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Another World Is Inevitable... But Which Other
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Lee Cormie
The Movements of Movements, Part 2 : Rethinking Our Dance
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Table of Contents
The Movements of Movements
MOMBOP Advance Pre-Final Movement Edition, 2016-17
Part 1 : What Makes Us Move ?
Proem :
Shailja Patel What Moves Us
Introduction :
Jai Sen The Movements of Movements : An
Introduction and an Exploration
1.1 David McNally From the Mountains of Chiapas to the Streets
of Seattle : This is What Democracy Looks Like
1.2 Fouad Kalouche and Eric Mielants Antisystemic Movements
and Transformations of the World-System, 19681989
1.3 André C Drainville Beyond
: Anti-Capitalist
Dialectic of Presence
1.4 Tariq Ali Storming Heaven : Where Has The Rage Gone ?
1.5 Taiaiake Alfred and Jeff Corntassel - Being Indigenous :
Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism
1.6 Andrea Smith Indigenous Feminism and the Heteropatriachal
1.7 Xochitl Leyva Solano Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Neo-
Zapatista Social Movement Networks
The Movements of Movements :
Struggles for Other Worlds
2.1 Anand Teltumbde Anti-Imperialism, Dalits, and the
Annihilation of Caste
2.2 Jeff Corntassel Rethinking Self-Determination : Lessons from
the Indigenous-Rights Discourse
2.3 Xochitl Leyva Solano and Christopher Gunderson - The Tapestry
of Neo-Zapatismo : Origins and Development
2.4 Roma and Ashok Choudhary - Ecological Justice and Forest
Right Movements in India : State and Militancy - New
2.5 Emilie Hayes Open Space in Movement : Reading Three
Waves of Feminism
2.6 Virginia Vargas International Feminisms : New Syntheses,
New Directions
2.7 Lee Cormie Re-Creating the World : Communities of Faith in
the Struggles for Other Possible Worlds
2.8 François Houtart Mahmoud Mohamed Taha : Islamic Witness
in the Contemporary World
2.9 James Toth Local Islam Gone Global : The Roots of Religious
Militancy in Egypt and its Transnational Transformation
2.10 Roel Meijer Fighting for Another World : Yusuf Al-‘Uyairi’s
Conceptualisation of Praxis and the Permanent Salafi Revolution
2.11 Peter Waterman The Networked Internationalism of Labour’s
2.12 Cho Hee-YeonFrom Anti-Imperialist to Anti-Empire : The
Crystallisation of the Anti-Globalisation Movement in South
2.13 Emir Sader The Weakest Link ? Neoliberalism in Latin America
2.14 Daniel Bensaïd The Return of Strategy
2.15 Peter North and David Featherstone Localisation as Radical
Praxis and the New Politics of Climate Change
2.16 Guillermo Delgado-P Refounding Bolivia : Exploring the
Possibility and Paradox of a Social Movements State
2.17 Alex Khasnabish - Forward Dreaming : Zapatismo and the
Radical Imagination
Laurence Cox ‘Learning to be Loyal to Each Other’ :
Conversations, Alliances, and Arguments in the Movements of
Compiled, comprehensive Bibliography for The Movements of
Movements, Part 1 : What Makes Us Move ?
Part 2 : Rethinking Our Dance
Proem :
Shailja Patel Offerings
Introduction :
Jai Sen On Rethinking Our Dance : Some
Thoughts, Some Moves
Interrogating Movement, Problematising
3.1 Rodrigo Nunes Nothing Is What Democracy Looks Like :
Openness, Horizontality, and The Movement of Movements
3.2 The Free Association Worlds in Motion : Movements,
Problematics, and the Creation of New Worlds
3.3 Jai Sen Break Free ! Engaging Critically with the Concept and
Reality of Civil Society (Part 1)
3.4 Anila Daulatzai - Believing in Exclusion : The Problem of
Secularism in Progressive Politics
3.5 Josephine Ho Is Global Governance Bad for East Asian Queers
3.6 Jeffrey S Juris and Geoffrey Pleyers Incorporating Youth or
Transforming Politics ? Alter-Activism as an Emerging Mode of
Praxis among Young Global Justice Activists
3.7 Tomás Mac Sheoin and Nicola Yeates The Anti-Globalisation
Movement : Coalition and Division
3.8 Stephanie Ross The Strategic Implications of Anti-Statism in
the Global Justice Movement
3.9 Michael Löwy Negativity and Utopia in the Alterglobalisation
3.10 Rodrigo Nunes The Global Moment : Seattle, Ten Years On
3.11 Ezequiel Adamovsky Autonomous Politics and its Problems :
Thinking the Passage from Social to Political
3.12 John Brown Childs Boundary as Bridge
3.13 Chris Carlsson Effective Politics or Feeling Effective ?
3.14 Massimo De Angelis PR like PRocess ! Strategy from the
Bottom Up
3.15 Matt Meyer and Oussenia Alidou The Power of Words :
Reclaiming and Re-Imagining ‘Revolution’ and ‘Nonviolence’
3.16 Jai Sen Break Free ! Engaging Critically with the Concept and
Reality of Civil Society (Part 2)
Reflections on Possible Futures
4.1 Michal Osterweil “Becoming-Woman ?” : Between Theory,
Practice, and Potentiality
4.2 John Holloway The Asymmetry of Revolution
4.3 David Graeber The Shock of Victory
4.4 Kolya Abramsky Gathering Our Dignified Rage : Building New
Autonomous Global Relations of Production, Livelihood, and
4.5 Muto Ichiyo Towards the Autonomy of the People of the
World : Need for a New Movement of Movements to Animate
People’s Alliance Processes
4.6 Samir Amin Towards a Fifth International ?
4.7 Rodrigo Nunes The Lessons of 2011 : Three Theses on
4.8 François Houtart – ‘We Still Exist’
Lee Cormie - Another World Is Inevitable… But Which Other
World ?
Complied, comprehensive Bibliography for The Movements of
Movements, Part 2 : Rethinking Our Dance
MOMBOP Advance Pre-Final Movement Edition
made freely available for Discussion and Debate on a Not-for-Re-Publication / Distribution basis !
Another World Is Inevitable... But Which Other World ?
Lee Cormie
Just now, the peoples of the world have embarked, some willingly and some not, on an
arduous, wrenching, perilous, mind-exhaustingly complicated process of learning how to live as
one indivisibly connected species on our one small, endangered planet.
- Jonathan Schell
Conceptions about the world, about life, and about the relationship between nature and the
cosmos have been shaken, forcing us to rethink all the theoretical structures with which we
have organized our own visions.
- Ana Esther Ceceña
If the catastrophe that is coming can be avoided and humanity is to have another opportunity,
it will because these others, below and to the left, not only resist, but are also already drawing
the profile of something else.
- Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
The cascading irruptions and expanding range of ‘progressive’ / ‘left’ movements around the world
over the last half-century from the postcolonial, antiracist, feminist, ecological, indigenous, LGBTQ
‘liberation’ struggles in the 1960s to the ’antiglobalisation’ protests, Arab uprisings, Occupy Wall
Street, and European anti-austerity movements, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter in the 1990s,
2000s, and 2010s have radically transformed the ways we see the world and the debates and
struggles over the future : The range and diversity of voices and numbers of social actors, centres of
power, axes of debate, modes of action, sites of struggle, and horizons of possible futures. They have
transformed what we know and how we know, introducing new voices, standpoints and perspectives,
establishing communities and movements as centres of knowledge, incorporating broader ranges of
traditions, exposing endless entanglements of power and authority, confirming the continuing
(expanding?) significance of mystery, ignorance and uncertainty, remapping the boundaries of the
known and the unknown, reframing ‘theory‘ and ‘practice’, thinking and doing. They have repeatedly
confirmed that less and less of the world is simply God-given or natural, inevitable, and good, and
that more and more of life is shaped and mis-shaped by human agency. They have transformed
the social bases of personal and collective identities, every ‘I’ and every ‘we’, remapped the
boundaries of self-interest and solidarity. They have greatly expanded the range of choices we face in
ordering our lives individually and collectively, at every scale from the most intimate and local to
planetary and beyond. They have also immensely complicated scholarly and political debates,
enriching our understanding both of ideological orthodoxies and rigged eco-social systems on the one
hand, and of the limits, contradictions, and absences of existing progressive / left critical discourses
and politics on the other. Moreover, they have repeatedly confirmed that there is no single critical
discourse, no single cause, no single community, organisation, or movement, no single vision of
another world which incorporates all these concerns. Confusion and paralysis are not the only
responses, however. For in the chaos of cascading planetary social / ecological catastrophes, and
beyond both illusory unity in dogmas or grand theories (’pensamiento unico’) and ‘postmodern’
relativism, there are signs of another kind of hope and politics in proliferating activisms, movements,
networks, coalitions, and campaigns.
This Afterword written in relation both to this book and to its accompanying volume
The Movements of Movements, Part 1 : What Makes Us Move ?
- is an invitation to readers, from
your own contexts, standpoints, traditions, and struggles, to join the contributors to both books in
these dialogues about new social actors, new media of communication and organisation, new modes
of action and logics of transformation, expanding horizons of reality and possibility, widening circles
of solidarity, and deepening hopes for ‘a world where many worlds fit’.
The cascading irruptions and expanding range of ‘progressive’ movements around the world over the
last half-century from the postcolonial, antiracist, feminist, ecological, indigenous, LGBTQ
‘liberation’, and social justice and eco-justice struggles in the 1960s to the ’antiglobalisation’ protests,
Arab uprisings, Occupy Wall Street, and European anti-austerity movements, Idle No More, and Black
Lives Matter movements in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s have radically transformed the debates
and struggles over the future : Expanding the range and diversity of voices and social actors, centres
of power, axes of debate, modes of action, sites of struggle, and horizons of possibilities. Indeed, as
the compiler and editor of these two books Jai Sen insists, “there is no question that deep-rooted
ferment has broken out across much of the world in the North as well as the South.
In many ways the essays in these two volumes of The Movements of Movements
testify to
these developments, in their insights into particular debates and struggles, and in their frequent
points of overlap and convergence demonstrating increasingly broader bases of dialogue, solidarity,
and collaboration. There have been so many successes in different struggles.
And recognising them,
educating people about them, and celebrating them, are essential in distilling a fuller sense of
emergent trends and shifting horizons, and in expanding circles of activism and support.
At the same time though, there are many developments contributing to confusion, paralysis,
even despair. There are too many concentrations of colossal wealth and unaccountable power, too
many truths denied, too much growing suffering, too many unnecessary deaths, too much
surveillance, torture, imprisonment and too many executions, too many eco-social catastrophes, too
many defeats of progressive movements and reforms. Meanwhile, while appreciation is deepening for
the wisdom and inspiration of earlier decades - even centuries - of progressive movements, there is
also a growing awareness of limits of recent progressive discourses and politics, and calls for
‘reinventing politics’, as reflected, for example, in the Zapatistas’ ‘Intergalactic Encuentros’ and in the
World Social Forum process around the world since 2001.
8, 9
Moreover, as these movements, and the
commentaries in these books, repeatedly confirm, there is no single critical discourse which is
adequate to all the concerns and issues, no single cause which above all others determines the
future, no single movement which above all others holds the key to the future, no single widely
embraced vision of an alternative world, no single path forward.
And, as Sen argues in his Introduction to the first of the two volumes of The Movements of
Movements, there is no single, grand, encompassing movement either.
As Kalouche and Mielants
point out in the first book, “Agents are no longer participating in ‘one’ movement; instead they were
participating in as many commitments as their social consciousness called for”. Accordingly, it is
“impossible to outline contemporary movements based on their ‘identity’, ‘adversary’, or ‘social
Similarly, Nunes argues in this book that it is only possible to speak of the global
‘movement’ metaphorically,
… calling a whole what is really only a collection : Something whose only criteria for
membership would be existence on the same globe, something that could never be totalized or
given any kind of unitary shape or direction a ‘wild’ in-itself, never to be fully appropriated
The collection of essays in these two books faithfully reproduces - and also itself embodies -
the complex and chaotic character and multiple dimensions of these dialogues, in their diverse
expressions in different places, their increasingly dynamic, frequently jagged, at times conflicting,
always incomplete character, the ever-expanding and ever more complex dynamics of producing
culture and knowledge, the proliferating challenges to conversion arising from the ‘new’ voices of so
many ‘others’ on so many fronts, the scope and pace of changes transforming the world.
Yet, there are also signs of a convergence on a number of critical points. It is increasingly
difficult to avoid the sense that the ‘world’ as we have known it is changing, in many fundamental
ways. Or that dominant including ‘critical’ ways of seeing it and framing options have (in different
ways in different contexts, traditions, and conjunctures) blinded people to important dimensions and
dynamics of this world. Or that previously marginalised traditions offer many deep insights and
wisdom. Or that anyone can avoid making fundamental, far-reaching choices about the future, as
individuals and as members of groups. Or that, whatever our tradition or context, we all need
broader, more inclusive, ‘planetary’ images of the world in order to locate ourselves vis-à-vis all the
‘others’ and the expanding global dynamics that are shaping all our realities today (while at the same
time, rejecting the notion of any single, uniquely privileged, authoritative, dominant or hegemonic
vision). Or that historically marginalised peoples, groups, and causes (like ecology and peace) must
be and are today -- central in every process of forging promising alternatives. Or that virtually
everywhere, decision-making priorities, frameworks and processes must be radically transformed.
Perhaps, then, the many-faceted, complex, partial, unfinished character of dialogues across
movements is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of a new stage in the emergence of planetary
dialogues, solidarity, and collaboration. Perhaps, in their coming together across so many diversities
and discovering commonalities, movements are again pushing beyond the limits of existing scholarly
and political frameworks and horizons, drawing on a far wider array of traditions for alternative
perspectives and insights, addressing a far broader range of issues, with far wider popular
participation, addressing far more complex processes of order and change, nurturing post-imperial
pensiamento unico
’, or ‘one right way of thinking’) modes of knowledge, ethics, and politics,
contributing to far deeper understandings of history and far more realistic readings of the world as it
is; and imagining far more plausible and more widely shared hopes for different and ‘better’
In this essay, I suggest that there are five interwoven threads running through the tapestries
of contemporary progressive social movements around the world. From my standpoint though, these
are a series of ‘observations’, less than arguments (and much less than one single argument), and
certainly not deductions from an overarching theory; and they are perhaps elements of an emergent
‘new common sense’
increasingly shared across many differences around the world :
1. The historically unprecedented irruptions of social justice and eco-justice movements
around the world, and their increasing significance in the struggles over emergent global
civilisation and the future of life on earth;
2. The associated knowledge revolutions, the deepening awareness of the limits of positivist
science, a turn to other traditions of knowledge and wisdom, and emergent
‘epistemologies of the South’;
3. The encompassing, multifaceted, and global character of neoliberal globalisation, and of
capitalist projects since the dawn of ‘modernity’ more generally, along with the limits of
economistic discourses of ‘the economy’, both mainstream and critical;
4. Beyond the destructive impacts of the project of ‘neoliberal globalisation’, the vast array
of changes sweeping the world, and emergent but widely divergent possible futures, from
techno-utopian posthumanity to eco-social catastrophes; and -
5. More inclusive, more modest, more plausible, and more promising visions of other ethics,
other politics, and other worlds.
Of course, from different standpoints in different social worlds, and drawing on different
traditions, the world looks different, and history unfolds differently. This Afterword is thus an
invitation to readers, from your own standpoints, traditions, struggles, and conjunctures to join the
contributors to the two volumes of
The Movements of Movements
in further widening these dialogues
about the expanding horizons of reality and possibility, the different places in it for different
movements, the cross-cutting challenges they confront, the common grounds they are discovering,
and their contributions to increasingly shared struggles for “a world where many worlds fit”.
Locating myself
Born in the US in 1943 and educated in Canada and the US, I have been a researcher / teacher /
writer and sometime activist concerning social justice movements and coalitions since the 1970s. In
addition to publishing many articles on Christian liberation theologies and social movements, I have
also been involved in major church-based social justice initiatives : In the US with Theology in the
Americas in the 1970s and 1980s, an historic initiative in nurturing dialogue and collaboration across
diverse ‘liberation’ movements organised around the antagonisms of class, race, ethnicity, and
gender, and of a developed‘First World’ with an ‘underdeveloped’ ‘Third World’; on occasion with
colleagues in the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, one of the first sustained efforts
- launched in Tanzania in 1976 - to nurture Africa-Asia-Latin America dialogue; and in Canada (where
I eventually also became a citizen) with the Canadian Ecumenical Jubilee Initiative, and which in the
late 1990s, with colleagues in Jubilee South and other Jubilee 2000 movements, nurtured
collaboration with a broad range of groups (both church-based and secular) in campaigns calling
attention to ‘social debt’, ‘ecological debt’, and more generally ‘illegitimate and odious debt’, and
demanding the cancellation of Third World debts. I have also been a participant/observer in World
Social Forum events since 2002, and a member of the International Committee of the World Forum
on Theology and Liberation since its inception in 2005. Currently I am a professor emeritus of
theology and interdisciplinary studies in the Faculty of Theology, the University of St Michael’s College
and the Toronto School of Theology, in Toronto, Canada. Recently, and as my contribution to the
companion volume to this book indicates,
I have been focusing on the presence of faith-based
groups in social justice coalitions, on the grave inadequacies of secularist scholarly and political
discourses so profoundly distorting our understanding not only of religious traditions, communities,
and concerns but also of ‘culture’, ‘politics’, and ‘the economy’ more generally, and on expanding
appreciation for other traditions of knowledges, hopes, and faiths in new ‘ecologies of knowledges’.
Most importantly, in terms of my formation and continuing education, I have often been
blessed and endlessly amazed by the generosity, courage, and humour of ‘poor’ and marginalised
people I have encountered over many years, who have welcomed me, even in the most appalling
conditions of extreme poverty and great risk from dictatorships and death squads. Over the years
they and their activist and scholarly allies and friends, some of whom also became my dear friends,
have shaped my deepest sensibilities concerning suffering and hope and the struggles to change the
And now I am also deeply indebted to the contributors, and especially to Jai Sen, friend
and editor of The Movements of Movements,
for providing such rich, enlightening, provocative, often
challenging insights, expanding my horizons and provoking new questions on the twisting path of my
own ongoing (re-)education. Taken together in various combinations of two or three or more, these
essays often converge and overlap, suggesting new synergies; at other points they diverge on
important issues, pointing to many differences, possible tensions and clashes. At the same time,
though, they reflect an increasingly shared awareness that, as Nunes says, “the capacity to exchange
and cooperate” with others around the world is expanding.
And, beyond purely abstract and false
universalisms, these contributions push me, and I trust you readers too, to reading across contexts
and movements, looking for cross-cutting experiences and insights, points of reference, wider
solidarities, and expanding horizons on possible futures.
Of course, with many others, I have also become convinced that there is no ‘God’s eye view’
(or at least no one on earth can indisputably see through God’s eyes !), and that there is no one right
standpoint, perspective, or reading of history.
Yet I also believe deeply that authentic hope for the
future if there is indeed to be a future for us must be widely shared, collaboratively witnessed to
in campaigns and movements, celebrated, and continuously renewed And in this spirit, repeatedly
encountered in these books, I offer the following reflections.
Makers of History Too
Mainstream discourses have long centred on great ideas, or theories, or cultures or ideologies, and on
great men (saints and religious leaders, explorers and conquerors, generals, scientists,
entrepreneurs) as the movers of history. And the rest, the great majorities of peoples and cultures,
have been simply marginalised, or forgotten altogether, or ridiculed as ‘primitive’, ‘backward’, ‘pre-
modern’, ‘irrational’, obstacles to ‘progress’. But, with the worldwide irruptions of social movements in
the 1960s (sometimes referred to as the ‘world revolution
) and the subsequent proliferation of
movements over the subsequent decades, this picture is increasingly found only in the dustbins of
Over the last half century, cascading eruptions of progressive social movements labour,
liberationist and post-colonial, social justice, feminist, environmental, indigenous, anti-racist, peace,
food, LGBTQ, Dalit, animal rights, etc have radically transformed the debates and struggles over
reality and possibility. And new movements continue to irrupt. By the early 2000s, according to one
guesstimate there were, around the world, “over one and maybe even two million organisations
working toward ecological sustainability and social justice”.
Some commentators argue that when
seen collectively, the phenomenon constitutes “the largest social movement in all of human history”.
Indeed, irruptions have become major features in societies around the world to the extent that even
the mainstream Time Magazine was compelled to select ‘the protestor’ as its ‘person of the year’ for
And it has become increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that, long marginalised and
forgotten, poor and marginalised peoples, other species, and the Earth are actors too, and have
become increasingly powerful features of 21
century societies around the world.
Moreover, there is
no end in sight, as more and more of the world’s historically silenced and marginalised ‘others’ irrupt,
like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter.
Meanwhile, frustration with the limitations, failures, and absences of established forms of
critical scholarship, movements, and parties grew throughout the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, to the
present. As Meyer and Alidou have noted, in their essay in this book :
Our words have failed to adequately describe the world we wish to see.
From Kiswahili to Gujarati to Mandarin and Spanish from French and most especially
including the imperial polyglot known as English we have not always succeeded in
communicating our messages in consistently coherent and inspiring ways. The workers of the
world have not united; too many still live in mental and physical chains. At least some of the
responsibility for this fact must be faced as an internal weakness : The international left has
not been able to consistently speakto the people’.
And equally, in his essay here Adamovsky observes simply :the people do not trust in the
left, and they have very good reasons not to.”
At the same time though, and as the contributors to The Movements of Movements
repeatedly confirm, there are many signs of renewal and increasing momentum, especially in the
intersections and cross-fertilisations of these movements, in the intergalactic
of the
Zapatistas from the mid-1990s, in the World Social Forum gatherings since 2001, and in countless
other ‘crossroads’ and ‘squares’ from Tahrir Square in Cairo to Zucotti Park in New York in 2011, to
Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013.
Perhaps it is even fair to say, as one commentator did in 2003, observing irruptions of peace
movements around the world in opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, that a new ‘superpower’ has
But if so, this is a new, fundamentally different kind of superpower : More inclusive, more
open, more decentralised, more diverse, more participatory, more inclusive, more transparent, more
accountable, more modest, more realistic, with more promising visions of the future for all.
We are still learning how to recognise ‘success’, though, which depends on our frameworks
for viewing ‘nature’, ‘society’, and ‘history’ burning issues in a world of knowledge explosions, new
technologies, new modes of social organisation, and vastly expanding human capacities to act. And
yet, while many questions remain about how to see more clearly, there is also a growing sense in
many circles of successes, locally, regionally, internationally, some small and others ‘historic’, perhaps
even ‘epic’.
And at the same time, our views of history are becoming more inclusive, complex, and
dynamic, including understanding it in terms of chaos and of non-linear dimensions and dynamics.
This emerging perception allows space for recognition of the key roles of movements, their successes
(as well as detours and defeats), of unexpected new openings and possibilities. Indeed, in many
quarters older notions of ‘revolution’ are disappearing. ‘Success’ is being redefined.
And hopes are
being radically reimagined.
Knowledge Revolutions
As the experience of movements around the world repeatedly confirms, and are clearly echoed in
these books, the central axes of social life revealed by these movements class, gender, race, place,
national origin, world-system, nature/civilisation, sexual orientation, violence, disabilities, etc remain
central. However, this experience also affirms that no single critical discourse is adequate to all these
concerns and issues. One response to this new understanding has been to create ever-growing lists
of oppressions, of ‘-isms’ (classism, racism, sexism, etc). As Drainville points out in his essay in this
collection however, “analyses of transnational doings often do little more than assemble … a list,
putting side by side everything is sight and labelling the lot ‘anti-globalisation’, or ‘globalisation from
below’. And he goes on to warn, “listing is not theorising”.
And it is increasingly clear that the
cumulative effects of developments in social movement politics, and in the critical scholarship inspired
by them, add up to far more than growing lists of oppressions. Far beyond mere lists, they are
pointing to vast expansions of our horizons on the world (past, present, and possible futures), to
radical questioning of basic categories and theoretical frameworks, to deepening suspicions
concerning the epistemological foundations of modern science and expertise, and to quests for
alternative epistemologies, ontologies, and cosmovisions. And where it is increasingly clear that
struggles over ways of seeing the world ‘knowledge’ are in fact pivotal in the struggles over the
Information Explosions and Knowledge Revolutions
Many anthropologists and historians define human nature specifically in terms of knowledge, of
capacities - to learn, to communicate through various forms of culture, to store information, and to
share it across distance and time.
And from the beginning human history has turned on key
developments in the history of data gathering, information processing, storage, and communication,
from the inventions of rituals, myths, and cosmovisions, sagas and epic poetry and writing to the
establishment of priesthoods and schools of philosophy and metaphysics, to the invention of the
printing press - and in our times, to the creation of the internet. Certainly ‘knowledge’ has been
central in the organisation and development of ‘modern’ societies. And by the end of the 19
Europeans, at the centre of the colonial/modern world-system, had established the modern social
sciences (including economics and history) as the central authoritative discourses for analysing
problems, projecting possible futures, making choices, planning, accounting costs and benefits,
managing, policing, etc in this world-system. Indeed, modern academic disciplines are constitutive
features of modern institutions and societies, built into their organisation and functioning.
Moreover, there are many indications today that ‘knowledge’ is becoming even more central,
with the vast expansions of knowledge production in schools and universities, libraries, scholarly
associations, conferences, publishers, journals, newsletters, corporate research departments,
government departments, all of which are now exponentially expanding with new technologies and
channels of data gathering and processing like the internet (for instance, Wikipedia, and blogs,
Facebook, and Twitter).
Areas of study and specialisation and their applications in new technologies
are proliferating, and contributing to the exponential expansions of human agency (more accurately,
the agency of some humans) in every direction, from nanoscale to planetary scales and, since the
launch of Sputnik in 1957, into the heavens above.
Moreover, in the process, the “nature of
scientific inquiry and its application to the great challenges facing mankind [sic]are also changing
for example, in the collection, processing, and application of insights from ‘big data’. Some
commentators are even heralding the dawn of a new ‘digital age’ with ‘knowledge’ increasingly
transforming all of life, including an ‘information economy’ centred on and driven by ‘knowledge’ and
‘knowledge industries’.
And many commentators, including many critics, continue to hinge their
hopes for the future on the expanding human capacities for knowledge and reason.
However, as the recent histories of progressive social movements also repeatedly confirm,
the prevailing forms of ‘knowledge’ are also, and equally, central parts of the problem. New waves of
critical histories of science are revealing other darker dimensions of modern knowledge and
epistemology, pointing to other more promising ways of knowing, and other possibilities for the
Modernity’, ‘Development’, and Beyond
Critical re-readings inspired by social movements are radically transforming our understanding of
modern European history, marked by many twists and turns in the shifting matrices of expanding
knowledge, new technologies, expanding nation states, colonies and empires, industrial, cultural and
political revolutions and wars, and waves of ‘globalisation’. And they are helping us to see the larger
patterns of thought dominating mainstream scholarship and politics since the 19
century. For
example, as Lander notes, “In recent debates about hegemonic knowledge in the modern world, a
number of basic assumptions have emerged that allow us to characterize the dominant conception of
knowledge as Eurocentric”.
In the course of trying to understand the dynamic and rapidly changing world since the 16
century, European thinkers elaborated a doctrine of ‘progress’, centring on key insights concerning
knowledge, technologies, modes and scales of social organisation, and progressively expanding
human agency. This doctrine emerged in efforts to collect, order, and synthesise in-rushing data and
reports from around the world from missionaries, conquerors, traders, and immigrants, and from
expanding industries seeking to understand and exploit more of nature. These thinkers forged a host
of new scientific disciplines to organise these processes of knowledge production, to deepen and
systematise knowledge. And as a framework for ordering the avalanches of data concerning nature,
human nature, and the course of history, they formulated their own creation story, a modern myth
which they framed in evolutionary terms, with Europe at the forefront leading the way at every stage.
And they built this outlook into the foundations and cultures of what are today called the modern
natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, and also into the organisation into
disciplines and departments of modern universities, which, though under assault from within and
without in the early decades of the 21
century, remain dominant.
In this perspective, ‘others’ around the world - and including also European peasants and
workers were and still are mired in backward religions and cultures, ignorance, irrationality and
superstitions, internecine conflicts and wars, and poverty. However, progresswas and is argued to
be potentially in their future too. For, these scholars insisted, the ‘laws’ of development are
necessarily ‘universal’. In its most ambitious expressions, this is thus a social evolutionary worldview,
in which, resonating with Darwin’s view of biological evolution, all the basic dimensions of human life
consciousness, reason, and society are evolving in a linear direction from the ‘primitive’,
‘ignorant’, ‘backward’, and ‘poverty-ridden’ past to the enlightened and rational, modern, peace-
loving, and wealthy societies allegedly evident in modern Europe. And, in addition to claiming to sum
up all that could reliably be known about the earth and the human condition, this doctrine of
European superiority also legitimised the ‘white man’s burden’ of civilising the ‘others’ even against
their own wills, for the long-term interests of coming generations, if not of the current generation still
mired in ignorance and superstition.
Of course, as critical voices have helped us to see, many important parts of the story not only
around the rest of the world but also in Europe were omitted, such as the increasing concentrations
of wealth and power, the gaps between rich and poor, the endless wars of conquest and colonisation,
expanding environmental havoc, etc. Moreover, prominent scholarly and political voices managed to
minimise, or suppress altogether, the many contributions of ‘traditional’ communities (like many
indigenous communities) and progressive social movements Marxist, labour, social democratic, first
wave feminist, anti-colonial and post-colonial, environmental, peace in moderating the excesses of
colonial/capitalist exploitation and war at home and abroad.
But the unprecedented violence and
destruction unleashed in World War I and World War II at the heart of the ‘most advanced’ societies
in history, plunged their political and scholarly establishments into crisis, along with their doctrines of
‘modernity’ and ‘progress’.
Still, as influential idolatries and ideologies always do, this doctrine also captured some
important ‘truths’ of new developments in the ‘modern’ world : Pointing to the transformative effects
of information explosions and knowledge revolutions, cascading new technologies, new modes and
scales of social organisation (nation states, colonies, empires, world-system, ‘globalisation’), and the
sweeping transformations of social life and ‘nature’ accompanying them. Indeed, even Marxist critics,
so deeply critical of central aspects of this class-divided ‘modern’ world, also appropriated this
Eurocentric evolutionary framework in plotting the history of science, technology, ‘capitalism’, and the
still-to-come ‘communism’.
Meanwhile, freed at home from the massive domestic destruction resulting from the wars in
Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific, US elites resurrected and re-centred the originally Eurocentric
doctrine of ‘progress’ as they wrestled with the challenges and possibilities confronting what had
suddenly become the most powerful nation on earth.
In the turmoil and uncertainty following World
War II, US scholars and political leaders drew on these traditions in forging a new, vastly expanded
myth of ‘development’, along with expanded apparatus for its implementation around the world (and
for the ‘containment’ of all opponents). This was a revised and expanded version of progress, with
the US replacing Europe as the global leader, and it encompassed far more than ‘the economy’,
indeed the whole of modern life : Culturally, psychologically, socially, politically, religiously, as well as
In the rapidly expanding university system, these experts articulated a new, interdisciplinary
discourse of ‘modernisation’,
as a project far exceeding the imperial reach of the past, and for the
first time in history encompassing the whole world (with the temporary exception of the Second,
‘communist’ world which however needed to be ‘contained’ by covert wars and brutal dictatorships
if necessary until its internal failures and contradictions became obvious and it collapsed). They
pictured an encompassing vision of scientific breakthroughs, technological innovations, expanding
markets and economic growth, increasing prosperity, and greater freedom colloquially, the
‘American dream’. They legitimated this vision as ‘science(allegedly) value-free, neutral, objective,
and universally relevant. And, alongside economics and the other social sciences, they created new
disciplines (such as development studies, ‘area studies’, ‘international relations, and Sovietology
and new institutions with global reach for the implementing this global project : For analysing the
sources of ‘backwardness’ and ‘underdevelopment’, identifying the levers of change, developing
expertise for assisting policy makers, and creating new technologies ‘aid’ and ‘development
programmes’ promising to transform national cultures and the psychologies of their peoples and
leaders, and to quickly lift static and backwardnations (and peoples) from ‘backwardness’ and
‘poverty’ (and with the infusion of massive military and police ‘aid’ to ‘contain’ critics).
Moreover, they popularised this vision around the world via the new media of television, the
dissemination of school and university curricula and textbooks, a process strategically supported by
the CIA and other government-supported agencies in the writing, publication, and dissemination of
key texts.
They enshrined this project in new global institutions like the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund, as centres for ‘educating’ the world’s leaders and policy makers, for
promoting via loans and aid programmes the often radical transformation of ‘traditional’ forms of
political and economic organisation and replacing them with standardised ‘modern’ approaches to
‘development’, and for the global structuring of economic relations.
And with the advent of air travel
a whole new globetrotting generation of consultants and advisors was born.
Indeed, by the early 1960s US scholars and commentators were so confident in their scientific
methods and their understanding of ‘modernisation’ and ‘development’ that they triumphantly
announced the ‘end of ideology’, of debates about the course of history, dynamics of order and
change, and of all other future possibilities, simply casting socialists, communists, and other critics
into the dustbin of history (or sentencing them to be ‘sacrificed’ tortured and executed in the jails of
dictators if they could not be contained long enough for the magic of ‘progress’ to work).
Prominent experts even worried that, bored by endless technological innovations, capitalist growth,
and affluence ‘man’ [sic] would fall into a ‘secular spiritual stagnation’ and a desperate search for
stimulation, perhaps even opting “to conduct wars with just enough violence to be good sport and
to accelerate capital depreciation without blowing up the planet !”.
Counter Movements and Proliferating Critical Discourses
Imagine the shock of these esteemed scholars and experts at the exploding waves of critical social
movements that erupted around the world just then, at the dawn of the 1960s !
Of course, there were many antecedents - in traditional indigenous communities, and in
labour, Marxist, social democratic, first wave feminist, anti-colonial and post-colonial, environmental,
peace, etc movements but these contributions were largely effaced in public discourse. So the new
irruptions appeared like bolts from heaven. Suddenly clouds of new critical actors and discourses
irrupted, revealing how many peoples and groups are simply ‘disappeared’ (made invisible), how
many voices are distorted or simply silenced, how many great gaps and inequalities remain unnoticed
from on high, how often ‘science’ and expertise are used against the victims, how many victims are
blamed for their sufferings and their ‘sacrifices’ rationalised as ‘necessary’, how much violence is
routinely deployed in establishing and maintaining ‘peace’ and ‘order’, how the balance sheets of
‘progress’ depend on the externalisation of so many costs to so many people and to life on earth.
Beginning in the 1960s, with a deepening awareness of the inadequacies of prevailing
political and scholarly frameworks concerning ‘society’ in all its dimensions (including the study of
social movements), activists and sympathetic scholars launched a whole series of new critical lines of
inquiry : Updated Marxist, Neo- and post-Marxist, dependency, feminist, critical race, world-system,
indigenous, ecological, poststructural, postcolonial, subaltern, critical postmodern, LGBTQ, critical
geography, critical migration, and animal rights among others. The authors of each sought to
formulate a perspective on central aspects of each community’s or constituency’s experience in ways
which gave them and their movements leverage in contested and shifting intellectual and political
landscapes. Each revealed a dynamic at the heart of their experience : ‘Class’, ‘colonialism’, ‘racism’,
‘patriarchy’ or ‘sexism’, ‘dependency’, ‘world-system’, ‘caste’, ‘anthropocentrism’ (centred on the
human, marginalising concern for other creatures and the Earth), ‘heteronormativity’, and ‘coloniality
of power’. And coming together in anti-globalisation movements and elsewhere, as Cho Hee-Yeon
points out in his essay in these books, they established a new broader base for knowledge, requiring
an ‘epistemological revolution’,
or series of revolutions. Suddenly, with ‘new’ voices drawing on their
own experiences and traditions, an expanding range of new lenses was available for seeing the world
in technicolour. And movements carried these new ways of seeing into struggles over the
organisation of virtually every corner of social life around the world.
Of course, as long-time activists and sympathetic scholars know, these diverse lenses, like
the movements they are a part of, did not all develop at the same time, or in the same terms, or in
the same places. They did not immediately fit together so well either. There were seemingly endless
clashes between ‘old’ and ‘new’ lenses, over ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’, ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’
contradictions, over the allegedly universal concern of ‘Marxists’ with ‘systemic’ issues and allegedly
narrower focus of so-called ‘identity politics’ on women, or racism, or the environment, etc. In India,
for example, in their essay in these books Roma and Ashok Choudhary point to “a false divide
between preservation / environmental groups and forest dwellers”,
a divide which has been widely
echoed elsewhere. And, more generally, the continuing inability - in critical theories and movement
practices - to fully incorporate the concerns of otherscontributed to a growing sense by the end of
the 1990s of the limits of these critical discourses and movements, and to the urgent need for
expanding dialogue across ‘differences’, and for theoretical and political ‘reinventions’.
From the beginning, though, there had also been many signs of openness and dialogue
across differences. As Tariq Ali says of the 1960s in his essay, “All the movements learnt from each
other. The advances of the civil rights, women and gay movements, now taken for granted, had to be
fought for on the streets against enemies who were fighting the ‘war on horror’.”
And this cross-
learning has continued, with recent waves of critical scholarship and political thinking, like feminist
intersectional approaches
and Latin American decolonial approaches
explicitly attempting to build
on and incorporate the experience and insights of preceding movements and scholarly traditions in
formulating still more inclusive perspectives and agendas for change.
Thus, Andean indigenous groups are proposing to re-frame the multiple crises sweeping their
communities and the world beyond simply ‘economic’ or ‘environmental’, as a ‘
crisis civilizatoria’
[civilisational crisis’] which encompasses every aspect social, economic, political, cultural, ecological
-- of life, generating “a global disorder of historic magnitude.” And the Forest Peoples and Forest
Workers in India echo this insight in a recent Declaration :
…. This is no ordinary crisis. Not merely a climate crisis or in your words, this magnified, self-
created monster of a financial crisis. We believe it is a Crisis of Civilisations. It’s no ordinary
clash but a fundamental clash between our knowledge systems; of being, of nature and your
wisdom, technology, and demonic tendencies. Your world rests on ideas of power, territories,
boundaries, profit, exploitation and oppression and you try to own everything, including Mother
Nature. If you want to include us in your world by ‘civilising’ us, we will happily choose to
remain uncivilised. Call us savages, we do not care! We have learnt amidst these trees, this
water, this air, and other forest beings a life of freedom, of being without boundaries, and
yet never forgetting the boundaries of nature.
In these and many other admixtures, old and new traditions are rapidly developing.
And expanding openness to other perspectives and dialogues with/across other-than-modern
(‘transmodern’) traditions also points to further flowering of whole new families of critical (and
utopian) discourses. Indeed, some are already evident in rapidly proliferating indigenous, aboriginal,
Maori perspectives and politics,
and new waves of critical discourses from other civilisational
traditions (Asian,
and Latin American) – each with incredible internal diversity, each and
all evolving in dialogue with many ‘others’.
Specifically, in terms of the relationship between sympathetic scholarship and activist
practice, with widening participation by ‘poor’ and ‘marginal’ peoples, Leyva Solano points to profound
shifts :
Modern science (and therefore the social sciences) are the offspring of capitalism and have
always depended on it. Without denying this connection, it is important to add that today, at
the beginning of the 21
century, new social relations are emerging in the interstices between
committed academics, flexible activisms, and indigenous as well as anti-systemic movements.
This allows us to affirm that new forms of knowledge production are in process. This new
knowledge can no longer be labelled as exclusively activist or academic.
And it is no longer exclusively by and for elites !
Looking through these proliferating critical lenses, the world is constantly growing larger,
more multifaceted, dynamic, and complex.
‘Science, Secularism, and Beyond
Modernism’s claims to authority centre on its ‘scientific’ character. If in certain religious traditions God
alone sees and knows all, the architects of the modern scientific revolutions in the 16
in Europe forged a substitute ‘God’s eye view’ via positivist scientific methods which (allegedly) screen
out the effects of social location and perspectives, values and self-interests, promising to reveal, if not
the whole truth all at once, progressively more with each advance of ‘science’.
In this view, after
millennia of ignorance and superstition marking earlier stages of human history, modern ‘science’ is
finally revealing the ‘truth’ about the ‘laws of nature’, including human nature and society, and
offering neutralexpert advice to opinion-makers and officials in every field, pointing the way
forward. Scientific advances, new technologies, expert policy-making, industrial revolutions,
economic growth, and democracy will bring expanding personal freedom and prosperity to millions of
people, peace too, and technological solutions to problems still plaguing humanity.
In this framework, ‘tradition’ is more or less equivalent to ‘religion’. Indeed, the doctrine of
‘secularism’ lies at the very heart of ‘modernity’, predicting the disappearance of religion in the
modern world as the progress of science pushes back the darkness of ignorance and superstition, the
realms of human agency expand, and ‘man’ takes the reigns of destiny into his own hands. This
positivist spirit infuses the secular definitions of the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities,
and the organisation of disciplines and departments in ‘modern’ universities around the world, with
‘religious’ matters relegated to personal private life at best, and theological faculties relegated to the
disciplinary margins or excluded altogether. This outlook has deeply shaped ‘modern’ liberal,
progressive, and radical political discourses too.
Secularist tendencies in and across critical discourses have been immensely costly : Inhibiting
dialogues with most of the world’s ‘others’ in their own terms, and the recognition of their agency in
resisting domination and sustaining hopes for another world, in the past and present;
underestimating the limits of ‘modern’ science and rationality; arrogantly rejecting other traditions as
resources in forging alternatives; hindering respectful dialogue across traditions in nurturing broader
solidarities, coalitions and campaigns.
In these volumes for example, Daulatzai strongly criticises the
dominant expressions of feminism at the World Social Forum in Mumbai for perpetuating positivist
images of knowledge as “neutral, value-free, and uncharged with historical contingency”. And she
insists that “the imperative of a politics of resistance free from religious sentiments will fail to address
the needs of vast majorities of the planet’s inhabitants as well as continue to provide opportunities for
more fundamental and violent alternatives to flourish.
However, this secularist edifice is rapidly crumbling, as many contributions to these books
also confirm.
For example, Toth in his essay in these volumes - points to the importance of
‘religion’ in understanding modern Muslim societies :
In Muslim societies where outright secularists still constitute a minority and where the 18th
century Enlightenment separation of religion and politics became a colonially-imposed doctrine,
Islam still strongly colours the beliefs, actions, and perceptions of movement activists.... As
with so many social movements, then, purely economic or sociological analyses are necessary,
but insufficient. The doctrines and cultural beliefs, too, must be examined to fully understand
how local movements erupt into global campaigns, and why.
Religious traditions are vibrant and politically significant in other contexts too. Indeed, while
some, like Daulatzai above, are condemning secularist tendencies in the WSF, others are pointing to
the massive and largely unrecognised presence of religious people, cultures and ethics, and
organisations and movements in left and progressive movements. Levy, for example, argues that the
progressive Catholic church - and Latin American ‘liberation theology’ in particular - deeply
“influenced the conception, mission, organisation, content, and evolution of the WSF…”, and indeed
that the progressive church in Brazil was “the single most important social actor in the formative
years of contemporary Brazilian civil society, creating, nurturing, and supporting modern social
movements across Brazil in both urban centres and the countryside.
So secularist blindness continues to exist uneasily with continuing, powerful, but largely
unrecognised (‘underground’) religious influences. And from many directions there are calls for
transcending the ‘sacred’/’secular’, ‘faith’/’science’ binary altogether, opening up new possibilities for
drawing on other traditions with alternatives to modern categories and disciplinary boundaries for
rereading the past and imagining the future.
At the same time, doubts about the alleged certainties of Western modes of natural and
social science, including economics, are spreading like wildfire.
Indeed, announcements of
disciplines in decline, even ‘disciplines in ruins’,
are proliferating, along with deep crises in
universities, which have been their home.
And epistemological revolutions are underway around the world, with growing awareness of
the limitations, partiality, and incompleteness of all knowledge (including ‘science’), growing openness
to ‘other’ traditions, and in a world with many fundamental and still unanswered questions about
the future - new epistemological spaces for ‘hope’ and ‘faith’ as other modalities of engaging the
shifting boundaries between the known and the unknown, reality and possibility.
Resurgent Religious / Philosophical / Cosmological Questions
Of course, there is no room for religious triumphalism. Indeed, popular forms of triumphalist
‘conservatism’ and ‘fundamentalism’ are also deeply modernist, forged in Europe and in the US in the
centuries in reaction to the changing world system and to modern ‘liberalism’, and carrying
within them many of the flaws of other modern traditions, notably an insistence on ‘one right way’ of
thinking, a hostility to ‘radicalism’ (often portrayed as ‘heresy’), and a despair over the prospects of
change for the better in history. On the other hand, other, more deeply ‘non-Western’ traditions
escape many sins of modern ‘liberalisms’ and ‘conservatisms’, offering other ways of seeing and
organising life. But virtually all have been deeply impacted by ‘Western’ influences; and they also
have had their own dynamics of creativity and growth, stasis, decadence, decline, and (sometimes)
renewal. Thus, for example, in their essay in these books Leyva Solano and Gunderson point to the
complex processes between the early 1950s and the 1994 eruption of the Zapatistas, of religious
awakening - perhaps more adequately, ‘re-awakening and renewal’ -, and of accompanying political
radicalisation and organisation.
Other articles in this collection address the roots of contemporary
Islamic social justice renewal and militancy in the writings of Muhammad Abduh, Hasan al-Banna, and
Sayyid Qutb.
As every religious activist knows, every tradition is marked by intense debates over
interpretations of sacred texts, the history of the tradition, status vis-à-vis other religious traditions
and ‘modern’ religious/cultural traditions in particular, forms of leadership and communal
organisation, ethics, and the religious significance of currently pressing problems like global climate
change (which more and more religious groups are defining as matters of faith!
), and prospects
for the future.
Moreover, every existing ‘tradition’ is rooted in earlier expressions of the tradition
forged in different times and places addressing other constellations of reality and possibility. From the
beginning, then, each tradition is marked internally by controversies and conflicts, and each is also
confronted by changing contexts -- in our times in historically unprecedented and far-reaching ways
by developments in science, technologies, new modes and scales of social organisation, and shifting
relationships with (the rest of) Nature which are again transforming the world, humanity’s place in it,
and the horizons of possible futures.
In these changed and changing circumstances, no religious tradition contains - in any simple
sense - ‘answers’ to all the important questions of this new context. On the contrary, in addition to
whatever limitations and sins of the past for which they must repent, all face fundamental challenges.
For the whirlwinds of historical transition are reopening the classic religious / philosophical questions
concerning ‘creation’ (or ‘nature’), along with humanity’s and other species’ places in it. And no one
can today escape making choices, if not in theory, certainly in practice as we individually and
collectively - scramble to re-order our lives together, with one another, with other-than-humans, and
with the Earth.
Existing communities and their traditions of knowledge, hope, and faith, forged in
different worlds, are today also fundamentally challenged, to reorientation, conversion, and renewal,
or to extinction.
‘Globalisation’ and Beyond : Some Questions
Dawn of a Post-Neoliberal Era ?
By the end of the 1990s, diverse groups and movements around the world were discovering common
ground in targeting ‘globalisation’ as the cause of much of their suffering, for instance in the cross-
fertilisation and convergence of widely diverse movements in the ‘antiglobalisation’ demonstrations
that broke out in Seattle in 1999 protesting the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) agenda, and that
then quickly spread across North America and Europe, and elsewhere. (More accurately, ‘neoliberal
globalisation’ was the target, and ‘alterglobalisation’ the goal, since many ‘globalising’ developments -
for example, communication and cross-cultural interactions - are welcomed in progressive circles.)
‘Neoliberalism’ or ‘neoliberal globalisation’, often referred to simply as ‘globalisation’ (as if it were a
single, natural, coherent, non-contradictory, uncontested, linear and ‘good’ process), was
increasingly identified as central to the problems confronting many movements with their different
contexts and causes around the world.
In many respects these movements were amazingly successful, for instance in derailing the
World Trade Organisation’s plans, discrediting the International Monetary Fund, and promoting
widespread defections from neoliberal orthodoxy in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown (‘we’re
all Keynesians now’). Some commentators even dared to announce the ‘end of neoliberalism’.
In the wake of Occupy Wall Street and of the Arab uprisings in 2011 though, it has again
become transparently clear that ideological victories in the battles over public opinion do not
automatically sweep away or transform the centres of political and economic power, like corporate
offices, banks, government departments, military headquarters and bases, think tanks, and political
parties. These remain in the hands of elites, and their supporters abetted by often uneducated and
systematically-misinformed ‘publics’ - are often successfully and very rapidly mobilised by elites to
avoid punishment, to reformulate their project for the post-crisis period, to reassert their power and
authority, to organise new coalitions, and to (re)mobilise support.
And, while there are many signs of crisis in neoliberal projects around the world, and growing
resistance, there are also too many signs of expanding concentrations of power, massively increased
reasserted neoliberal projects like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP),
control and distortion of mainstream media fuelling widespread ignorance and confusion, continuing
mind-boggling US military power and expanding conflicts,
alongside increasing confusion among
elites, deepening irrationality, desperation and fanaticism, above all in the Republican Party in the
What about ‘Capitalism’ ?
There has been much less agreement across movements on this question. And everything depends
on the definition.
Certainly there is little dispute that economic struggles over land and labour and capital and
markets have been central in the modern world (and for much longer), and that vastly expanding
production of goods and services have radically though unequally -- transformed societies
everywhere. And for one hundred and fifty years since the consolidation of European empires around
the world (or for five hundred years since Columbus launched the European project of globalising
conquest and colonialism), despite crisis after crisis, the architects of ‘modern’ projects of expanding
private property and markets, colonies, and empires have asserted that ‘progress’ in science,
technology, and markets is the central law of human history, and that promoting ‘capitalist’ values
and culture and ideologies, institutions, and structures is the key to endlessly expanding markets,
technological breakthroughs, prosperity, affluence, individual freedoms, and peace. After every crisis
like the linked crises marking the first half of the 20th century, World War I, Great Depression, and
World War II –, reformed coalitions of elites and their supporters have drawn on these cultural and
intellectual traditions, concentrations of wealth, formal and informal networks, administrative and
governance architectures, and residual institutional power in various centres (like Wall Street) in
reasserting their ‘leadership’ and forging a renewed capitalist project reflecting their interests in
changed conditions.
In response to the cascading economic and political crises of the 1970s,
in the US and
Britain especially, neoliberals and their neoconservative allies led the way in formulating revised
projects for preserving their status, wealth, and power in a changing, increasingly globalised world.
They mobilised massive media resources in preaching this doctrine far and wide. And they succeeded
once again in turning this latest version of ‘capitalism’ into common sense (the so-called ‘Washington
) in the centres of power around the world, in the curricula of economics departments
treating it as natural and good (no longer requiring definition, criticism, or debate
), in the
headquarters of corporations and political parties, in the legal systems of governments, in the
agendas of international financial institutions like the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, and
the International Monetary Fund, in expanding webs of ‘free-trade’ agreements. This has been a truly
extraordinary development.
Indeed, at each transition, they have expanded their claims, in terms both of geographical
reach after the collapse in 1989 of the Soviet Union, extending to the whole world and, even
more fundamentally, also of the domains of life itself, now including the transmutation of culture and
knowledge into ‘intellectual property’, citizens into stakeholders, democracy into ‘governance’, and the
‘commodification’ of culture and religion, even of biology and basic life processes.
These projects
are consistently branded as ‘capitalist’ by their architects and supporters, and have put a capitalist
stamp on culture, institutions, and structures around the world. And the high priests of this global
orthodoxy brand their critics as ‘anti-capitalist’. Not surprisingly, many critics adopt this ‘anti-capitalist’
label too.
There are many reasons, though, for questioning this essentialising of ‘capitalism’ for
obscuring the magnitude of resistance, the agency of its opponents, their impacts, the depths of
crises in the past and currently, and the range of open questions concerning the future. Indeed,
some, like Nunes in this book, insist that the problem with ‘capitalism’ is that it is “a name given
to a historical development that is still in motion …”. In his view, “we do not even know
what capitalism is, [so] how can we know what its overcoming is ?”.
Beyond ‘the Economy’ ?
Indeed, for many people, criticism of ‘neoliberal capitalism’ does not rule out appreciation of other
forms of capitalism. In their view, it is not ‘capitalism’ as such that is the problem but ‘unfettered’ or
‘unregulated’ capitalism, (supposedly) like that which existed before the welfare state capitalism and
developmentalism of the immediate post-World War II years and like that which re-emerged in the
‘neoclassical’ capitalism of Thatcher and Reagan at the end of the 1970s. In this view, the solution is
a more ‘regulated’ capitalism, like the post-World War II Keynesian welfare state in the North and
‘development’ in the South.
A host of other critics, though, point to the Keynesian welfare state and the global
developmentalist project as the results of an unique confluence of extraordinary developments : The
enormous technological and economic impetus of World War II (including the development of
increasingly global communications and transportation), the propaganda and politics of ‘total war’,
and its follow-up in the Cold War with its threat of a ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ alternative (along with
the growing strength of the labour movement), the unprecedented military, economic, and political
power of the US, and the readiness of US elites (after intense internal debates and compromises
among various factions) to pick up the mantle of global hegemon in the wake of the enormous losses
suffered by Britain and other European powers during the war.
They also describe the rise of ‘social
democratic’ European states in similar historically specific terms.
But many other critics question whether continuing developmentalist welfare-state capitalist
projectswas even possible in the 1970s and 1980s. For the world had already changed so profoundly
between the end of World War II and the 1970s
a claim which the emerging neoliberal /
neoconservative movement made central to their call for ‘radical’ cultural, political, and economic
change. And since then the scope, scale, and pace of changes have intensified, such as the increasing
globalisation of commodity chains, the defeat of the USSR, the emergence of BRICS (Brazil, Russia,
India, China, South Africa), and the weakening (at least relatively) of US economic and political (but
not military) power.
In this view, there is no going back, and even if, miraculously, the capitalist
faithful could be persuaded that relinquishment of some small portion of their immense wealth - and
power especially -- would be in their own interests too.
In addition, many of these discussions of ‘the economy’ and of reforming ‘capitalism’ proceed
with little reference to the monumental concentrations of wealth and power that have also taken
place in this time, and their role in obstructing change. They also tend to overlook ‘other’ issues like
climate change, proliferating resource wars, and the resulting global surges of refugees and
etc, as if all this is somehow separate from the functioning of ‘the economy’.
Moreover, expanding studies of capitalist development in diverse times and places are
convincing many historians that ‘capitalism’ has changed so often and so fundamentally that reliance
on the single term obscures the range and magnitude of fundamental changes which have occurred,
and the dynamics of continuity, crisis, and change, in the past and in the present.
Furthermore, even among those who view ‘capitalism’ as a problem, there are many do not
view it as
problem. As noted above, alongside economic justice movements, other critical
discourses have emerged identifying the heart of the issues in terms of sexism or patriarchy or
heteropatriarchy, racism, technocratic rationality, colonialism or empire, ‘modernity’, ‘Eurocentrism’,
or ‘Western civilisation’ (or even ‘civilisation’ itself), caste, and anthropocentrism. And for many with
these concerns, even critical discourses of ‘capitalism’ still fail to grasp these fundamental dimensions
of their lives.
Indeed, there is a growing sense in many circles that capitalist projects have in fact never
been only ‘economic’,
and that economistic tendencies in both mainstream and critical discourses of
‘economics’ obscure other important actors, dimensions, and dynamics of eco-social worlds, and that
they oversimplify and too narrowly restrict visions of future possibilities.
In this view, the actual
functioning of institutions and structures like markets incorporates and depends on countless
religious, cultural, political, as well as economic processes and choices.
So ‘economism’
fundamentally distorts ‘the economy.’ Moreover, portraying ‘capitalism’ as a steamroller distracts
attention from the specific features of specific conjunctures, the tensions and contradictions in
reigning policies, the tensions and conflicts among different factions of ruling elites and their
supporters, shifting configurations of interests, and real crises versus the manufactured crises that
elites manipulate to scare people into supporting them.
It also (re-)marginalises the agency of all
the non-capitalist ‘others’ (including ‘nature’ and workers) struggling to live according to other logics,
and fans the flames of despair over ever being able to derail such a monster.
‘Capitalism’ versus ‘Socialism’ and Beyond ?
Given the confusion around ‘capitalism’, many wish that the term would be abolished altogether.
At the same time, suspicions proliferate over ‘capitalist’ approaches to problems, which
presume : The allegedly separate sphere of ‘the free market’ which operates by morally and politically
neutral and universal economic ‘laws’ which must be insulated from outside ‘intervention’ by
governments, workers, communities; the unlimited privileges and powers accorded to the owners and
managers of ‘capital’; human beings who are driven primarily by individual economic self-interest,
whose selfishness is magically transformed by an ‘invisible hand’ into the common good; accounting
frameworks which conveniently externalise the costs to workers, communities, societies, other
species, and the biosphere; and the gospel of ‘growth’ at all costs, as the only path to resolving all
major social and ecological problems. Of course, in many contexts modified versions of capitalist
policies may be the only ones with any hope of being implemented. Still, there is a growing sense on
many fronts that many current crises require, as Klein insists concerning the climate crisis, “that we
break every rule in the free-market play-book and that we do so with great urgency”.
And, as the
contributions to these volumes confirm, struggles for ‘another world’ concern ’the economy’ and so
much more.
For example, in his essay in these volumes Corntassel urges strategies of “sustainable self-
determination” for indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, an indigenous-centred discourse rooted in
their own local communities, spiritual traditions, and practices, “rather than seeking state-based
solutions that are disconnected from indigenous community relationships and the natural world.”
Overcoming some Western epistemological biases with strategies “to decolonise and restore
indigenous relationships that have long been severed”, he proposes forging more holistic, flexible,
and dynamic frameworks which include ecological, medicinal, food, and other cultural factors. These
would be locally (re-)centred projects, “[at] the community level as a process to perpetuate
indigenous livelihoods locally via the regeneration of family, clan, and individual roles and
responsibilities to their homelands”. At the same time, they have broader links and implications with
“the potential to re-establish larger regional trading networks with each other to promote formidable
alliances and sustainable futures”. Thus,
Sustainable self-determination offers a new global benchmark for the praxis of indigenous
livelihoods, food security, community governance, and relationships to the natural world and
ceremonial life that enables the transmission of these cultural practices to future
In a similar spirit, Philip McMichael points to lessons learned from food sovereignty
movements like Vía Campesina concerning the ‘global’ implications of such movements :
While Vía Campesina recognizes the jurisdictional authority of the state, it also seeks to
transform that authority, by challenging the state to enable states “to have the right and the
obligation to sovereignty, to define, without external conditions, their own agrarian,
agricultural, fishing and food policies in such a way as to guarantee the right to food and the
other economic, social and cultural rights of the entire population.
And thus,
In advocating an alternative modernity, including ‘re-territorialization’ of, and among, states,
the food sovereignty movement fundamentally challenges the institutional relations of
neoliberal capitalism that contribute to mass dispossession paradoxically reproducing the
peasantry as an ‘unthinkable’ social force [long defined by liberals and radicals alike as
hopelessly ‘backward’], as a condition for its emergence as a radical world-historical subject.
A similar spirit inspires many urban movements too. This was made especially clear to me in
the US Social Forum in Detroit in 2010. Only fifty years ago, Detroit was the leading edge of high
technology mass production consumer capitalism, centred on the auto industry. And, as faith-based
activist Lydia Wylie-Kellerman pointed out in preparing for the Forum, “the Auto in large part created
the American middle class”, along with well-paid working class jobs, expressways, and suburbs of ‘the
American dream’. In remarkably short order, though, this dream turned into a nightmare, as
neoliberal globalisation promoted the flight of factories abroad and massive deindustrialisation,
assaults on unions, largely white flight to the suburbs, drastically shrinking population, empty houses
(18% of all homes vacant or abandoned), rising crime, and the tearing down of houses leaving 30%
From being the icon of a wonderful new world, Detroit rapidly went to being the icon of
urban apocalypse, the end of the world. And many see Detroit’s story as the larger story of the US.
As Lydia’s father, pastor and activist Bill Wylie-Kellerman says : “For decades, Detroiters have
known the economic collapse that the whole US has begun to feel in the last two years.” But there is
also good news : “Amid signs of death, urban resurrection is afoot. In all these things are the opening
and spaces for a whole new way life.”
There are proposals to ‘green’ what’s left of the auto
industry in Detroit, but this would require “repenting the idolatry of the automobile” and a renewal of
“corporate vocations to serve human life rather than growth (or now mere survival), let along market
share or even profit. Is that possible ?” On the margins, another more modest “economy of creativity
and self-reliance” is budding, in urban agriculture and alternative media (basement sound studios and
community-oriented broadcasting) inspired in part by the way Cubans met the shock accompanying
the cessation of foreign aid with the fall of the USSR in the ‘special period’ (1989 end of 1990s).
“Another city is possible in the shell of the old”, Bill Wylie-Kellerman affirms. Indeed, “For those with
eyes to see, it’s actually happening.”
And more generally, more inclusive perspectives drawing on the insights of broader ranges of
progressive movements and scholarship point beyond ‘capitalism’ toward other definitions of
‘reformist’ and ‘radical’, and toward other strategies beside frontal assaults on ‘the system’ and its
centres of power; strategies which are more widely participatory, immediately practical, manageable
locally, and - their supporters say - simultaneously realistic and hopeful.
Capitalist Techno-Utopias and Apocalyptic Eco-Social Catastrophes
Beyond particular constituencies, issues, and movements, the sheer range and diversity of
movements that are taking place across the world today, and their agendas, point to much deeper,
broader, and far-reaching processes of change under way on Earth. And the expanding horizons of
human agency, being probed and experimented with in these movements, are at the heart of this
story. For they are confirming, repeatedly, that less and less of life (but not nothing) is simply God-
given or natural, and inevitable, and that more and more of life (but not everything) is shaped and
mis-shaped by human agency. So established categories, frameworks, and horizons are increasingly
inadequate not only because they are being challenged by other ideas but because the world is
changing in fundamental, including the most ‘material’, ways.
The plate tectonics of personal,
social, and natural worlds are shifting. And established traditions of seeing and ordering the world are
increasingly inadequate in enabling us to engage this new, rapidly changing world.
This is perhaps the weakest front in most critical discourses. Repeated insistence today on
key insights from the past concerning particular axes of oppression and exploitation (class, gender,
race, ecology, colony/empire, etc), while still absolutely central, can also contribute to a sense of an
eternally unchanging present and to obscuring the many successes in progressive movements in
many struggles around the world and the broader scope of changes sweeping the world which are
also transforming (not necessarily reducing, and in some cases intensifying) previously established
dynamics of class, race, gender, ecology, etc.
And it is impossible to escape these broader changes, the challenges they pose, or in the
swift-moving currents of epochal change - making choices. Here I want to underline the importance
of addressing these crosscutting issues and broader horizons. For the failure to see the connections
among issues limits their appeal and reinforces the perception of seemingly endless list of competing
‘identities’ and ‘special interests’. It abandons the broader fields of public discourse to mainstream
believers in ‘progress’ on the one hand and right-wing nightmares of ‘apocalypse’ on the other, both
with deeply flawed interpretations of the past and leaving only the simplistic binary of utterly false
hope for techno-utopian salvation versus utterly despairing visions of end times, with no escape.
In my contribution to the companion book to this one,
I sketched two poles in the widely
different discourses of the future. Both reflect certain concrete experiences and powerful historical
trends : At one pole, great leaps forward in an unfolding market-centred techno-utopian future, and
at the other cascading eco-social apocalypses. The prophets of the techno-utopian future ecstatically
announce it in universal terms, as the destiny of all. But, of course, this cannot be true.
There is no doubt that some people especially in the 1% and in the expanding ‘middle
classes’ around the world - anticipate wonderful new possibilities for themselves and their children,
lives of prosperity, dramatically enhanced and rapidly expanding personal choices in every area,
indeed substantially longer lifetimes. Moreover, advances in bio-technology, pharmo-technologies,
information technologies, cognitive technologies, and human-machine interfaces, globally linked in a
world brain, point to expanding capacities to address inherited deficiencies, illnesses, injuries, along
with social and ecological problemsand even more, to enhanced human capacities in every area,
even to ‘improved’ posthuman and transhuman successor species !
But this of course is not the future for the great majorities. For there is no ‘
deus ex machina
no god in the machine who will magically appear and solve the problems confronting humanity, no
social, scientific, or technological breakthroughs which are magically going to fill in the yawning
chasm between rich and poor, magically affirm the dignity of all the ‘others’ and their traditions,
magically redistribute wealth, magically transmute eco-system costs into benefits, magically convert
hyper-consuming middle classes and elites to radically constrained lifestyles and smaller ecological
Indeed, the ecological costs of ‘middle class’ lifestyles alone have already overwhelmed
the carrying capacity of the earth.
And technologically enhanced lives of even greater consumption
will be even more wasteful, socially disruptive, and environmentally devastating. Moreover,
throughout the history of civilisation, technological advances have typically been appropriated by
elites for their own enjoyment, and for managing and policing social order, further deepening the
chasms between rich and poor. And today in the midst of knowledge revolutions, cascading new
technologies, and expanding human agency, mind-boggling concentrations of wealth, power, and
paranoia are fuelling the false hopes and distorted faith (in theological terms, ‘idolatry’) of global
elites, their gross distortions of public debate, their rigging of institutions and social structures, their
deafness to the cries of so many victims, and their blindness to the darkening storms of ecological-
social apocalypses.
And expanding choruses of voices are warning of deepening turmoil, cascading eco-social
catastrophes, perhaps even a “war of global civilization”.
Some commentators like James Lovelock,
formulator of the Gaia hypothesis, are even warning about the end of civilisation as we know it :
“[B]efore this century is over, billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive
will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable”.
Indeed, thousands of insect, plant,
amphibian, and animal species are disappearing in what is already the sixth mass extinction event in
the history of life on earth.
Some commentators even insist that human extinction (‘humanicide’) is
becoming plausible, perhaps with cosmic implications if life is rare in the universe and consciousness
even rarer, with God knows what implications for the evolution of the cosmos.
At this juncture in the history of life on earth then, the contributors to these volumes are
telling us that hope for another world, for mitigating the worst effects of current constellations of
power and for avoiding endlessly cascading catastrophes, crucially depends on continuing and
expanding eruptions of progressive social movements and their supporters.
Moreover, some are convinced that genuine hope requires the utmost realism. And, apart
from the true believers in ‘capitalism’ with their techno-utopian visions of the future, many analysts
anticipate, as the most plausible - and the most
- vision of the future an uneven series of
catastrophes, with hard lessons only being learned gradually and haltingly after each crisis. Gradually,
more and more people will undergo deep conversions in values and outlooks and develop capacities
for making difficult choices and ‘sacrifices’. Only then, in this view, will a more profound historical
transformation be possible, emphasising “the quality of life and material sufficiency, human solidarity
and global equity, and affinity with nature and environmental sustainability”.
Realistic and Hopeful : Reinventing Politics
As the two volumes of The Movements of Movements
confirm, with the fading illusions of
pensamiento unico
(one right way of thinking) and of a single big movement, activists and their
supporters around the world are searching for signs of convergence
movements in forging
more inclusive identities and solidarities, shared values and hopes, expanding agency, and more
effective collaboration in campaigns transforming the world. At the risk of repeating points addressed
above, it is worth considering them again as regular features in social movement convergences across
differences and distances. From my perspective, there are at least seven points of convergence.
Partiality and Incompleteness
The great and flowing diversity of progressive social movements pushes us toward more complex
pictures of the world, of the past, of the actually-existing world (‘the system’), of the swirling currents
of change already transforming it, and of widely divergent possible futures. It pushes us toward
different understandings of current social dynamics and social actors, different views of self-interest
and the ‘common good’, different perceptions of history, different visions of ‘another world’, and
different strategies for moving ahead.
It also pushes us to more complex pictures of progressive
movements themselves old and new, profuse, multifaceted, multi-centred, diffuse, uneven,
operating on different scales, in different contexts, with different temporalities, at different stages of
development, frequently overlapping with other movements, sometimes in tension and conflict,
frequently collaborating in campaigns, evolving through successes and failures, confronting changing
contexts and new challenges, forging broader networks and coalitions, transforming the horizons of
For example, Sader points to the tumultuous and chaotic history of progressive movements
in Latin America since the 1960s, a “series of upswings and downswings, triumphs, and setbacks”
testifying to “the continent’s instability, and its poor capacities for consolidating alternative
programs…” But, he insists, it is also “a sign of the left’s astounding ability to recover from its defeats,
no matter how crushing these seem to be Che’s murder, the coup in Chile, the rout of the
Sandinistas, or the tightening grip of neoliberal processes.” Nevertheless, survivors of dictatorships
and defeats continued struggling in the margins. And by the 2000s progressive movements were
instrumental in transforming electoral politics and pressuring governments in Cuba, Venezuela,
Bolivia, and Ecuador especially to resist neoliberal globalisation and “defy North American imperial
These were historic accomplishments, which helped to change realities on the ground
throughout Latin America, with ripple effects around the world. Nevertheless, in the fast-moving
currents of historical transition, the ground has shifted again dramatically, in part reflecting the fruits
of recent successes but also raising new issues which are destabilising again movements and
coalitions and the governments they helped to shape, and plunging the region into new rounds of
debate and struggle.
And to survive in changing circumstances, movements have to change too, in
often fundamental ways.
Meanwhile, the epistemological earthquakes at the heart of social movement struggles are
also becoming clearer. More and more people are turning away from the supposedly eternal truths of
grand orthodoxies, theories, scientific laws, ideologies, and overarching political programmes
(‘systemic alternatives’) to more pragmatic approaches to ‘truth’ and politics. In these larger more
complex pictures of knowledge, every formulation of truth is ‘partial’ and ‘provisional’. But this stance
is far from endless ‘postmodern relativism. Postmodernist perspectives do capture the insights that
the claims from one perspective can always be challenged by claims from other perspectives, and
that, with expanding media and expanding participation of formerly marginalised / ‘silent’ others, the
spheres of contentious public debates are also expanding. But postmodernists also project the image
of eternally continuing debate, as if no issue is ever ‘settled’, an academic illusion which misses the
central fact that life in the concrete world -- even for elite ivory tower intellectuals ! involves
inescapable choices confronting individual and groups on the central issues of the times, like climate
change, growing polarisation between rich and poor, and the epistemological turmoil destabilising
universities too. In these debates positions formulated around certain insights become crystallised by
different social actors astruths’ on which the future depends. And there is no escape; people cannot
avoid choosing, in the process making great leaps of faith beyond reasonably certain knowledge and
anticipated outcomes, and staking our lives, our communities and societies, even the world, on the
outcome. And in different ways these choices become realities, and we live - or die - with the results
… until experience, changing context, and new insights inspire us - or our descendants - to new
conversions and revisions of inherited ways of thinking.
So, there is no one big theory. Rather, movements depend less and less on grand theories,
and more and more on “a prudent, finite knowledge that keeps the scale of actions as much as
possible on a level with the scale of consequences.”
And there is no one big movement. At the
same time, though, across the immeasurable complexities of contexts and eco-justice and social
justice struggles around the world, there is a growing sense, as Nunes says, of “concrete
universalism” in which :
every struggle appears as neither exclusively local nor exclusively global: all struggles
communicate on different levels, while no struggle can in practice subsume all others. There
are no partial, ‘local’ solutions that can stand in isolation, and there is no ‘global’ solution
unless this is understood as a certain possible configuration of local ones.
Thus, what is often labelled
antiglobalisation or alterglobalisation movement is in reality
nothing but the tip of the iceberg: the convergences produced by a much wider and deeper weft of
connections, both direct (as when groups engaged in communication and coordination with each
other) and indirect (when struggles resonated and reinforced each other without any coordination),
among initiatives that were sometimes very local, sometimes very different, sometimes even
And around the world social movements and critical scholars are confronting the challenges
of reframing themselves in these concrete, partial, incomplete and increasingly linked -- terms.
Irreducible Centrality of the ‘Other(s)’
In a world of increasing awareness of great hierarchies of wealth and power (Occupy Wall Street’s
“the 1% versus the 99%”), there is also a growing sense that poor and marginalised peoples and
groups have a right to speak for themselves, to be respected and taken seriously (which does not
always mean agreement), to participate in decision-making, and to equitable shares of benefits as
well as costs of collective choices. At the heart of this dynamic is the priority on nurturing people’s
dignity and an appreciation for their own traditions and capacities to speak for themselves and to
participate fully in public debates and decision-making. And this requires confronting mainstream
discourses formulated from the perspective of ruling groups -- and many perspectives aspiring to be
‘critical’ and ‘progressive’, even ‘radical’ too -- in terms of all the ‘others’experiences, problems, and
In this respect, it is important to keep in mind the limitations of the dominant social
movement theories themselves, and the uneven process of transcending them. Bayat, for example,
notes that the prevailing frameworks draw exclusively on Western experience; and he questions the
extent to which “they can help us understand the process of solidarity building or the collectivities of
disjointed yet parallel practices of non-collective actors in the non-Western politically closed and
technologically limited settings of the Middle East in particular. So he is compelled to coin a new
phrase, “social nonmovements”, to capture the agency of ‘ordinary people’. And through this lens he
detects that “the urban disenfranchised, through their quiet and unassuming daily struggles” are
involved in refiguringnew life and communities for themselves and different urban realities on the
ground in Middle Eastern cities.”
Moreover, as movement histories repeatedly confirm, understanding evolving social
movement horizons requires recognition that often ‘newer’ groups not only introduce new
standpoints and concerns but also -- the fruits of many years, decades, even centuries, of resistance
below the radar of mainstream media and the established left new proposals for moving forward in
more inclusive ways. Thus, for example, Teltumbde notes that Dalits in India have long been
perplexed by the traditional ‘left’ “who swear by anti-imperialism [but] are apathetic to their [Dalit]
struggle,leaving Dalits not very enthusiastic about the “anti-imperialist movement” either : “The
persistent neglect [by the Left] of the caste oppression suffered by them has made them suspicious
of it.”
Perhaps, then, it should not have been a surprise that at the World Social Forum in Mumbai
in 2004 Dalit activists led the way in organising a ‘World Dignity Forum’ as a step beyond this and
other impasses among left and progressive groups, where they called for
… the modernization and globalisation of previous radical traditions of social justice, preserving
their vision of social change while updating their analysis and language and consequent
prescription. We ... believe that the term dignity and the forums like World Dignity Forum can
provide a new axis for a radical and social mobilisation, locally, regionally, globally .... a new
politics and new global alliance of the marginal, excluded and struggling population .... The
familiar questions of dignity, inclusion, discrimination and exclusion were given new
significance with new alliances; new ones emerged. Dignity, social inclusion and social justice
became more vocal and visible, at least in some settings of Asia, Latin America and Europe.
In a similar spirit, in his essay in these books Khasnabish refers to the Zapatistas in Mexico as
“teachers to political movements and activists elsewhere …., teaching not a series of lessons on ‘how
to make a revolution’ but rather broader and more foundational lessons in political horizons, ethics,
and possibilities”.
Nothing is more basic, for all our thinking, organising, and action than the
‘others’, in all their wonderful and perplexing - diversity.
And, as McNally proclaims, “Hope rises up with each revolt of the downtrodden…”.
Heterarchy, Diversity, Pluriversality, and Nonlinearity
As suggested above, looking through the proliferating lenses of the world’s others, the world is
growing larger, more multifaceted, dynamic, complex, and chaotic. Social movements and critical
discourses reflect this world too, displaying ever-greater diversity, in the range of contexts,
movements, causes, critical discourses, and modes of commentary. And the recognition of ‘diversity’
is increasingly central in contemporary movement discourses, as confirmed in many contributions to
The Movements of Movements. This is evident, for example, as suggested above with in reference to
recent writings of Latin American decolonial thinkers combining the gains of earlier traditions of
‘political economy’ (Marxisms, dependency, world-system) with the gains of ‘cultural’ discourses
concerning gender, racism, and anthropocentrism (feminist, subaltern, antiracist, postcolonial). In this
expanded and more complex perspective, the old Marxist paradigm of infrastructure and
superstructure, and its emphasis on ‘systems’ and ‘structures’ more generally, are replaced by
historical-heterogeneous approaches to structure, or ‘heterarchy’ : “[A]n entangled articulation of
multiple hierarchies, in which subjectivity and the social imaginary is not derivative but constitutive of
the structures of the world-system...”.
This opens space for recognising the roles of ‘subjectivity’
and the agency of diverse marginalised majorities as well as of elites, in the always-contested
construction of culture, structures, and systems and their reproduction over time. It also introduces
‘religion’ and ‘culture’ in all their diversity into analyses of ‘structures’ and ‘systems’. And it includes
‘nature’. In this sense, Childs in this book points to “social, cultural, and political heterogeneity as a
potential basis for, rather than a barrier to, cooperation and mutual understandings”, and calls for
“great flexibility for [recognising] the wide varieties which the spirit of freedom and justice takes
among the many diverse peoples of the world”.
In a similar spirit, Escobar argues that the most promising discourses of historical transition
... link together aspects of reality that have remained separate in previous imaginings of social
transformation : ontological, cultural, politicoeconomic, ecological, and spiritual. These are
brought together by a profound concern with human suffering and with the fate of life itself.
By "life" I mean the unending ensemble of forms and entities that make up the pluriverse
from the biophysical to the human to the supernaturaland the processes by which they
come into being. This clearly goes beyond a concern with nature, even if most ... [transition
discourses] are traversed by ecological issues; it could not be otherwise, given that they are
triggered by, and respond to, the interrelated crises of energy, food, climate, and poverty.
And as our understanding of social worlds becomes more complex and dynamics, so also
does our understanding of social movements. Indeed, as Löwy notes in his essay here, “one would
search in vain for a common project, a consensual reformist or revolutionary programme”. Rather,
utopia is reflected in the sharing of certain values, like the dignity of the human
being, participatory democracy, the defence of the environment, solidarity, pluralism. In this light,
“The plurality of languages, cultures, music, food, and life forms is an immense wealth which one
must learn to cultivate.”
Moreover, it is also increasingly clear that history is not simply linear, never mind carefully
planned and precisely managed. Indeed, Bayat doubts that
… revolutions can ever be planned. Even though revolutionaries do engage in plotting and
preparing, revolutions do not necessarily result from prior schemes. Rather, they often follow
their own intriguing logic, subject to a highly complex mix of structural, international,
coincidental, and psychological factors…. [R]evolutions are never predictable.
On the other hand, he does think that “having or not having an idea about revolutions will
have a marked impact on the aftermath”, in the ways different constituencies mobilise and frame
options (or fail to) in the subsequent play of events.
Translation and Interculturality
Multiple developments are pushing ‘translation’ to the centre of religious / cultural dynamics and
political struggles around the world : Expanding and increasingly intensive communications
technologies shrinking distance around the world, and proliferating avenues of participation;
expanding transportation networks and travel; increasing immigration and refugee flows bringing
‘others’ to neighbourhoods, workplaces, schools, houses of worship, and playing fields. Moreover, in
progressive scholarly and political circles especially, the deepening recognition of the centrality of
‘culture in social systems, of the great diversity of cultures and languages, and of many
incommensurabilities (the impossibility of completely translating experiences, sensibilities, ideas)
among them, is leading to more attention to translation in mobilising strategies, and in movement
cultures and institutional dynamics too.
For example, the centrality of translation has been evident in World Social Forum organising
processes from the beginning. Babels is an international network of volunteer interpreters and
translators which emerged to support the Social Forums. In the process of developing a proposal,
after their experience at WSF IV in Mumbai in 2004 and while preparing for WSF V in Porto Alegre,
they noted that “translation is not a mere logistical or technical issue. It is an essential part of the
process itself. It helps building the Forum in an open and inclusive way.” In the Mumbai WSF, the
goal was to make interpretation available at least in some major events in each of fourteen official
languages ! As the Babels report says,
“... by restricting the number of languages allowed to take part into the venue, we’re
restricting the number of cultures represented. Restricting the number of languages compels
the participants to master one of the mainstream languages of the venue, thus shaping and
moulding their very presence and political activity. Allowing more languages to be represented
within the Forum makes it so that more people can take part in the event.”
For many reasons, this high point has not been replicated in various WSF events. But the
challenge remains. And there are signs that ‘translation’ is becoming increasingly significant, not only
for big events, but also in the everyday lives of communities and organisations.
Concretely this
means a new priority on providing substantial resources in developing personal and organisational
skills and capacities for two-way / multi-way, on-going translation at the heart of political work.
In this process however, ‘translation’ involves and means - far more than translating words
and sentences. As the Babels group points out : “[T]he same idea in a foreign languageand in your
mother tonguewill never sound the same or relate to the same political and social contexts; one
word or one concept may not have the same meaning and impact from one language to another,
from one culture to another.”
For example, in his essay in these books Corntassel points, in contrast to usual Western
usage, to the radically different understanding in indigenous communities of ‘health’ (“much deeper
than just the absence of disease or injury”) and ‘politics’ (“Indigenous political actions emanate from
our spiritual commitments …”).
And thus many ‘translators’ prefer the term ‘interpreters’ to convey
this fuller sense of translating across cultures. They also call attention to incommensurabilities, which
limit understanding at any point in time and mark each dialogue as unfinished. And they underline the
great diversity of the world’s cultures and languages by one count over 6,900 !
- and point to the
vast uncharted territories still to be explored.
The challenges of conversion and translation concern organisational cultures and processes
as well. Mac Sheoin and Yeates point to “the rich and growing panoply of organisational forms and
instruments” being employed in progressive movements,
which many find inspiring. But many
(including me !) have learned the hard way that organisational forms, procedures, and tactics cannot
simply be abstracted from one historical context and imported elsewhere, and that organising across
cultural differences inevitably involves many radical challenges.
For example, this lesson clearly emerged in the two-and-a-half year organising process for a
Northwest Social Forum in North America during 2002-2004. The organisers aimed to gather
movements from Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington in the US, and from British
Columbia in Canada. Indeed, they mobilised about one hundred and fifty groups to plan and
participate in this event, scheduled for October 2004. But just nine days before the event the
organisers cancelled it. Readers with experience in organising coalitions and processes of encounter
like the WSF will recognise the range of reasons identified in a follow-up analysis : “…a combination
of organisational issues, decision-making process, race relations, use of technology, difficulties with
funding, geographic dispersion and a tight timeline ...”.
In particular though, the cancellation was triggered by the withdrawal of the Indigenous
Programming Committee (and subsequently two other Committees) over differences between
mainstream and indigenous organising cultures, commitments, protocols, procedures, and timelines.
Indigenous planners, representing and accountable to their villages and communities, concluded that
unclear decision-making processes and tight time lines violated their own internal processes and
timelines, and their understanding of the original movement-to-movement protocol.
withdrew; two other groups withdrew as well; and the planners, with little consultation and under
great pressure since the event was only nine days away, postponed the event, which no group has
since restarted.
For at least some non-indigenous participants though, it became clear that deeper dialogue
and collaboration across these cultural differences required a cultural shift on their part, extended
engagements with indigenous communities and movements, and much longer timelines.
It also
required appreciation for the needs of particular communities and movements, some of which may, at
particular times, choose to continue separately in order to focus on their own internal development,
requesting (at least implicitly), in the words of indigenous activist and scholar Vine Deloria, Jr, “a
cultural leave-us-alone agreement” for a while from friends and potential allies.
Similar ‘cultural’ dynamics are also evident in many other cross-cultural and cross-class
encounters. And these experiences have contributed to relativising and decentring Western modes of
‘general theory’ and ‘ideology’, tight organisational structures, and planning. As Santos argues,
“translation is the procedure that allows for mutual intelligibility among experiences of the world
without jeopardising their identity and autonomy without, in other words, reducing them to
homogeneous entities.”
In other words, ‘translation’ is central to the processes of nurturing broader
dialogues across differences and collaboration in reinventing ‘culture(s)’ and ‘politics’.
Many examples of these challenges are provided by the contributors to these volumes. For
example, Abramsky acknowledges the serious limits of ‘global’ organising today, and insists that
expanding the geographical and sectoral reach of global networks requires a particular effort to reach
out to groups so far underrepresented in progressive and left organising struggles, eg in Arab
countries, China, Africa, Central and Eastern Europe, “so that they can participate actively in defining
the global process of struggle that develops in the future”.
Similarly, in her essay in this book
Hayes points to developments within transnational feminisms of strategies “ensuring open space to
facilitate dialogue across linguistic and cultural differences, address power relations between
participants, and enable the poorest to participate”.
Practice and Prefiguration
As suggested above, the priority in expanding circles of critical scholarship and politics is shifting from
theory, worldview, and ideology. The goal is not a new theory, metanarrative, or worldview, though
these continue to be important, but new, expanded, more complex horizons of dialogue across
multiple ways of seeing and centres of debate and struggle.
Vargas notes, for example, that “in the
new millennium, feminists are experiencing fundamental modifications in their ways of thinking and
acting, and are becoming more complex and diverse …”.
In particular, she points to the
disintegration of old paradigms, and of the “messianic, universal narratives of past movements”, and
insists that “the transformation of the world depends on the ‘transformation of vision’ ” and the
emergence of a “new political culture”.
Relatedly, as noted above, Leyva Solano points to the new modes of knowledge which are
emerging in “the interstices between committed academics, flexible activisms, and indigenous as well
as anti-systemic movements”.
In this perspective, theory is not neglected, but is rather de-centred,
and directly related to personal/communal experiences.
And there is a priority on practice, first of
all in the places where we have some influence, perhaps even power, in our own families,
neighbourhoods, organisations, and institutions. As Adamovsky says, “Our institutions of a new type
need to be ‘anticipatory’, that is, they must embody in their own shape and forms the values of the
society we are striving to build”.
This emphasis is especially evident, for example, in indigenous struggles with land bases that
make immediate experiments in alternatives possible without waiting for state support.
It is also
evident in the horizontal decision-making and direct action of Occupy Wall Street activists, peace
activists, and others.
At the same time, though, as important as prefiguration is, it is also important
to recognise that some goals require collaboration and organisation on much larger scales, over much
longer time-frames. And so far there are no widely convincing formulas for balancing local short-term
prefigurative goals and long-term larger scale goals.
Thus, as Juris and Pleyers point out in this book, spaces like the WSF Youth Camps are
“laboratories where alter-activists experiment with new ideas, practices, and forms of social
And the Free Association coins a new word for this process, ‘worlding’ : “By envisaging a
different world, and by acting in a different world, we actually call forth that world.” Indeed, they
insist, “It is only because we have, at least partially, moved out of what makes ‘sense’ in the old
world that another world can start to make its own sense.
Openness to Conversion
Implicit in the discussions above of the limits of science, partiality of all knowledge, and transcultural
dialogues in mutual respect is openness to conversion(s) - not in the narrow sense of simply stepping
from one already-established doctrinal tradition into another, but in the deeper and broader sense of
transformation, even of fundamental re-creation, which ultimately moves all participants (in quite
different ways depending on starting points and contexts) in often unexpected directions.
This is clear in the histories of critical discourses at the level of categories and theoretical
frameworks. As Bhambra points out :
... reinterpretations of history are not just different interpretations of the same facts; they also
bring into being new facts. These new facts should cause us to rethink our accepted
frameworks of explanation, which have often been established on the basis of much narrower
histories. In so doing, they also transform the meaning of pre-established facts whose status
as facts (and also for whom they are facts) is brought to light.
And, while there are experiences of great insights, even euphoria when breakthroughs occur, the
paths moving out of old familiar categorical and theoretical landscapes are rarely smooth and
straightforward. As Manzo points out,
... even the most radically critical discourse easily slips into the form, the logic, and the implicit
postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest, for it can never step completely outside of a
heritage from which it must borrow its tools its history, its language in its attempt to
destroy that heritage itself.
Conversion is also a deeply personal process. As Smith insists, Political projects of
transformation necessarily involve a fundamental reconstitution of ourselves as well.”
Indeed, as
Che Guevara proclaimed -- and subsequently was martyred for -- : “At the risk of seeming ridiculous,
let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.”
In a similar spirit, Poo
testifies to the life-transforming effects of activist organising :
Great organizing campaigns are like great love affairs. You begin to see life through a different
lens. You change in unexpected ways. You lose sleep, but you also feel boundless energy. You
develop new relationships and new interests. Your skin becomes more open to the world
around you. Life feels different, and it’s almost like you’ve been reborn. And, most importantly,
you begin to feel things that you previously couldn’t have even imagined are possible.
McNally also confesses,To make history to change the actual course of world events is
intoxicating, inspiring, and life-transforming.”
And more generally, as Osterweil notes, at stake in dialogues across differences are
also fundamentally different temporalities and registers for assessing and seeing the
‘political’ such that, rather than looking for political outcomes in quantitative or measurable
terms, we are more attuned to the subjective, affective, and epistemological, as sites of ‘real
change and action.
Conversion has communal dimensions too. As Smith testifies from the point of view of
scholarship and organising with US indigenous communities :
Communities that have suffered from years of colonial and racist violence cannot reasonably
be expected to have remained unscarred by the experience. Ironically, we often feel that the
only way to publicly confirm our status as victims of such violence is to deny vociferously the
effects of our victimization. In doing so, however, we not only burden ourselves with an unfair
(not to mention impossible) standard of prelapsarian innocence, but we also set ourselves up
for failure: knowledge of our problems cannot remain with our communities; inevitably, our
shortcomings will be known.
Thus, and as Alfred and Corntassel note,The battle is a spiritual and physical one fought against the
political manipulation of the people’s own innate fears and the embedding of complacency, that
metastasising weakness, into their psyches.”
And, in addition to the very different challenges to conversion confronting privileged
communities, organisations, and individuals, organising within ‘marginalised’ communities also
involves processes of personal and communal conversion and renewal. As Vargas points out,
feminists organised panels at various World Social Forums bringing together “trade unionists,
‘untouchables’, peasants, homosexuals, lesbians, and transsexuals into dialogue with one another to
discuss their differences but also to share reflections on how to expand each group’s perspective on
transformation and their enrich their common ground for action.”
More generally, as Escobar notes, none of the participating movements in the anti-
globalisation movement “can by itself tackle the entire ‘system’ or the global situation (not even
understand it as a whole).” Indeed, no “single movement can ‘see the whole ”,
encountering others in the course of struggling to change the world sooner or later involves shocks to
existing ways of seeing and thinking about the shape of the world, our ‘responsibilities’ – including
newly recognised ‘responsibility’ for benefitting from some of the bad fruits of the rigged system
inherited from our predecessors -, and the choices before us. And challenges to conversion are
becoming ‘normal’.
In narrower political terms of organising cultures, institutions, and procedures, challenges to
conversion(s) are also inescapable. This is clear in the example of the aborted Northwest Social
Forum above. It is also clear in Ho’s description of positive developments among queer movements
and their allies in Asia :
Internal struggle has never been absent from the gay community as mainstreaming gays and
militant queers diverge on strategies and issues. Yet one is also encouraged by the fact that at
the December 2005 WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong, queer groups from quite a few
East Asian states lined up with other social movement groups (labour, farmer, women, sex
worker) in fierce protest against WTO policies. Such collaboration has proven to be both
educational and solidarity-building.
And Houtart points to the eventual conversions from ‘revolutionary arrogance’ by Marxists in southern
Mexico after more than a decade of solidarity with indigenous peoples.
Indeed, Khasnabish argues
that “the encounter of the two groups resulted not in the ‘revolutionising’ of the indigenous
communities but rather in the ‘defeat’ of Marxist dogma at the hands of these indigenous realities”.
And that this ‘defeat’ was central in forging the path leading to the Zapatista uprising.
And, finally, as these examples confirm, in the worldwide irruptions of progressive / left social
movements ‘conversion’ is seldom singular and complete, for individuals, communities, or
organisations and movements. Rather, as Muto points out concerning the Alliance of Hope in Japan in
the 1990s, it was organised “not as static institutions or bodies but as dynamic processes of constant
formation and renewal”.
Similarly, Walsh describes decolonial projects in Latin America as
“simultaneous and continuous processes of transformation and creation, the construction of radically
distinct social imaginaries, conditions, and relations of power, knowledge”.
Holloway suggests that
we live in “a world of n