Social Movements Facing the Processes of Globalization: Beyond the Paradigms of Class and Identity

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Verónica Alfaro


This essay focuses on a particular expression of globalization and regionalization that entails social, political, cultural and economic dimensions: social movements. I argue that current social movements are not necessarily articulated only in terms of class struggle-as the major labor movements were for the last two centuries. Neither do they articulate their protests only in terms of identity and recognition-such as women's movements did in the 1960s. Social movements are now most commonly organized around a discourse that combines those two dimensions. Contemporary social movements are expanding from the structural economic and industrial system (and thus abandoning the form of traditional class struggles) to cultural and identity grounds. New social movements are now seen more and more as symbolic challengers, because power-that affects everyday life and tries to manipulate and give social meaning to things-is being contested by individuals in both the public and private spheres. Thus movements have a more symbolic function: they are a new kind of media, fighting for symbolic and cultural stakes, and for a different meaning and orientation of social action. However, constructing a collective identity within a social movement is not definitive. A movement's identity is constructed on an everyday basis, and within the process of globalization, the contact and social interaction with others -with the other, which allows the definition of one's own identity-is not only possible but also necessary. This paper considers the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas as an empirical approach to social movements expanding from regional, local mobilizations and discourse, to more global oriented contentious activities. I argue that the Zapatista movement's identity in 1994 was quite different from the one it has now: the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, or Zapatista National Liberation Army) discourse has been transformed, from having an ethnic, communitarian point of view to a more global or transnational oriented vision. The Zapatistas' globally constructed image is now not only that of a particular, local revolution, but also reflects a pretended universalism in their political proposal: a reordering of the necessary and irreversible global structural transformation. The movements' demands are thus an aspect of the actual process of configuring an 'alternative revolution of global scale', as a rejection of the new political, social and economic order, both at the local and global levels. In the case of Zapatismo, the form of the movement has become a message, a symbolic challenge to the dominant global patterns that redefine the meaning of social action for the local society-namely, neoliberal policies. In other words, what is new--although not exclusive to Zapatismo as a social movement--is that what is at stake in its discourse is the production of humanity, related to the transnational nature and effects of globalization and the interdependence of the world system.

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