The Internet and Grassroots Politcs: Nike, the Athletic Apparel Industry and the Anti-Sweatshop Campaign

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper examines ways in which the Internet has been employed to enhance political struggle in contemporary society. It uses a case study of the Nike Corporation to highlight the power and autonomy of Transnational Corporations operating within the global economy, which accompanies modes of grassroots organizing that foster globalized resistance to such hegemonic tendencies. The analysis argues that the Internet provides the resources and environment necessary for cohesive organized resistance to corporate culture. The Internet has facilitated organizing strategies among emerging New Social Movements, and it is clearly redefining our understanding of social interaction and political struggle.

Nike experienced tremendous growth between the early 1970s and late 1990s, dominating the global athletic footwear and apparel market. Its success had been fueled by the use of low wage labor in developing countries, accompanied by highly acclaimed marketing strategies and advertising campaigns. However, in the mid 1990s Nike began facing fierce criticism of its business practices in both of these spheres-production and marketing. In 1998, Nike revenues and stock prices dipped by nearly 50%, and the company was forced to layoff 1600 workers (Egan, 1998; Nike Annual Report, 1998).

The Internet has significantly accentuated awareness of the controversies surrounding Nike's business culture and practices. It has also provided the resources and environment essential for organized mobilization in the form of a New Social Movement (NSM). This paper explores how new information and communication systems impact society, and how the Internet is reconstructing our definition and understanding of social interaction and political struggle. Such an examination sheds light on the oscillating nature of contemporary social change, and how conflict between centers of corporate hegemonic domination can be undermined and subverted by marginal groups, and vice versa.

Globalizing Trends and Technological Change

The contemporary era can be characterized as one undergoing an intensified process of globalization, understood in terms of economic, political, cultural, and technological change (Dicken, 1998; Sklair, 1998). Globalization can be illustrated by a number of factors. The most basic is evidence of a qualitative change in the degree of interdependence and interaction in the world (Dicken, 1998). The technical revolution that began in the 1970s and the related economic, cultural, and political developments have contributed to an intensification of both concrete global interdependence and a consciousness of the global whole (Giddens, 1990; Castelles, 1989). David Harvey (1990) speaks of the `time-space compression' brought on by recent advances in transportation, communication, and computer systems.

While globalization certainly has hegemonic properties, it is also prone to forms of resistance. Issues regarding global corporate social responsibility and other troubling aspects of the overall global system are areas that various groups and individuals are now mobilizing around. Gary Gereffi (2001) notes that "the Internet is challenging organizational dynamics and changing the way business is run." While this is definitely true and works advantageously for global corporate actors, it has also proven detrimental for them in some ways. For example, information regarding corporate abuses spreads quickly through cyberspace, bringing bad publicity to new levels of awareness, and facilitates mobilizing among activists while helping to recruit new members.

Marc Smith (2001) highlights the relationship between technology and social networks. He states, "The recent rapid changes in technology have produced profound effects globally on the quality of life, in social relationships, and in the nature and quality of communication. The technological revolution, in fact, has replaced the industrial revolution in importance" (Ebner, 2001). …