This book, published by Routledge in 2006, is a recent attempt at a sociological analysis of the alternative globalization movement (AGM) using a theoretical framework based on an almagamation of the works of Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri and Gregory Bateson, with complexity theory via D&G deployed to provide qualitative analysis of events such as the May Day 2000 demonstration, the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle and Prague, the actions of the Zapatistas and the emergent forms of global civil society which seek to impact on globalized capitalism such as the World and regional social fora.
In their introduction, Chesters and Welsh describe their work as ‘offering ‘a qualitative sociology of the philosophical postulates of Empire and Multitude advanced by Hardt and Negri, rendering tangible the agency and constitutive processes immanent within their works,’ (p3) although in several key areas Chesters and Welsh go beyond Hardt and Negri’s works, which in places can seem overly centred on finding a revolutionary subject for the network society, by mapping the vectors of contemporary social movements and seeking practical instantiation of how these movements connect and combine to create emergent formations capable of challenging neoliberal capitalism.
The approach pursued by Chesters and Welsh does closely correlate with Hardt and Negi’s theoretical works closely in several important ways however; firstly in contesting that ‘One must look outside the state at networked processes of interaction between state and non-state actors. This does not mean that the state is no longer important, but that we must consider the meshwork of national and extra-national political institutions, corporate and civil society actors that co-produce the effects of the global.’ (p95) That capitalist globalization and the rise of the network society means that activism can no longer be effective if aimed purely at a local level, as the larger scale assemblages of global finances can overcode and render such localism ineffective as an activist strategy.
A second important point of agreement between Hardt and Negri and Chesters and Welsh is that the formal structuring of activist movements plays an integral role in the way that they function, that an organization’s internal structure will effect the way that organization operates, and furthermore that contemporary AGM activism is centred around the form of the decentred network, and that this structure allows for a more inclusive and democratic mode of action than the 20th century models of the people’s army, unions or political parties. Indeed, while Chesters and Welsh stress the diverse array of influences on the AGM, socialism, liberalism, environmentalism and situationism, they emphasise the central role of anarchism in the democratic, reflexive and inclusive structuring of the movments ‘The logic of an anarchist stance is that revolution cannot be led by a vanguard party or sedimented through a revolutionary government or state as these forms lead back to the establishment of old habits of mind. Instead revolution requires the dissipative undermining of established institutional forms, not their re-titling.’ (p145)
Finally, Chesters and Welsh approach Hardt and Negri’s work in the way that they highlight the importance of information communications technologies and their usages to contemporary social movements, briefly examining the Zapatistas use of digital communications, and broaching the role played by Indymedia in the AGM.
‘These processes of physical interaction that characterise the global social movements – the protest actions, encuentros and social fora are further understood to be dynamically interconnected and co-extensive with a digital commons that underpins computer mediated communications and which co-constructs the rhizome of the AGM.’ (p103)
The area of media is frequently touched upon by Chesters and Welsh, both in terms of the mainstream media’s portrayal of the AGM as thugs which prevents communication of their goals and beleifs, and also in terms of Indymedia as an alternative to the mass media which presents a decentralized, less hierarchical and more transparent alternative, however one area where this book is perhaps lacking is an in depth investigation of Indymedia, and how Indymedia alongside other elements of the digital commons underpin the physical movements which are covered in considerably more depth through case studies.
Chester and Welsh describe the AGM as operating as:
‘a strange attractor reconfiguring public opposition to global neoliberalism whilst simultaneously creating ‘spaces’ where Alternatives Globalisation pathways are fused through a multiplicity of engaged actors. This is not an anti-movement, this is not a movement that can be subordinated to national analytical frameworks, this is not a movement that is going to go away.
This is a movement which prefigures social forms, social processes and social forces which will become normalized as mobility and the information age redistribute the affinities historically associated with space and place. (p1)
For Chesters and Welsh then, the AGM presents an embryonic set of processes whose dynamism and flexibility provide socially and environmentally sustainable alternatives to neoliberalism whose properties will become dominant social forms. Such claims are perhaps exaggerated, but nonetheless provide a valuable starting point for thinking about how the nonhierarchical, dynamic forms of direct democracy practised by actors within the AGM can be mobilised into dominant social forms, how activist practices can become mainstream.
Similar to Hardt and Negri, Chesters and Welsh are keen to stress that the AGM is not an anti-movement which seeks to resurrect a romanticized pre-globalized version of the nation state, but instead seeks to create sustainable and ethical alternatives to the inequalities wrought by neoliberal globalization, quoting Z magazine founder Michael Albert, who says
we want social and global ties to advance universal equity, solidarity, diversity and self-management, not to subjugate ever wider populations to an elite minority. We want to globalise equity not poverty, solidarity not anti-solidarity, diversity not conformity, democracy not subordination, and ecological balance not suicidal rapaciousness. (Albert 2001, www.globalpolicy.org) (p94)
Chesters and Welsh introduce the concept of an ‘ecology of action’ in an attempt to formulate how contemporary activist interventions effect social ties and structures.
The key to understanding the AGM is not to be found amongst individual actors be they groups or organisations. Instead we must focus our attention upon the processes of interaction between actors, to the iterative outcomes of reflexive framing and to the emergence of an ecology of action within Global Civil Society that is actualised through the AGM.(p101)
This concept is grounded in Bateson’s ecology of mind, in which pathalogical epistemological constructions had to be erased in order to conceptualize the subject outside of the boundaries created by conscious purpose (the ego). Chesters and Welsh seek to scale this concept upwards through Bateson’s three ecologies, from the ecology of mind to the ecology of society, specifically examining ways in which social forms and actions impact upon the social ecology, with a view to mobilising effective activist campaigns in order to affect change in the world.
In conclusion then, in Complexity and Social Movements Chesters and Welsh provide a sociological investigation into certain aspects of the Alternative Globalization movement, and contextaulise this within a theoretical framework drawing on complexity theory, Deleuze and Guattari, Hardt and Negri, Bateson, Melucci and Goffman to provide a map of what they see to be an ecology of action, with the intent of understanding contemporary developments in activism with a view to energizing the ecology of action and creating positive changes in the world.