Review in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations

Expose, Oppose, Propose
Alternative Policy Groups and the Struggle for Global Justice

By William K. Carroll  

A long-time student of social movements, the political economy of corporate capitalism and critical social theory, extensively published author and professor of sociology at the University of Victoria, William Carroll is well equipped for a study of this breadth and depth. The terrain his book explores is ‘‘transnational alternative policy groups’’ (TAPGs) which ‘‘… in dialogue with transnational publics and movements, produce evidence-based knowledge that critiques hegemonic practices and perspectives and promotes alternatives’’ and create ‘‘sites for collective imagining within global civil society’’ (p. 7). Of all the groups that might have been appropriate subjects, he has selected sixteen located in both the global north and the global south but then focuses in a more in-depth way on ten of them: the Third World Institute, Participatory Research in Asia, International Forum on Globalization, People’s Plan Study Group, Centre de Recherche et d’Information pour le Developpement, Centre for Civil Society, Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, Transnational Institute, Focus on the Global South and Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (pp. 32 and 41). Two of these he categorizes as ‘‘critical-liberal’’, being concerned primarily with ‘‘substantive human rights issues’’. The other eight, more explicitly to the left, ‘‘draw attention to the deeply structured injustices of neo-liberal capitalism’’ (p. 43). Throughout his eight chapters, Carroll explores the hegemony of neo-liberal capitalism and the organizations that underpin and sustain it—the World Economic Forum, International Chamber of Commerce, Trilateral Commission and World Business Council for Sustainable Development, inter alia. He also introduces a few hegemonic think tanks (estimated to number 6480 in 2011) ranging from the Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House and Rand Corporation through the Heritage and Cato Institutes to some of a more hard right ideological orientation (pp. 10–15). Against these, he juxtaposes his selected counter-hegemonic groups and the social networks within which they work, identifying the challenges they face, their modes of operation and key practices as well as the visions that guide, shape and motivate them. Carroll’s analytical tools and vocabulary are Marxist, thus setting this book apart from more conventional treatments of the subject material. If this left perspective were to deter potential readers, it would be a grave pity. This is a very solid piece of work that commands serious attention. Among the key concepts informing the study is ‘‘alternative knowledge production and mobilization’’ (alt-KPM), something which is done ‘‘… in the service of expanding possibilities for human emancipation’’ (p. 140). Another key idea is ‘‘justice globalism’’, a leitmotif that runs through the book and contrasts with the dominant neo-liberal globalism. Yet another central concept is ‘‘cognitive praxis’’ whose exploration fills Chapter 6 (pp. 140–165). In developing this idea, Carroll presents eight modes, beginning with ‘‘challenging hegemonic knowledge’’ and ‘‘mobilizing alternative knowledge’’, running through ‘‘empowering the grassroots through participation and capacity-building’’, ‘‘building solidarities’’, ‘‘integrating theory and practice’’, ‘‘creating spaces for reflection and invention’’, ‘‘systematizing and disseminating’’ and concluding with ‘‘prefiguring alternative futures from present practices’’ (p. 142). It is this final mode that informs the concluding chapter, ‘‘Convergent Visions: The Ends of Alternative Knowledge’’ (pp. 192–214). Neither the author nor his interviewees attempt to construct a utopia which might eventually replace capitalism. In its democratic, counter-hegemonic spirit, the book speaks of ‘‘alternatives’’ rather than ‘‘the alternative’’. Nevertheless, it suggests a common vision for such a world which encompasses ‘‘substantive fulfilment of the human rights agenda’’, ‘‘plural social forms’’, ‘‘diverse voices in dialogue’’, ‘‘decolonizing the human spirit’’, ‘‘participatory democracy’’, ‘‘open, democratic socialism’’, ‘‘reclaiming the commons’’, ‘‘a sustainable society’’, ‘‘green transformation’’ as well as some process considerations. Clearly, this volume is a major undertaking. The research, conducted over 4 years, was obviously careful and painstaking. The case examples were well selected to illustrate the purposes, forms and potential power of alternative knowledge production and mobilization organizations working in dialogue with popular movements. The excerpts from key informant interviews merit particular note because they convey the deep conviction and the passion which propel all of the profiled TAPGs forward in their movement-building endeavours. As regards shortcomings, these are mostly in the presentation style. The language in certain passages might have been revisited and refreshed without sacrificing the quality of the analysis. Some of the mapping representations (e.g. pp. 71, 72, 126 and 162) are not easy to grasp, though the explanatory text itself is more revealing. Nevertheless, the reader who is prepared to wrestle seriously with this book will gain a wealth of knowledge and insight. At the very outset, the author addresses the book to ‘‘concerned citizens, activists, students, intellectuals and practitioners interested in ‘‘changing the channel’’ (p. 1). Though a worthy aim, satisfying the needs of all potential readers in a single volume is a difficult challenge. This work, one suspects, is more likely to be read by the kinds of people already substantially familiar the extensive body of literature cited than by those in the ‘‘concerned citizens’’ and ‘‘activists’’ categories. With respect to additional research worthy of pursuit, examining the actual impact of these and perhaps other alternative KPM organizations over time could be wonderfully fruitful, especially if the studies were to bring to light some victories, however, major or modest, in the struggle for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. – Lawrence S. Cumming

— Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations

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