In 1998 the Rand Arroyo centre, a research group affiliated to the US army, published a remarkable report entitled The Zapatista ‘Social Netwar’ in Mexico. Sponsored by the US Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, the document analyses the success of the Zapatistas in developing a new form of social mobilization labeled ‘netwar’: ‘an emerging mode of conflict (and crime)’ which relies on ‘network forms of organization, doctrine, strategy, and technology attuned to the information age’. We learn that ‘netwar’ is characterized not just by the use of new communications media like the Internet, but also by the mobilization of horizontal networks of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), which replace the hierarchical structures of older revolutionary movements. Quoting a Colonel Richard Szafranski, the study observes that the challenge from such networks is often ‘epistemological’: ‘a netwar actor may aim to confound people’s fundamental beliefs about the nature of their culture, society and government, partly to foment fear but perhaps mainly to disorient people and unhinge their perceptions.’footnote1

Networked transnational campaigns by social movements are not necessarily threatening; in some places, including Mexico, they ‘may even have some positive consequences, especially for spurring social and political reforms’. Elsewhere, however, they pose a potential threat to US interests. The military must therefore arm itself for this new epistemological and virtual battle for hearts and minds, for ‘in some cases, the United States may even want to foment [netwar], or at least be positioned to benefit from its effects’. In this environment, the report concludes, ‘where feasible, it may be increasingly advisable to improve US and allied skills for communication and even coordination with NGOs that can affect the course and conduct of a netwar.’footnote2

The Rand Arroyo document offers an intriguing illustration of an important dilemma of contemporary social theory. On the one hand, it highlights the widespread acceptance—even in some unexpected quarters—of the image of flexible, networked, transnational social movements as key agents of change in the ‘information age’. On the other, it seems to cast doubt on the equally widespread image of NGOs or networked social movements as progressive sources of resistance to the power of global capitalism. At a time when even the US military hopes to get in on the act of ‘netwar’ by ‘coordinating with NGOs’, what confidence can we place in the liberating potential of transnational networks of social movements?

In the rhetoric of globalization the same refrain slips back and forth between a major and a minor key, a threat and a promise. The threat is that a historically unprecedented mobility of capital, goods, people and ideas is hollowing out national sovereignty, and robbing citizens of their main forum for decisive collective action. At a time when the number of small, powerless states has increased, globalization is supposedly liquidating the military, economic and cultural foundations of national sovereignty. As Zygmunt Bauman has put it ‘all three legs of the sovereignty tripod have now been shattered.’footnote3 In this elegy for lost nationhood, the disestablishment of the sovereign state is linked to the wholesale disempowerment of its citizens, since while democratic institutions remain in place at the national level, the real decisions are now made elsewhere. The experience of disempowerment which follows from this bypassing of the nation state extends beyond the narrowly political into the deeper realms of work and private life. The global mobility of capital undermines job security; technological change devalues treasured knowledge; the rich variety of local tradition is obliterated by the spreading tide of coca-colonization. Political powerlessness is experienced as anomie, loss of cultural identity, and fear.

Yet just a slight shift of key transforms the same leitmotifs—‘fluidity’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘eroded national boundaries’—from sources of fear into reasons to hope for new forms of social and political empowerment. The promise in the rhetoric of globalization is that while cross-border cultural flows may undermine nationhood, they also activate a multitude of other identities, introducing potentially greater flexibility into inherited forms of citizenship. As the boundary between the native and the foreigner becomes more porous, a generalized diasporic condition emerges from the margins, encouraging the formation of a new ‘public sphere’ composed of ‘transnational coalitions outside state and market systems’.footnote4 Sakamoto Yoshikazu remarks that in the wake of market powered globalization, ‘contemporary civil society is rapidly coming to transcend the bounds of national frontiers’. NGOs in Western Europe will play, he predicts, an increasingly vital role in lobbying for worldwide regulation to limit the social and ecological damage wrought by global capitalism. In Latin America and other parts of the South, Elizabeth Jelin writes of an astonishing growth in ‘international solidarity networks, geared to intervene in situations of economic exclusion and political oppression.’footnote5 Are these networks bringing about a ‘barefoot revolution’ with the potential to solve many of the problems created by conventional forms of development policy?footnote6

Even those who are cautious about the revolutionary potential of transnational social movements often see an important role for NGOs in resisting the forces of globalization. British social theorist Leslie Sklair, for example, argues that while ‘movements working against global capitalism have been singularly unsuccessful globally’, environmental, consumer and other groups have on occasion been locally effective in disrupting the smooth running of the system, and that these local disruptions, if repeated and linked across a wide range of locations, could eventually produce internationally significant results. The potential power of locally based social movements organized on a transnational scale was vividly illustrated by the large-scale NGO demonstrations which accompanied and influenced the outcome of the World Trade Organization Seattle meeting in November–December 1999.footnote7

So far I have been using terms like ‘social movements’, ‘NGOs’ and ‘civil society’ without any attempt to define them, but it is important to say something about the choice and meaning of these words, and particularly to pay attention to differences of nuance between the expressions ‘social movement’ and ‘NGO’. Current theories on transnational civil society are much indebted to the work of Alain Touraine, Alberto Melucci, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens on ‘new social movements’ in the 1970s. Although it is hard to find a persuasive, all-encompassing definition, one could say that ‘new social movements’ are forces that challenge the existing order of things, either by direct protest action or by nurturing alternative lifestyles for their members. Though many, including the feminist and peace movements, have roots going back at least to the early decades of the twentieth century, they are ‘new’ in the sense that they typify the political in ‘late modern’, ‘informational’ or ‘post-organized’ capitalist societies.