Of thinktanks and social movement failure… #isaforum2016

The third day of the International Sociological Association Forum and another jam-packed programme. So jam-packed, in fact, that this blog post covers the morning sessions, with a sequel (the deaths are always more elaborate, the body count higher) to follow.

The first session I went to, on Global Think Tanks, was strictly kept to time by David Fasenfast (Wayne State University). He had prepped the (seven!) speakers the day before with a time limit and a request that they start from their conclusions and then fill-in the blanks if they had time (this seemed to work!). He warned everyone that in the Q and A if a question wasn’t clear in the first thirty seconds, they would be cut off.

Karin Fischer (Kepler University, Linz) advertised the existence of thinktanknetworkresearch.net (does what it says on the tin, and pointed to the interlocking staff and board membership of think tanks, with things like the Mont Pelerin Society (Atlas was not mentioned) being a “transnational neoliberal knowledge power elite”, that engages in “strategic replication” of knowledge (churning out similar storylines)

William Carroll (University of Victoria, Canada) presented work on “counterhegemonic projects and cognitive praxis in transnational alternative policy groups.” He pointed out that most social research looks at dominant groups, but that since the 1970s, and especially the 1990s, alternative policy groups have been busy generating ideas for alternative globalisation. He then showed a fascinating table that compared neoliberal, and “counter” groups on three axes – substantive practice, procedural aspects and orientation to the future, looking also at the challenges for the “counter groups”.

He talked a little about 8 think tanks; ITeM-Social Watch (Montevideo), PRIA (New Delhi), IFG  (San Francisco), CCS (Durban), Rosaluxembourg Stiftung (Berlin), TNI (Amsterdam), Focus (Bangkok) and Dawn(Development Alternatives with Women in a New Era (Global South). These fall into three categories around human right/empowerment, to the left of political liberalism and radical projects that are transnational in nature. These groups, especially the third, need to show on-the-ground actors that they matter. Abstract ideas are, as Gramsci said, “castles in the air”.

One crucial way to show they matter is to cultivate local dialogues, and help form links between individuals and groups. Resources among the eight vary, with a couple well-funded but many dependent on “sweat equity” and volunteer labour. Dawn, a feminist project, has existed for decades. Carroll was at paints to say these are new critical sources of knowledge, mobilising in projects for thriving and well-being.

Georgina Murray (Griffith University) talked about Australian think tanks as “permanent persuaders” (that chap Gramsci again), and the “shock troops of neoliberalism”, borrowing a term from Australian academic Damien Cahill, and helping to get the “spontaneous consent” of subordinate groups (Strinati, 1995). She also talked about the chicken and egg problem – do the think tanks create the policies, or do the material conditions create the think tanks. [Strinati, Dominic (1995), An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, London.]

Alejandra Salas-Porras(Facultad de Ciencas, Politicas y Sociales-UNAM, Mexico) gave an account of think tank networks in Mexico (they’re relatively new).

Bruce Cronin (University of Greenwich, London) explained how reports of the demise of the US Business Roundtable are greatly exaggerated. The outfit, founded in the 1970s in response to rising public pressure (around environment, product and social concerns – see Barley 2010 Building and Institutional Field to Corral a Government for details) is a very canny street-fighting unit, with a small staff and most of the heavy lifting being done by CEOs and staff of member corporations. It has adapted to a structural shift in the US economy, and has brought the CEOs of service industries (insurance,IT, pharma etc. into the fold. Its (very effective) Modus operandi is direct engagement of CEOs in policy and implementation, wide collaboration around precise policy goals, and “grass roots” mobilisation of employees. Cronin said in the Q and A that the Business Roundtable was more pragmatic than a couple of other business associations (e.g. the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers), in that it realised health care costs needed to be control for the good of ‘the system’ (my words), and so worked with Obama rather than fingers-in-ears-stomping-the-ground.

The final chap (sorry, only have a surname- Zielinski) talked about the infamous and secretive Bildeberg Group. His research is based on a leaked archive of the groups annual meeting summaries, from 1954-1995. He is trawling through to see who the key players (invited back every year for many years) are.

Books to get

Expose, Oppose and Propose Alternative Policy Groups and the Struggle for Global Justice

Verdict: Seven presenters got to present their work, get specific questions, with time left for a general discussion, all in 90 minutes. That is not an accident, that is conscious and skillful work on the part of the chair.

The second session I went to was Environmental movements in the Age of Climate Change (and in the interests of full disclosure, I was one of the presenters).

Neil Carter (University of York) gave a compelling account of Friends of the Earth’s effective policy entrepreneurship around climate policy. He used Kingdon’s Multiple Streams approach(problem, politics and policy streams, coming together when policy entrepreneurs join the streams and create a ‘policy window’) to frame his empirical tale of the period 2005 to 2008. I had not realised that FoE basically devoted ALL their resources to this campaign (“the Big Ask”). It succeeded faster and further than their initial expectations, partly thanks to the mood of the time (you could not move but you would trip over a climate group/meeting/disaster/report), the tensions in the politics stream (a botched Climate Change Policy process, David Cameron hugging huskies to detoxify the Tory brand) and the efforts of helpful celebrities (shout out to Thom Yorke and Radiohead – they seem not to be knobs, as best I can tell). Carter made the good point that FoE, for various reasons, failed to capitalise on the success, and that newly recruited members were not retained in large numbers.

Nathalie Berny (Sciences Po Bourdeaux) talked about the big NGOs in the “Brussels Bubble”. I could track down Greenwood 2011 and Kluver 2013 on the effectiveness of NGOs around public policy and the difficulties in mobilising resources Greenwood and Aspinwall, 1998).

Cecelia Walsh-Russo (Hardwick College) talked about “climate justice and local government”, in the US. She and her colleagues looked at three adaptation plans, devised by the governments of Punta Garde, Florida, Keen, New Hampshire and Emoryville, California, all of whom worked with ICLEI . They found that climate justice is largely absent from these plans, that “vulnerability” is always framed as of the natural world, and that there are no mentions of the needs of the homeless, poor, or provisions for mental health services. Thank GOODNESS that the good councillors of Manchester City Council’s Health Scrutiny Committee have not kicked climate change into the long grass. No, wait

Joost de Moor gave a very interesting presentation on “Demanding Policy Change, Taking Direct Action nor Promoting Alternatives: Explaining Differences and Overlaps in Strategic Preferences within the Climate Change Movement.”

He’d been studying the 18 month build-up to the mobilisations around the COP21 meeting in Paris last year. He talked about the paradox of COP activism, around what the activists are trying to achieve (shut it down? Force it to be better? Delegitimise it) and how the rhetoric around “build a movement” was deployed, while all the while people worried about a repeat of the 2009 Copenhagen debacle. He added the disclaimer that some groups don’t agree with the paradox framing (see Avaaz) and others do indeed ignore the COP process

He explained that there were various proposed tactics, such as “having the last word” (denouncing the agreement as inadequate), disrupting the negotiations, targeting banks and fossil fuel companies, promoting alternatives. Some of this did take place, but there were serious challenges (unresolved), such as the age-old one of not being able to disrupt the wheels of day-to-day capitalism if you protests are planned for a Saturday, and how to say “You should come to Paris because of COP21, but when you get here you have to ignore COP21 and protest about banks and stuff” (my paraphrasing). So the “Red Lines” protest ended up being a bit of a confusion for many, but given the constraints (including the heightened security and mood post- Bataclan attacks) then what else was there to do (“don’t go – do your actions in your own cities” would be my answer, fwiw. As I wrote, “Screw Paris“.

Joost then explained that the movement has struggled to avoid a Copenhagen repeat, with key challenges around trust between Majority World organisations and the West (two weeks haggling over a meeting in Berlin, that was then cancelled by the organisers who felt it would be pointlesss), worries by the Majority World folks that they would not be able to attend all the meetings and decisions would be made without them, tensions with the NGOs etc etc. Climate Justice Action has sort of survived, but is very northern and is basically just a mailing list at present. The May 2016 actions were a dampish squib (that’s me saying that, not Joost).

It seems that there are intractable problems, and that we are not learning very much. Ho hum.
Second blog post to follow tonight or tomorrow, or when the hangover is gone…

To look up(After The Thesis)

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