Volume 9, Issue 1 & 2
Fall 2006

The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media and International Activism. Clifford Bob. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 237 pp.

In The Marketing of Rebellion, Clifford Bob poses a set of questions likely to find a broad audience among both scholars and practitioners. “How and why do a handful of local challengers become global causes célèbres while scores of others remain isolated and obscure? What inspires powerful transnational networks to spring up around particular movements? Most basically, which of the world’s myriad oppressed groups benefit from contemporary globalization?” (2).

Bob approaches these questions from the literature on social movements, to which he applies the concept of “exchange” to explain interactions between local movements and the external allies whose support they solicit—namely, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and transnational advocacy networks (TANs). A “market for transnational support” is created through the mutuality of interest between NGOs and TANS, on the one side, and domestic challengers, on the other— but the market is one where supply outstrips demand. Thus, the relative power of each party to the exchange almost invariably favors the NGO, as “their support has great significance for hard-pressed movements, yet NGOs have little reason to back any particular challenger” (20).

Indeed, Bob’s marketing perspective specifically omits the moral aspects of the insurgent-NGO transaction in favor of strategic elements in order to understand the success and failure of particular appeals for support. There is no “meritocracy of suffering” in this competitive global marketplace, where the degree of oppression rarely corresponds to the level of external acclaim. This marketing perspective is contrasted, awkwardly at times, with a “global civil society approach” celebrating the emergence of so-called principled forces arrayed against myriad injustices. In contrast, Bob underscores the elements of competition over cooperation, interest over principle, and strategic and structural advantage over the justice of a group’s cause.

To demonstrate the utility of marketing theory, Bob compares two cases of successful marketing in the Niger Delta and Chiapas—the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People and the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional—with similarly-situated counterparts who failed to gain support, the Ijaw in Nigeria and the Ejército Poplar Revolucionario in Mexico. “The transnational success of the Zapatistas and Ogoni were… complex, eminently political processes marked by strategic maneuvers and resonant framing on the part of insurgents and by careful assessment of mutual interests on the part of NGOs” (179).

The book’s account of MOSOP’s success in soliciting external allies illustrates these processes. Ken Saro-Wiwa, as with Subcomandante Marcos in the Zapatista case, emerges as a key figure in the story. Saro-Wiwa’s wealth and contacts facilitated MOSOP’s overseas activity and provided contacts with environmental and human rights groups that acted as “gatekeeper” NGOs. Their decision to back MOSOP activated other organizations to do the same (in addition to gatekeepers, Bob’s typology of NGOs includes, “followers” that rely on the recommendations of gatekeepers, and “matchmakers,” such as the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, that promote challengers to more powerful NGOs). Bob vividly describes MOSOPs efforts to frame its goals to match supporter characteristics. Thus did the initial ethnonationalist agenda of political autonomy for the Ogoni translate into issues of human rights and environmental destruction highlighting Shell’s corporate malfeasance. Through a similar framing process, the Zapatistas went from defenders of Mexico’s marginalized poor to a movement of indigenous resistance to all forms of “neo-liberalism”. “These framings were not cynical inventions by power-hungry movements; instead, they corresponded to real though secondary elements of the underlying conflicts. For overseas audiences, however, these became the primary aspects, evoking feelings of familiarity, sympathy, and responsibility” (180).

The excellent conclusion examines the consequences of gaining transnational support. Here, Bob shifts from a focus on becoming a cause célèbres, the book’s problèmatique, to more important questions about the consequences of outside support for the conflicts of local groups. His evaluation is pessimistic. Though the Ogoni campaign probably had some impact on Nigerian policy toward the Delta, the political marginality of the Ogoni and other minorities in Nigeria persists.

This leads to a series of recommendations on how to “tame the market,” beginning with advice to insurgents to reconsider the prudence of internationalizing the struggle by seeking external aid. “Once gained, NGO assistance may promote unrealistic expectations both about an insurgency’s prospects and its patrons’ power to help achieve them” (116). This can leave insurgents even more vulnerable to domestic repression, whereupon they will find outsiders unable to help them at their moments of greatest peril. Such was certainly the case during the bloody crackdown against the Ogoni in 1995—at this moment, “the gravest crisis that MOSOP faced” its network of transnational support could not avert the disastrous execution of the Ogoni Nine, in spite of the networks successful lobbying of powerful governments and even Shell itself to place pressure on the Nigerian government.

With this book, Bob has provided a detailed portrait of how transnational support networks develop around local conflicts. No doubt his book will inspire passionate criticism from NGO and TAN practitioners who insist on the primary role of principle and morality in their work and perhaps they are correct. But Bob makes a strong argument that from the perspective of the group’s soliciting outside aid, groups such as the Uyghurs, West Papuans, or India’s Dalits (untouchables), hard-nosed calculations of costs and benefits in the competitive marketplace for recognition and aid appear to outweigh sympathy and emotion.

Lee Seymour
Northwestern University