Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Humanities and Social Inquiry


Multinational corporations (MNCs) increasingly create and control markets. In recent decades there has been a striking tendency for MNCs to grow in size, wealth and political influence. They are political actors deeply entangled with states in reciprocal relationships of dependence, which put significant constraints on the ability of states to regulate corporations, e.g. to prevent human rights abuses and environmental degradation. Effective ways to redress power imbalances between MNCs and society have thus not been institutionalised and are needed.

Nonviolent action (NVA) is a technique of bottom-up struggle that historically has been used by communities affected by oppression in conflicts with power imbalances, to gain labour, civil and human rights. How can nonviolent action be used by civil society campaigns to curtail the power of multinational corporations? Drawing on Gandhi’s practical philosophy of liberation, power differences between business and society can be redressed when people withdraw their support on which companies depend. Powerful political actors depend on the cooperation and support of a multitude of people to carry out their normal functioning. Corporations need workers, consumers, investors, insurers, favourable legislators and so on. When these constituencies withdraw their consent and support, or when companies are otherwise hindered from access to the things they need for their normal operations, their ability to pursue their goals and their power erodes.

To investigate how MNCs can be constrained by NVA campaigns, the theory of power underlying NVA is refined by additional understandings of power borrowed from social movement theories resulting in an interdependent view of power. Despite the often-used rhetoric of confronting corporate power with people power, campaigning groups in the area of corporate accountability usually employ tactics of protest and persuasion (an advocacy approach) and do not coordinate collective noncooperation, thereby limiting their challenge to corporate power.

Three case studies of relatively successful, transnational civil society campaigns show how, and to what degree, MNC power was challenged. The international Nestlé boycott (1977-1984) resulted in international regulation of marketing practices of infant formula companies, which was an important milestone but is not legally binding. It is a powerful example of collective nonviolent economic noncooperation. Secondly, the Play Fair at the Olympics Campaign, around the Olympic Games (2004 and 2008), resulted in a multistakeholder initiative on union rights between brands, suppliers and trade unions in the sportswear sector in Indonesia. Thirdly, the Fossil Free EIB campaign successfully persuaded the European Investment Bank, the lending arm of the EU, to exclude fossil fuels from its energy lending policy. While it was regarded as a huge success in the press coverage and among campaigners, the final policy draft was watered down by the gas lobby and contained loopholes for gas funding.

The analysis of the case studies shows how some civil society organisations tackled the dependence of corporations on people and in this way activated the latent power of people, with results on an international level, while others only tackled the reputation of the targeted organisations and had more limited results. The analysis also points to a limitation of NVA, which focuses more on how to erode power than on how to build people power. NVA theory and practice could benefit from integrating insights from community organising which gradually builds the capacity to coordinate collective actions on a long-term basis.

FoR codes (2008)




Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.