Bqe-recherche avancée

Fr. transnational

actors, cosmopolitanism, globalization

Taken literally, “Transnational” refers to any entities (organizations, networks, individuals) or processes (activities, factors, movements, transactions) that cross state boundaries. It should be noted that “transnational” was also promoted by a UN agency to refer to commercial enterprises. Today, the most common term is “multinational company” (MNC), defined as a company operating substantial facilities or doing business in more than one country and not considering any particular country as its national home, even if headquarters are established in a given country.


Transnational relations

Some confusion has been caused since 1965 by the interference of transnational actors and relations with the international sphere understood literally. Transnational organizations may include

-                      multinational companies or corporations (MNCs);

-          international nongovernmental organisations (INGOs) which are not necessarily international (subdivided into national branches), but may be transnational (members will not represent any specific nationality). INGOs are also called “private” (with little or no links with government). There are thousands of religious, environmental, women and humanitarian organizations which promote their own interests, advance causes, and propose global solutions because they mistrust governments or resist official policies.

-                      regimes within particular issue areas (including economics, the environment, security, transport, communications, human rights, arms controls, intellectual property, cultural heritage, etc.),

-                      mixed actors (including states, MNCs, INGOs and/or individuals).

-          Transnational religion has a powerful influence on global politics. While the practice of religions tends to be associated with peace, humanitarianism and the good of the world, history is a mirror of all kinds of conflicts because and in the name of religion. Christian fundamentalism is often associated with tradition and conservative values, and Islamic fundamentalism has been linked with religious extremism and terrorism. Both mix traditionalism with militant nationalism or communitarianism, although this term may also refer to ideological movements (British Chartist movement in 1840s, utopian socialism) or minority, local denominations. Transnational religions and ideologies may be associated with nationalism like Hinduism in India, shia in Iran and Irak, buddhism in Burma, varieties of Orthodox Christianity in Greece and Russia, etc.), while states may conversely fight transnational religions to preserve their secular constitutions and institutions.

The increasing complexity of IR, the intensification of communication and exchanges of all sorts, the impact of civil society in domestic affairs have led to the idea and the fact of transnational relations, in contrast with the conventional, homogeneous theory of interstate relations. This concept was integrated into different disciplines, with different approaches: sociology, political science, law, history, economics, cultural studies, anthropology, human rights, feminism, even though few attempts have been made to bring scholars to comprehensive research. One attempt has been the rise of transnationalism in the inter-paradigmatic debate, which has introduced transdisciplinary concepts such as the transnational and transcultural dimensions, while shedding new light on globalisation. One response to the changing pattern of power relations is to define a form of “complex multilateralism” (O’Brien 2000) involving a system of governance made of a plurality of actors: not only states and inter-state organizations conventionally recognized by international law, but also networks and communities diversely formalised into civil society organizations, whether on a corporate or a non-profit basis. The “multi-stakeholder” dialogues and “multilayered identities” are some of the concepts associated with multipartite governance structures, which have arisen as a novel feature of the institutional landscape.


Old and new

To that extent, the term is an all-embracing concept insofar as its cross-border dimension refers to any non-state actors or even factors: formal or unformal associations, religions, the media, public opinion, capital flows, international trade, migration, tourism, scientific cooperation, standards and norms, cultural fashions and even mafias and terrorist networks.

Despite the novelty of the system, transnational processes have been around since ancient times in the form of geopolitical, religious and cultural influences or ideological universalism. An example was the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, under which Pope Alexander VI Borgia granted Spain and Portugal the New World territories situated on either side of a line dividing South America in two, was a geopolitical operation which left a lasting imprint on the continent. Another example is given by the religious orders that were the underlying forces of social change in the Middle Ages: medievalist Léo Moulin (1980) sees in the Benedictine Cistercian order “the virtually perfect advance version of a transnational organization destined to endure to the present day”. Even though, after its ascendency from the twelth to the fourteenth centuries, it was to suffer, precisely on account of its transnational character, from the emergence of the nation-state. The history of foundations also shows that this other form of non-state controlled institution dates back top a period of the Middle Ages prior to the emergence of states, when the only philanthropic activities on behalf of the underpriviledged were those carried out by town guilds and the Catholic Church (Hodson 1986).

A parallel case is the expansion of the Muslim religion, soon to be subsumed by what was considered to be an empire, otherwise called caliphate, until its suppression in 1924 with the end of the Ottoman Empire. The intercultural exchanges following the expansion of Islam had led, especially between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, to the founding of “non-state” transnational orders and brotherhoods acting as a counterweight to princely authority. Ibn Khaldoun studied its cultural, social, economic and political components, and described the subtle balance of power resulting from the constitution of these networks. Today, most Arab constitutions still assert that Islam is the State religion and that the Islamic law is a main source, or even the main source of modern legislation, even if Islamic law covers today only family law, inheritance law and criminal law in some countries such as Saudi Arabia. The other areas of legislation are governed by laws imported mainly from the West, such as the constitution itself, the judicial system, the civil law, the commercial law and the criminal law.

In sum, what is relevant in terms of IR theory and history is that Christian and Muslim transnational religious communities predate the emergence of centralised secular states. Religious interactions were pivotal to the emergence of an international system in which both Christianity and Islam grew to become world religions, conveying their associated civilisations around the world via colonisation, conquest and the expansion of global trade. Contending religious beliefs were the chief motor of international stakes, until the political importance of religion in Western international politics became increasingly negligible with the Treaties of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the religious wars in Europe between Catholics and Protestants. The Treaty of Utrecht Treaty of Utrecht (1713) aimed at maintaining the balance of power in Europe, breaking more decisively with claims to religious universalism and initiating the history of clashing nationalisms until 1914. The conference of 1884-5 (attended by Germany, Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, the United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, Holland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Norway and Turkey) had already limited the spheres of influence of colonial empires, until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the Second World War conferences finally redefined the allocation of state territories to consolidate the interstate system.

Transnational initiatives can also be seen in the activities of private trading companies in founding the first colonies of what was to become the British Empire, in contrast with the Spanish colonies, which were born out of a clash between a recently established absolute state based on a feudal society. European colonies were initially the product of private initiatives such as the East India Company or the Virginia Company acting for political or religious purposes. The first American setllements were founded by settlers belonging to movements of citizens rebelling against the moral standards or political regime of the time, such as the Puritans in New England or, later, the Quakers in Australia (Lloyd 1984).


International v. transnational

In the twentieth century, European scholars were struck by the effect of transnational relationships in the 1960s. In his book Paix et guerre entre les nations, Raymond Aron, the French sociologist, contrasted the international society, consisting of interactions of states, with transnational society, consisting of the interactions of individuals. Aron gave as an example of a flourishing transnational society pre-1914 Europe, which was manifested in commecial exchanges and a common gold standard, relatively free migration or residence (a frenchmlan could easily live in Germany just as a German could decide to live in France), associations which transcended frontiers, transnational ceremonies and competitions such as the Olympic Games, and international political parties with common doctrines (Labour parties were grouped into an International).

-                      The transnational concept was most explicit in the most comprehensive inter-paradigmatic debate, which is also the most recent. The first two debates consistently assumed that states were the sole actors in international politics, whereas the third debate challenges the state-centric outlook shared by idealism and realism and introduces in the 1970s the claim that the state is no longer the dominant actor. The central issues of loyalties and activities that connect humans across states, nations and nation-states boundaries is the central problematique of such seminal works as Robert O. Keohane and Joseph S. Nye’s Transnational Relations and World Politics and Marcel Merle’s Sociologie des relations internationales. They inspired a new generation of scholars resolutely committed to an interdisciplinary structuring of the IR field of studies (Badie 1992, Risse-Kappen 1995). To some extent, rival theories have been coexisting, with the common recognition that both the state and societies are to varying extents constant references in history. While transnationalism proclaims the fading of the state and the emergence of a new Cosmopolis based on the setting up of universal jurisdictions, realism and idealism keep announcing the demise of multilateral institutions and international law, retreating to a nostalgic identification with the sovereign nation-state, if not with the closed community, populism or an all-embracing “civilisation”. This paradoxical trend has taken a more explicit turn with the transnational demonstrations against Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) in 1998, against globalisation in Seattle in 1999 (the WTO conference), in Prague and Genoa around 2000. The movement was exacerbated by the terrorist attacks on the 11th September 2001, the second Iraq war in 2003, the war in Syria and the extension of transnational terrorist networks, among which the Islamic State (IS) as a result of those conflicts.

Transnationalisation has become a process more recently with the advance of technology and mass communications and the speeding up of human interactions and the transfer of ideas across national borders. It has led to a complex system, with the intermingling of aspects of cultures around the world and the emerging of a transnational culture. In Jihad versus Mc World (1997), Benjamin Barber examines how globalism* and tribalism are reshaping the world as a fight between two distorted, fundamentalist versions of transnationalism which may focus on language, cinema or cuisine, endangered indigenous peoples in the Amazon or the ecosystem. The extreme form of resistance to the transnational culture is the creation of reactionary traditionalism, fundamentalism and what Barber calls “the culture of jihad”, this term being understood as a holy war, the most extreme contemporary outcome of the march of transnationalism.

As could be expected, the multifaceted processes of globalisation and globalism have triggered counter-reactions like the “return to the state” (Hall 2002, Telhami 2006, Alvarez 2011) , which belies the announced demise of the state. Before the 1970s, the dominance of the state had undergone a number of challenges posed by transnational factors. First, the calls for an international working-class opposition to the First World War were supposed to unite them against the separateness of states, presented as a piece of mystification that helped to perpetuate capitalism. This claim was undermined by the events of 1914, as the working class rallied to national flags and volunteered to fight the Great War. Second, the demise of the nation-state in the 1950s was to result from its susceptibility to economic warfare, the rise of international communications, the development of air warfare and the development of nuclear weapons, which threatened the very survival of states (John Herz (1957). Third, from the 1950s neo-functionalism (Haas 1958) built a new theory of the “rise and demise of the state” based on two facts: first, a nuclear stalemate ruled out major war as a means of inter-state policy in the foreseeable future, and second, the European experience of economic integration, which was to lead to political integration, undermined the absolute sovereignty of nation-states. The final two decades of the 20th century were an era of fundamental global political, social, economic and cultural changes, often associated collectively as globalisation, but the early 21rst century has rather seen an increasing skepticism taking on transnational proportions, causing clashes expressed as a renewed “return of the state”, if not “of empires” (Grosser 2013). Further, the one-dimensional view of globalization has been exposed by authors like John Ralston Saul, because globalization's central tenet is that "civilisation should be seen through economics, and economics alone".


Léo Moulin, « Les origines médiévales de la transnationalité », in Proceedings of the World Forum of Transnational Associations, UIA, Brussels, 1980

T.O. Lloyd, The British Empire 1558-1983, London: OUP, 1984

L.V. Hodson, the Foundation Directory, 4th edition, Europa, London, 1986

Marcel Merle, Les acteurs dans les relations internationales, Economica, 1986

Marcel Merle, Sociologie des relations internationales, 4e éd., Dalloz, Paris, 1988 [1974]

Bertrand Badie and Marie-Claude Smouts, Le retournement du monde, Paris: Dalloz, 1992

Marcel Merle, « Le retour de l’Etat », La Croix, 21 novembre 2002

John A. Hall, “The Return of the State”, Social Science Research Council, New York, 2002

Shibley Telhami, The Return of the State, The National Interest, Summer 2006

José E. Alvarez, “The Return of the State”, Minnesota Journal of International Law, 2011

Pierre Grosser, “Résurgences imperiales”, in La nouvelle histoire des empires, Sciences humaines, Hors Série, 2013

John H. Herz, “Rise and Demise of the Territorial State”, World Politics, July 1957

Robert Keohane & Joseph S. Nye Jr. (Eds.), Transnational Relations and World Politics,  De Gruyter, 1972

Thomas Riss-Kappen, Bringing Transnational Relations Back In: Non-State Actors, Domestic Structures and International Institutions, Cambridge: CUP, 1995

Paul Ghils, "International relations and its languages: a transdisciplinary perspective", in Josephine Papst (ed.), The Unifying Aspectsof Cultures.Vol.I: The Unifying Method of the Humanities, Social and Natural sciences, Blackwell, 2005, reprinted in Transnational Associations, 4/2004

Ernst B. Haas ( ed.), The uniting of Europe: political, social, and economic forces, 1950–1957 (3rd ed.), Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004 [1958]

Marc Clément, « Pax europeana, la romanité de l’Europe par le droit », Revue de l'Union Européenne, Paris, déc. 2011, 629-635

Steve Charnovitz, “Two centuries of participation: NGO and International governance”, Michigan Journal of International Law, Hiver 1997

Robin Cohen and Shirin M. Rai, Global Social Movements, Londres, Athelone Press, 2000

Robert O’Brien et al., Contesting Global Governance. Multilateral Economic Institutions and Global Social Movements, Cambridge: CUP, 2000

M.E. Keck and K. Sikkin, Activists beyond borders, Cornell, Cornell University Press, 1998

Jeff Haynes, “Transnational religious actors and international politics”, Third World Quarterly, No 2, 2001

John Ralston Saul, The Collapse of Globalism, Atlantic, 2005

Amartya Sen, “India: The Stormy Revival of an International University”, New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015

UIA, Yearbook of International Organizations, München: Saur Verlag




Independence and transnational activism:

Lessons from Gleneagles


Claire Leigh

Claire Leigh currently works as an advisor on foreign policy in London. This article was based on graduate research conducted at Oxford University. The project was ESRC funded, and thanks go to Karma Nabulsi, Ngaire Woods and Andrew Hurrell for their guidance and support. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article is reproduced from Cosmopolis, 2009/1. All rights reserved.



The author explores some of the difficulties that transnational activists face in the struggle to preserve their independence and hence their legitimacy. Independence is an important predicate for the normative authority of activist groups in general. However, the author argues that activists seeking to operate across borders, such as those within the Global Justice Movement, are faced with a particular set of challenges in preserving independence. These challenges are partly a function of the enablers of mass mobilisation, including big budgets, marketing and the media, and partly a function of the constraints on operating transnationally, including the continued reliance on domestic political opportunities and structures. The issues are explored through a comparative study of two activist groups operating at the Gleneagles summit in 2005, the Make Poverty History coalition and the Dissent network.


2005 was declared by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to be the ‘year of Africa’. It will be remembered by most people living in the UK as the year of Bob Geldof and Live8, Make Poverty History and a fraught meeting of the G8 at the upmarket Gleneagles resort in Scotland, anarchists at perimeter fences and mass protests in the heart of Edinburgh. All the activists involved, whether consciously or not, joined the ranks of a far bigger social phenomenon, the ‘global justice movement’- that dizzying assortment of civil associations and networks opposed to injustices in the global governance and trade regime. The global justice movement (GJM) had its debut on the political stage in Berlin in 1988, and through subsequent appearances at Seattle, Genoa and now Gleneagles has been growing in size and infamy ever since. International summits have provided useful catalysts, precipitating unstable, sporadic and fragile moments of coherence for the otherwise nebulous movement.

What do these brief glimpses of a globalised civil society portend? Much expectation has been piled on cross-border civil associations and activity by scholars and activists alike. The emergence of a ‘global civil society’, it is hoped, may raise a counter-hegemonic and independent challenge to our beleaguered international institutions, and provide ‘representatives of the weak and the marginalised, a window for popular participation’.[1]

In what follows I use the case of the two main groups operating at Gleneagles in 2005, the mainstream NGO coalition Make Poverty History and the smaller and more radical Dissent network, to explore an important challenge facing the global justice movement in its bid to fulfil this mandate. Specifically, the episode highlights the manifold difficulties transnational activists face in the struggle to preserve their independence- independence from donors and domestic political structures, from the mass media and celebrity hijacking. Such challenges are a perennial danger for all activists, but may be amplified by the particular difficulties and expense of mobilising globally, in the cosmopolitical realm.

Independence and Legitimacy in Activism

Legitimacy on the grounds of independence is a weapon of necessity for GJM activists, who lack conventional tools of political authority and seek instead to stake out the normative high-ground. Activists try to gain authority through one of two mechanisms. Firstly, they can leverage decision-makers’ constitutive or formal commitments to the norms of popular representation and consent by making claims about their superior representativeness. Secondly, activists can claim that the norm or policy they advocate is somehow more rational or truthful than its competitors. Unlike states or businesses, activists claim to be disinterested and impartial specialists in a particular field, and consequently to have a moral/rational authority. Both persuasive mechanisms have independence - from the narrow interests of states, companies or individuals - as a fundamental precondition.

Kathryn Sikkink hints at the potential dilemma transnational activist groups face in this regard when she writes:

‘It is exactly because these groups are neither political parties nor interest groups in the classic sense of the word, or representing the political or economic interests of a particular group, that they acquire moral authority…yet it is a balancing act for networks, since they need access to governments to be effective in advocating policy change and contacts with the wealthy and powerful to fund their activities and push through their programs.’[2]

Is it possible to take advantage of the political opportunities and resources necessary to mobilise transnationally while keeping independence intact? How successfully did the Gleneagles protesters negotiate this balancing act?

The Gleneagles protesters

The Gleneagles campaigns were organised by three main networks. The largest of these in terms of resources, membership and media-coverage was the NGO-led Make Poverty History coalition (MPH). MPH ran on a platform of trade, aid and debt reform, and was the UK branch of the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP). Meanwhile the ‘Dissent’ network, part of the wider People’s Global Action (PGA) network, provided the radical fringe. A third, smaller, player was the socialist G8 Alternatives, linked in turn to the European Social Forum.

This tripartite split reflects emerging cleavages in the global justice movement at large. Lance Bennett has previously pointed to a polarisation in the GJM between traditional advocacy coalitions like MPH and radical activism networks such as Dissent. The split is methodological as much as ideological. The latter are resistant to the hierarchical and centralised campaign methods of international NGOs, and in contrast are internally heterogeneous, ideologically and geographically diffuse, heavily reliant on the internet, and aspire to organisational horizontality. These second-generation activists tend to focus less on top-down policy reform, shun mainstream political and media channels, and instead seek to widen participation and to change underlying social values. As Chris Rootes has noted, ‘because the [Gleneagles] G8 meeting was the focus for mobilization of all strands of the global justice movement, it provided a unique opportunity to assess their relative strengths.’[3]

The organisers of the INGO coalition ‘Make Poverty History’ encountered significant criticism for their failure to preserve meaningful independence. Critics argued that high degrees of political co-option and donor dependency stripped the coalition of all potency, with some observers calling the campaign ‘the first embedded protests.’[4] Paul Kingsworth of The New Statesman comments:

‘Four years on from Genoa, things are different….Now protest is scripted, celebrity-endorsed and organised by mainstream NGOs. Instead of the radicalism of Seattle, Prague and Genoa, we have stadiums full of washed-up rockers, Richard Curtis dramas and Tony Blair grinning with Bono…This time around, the leaders have set their own agenda. Saving Africa and preventing climate change were hot topics, not because protesters decided so, but because Blair did. The NGOs, too, had got organised. Media-friendly, politically savvy, well-funded and fanatically mainstream, they left the radicals in the shade. Make Poverty History and Live 8 declared their intention of working with governments rather than against them.’[5]

Similar criticisms were repeatedly voiced in both the alternative and mainstream media. No such charges were levelled against Dissent, but its exhaustive efforts to maintain independence left the network marginalised and small in scale. A comparative analysis of the two very different organisational approaches taken by Dissent and Make Poverty History points to the scale/ legitimacy trade-offs made by both.

One Hand in Your Pocket: Independence from Donors and the Market

An African proverb says that ‘if you have your hand in another man's pocket you must move when he moves.’[6] All INGO coalitions and activist networks need material resources, and this is truer than ever for coalitions and groups operating across borders, and engaged in global mobilisation and campaigns.[7] Mass marketing, advertising, organisational overheads and communications all cost money, and that money has to come from somewhere. But where this money comes from is critically important for activism groups striving to maintain a critical distance from the institutions and principals they seek to oppose.

The funding sources available to activist groups and NGO coalitions are limited. They can raise money externally through institutional donations, volunteer activity, public fund-raising campaigns, merchandise and publications sales, or state grants. Alternatively, coalitions can mobilise resources internally, and receive cash grants from member organisations or accept temporary loans of human or material resources from members.

Both of these funding options create problems for activist independence. Despite claiming to be accountable to their members and supporters, TANs and INGO coalitions are not subject to formal delegational models of accountability, meaning donors are easily assumed to be the real clients. While donors may not place obvious demands on the groups they support or actively intervene in their operations, the fear that funds will be withdrawn if certain activities are undertaken, or the hope that certain activities will attract further funds, inevitably shape the activities of large-scale campaigns.

A trend towards government sponsorship of large NGOs in particular has been widely noted. The US government now channels $7bn a year of development funds through international NGOs, and a growing tendency to distribute official development assistance through charitable organisations is reflected across the industrialised world.[8] Some have questioned whether this makes states too close for comfort. According to Michael Edwards and David Hulme, some NGOs are at risk of becoming little more than public service contractors to whom industrial states outsource public goods provision. They fear that this ‘weakens the legitimacy of NGOs and GROs [Grass Roots Organisations] as independent actors in society,’ shifting the accountability emphasis upwards and forcing recipients to concentrate on short-term achievements over longer term objectives.[9]

The Funding of Make Poverty History

Make Poverty History chose a resource-intensive campaign, involving huge expenditure on media, marketing and logistics. The activities of the coalition over the year leading up to the G8 summit centred around a high-profile awareness campaign aimed at the UK public (to which the late arrival of celebrities such as Bono and Bob Geldof controversially contributed), coordinated actions with overseas coalitions under the GCAP umbrella, and preparations for a set of ambitious campaign events in the week of the G8 summit itself, including a massive rally in Edinburgh on the 2nd July and an international series of ‘Live8’ pop concerts on the same day. The rally, coordinated at great length with police and local authorities over the preceding year, eventually attracted some 225,000 protesters.

This all left the coalition with huge bills to pay. Organisers raised resources in four main ways: through private cash donations, through leveraging the existing resources of members; through merchandising and sales; and through the donation of celebrity-time and broadcasting airspace. Each of these methods compromised the coalition’s independence in different ways.

Firstly, private cash injections such as the millions donated by Scottish entrepreneur Tom Hunter appeared to link the coalition to the business interests and personal whims of a handful of wealthy individuals. Secondly, MPH’s organisational reliance on established domestic NGOs in the UK and the BOND (British Overseas NGOs for Development) network meant that a lot of resources came from donations of time, people or cash from its largest members, such as Oxfam, Comic Relief and Christian Aid.[10] Oxfam in particular provided a great deal of funding, raising problems on several fronts. The Economist has reported that over a quarter of Oxfam’s annual income is sourced from either the British government or the EU.[11] This reflects the general growth in state-sponsorship of large NGOs, but raised serious doubts about MPH’s ability to provide a genuinely critical voice against the UK government. MPH’s reliance on the resources of a handful of members also created power asymmetries within the coalition, whereby those with more to offer were also the most powerful actors within the organisation. This further jeopardised the coalition’s freedom from the agenda of a handful of its largest members, and in turn from their donors and institutional sponsors.

Thirdly, funds raised through merchandising and advertising undermined the coalition’s ability to provide a credible challenge to big business on trade issues, and threatened to both commoditise the issues and make the campaign seem modish and demotic in orientation. The white wristbands sold by the coalition were a major fundraiser, yet by early 2005 the bands were being stamped with brand logos such as that of the Tommy Hilfiger corporation.[12] An embarrassing media expose later revealed that the bands were being manufactured in Chinese sweatshops.[13] A report by Global Research went so far as to declare the campaign a ‘corporate media bonanza,’ and criticised the campaign for being high-jacked by corporations making huge profits from advertising slots at the Live8 concerts in return for comparatively small donations.[14]

While the significant funds raised for the campaign through these efforts undoubtedly enabled the coalition to scale-up the MPH mobilisation to unprecedented levels and reach a massive global audience, its methods may have fatally undermined its perceived legitimacy in the process.

The Funding of Dissent

Mindful of such risks, the Dissent network took a markedly different approach to resource mobilisation. Partly making a virtue out of necessity, and partly out of a genuine ideological concern to keep its impartiality and critical powers intact, the network chose to operate cheaply and to avoid relying on external donors for funds wherever possible.

The network’s reliance on the inexpensive mobilisation methods of the internet and local organisational nodes kept costs down. Instead of being run by a formal hierarchy of professionals, the network’s style was characterised by its local and virtual nature. Most communications and associations were built up over an unregulated and chaotic internet-based network of chat rooms, blogs, wikis and alternative media sites. The network relied heavily on local nodes and groups to organise actions and provide resources. Local affiliated networks would meet face-to-face when necessary, and the national network met occasionally, but little central direction was given to members.

Among a huge array of local initiatives, the centre-pieces of the Dissent protests were three convergence centres, set up in Glasgow, Edinburgh and in the countryside around Gleneagles for the fortnight of the summit in July 2005. The centres were designed to serve two purposes, one organisational, the other symbolic. Firstly they acted as logistics bases, from where activists could plan and launch protest actions. Secondly, the centres were ‘an experiment in and demonstration of new ways of living and new types of social relations- non-hierarchical and consensus-based.’[15] Using their medium as message, the network aimed to create a symbolic alternative to the non-participatory and hierarchical structures it so criticised in both the G8 and its would-be reformers, the MPH coalition. The actions launched from the convergence centres included a protest at the Dungavel immigrant detention centre, another at the Faslane nuclear submarine base, and the ‘carnival of full enjoyment’ in Edinburgh, where anarchists marched through the financial district of the city to protest for fair pay.

The network’s organisers proudly reported that these events were ‘self-funded through benefits and collections… We combined online donations with extensive fund-raising, and the total budget for the protest ran into the tens of thousands of pounds – nothing compared to the multi-million pound budget of Make Poverty History.’[16] But the minimal resources available, while allowing the network to credibly claim independence from anyone other than its supporters, also constrained its activities in vital ways. Lacking the resources of the Make Poverty History campaign, the network had a far lower media profile, and was unable to market to and recruit the swathes of people, both abroad and in the UK, that MPH reached. Whether a result of its chosen methods or its chosen frames, the network’s membership remained relatively small, and by June 2005 the network had some 20 affiliate groups, and could claim to have about 50,000 supporters.[17] Complete independence from donors and the market was brought at a significant cost and resulted in severe resource constraints and a limited ability to scale-shift or recruit globally.

Children of the Passive Revolution: Independence from the State

One of the things that distinguished Gleneagles from previous summits was a widely-held perception that the protests had been politically co-opted. While the dynamic of recuperation may have passed casual supporters by, the sense that the Make Poverty History coalition had become the willing victim of political co-option was widely voiced by seasoned activists and scholars alike. The Guardian reflected the suspicions of many when it commented:

‘Blair and Brown did not want a repeat of Seattle, or Genoa, or any of the other summits that have been accompanied by mass acts of disobedience. They want a stage-managed, benign spectacle, and so they play along with Live 8 and Make Poverty History, creating the world's first “embedded” mass protest.’[18]

The alternative and online media were particularly critical of what they saw as the coalition’s fundamental loss of political independence, which they believed had stripped it of any contentious content or critical potency. As one critic mused, ‘it was all a rather odd sort of demonstration. The rulers identified with it and some even carried placards appealing to themselves.’[19]

A degree of political co-option or state dependence is perhaps unsurprising. Part of the problem lies in the inability of activist groups operating globally to escape the residual influence of place and state. As social movement theorists have explored at length, social movement organisations are strongly determined by the political opportunity structure in which they operate, those signals to social or political actors that either encourage or discourage them to mobilise resources. The propensity of certain social movements to thrive over others is determined by the relative openness of the political system in question, its stability, the presence of elite allies, and the ability or willingness of the state to repress challengers.

It is an indication of the impact that the global distribution of political opportunity has on transnational mobilisations that members of GCAP (MPH’s global umbrella organisation) were far more likely to come from stable democracies, and that the most active country coalitions within GCAP were in states where the domestic regime was most favourable to the demands of the campaign. It is in some ways tautological therefore that large social movements tend to preach to the (at least partially) converted.

Moreover, the residual importance of the state as the vessel of political opportunity was made clear by the methodological nationalism of the GCAP coalition. Subsidiary organisational units such as Make Poverty History were nationally-bounded and domestically focused, despite the rhetoric of a transnational or global frame. As Gordon Laxer explains, there are still ‘no structures above countries in which mass political participation and genuine influence can be felt,’ and the fact that the domestic realm strongly frames the arena of contentious action means that transnational activists must respond to and form around domestic political structures.[20] MPH itself was the first to admit that it was the alignment of openings in the British political environment, including the UK’s concurrent presidency of both the EU and G8, which inspired the campaign. Meanwhile commentators within the anti-capitalist movement have criticised its own tendency to ‘summit-hop,’ precisely because protesters need an event around which to coalesce.[21]

If social theory helps explain why transnational protest networks may be condemned to hold a mirror to the nationally-bounded political structures they seek to oppose, political theory gives us every reason to anticipate a more calculated interference by the state. For neo-Gramscian thinkers a core function of civil society is as a space for state cooption. True counter-hegemony rarely emerges from the civil social realm, and the state has many methods at its disposal to subvert this. These include strategies of passive revolution, in which the state adopts as its own the moderate demands of its challengers, thus undermining the legitimacy of their challenge while avoiding any fundamental change.[22] Gramsci called this strategy ‘transformismo’, whereby ‘through the legislative intervention of the state relatively far-reaching modifications are introduced… thus is the hegemonic system reinforced.’[23] State actors on the receiving end of contentious challenges can also operate an insider/outsider strategy, sponsoring the more moderate aspects of a movement and repressing the radical fringe, either directly using police coercion, or indirectly, by role-casting radical elements in certain ways, causing popular vilification and marginalization. This sort of co-option is a perennial danger for social change organisations such as MPH.

It is also clear that soft-power actors such as activist networks must work through states and international institutions to have their substantive effects. The goal of most activist groups is to alter the preferences and actions of decision-makers, either directly or through a grassroots preference transformation. A complete independence and separation from political institutional structures is not, therefore, a luxury that activists can afford or a situation they would chose. For networks and coalitions that aim at concrete policy gains, to be completely independent from and ignored by policy-makers would be a sign of ultimate defeat. Not only is independence from government impossible, then, it is also undesirable. Political alliance is an important strategy for activists operating under conditions of limited resources.

It seems, then, that globally-minded activists are unlikely to break free of the structuring influence of the state, and that organisations with ambitions of reformation have much to gain from a much closer relationship to government. But the balancing act is a dangerous one, and groups that, for reasons of naivety, necessity or strategy, become overly intertwined with the political system they seek to oppose risk a loss of independence that threatens to fatally undermine their legitimacy and overall persuasiveness.

The Political Independence of Make Poverty History

This balancing act was one that neither Dissent nor Make Poverty History pulled off with particular success. Make Poverty History’s chosen modus operandi was to achieve maximum scale in their campaign, and to recruit as many supporters in the UK and overseas as possible. This strategy dictated the course of the campaign in important ways. As Chris Rootes and Clare Saunders explain, ‘in the characteristic manner of coalitions, MPH articulated and framed the issues in a “lowest common denominator” way designed to attract the largest mobilisation possible around an agenda that is minimally contentious.’[24] The methods chosen by the coalition were those designed for public persuasion rather than participation, and included a high degree of branding, mass-media coverage and the use of celebrities and high-profile figures as a shortcut to access large swathes of the population.

Undoubtedly motivated in part by a desire to alleviate poverty, but also by a desire to expropriate the public goodwill and avoid embarrassing confrontations on the eve of a difficult general election, the British government made many attempts to take ownership of the MPH campaign over 2004 and 2005. The task was made far easier by the uncontentious nature of its demands and the coalition’s clear need for the funds and broadcasting channels available to the state. The elements of the Government’s strategy were threefold: to accept straight-off the moderate demands of MPH, thus denying the campaign any critical purchase; to stage-manage the campaign from within by direct involvement; and to ‘divide and conquer’ by framing the moderate parts of the protests as safe and acceptable while delegitimising and marginalising its more radical aspects.

These strategies had a significant degree of success. First, the Government tried repeatedly to close the critical distance between its own policies and the demands of the protesters, in order to transform and delegitimise the contention. The strategy was successful enough that by June 2005 Prime Minister Tony Blair was quoted as saying that ‘it would be very odd if people came to protest against this G8… I don’t quite know what they’ll be protesting against.’[25]A later survey found that:

‘When asked in the discussion groups in October 2005 to make some “top of mind” associations with the campaign, the most common response was to link MPH with Live8 (and Bob Geldof), while slightly fewer people suggested it was a campaign driven by the Government (and Gordon Brown). Very few people associated MPH with other charities.’[26]

A central vehicle of this transformismo was the government-led Commission for Africa (CFA). The commission adopted almost exactly the same demands voiced by the MPH coalition, and borrowed the ‘aid, trade and debt’ frame used throughout the MPH literature. It was consequently dismissed by the radical fringe of the Gleneagles protests as:

‘A clever PR stunt: by having a majority of Africans on the Commission, its recommendations could be spun as being literally “out of Africa.” In reality, the African commissioners had been hand-picked by Blair and Brown, and formed a web of bankers, industrialists and political leaders with connections to the IMF and the World Bank, all committed to spreading the gospel of free market capitalism.’[27]

Despite being government-funded, and having three cabinet members on the commission, the CFA was eager to pose as independent from the government, to the point of outright self-delusion. The deputy head of the CFA secretariat said in an interview that ‘it was very much independent of the UK government. Although we were funded by DfID [the UK Department for International Development] we didn’t have any other linkages with DfID, apart from Hilary [Benn, DfID Cabinet Minister]’s role as one of the commissioners.’[28]

Alongside the implicit support offered by the commission, leading politicians gave explicit support to the MPH coalition. Then-chancellor Gordon Brown devoted most of his keynote address on the first day of the September 2004 Labour conference to call for a debt initiative and the removal of trade barriers, policies that mirrored those of the supposedly contentious MPH campaign almost stroke for stroke. The Prime Minister and Chancellor even went so far as to wear the symbolic white wristbands of the movement. Anthony Payne has remarked on the lack of ideological controversy in the Gleneagles episode, where the fundamentals of neo-liberalism were taken for granted by opponents who instead quibbled over the small print of a shared set of solutions to a shared set of identified problems.[29] Payne claims that the Government’s immediate agreement to support MPH’s demands ‘initially wrong-footed’ the campaign, and caused significant unease among the coalition’s rank and file. If the Government’s public support for the coalition’s demands reflected a genuine change in its policy preferences, the support would have been welcomed, but there were few signs of a substantive commitment that made this support any more than a rhetorical and strategic device.

Actions taken by central government and the relevant local councils also had the effect of framing the protests in order to isolate the radical fringe while embracing the moderate centre. As Stuart Hodgkinson explains, ‘perhaps the most dangerous aspect of MPH’s blending of its message with that of the government’s…is that it enables the state and media to draw a sharp line in the sand between the “good protester” attending the 2 July Edinburgh rally, and the “bad protester”.’[30] This was partly achieved by extremely heavy policing of certain aspects of the protests compared to the accommodating treatment shown to others by the local authorities. The MPH rally was organised entirely in partnership with Edinburgh Council’s ‘EPOG’ (planning and operations) group, and with extensive planning meetings with the relevant police forces. In stark contrast, some 11,600 police from 50 forces across the UK were deployed at the G8 Alternatives and Dissent demonstrations on 6th July 2005 alone.[31]

MPH’s members were bitterly divided over the benefits of its leadership’s complex relationship with the UK government. Many members were acutely aware of the inherent dangers of co-option, and at the initial ‘brainstorming’ session of the campaign co-option was listed as the biggest concern of those present.[32] Efforts were certainly made by the coalition to maintain a critical distance from its protest targets. In the publication A challenge to the British Prime Minister the coalition portrayed itself as a demanding and dangerous critic of government policy.[33] By April of 2005 the coalition was worried enough about the proliferating accusations of co-option to add a disclaimer to its website asserting the campaign’s political independence.[34] However, the coalition failed to avoid being perceived by its members and the media alike as hopelessly compromised.

The Political Independence of Dissent

The experiences and choices of the Dissent network provide an important counterpoint to those of MPH, and illustrate both the possibilities and pitfalls of doing things differently. In contrast to MPH, Dissent remained far more radical, critical and distanced from the political elite throughout 2004 and 2005. The network was acutely aware of the potentially emasculating and delegitimising effects of state interaction, and went to great lengths to preserve both the image and the substance of its independence from mainstream politics. One item from an early organisational meeting records concerns about ‘manipulation of NGO's particularly in relation to Africa…. Problem: MPH been manipulated by Brown/Blair. Danger of Dissent being assimilated amongst MPH etc. Working with the state -danger within.’[35] Fear of a possible contamination of interests kept the group from affiliating even with the ecumenical MPH coalition. Instead, in the words of one activist, ‘Dissent refused the script that had been provided’ and the network’s demands remained radical in aspiration, their actions unpalatable in method.[36]

Dissent was helped in its quest for political independence by two things. Firstly, the network’s demands were far too radical to be targets for adoption and co-option by the state. Secondly, the network was explicit in the fact that it did not wish to alter the Government’s or the G8’s policies, and actually refuted the G8’s right to make global policy at all. Instead it was engaged in a battle for the hearts and minds of grassroots supporters. It could thus circumvent the temptations of political alliance, and to an extent the structuring effect of political opportunity. To use John Holloway’s phrase, Dissent represented an example of a new breed of protest network that wants to ‘change the world without taking power.’ Such groups try to subvert the power asymmetries and insurmountable barriers that block attempts to take control of the political centre, and instead tend towards anarchism and the creation of alternative political forums that delegitimise central control altogether.[37]

However, as argued above, all social movement organisations aspiring to mobilise globally share an acute need for resources and political opportunity. Shifting collective frames and mobilisation structures beyond borders is expensive, enabled as it is by technology, marketing, mobility and the media, while political opportunities are scarce at the cosmopolitical level. Dissent’s financial and political independence consequently came at a significant cost to its scale, organisational effectiveness and political impact. The network’s failure to mobilise large numbers of people, or to achieve the kind of grassroots mobilisation that it hoped for, can partly be explained by the network’s radicalism. But in many ways its failure was a failure to mobilise resources and to take advantage of the available tools and alliances as MPH had done.


The case of Gleneagles suggests that a significant dilemma faces transnational activist groups in their struggle to preserve their independence. Activist groups aspiring to mobilise across borders in the pursuit of global goals are shaped and constrained by a combination of their organisational needs and by the complex opportunities presented by globalisation and domestic politics. Both MPH and Dissent were forced to make fundamental trade-offs in pursuit of their chosen modus operandi. These trade-offs were in part a function of the enablers of scaled-up, cross-border mobilisation - including celebrity endorsement, marketing and the mass media - and partly a function of the constraints on operating transnationally, including a continued reliance on domestic political opportunities and frames. For MPH the bargain was for a well resourced and high profile campaign that made apparent if incremental policy gains at the highest levels of domestic government, in exchange for its independence and credibility. For Dissent the trade-off was the reverse, but equally as devastating. In exchange for inviolate independence it was constrained to operate with extremely limited resources and publicity. It consequently failed to make any significant steps towards the global, transnational grassroots mobilisation it hoped would lead to underlying change, while its refusal to engage the political elite also ruled out incremental political gains.

The apparent reliance of GJM campaigns like Make Poverty History on expensive mass-mobilisation tools and the domestic political opportunities provided by states may help explain why contentious challenges to the global governance regime so often emanate from the least legitimate of geo-social locations, those states and social groups most inextricably intertwined with the very structures and systems that activists claim to oppose. This may undermine both the substantive and perceived independence of activist groups, their credibility among globalisation’s ‘victims,’ along with their ability, or even underlying desire, to fundamentally alter the very system that created them.


[1] K. Anheier, Mary H Kaldor and Marlies Glasius (eds.), Global civil society 2005/6 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 241.

[2] Kathryn Sikkink, “Restructuring World Politics: the limits and asymmetries of soft power”, in Sanjeev Khagram, James V. Riker and Kathryn Sikkink (eds.), Restructuring world politics: transnational social movements, networks and norms (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), pp. 313.

[3] Chris Rootes and Clare Saunders, “The movement of movements as a network of networks: the global justice movement and the Make Poverty History march”, paper prepared for the ESRC ‘Social capital and social movements’ seminar series, University of Nottingham, December 2006, pp. 2.

[4] The Guardian, “The first embedded protests”, 18 June 2005.

[5] The New Statesman, “So where did Global resistance go?”, 11 July 2005.

[6] As cited in H. Van der Heijden, “The reconciliation of NGO autonomy and operational effectiveness with accountability to donors”, World Development, vol. 15, Supplement, 1987, pp. 106.

[7] Frances Pinter’s discusses the extreme costliness of transnational campaigning in ‘Funding global civil society organisations’, Marlies Glasius, et al., Global civil society 2001 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2001), pp. 195-217.

[8] Glasius, Global civil society 2001, p. 6.

[9] David Hulme and Michael Edwards (eds.), NGOs, states and donors: too close for comfort? (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), pp. 3.

[10] Interview, 14 December 2006.

[11] The Economist, “Sins of the secular missionaries”, 29 January 2000.

[12] Red Pepper Magazine, “Inside the murky world of the UK’s Make Poverty History campaign, 27 June 2005.

[13] The Scotsman, “Anti-poverty wristbands produced in sweatshops”, 30 May 2005.

[14] Global Research, “Live 8: Corporate Media Bonanza”, July 2005.

[15] David Haryie., Shut them down! The G8, Gleneagles 2005 and the Movement of Movements (London: Autonomedia, 2006), p. 14.

[16] Ibid. p. 66.

[17] This is a proxy figure provided by Rootes and Saunders, ‘Movement of movements’, p. 2, on the basis of the number of subscribers to the news publication Schnews.

[18] The Guardian, ‘The first embedded protests’.

[19] ‘The G8-Africa brouhaha: hot air and little substance’, Globalise Resistance, [], accessed 26 March 2007.

[20] Gordon Laxer and Sandra Halperin (eds.), Global civil society and its limits, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 1.

[21] MacDonald Stainsby, “Beyond summit-hopping? G8's retreat to Kananaskis and the way ahead”, Socialism and Democracy, vol. 17, no. 2, 2002.

[22] See Adam Morton on passive revolution in the global sphere, Unravelling Gramsci: hegemony and passive revolution in the global political economy (London: Pluto Press, 2007).

[23] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the prison notebook (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1971), SPN 119-120.

[24] Chris Rootes and Clare Saunders, “The movement of movements as a network of networks: the global justice movement and the Make Poverty History march”, paper prepared for the ESRC Social Capital and Social Movements seminar series, University of Nottingham, December 2006, pp. 4.

[25] Quoted in ‘G8: Why are people protesting?’, IndyMedia [], accessed on 26 March 2007.

[26] Make Poverty History and DfID, End of year notes from the ‘Public perceptions of poverty’ research programme, April 2006, pp. 9.

[27] Haryie, et al, Shut them down!, p. 141.

[28] Interview, 12 December 2006.

[29] Anthony Payne, “Blair, Brown and the Gleneagles agenda: Making Poverty History or confronting the global politics of unequal development?”, International Affairs, vol. 82, no. 5, 2006, pp. 917-935.

[30] Red Pepper Magazine, ‘Inside the murky world’.

[31] ‘Legal Group Statement on the Policing of the Protests against the G8’, [], accessed on 12 January 2006.

[32] Interview, 8 January 2007.

[33] Make Poverty History, Make history: a challenge to the British Prime minister in 2005, December 2004.

[34]The disclaimer appeared on the MPH website in April 2005, [], accessed on 15 January 2007.

[35] Item 4 from the ‘Festival of Dissent’ meeting minutes, 6-10 April 2005.

[36] Haryie, Shut them down, p. 10.

[37] John Holloway, Change the world without taking power: The real meaning of revolution today (London: Pluto Press, 2002).