The Politics of Resonance:
Why private governance initiatives trigger greater participation in one country than another? This article examines the domestic dimension of transnational regulation through a case study of private sustainability governance in Argentina. Drawing from theories of contentious politics, the argument poses that the resonance of transnational private governance is shaped by the semantic compatibility of ‘incoming’ sustainability programs against national political culture. Analyzing the limited participation of Argentine actors in contemporary sustainability initiatives, the article claims that the validity and relevance of sustainability programs is affected by three dimensions of national political culture accentuated over the last decade: a politicized model of state-society relations, the low visibility of environmental matters, and a widespread anti-corporate culture. By examining the ideational fundamentals of the ‘politics of resonance’ in Argentina, the article makes a relevant and original contribution to transnational regulation literature, highlighting the need for theoretical accounts and empirical analyses that address domestic and cultural variables as fundamental pieces in transnational norm-diffusion and effectiveness.
Keywords: Transnational Governance, Sustainability, Norm Diffusion, Framing, South America
This article explores the extent to which national political conditions shape domestic engagement with transnational sustainability initiatives; those initiatives aiming to regulate social and environmental aspects of commodity production, processing, exchange and consumption (Ponte and Cheyns, 2013, p. 2). In doing so, the article reconciles three aspects rarely examined in conjunction in transnational governance studies: the transnational diffusion of norms, the participation pattern of country-specific actors, and the domestic political context of developing economies. By connecting transnational norm-diffusion with domestic politics, this article tackles two deficits in the literature. First, the article narrows an empirical gap where little is yet known regarding the manner in which specific domestic structures in developing economies ‘frustrate, amplify, or reconfigure transnational business governance’ (Bartley, 2014, p. 95). Second, it challenges conventional theoretical accounts where governance tends to be approached from the perspective of norm-setting and norm-setters, sidelining institutions, discourses, and actors at play on the receiving side of transnational regulation.
Challenging mainstream rationalist and constructivist explanations, where the primacy of Northern markets, norms, and actors ‘pulls’ the global South to converge with Northern regulatory frameworks and practices (Bernstein and Cashore, 2007; Braithwaite, 2006; Vogel, 2010), this article tackles the question regarding the conditions that facilitate the lasting uptake and effectiveness of private regulatory initiatives in a developing economy. It does so by analyzing the case of private sustainability governance in Argentina. This country has been noted to be ‘less receptive’ to private governance initiatives than other comparable economies in the region, in particular Brazil, its main trading partner, but increasingly in relation to other countries such as Colombia, as it is later explained (Espach, 2009).
Conventional explanations in the literature indicate the level of export dependence of specific industries and/or their position in global supply chains, as well as the presence of episodes of public controversy and international mobilization, to account for the level of development of regulatory standards and the adoption of new organizational practices by firms in specific locations (Bartley, 2010, p. 4). I claim that neither of these conditions adequately explains the Argentine case. Rather, in line with the ‘turn to politics’ approach recently supported by a number of scholars of transnational governance, this article poses that the key explanatory variables reside at the domestic level (Dubash and Morgan, 2012; Ebeling and Yasué, 2009; Nadvi, 2014; Neilson and Pritchard, 2010; Ponte, 2008). Specifically, the article extends the conclusions by Espach (2006, 2009) and Bartley (2010) concerning national factors affecting the diffusion and uptake of private regulation. Studying private environmental regimes in Argentina and Brazil, Espach concluded that effectiveness upon implementation was conditioned primarily by demand-side organizational capacity, in turn a synthesis of industrial policy legacies, sectoral business culture, and the presence of civil society and corporate coalitions supporting regulatory innovation. Paying greater attention to the indirect role of the state, Bartley (2010) considered that regulatory uptake responded significantly to features in an industry’s domestic political economy, in regards to state-business relations, the clarity and legitimacy of property rights, and the manner in which political regimes at particular times ‘channel domestic coalitions towards public and private arenas of rule-making’ (p. 26-27).
This article broadens these conclusions by moving beyond the institutionalized domain and the structure of particular industries and sectors, and incorporating the effect of non- and semi-institutionalized ideational and discursive dimensions over the disposition of primary and secondary social actors. Consequently, I consider that state-business relations, corporate culture, and societal perceptions are reflective of complex and often enduring political, ideological, and cultural traits and political discourses that may transcend the domain of a given industry or the specifics of a regulatory initiative. In absence of a better term, and to emphasize the persistence of these traits and discourses over time and their transversal social impact, I refer to them under the term ‘national political culture’. I acknowledge this to be a polemic concept in comparative political science, given its early static use to characterize (apparent) political predispositions in societies (Inglehart, 1988). Nonetheless, this static conception has been challenged by more sociological approaches, where culture is understood as a relational structure – comprising legal doctrines, political and civil societies, and symbolic systems of moral opinion – organizing social life and the economy at a particular point in time (Somers, 1995). This article aligns with this second understanding, considering political culture dynamic but conditioned by path dependent trajectories that provide continuity over time. Accordingly, I understand national political culture as the set of symbols, meanings, and styles of acting that organize political claim-making and opinion-forming within a given national community during a particular period (Lichterman and Cefai, 2006). This includes the effect of governmental agendas and discourses, which borrow from and aspire to shape political culture, as well social perceptions and public opinion.
On this definition, I pose that certain aspects of Argentina’s political culture over the last decade – the nationalist and corporatist framing of state-society relations under the Kirchner governments (2003-2015), societal indifference towards environmental issues, and a lingering anti-corporate stance in public opinion – have undermined the validity, relevance, and centrality of private sustainability initiatives and standards. Moreover, I consider that these political cultural aspects explain (and reproduce) a general pattern of engagement by Argentine actors that is fragmented and confrontational, limiting the uptake and regulatory effectiveness of private sustainability governance in the country.
To probe the plausibility of this argument the article offers a constructivist framework where inasmuch as sustainability governance involves the creation of new social categories and practices, and aspires to mobilize actors around them, it can be analyzed through the notion of ‘framing’ as used in social movement studies (Benford and Snow, 2000). By elaborating the concept of ‘frame resonance’, the article shifts focus from the strategic activities of norm-setters and entrepreneurs, to the situated cultural, ideological, and historical institutions that provide (or deprive) a given regulatory proposal with meaning and mobilizing potency.
This framework supports an inferential argument that synthesizes findings from both previous investigations and extensive secondary sources. In previous investigations, I mapped the participation of Argentine and Brazilian actors during the 2000s in three sustainability governance initiatives: the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), and the ISO 26000:2010 Guidance Standard on Social Responsibility Working Group (ISO SR). This research included fieldwork in both countries and the analysis of varied primary sources such as institutional reports, meetings’ minutes, organizational websites, articles in the media, and publicly available statistics. Simultaneously, in light of the article’s culturalist approach, I rely on secondary material to support and complement punctual observations and comments by interviewees pertaining sustainability regulation, and highlight recurrent political-cultural dimensions noticed by other researchers.
The article is divided into four sections plus a conclusion. The first section discusses the Argentine case and evaluates alternative explanations. The second outlines the proposed analytical framework. The third presents a general map of Argentine participation in contemporary sustainability initiatives. The fourth and main section discusses this participation profile against three aspects of Argentine political culture affecting the relevance of sustainability programs.