Enriching Discourse Theory

Cypriot memorials as an example of the workings of the discursive-material knot

Nico Carpentier

One of the issues where Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory has been struggling with, is its relationship with the material. This struggle is not caused by the lack of acknowledgement of the significance of the material in their discourse theory, on the contrary. From the very beginning, discourse theory has made it clear that the material matters, and that it cannot be equated with, or subsumed by, the discursive. Moreover, for Laclau and Mouffe, discourse is not the same as language, a position that opens up considerable opportunities for acknowledging the communicative capacities of objects and bodies. But that is not where the issue is situated. Even though Laclau and Mouffe emphasize the importance of the material, it remains a bit hidden under the theoretical weight of the discourse-theoretical vocabulary, and receives little specific conceptual attention. If the material matters, then there is also a need to have a vocabulary that allows to think through the role of the material. And if the material and the discursive interact, or, in other words, if the material and discursive are knotted or entangled, then there is a need to think through the knot and to develop a theory (or theories) of entanglement.

…new materialism’s acknowledgement of the discursive also has its limits…

One resource that can provide help in enriching discourse theory is new materialism, which has strongly thematized material agency, without ignoring the role of the discursive (or the representational, as it is often called in this field of study). Interestingly, new materialism’s acknowledgement of the discursive also has its limits, in the very same way as discourse theory’s relationship to the material has remained underdeveloped. This is why a non-hierarchical reconciliation of the material and the discursive requires a gentle reworking of both traditions, without moving too far away from their respective comfort zones.

In the search for a more developed theoretical-conceptual vocabulary, there are some obvious candidates. One example is the dislocation, a discourse-theoretical concept that captures the capacity of the material to disrupt a discourse, forcing it into discursive repair or sometimes even destroying it. Arguably, there is also the need for a more positive version of the dislocation, which is the invitation. Materials can extend invitations towards particular discourses, exactly through their material characteristics. This does not imply that invitations cannot be declined; other discourses can still be invoked to generate meanings to materials. One other useful concept that has more stronger roots in new materialism, is the assemblage, which can be used to think about the translation of the ontological principles of the discursive-material knot to the ontic level, where particular discourses and materials become (seen as) part of equally particular assemblages. Finally, the attention for contingency unifies both traditions, and structurally matters to our understanding of entangled discourses and materials, where discourses, materials and their assemblages are fixated through socio-political practices, but never in unchangeable and definitive ways.

One way to illustrate the workings of the discursive-material knot is through the “Iconoclastic Controversies” photography exhibitions, which took place in Cyprus in the autumn of 2015 (Nicosia), the beginning of 2016 (Limassol) and the autumn of 2018 (Brasilia). This video shows a 2-minute report of the Brasilia exhibition, which ran from 17 September to 5 October 2018 at the University of Brasilia:

The “Iconoclastic Controversies” exhibitions included between 20 and 23 photographs of memorials—more specifically: statutes and commemoration sites—related to the Cyprus Problem, and more in particular to the Cypriot Independence War of 1955-59, and the Turkish invasion of 1974. These photographs are investigations of the hegemonic forces of Greek-Cypriot antagonistic nationalism, and of the condensation of this discourse into memorials that celebrate heroism, militarism and nationalism. The materials of these memorials are invested with meanings produced by these particular discourses, and become part of the antagonistic nationalist assemblage. At the same time, the memorials extend an invitation through their materiality—e.g., the display of triumphant male fighters, connected to the Greek-Cypriot nation—to identify with this nationalist discourse.

…these exhibitions also show that this identification is not to be taken for granted

But these exhibitions also show that this identification is not to be taken for granted. First, the invitation can simply be declined, and a different discourse can be used to give meaning to a memorial. For instance, a war hero can become articulated as a war criminal. Second, the practices of everyday life often lead to memorials not being noticed and respected. The photographs show how in some cases, memorials are used as gathering place for sunbathers and swimmers, ideally situated to leave towels behind. In other cases, the ever-expanding tourist industry encroached on memorial sites, hiding them from sight.

The strength of the antagonistic nationalism assemblage is also weakened by the presence of counter-hegemonic memorials, that attempt to dislocate this assemblage by paying tribute to peace-building initiatives, or to peace in general. One photograph in the “Iconoclastic Controversies” exhibitions shows the Kavazoğlu-Misiaoulis statues in Athienou, a Greek-Cypriot village north of Larnaca, one of the four villages in the buffer zone. Beneath the two busts is inscribed a text which summons passers-by to remember the “heroic martyrs of the Greek-Turkish friendship”. These statues not only commemorate the violent deaths of these two labour union activists (the first of whom was Turkish Cypriot and the second one Greek Cypriot), they also show that the antagonism between both communities can be overcome by collaboration. But the photograph, taken after the Kavazoğlu bust was stolen by metal thieves, also symbolizes the vulnerability of these counter-hegemonic memorials in the South Cypriot landscape.

As a series of exhibitions—and an assemblage in its own right—“Iconoclastic Controversies” explicitly reflects on the discursive-material knot, and shows how memorials are part of particular assemblages, but also how these assemblages are contingent and contested. Embedded in one approach toward the development of a theory of entanglement, it is also a call to continue our work on the further development of this theoretical and empirical field, leaving behind the need to privilege one of the knot’s components over the other.

Nico Carpentier is Docent at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism of Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB – Free University of Brussels).

Failure of progressive politics and the rise of a new ‘dangerous’ India

Idreas Khandy 22.05.19

The largest electoral exercise in the world –17th parliamentary elections of India – concluded on the 19th of this month. The mammoth task was carried out over 39 days and in 7 phases to decide the fate of 543 parliamentary seats. At the time of writing, the first post-poll surveys have begun to make rounds in the media. According to these post-poll surveys, the incumbent Narendra Modi led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) is all set to return to power; the accuracy of these surveys remains to be seen. Regardless of which party takes power, it is vital we pay attention to what these elections mean for the world’s largest electoral democracy in times of fake news, and the resurgence of chauvinism in the realm of high politics.

A tale of two manifestos:

To understand any election, a comparison of party manifestos is always a good starting point. Before doing that, a general comment on how Modi’s tenure has been covered is in order. Observers from across the world dubbed these elections as a referendum on Modi’s tenure, and much has been written about the rising intolerance, vigilante violence, and crackdown on dissent during Modi’s tenure. Domestically, Modi was widely criticised for his demonetisation move, which sent the economy into a shock. Modi’s frequent travels abroad received their share of criticism as well for being useless, and also became a template for hilarious internet memes

Coming to the manifestos of the two parties, both sought to cash in on political rhetoric and populist imagination. The manifesto of BJP read like a PR handout for its 5-year long tenure and sought to embellish its supposed tough stance on terrorism as the number one item on the manifesto titled ‘Nation First’. This section of the manifesto aimed to reinforce the rhetoric that India is continuously facing threats, both internal and external, by cashing in on the 14th February suicide attack in Kashmir, stoking anti-immigrant sentiment, and labelling social activists/dissenters as ‘left-wing extremists’. The manifesto also dedicated a whole section to what it calls ‘cultural heritage’, which shows the party’s intention to embark on a homogenisation drive in what is for intents and purposes a multi-national state. Lastly, the manifesto emphasised the aspect of development, and its aspirations to make India a global power by raising the issue of securing a permanent seat at the UNSC.

The manifestos appeared to have been written for the consumption of India’s tech-savvy Anglophone middle-class

On the other hand, the manifesto of the Congress party appeared radical in contrast to its rival. The key pledges the manifesto emphasised were a jobs revolution, universal healthcare, end to hate crimes, increasing defence spending, among other things. However, a closer reading of the party manifestos reveals that they are more similar than they appeared, as Irfan Ahmad had also pointed out in his Al Jazeera article in 2014. Things have not changed on that front; both manifestos raved about the discourse of development, the need to counter cross border terrorism and promise to acquire a permanent seat for India at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). On the disputed and politically rebellious region of Kashmir, both parties have pledged to take an assimilationist approach, albeit these approaches are phrased differently. The manifestos appeared to have been written for the consumption of India’s tech-savvy Anglophone middle-class, which over the years has become a site for the ideological fight between the right and the centre in Indian politics represented by the invocation of Ram Temple by the BJP and a hat-tip to tolerance by the Congress party.

Most of the pledges and promises the manifestos spoke of were absent from the speeches delivered by the politicians of the respective parties while on the campaign trail. The tenor of the election campaign appeared to be entirely divorced from the manifestos, more so from the Congress side. BJP, on its part, left no chance of polarising the electorate go begging.

Campaigning in the age of social media:

Political parties spent a staggering £3.8 billion in the 2014 parliamentary elections on election campaigning and other related activities. The amount spent during the recently concluded elections was almost double that and stood at £5.42 billion. A significant chunk of these funds was dedicated to digital campaigning over social media platforms, especially Facebook and Google ads. The massive spending on campaigning points towards the fact that elections in India revolve more around the spectacle of campaigns and are less dependent on what the parties have pledged in their respective election manifestos. Election campaigns in India are designed not only to entertain the audience, but also informally known to be opportunities to make a quick buck as audiences/voters are lured with promises of cash, liquor, and even food. It is hardly surprising that issues of critical importance for public policy are barely discussed on the campaign trail by the politicians in India. The recently concluded elections were no different.

Pressing matters of public policy were conveniently elided over by politicians in their campaigning and by the media in their coverage of the elections. Matters of public policy such as environmental pollution, rising inequality amongst different social classes, farmer crisis,   dispossession of tribal people from their lands were either wholly pushed out of the conversation or at best given half-hearted and short-lived attention. The issues that were highlighted by the media as the core issues of the elections were jobs and economic slowdown, and national security. Additionally, BJP’s muscular nationalism and its links to corruption have also been thrown in the mix by the sections of media sympathetic to the Congressi vision of India.

The move sought to project Modi as a politician with a clean image, with the interests of the poor at heart.

The discourse and rhetoric on the campaign trail from all sides was shrill vitriol and a public mudslinging competition. Election campaigning of the incumbent BJP revolved around a spectacle of securitisation and hyperbole. ‘Sacrifices’ of soldiers, surgical strikes inside Pakistani territory, and a right-wing brand of national loyalty were some of the continuously invoked themes throughout BJP’s election campaign. A BJP candidate even praised and hailed the assassin of Gandhi as a patriot. The polarising character of BJP’s campaign was further enhanced by a massively potent campaign of misinformation, primarily carried out through the messaging app WhatsApp. The party also undertook an ingenious PR campaign – led by Modi himself, when he added the prefix ‘Chowkidar’ (Watchman) to his Twitter handle. The move sought to project Modi as a politician with a clean image, with the interests of the poor at heart. While the move may not have succeeded in achieving that objective, it, however, succeeded in a far more significant way. The ‘Chowkidar’ move succeeded in shifting the focus of political discourse from serious political and economic issues to trivial matters of self-adorned labels; a trap Indian National Congress (INC) willingly walked into and remained caged in throughout the elections.

On the other hand, the election campaign of the Congress party from the beginning and throughout the election appeared to be interested in replicating the spectacular and entertaining model of campaigning, something the BJP seems to have perfected. The Congress party instead of sticking to discussing its manifesto pledges and making a persuasive argument as to why the voters should consider its manifesto succumbed to the tactics of the blitz, name-calling, and petty sloganeering. The President of the INC Rahul Gandhi repeatedly pointed fingers at the alleged connivance of Modi’s office in the mishandling of the Rafale fighter jet deal. Gandhi almost ritualistically dared Modi to debate him on the Rafale issue, beyond that Gandhi had no potent critique of BJP’s planned implementation of The Citizenship Bill and the National Register of Citizens, or its planned homogenisation drive at a national level. Gandhi appeared to be immensely pleased with himself for coming up with the ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai (Watchman is the Thief) slogan, which may have improved the acoustics of Congress election rallies, but miserably failed to project the Congress party as a viable alternative to the BJP – a development with far-reaching consequences for Indian polity in general..

A new ‘dangerous’ India?

An explanation of why Congress chose to ape BJP’s campaigning strategy, instead of forcefully putting forth its supposed ‘radical manifesto’ is that the policies that both these parties have pursued when in power since the early 1990s are qualitatively no different and are rooted in a neoliberal logic, which transcends the supposed divide of right and centre in Indian politics. Indian politics appears to have become a prisoner of what Marcuse called ‘liberal totalitarianism’, where the logic of neoliberal economic development has become the only acceptable and imaginable way to move forward. Neoliberal policies are unironically prescribed as the solution for problems whose roots lie in neoliberal thinking.

The failure of the Congress party and its allies to truly put progressive policies on the table and demonstrate the political will to pursue them forcefully has made a significant contribution in pushing Indian politics towards a dangerous trajectory. The legitimacy crisis of Congress has deepened in recent years to such an extent that the rhetoric of ‘If not Modi, then who?’ no longer sounds absurd, regardless of how frightening it is as a prospect. They call this the TINA; There is No Alternative.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that India is not a democracy in the truest sense of the word; it is a ‘quasi-democracy’ at best if I am to use Larry Diamond’s terminology, i.e., India is neither clearly democratic nor [overtly] authoritarian. The rise of BJP in such a ‘quasi-democracy’ makes the prospect of a ‘reverse wave of democracy’ in India very real. Snapping of internet services, curbs on press freedom, vigilante violence, systematic undermining of educational institutions all in the name of protecting the ‘national interest’ appear to confirm the trend of reversal in India.

Idreas Khandy is a PhD candidate at Lancaster University’s Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion

Catalonia: Challenging the Notions of Nationalism

Marc Perelló-Sobrepere

Nationalism has been one of the determining forces of modern history. After the fall of the Ancient Empires, it represented something to be proud of: the defence of one’s citizenship, traditions, language and culture-with Hans Kohn being one of the major historians of the old nationalism. The fascist movements of the Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries, however, caused the term to develop many negative connotations. Today, it is often related to authoritative regimes and political ideas of exclusion rather than inclusion. It is even used as an insult in some political and cultural magazines. In terms of language also, a huge effort has been made to debate differences between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’, concluding that the latter contains all the good will that the former supposedly lacks.

The truth is, however, that nationalism is an evolving term with a rich history and many footnotes, depending on which type we are discussing. The many theories under which academics have been studying and defining most of the nationalist movements that there have been in contemporary history derive from the works of Hans Kohn, Anthony Smith, Tom Nairn, John Breuilly and Elie Kedourie to name a few. Kedourie takes a hostile stance towards nationalism and defines it as a form of politics that is unrelated to reality. He labels it a new form of romanticism and cites Fichte and Herder as examples of intellectuals who have been seduced. In a similar way, Smith claims that nationalism is nothing but an exaggeration of history combined with mythology. Breuilly is equally critical, suggesting that nationalist leaders aim for total control of the masses. Nairn also shares the idea that nationalism is an elite movement that seeks to spread throughout the masses. Most, if not all of the 20th century scholars describe nationalism negatively.

More recently, however, writers such as Taras Kuzio, Rogers Brubaker, Will Kymlicka and Montserrat Guibernau have challenged these assumptions, demonstrating that the new nationalisms’ characteristics are too varied to fit under a single, negatively- connotated umbrella. For instance, Guibernau describes Catalan nationalism as a form of nationalism without a state, tearing apart the premise that the ideology needs a state to survive. Guibernau’s definition seems quite appropriate if we consider that most Catalans are nowadays in favour of a new state. Yet how exactly is Catalan nationalism different from other types?

Contrary to most nationalist movements, Catalan nationalism is a bottom-up process, having arisen from social movements.

Contrary to most nationalist movements, Catalan nationalism is a bottom-up process, having arisen from social movements. In this case, the masses convinced the elite to pursue a Catalan state, not the other way around. In fact, the leading political party in Catalonia for the majority of the last twenty years, CiU (Convergència i Unió), always denied the possibility of a new state. It was not until after 11th September 2012 that this idea was even considered by its then-leader, Artur Mas, after millions went out onto the streets of Barcelona demanding independence. Since then, the party has been reformed under the name JxC (Junts per Catalunya) and is now led by Carles Puigdemont. He is currently exiled in Brussels, however, due to the Spanish state prosecution of those Catalan leaders who declared independence in 2017, even though this declaration never had a legal impact on either Spanish or Catalan politics.

Another major pillar of nationalism that is challenged by Catalan nationalism is that of romanticism. While it does have its own fair dose of mythology and idolized history, these are not at this nationalism’s core. The growth of this nationalism in the past two decades -and thus the growth in the number of supporters of independence- stems mainly from economic interest, rather than from a sentimental or mythological ideology. Different studies carried out by some of the most prominent economists have revealed that Catalonia would benefit more from being a new state than from remaining as part of Spain; Catalan GDP is actually one of Europe’s highest. To many Catalans out there, independence is, in fact, a rather pragmatic matter of survival.

In 2015, a newly formed political coalition aiming for independence won the Catalan elections. In 2017, after the failed declaration of independence, the pro-independence parties formed a government once again, only this time as two separate parties: JxC and ERC. Additionally, in the 2019 Spanish General Election, the pro-independence parties won more seats in the Spanish Congress than ever before. The Spanish answer to the ever-growing support for independence has drifted between feigned dialogue (always within the limits of the Spanish Constitution) and a legal-criminal response that witnesses several of the old leaders of Catalan independentism behind bars at this time.


It must be said that social networks have had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism.

It must be said that social networks have had a huge influence in the deployment of Catalan nationalism. The more social networks’ popularity has spread among Catalans, the more supporters of independence there have been. Many arguments and reasons to support independence have been shared by Catalan activists on social networks, with effective results. Catalan nationalism also benefits from a huge pool of supporters based in academia thanks to a pacifying tone and well-researched arguments regarding the formation of a new state in Europe. The two most recent Spanish foreign ministers, Alfonso Dastis and Josep Borrell, have acknowledged that the international empathy, even sympathy, expressed towards the Catalan pro-independence movement stems, in part, from academia-related efforts to sustain Catalan claims. International attention was also drawn by the referenda of 9th November 2014 and 1st October 2017, both organized without the Spanish government’s approval and also by the terrific police charges that followed the second.

Could Catalan nationalism ultimately lead to the creation of a new Catalan state? Such an idea should not surprise anyone in Europe-over 20 new states came to be during the 20th and 21st centuries. However, while the Yes to independence leads most surveys on this issue, the Spanish state is not even considering such a possibility. While some far-right and conservative politicians (from the Partido Popular, Ciudadanos and VOX) fantasize about the possibility of erasing Catalan autonomy, currently under a pro-independence government, the centre-left and left parties (PSOE, Podemos) aim for a political solution within the limits of the Spanish Constitution. This would, however, exclude the chance for a referendum like the one held in Scotland in 2014. With the Catalan pro-independence supporters gaining power in Catalonia and the two major political forces in Spain not allowing a referendum (let alone an eventual secession) for both sides, engaging in sincere dialogue will, sooner or later, be a necessity.

Marc Perelló-Sobrepere holds a PhD in Communications (Universitat Ramon Llull – URL).

Marc is Professor at Universitat International de Catalunya (UIC) and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). Former Visiting Researcher at City University London and at the University of Copenhagen.

Marc’s research focuses on digital communication and political activism, especially massive social networks and its social-political use.

India, Populism, and the power of the ‘Other’

Adam Saraswati Rawlings, Comment Editor for SCAN

In the seventy two years since India gained its independence from the British, a distinct precedent has been espoused throughout political discourses is that of religious difference. Established in the very partition of India, a dichotomy has formed, and grown, between India’s Hindu majority and it’s religious minorities. This is most often historically India’s Muslim majority (which is destined to become the largest single population of Muslims in the world) but has from time to time turned to Sikhs (notably in the 1980s), and other communities. This narrative of religious difference is not a impenetrable barrier to religious cohesion in India, in fact it can be argued that India displays a more sophisticated model of religion conscious democracy, though the ever growing populist narrative of India’s politics, this assessment grows weaker and weaker.

In recent years a rise in violence against India’s Muslim communities, particularly beef vigilantism and actions against ‘love jihad’, has coincided with the premiership of Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While Hindu Nationalism has been present in India since before the nation’s independence, the recent spike in violent Hindu Nationalism is in no small feat connected to the populist politics that saw a BJP victory in the 2014 general election. Now that India is in the process of electing and announcing the results of its 2019 general election, a trend is clear. The BJP are playing off of fears embedded within India’s political conscious tied up in present fears of the ‘other’. One only has to look as far as the speech given by Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath, in March of 2017, when he assumed office, to see the narrative the BJP is using to strike fear into the heart of its votership.

This year Modi’s campaigning has heavily focused on Indian security, deviating from his previous campaign which centred itself on economic and social reform, essentially playing off the recent unrest in Indian controlled Kashmir. The party has used the climate in global media of Islam at the forefront of negative press, to push the idea that Hindus are under threat, both from the nations that border India, and increasingly from the Muslim citizens from within. Modi has used this, along with what many describe as the BJP’s historically anti-Muslim narrative, to whip up the emotions of India’s working class Hindu voters to rally behind him once again. The frank ways in which Modi has used Kashmir in his campaigning has shown a populism which banks on a continued culture of unrest and distrust between India’s religious communities. Further, the unrest of Kashmir’s internal politics only serves to feed into the carefully curated image the BJP and wider Hindu Nationalist movement has crafted of India as a nation under threat from the ‘other’. The sacred ideal of India as a Hindu nation, though not removed from the contexts of India or Hinduism, are manipulated and projected to show the BJP as the protectors of India’s integrity as a Hindu homeland. The recent murder of a BJP politician in Kashmir and the widespread boycott of the 2019 elections in Kashmir have only added to this.

The language the BJP increasingly uses not only glorifies the Hinduness of India, but serves to place the minority, especially the Muslim minority, as an integral threat to the foundations of the nation. In recent times the use of hate speech from BJP politicians has reportedly shot up to a head spinning 500% on what it has been in previous years, with Amit Shah the party president using words like ‘termites’ to describe Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The real danger of this rhetoric is how much of the Indian polity is now beginning to buy into it as legitimate and how successful it has been in inspiring Islamophobic violence. In BJP strongholds like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, and Gujarat the increase in Hindu Nationalist violence has ballooned since the election of Modi in 2014 and by 2018 had rapidly increased still. Such violence has even permeated India’s usually apolitical film industry, with the blockbuster Padmaavat sparking major controversy and threats of violence due to concerns from emboldened Hindu Nationalist vigilantes over Hindu-Muslim relationships shown on screen. The populist narrative projected by the BJP fuels concern and aggression over the perceived threat of the other has bled into the understanding of what nationality and Hinduness is to a large swathe of Hindus, particularly those from lower income backgrounds who make up a large number of those involved in Hindutva violence. The BJP’s contribution and captainship to the idea of Muslims as a distinct and threatening other is making India an increasingly unsafe, unequal, and ever dangerous country.

Ultimately the othering of Muslims is not something unique to India, evidenced by the social climate of the Western world, or to the BJP given the diversity of Hindu Nationalist groups in India. What is distinct though, is the amount of influence and power that the BJP has to control and manipulate this narrative to draw support for their party, as well as manipulate the social conditions of India, especially rural and less economically prosperous parts of India.

Workers of the World Unite (At Last)

Professor Ronaldo Munck

Rising developments within labor challenge the conventional progressive wisdom that neoliberal globalization has been an unprecedented disaster for workers, trade unions, and the labor movement. The obstacles to labor organizing, of course, do pose serious challenges. Increased mobility of capital has led to a sharp increase in relocation, outsourcing, and offshoring. Multinational corporations can wield the threat of plant closures against workers’ requests for better wages or states’ efforts to raise taxes. Executives at multinational corporations can even pit their own plants against each other, going back and forth between them to get local managers and workers to underbid each other in a race to the bottom. At the same time, the increased mobility of labor has led to increased migration, which can be seen as a threat to wages and working conditions if migrant workers are introduced into a settled labor force. Corporations can then stoke divisions among their workers across racial, ethnic, and linguistic lines to undermine the foundation of solidarity necessary to organize.

Labor faces these and myriad other obstacles in our rapidly changing, interconnected world. However, fixating on obstacles creates a facile pessimism. Globalization may have opened as many doors as it closed. At the most basic level, the globalization of communication has countered one of the most formidable barriers to global action. With email, social media, and other online platforms, workers enjoy better tools to organize across countries—imagine trying to organize a transnational strike a century ago. Moreover, globalized communication fosters solidarity as workers are able to see, hear, and share each other’s stories.[1] Looking ahead, improvements in translation software could help bridge the language divide, thereby opening new paths to transcultural dialogue. Globalized capitalism may have created the basis for a new global working class, not only in material conditions but also in consciousness.

Transnational unionism can take many forms. It can operate among union executives or on a grassroots level, while organizing can be workplace-oriented or based on collaboration with NGOs on issue campaigns. Successful transnational unionism has the capacity to navigate complexity and operate on multiple levels. In particular, transnationally oriented unions have used globalization to their benefit by organizing transnational labor actions, forming new transnational structures, and fostering solidarity with migrant workers at home.

When a transnational corporation spreads production nodes across countries, thus distributing the workforce, the geographic expansion also increases the possible leverage points for organizing against the corporation. The workers of Irish budget airline Ryanair understand this well. Since Ryanair’s foundation in 1984, CEO Michael O’Leary had been a vocal opponent of union organizing, but workers chose not to listen. In mid-2018, they went on strike—starting in Ireland before spreading across the continent—for pay increases, direct employment, and collective labor agreements that comply with national labor laws. Management, which had used its transnational status to play workers against each other, was confronted by a united cross-national organized labor force.

Labor has also showed strength by partnering with allies at different points along the globally dispersed production chain. A campaign against sweatshops in the apparel industry showed how direct action by students in the US can support organizing by workers in Honduras. Garment workers in global production chains are usually considered weak compared to hypermobile, high-profit companies like Nike.[2] But such corporations are vulnerable to boycotts. Transnational union resources focused on a particular industry or country have considerable power to deny market share and thereby bolster demands at the point of production.

Besides enabling specific actions, the new economic landscape has given rise to new organizing structures, as labor unions realize that old methods of operating can no longer suffice. In the 1960s, the International Trade Secretariats (today known as Global Union Federations, or GUFs) began to respond to the expansion of multinational corporations (MNCs) through the formation of World Company Councils. First established by the United Auto Workers and the International Metalworkers’ Foundation, the World Company Councils coordinated the activities of the various national trade unions across a multinational corporation’s operations. However, they proved unable to create the stability and continuity needed to achieve the transnational collective bargaining power the unions hoped to develop.[3]

By the 1990s, the international union strategy had shifted from the promotion of voluntary “codes of conduct” with MNCs and the introduction of “social clauses” (including labor rights) into trade agreements, to the more ambitious and comprehensive Global Framework Agreements (GFAs). An expression of transnational labor solidarity, GFAs bind a company’s global operations to the labor standards of the headquarters, usually based in Europe. Thus, gains won where labor is stronger can spread to where it is weaker. By 2015, 156 Global Framework Agreements had been signed around the world, focused mainly on core workplace conditions and the right to collective bargaining.[4]

Developments like GFAs grew from the realization that relying on old national-level collective bargaining had turned into a dead end. Labor needed new strategies, tactics, and organizational modalities. With “business as usual” organizing modes no longer adequate, many trade union leaders began calling for global solidarity. They called into question labor’s “special status” alongside the state and employers—the famous tripartite modality of the International Labor Organization. If capital now organized itself predominantly as a transnational player, so, too, would the international trade unions need to “go global.”

A significant manifestation of this shift is the emergence of global unions. In 2008, the workers of the United Steelworkers in the US merged with Unite the Union, the largest labor organization in Britain and Ireland. The new union, Workers Uniting, represented almost 3 million workers at its founding in the steel, paper, oil, health care, and transportation industries. Oil conglomerate BP and steel behemoth ArcelorMittal are both transnational; now, their workers are transnational too, refusing to be pitted against each other in negotiations. Maritime workers, who have a built-in internationalism, have taken similar steps. In 2006, in response to the globalization of the shipping industry, the National Union of Marine, Aviation and Shipping Transport Officers in the UK developed a formal partnership with the Dutch maritime workers’ union Federatie van Werknemers in de Zeevaart, renaming themselves Nautilus UK and Nautilus NL respectively. Two years later, workers took the partnership a step further, voting to create a single transnational union: Nautilus International. In 2015, the United Auto Workers in the US and IG Metall in Germany joined forces to create the Transatlantic Labor Institute focusing on auto worker representation issues at the US plants of German auto manufacturers.[5] In a decade’s span, transnationalism has entered the trade union mainstream as leadership catches up with the objective possibilities opened up by globalization.

Notably, the smartest unions are treating migrant workers not as a threat but as an opportunity. By making common cause with migrant workers, trade unions have deepened their democratic role by integrating migrant workers into unions and combatting divisive and racist political forces. In Singapore and Hong Kong, state-sponsored unions have recruited migrant workers, to mutual benefit. In Malaysia, Building and Woodworkers International, a GUF, recruits temporary migrant workers to work alongside “regular” members of the union. Through such positive, proactive outreach, unions can counter the divide-and-conquer strategy on which anti-union management thrives.

Despite such bright spots, many contradictions and pitfalls impede the forward march of transnational labor organizing. The mismatch between the unlimited scale and complexity of the challenge and the limited resources available remains a chronic problem. Also, successfully organizing new layers of workers may reduce the capacity of unions to take action due to the difficulties of mobilizing an informal or precarious global labor force. These problems are not insurmountable for a nimble and strategic labor movement, but they must be addressed head on.  

In the formative stages of the labor movement, unions engaged actively with the broader political issues of the day, in particular, the call for universal suffrage. There is no reason why such larger concerns cannot again move to the center of labor’s agenda, and a very good reason—the interpenetration of a host of economic, social, and environmental reasons—why they should form its backbone. In contrast to the later tradition of craft unionism, the early labor organizers did not recognize divisions based on skill or race. This tradition of labor organizing known variously as community unionism, “deep organizing,” or “social movement unionism” has been making a comeback.[6] Its spread could open a new chapter in labor’s ongoing struggle against capitalism.

This excerpt was originally published as part of the essay “Workers of the World Unite (At Last) on https://greattransition.org .


[1] Peter Evans, “Is it Labor’s Turn to Globalize?: Twenty-First Century Opportunities and Strategic Responses,” working paper, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Berkeley, CA, 2010, http://irle.berkeley.edu/files/2010/Is-it-Labors-Turn-to-Globalize.pdf.

[2] Steven Greenhouse, “Pressured, Nike to Help Workers in Honduras,” New York Times, July 26, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/27/business/global/27nike.html.

[3] Reynald Bourque, “Transnational Trade Unionism and Social Regulation of Globalization,” in Social Innovation, the Social Economy and World Economic Development, eds. Dennis Harrison, György Széll, and Reynald Bourque (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 123–138.

[4] Michelle Ford and Michael Gillan, “The Global Union Federations in International Industrial Relations: A Critical Review,” Journal of Industrial Relations 57, no. 3 (2015): 456–475; Peter Evans, “National Labor Movements and Transnational Connections: Global Labor’s Evolving Architecture under Neoliberalism,” working paper, Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, Berkeley, CA, 2014, http://irle.berkeley.edu/files/2014/National-Labor-Movements-and-Transnational-Connections.pdf; Mariangela Zito, Michela Cirioni, and Claudio Stanzani, Implementation of International Framework Agreements in Multinational Companies (Rome: SindNova, 2015), http://www.1mayo.ccoo.es/24721dffea9bcf38971c14e6f5b83128000001.pdf.

[5] Steven Greenhouse, “Steelworkers Merge with British Union,” New York Times, July 3, 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/03/us/03union.html; “Nautilus Podcast Sheds Light on Union Organising beyond Borders,” press release, Nautilus International, August 29, 2018, https://www.nautilusint.org/en/news-insight/news/nautilus-podcast-sheds-light-on-union-organising-beyond-borders/; “UAW, German Auto Worker Union to Announce Joint Efforts,” Automotive News, November 18, 2015, https://www.autonews.com/article/20151118/OEM01/151119812/uaw-german-auto-worker-union-to-announce-joint-efforts.

[6] Jane McAlevey, No Shortcut: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (London: Verso, 2018).