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If we were to go back and review the subjects and themes we’ve covered here over the last month, we might conclude that our responses to a changing international system are restricted to the ‘same old, same old’. We’ve stressed the continued relevancy of geopolitics, for example, although in several guises; we’ve stressed the viability of global interdependency, to include this week’s meditation on multilateralism; and we’ve acknowledged the continued power and utility of nationalism. All these models of international relations are familiar to us and the not-so-implicit message has been that they continue to have explanatory power, even in a transforming world. But are these the only options available to us?
In 2011 a series of events occurred that suggest the answer is ‘no’. Over the last year we have seen, for example, civil society across the globe exercise new and devolved forms of power, and in unprecedented ways. At the national level, we’ve also seen the overthrow of dynastic and repressive Arab regimes, and the spread of what we hope will be more pluralistic forms of governance. Motivating these new dynamics, of course, is discontent. From Zuccotti Park, next to the Wall Street financial district, all the way to Tahrir Square, protesters are challenging the inequalities inherent in traditional political systems.
But whereas the Arab Spring inspired political uprisings on a regional basis, the Occupy Movement elevated opposition to existing structures and norms up to the transnational level. Within weeks of the precedent-setting New York encampment, financial districts across the globe were occupied by disparate groups of protestors. Inspired by media coverage of events in New York, a seemingly leaderless organization wielded social media tools such as Facebook and IndyMedia to replicate the occupation of Wall Street. At first, it was difficult to discern what were the specific aims and objectives of the Occupy movement, but that indeed may be the point. Specific policies are not necessarily being tested here; instead, the protestors are questioning the paradigmatic structures that circumscribe our lives. This exercise in large-scale deconstruction, however, then leads to other questions. Will the Occupy movement ‘stick’? Is it helping create new transnational identities that go beyond the traditional ones that so many of us still embrace? To mull these questions over, let’s quickly look at the work of Manuel Castells, Jérôme E Roos and others to determine if the international system is indeed experiencing a new wave of identity politics or not.
From marginalization to humiliation and beyond
In the second volume of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Castells anticipated the possibility of a transnational Occupy-style movement developing in the future. It was obvious to him that “large segments of people that are economically, culturally, and politically disenfranchised around the world do not recognize themselves in the triumphant values of cosmopolitan conquerors.” This large swath of humanity had failed to recognize, in other words, that a new international order was being born – an order “that not only fails to benefit most of the poor on the planet but also deprives them of their own values.” And while the majority of us were being “invited to sing the glory of our globalized, technological condition,” globalization – as Castells understands it – was leading too many of us not only toward marginalization, but also to something deeper – humiliation. (We partially examined this line of thought last Monday, when we considered different manifestations of nationalism). Castells, however, is not here merely to deplore what he sees as toxic macro-level political trends. The power transfers we have seen from the national to the international and supranational levels had indeed aroused ugly nativist and exclusionary sentiments, notably in certain parts of Europe, but it has also opened up a new strategic space for the development of novel political identities.
Castells clusters these new identities around notions of resistance and like-minded projects. A resistance identity, as he sees it, is typically embraced by those actors who are ensnared in “the logic of domination.” In other words, the positions they hold or the conditions they endure make them feel devalued. In assuming a resistance identity, Castells sees such individuals “building trenches of resistance and survival on the basis of principles different from, or opposed to, those permeating the institutions of society.” Jérôme E Roos, who has notoriously commented that 2011 marked “the return of the repressed,” sees the same process afoot. According to Roos, the Arab Spring has showered sparks on the dry, economically withered landscape of the West, thereby igniting a movement of indignation and solidarity against what many see as overweening neoliberal economic hegemony. Roos also makes a connection between the protests of the ‘Arab street’ and the seemingly apolitical, I-want-free-running-shoes riots that engulfed London during the summer. He argues that both events demonstrate, if not merely highlight, that there are alternative political identities available to people that transcend the neoliberal status quo.
We are the 99%
Both the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement inspired further street protests during this past autumn. On October 15, for example, simultaneous protests took place in 1000 cities in almost 100 countries. According to Roos, these protests cannot solely be attributed to the global economic and financial crises. Indeed, street protests also occurred in countries such as Israel and Chile, who have both escaped the crises relatively unscathed. The Occupy Movement’s identity, in turn, appears to be based upon more than just the perceived inequalities of global capitalism. Instead, it strikes a broader theme – global society has been split into the infamous top 1% of global income earners and the 99% who believe that their allotted parts in the global social and economic order are not the roles they necessarily want to play. (Or the identities they necessarily want to assume, one might add.) As a result, claims Vijay Prashad , the Occupy Movement refuses to engage with the political classes, largely because it does not believe that they are capable of understanding or responding to the concerns of the 99%. This not only suggests that the politicians’ socio-political identities are irretrievably tainted, but that – ironically enough – the Occupy movement has developed an identity that is formulated along the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy so beloved of nationalist and populist ideologies.
To Castells, the ‘us versus them’ problem is not as remotely compelling as the opportunities the Occupy Movement provides. In his view, the Movement’s claim to represent the global 99% not only provides a vehicle for resistance-based identity, but a projects-based one as well. The latter type of identity appears when social actors, “on the basis of whatever cultural materials are available…build a new identity that redefines their position…and by so doing, seek the transformation of the overall social structure.” Fair enough, but does the Occupy Movement stand a realistic chance of fulfilling this objective? It seems the most vocal elements of the 99% have found a sense of solidarity and community as a result of the Occupy Movement’s messages, but does that mean the omnipresent international system is on the verge of experiencing the creation of a new global identity that transcends nationalism?
Well, if we compare the Occupy Movement’s attempts to create resistance- and projects-based identities with the European Union’s attempts to spur greater cross-European socio-cultural integration, then they really have a monumental task on their hands. Critics of the EU have deplored its attempts to fabricate an artificial trans-European identity where no such thing discernibly exists, or so they claim. This, in turn, has provided indigenous opposition movements the justification they need to rally against the further erosion of state-based power to the supranational level. Ah, but wait, argue the Occupy Movement’s defenders. Its focus is not on nation-states but on the iconoclastic character and transnational identity of the 99%’s resistance. It is not seeking to replace national identities with an alternative one. Instead, the Occupy Movement’s particular ‘take’ on identity demonstrates how the principle of nationalism actually means very little when disparate communities seek to find new forms of solidarity to deal with global issues.
At various junctures throughout history, nationalism has been an essential feature of political dissent. Indeed, as the Arab Spring demonstrates, even some of the most repressive regimes cannot escape a nation’s desire for greater political freedom. Yet while national identity remains an essential feature of the international system, the Occupy Movement demonstrates that it is no longer the overpowering source of identity that it once was. Fluid and informally-based identity clusters are indeed becoming increasingly prominent in a world beset by the apparent contradictions of globalization.
David Michael Green ‘The End of Identity? The Implications of Postmodernity for Political Identification’ in Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Vol.6, no.3, 2007.
J McIntyre-Mills ‘Constructing Citizenship and Transnational Identity: Participatory Policy to Enhance Attachment and Involvement’ in Systematic Practice and Action Research, Vol.23, 2010.
Montserrat Guibernau ‘Prospects for a European Identity’ in International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol 24, 2011.
Jai Kwan Kung ‘Growing Supranational Identities in a Globalizing World? A Multilevel Analysis of the World Values Surveys’, in European Journal of Political Research, Vol.47, no.5, 2008.
Originally published here by the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).