The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
The Global Justice Movement's Take on Sustainable Development:
Why we need to get our heads round governmentality, neoliberalism and the political ecology
“It is the trade unionists, students, environmentalists – ordinary citizens – marching in the streets of Prague, Seattle, Washington, and Genoa who have put the need for reform on the agenda of the developed world.” - Joseph Stiglitz, 2002
Dr Peter Doran, Green Party • 30.11.03


The open secret of the Global Justice Movement is that its target is not globalisation as such. The objective of the movement is to expose and resist an attempt to replace the world’s multiple, diverse and essentially imperfect experiments in democratic freedom and human development with the tyranny of a ‘common future’ – where the exercise of all choices is reduced to exclusive acts of consumption and production; where the ultimate product is the human being hardwired to pursue ‘his and her’ consuming passions in a life reduced to a prolonged act of grazing. Someone in the movement once asked, ‘what does it mean when a whole culture dreams the same dream?’ The movement responds: ‘let’s not wait to find out’.

This two-part article will explore how the Global Justice Movement – which celebrates the conviction that – ‘another world is possible’ – represents, both politically and symbolically, an essential counterpoint to the threat of a final act of symbolic but real enclosure, in which peoples, economies, cultures and neighborhoods are to be deprived of their power and freedom to know, to think and act otherwise. Globalisation is viewed as a coded neoliberal assault on the rule of the many by the rule of the one: a code in which all other codes are reduced to one message that reads ‘Trade rules, okay?...There was never more to the future of development than the promise of a goods life’. Economics and reality itself are conflated: as in the view of a former chair of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, who has suggested that economics and the rule of the market is as near to reality that we get.

Those who champion the ‘Washington Consensus’ describe themselves as realists. The potential power of the realist lies not in his or her ability to describe the world accurately but rather in their power to mould the material world in their own image, a world that conforms to their geopolitical/economic ambitions. Their ‘one world’ vision, or common future-as-destiny, is a ‘forced disclosure’: an act of heavily armed imagination and vested interest which masquerades as an Empire of Truth.

In the flow of time and infinite possibilities for constructing alternative and sustainable worlds, the champions of the ‘Washington Consensus’ are advocates of the ultimate ‘false arrest’. A false arrest of history, imagination and struggle, supported by a spurious warrant stamped with the fictional claim: ‘End of History’.

In playful counterpoint to those who proclaim that the last word has been spoken, that our excavation of reality(s) has been exhausted, ecologists and their allies point to the most profound human limits of all: the limits of the human capacity to comprehend and order the world. A recognition of these limits does not await the confirmation of a scientific hypothesis, but informs the often forgotten nature of scientific knowledge itself as limited and tentative, as a kind of knowledge that in principle can neither assume nor finally demonstrate a comprehensive order. Categories are only a compromise with chaos.

The Washington Consensus, neoliberalism and governmentality: ‘The Way the World Works’

Thomas Lemke (2000) has characterized the three main lines of critique of neoliberalism prevalent in contemporary political discourse:

  • Neoliberalism is treated as a manipulative “wrong knowledge” of society and economy, which has to be replaced by a right or emancipatory [project], which means scientific or “impartial” knowledge. Criticism focuses on “inherent contradictions” or the “faulty theory” of neoliberalism: neoliberalism as ideology.
  • Second, critics see in neoliberalism the extension of economy into the domain of politics, the triumph of capitalism over the State, the globalisation that escapes the political regulations of the nation-state. The prescriptive emphasis is on re-regulation and re-embedding: neo-liberalism as political reality.
  • Thirdly, criticism is leveled against the destructive effects of neoliberalism on individuals; the process of individualization is presented as endangering collective bonds, the imperatives of flexibility, mobility and risk-taking threatening family values and personal affiliations: neoliberalism as “practical anti-humanism”.

Lemke (2000) does not dismiss these critiques; however he has identified important shortcomings which are important in understanding the immanent and effective critique of neoliberalism presented by the Global Justice Movement; the critique or critiques being formed by the Global Justice Movement are novel forms of political counter-knowledge(s) to service the new opportunities for political action, which are at once local and global; economic and democratic; and applicable above and below the level of the State. Above all, these counter-knowledges challenge the political and epistemological bias of the dominant technocratic discourse and practices of sustainable development, which sits comfortably within a neoliberal paradigm. For Lemke the main problem with these critiques (above) is that they undertake a critique of neoliberalism by relying on the very concepts they want to criticize. They operate by confronting power and knowledge, State and economy, subject and power, when a deep critique should be asking what role these dualisms play in constituting and stabilizing liberal-capitalist societies.

The value of Michel Foucault’s concept of governmentality, for Lemke, is that it does not juxtapose politics and knowledge; it articulates a “political knowledge”. Foucault does not pose the question of the relation between practices and rationalities, their correspondence or non-correspondence in the sense of a deviation or shortening of reason. His “main problem” is not to investigate if practices conform to rationalities “but to discover which kind of rationality they are using” (Foucault 1981:226).

For Foucault, a political rationality is not pure, neutral knowledge which simply “represents” the governed reality. It is not an exterior instance, but an element of government itself which helps to create a discursive field in which exercising power is “rational”. For Lemke (2000:8) the concept of governmentality suggests that it is not only important to see if neoliberal rationality is an adequate representation of society, but also to understand how it functions as a “politics of truth”, producing new forms of knowledge, inventing new notions and concepts that contribute to the “government” of new constituted domains of regulation and intervention.

Lemke believes that the decisive power of neoliberalism lies in role as a political project that endeavors to create a social realty that it suggests already exists.


For Lemke (2000) governmentality takes us beyond a perspective common to popular critiques including those of neoliberalism: the positing of separate domains of the State and market. The perspective of governmentality makes possible the development of a dynamic form of analysis that does not limit itself to stating the “retreat of politics” or the “domination of the market” but deciphers the so-called “end of politics” itself as a political programme (Lemke 2000:10).

In his work on disciplinary power, Foucault repeatedly pointed out that the power of the economy was vested on a prior “economics of power”, since the accumulation of capital presumes technologies of production and forms of labour that enable it to put to use a multitude of human beings in an economically profitable manner. Labour power must be first constituted before it can be exploited: that is, life time must be synthesized into labour time, individuals must be subjugated to the production circle, habits must be formed, and time and space must be organized according to a scheme.

In an observation that explains the essential exteriority of the critique of neoliberalism which the Global Justice Movement has introduced, Lemke (2000) points out that Foucault did not limit the field of power relations to the government of the State; on the contrary, what Foucault was interested in was the question of how power relations historically could concentrate in the form of the State – without ever being reducible to it. For the Global Justice movement, critique and opposition follow the logic of governmentality – critique and opposition cannot be reducible to the State; effective critique is transversal, while also grounded for practical purposes in local communities, cities and state spaces. The nature of power is both constitutive of and derivative of the history of State formation, notably insofar as the modern State shares a history of co-emergence with modernity, science and technology.

Foucault’s discussion of neoliberal governmentality shows that the so-called “retreat of the state” is in fact a prolongation of government, neoliberalism is a transformation of politics:

Lemke (2000:11):

What we observe today is not a diminishment or a reduction of state sovereignty and planning capacities but a displacement from formal to informal techniques of government and the appearance of new actors on the scene of government (e.g. NGOs), that indicate fundamental transformations in statehood and a new relation between state and civil society actors. This encompasses on the one hand the displacement of forms of practices that were formerly defined in terms of nation state to supranational levels, and on the other hand the development of forms of sub-politics “beneath” politics in its traditional meaning. In other words, the difference between State and society, politics and economy does not function as a foundation or a borderline, but as an element and effect of specific neoliberal technologies of government (Lemke 2000:12)

By situating the processes of theory construction and the invention of concepts in a socio-historical space, the concept of governmentality allows us to problematize their truth effects. Lemke (2000) concludes that in the perspective of governmentality we always have to reflect on the historical and social conditions that render certain historical knowledge of society “real”, taking into account the possible theoretical and non-theoretical consequences of these “truths” (Lemke 2000:14)


The ‘Washington Consensus’ is the title of a Business Roundtable manifesto published in the United States in 1979. The ‘Consensus’ view is informed by a neoliberal discipline of balanced budgets, tax cutting, tight money, deregulation, and anti-union laws. With the ascendancy of this prior economics of power domestically there followed, by virtue of American influence on international institutions such as the IMF, a globalisation of the same logic or rule. Starting from a tiny embryo at the University of Chicago with the philosopher-economist Freidrich von Hayek and his students like Milton Friedman at is nucleus, the neoliberals and their funders created a huge international network of foundations, institutes, research centers, publications, scholars, writers and public relations hacks, to package and push their ideas and doctrine. The institutionalization of neoliberalism as an authoritative and globalized form of political knowledge is more than an achievement at the level of policy; it is an achievement insofar as it has produced a “politics of truth”: leading one British Prime Minister to celebrate her commitment to the project with the words “There is No Alternative (TINA)”. This, of course, is the antithesis of the claim now championed by the globalisation movement: “Another world is possible”.

Pierre Bourdieu (2001) described neoliberal newspeak as the “new planetary vulgate”: a vocabulary which seems to have sprung out of nowhere and is now on everyone’s lips: ‘globalisation’ and ‘flexibility’; ‘governance’ and ‘employability’; ‘underclass’ and ‘exclusion’; ‘new economy’ and ‘zero tolerance’.

By imposing on the rest of the world categories of perception homologous to its social structures, the United States, according to Bourdieu (2001:4) is refashioning the entire world in its image: the mental colonization that operates through the dissemination of these false-true concepts can only lead to a sort of generalized and even spontaneous “Washington Consensus”, as one can readily observe in the sphere of economics, philanthrophy and management training:

Indeed, this double discourse which, although founded on belief, mimics science by superimposing the appearance of reason – and especially economic or politological reason – on the social fantasies of the dominant, is endowed with the performative power to bring into being the very realities it claims to describe, according to the principle of the self-fulfilling prophecy: lodged in the minds of political and economic decision-makers and their publics, it is used as an instrument of construction of public and private policies and at the same time to evaluate those very policies (Bourdieu 2001:4).

Will Hutton, in his book The World We’re In (2002:183-4), has described how the Washington Consensus operates. First, the US looks to exercise its power unilaterally rather than have its autonomy constrained by international alliances and treaty obligations. Second, it focuses aggressively and unilaterally on promoting the interests of those sectors and companies that plainly benefit, because of their ascendant market position or technological lead, from globalisation – notably financial services, ICT and, latterly, those with leadership in intellectual property. Third, it instinctively looks to market solutions and remedies, both as a matter of intellectual and ideological conviction, and because over a period these render it more likely that American interests will prevail.

The United States has always acted as one expects a national power to act in the international system: primarily in pursuit of its own interests. This was true of the post-War period, when for twenty-five years, the United States chose to prosecute its interests through a web of multilateral treaties and alliances – albeit always as first among equals. This was the case under the system agreed at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire in 1944. Those negotiations were not free of American power plays. The United States insisted that the dollar, backed by gold, rather than a new international currency, bancor, should be the international unit of account. The United States also gained decisive votes in both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Nevertheless, this was a power play within the context of a multilateral framework.

A mortal wound to the system came between 1971 and 1973 when the Americans refused to continue its role as banker of last resort to the world financial system, due to hemorrhaging gold reserves. The crunch came in the early 1970s, when the Nixon Administration ensured that the dollar became the paramount currency against which other currencies would have to float, in a system of market-based floating exchange rates. Following a quadrupling of oil prices in the autumn of 1973, the world moved from a gold exchange standard managed by international agreement to a dollar standard in which the United States effectively freed itself of any obligations to manage its own currency. Two days after the abolition of the gold standard, Nixon told the German Bundestag that the United States needed to appropriate 80 percent of the industrialized West’s current surplus for its own strategic and military purposes. And that’s what the Americans did.

The liberalization strategy of integrating the world’s principal capital markets around a dollar standard has served United States interests twice over, according to Hutton (2002:191). It has enlarged the dominance of United States financial institutions and made financing the American trade deficit much easier, latterly with the help of East Asian economies. Hutton comments:

…enlarging the role of the New York markets as financial intermediaries and insisting on the pivotal role of the dollar, the US has created an environment in which essentially the rest of the world adjusts to US economic choices (Hutton 2002:192).

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank became de facto agents or ‘missionary’ institutions for the globalisation of the United States foreign economic trajectory (i.e. the United States Treasury) once the liberal rationale for the two institutions was removed with the collapse of the Bretton Woods institutions. There was no longer a system of exchange rates to be policed and managed by the IMF; if countries wanted short-term credit, they could negotiate terms with American banks now freed from the controls that had inhibited their lending. The former United States Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, once summed up globalisation as another word for American domination.


Unlike much of the sterile state-sponsored discourse of sustainable development which has followed the Rio ‘Earth Summit’ and persisted at the WSSD in Johannesburg, the true and somewhat messy history of the struggle for an equitable, ecologically sustainable and economically viable world must be located within a much older and richer heritage: the history of humanity’s timeless and diverse popular struggles to extend the horizons of human freedom and participation in the enjoyment of the fruits of the earth and human labour. These struggles have arisen in response to a series of systems of domination and exploitation, ranging from imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism to the contemporary global imposition of a nascent system of market fundamentalism which threatens to reduce all of nature and humanity to the status of a ‘standing reserve’ – deriving value only from its potential to serve the machinery of consumption and production. The Global Justice Movement – a diverse network of movements which incorporates trade union, fair trade, “Third World” solidarity, environmental, anti-militarism, and other assorted interests – is the globalized successor to earlier struggles to overcome anti-democratic forms of economic and political organization, stretching back to resistance against the enclosure of open fields and the conversion of arable land to pasture during the early Tudor period in England, when fields and commons were hedged by the lords, and whole counties were threatened with depopulation: an early example of unregulated economic improvement in what became known as a revolution of the rich against the poor. In a more immediate sense, as Joseph Stiglitz (2002:3) has noted, there is a continuity between the riots against austerity programmes, which have taken place for decades in the developing world, and the anti-globalisation demonstrations in the West. Riots and protests against the policies of and actions by institutions of globalisation are hardly news.

Moreover, politicians and their advisers grappling with sustainable development seem to be bereft of an adequate language and differently framed knowledge. The Global Justice Movement has grasped that more knowledge and information is insufficient; resistance to enclosure in a postmodern world must extend to resistance to an enclosure in the institutions and language of efficiency, competitiveness, and the market. The protesters are involved in a parallel process of debunking the technocratic myths of modernity and restoring a new attitude to the limits of modern knowledge, which suggests that we must also embrace a dimension of the mythic in its positive sense.

Membership of political parties in Europe dropped by 50% in the last 15 years of the 20th century. These facts stand in stark contrast with the mobilizing power of the global protest Movement, which is attracting a new generation of young people to a radical form of politics (Harden 2001). The politics of sustainable development cannot be insulated from broader political developments, notably the crisis of legitimacy emerging around the unqualified advocacy of a neoliberal model of globalisation.

The origins of the word ‘environment’ evoke an appropriate set of meanings and associations as we consider the rise of the anti-globalisation movement, its contribution to our understanding of sustainable development, and the often violent State responses the movement has provoked on the streets of our major cities, from Seattle to Genoa and Dublin.

In its original sense, which is borrowed by English from Old French, an environment is the result of the action signaled by the verb meaning to environ. Environing as a verb is actually a type of military, police, or strategic action. Timothy Luke, who has drawn our attention to these origins in his book, Capitalism, Democracy and Ecology:Departing from Marx (1999), writes:

To environ is to encircle, encompass, envelope, or enclose. It is the physical activity of surrounding, circumscribing, or ringing around something. Its use even suggests stationing guards around, thronging with hostile intent, or standing watch over some person or place.

I want to borrow these textual associations with a disciplinary act of encirclement, enclosure and discursive closure to suggest that certain forms of state-centric environmental knowledge can also accomplish a kind of closure, by setting up a legitimate body of acceptable knowledge and practices while placing guards at the perimeter of the enclosures to guard against dissent.

If we are to understand where the pursuit of sustainable development as pursued by States and the Global Justice Movement diverges, it is useful to take note of the interpretive frames each is using to define problems and generate solutions. Luke again: ‘Once enveloped in interpretive frames, environments can be redirected to fulfill the ends of other new scientific scripts, managerial directives, and administrative writs. All environing actions engender environmentality, which infiltrates instrumental rationality into the productive policing of ecological spaces.’

Ecology must be framed inside the practices of power – enframed by the globalizing knowledge system now associated with neoliberal fundamentalism. Once we move in this direction for an analysis, ecology together with the questions it raises about the nature of power, the State and governance, becomes a provocation to resist and deconstruct manifold acts of enclosure. This is precisely how I see the function of the Global Justice Movement, a movement attuned to dimensions of sustainable development that remain invisible to the eye (or the frame) of the seasoned diplomat and many of the experts who make up the epistemic communities sealed off in their very own discursive biomes.

The sounds and images of the movement that is rising against capitalism and corporate-led globalisation on the streets of cities across the world are unmistakable. The demonstrations are often marked by drama and humor accompanied by the beat of drums and colorful displays designed to appeal to our sense of the mythic and poetic – and to awaken our sense of justice. The protesters set out to subvert not only the workings of the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They also target the language and seductively reasoned discourse of contemporary politics and economics. The anti-globalisation protesters operate in a sophisticated universe of signs and form part of a media-literate generation of dissenting voices in a mediascape where spectacles are too often the guardians of sleep and passivity.

Unmistakably, the resistance to global capitalism and corporate-led globalisation is well armed with comprehensive backroom political and economic analyses, however the shock troops who take to the streets also understand that “revolution is not showing life to people, but making them live”. It is activism, yes. But more; it is activation and reaffirmation of lifestyles and counter-cultures. Just below the surface is a profound rejection of life as an endless series of acts of consumption; a ceding of all valorization to the demands of the machinery of production and trade. In the crossfire of media sound bites and information war, provoking change takes something more than information.

The global movement of decentralized networks is gathering pace to seize the rhetoric of equitable and sustainable development and threatens to transform half-hearted institutionalized rehearsals for global system change into a gripping drama that will simultaneously transform the meaning of revolution as well as its targets in politics, business and the media. Their motto: “We the peoples believe another world is possible” confronts the fundamentalist vision of neoliberalism, which has almost achieved what all myths of Empire aspire to: a concealment of its particularisms and historical origins in order to present itself as ‘the way things are’. Such is the operation of the vulgate, neoliberalism; and via its operation as governmentality, its newly constituted domains of operation continue to proliferate – from the university campus to the shopping mall.

Loyalty to governments and inter-governmental organisations is not being undermined by the Global Justice Movement; the movement is an indicator of a crisis of confidence in institutional problem-solving based on a technocratic and bureaucratic model of framing problems and solutions. Robin Grove-White (1996) has made a prescient observation that the tacit model of sustainable development on which most of the current and high profile negotiations appear to rest continues to be one defined by expert (principally natural scientific) knowledge, and that such a top-down discourse of sustainability lacks appropriate public resonance. Grove-White suspects that the weakness reflects the alienating character of the tacit models of human nature and needs embedded in epistemologically realist representations of sustainability. (Grove-White 1993) Grove-White (1996:269) reflects the concerns of many green activists when he points out that much of the fuller ‘meaning’ of the environmental movement as a culturally significant phenomenon in its own right has been firmly excluded by governments.

The Global Justice Movement has begun to confront the power and knowledge system of the global political system, unpacking the relations between State and economy, subjectivity and power, democratic norms and trade. The Movement is participating in a process of politicizing the politics of the environment (political ecology), the tensions between consumer subject and active citizenship, and the boundaries created between the norms of democratic accountability and some of the most significant actors in the political system, notably the multinational corporations.

The Movement refuses to take for granted the hierarchy of trade over environment and development multilateral agendas, and will continue to press for a trade justice agenda as a cornerstone of sustainable development. Mainstreaming sustainable development – for the Global Justice Movement – will demand more than an integration of environmental considerations into trade-related decision making; but will, in addition, require an over-turning of the power relations which currently inform the unsustainable hierarchy of trade, development and environment priorities in the international system.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

4 December 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Act of Conscience to Spark an Act of Congress
Matthew Kavanah


No Surprise, No Change

Eamon Sweeney


The Global Justice Movement's Take on Sustainable Development
Dr Peter Doran


Canvassing for the Socialists
Anthony McIntyre


Address to PUP Conference
Davy Carlin


The Current Situation
Gerry Ruddy


30 November 2003


Anthony McIntyre


Special Election Coverage:


Ignore the Headlines

Tom Luby


Doing Well for Themselves Alone
Mick Hall


Our Day Has Come. . .
Liam O'Comain


Paying the Price
Anthony McIntyre


Sinn Féin Advances Enhances Process
Fr. Sean Mc Manus, INC


'RSF satisfied with outcome - time to consider alternatives'

Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Republican Sinn Féin


Poll Result Highlights Flawed Agreement
Andy Martin, 32 CSM


Election Comment




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