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Author: John Allen

The power to make a difference

Updated Friday, 30th June 2006

The response to inequality and unfairness might be to take responsibility rather than feeling guilt, explains John Allen

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Western icon, developing world work? Stitching on a pair of jeans

One of eye-opening consequences of living in an increasingly interdependent world is the recognition that the ties that bind people and places together often do so in unequal and unjust ways.

It has become harder to miss the fact that in terms of resources for instance - people, oil, wood, foodstuffs - richer nations are living off poorer ones, at a rate that is increasingly unsustainable.

Likewise calls for fair trade with agricultural producers in less developed countries around items like coffee and chocolate, or 'demands' to preserve the biodiversity of the global South threatened by rapacious multinationals, highlight global injustices which speak to the asymmetry of power characterising our interdependent world.

Rather than a random set of events in which groups located in one part of the world benefit at the expense of others elsewhere, the unequal nature of global interdependences and the web of asymmetrical power relationships which underpins them are best understood as something which is hard-wired into the global economic and political system.

We cannot choose to opt out of them by simply walking away: the power and advantage is structural and enduring. On this account, power - more accurately the unequal distribution of power between states, countries and peoples - is regarded as a fact of life in a world where privilege is enjoyed at the expense of distant others.

Interdependency - how our actions depend on those of others and vice versa - is a zero-sum game in which those who 'have' the power can only gain if others lose. Whilst new players may come to the fore, it does not take much imagination to sketch the global cartography of where power is located and in which parts of the world people have the odds stacked up against them.

This could be, and often is, the end of the global power-and-inequality story. But it is possible to give a different account of the exercise of power in an interdependent world; one that owes less to the ability of giant corporations and sprawling government institutions to wield power on the basis of the sheer size and concentration of their resources and more to the networked mobilization of 'publics' made possible by the greater awareness of our entangled lifestyles and life chances.

The proliferation of nongovernmental organizations, campaigning groups and social movements seeking to make a difference in the world by mobilizing around issues faced collectively such as climate change, ecological disasters, food risks, sweatshop exploitation, human rights and, more generally, the governance of the global system, are no less an expression of power than monolithic corporations. They just 'do' power differently.

On the back of heightened interdependence comes heightened awareness of the multiple ways in which the fortunes of people and places are connected and dependent upon one another.

Power, for such groupings is not something that can be applied like an instrumental force or measured like military might; it is something brought into being by the activation of moral and political energies and sustained by mutual action stretched around the globe.

The mobilization of distant 'publics', the deployment of networked skills and competences to secure outcomes across ever greater distances, gives NGOs and campaigning groups a geographical reach that often belies their otherwise limited resources. The ability to bring pressure to bear on 'more powerful' institutions and actors is made possible by a world more fully understood as crosscutting and densely networked.

On this account, it is harder to see power as simply a zero-sum game in which the powerful confront the powerless at-a-distance. The entrenched asymmetries of power which call forth acts of resistance fail to capture the kinds of agency mobilized to make a difference in an interdependent world.

The extent and range of interventions undertaken by civil society movements and their widespread impact suggest that the 'power to' bring about change needs to be thought about differently from more familiar accounts of weighty institutions holding 'power over' others.

Spatial experiments with power

Power for many NGOs and campaigning groups may be a more tenuous affair than most are prepared to acknowledge. The degree to which their actions are effective is judged by the extent to which people are globally networked and mobilized to bring about or block change. Lobbying, forging alliances with interested parties, adopting legal positions, making representations in the public arena are all typical interventions and what works best for particular organizations is something that they hit upon given the political moment and context.

The use of power to shape events and influence outcomes in this sense is largely pragmatic. Such organizations rarely, if ever, believe that they can achieve anything they put their minds to. Resources and capabilities do matter, and how you use them matters even more. Experimenting with how to make a difference is about how best to cope with the political challenges faced, given the means available.

So one of the challenges for political movements of any kind is to enhance the scope and reach of their power by experimenting with ways of making 'publics' present through the mediated spaces of communication and a more networked model of civil society. Or in the traditional vernacular of power, the challenge is how to exert an influence way beyond your means.

One tactic adopted by campaigning groups is to construct a dispersed 'public' around a political goal by framing the issue as one that involves us all and from which it is not possible to opt out. The issue of global climate change and the destruction of rain forests are among the best known, as is the antisweatshop movement's success in framing the issue of clothing sweatshops in East Asia as one that implicates all those who buy the T-shirts made under such conditions.

In this instance consumers in the affluent North are told in no uncertain terms that they are connected to a system which produces harm and injustice on the far side of the globe. As consumers we benefit from a system that reproduces exploitation elsewhere and as such we bear some responsibility to do something about those conditions. If our need for cheap clothing is dependent upon sweatshop labour, the workers' demand for a decent job is dependent upon our ability to bring pressure to bear upon the big corporate retailers to do something about it.

The dependency, it is pointed out, cuts both ways. Another means by which the antisweatshop movement drew attention to unequal interdependence was by collapsing the distance between producer and consumer that the marketplace and its fragmented supply chain relationships had obscured.

Sweatshops are part of a relay of subcontracting operations that involve overlapping chains of buyers and suppliers, trading companies and sourcing agents, factory owners and home workers, stretched globally. The clothing that sells in European and US retail stores may have passed through dozens of hands, factories and agents and across any number of international borders before reaching the consumer.

However, by fixing upon the company logos of Nike, Gap, Adidas, Puma, Reebok, among others, and linking the actions of branded retailers directly to overseas sweatshop abuse, campaigners established an immediate connection between what was going on over 'there', in East Asia, with decisions taken 'back home'.

In doing so, they constructed a newly mobilized 'public' among consumers who, as beneficiaries of exploitation and misfortune elsewhere, placed the issue back in the hands of European and US corporate boardrooms to resolve.

What is striking about the antisweatshop movement's experiment is that they attempted to set 'wrongs' right by persuading (others might say manipulating) a variety of dispersed consumers that their connection to exploitation overseas not only carried responsibilities, but that they actually had the power to make a difference. The mobilization of energies at-adistance gave campaigning groups (such as the Clean Clothes Campaign and Oxfam) a spatial reach and influence far in excess of their organizational resources base. And a key part of that mobilization was the demonstrative fact that life chances are globally interdependent and unequal.

Responsibility at-adistance

ris Young has reflected upon the nature of the antisweatshop movement's claims and their ability to mobilize a pluralised and dispersed 'public'. Her interest is with the obligations of justice that arise from heightened global interdependence.

In a world of dense trade and communications, where economic and political events tie people together across borders, our actions increasingly assume and depend upon others elsewhere to perform certain roles. As such, Young argues, we have obligations to those who condition and enable our actions, as indeed they do to us. But there is a clear asymmetry to these obligations which mirrors the unequal distribution of global power - implying that those more privileged and able to change things have a greater responsibility to do so.

What is intriguing about Young's interpretation of the obligations that consumers have to the far-off sweatshop workers who sew their clothes is that they are being held responsible for something they themselves have not done.

Consumers merely buy and wear the clothes; they do not hire, fire or threaten workers on the factory floor. Yet the purchase of clothes at low cost is enabled precisely by the tasks performed by others elsewhere - who bear the costs of exploitation. As Young sees it, the ties that bind consumers to the harm done in overseas sweatshops make us responsible, but not to blame, for what happens on the factory floor.

There is no need to feel guilty every time we pull on a Gap T-shirt or a Nike vest, but because we benefit from the sweatshop connection we are obliged to do something about the pressures that such a demand transmits to factory managers on the shop floor.

The obligation is not one to care about workers on the far side of the globe simply because they suffer oppression, but rather to take responsibility for being part of an interdependent economic system which allows such working conditions to flourish. Our role as consumers in this system is merely to go about our normal business of buying clothes at what we regard as a reasonable price, yet these innocuous actions set up a chain of consequences that lead, through the contractual supply system, to workers on an assembly line being prevented from earning a living wage.

Consumers, contractors and factory managers alike are caught up in a system which leaves the latter group no margin to improve factory pay and conditions.

Because consumers set the price at which they are willing to purchase goods, their actions presuppose and depend upon others elsewhere to make them at a cost which fails to deliver a living wage.

More to the point, for Young, greater economic interdependence obliges us as consumers to take political responsibility for events elsewhere, precisely because our actions collectively contribute to the proliferation of sweatshops.

Shared responsibility for sweatshops arises from the fact that together, consumers, retailers, buyers, contractors, and factory owners, produce the unedifying spectacle of exploitation which enables clothes to be produced at lower prices than is possible in the affluent North.

Whereas guilt singles out individual blame, our innocence as consumers makes us collectively responsible for things we have not done. It is the price we pay for living our lives with others - in an interdependent world - from which we cannot simply walk away. But not all responsibilities held in common are of the same magnitude.

Certain actors have more power to make a difference than others and hence shoulder a greater share of the responsibility. Much the same could be said in relation to political responsibilities exercised over climate change. As for overseas sweatshops, the practical differences in the leverage of different actors - consumers, retailers, multinationals, governments, trades unions - to secure change suggest that agents focus their energies where their influence is most effective.

This amounts to more than simply adding up the size and concentration of resources available to an agency or counting the number of decisionmakers invarious organizations. Rather, the varied ways in which progressive changes are secured across networked dependencies also requires experimenting with more imaginative ways in which agencies are mobilized to make a difference.

Power-asymmetries revisited

A more general point about power in an interdependent world is that closer-knit interdependencies often give the impression that those tied in have plural yet transparent needs and demands: that the 'common good' is a known quantity. Yet the fact that interdependencies stretched across the globe may be understood from one end of a set of relationships rather than the other holds out the possibility for any number of interests to be eclipsed or sidelined, albeit unintentionally.

The anti-sweatshop campaign is a case in point. The global supply chain that links a diverse array of actors together is complex and fragmented. It is not straightforward what is the best way to meet the often diverse needs of sweatshop workers in faraway factories. Well-intentioned actions of campaigning groups involving boycott of goods or demands for better pay may simply lead to a loss of jobs elsewhere.

Sometimes sweatshops do offer comparably better employment than other forms of local employment, no matter how bad they are perceived to be among consumers in Europe and the US.

The 'stories' of sweatshop workers are often unwittingly mediated by activists and the experience of those who actually work in the factory sweatshops may not be well understood by those mobilizing on their behalf.

Heightened global interdependence thus carries with it the danger that those with the power to make a difference act as if they know more than they actually do about the needs of others elsewhere. Less distanced, more interconnected through trade and communications, the lives of many scattered across the globe, filtered through western selfperceptions, can appear less opaque than hitherto.

But perhaps all that has really changed is that asymmetries of power have taken a new form – between those actors who mobilize for the 'common good' on behalf of the less powerful and those who have little in the way of power to make their 'demands' known.

John Allen is Professor in Geography at the Open University.

This article was used to support the OU / New Economics Foundation event - Interdependence Day - held in July 2006.


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