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Book of the Week: Networking Futures

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
9th February 2009


Book: Jeffrey Juris. Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization. Duke University Press, 2008

We discussed this book, which has been called the ‘Bible of the Alterglobalization’ movement by net-critic Geert Lovink, before, but we are given it extra treatment as book of the week, for it’s in-depth treatment of the network aspects of the alterglobalization movement.

For background, see our wiki treatments on the ‘networked‘ and ‘meshworked‘ aspects of the movement as well.

The following author interview gives more details as well.

Here are some excerpts from the first chapter of the book.

Jeff Juris:

1. On Barcelona as a hub:

This book explores emerging norms, forms, and technologies within anti– corporate globalization movements based in Barcelona. Since November 30, 1999, when fifty thousand protesters converged on Seattle to shut down the World Trade Organization (wto) meetings, anti–corporate globalization activists have organized protests against multilateral institutions in cities such as Prague, Barcelona, Genoa, Quito, and Cancún. Barcelona has emerged as a critical node, as Catalans have played key roles within the anarchist-inspired Peoples’ Global Action (pga) and the World Social Forum (wsf) process, both of which unite diverse movements in opposition to corporate globalization.

Anti–corporate globalization movements involve an increasing confluence among network technologies, organizational forms, and political norms, mediated by concrete networking practices and micropolitical struggles. Activists are thus not only responding to growing poverty, inequality, and enintroduction vironmental devastation; they are also generating social laboratories for the production of alternative democratic values, discourses, and practices.”

On Seattle as a transformational event:

“I never imagined the intense feelings of power, freedom, and solidarity I would experience on the streets of Seattle. When the wto meetings were delayed and a major police riot broke out, I knew something big was happening. That was when I decided to study this emerging global phenomenon ethnographically.

Over the next few years, anti–corporate globalization activism would spread around the world as the local and regional networks we built during the protests in Seattle increasingly used digital technologies to communicate with activists in other countries. Computer-supported networks, including activist media projects, Listservs, and websites, were mobilizing hundreds of thousands of protesters, constituting “transnational counterpublics” (Olesen 2005) for the diffusion of alternative information. Indeed, media activism and digital networking more generally had become critical features of a transnational network of movements against corporate globalization, involving what Peter Waterman (1998) calls a “communications internationalism.” Moreover, emerging networking logics were changing how grassroots movements organize, and were inspiring new utopian imaginaries involving directly democratic models of social, economic, and political organization coordinated at local, regional, and global scales.”

On networks as practices, not objects:

“It seemed that if activists wanted to create sustainable movements, it was important to learn how newly emerging digitally powered networks operate and how periodic mass actions might lead to long-term social transformation. After several days, I finally realized what should have been apparent all along: my focus was not really a specific network, but rather the concrete practices through which such networks are constituted. Indeed, contemporary activist networks are fluid processes, not rigid structures. I would thus conduct an ethnographic study of transnational networking practices and the broader cultural logics, shaped by ongoing interactions with new digital technologies, that generate them. What is the cultural logic of networking, how is it distributed, and what kinds of resistances does it provoke? How do struggles over activist discourses, identities, strategies, and tactics constitute alternative networks within broader “movement fields” (Ray 1999)? How are activist networks embodied during mass actions, and to what extent have they made new struggles visible? How are networking logics expressed through experimentation with new digital technologies? Finally, what are the links among activist networking, political change, and social transformation? To answer these questions, I turned to the traditional craft of the anthropologist: long-term participant observation within and among activist networks themselves. Indeed, rather than studying activist networks as an object, I wanted to understand how they were built in practice, which meant becoming an active practitioner. My entry into these networks was facilitated by my past activist experience and my fluency in Spanish and Catalan. Over the next year and a half, I attended hundreds of meetings, protests, and gatherings and also took part in online discussions and forums. I lived the passion, excitement, and fear associated with direct-action protest, and the exhilaration and frustration of working with activists from such diverse backgrounds.”

“This book outlines a practice-based approach to the study of networks, linking structure and practice to larger social, economic, and technological forces.20 I employ the term “cultural logic of networking” as a way to conceive the broad guiding principles, shaped by the logic of informational capitalism, that are internalized by activists and generate concrete networking practices.

Networking logics specifically entail an embedded and embodied set of social and cultural dispositions that orient actors toward

(1) the building of horizontal ties and connections among diverse autonomous elements,

(2) the free and open circulation of information,

(3) collaboration through decentralized coordination and consensus-based decision making, and

(4) self-directed networking.

At the same time, networking logics represent an ideal type. As we shall see, they are unevenly distributed in practice and always exist in dynamic tension with other competing logics, generating a complex “cultural politics of networking” within particular spheres. In what follows, I argue that anti–corporate globalization movements involve a growing confluence among networks as computer-supported infrastructure (technology), networks as organizational structure (form), and networks as political model (norm), mediated by concrete activist practice.

Computer networks provide the technological infrastructure for the emergence of transnational social movements, constituting arenas for the production and dissemination of activist discourses and practices. These networks are in turn produced and transformed by the discourses and practices circulating through them. Such communication flows follow distinct trajectories, reproducing existing networks or generating new formations. Contemporary social movement networks are thus “self-reflexive” (Giddens 1991), constructed through communicative practice and struggle. Beyond social morphology, the network has also become a powerful cultural ideal, particularly among more radical activists, a guiding logic that provides a model of, and model for, emerging forms of directly democratic politics.”

On prefigurative politics:

“this book is not about the politics of globalization. Rather, it explores emerging forms of organization among anti–corporate globalization movements, particularly in light of recent social, economic, and technological transformations. Although the activists explored in this book seek to influence contemporary political debates, they are also experimenting with new organizational and technological practices. In this sense, they enact a “dual politics” (Cohen and Arato 1992), intervening within dominant publics while generating decentralized network forms that “prefigure” the utopian worlds they are struggling to create. In the 1960s, the New Left was similarly committed to building nonhierarchical structures that were consonant with its egalitarian values (cf. Polletta 2002). Indeed, as Wini Breines (1989) puts it, “prefigurative politics was what was new about the New Left”. At the same time, while these experiments in direct democracy were often successful at the local level, they were limited in scale. The rise of new digital technologies has profoundly altered the social movement landscape. Activists can now link up directly with one another, communicating through global communications networks without the need for a central bureaucracy. In what follows, I examine how activists are building local, regional, and global networks that are both instrumental and prefigurative, facilitating concrete political interventions while reflecting activists’ emerging utopian ideals.”

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