Jackie Smith and Dawn Wiest. Social Movements in the World-System: The Politics of Crisis and Transformation.

New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2012. $39.95 (cloth)

Reviewed for Mobilizations by Chris Chase-Dunn and Michaela Curran, University of California – Riverside


            Jackie Smith and Dawn Wiest trace the rise of antisystemic social movements since World War II in their book Social Movements in the World-System. The major aim of the book is to examine the proposition that “global institutions – including states and international organizations – are best seen as the products of contestation among a diverse array of global actors (including social movements) competing in an arena that is defined by these same institutions and the norms and cultural practices they generate (14).” The authors argue that transnational antisystemic mobilization[1] has increased tremendously due to the emergence of greater opportunities for and increased capacities of these movements. This book is an exciting accomplishment for those who study the evolution of the modern world-system and for those world citizens who are trying to help humanity avoid major disasters and move toward a more humane world civilization.

            In Chapter 1 the authors deploy a powerful fusion of organizational and institutional analyses, social movement theory, the world-systems perspective and the world polity approach.  This synthetic theoretical formulation is used to interpret the findings of the author’s study of social movement organizations.  They provide a world historical perspective within which national societies, world regions and the distinction between the Global North and the Global South are important contexts for the actions of transnational movements.

             In Chapter 2 Smith and Wiest focus their research on the period since World War II. The creation and emergence of the United Nations (UN) and a great wave of decolonization movements in the Global South produced a tide of change that altered the landscape of competition among states and transnational actors. Chapter 3 investigates world regions and the regionalization of world politics during and after the Cold War. In Chapter 4 the authors show that the UN’s sponsorship of global conferences encouraged the expansion and development of transnational social movement organizations. Chapter 5 examines the paradoxical nature of social movements in the global context by illustrating how global institutions both allow social movement actors to gain political leverage and channel many of them into single-issue and reformist activities. Finally, in Chapter 6, Smith and Wiest chart a model for understanding the coevolution of global institutions and social movements. They also explore the idea that the contemporary situation should be understood as a world revolution.

            Smith and Wiest draw their data on social movement organizations from the Yearbook of International Organizations. This yearbook has been published annually since the early 1950s. Data from this source show that the number of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) has risen from fewer than 1,000 in the 1950s to almost 20,000 by 2003, supporting Smith and Wiest’s contention that global mobilization increased substantially during the decades studied. The authors focus upon organizations that had specifically designated movement goals. They exclude religious bodies and research institutes. They also utilize qualitative data about transnational campaigns, alliances, and international organizational dynamics in order to help understand the behavior of social movement organizations. They admit that their data on social movement organizations have limitations, but they provide convincing justifications for their assumptions and they employ triangulation and coding reliability checks in order to examine potential errors.

A Shift From Guns to Norms?

            The biggest idea in this book is that the deterritorialization of sovereignty that has been a consequence of neoliberal globalization has weakened the role of force and coercion in world politics and has strengthened the importance of a complex emerging and contested global moral order and arena of civil world politics.  Smith and Wiest say “The opportunities and capacities for transnational antisystemic mobilization have, we argue, increased significantly. In addition, the primary bases of power and authority have shifted from coercion and territorial sovereignty to normative claims based on universal rights.” (14). In support of these contentions they show that international governmental organizations (the U.N. and regional international organizations) have made substantial efforts to incorporate international non-governmental organizations and social movement organizations ( INGOs and SMOs) into global and regional political participation. They contend that these changes have increased the opportunities for oppositional (antisystemic and counter-hegemonic[2]) forces to play an important role in world politics and to challenge the rule of the powers-that-be. It is also claimed that international law has become more important in recent decades. They contend that Susan Olzak’s (2006) finding that sub-national ethnic movements have mainly adopted a human rights discourse rather than a nationalist vocabulary supports their claim that there has been shift toward greater normative regulation based human rights. And Smith and Wiest find that the percentage of transnational social movement organizations with ties to international governmental organizations (e.g. the UN) has decreased over time, which they interpret as supporting the idea that an emerging global moral order is increasing its influence over world events and that social movements have heeded the warnings of the autonomists that involvement with, and dependence on national states,  is a hopeless cul de sac  that prevents the emergence of a new politics.

            The evidence in favor of the increasing influence of transnational social movements is convincing. But the idea that military power is less important than it was during the Cold War may be an illusion. Rather there is a single superpower (the United States) with an overwhelming military advantage over all potential challengers. This results in fewer interstate wars but should not be seen as an indicator of the declining relevance of military power.  The contention that an emergent global human rights moral order is now a more important regulatory force in world politics than is military power is also implicit in the neo-functionalist world polity approach (except that it is not seen as a recent development) and in the international regime school of international relations.

            Smith and Wiest do not discuss how market and financial forces and global private corporations fit in with, or contradict, the idea of the growing importance of a global moral order.  Most of the literature about deterritorialization points to global marketization and the rising power of capitalist firms as the main factors that are compromising the power of national states in the age of neoliberal globalizations. Markets and money work well to coordinate the actions of complex economies and crosscultural interactions precisely because they do not require much agreement about morality (Chase-Dunn 1998: Chapter 5). One can readily agree that an emergent global moral order is becoming more important, and that this is a significant opportunity for transnational social movements. But the idea that normative regulation has already become more important than military regulation may be wishful thinking that obstructs a true comprehension of the nature of the contemporary global system and that could also be a grave mistake for the cause of global democratization.  That said, Social Movements in the World-System is a great work that takes the analysis of the evolution of world politics to new heights. It should be closely read and debated.


Arrighi, Giovanni, Terence K. Hopkins, and Immanuel Wallerstein. 1989  Antisystemic

            Movements.  London: Verso.

Chase-Dunn, Christopher 1998 Chapter 5, “World culture, normative integration and community”

            in Global Formation: Structures of the World Economy Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield

Olzak, Susan 2006 The Global Dynamics of Racial and Ethnic Mobilization. Stanford: Stanford University


Wallerstein, Immanuel 1990 “Antisystemic movements: history and dilemmas” in Transforming the

            Revolution edited by Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel

            Wallerstein. New York: Monthly Review Press.

[1] Smith and Wiest define antisystemic as follows: ‘“Antisystemic movements” include a diverse “family of movements” working to advance greater democracy and equality (Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein 1989). According to Wallerstein, “to be antisystemic is to argue that neither liberty nor equality is possible under the existing system and that both are possible only in a transformed world” (1990:36). [ 10].’


[2] “Counter-hegemonic movements are those oriented toward challenging the leadership of the dominant state actor in the world-system, which since the mid-twentieth century has been the United States.  These movements are a subset of the larger collection of antisystemic movements …”.