The Piketty Challenge:

Global Inequality and World Revolutions*


Christopher Chase-Dunn

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA. 92521  10413 words, v. 1-21-16

Forthcoming in Lauren Langman and David A. Smith (eds.) Twenty-first Century Inequality: Marx, Piketty and Beyond.,  Brill

This is IROWS Working Paper #101 at

* Thanks to Evan Heimlich and Hiroko Inoue for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Abstract: This chapter discusses the inequality trends revealed by Thomas Piketty’s research as context for a consideration of transnational social movements of the past and in the current era. Social movements and world revolutions have restructured global governance institutions over the past several centuries. The rebellions, protests and counter-hegemonic regimes that have emerged since the 1990s need to be compared with earlier world revolutions in order to assess the prospects for the future emergence of a more coherent effort to transform the capitalist world-economy into a democratic and collectively rational global commonwealth.


            Thomas Piketty’s (2014) research on changes in the magnitude of wealth and income inequalities within several core countries over the past 200 years is a major contribution to the study of economic inequalities because he uses data from tax returns that are more reliable than the usual household surveys on income and that allow the close study of the wealth and incomes of the very rich. His results show a long-term trend toward lesser and then greater inequality within core countries (the so-called “great u-turn”) as well as important similarities and differences between them. He shows that the returns to wealth and labor have changed greatly as a result of the rise, and partial demise, of the welfare state. He also discusses the issue of distributive justice within national societies,  and he argues in favor of a global progressive tax on wealth that would help redistribute income.

The main lacuna in Piketty’s work that I will address in this chapter is the lack of attention to the role that social movements played in the causation of the inequality trends that he finds and the possibilities for social movements to once again challenge the growing inequality trends of the past several decades.  Piketty’s analysis does not get at the roots of the problems of global capitalism. The important political and analytical task is to distinguish between those institutional and structural aspects of the contemporary world-system that are congruent with a more egalitarian and sustainable future global society and those that are not.

The world-systems perspective

            The world-systems perspective presents a structural interpretation of the cycles and trends that have constituted the expansion and evolution of global capitalism (Wallerstein 2011; Arrighi 1994; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014). This holistic structural approach allows us to see both the similarities and the important differences between the current world historical period and earlier periods that were similar in some ways but different in others. The expansion and deepening of capitalism has occurred in the context of the rise and fall of hegemonic core powers, waves of colonization in which European powers subjugated and exploited most of Asia, the Americas and Africa, and the waves of decolonization that extended the European system of formally sovereign states to the non-core. The expansion and deepening of capitalist production and the increasing size of the nation-states that played the role of hegemons were driven and made possible by movements of resistance that were located both within core polities and, importantly, in the non-core. Each of the hegemons (the Dutch in the l7th century, the British in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th century) were formerly semiperipheral states that rose to core status in struggles with contending great powers. Their successes were partly based on their abilities to deal with resistance from below more effectively than their competitors (Wallerstein 1984).

            It is important to accurately grasp both the structural similarities and differences between the current world historical period and earlier periods that were similar but also importantly dissimilar. The United States has been in decline in terms of hegemony in economic production since 1945 and this has been similar in many respects to the decline of British hegemony in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Chase-Dunn et al 2011). Giovanni Arrighi (2006) noted that the period of British hegemonic decline (1870-1914) moved rather quickly toward conflictive interimperial rivalry because economic competitors such as Germany and Japan were able to develop powerful military capabilities that could be used to challenge the British. The U.S. hegemony has been different in that the United States ended up as the single superpower after the demise of the Soviet Union. Some economic challengers (Japan and Germany) cannot easily play the military card because they are stuck with the consequences of having lost the last World War. This, and the immense size of the U.S. economy, will probably slow the process of hegemonic decline down compared to the rate of the British decline.  

The post-World War II wave of trade globalization and financialization faltered in 2008 but seems to have recovered since then. A future trough of trade deglobalization similar to what happened in the 1930s could happen if a perfect storm of calamities and resistance to further economic globalization should emerge. The declining economic and political hegemony of the U.S. poses huge challenges for global governance. Newly emergent national economies such as India and China need to be fitted in to the global structure of power. The unilateral use of military force by the Bush administration further delegitimated the institutions of global governance and provoked resistance and challenges. A similar bout of “imperial over-reach” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the part of Britain (the Boer Wars) preceded and led to a period of interimperial rivalry and world war. Such an outcome is less likely now, but not impossible.

These developments parallel, to some extent, what happened a century ago, but the likelihood of another “Age of Extremes” or a Malthusian correction such what occurred in the first half of the 20th century could be exacerbated by some new twists. The number of people on Earth was only 1.65 billion when the 20th century began, whereas at the beginning of the 21st century there were 6 billion. Moreover, fossil fuels were becoming less expensive as oil was replacing coal as the major source of energy (Podobnik 2006). It was this use of inexpensive, but non-renewable, fossil energy that made the geometric expansion and industrialization of humanity possible.

Now we are facing global warming as a consequence of the spread and rapid expansion of industrial production and energy-intensive consumption. Energy prices have temporarily come down because of fracking and overproduction by countries that are dependent on oil exports, but the low hanging “ancient sunlight” in coal and oil has been picked. “Peak oil” is approaching.  “Clean coal” and controllable nuclear fusion remain dreams. The cost of energy will probably go up no matter how much is invested in new kinds of energy production (Heinberg 2004). None of the existing alternative technologies offer low cost energy of the kind that made the huge expansion possible. Many believe that overshoot has already occurred in terms of how many humans are alive, and how much energy is being used by some of them, especially those in the core. Adjusting to rising energy costs and dealing with the environmental degradation caused by industrial society will be difficult, and the longer it takes the harder it will become. Ecological problems are not new, but this time they are on a global scale. Peak oil and rising costs of other resources are likely to cause more resource wars that exacerbate the problems of global governance. The war in Iraq was both an instance of imperial over-reach and a resource war because the U.S. neoconservatives thought that they could prolong U.S. hegemony by controlling the global oil supply.  The Paris Agreement on greenhouse gas emissions reached in December of 2015 are good news, but compliance will be difficult, especially for non-core countries.

            The first decade of the 21st century has seen a continuation of many large-scale processes that were under way in the last half of the 20th  century. Urbanization of the Global South continued as the policies of neoliberalism gave powerful support to the “Live Stock Revolution” in which animal husbandry on the family ranch was replaced by large-scale production of eggs, milk and meat. This, and industrialized farming, were encouraged by the export expansion policies of the International Monetary Fund-imposed Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). One consequence was the ejection of millions of small farmers from the land.  These rural residents had been producing a lot of their own food rather than buying it. A good part of the “increased income” that is counted as poverty reduction in the Global South is due to the monetization of what was formerly agrarian subsistence production. Money incomes and purchases went up but slum-dwellers are no longer able to produce as much of their own food as they did before they migrated to the city.  This is one reason why counting monetized income and consumption alone is an imperfect way to study inequality.

For most of these former rural residents migration to megacities meant moving to huge slums and gaining a precarious living in the “informal sector” of services and small-scale production. These huge slums lack adequate water or sewage infrastructure. The budget cuts mandated by the SAPs, required by the International Monetary Fund as a condition for further loans, have often decimated public health systems. And so the slums have become breeding grounds for new forms of communicable diseases, including new strains of avian flu, that pose huge health risks to the peoples of both the core and the non-core. These diseases are rapidly transmitted by intercontinental air travel. Many public health experts believe that a flu pandemic similar in scope and lethality to that of the infamous 1918 disaster is highly likely to occur in the near future (Crosby 2007). Most of the national governments have failed to adequately prepare for such an eventuality, and so a massive die-off could easily occur. Like most disasters, the lethality would be much greater among the poor, especially in the megacities of the Global South (Davis 2005).

In addition to the lack of attention to the roles of past and future social movements, there are other lacunae in Piketty’s analysis as well as his prescriptions. Whereas he mentions global inequality, his actual research is about trends within core societies. This is because  taxation data over long time periods is not currently available for most of the non-core countries. But there is a large and contentious research literature about inequality trends in the global system as well as an important and consequential set of publically held assumptions about these trends. Many, including Bill Gates, simply assume that global inequality has decreased because of rapid economic growth in China and India in the past several decades. Many critics of capitalist globalization assume that global inequality must be going up over the past decades because of Piketty’s findings and because problems of poverty and dispossession in the Global South are well-known.  The problem is that both within-county and between-country trends need to be taken into account in order to know the true trend in income distribution for the whole population of the Earth. And there are difficult issues regarding the conversion of national currencies into a single global metric (usually U.S. dollars).  A conservative estimate based on the contentious quantitative literature on trends in global income inequality is that global inequality increased greatly during the 19th century industrial revolution and it has remained at about the same high level or possibly decreased slightly since then (Bornschier 2010).  Though the magnitude of global income inequality expanded in the 19th century, there were already important amounts of political inequality that had emerged between the core and the periphery as a result of European colonialism. And these structures were both outcomes of, and causes of, resistance and rebellions that occurred within the European core and in the colonized regions.

World Revolutions

The institutional changes that have occurred with the rise and fall of the hegemonic core powers over the past four centuries have constituted a sequence of forms of world order that evolved to solve the political, economic and technical problems of successively more global waves of capitalist accumulation. The expansion of global production required accessing raw materials to feed the new industries, and food to feed the expanding populations (Bunker and Ciccantell 2004). As in any hierarchy, coercion is a very inefficient means of domination, and so the hegemons sought legitimacy by proclaiming leadership in advancing civilization and democracy (the Gramscian side of hegemony). But the terms of these claims were also employed by those below who sought to protect themselves from exploitation and domination. And so the evolution of hegemony was produced by elite groups competing with one another in a context of successive powerful challenges from below. World orders were contested and reconstructed in a series of world revolutions that began with the Protestant Reformation (Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000: 53-64; Linebaugh and Redicker 2000).

            The idea of world revolution is a broad notion that encompasses all kinds of acts of resistance to hierarchy, regardless of whether or not they are coordinated with one another, but that occur relatively close to one another in time. Usually the idea of revolution is conceptualized on a national scale in which new social forces come to state power and restructure social relations. When we use the revolution concept at the world-system level a number of changes are required. There is no global state (yet) to take over. But there is a global polity, a world order, which has evolved as outlined above. It is that world polity or world order that is the arena of contestation within which world revolutions have occurred and that world revolutions have restructured.

 Boswell and Chase-Dunn (2000) focused on those constellations of local, regional, national and transnational rebellions and revolutions that have had long-term consequences for changing world orders. World orders are those normative and institutional features that are taken for granted in large-scale cooperation, competition and conflict. Years that symbolize the major world revolutions after the Protestant Reformation are 1789, 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989. Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (2011) analyzed the world revolutions of 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989 (see also Beck 2011). They observed that the demands put forth in a world revolution do not usually become institutionalized until a later consolidating revolt has occurred. So the revolutionaries appear to have lost in the failure of their most radical demands, but enlightened conservatives who are trying to manage hegemony end up incorporating the reforms that were earlier radical demands into the current world order in order to cool out resistance from below. It is important to tease out the similarities and the differences among the world revolutions in order to be able to accurately assess the contemporary situation and to learn from the past. The contexts and the actors have changed from one world revolution to the next.

This view of the modern world-system as constituting an arena of political struggle over the past several centuries implies that global civil society (Kaldor 2003) has existed all along. Global civil society includes all the actors who consciously participate in world politics. In the past it has consisted primarily of statesmen, religious leaders, scientists, financiers, and the owners and top managers of chartered companies such as the Dutch and British East India Companies. This rather small group of people already saw the global arena of political, economic, military and ideological struggle as their arena of contestation (Chase-Dunn and Reese 2011). There has been a “global left” and transnational social movements involving non-elite actors at least since the world revolution of 1789.[1]   While global civil society is still a small minority of the total population of the earth, the falling costs of communication and transportation have enabled more and more non-elites to become transnational political actors.

Our discussion below focuses on what Santos (2006) has called the New Global Left and compares it with earlier incarnations of the global left. This is part, but not all of global civil society. Other important actors are the forces organized around the World Economic Forum, the new conservative and neo-fascist elements (Anderson, 2005) the BRICs (Bond 2013) and the jihadists (Moghadam 2009).

We are in the midst of another world revolution now. Chase-Dunn and Niemeyer (2009) have called it the world revolution of 20xx (because it is not yet clear what the key symbolic year should be). They claim that it began with the anti-International Monetary Fund riots in the 1980s and the Zapatista revolt in Southern Mexico in 1994.[2]

World revolutions are hard to study and difficult to compare with one another because they are complex constellations of events. The time periods and places to include (and exclude) are hard to judge.  They each have had different mixes of social movements, rebellions and revolutions, including reactionary movements, and have occurred unevenly in time and space.  What have been the actual and potential bases for cooperation and competition across the progressive (antisystemic) movements? How did some of the movements affect the others?  And how did they relate to the similar and different terrains of power and economic structures in the world-system at the time that they emerged? And how have they affected the struggles among elites in their efforts to maintain their positions or gain new advantages?

The World Revolution of 20xx

It is difficult to pick a symbolic year that expresses the main characteristics of the current world revolution because it is still in formation and it is not clear which characteristics to pick.  The wave of protests that began with the Arab Spring in 2011 demonstrated some coherence with regard to their local and global causations, and so some have concluded that 2011 is a good choice. The Arab Spring was followed by an anti-austerity summer in Greece and Spain and then the Occupy movement in the Fall. But it is probably too soon to pick a symbolic year for the current world revolution.

Some claim that the anti-International Monetary Fund riots of the 1980s (Walton and Seddon 1994) were the first skirmishes of the revolts and rebellions against neoliberal corporate capitalism (Podobnik 2003. [3] The Zapatista rebellion of 1994 was the first to name neoliberalism as the enemy.  The “Battle of Seattle” in 1999 brought the “antiglobalization movement” to the attention of large numbers of people. The founding of the World Social Forum (WSF) in 2001, a reaction to the exclusivity of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland since 1971, provoked the coming together of a movement of movements focused on issues of global justice and sustainability. The social forum process has spread to all the regions of the world despite, and because of, the events of September 11, 2001 and subsequent military adventures carried out by the neoconservative Bush regime in the United States.

            Many of the participants in the contemporary movement of movements are unaware, or are only vaguely aware, of the historical sequence of world revolutions. But others are determined not to repeat what are perceived to have been the mistakes of the past. The charter of the World Social Forum does not permit participation by those who attend as representatives of organizations that are engaged in, or that advocate, armed struggle. Nor are governments or political parties supposed to send representatives to the WSF.[4] There is a great emphasis on diversity and on horizontal, as opposed to hierarchical, forms of organization. And the wide use of the Internet for communication and mobilization makes it possible for broad coalitions and loosely knit networks to engage in collective action projects. The movement of movements at the World Social Forum engaged in a manifesto/charter-writing frenzy as those who sought a more organized approach to confronting global capitalism and neoliberalism attempted to formulate consensual goals and to put workable coalitions together (Wallerstein 2007).

            One continuing issue has been whether or not the World Social Forum itself should formulate a political program and take formal stances on issues. The Charter of the WSF explicitly forbids this and a significant group of participants strongly supports maintaining the WSF as an “open space” for debate and organizing. A survey of 625 attendees at the World Social Forum meeting in Porto Alegre in 2005 asked whether the WSF should remain an open space or should take political stances. Exactly half favored the open space idea (Chase-Dunn, Reese, Herkenrath, Alvarez, Gutierrez and Kim 2008). So trying to change the WSF Charter to allow for a formal political program would be very divisive.

            But this is not necessary. The WSF Charter also encourages the formation of new political organizations. So those participants who want to form new coalitions and organizations are free to act, as long as they do not do so in the name of the WSF as a whole. In Social Forum meetings at the global and national levels the Assembly of Social Movements and other groups have issued calls for global action and political manifestoes. At the end of the 2005 meeting in Porto Alegre a group of nineteen notable intellectuals and activists issued a statement that was purported to be a consensus of the meeting as a whole. At the 2006 “polycentric” meeting in Bamako, Mali a somewhat overlapping group issued a manifesto entitled “the Bamako Appeal” at the beginning of the meeting.  The Bamako Appeal was a call for a global united front against neoliberalism and United States neo-imperialism (see Sen et al 2006). And Samir Amin, the famous Egyptian Marxist economist and one of the founders of the world-systems perspective, wrote a short essay entitled “Toward a fifth international?” in which he briefly outlined the history of the first four internationals (Amin 2006). Peter Waterman (2006) proposed a “global labor charter” and a coalition of womens’ groups meeting at the World Social Forum have produced a feminist global manifesto that tries to overcome divisive North/South issues (Moghadam 2005, 2009).

            There has been an impasse in the global justice movement between those who want to move toward a global united front that could mobilize a strong coalition against the powers that be, and those who prefer local prefigurative, horizontalist actions that abjure formal organizations and refuse to participate in “normal” political activities such as elections and lobbying. Horizontalism abjures hierarchical organization and prefers flexible networks without formal organization (but see Freeman 1970).  Prefiguration is the idea that individuals and small groups can willfully constitute more humane and egalitarian social relations in the present. It has a long history as utopian socialism  (Engels 1918) and communes, and was an important component of the Occupy movement’s construction of face-to-face participatory democracy (Graeber 2013) and has strong support in the social forum process (Juris 2008, Pleyers 2010). Some of this horizontalism and prefiguration was inherited from similar tendencies in the world revolution of 1968. Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (2011: 37-8) pointed out that the New Left of the sixties embraced direct democracy, attacked bureaucratic organizations, and was itself resistant to the creation of new formal organizations that might act as instruments of revolution. These organizational predilections were seen as the important lessons learned from earlier waves of class struggle and decolonization. As Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (2011:64) pointed out:

… the class struggle “flows out” into a competitive struggle for state power. As this occurs, the political elites that provide social classes with leadership and organization (even if they sincerely consider themselves “instruments” of the class struggle) usually find that they have to play by the rules of that competition and therefore must attempt to subordinate the class struggle to those rules in order to survive as competitors for state power.

In later years many 68ers joined prefigurative communes or formed new Leninist organizations, some which have survived (e.g. the Revolutionary Communist Party, 2010). The resistance to politics as usual, especially competing for state power, has been very salient in the world revolution of 20xx. These proscriptions are based on the critique of the practices of earlier world revolutions in which labor unions and political parties became bogged down in short-term and self-interested struggles that then reinforced and reproduced the global capitalist system and the interstate system. This abjuration of formal organizations and participation in institutionalized political competition is strongly reflected in the constitution of the World Social Forum as discussed above. And the same elements were robustly present in the Occupy movement as well as in the several popular revolts that have constituted the Arab Spring and the other anti-austerity movements (Mason 2013).

            Journalist Paul Mason (2013) spent the last decade doing ethnographic immersion in the wave of protests that occurred in the Middle East, Spain, Greece, Turkey and the Occupy movement. His sympathetic analysis of the current world revolution contends that the social structural basis for horizontalism and anti-formal organization, beyond the reaction to the reformist outcomes of earlier efforts of the Left, is due to the presence of a large number of middle-class students in the protests that were building in the first decade of the 21st century (see also Korotayev and Zinkin 2011; Milkman, Luce and Lewis 2013; Curran, Schwarz and Chase-Dunn 2014). Of course, the world revolution of 1968 was also composed of an activist element within the large stratum of college students who had emerged on the world stage with the global expansion of higher education since World War II.[5]

Precariat Fractions

            Mason (2013) makes an interesting comparison of the recent protest wave with the world revolution of 1848, in which a large number of the activists were also educated, but underemployed, students. He notes that the participants in the recent wave of protests were  heavily composed of highly educated young people who were facing the strong likelihood that they will not be able to find jobs that are commensurate with their skills and certification levels. Many of these “graduates with no future” have gone into debt to finance their education, and they are alienated from politics as usual and enraged by the failure of global capitalism to continue the expansion of middle-class jobs. Mason notes that the urban poor, especially in the Global South, and workers whose livelihoods have been attacked by globalization, have also been important constituencies in the protests. And he points to the significance of the Internet, social media and cell phones for allowing disaffected digital youth to organize large protests. He sees the netizens’ “freedom to tweet” as an important element in a strong desire for individual freedom that is an important driver of those middle class graduates who have enjoyed confronting the powers-that-be. This embrace of individuality may be another reason why the movements have been reticent to develop their own formal organizations and to participate in traditional organized political activities.

            Guy Standing (2011) has undertaken a broad consideration of how the neoliberal globalization project has affected global class relations and the nature of work. Standing does not focus on the nature of the recent protest wave, but his observations and claims overlap with, and in some ways diverge from, those of Paul Mason. Standing claims that the reorganization of production that David Harvey (1989) calls flexible accumulation has produced the recent rise of what he calls the precariat. Standing sees the rise of precarious labor as constituting a new class, the precariat, which is significantly different from the proletariat. Employment is increasingly temporary and  workers have little identification with their jobs or the firms that pay them. The increasing power of capital, deindustrialization of the core and attacks on labor unions have produced a reorganization of the global class structure around precarious work. Standing notes that there are important differences between different sectors of the precariat.  The slum-dwellers in the informal sector in megacities of the Global South have long been exposed to precarious labor, though this group has expanded as a result of the neoliberal transformation of agriculture discussed above. The over-educated, under-employed are young people from working class and middle class backgrounds who also face a precarious livelihood, but with rather different tastes and interests from the folk of the planet of slums. They are individualistic and difficult to organize using the methods that worked fairly well for the industrial proletariat.

Standing wants to forge political alliances among these different groups in order to press for workers rights and greater protections from states, but he recognizes that this effort faces very difficult obstacles. Standing also has a very different attitude toward the “freedom to tweet” than does Mason. He believes that the short attention span produced by constant exposure to electronic communications makes it difficult for the young to develop an understanding of the larger historical context in which the precariat is emerging.  Tweeting makes you stupid, according to Standing. He is rather less sympathetic with these aspects of the millennials than is Mason, but they both agree that these are important characteristics that need to be taken into account in projects that seek to build larger alliances in order to fight for workers’ rights.

The Multicentric Network of Leftist Movements

Just as world revolutions in the past have restructured world orders, the current one might also do this. But in order for this to happen a significant number of activists who participate in the New Global Left would need to agree on several complicated matters:

·         the nature of the most important contemporary problems,

·         a vision of a desirable future and

·         judgments about appropriate tactics and forms of movement organization.

The Transnational Social Movements Research Working Group at the University of California-Riverside performed a network analysis of movement ties based on the responses to a survey of attendees that was conducted at the 2005 World Social Forum meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil.[6] This study examined the structure of overlapping links among movement themes by asking attendees with which of 18 movement themes they were actively involved.  The choices of those attendees who declared that they were actively involved in two or more movement themes were used to indicate the overlaps among movements. The results show a multicentric network of movement links as illustrated in Figure 1 (Chase-Dunn, Petit, Niemeyer, Hanneman, Alvarez, Gutierrez and Reese 2006).  Figure 1: The network of movement links at the WSF 2005 in Porto Alegre

           All the movements had some people who were actively involved in other movements. The four isolates shown in the upper left-hand corner of Figure 1 resulted from the necessity of dichotomizing the distribution of connections for the purposes of formal network analysis. 

            The overall structure of the network of movement linkages reveals a multicentric network organized around five main movements that served as bridges linking other movements to one another: peace, anti-globalization, global justice, human rights and environmentalism. These were also the largest movements in terms of the numbers of attendees who professed to be actively involved. While no single movement was so central that it linked all the others, neither was the network structure characterized by separate cliques of movements that might be easily separated from one another.

            Chase-Dunn and Kaneshiro (2009) compared the movement network results found at the 2005 Porto Alegre meeting with the results of a very similar survey carried out at the World Social Forum meeting in Nairobi in 2007. Their findings show a few changes but the main network structure was very similar to that found in Porto Alegre. This suggests that the New Global Left contains a rather stable global network structure of movement interconnections that is largely independent of the location of the meetings. Rather similar network structures were also found at meetings of the U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007 and in Detroit in 2009 (Chase-Dunn and Breckenridge-Jackson 2013) indicating that the network links among movements seem to be quite similar at the global and national levels, at least for the case of the United States.

This structure means that the transnational activists who participate in the World Social Forum process share many goals and support the global justice framework asserted in the World Social Forum Charter. It also means that the network of movements is relatively integrated and is not prone to splits. A global justice united front that is attentive to the nature of this network structure could mobilize a strong force for collective action in world politics. But there are some obvious problems that need attention.

Global North-South Challenges

            Thomas Piketty’s empirical contribution was to the study of changes in the magnitude of within-country inequalities, but his prescriptions for solutions included considerations of inequalities at the global level. The focus on global justice and north/south inequalities and the critique of neoliberalism provide strong orienting frames for the transnational activists of the New Global Left (Byrd 2005; Steger, Goodman and Wilson 2013). But there are difficult obstacles to collective action that are heavily structured by the huge global inequalities that exist in the contemporary world-system (Roberts and Parks 2007) and these issues must be directly confronted.

Our survey of the attendees of the 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre found several important differences between activists from the core, the periphery and the semiperiphery (Chase-Dunn, Reese, Herkenrath, Alvarez, Gutierrez, Kim and Petit. 2008).

Those from the periphery were proportionately fewer, older, and more likely to be men. In addition, participants from the periphery were more likely to be associated with externally sponsored NGOs, rather than with self-funded Social Movement Organizations (SMOs) or unions.  NGOs have greater access to travel funds and were able to bring more representatives from the peripheral countries. Survey respondents from the Global South (the periphery and the semiperiphery) were significantly more likely than those from the Global North (the core) to be skeptical about creating or reforming global-level political institutions and were more likely to favor the abolition of existing global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (Chase-Dunn et al 2008).

This skepticism probably stems from the historical experience of peoples from the non-core with colonialism and global-level institutions that claim to be operating on universal principles of fairness, but whose actions have either not solved problems or have made them worse. These “new abolitionists” pose strong challenges to both existing global institutions and to efforts to reform or replace these institutions with more democratic and efficacious ones.

George Monbiot’s Manifesto for a New World Order (2003) is a reasoned and insightful call for radically democratizing the existing institutions of global governance and for establishing a global peoples’ parliament that would be directly elected by the whole population of the Earth.[7] Monbiot also advocated the establishment of a trade clearinghouse (first proposed by John Maynard Keynes at Bretton Woods) that would reward national economies with balanced trade, and that would use some of the surpluses generated by those with trade surpluses to invest in those with trade deficits.[8] And Monbiot proposed a radical reversal of the World Trade Organization regime, which imposes free trade on the non-core but allows core countries to engage in protectionism – a “fair trade organization” that would help to reduce global development inequalities. Monbiot also advocated abolition of the U.N. Security Council, and shifting its power over peacekeeping to a General Assembly in which representatives’ votes would be weighted by the population sizes of their countries.

Monbiot also noted that the current level of indebtedness of non-core countries could be used as formidable leverage over the world’s largest banks if all the debtors acted in concert. This could provide the muscle behind a significant wave of global democratization. But in order for this to happen the global justice movement would have to organize a strong coalition of the non-core countries that would overcome the splits that tend to occur between the periphery and the semiperiphery. This is far from being a utopian fantasy.  It is a practical program for global democracy.

           The multiple local, regional and largely disconnected human interaction networks of the past have become strongly linked into a single global system. The treadmill of population growth has been stopped in the core countries, and is slowing in the non-core. The global human population is predicted to peak and to stabilize in the decades surrounding 2075 at somewhere between nine and twelve billion. Thus population pressure will continue to be a major challenge for at least another century, increasing logistical loads on governance institutions. The exit option is blocked off except for a small number of pioneers who may move out to space stations or try to colonize Mars. Thus a condition of global circumscription exists. Malthusian corrections may not be only a thing of the past, as illustrated by continuing warfare and genocide. Famine has been brought under control, but future shortages of clean water, good soil, non-renewable energy sources, and food might bring that old horseman back.

As we have already noted above, huge global inequalities complicate the collective action problem. First world peoples have come to feel entitled, and non-core people want to have their own cars, large houses and electronic gadgets. The ideas of human rights and democracy are still contested, but they have become so widely accepted that existing institutions of global governance are illegitimate even by their own standards. The demand for global democracy and human rights can only be met by reforming or replacing the existing institutions of global governance with institutions that have some plausible claim to represent the will and interests of the majority of the world’s people. That means democratic global state formation (Chase-Dunn and Inoue 2012), although most of the contemporary protagonists of global democracy do not like to say it that way.

Individualism in the World Revolution

The relationship between individualism, sociocultural evolution and modernity is a long story, but Paul Mason’s claim that a new level of individual freedom is an important element in the recent global wave of protests brings this issue once again to the center of the discussion about the nature of the New Global Left.[9] It is also raised by David Graeber’s (2011) assertion of the individual’s right to self-assess the question of social debt and by Mary Kaldor’s (2003) defense of the individual’s right to not participate in politics. Many would agree with the horizontalists and anarchists that the attack on individualism that was waged by communists and some socialists in the world revolution of 1917 and its aftermath was a mistake. Individualism is rightly associated with capitalist modernity, but arguably it is one of the good things that modernity has brought. The rise of a global human rights regime since World War II (Brisk 2005; Meyer 2009) and the centrality of the human rights movement theme within the network of movements found at the World Social Forum also indicate the importance of the issue of individualism in contemporary world politics.

Of course there are many kinds of individualism, and it has been emerging since the birth of the world religions, and before (Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2013). Norman Cohn’s (1970) study of European medieval millenarianism describes the Free Spirits, a movement of self-deification in which individual mystics became convinced that they had attained omniscience and omnipotence and were thus entitled to do whatever they wanted, irrespective of the consequences of their acts for others. Ethical egoism denies any obligation to act in the interests of others (e.g. Ayn Rand 1957). The freedom to express one’s unique self in artistic works and in consumer choices are the relatively mild forms of individualism that have become widely accepted by both those who have opportunities to express themselves and by most of those who wish that they could. Individualism that allows great choice, but that does not countenance harming or constraining the actions of others, is not a bad thing whether or not it is engrained in biological human nature, as the evolutionary psychologists believe (McKinnon 2005). The construction of more effective forms of collectivism need not attack the individualisms that serve as legitimations for capitalism, nor the forms of individualism that are supported by many of the activists in the emerging New Global Left.

David Graeber’s (2011) individualism asserts the right of each person to decide regarding the issue of social debt – what one owes others, society and nature.[10] Graeber points out that socialists and communists (and almost all other authorities) set up systems that justified policies of distribution and power based on assumptions about debt. Graeber rejects these, and many would agree with him. Beyond this assumption of individual authority over the matter of debt, Graeber presumes natural human tendencies toward sociability, sharing and friendship. And he contends that the techniques of direct decision-making that constituted the processes developed by the Occupy movement are good guarantees of individual rights in collective decision-making (Graeber 2013).  This is a sympathetic view of human nature and an attractive version of individualism that acknowledges the importance of social life, but leaves participation up to the person.

A Global United Front?

As mentioned above, Paul Mason stressed the importance of unemployed, but educated, youth in the world revolutions of 1848 and 20xx. Of course scholars of social movements have long known that oppressed people are usually led by disaffected members of the middle or upper classes who have some education and resources that can be devoted to the tasks of movement leadership. But is there more than this to Mason’s claim? He notes that many middle class radicals in earlier world revolutions turned against the urban poor and workers when they posed a strong and radical challenge. Mason attributes part of the defeat of the revolutionaries in 1848 to the students betrayal of the radical workers in European cities. Mason contends that one reason why the middle class radicals in the current wave of global protest have mainly kept their radicalism is because the urban poor and workers have been relatively quiescent, at least so far.

We may also wonder how the differences between now and 1968 will affect the politics of middle class students.  Perceptions of the availability of future middle class jobs have changed greatly. Most of 68ers were able to find middle class jobs if they wanted them, whereas the current crop of highly educated youth are facing a much more constrained job market as well as mountains of debt incurred in getting their degrees. Mason sees this as a cause of activism, but others surmise that educational indebtedness may undermine rebellious courage.

In 2013 Mason guessed that the wave of protests would likely melt away if the global economy was successfully reflated, which is what has happened to some extent (see below). Mason also recounted the story of the 1930s, when the Global Left started off as a squabbling bunch of ideological purists, but was driven to make broad alliances in the popular front by the rise of fascism. Mason saw horizontalism and prefiguration as going nowhere. But he suggested that the Left might be driven to form a new united front by the emergence of new economic fiascos, global environmental disasters and by the further rise of neofascism. Mason (2013:295-6) said:

Up to now, in today’s crisis, protest has been driven by narratives of hope and outrage, not of fear. The horizontalists’ self-isolation, indeed self-obsession, is not the result of a dictated party line, as in the 1930s, but of something equally strong in today’s conditions; the inner zeitgeist…. As austerity pushes parts of Europe towards social meltdown, as fascism revives there and as democracy is eroded, maybe it is this that drives the worker’s movement beyond the one-day strike and the social movements beyond the temporary occupation of space, as well as goading the existing parties beyond the comfort zone dictated by the global order.

            At the World Social Forum a somewhat less ideological approach could involve a greater willingness to collaborate with progressive national regimes such as that in Bolivia. Mason called for the radicals to engage in “physical politics,” by which he meant contention for power within existing institutions. Arguably this is what the New Global Left must do if it is to have an important impact on the human future. But this could be done without completely abandoning some of concerns of the 68ers and the current generation of activists. The new individualism and participatory democracy could be embraced while also inventing or reinventing more humane and sustainable forms of collectivism and new modes of participation in institutional politics.  The enhanced ability to swarm, using social media and the Internet, is a tactic that appeals to the millennials and that could be coordinated with more populist forms of participation in electoral politics.

            And with regard to bureaucratization, the oligarchical tendencies of political parties and all other formal organizations are well known to sociologists of organization. But we should recall that it was Thomas Jefferson, an 89er,  who said that a revolution is needed about every 20 years. Voluntary associations have gotten much easier to start since Jefferson’s time.[11] Many global activists carry neonatal NGOs around with them in their backpacks.  So if the organization you are currently working with seems to have gotten ossified, you can start a new one. This is the part of horizontalism and network organizing that solves the problem of ossified parties and unions. But it also leads to the proliferation of specialized organizations at a time when the main challenge is to weave different movements into a larger organizational instrument with enough muscle to challenge the global powers that be – a party-network.

            The wave of protests that built up in the last few decades peaked in 2011 and has declined somewhat since then (Karatasli et al 2015; Carothers and Youngs 2015). The protest intensity measure assembled from web sources by GDELT (Leetaru 2014) shows successive waves of global protests from 1979 to 2014  (see Figure 2). The partial decline since 2011 is probably due, in part,  to reflation of the global economy since the crash of 2008. But the decline probably also reflects the debacles that have ensued since the Arab Spring, which have understandably reduced the enthusiasm of idealistic democracy protestors in war zone countries. The Green Revolution in Iran was suppressed. The tragic events in Egypt and Syria have been especially disheartening. Horizontalism and prefiguration seem to presume a Habermasian world of legitimate and protected political discourse that does not exist in many regions. Military coups and contending mass parties like the Muslim Brotherhood leave little room for the protests of the precariat to influence political discourse. All world revolutions have gone through cycles of activism and quiescence.  

Figure 2 – Intensity of protest activity worldwide 1979-April 2014 (black line is 12-month moving average)  (Leetaru 2014)[12]

The protests mounted by the global justice and anti-austerity movements have changed the political discourse about inequality  and have helped set the stage for Thomas Piketty’s research to be widely read and discussed. The current U.S. presidential election campaign has the Democrats vying with one another over how much to crack down on Wall Street.   Podemos, an anti-austerity party in Spain led by former autonomist Pablo Iglesias Turrion, developed a wide following and gained important representation in the Spanish election of December 2015. But the debacle of Syriza in Greece, concluding an austerity compromise despite a popular mandate to stand up against global finance capital, presents an object lesson for those who have preached the dangers of institutional politics. The quote above from Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (2011:64) seems particularly apt. A valuable opportunity was missed in Greece to show that indeed there are progressive alternatives to neoliberal capitalist globalization.

            Will the current world revolution eventually develop enough muscle to challenge neoliberal capitalism and to provoke enlightened conservatives to usher in a new era of global Keynesianism that is more sustainable and less polarizing than the capitalist globalization project? Or will a perfect storm of environmental disaster, hegemonic decline, mass immigrations, interimperial rivalry, ethnic violence, and neo-fascism produce so much chaos that a United Front of the New Global Left will have an opportunity within the next few decades to fundamentally transform the capitalist world-system into a democratic and collectively rational global commonwealth? Both of these options would require a United Front that brings the progressive movements, parties and regimes together.


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[1] Immanuel Wallerstein’s (2011) Volume 4 of The Modern World-System, tells the story of politics in the geoculture since the French Revolution.

[2] Paul Mason (2013), who also compares the current global justice movement with earlier world revolutions, sees it as having begun with the Arab Spring and anti-austerity movements in 2011.


[3] World revolutions have become more frequent and so they now seem to overlap one another. The anti-IMF riots occurred during what some have called the World Revolution of 1989, which was also a rebellion against one-party rule in Russia,  Eastern Europe and China. These rebellions allowed Reagan and Thatcher to declare that the West had won over collectivism and that there was no alternative to the neoliberal globalization project. But the rebels of 1989 also asserted the importance of political rights, and this was not lost on the emerging New Global Left (Kaldor 2003).

[4] The World Social Forum Charter of Principles is at

[5] John W. Meyer (2009) explains the student revolt of the 1960s as analogous to earlier waves of expansion and incorporation into the political process. Men of no property and women had protested and been incorporated into the formal processes of democracy (suffrage) in the 19th and 20th centuries. After World War II higher education was greatly expanded across the world, creating a large, but politically unincorporated, interest group – college students. 

[6] The survey and other results are available at

[7] Ulrich Beck’s (2005) call for “cosmopolitan realism” supported the formation of global democratic institutions.

[8] The current U.S. trade deficit might qualify it for global welfare, but the balance of payments and ability to print world money would also need to be taken into account.

[9] We should recall that glorification of the individual self was already seen in the world revolution of 1968’s maxim to “do your own thing.”

[10] Graeber (2011:68) says: ‘If one were looking for the ethos for an individualistic society such as our own, one way to do it might well be to say: we all owe an infinite debt to humanity, society and nature, or the cosmos (however one prefers to frame it), but no one else could possibly tell us how we are to pay it. …. it would actually be possible to see almost all systems of established authority – religion, morality, politics, economics, and the criminal-justice system – as so many different fraudulent ways to presume to calculate what cannot be calculated, to claim the  authority to tell us how some aspect of that unlimited debt ought to be repaid. Human freedom would then be our ability to decide for ourselves how we want to do so.”

[11] Indeed, every undergraduate at Harvard is expected to found a business or an NGO before graduation.

[12] GDELT’s measure of “protest intensity” is calculated as the number of protests in a given month divided by the  total number of all events recorded that month. GDELT’ s event coding methodology has been criticized for double-counting, but it is not known how much variation there is in this measurement error over time. If double-counting is constant the trends would still be fairly accurate.