Over this past decade, there has been a spurt of social movements around the world. Some of these movements are focused on local issues. Others have been much more ambitious in scope, such as the ‘Occupy movement’, to take on the underlying causes of global inequality.
Social media and other information technologies have enabled social movements to organise faster, project their message further and express solidarity with causes far and wide. However, this does not necessarily mean that political activism or social movements have become potent forces, with the potential to significantly change the world.
Advocates of social movements express faith in their ongoing struggles against state repression and even against the neoliberal mantra of ‘there is no alternative’. They point to the growing consensus on making big business responsible and global production processes more sustainable. But everyone is not as optimistic.
Cynics point towards a growing corporatisation of protest which has left us with little more than an illusion of activism. Such as illusion may serve the desperate desire of frustrated citizens to do something, but their efforts will ultimately fail to get to the root cause of most global problems. Are such claims no more than an unfounded and pessimistic attack on the current state of social movements? Or, are such assertions needed to provide us a bitter reality check?
In their book, Protest Inc.: The Corporatisation of Activism, Peter Dauvergne and Genevieve LeBaron have claimed that we are not only seeing a trend of corporatisation of state politics, but also the corporatisation of protest as well. Advocacy groups, NGOs and social movements which agitate for change are increasingly pursuing partnerships with the very corporations they are supposed to be opposing.
For the past two decades, we have seen a steady rise in collaborations between NGOs and multinationals, which have increasingly adopted lofty corporate social responsibility agendas. Many see capitalism as part of the solution rather than the problem, and would see no contradiction in multinational organisations supporting health or education goals. Others are wary of what they think is global capitalism pressuring activists and rights-based groups, including NGOs, to provide benign remedies to the world’s problems, which do not threaten the interests of global capitalism itself.
Activism is thus suspected of shifting from highlighting corporate infringements to corporate-friendly, brand supportive actions. Arundhati Roy, for instance, has decried the NGOisation of resistance. A few years ago, she aptly described this NGO-isation as a danger which threatens to “turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in.”
Do we want NGOs and social movements working with corporations to pressure them into changing their values and practices, or should these groups retain a critical independence? This is one important question to consider. Another relevant issue which merits attention here is how social movements have come under renewed pressure due to what has been described as the ‘securitisation of dissent’. This securitisation of dissent has been facilitated by the post-9/11 context, which has enabled states to use anti-terrorist legislation to crack down on protests, and it has enabled them to authorise militarised police tactics against protesters.
With NGOs, activists and social movements being coopted by the corporate sector on one hand, and being intimidated by their governments on the other, the potential of people organising to lodge their protest and to bring about meaningful change has become seriously undermined. This subversion and stifling of social movements can provoke serious consequences.
People need legitimate avenues to lodge their protests and challenge the status quo. Denying people such opportunities can compel the aggrieved to turn towards more problematic and divisive forms of resistance.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 15th, 2018.