Transnational Activism and “The Cosmopolitan Activist”

One of the readings for last week was Lance Bennett’s “Social Movements beyond Borders: Organization, Communication, and Political Capacity in Two Eras of Transnational Activism.” Written in 2005, Bennett was able to outline many of the trends that were occurring around global scale mobilizations, specifically by highlighting the rise of inclusive organizational models, social technologies, and how they affect the political capacities of social movement actors (203). The two generations that Bennett refers to are the era dominated by institutionalized Nongovernment Organization (NGO) responses to world issues, and emerging (late 1990s) direct action networks. Some of the characteristics of direct action networks are being inclusive, distributed, and diverse, as opposed to the brokered, ideological, and issue-driven nature of traditional NGOs. However, these differences were not presented as mutually exclusive. Furthermore, Bennett notes a relaxing of “ideological framing commitment for common participation in many transnational protest activities” (204). This relaxing nature of protest activities, especially as related to direct action networks, “emphasize diversity and subjectivity over ideology and conformity” (204). In past movements, failure to commit to a shared vision of a movement, or “frame” bridging,” has resulted in social movement fragmentation. For example, when the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) merged with Cesar Chavez’ National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in the mid 1960s, many of the leaders of AWOC resigned because they wanted to be part of “a union” and didn’t agree with Chavez’s framing of farm worker labor disputes as part of “la causa,” the cause and “el movimiento,” the movement (Why David Sometimes Wins, Marshall Ganz). The work of Bennett, however, looks at how frame bridging is becoming less detrimental to mobilizations of direct action networks, because they are usually operate from a multiple-issue approach.

While Bennett’s work is roughly seven years old, much of what is outlined regarding direction action networks and NGOs is still relevant. Also, Bennett’s article seems to take a tone that attempts to justify the importance of technology in social movements amidst a perceived opposition in social movement discourse. However, it seems that many of Bennett’s ideas regarding the growing importance of technology in social movements were indeed true, especially in our current post-Arab Spring social movement scene. Furthermore, Bennett seemed not only to come to the defense of direct action networks, but in many cases, the language that he uses to describe emerging transnational movements seemed somewhat romanticised. For example, by describing direct action networks, as “inclusive, diverse, and multi-issue,” a dichotomy is established where those characteristics are presented as unable to be incorporated into more formal/institutional approaches to social movements. Can an NGO be inclusive, diverse, and multi-issue? With a well-planned organizational structure and mechanisms that assures these things, I think so. One of the biggest strengths of the organizing model that Cesar Chavez used in the early years of the NFWA/UFW was exactly the ability to be inclusive, diverse, and multi-issue, by incorporating multiple social movements into “la causa” and being inclusive of students and allies at an international scale, as opposed to the AWOC who desired to remain primarily a union and chose an exclusive model. This model, roughly persisting through the first decade of the NFWA/UFW, allowed for the success of the Farm Workers Movement in the mid-1960s and 1970s, and stepping away from this model ultimately led to the UFW’s decline as a union over the years.

Another dimension from the reading that could benefit from a more nuanced approach is in regard to the multi-issue nature of direct action networks. When speaking about contemporary social movements, Bennett notes how “relaxed framing” and “flexible identities” enable “people with diverse positions to join in impressively large actions, often bringing multiple issues into the same protest event” (205). While I do not disagree with the coalition building possibilities that direct action networks can create, especially as facilitated through technology, these affordances seem overly romanticised and not critical enough (to my taste) of the problems that can arise from a multi-issue approach. For one, to romanticise direct action networks for their tendency to be “inclusive, diverse, and distributed” overlooks the importance of prolonged commitment that social transformation can require, and overall reflects and promotes the idea of the rising trope of “social justice cosmopolitanism.” Given the emphasis that social movement scholars have placed on post-nationalist mobilizations in the 21st century, it seems that an increased cosmopolitanism would be the next logical step, especially through world scale social movements like the global justice movements, anti-war movements, and environmentalist movements. However, what I aim to problematize is the trope of the “cosmopolitan activist,” who assumes the legitimacy of global citizenry through the very nature of worldwide travel for the purpose of social justice, not to mention the idea of being cultured and non-stationary/diverse in perspective. Also, does this trope promote the idea of “shopping for injustice,” and if so, what are the pros and cons of this approach?

While I would be the first to promote the vast educational and transformational dimensions of international travel and exposure/interaction with the diverse populations of the world, I can’t help to think that the cosmopolitan activist is a first-world trope, that underscores the privilege and capital needed for international travel. There are many populations of the world, perhaps those most affected by social injustice, that simply do not have the privilege, capital, or time to be cosmopolitan in their approach. For example, undocumented students in Dreamer Movement cannot travel internationally because of their immigration status, and doing so would result in the inability to reenter the United States. the On the other hand, Bennet does not necessarily mention international travel, but instead highlights how technology can stand-in for the affordances that travel once provided, such as providing a window into the diverse cultures and places of the world. Do I need to travel to Africa to care about the minerals that led to the creation of my electronics, most likely through some form of child exploitation and slave labor? Of course not, and this ability to become involved with the many issues that intersect our lives is certainly something positive that emerging technology provides. However, coming back to the importance of commitment to social movements, I can definitely see how multi-issue can also reflect the short attention span culture that our multi-tasking generation is becoming known for. It is important to be multi-issue, and to understand the international contexts from which socio-economic injustices can arise, but those amidst oppression and injustice who are focused on the immediacy of their local issues should not be placed in a binary against the trope of the cosmopolitan activist.


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