Brian Holmes on Mon, 28 Sep 1998 22:02:32 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> TNCS

Networkers - Civil Society - Transnational Corporations - Democratic

By Brian Holmes

Transnational corporations--TNCs--are the bogeymen of global dreams. They
are imaged (on the left at least) as roving post-mechanical monsters,
outfitted with fantastically complex electronic sensors and vicious
trilateral brains, and driven by an endless appetite for the conversion of
resources, labor, and consumer desire into profit for a few. There's some
truth in that image. But the power of transnational capital is inseparable
from the capital "S" of subjective agency, expressed in social, cultural,
and political exchange. Which is why I'd like to discuss TNCs in relation
to what you might call TNCS: transnational civil society.

Let's start with the bogeyman. It became apparent in the sixties that
private corporations were taking over the technological and organizational
capacities developed initially in World War II: the coordinated industrial
production, transportation, communication, information analysis, and
propaganda required for multi-theater warfare. Corporations such as
Standard Oil or IBM, operating through subsidiary companies in every
nation which did not allow direct penetration, were projections of a
(mostly American) military-industrial complex into both the developed and
the undeveloped world, as part of the globe-girdling Cold War strategy.
Yet already in the sixties these "multinational" enterprises were
achieving autonomy from their home bases, for instance through the
creation by British financiers of the Eurodollar, a way to keep profits
offshore, out of the national tax collector's hands. The offshore economy
took a quantum leap in the mid-70s after the first oil shock, when the
massive capital transfers to the OPEC countries were channeled by
inventive Western bankers into the new, stateless circuits of financial
exchange. That's about the time when the full-fledged system of
transnational capitalism emerged, with the collapse of the nationally
based Fordist-Keynesian paradigm of labor-intensive industrial production
plus welfare programs. The proximate cause for the collapse was the
inflation brought on by the policies of stimulating consumption through
public spending; but the durable factor prohibiting any return to the
postwar social contract was the competitive pressure of what is now known
as flexible accumulation, based on geographically dispersed yet highly
coordinated "just-in-time" production, cheap world-wide distribution
through container transport systems, and the complex management,
marketing, and financing made possible by telecommunications. The flexible
production system allowed the TNCs to avoid the concentrated masses of
workers on which union power depends, and so much of the labor regulation
built up since the Great Depression was sidestepped or abolished. At the
same time, new technologies for financial speculation pushed levels of
competition ever higher, as industrialists struggled to keep up with the
profit margins that could be realized on the money markets. With the
demise of the Soviet Union and the nearly simultaneous resolution of the
GATT negotiations, eliminating almost all barriers to international trade,
the world stage was cleared for the activities of the lean-and-mean
corporations. The favors of unprecedentedly mobile enterprises would now
have to be courted by weakened national governments, which increasingly
began to appear as no more than "executive committees" serving the needs
of the transnationals. And the TNCs grew tremendously, with spectacular
mergers that haven't stopped: witness BP/Amoco in oil, Daimler
Benz/Chrysler in auto manufacturing, Morgan Stanley/Dean Whitter in
investment banking, or the proposed "Oneworld" alliance that would group
nine international carriers around the two giants, British Airways and
American Airlines...

This thumbnail sketch of economic globalization could go on and on, as it
does in an incredible stream of recent books and articles from all schools
of economics and all frequencies of the political spectrum. But what's
generally left out of the hypercritical, alarmist discourse that I
personally find most compelling, is some theoretical consideration of the
roles played by the individual, human nodes of the world network: I mean
*us*, the networkers, the people whose labor actually maintains the global
economic webs, and whose curiosity and energy is sucked up into the
tantalizing effort to understand them and use them for our own ends. I'm
trying think on a broad scale here: the pioneers of virtual communities
and are only the tip of this iceberg. What's fascinating to see is
the emergence on a sociological level of something like a *class of
networkers*, people who are increasingly conscious of the welter of
connections that make up the global economy, who participate and to some
degree profit from those connections, who suffer from them too, and who
are beginning to recognize their own experience as part of a larger
pattern. The massification of Internet access in the last few years, only
since the early 90s, has finally given this class its characteristic means
of expression. But precisely this expanded access to world-wide
communications has made it pretty much impossible to go on fingering a
tiny corporate elite as the sole sources and agents of the global
domination of capital. We are now looking at and sharing in a much larger
phenomenon: the constitution of a transnational civil society, with
something akin to, but different from, the complexity, powers, and
internal contradictions that characterized, and still characterize, the
nationally based civil societies.

Civil society was initially defined, in the Enlightenment tradition, as
the voluntary social relations that develop and function outside the
institutions of state power. Toqueville's observations on the importance
of such voluntary initiatives for the cohesion of mid-19th-century
American society established an enduring place for them in the theories of
democracy. The idea recently got a lot of new press and some new
philosophical consideration with the upsurge of dissidence in the Soviet
Union and the other east-bloc countries in the 70s and 80s; and at the
same time, as the neoliberal critique of state bureaucracy resulted in the
dismantling of welfare functions and the decay of public education
systems, the notion of self-motivated, self-organizing social activities
directed toward the common good became something of a Great White Hope in
the western societies. So-called non-governmental organizations could then
be seen as the correlates of civil society in the space of transnational
flows. Nowadays, with the environmental and labor abuses of TNCs becoming
glaringly violent and systematic, and with their cultural influence
ballooning through their sway over the media, a lot of people in
non-governmental organizations are understandably keen on promoting a
notion of global civil society as a network of charitable humanitarian
projects and political pressure groups operating outside the precinct of
*corporate* power (with attempts to develop institutional agency focusing
mostly around the UN). I sympathize with the intention, but still I'd like
to point out that the individual rights and the free exchange of
information on which this global civil society depends are also necessary
elements of capitalist exchange and accumulation. The internationalization
of law and the fundamental demand of "transparency," i.e. full information
disclosure about all collective undertakings, are among the great demands
of the TNCs. To the extent that it wants to participate in capitalist
exchange, even a regime as repressive as that of China, for example, has
to open up more and more circuits of information flow, and so it pays the
price of higher scrutiny, both internal and external, on matters of
individual rights and freedoms. The whole ambiguity of capitalism, in its
concrete, historical evolution, is to combine tremendous directive power
over the course and content of human experience with a structurally
necessary space for the development of individual autonomy, and thus for
political organizing. The networkers, those whose bodies form nodes in the
global information flow, and who therefore can participate in an enlarged
civil society, are subject to that ambiguity. Which means, pragmatically,
that the expansion of TNCs is inherently connected to the possibility for
any democratic governance by a transnational civil society.

As Gramsci made clear long ago, civil society is always fundamentally
about levels or thresholds of tolerance to the pressures and abuses of
capitalist accumulation. The specific forms and effects of civil society
are determined by a complex cultural mood, a shifting, partially
unconscious consensus about who will be exploited at work, and how, about
whose intelligence and emotions will be brutalized by which commercial
media, and when and where and how, about whose land will be polluted, and
with what--and, of course, about whose land will just get suburbanized or
left tragically undeveloped, about who will be able to refine their
intelligence and emotions and in which ways, about who must work and who
gets to work and who no longer "needs" to work, who just gets left on the
sidelines. Thus Gramsci, writing in the 20s and 30s, had a somewhat
jaundiced view of really-existing civil society. He conceived it as the
primary locus of political struggle in the advanced capitalist societies,
but he also saw it as a directive, legitimating cultural superstructure,
generally engaged in the justification of brutal domination; and he
recalled the violence of petty bureaucrats and clergyman in the Italian
countryside, keeping the submissive classes in line. Gramsci's key concept
of hegemony expresses both the role of this legitimating function of civil
society in maintaining dominance and also its potential mobility, its
capacity to effect a redistribution of power in society. I think that the
emergence of the transnational class of networkers, operating as a
significant minority in most countries, is effectively shifting the
articulation of political power in all the world's nations. I'll try to
describe how with just a few examples.

Consider the United States, the country that launched the Internet, where
an important fraction of the population is extracting new wealth out of
what Robert Reich termed the "global webs" of multi-partner industrial,
commercial, and financial ventures, where many people not directly
involved as operative nodes in such webs are still very conscious of them
because they have their savings or retirement funds invested in global
financial markets (as almost half of Americans now do), and finally, where
long lists of NGOs and alternative communication networks are based, many
of them with roots in the idealistic social-reform movements of the 60s
and 70s. This is also a country where the least wealthy 40% of the
population has actually seen their wages go down and their working
conditions deteriorate over the last twenty years, where chronic social
exclusion has become highly visible in the forms of homelessness and
renewed racial violence, and where, last but not least, a very powerful
Christian Coalition has emerged to reject almost every kind of
consciousness change attendant on globalization and the recognition of
cultural diversity. To marshal a workable political consensus out of such
intense divisions, Clinton-Gore had to simultaneously push even harder
toward the flexibilized information economy than their Republican
predecessors had done, while making (and then breaking) lots of promises
to restructure the country's welfare safety net, maintaining a
high-profile international human-rights discourse (for instance with
respect to China), and combining talk about environmentalism with a hip
and tolerant style to woo all the former sixties radicals whose capacity
for cultural and technological innovation fuels so many growth markets.
Continuing economic growth has, of course, been the only thing to render
this juggling act possible, making the strident neoliberal critique of the
Republican right seem redundant--and forcing the Republicans into even
greater dependence on the extreme right, as defined and prosecuted by the
moral order of Christian fundamentalism.

Europeans tend to look on media-driven American politics with
consternation and a powerful will to deny any resemblance to the situation
in their own countries. But if Tony Blair enjoys so much prestige in the
rest of the EU right now, it is because of New Labour's ability to juggle
the contradictions of an unevenly globalized society, somewhat as Clinton
has done. The hegemonic formula reflected by New Labour seems to be a fun,
flexible lifestyle, good for stimulating consumption, a fast-paced
managerial discipline to keep up with global competition, and a
center-left position that shows a lot of sympathy for casual workers and
the unemployed while eschewing any genuinely socialist policies of market
regulation and restricting the state's role to that of a "promoter"
(Blair's word). However, there are of indications that this formula,
tantalizing as it is, will not really work in the rest of Europe, stricken
by unemployment and yet still reticent to dismantle the remains of its
welfare systems. The very interesting resurgence of support for state
interventionism and economic regulation in France is one such indication.
A more disquieting sign is the rise of populist neofascist parties, not
only in France, where the National Front clamors against "mondialisme"
(globalism), but also in Austria, Italy, Belgium, and Norway. These
betoken major resistance to the neoliberal path that the European
Union--or more accurately, Euroland--has taken under the economic
leadership of the Bundesbank. The compromise-formation between a
transnational elite subordinating everything to its privileges and an
excluded popular class looking to vent its frustrations seems to be the
scapegoating of poorer immigrants. The sight of two immigration officers
savagely beating an African in a transit corridor of Schipol airport has
stuck in my mind as an all-too possible future for Euroland.

The powerfully articulated national civil societies of Europe are likely
to falter and distort rather than break under the pressure of the split
introduced by the transnational class. Hegemonic dissolution occurs when a
majority of a country's or region's people can no longer identify
themselves with *any* aspect of the institutional structure that purports
to govern them. A case in point is Algeria. Here we see the steadily
increasing inability of a recently urbanized and relatively educated
population to identify with a government that no longer even remotely
represents a possibility to share the benefits of industrial
growth--because there hasn't been any for the past twenty years. The
government is now an oligarchy drawing its revenues from TNCs in the
fields of resource-extraction and consumer-product distribution. For many
Algerians who have left their former village environment but can no longer
get a job or use their education, the only ideology that can render a
regression to pre-industrial living conditions tolerable is not democracy,
but Islamic fundamentalism. If transnational capital continues to exploit
the new international space which it has (de)regulated for its
convenience, without any consideration for the daily lives of huge numbers
of people, such violent reactions of rejection are inevitable and will
spread. The current crisis of the global financial system is all too
likely to fulfill this prediction.

Paradoxically, it is the global financial meltdown that may offer the
first real chance for transnational civil society to have a significant
impact on world politics. Not because networkers will have any direct
influence on the few transnational institutions that do exist: only the
richest states and the lobbies of the very large corporations can sway the
IMF, OECD, and WTO; and despite all the inroads made by non-governmental
organizations, the UN is only really effective as a kind of mega-forum for
debate. But in the context of a world-wide economic crisis, networkers may
be able to use an understanding acquired by direct participation in global
information flows to effectively criticize the institutions, ideologies,
and economic policies of their own countries. In other words,
transnational civil society may find ways to link back up with the
national civil societies. There is already an example of networked
resistance to economic globalization that has operated in just this way:
the mobilization against the Multilateral Agreement on Investments. This
ultraliberal treaty aims not at harmonizing but at *homogenizing* the
legal environment for transnational investment. It would prohibit any
differential treatment of investors, thus making it impossible for
governments to encourage locally generated economic development. It would
allow investors to sue governments in any case where new environmental,
labor, or cultural policies entailed profit losses. And its rollback
provision would function to gradually eliminate the "reservations" that
individual states might initially impose. Negotiations on the MAI began
secretly in 1995 among the 29 member-states of the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development, and might actually have been
concluded in April 1998 had the draft text of the treaty not been obtained
and made public, first by posting it on the Internet (see the Public
Citizen site, at This plus the resultant press coverage
brought cascading opposition from around the world, including a joint
statement addressed to the OECD and national governments by 560 NGOs. The
result was that member-states were forced into questioning certain aspects
of the treaty and negotiations were temporarily suspended, though not
definitively adjourned.

Detailed information on the MAI can be obtained over the Internet, for
instance from the National Centre for Sustainability in Canada
( The diffusion of this information
remains important at the date I am writing (September 1998), as further
negotiations are upcoming. Opponents say that like Dracula, the MAI cannot
stand the light of day. What I find particularly interesting in this
context is the way the angle of the daylight differs across the world.
Canadian activists, having seen their local institutions weakened by
NAFTA, are extremely concerned with preserving national sovereignty.
Consumer advocates and environmentalists were able to exert the strongest
influence on the US Congress. In France, the threat to government subsidy
of French-language audiovisual production tipped the balance of
indignation. NGOs in developing countries which may be incited to join the
treaty immediately pointed to the dangers of excessive speculation by
outside investors. Underlying these and many other specific concerns there
is no doubt a broad conviction that the single, overriding value of
capitalist accumulation by any means, and for no other end than
accumulation itself, is insane or inhuman. But even if the current
financial crisis is almost certain to reinforce and extend that
conviction, still it will have no political effect until translated into
more tangible issues, within an institutional environment that is still
permeable to those whose only power lies in their intelligence,
imagination, empathy, and organizing skills. Like it or not, that
environment is still primarily to be found in the nation, and not in some
hypothetical Oneworld consciousness. Which is tantamount to saying that
transnational civil society, if developed for its own sake, would probably
end up as homogeneous and abstract as the process of transnational capital
circulation that structures the TNCs. The only desirable global governance
will come from the endless harmonization of endlessly negotiated local

I have evoked the position of networkers as human nodes in the global
information flow. What are the implications of that position? In his
three-volume study of *The Information Age*, sociologist Manuel Castells
gives the following definition: "A network is a set of interconnected
nodes. A node is the point at which a curve intersects itself." This
definition is either fatalistic or provocative. Fatalistic if it defines
the network of information exchange as an entirely autonomous system,
interlinked only to itself in a structure of recursive proliferation. But
provocative if it helps push the human nodes to assert their autonomy by
seeking connections outside the recursive system. Can we hope that a
redirection of priorities will arise from the aberrant spectacle of
financial short-circuiting and resultant material penury in a world whose
productive capacities are so obviously immense? I suspect that in the near
future at least some progress toward the reorientation of the world
economy is likely, particularly in the European Union where the rudiments
of transnational democratic institutions do exist. Even in the US, real
doubt may grow about the sustainability of the speculative market in which
so many have invested. In this context there may be a chance for activists
to talk political economics with the far larger numbers of networkers who
formerly had ears only for the neoliberal consensus. But a real change in
the hegemony will not come about without an expansion of the magic circle
of empowerment to people and priorities which have been marginalized and
excluded. There is a tremendous need right now to spend some time away
from computers and out of airports, not to ideologize people in the
national civil societies but just to find out what matters to them, and to
discover other levels of experience that can feed one's own capacities for
empathy and imagination. Such experience can help requalify the
transnational networks. In this respect I continue to think there has been
something compelling in the Zapatista electronic insurgency, despite the
aura of exoticism it is often reduced to. Not only has it been a vital
force in shifting the hegemonic balance in Mexican civil society by giving
uncensored voice to the demand for greater democracy. Not only has it been
able to mobilize support from farflung nations at a time when "Third
Worldism" was becoming a term of insult and disdain. But in addition to
these considerable accomplishments it has been able to infuse the global
network with stories and images of the Lacandon forest, evoking
experiences of time, place, and human solidarity that seem to have been
banished from the accelerating system of abstract exchanges. The thing is
not to romanticize such stories and images, but to look instead for the
real resonances they can have in one's own surroundings. Call it
transnational culture sharing, if you like.

Brian Holmes

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