The Politics of Resonance: Transnational Sustainability Governance in Argentina

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The Argentine Case in Perspective

The case of Argentina is interesting as its behavior in relation to sustainability governance does not fit the expectations of conventional models relying on the diffusion dynamics of international trade and/or penetration by foreign firms and advocacy actors. This becomes more evident when contrasting the Argentine situation against the one in Brazil. This comparison facilitates controlling for macro-level variables that distinguish the two largest economies in South America from other economies in the region: both countries have similar levels of industrialization and development, experienced similar political economic trajectories (democratization and economic liberalization in the 1980s and 1990s, and a turn towards neo-developmental regimes in the 2000s), are primary commodity exporters (soybeans derivatives and corn for Argentina, iron ore, oil, and soybeans for Brazil), and are commercially interrelated: both are members of Mercosur, with 30% of Argentine exports going to Brazil and 10% of Brazil’s going to Argentina (Comtrade, 2014). Accordingly, trade models pose that developing economies with greater exposure to sophisticated market destinations and greater integration with buyer-driven supply chains, should display more prominent forms of governance at the point of production. Consequently, Argentina should have a similar or higher level of involvement with sustainability governance than Brazil: both countries export similar amounts to OECD markets (53% Argentina, 59% Brazil in 2012) but Brazil destines a greater proportion to China (26% Brazil, 11% Argentina), a less demanding destination regarding socio-environmental standards (Comtrade, 2014). Moreover, Argentina has a greater exposure to foreign corporate influence: its economy is more export-dependent (with an exports-to-GDP ratio of 17% against 9% for Brazil) (Ferchen et al., 2013), and has a greater presence of foreign TNCs (65% of Argentina’ top 500 firms are foreign, compared to 40% in Brazil) (Kormann, 2015; Schorr and Wainer, 2014).

Observing subscription numbers, the evidence is inconclusive: discounting that the Brazilian economy is four times the size of Argentina’s, Table 1 shows that the latter has proportionally higher subscription to initiatives such as the UNGC, GRI, ISO 14001, and the Roundtable for Responsible Soy Production (RTRS).1 Other initiatives, however, such as the FSC and SAI, display striking differences.
However, though a comprehensive analysis of regional differences exceeds the possibilities of this article,2 more in-depth analyses reveal a number of anomalies in the Argentine situation not accounted for by market-led considerations. First, Argentine participation is slowing down relative to other countries. For instance, the rate of firm subscription to the UNGC is falling, with an average of 36 firms/year in 2007-2010 dropping to 24 firms/year in 2011-2014 (while remaining constant around 78 firms/year in Brazil). Additionally, as table 1 indicates, in the last few years Argentina has been surpassed by Colombia, the third South American economy, in terms of UNGC membership, ISO 14001 certificates, and GRI reporting firms. Second, considering that the number of standard users serves as a general indication of regime participation, more qualitative studies have noted substantial differences between Argentina and Brazil; with Brazil displaying an active and institutionalized pattern of involvement in private regimes not observable in Argentina (Espach, 2006, 2009; Peña and Davies, 2014). These differences are confirmed by the analysis in section 3.

Hence, ascribing limits to transnational explanations, Espach (2009, 89) accounted for different levels of regime effectiveness by pointing to the legacy of severe legitimacy crisis and governmental ineffectiveness in Brazil shaping positive perceptions of private regulation and a more collaborative environment across business and civil society. While I share his overall conclusion that regime effectiveness is substantially dependent on the capacities, interests and coordination of local actors configuring organizational capacity, I consider that Espach overlooks the role of broader ideational structures and ideological links. As a result, he ends up attributing too much weight to the effect of legitimacy crises in generating awareness and mobilizing support, while sidelining the effect of less institutionalized aspects of state-society relations.3 Subsequently, it remains unclear why certain issues continue to be less urgent in Argentina than Brazil, or generate different societal responses. After all, deforestation has advanced significantly in Argentina over the last decades in light of recognized governmental ineffectiveness (Leguizamón, 2014), and the country has experienced major human rights and socio-economic turmoil, but this has not increase environmental awareness or turned Argentine actors towards private governance. Moreover, as section 4 explains, references to crisis episodes can serve as well to reinforce adversarial positions.

In this manner, this article considers that the Argentine situation can be illuminated by considering a wider set of political and ideational structures interfering with particular dimensions of the sustainability agenda and private regulation, and shaping the perceptions and dispositions of Argentine actors. To support this argument, I draw from theories of contentions politics and collective mobilization.

  1. Analytical Framework

The application of social movement ideas to the study of private governance is recent, tentatively explored in King (2008) and further developed in Dobusch and Quack (2013, p.59). The latter posed that transnational regulation can be treated as a process of collective mobilization where ‘just as social movements try to activate a large number of individuals to their cause, mobilization for standards seeks its adoption and acceptance by large groups of individuals’. However, while these authors focused on the strategic mobilizing strategies that standard-setters use to gain support, this article relies on Framing Theory to incorporate national culture, ideologies, and political discourses into transnational norm diffusion.

The proponents of Framing Theory, David Snow and Robert Benford (2000, p. 58), considered succesful framing to involve ‘among other things, the articulation and accenting or amplification of elements of existing beliefs and values, most of which are associated with existing ideologies’. In order to mobilize action, norm-promoting actors have to ‘offer interpretative frames that connect with the self-conceptions, values, or moral and cultural sensitivities of potential adherents’ (Walder, 2009, p. 406). Subsequently, the theory poses that the activities of norm-entrepreneurs involve a combination of ‘frame alignment processes’, aimed at reconciling new mobilizing proposals with the pre-existing cultural, ideological, and symbolic material possessed by target audiences (Benford and Snow, 2000, pp. 624–625).4

Hence, for a frame to acquire mobilizing potency, it thus needs to display ‘resonance’. Resonance results from two interacting factors: (i) the credibility of the proposed frame, and (ii) its relative salience (Benford and Snow, 2000, p. 619). The first element concerns with the legitimacy and authority of frame proponents, the consistency between the claims, beliefs and actions of mobilizing actors, the credibility of claim-makers, and the empirical validity of particular claims. In governance terminology, this refers to supply-side institutions, and instances of what constructivists denominate ‘input’ and ‘throughput’ legitimacy (Hahn and Weidtmann, 2012). Salience, instead, refers to the cultural, political, and ideological conditions shaping the experiential commensurability, centrality, and narrative fidelity of an incoming frame. Therefore, salience links with features on the demand side of governance: commensurability points to the audience’s awareness for the issues punctuated as problematic or unjust, and their congruence with their everyday experiences; centrality to how essential the beliefs and ideas associated with the frame are to the lives of the target audience, and fidelity to the relative alignment of the frame with extant beliefs, ideologies, and myths (Snow and Benford, 1992, p. 140).

The primary hypothesis of Framing Theory that underpins this article is that the greater the misalignment between (supply-side) credibility conditions and (demand-side) salience dimensions, the more problematic and limited audience mobilization can expected to be (Benford and Snow, 2000, p. 622). Moreover, while the prevalent stance in most social movement (and private governance) analyses is that frame-makers ‘face cultural challenges that, like a deficit of funding or a repressive political context, can be overcome’ (Polletta, 2008, p. 83), this conceptual model allows for the less explored possibility that ‘certain ideas are likely to be structurally disadvantaged by the terms of the dominant discourse’ (Ferree, 2003, p. 305). Consequently, diverging political cultures, ideologies, strategic interests, and organizational experiences at the point of reception can interfere with the salience of an incoming frame and with framing attempts made by norm-promoting actors by reinforcing antagonistic positions by domestic challengers and opponents (Resnick, 2009, p. 58).5

At the same time, Framing Theory broadens the range of factors involved in norm-diffusion, as certain frames have the potential to expand their scope and influence to a point that they color and constraint the orientation and activities of actors beyond their primary audience and concerns (Snow and Benford, 1992, pp. 139–141). The (semantic) reach and flexibility of a frame determines the extension of a ‘discursive field’, the symbolic terrain where discussions, decisions, and actions take place. This notion extends the institutional and actor-centered concept of organizational field (Dingwerth and Pattberg, 2009) to include both cultural materials of potential relevance (i.e. beliefs, values, ideologies, myths, and narratives), and a wider set of actors ‘whose interests are aligned, albeit differentially, with the contested issues or events, and who thus have a stake in what is done or not done about those issues and events’ (Snow, 2004, p. 402). On this basis, frame resonance becomes the outcome of a process of articulation and elaboration among interactants in a dynamic discursive field, where social actors go about making sense of the issues they are confronted with by drawing from the available semantic tools (Polletta, 2008, p. 89).

I pose that this interpretivist framework enhances the turn-to-politics approach in private governance studies by granting greater explanatory weight to domestic variables, social institutions, and cultural-political discourses. The resonance of a particular regulatory initiative can be considered the product of the semantic ‘fit’ between a given ‘governance frame’ and the national cultural material (and domestic frames) from where situated actors draw to interpret it. The more seamless this fit, the higher the degree of salience a governance initiative can be expected to have, and the higher the chances of mobilizing domestic support (Bernstein and Cashore, 2007, p. 355). Simultaneously, the regulatory reach of a given governance agenda potentially configures discursive fields of different extension, and thus, different types of resonance. This accommodates the legitimacy-effectiveness trade off observed in transnational regulatory projects, where the more general the norm, the more extensive the discursive field, the more convoluted the politics of resonance, the higher the chances for the norm to be challenged (Bernstein, 2004). Thus, a given regulatory initiative can have high resonance among a narrow set of regime members, such as firms and experts in a specific target industry, but lack salience for the rest of society. This is evident in the case of highly technical norms, such as internet protocols and banking regulations, where resonance is grounded on techno-scientific knowledge and epistemic communities (Loya and Boli, 1999).

Nonetheless, in less technical domains, resonance is expected to suffer from competing systems of meaning configuring alternative values, normative references, and organizational preferences. This openness presents a challenge for the effectiveness of private ‘social’ regimes, such as sustainability, CSR, and socio-environmental standards, which operate in a discursive field crossed by contextual and disputed cultural and political economic vectors, which in turn interpellate a wider range of actors across society. In this regard, Espach (2009, p. 71) noted that a critical moment in the domestic evolution of private governance is when secondary participants, neither committed to nor opposed to investing in superior standards and certification, ‘decide to participate because they are convinced that doing so is worth the costs and effort’. This participation refers to actors and circumstances that may not be part of an organizational field, but do integrate a related discursive field. For example, a regulatory initiative can be effective in driving participation in a small group of firms seeking reputational gains, but lack overall validity or commensurability for eventual civil society allies, which may perceive these actions as a sham, as illegitimate, or as unimportant. In this manner, salience constitutes a major condition behind organizational capacity and the emergence of supporting cross-sectoral coalitions, which in turn partially determine regime effectiveness.

Relying on this framework, in the fourth section I examine how over the last decade specific aspects of Argentine political culture have interfered with components of the sustainability agenda in areas of industrial relations, human rights, environment and private collaboration, configuring a discursive field that negatively affected the salience of private governance initiatives.

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