) Yet it has undoubtedly been catalysed by processes such as the deregulation of capital movements, the development of new means of transport, new and increased patterns of migration, and the rapid development of information communication technologies (ICT). Whilst these processes are by no means new, they are marked by an 'intensification of world-wide social relations that link distinct localities in such a way that local happenings are shaped by events occurring many miles away and vice versa' (Giddens 1990:64, quoted by Cheater, 1995:124), and 'have made us aware of the fact that the principle dynamics of culture and economy have been significantly altered by unprecedented global processes' (Escobar, 2001:141). Despite this, there are no single features that are the most striking about globalisation: what may be striking to a person in one part of the world or to one set of social circumstances may not even be applicable to another somewhere else.

Increasing awareness of the acceleration of processes of change has placed pressure on social science to seek alternative perspectives from which to conceptualise research. While it might have been possible in the past to push to the periphery questions regarding the changing nature of the field when studying social movements that were seemingly rooted in place, now even the most 'localised' movement must be posited within a global system. Difficulties are most prominent when attempting to conceptualise movements that do not appear to be rooted in any particular locality, and instead appear--or claim--to be rooted globally. For example, the anti-globalisation movement encompasses groups, networks and individuals as varied as the Movimento Sem Terra (a Brazilian rural workers movement carrying out land reform), indigenous anti-mining activists in Papua New Guinea, anti-sweatshop activists on US university campuses, and various anarchist, socialist and ecological activists throughout Europe. (2)

Researchers use new metaphors to describe the nature of these movements, some stating that 'webs' best convey the intricacy and precariousness of the various arrangements and ties established among movement participants, organisations and other actors in civil society (Alvarez et al, 1998:16), while others draw on the metaphor of the rhizome--'a subterranean plant growth process involving propagation through the horizontal development of the plant stem'--connecting autonomous groups engaged in all kinds of struggle that were previously disconnected and separate (Cleaver, 1999). Development of information technology in particular has allowed for the creation of what has been termed a 'global electronic fabric of struggle' consisting of global networks that 'leap over the barriers of isolation and bridge spatial distances' (Soyez, 2001:11), allowing movements to seek out ways to make their efforts complement those of others (Routledge, 2003; Cleaver, 1994 & 1995).

1.3 Network Perspectives Vs Ethnography

It is not surprising that the internet is now identified as a suitable field for research about the anti-globalisation movement: relatively inexpensive to many people in the world (though clearly inaccessible to others), participation in electronic communication networks has become an important component of the identities of those involved. One of the ways that activists involved keep in touch and up-to-date on issues of shared importance is through Independent Media Centres (IMCs). The now-common sight of Indymedia collective banners at demonstrations, IMC watermark logos on digital videos in circulation, and the 166 Indymedia sites (and collectives maintaining them) (3) point to the importance placed on the creation of an autonomous repertoire of news, knowledge and debate. Kahn and Kellner looked at such networks and groups in the run-up to the Iraq war and argued that the counter-hegemonic appeals of the internet facilitated the emergence of the anti-war and 'anti-capitalist' movements and is now 'an important domain of current political struggles that is creating the base and the basis for an unprecedented worldwide antiwar/pro-peace and social justice movement during a time of terrorism, war and intense political contestation' (Kahn & Kellner, 2005:80).

Despite this, treating the Internet as the primary field of research fails to take account of those who do not use or do not have access to it, brushes over the fact that most activists are not wired 'Matrix-like' into cyberspace 24 hours a day, and skims over the local, regional, international and global intersections of culture, history and economics that is obscured or even hidden by research solely utilising the internet. In addition, the fragmentary nature of these networks ensures that 'no individual, nor any one group, can competently grasp the whole in its particulars' (Cleaver, 1995), and even if they could, the materials available for analysis on the internet may not necessarily represent the debates, tensions and actions of those individuals or groups in the real world due to unequal powers of representation and voice. Indeed, despite the internet's undoubted importance and ability to help shape actors' identities and perceptions, power is in the last instance defined by social, economic, and political relationships that are played out in the real world (Ribeiro, 1998). Rather than searching for the 'essence' or 'characteristics' of movements on the internet, it should be seen as a tool for connection, triggering global political opportunities and acting as a resource by providing a crucial network base, rather than as the prime location for conducting research. As noted in regards to environmental direct actions and other anti-globalisation protests: 'It would be wrong to surmise, as the national media did, that these protests were solely triggered through online activity. Rather, pre-existing networks of activists used IT to mobilize a fast-expanding base of online potential activists' (Plows, 2004:111).

1.4 Conceptual Tools: The Plateau and Convergence Space

If the prime research focus for the anti-globalisation movement should not be the internet itself, (4) then what kinds of conceptual tools are available to help understand and research periods of activity in space from an ethnographic perspective?

Chesters and Welsh conceive of the global social movement against capitalism as a 'network of networks, with nodes consisting of social movement organisations, groups and occasionally individuals, expanding across an 'n' dimensional space' (Chesters & Welsh, 2002). Yet coterminous with this network, certain collective actions are conceived of as 'plateaus'--'moments of temporary but intensive network stabilisation where the rhizomatic substance of the movement(s)--groups, organisations, individuals, ideologies, cognitive frames--are made manifest in extended temporal and spatial contexts constituting an ecology of action'...

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