|Jeffrey M. Ayres. Defying Conventional Wisdom: Political Movements and Popular Contention against North American Free Trade. Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1998, 209 pp. 19.95 paper.
Jeffrey M. Ayres' carefully researched and very clearly written monograph uses a political process focus to study the Canadian movement in opposition to the 1989 Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States and to the subsequent North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). His project contributes explicitly to two scholarly communities: that concerned with social movement theory and that concerned with the specifics of recent Canadian and North American history as related to continental economic integration. In the process, the author also contributes critical historical and analytical detail to discussions of the development of transnational civil society in the very process of resistance to regional and global economic and political arrangements guided by free trade wisdom.
The political process model used here builds on work by Douglas McAdam, John McCarthy, Sidney Tarrow, Charles Tilly, Mayer Zald, and others. It focuses on shifting structures of political opportunity; on organizational and network resources for movement mobilization, and on subjective factors involving consciousness raising through reframing of social realities, moral commitment, and especially reinforcement of this commitment through the sense of personal and movement efficacy. Ayres argues that this framework incorporates the advantages of both resource mobilization and new social movement perspectives, and he employs it to guide his deft use of published materials, interviews with key actors, and archives both of parliamentary bodies and of popular sector Canadian organizations involved in the anti-free trade movement. His effective use of the minutes of critical meetings is especially notable.
Ayres uses these sources to chronicle the instabilities and shifts in the Canadian political context of the early 1980's, which he sees as providing both the space and the provocation for popular sector coalition building and mobilization. The 1981-82 recession, the election of the market-oriented Mulroney government and the uncertain movement toward free trade both destabilized political elites and party organizations and convinced nationalist and popular sector groups that the polity was now closed to them, giving impetus to organizing outside the channels of established political parties and routes of appeal. He emphasizes the importance of existing interorganizational and interpersonal networks in facilitating both the emergent coalition between historically nationalist and popular sectors (largely women's and labour organizations), and the coalition of this movement itself (as coordinated by the Pro-Canada Network) with the opposition Liberal and National Democratic Parties around the free trade issue as the country moved toward the decisive 1988 federal election. The success of the movement in making this election a referendum on free trade meant that the victory of the Progressive Conservative supporters of the FTA and their enactment of the Agreement critically undermined the movement's sustaining sense of efficacy, illustrating both the opportunity and the constraint of electoralism. He argues that the subsequent struggle over NAFTA created an opportunity for a renewal of the movement, this time moving beyond its Anglo-Canadian nationalist roots to coalition with Mexican and U.S. popular sectors and generating transnational civil society infrastructure for mobilization relative to specific conditions and issues within the post-NAFTA North American order. He returns to his theoretical observations to underline the fluidity of the boundaries between polity and non-polity in periods of turbulence, suggesting the utility of a concept of "mutual political opportunity" in understanding the ways that popular movements and established political institutions reciprocally transform conditions for action.
The book makes such a convincing argument for the value of this case study in both its theoretical and its historical missions that the reader wishes for more systematic detail in certain of its dimensions and hopes that this elaboration, for which the research clearly has already been done, can emerge in supplementary articles. In terms of movement resources, Ayres' frequent reference to the significance of interpersonal networks and overlapping memberships among mobilized organizations and between these organizations and the established political parties cries for more systematic presentation of data on these critical patterns of interorganizational ties. Such detailing of these ties would be relevant both theoretically and historically in sorting out the respective and concerted roles of individual, organizational, and movement actors and in providing structural indicators of the "leadership" which Ayres sees as a central resource for mobilization. In terms of subjective factors, it would be helpful to have clearer specification of the ways that key actors framed their understanding of the issues over the course of the movement. This would clarify the degree to which the movement expressed a coming together or forging of shared understandings as opposed to shifting strategic alliances among actors sharing only positions on particular measures, a critical distinction for the movement's capacity to pose an alternative to neoliberal realities. Ayres touches on these issues at various points in his discussions of shifting coalitions among nationalists, labour, other popular sector elements, and established parties but leaves the reader hoping for more consistent clarity on the relation of such framing to the coalition process. Such clarification might also provide an opening for further exploration of the differential reading of the implications of free trade by Québécois and ROC "nationalists," a significant consideration given the decisive role of Québécois support for both the FTA and NAFTA. Moreover, it could give us a clearer picture of the kind of evolution involved in the movement from nationalist resistance to transnational coalition among popular sector organizations. And more complete information on both of these dimensions would help us to better understand the interplay between data and theoretical expectations as together these yield specific observations regarding the development of the Canadian anti-free trade movement.
Finally, the title of this book itself poses rich and ironic questions. The text suggests that the opposition to free trade was "against conventional wisdom." But the period studied, symbolized by Reagan, Thatcher, Mulroney, and Salinas, was a time during which market-oriented neoliberalism and globalism became successfully established as the "conventional wisdom" guiding both national policies and international institutions and agreements. This transnational ascendancy of neoliberalism displaced earlier guiding understandings grounded in nationally defined identities and in growth strategies based on import-substitution within nationally bounded economies, framings which resonate strongly with those which seem to guide the resistance to free trade in Canada. While Ayres effectively portrays the largely unsuccessful resistance to free trade as a popular movement leaving a legacy of experience and infrastructure for future resistance, the book can also be read as a very useful study from "below" of a more successful "movement from above" whose framing of the Canadian and global situation became the "conventional" and guiding wisdom, in contradiction to earlier hegemonic understandings and institutional practices and against the kinds of popular sector national and transnational resistance so interestingly chronicled by Ayres.
Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work