TheWorld Revolution of 2011:

Assembling a United Front of the New Global Left

Christopher Chase-Dunn

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California, Riverside, Riverside, CA. 92521 7857 words, v. 8-7-13

To be presented Aug. 10, 2013 at the Society for the Study of Social Problems session on “Social Mobilizations and the Dialectic of Change” organized by Lauren Langman,

The Westin New York at Times Square.

This is IROWS Working Paper # 82 available at


This paper considers the ways in which social movements and world revolutions have restructured global governance institutions over the past several centuries in order to shed light on the current world historical situation. It studies the nature and causes of the rebellions and counter-hegemonic regimes that have emerged since the 1990s in order to make comparisons with earlier world revolutions and to assess the prospects for the emergence of more coherent effort to transform the capitalist world-economy into a democratic and collectively rational global commonwealth.


            The sociological literature on social movements often justifies the claim that these are an exclusively modern phenomenon by defining them narrowly, usually excluding those with explicitly mystical aspects. The emergence of secular humanism and science as central ideologies is undoubtedly important, but the exclusion of more obviously religious movements from consideration obscures both the past and the present, and probably the future.

            An anthropological and world historical perspective on human sociocultural evolution notices the important roles that social movements have played in restructuring political and economic institutions since the Stone Age. Even in very small scale world-systems changes in technology and social organization were brought about and diffused across groups by ideological entrepreneurs, teaching a new dance and telling an old story in a new way. In the Bronze Age millenarian world religions emerged from sects in which election to holiness was possible by an act of individual confession of faith. These new forms of moral community were “transnational” in that they could produce trust among believers from different ethnic and cultural groups. And they challenged the existing authorities by repeatedly imagining the possibility of collective ownership and the abolition of inequalities, thereby enabling enlightened conservatives to bolster their own authority and power by incorporating some of the demands of the rebels. Thus have the institutions of authority been restructured by repeated rebellions since Zarathustra (Cohn 1993).

            The world-systems perspective on the modern system yields a structural interpretation of the cycles and trends that have constituted its expansion and evolution (Wallerstein 2011; Arrighi 1994; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2013). This structural perspective 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 occurred on the context of the rise and fall of hegemonic core powers, the 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 theoretically 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 polities 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.

            It is important to accurately comprehend both the structural similarities and differences between the current world historical period and earlier periods that were similar but also different. The period of British hegemonic decline moved rather quickly toward conflictive hegemonic rivalry because economic competitors such as Germany and Japan were able to develop powerful military capabilities. The U.S. hegemony has been different in that the United States ended up as the single superpower after the decline 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 relative to the speed of the British decline (See Figure 1).  It is also important to consider the newly unique aspects of changes in labor relations, urban-rural relations, the nature of emergent city regions, and the shrinking of the global reserve army of labor (Silver 2003).   

Figure 1: Country shares of world GDP, 1820-2006 Source: Maddison (2001)       

The United States has been in decline in terms of hegemony in economic production since 1945 and this has been similar in some respects to the decline of British hegemony in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see Figure 1). The great post-World War II wave of globalization and financialization may be faltering, and some analysts predict another trough of deglobalization. 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 declining hegemon has further delegitimated the institutions of global governance and has provoked resistance and challenges. A similar bout of “imperial over-reach” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the part of Britain led to a period of hegemonic 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 may also 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, and energy is once again becoming more expensive. The low hanging “ancient sunlight” in coal and oil has been picked. “Peak oil” is rapidly approaching, “clean coal” and nuclear fusion remain dreams, and the price of energy will go up no matter how much we invest in new kinds of energy production (Heinberg 2004). None of the existing alternative technologies offer low-priced 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 be. 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 resource wars that can exacerbate the problems of global governance. The war in Iraq was both an instance of imperial over-reach (which also occurred during the British hegemonic decline) and also a resource war because the U.S. neoconservatives thought that they could prolong U.S. hegemony by controlling the global oil supply.

            The first decade of the 21th century has seen a continuation of many large-scale processes that were under way in the last half of the 20th. 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 IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). One consequence was the ejection of millions of small farmers from the land.

For most of these former rural residents migration to the 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).

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 involved 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. 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).

            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. 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 observe that the demands put forth in a world revolution do not usually become institutionalized until a consolidating revolt has occurred, or until the next world revolution. 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. I 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.

We are in the midst of another world revolution now. Chase-Dunn and Niemeyer (2009) called it the world revolution  of 20xx (because it was not yet clear what the key symbolic year would be) and they saw it as having begun with the anti-IMF riots in the 1980s and the Zapatista revolt in 1994. Paul Mason (2013), who also compares the current global revolution with earlier world revolutions, sees it as having begun with the Arab Spring in 2011.

            World revolutions are hard to study and hard to compare with one another because they are so complex. The time periods and places to include (and exclude) are complicated.  They each have complex constellations of movements, including reactionary movements.  What are the actual and potential bases for cooperation across the progressive (antisystemic) movements? How do some of the movements affect the others?  And how do they relate to the similar and different terrains of power and economic structures in the world-system at the time that they emerge? And how do they affect the struggle among elites in their efforts to maintain their positions or gain new advantages?

The World Revolution of 2011

          Because the current world revolution is yet in formation it is still uncertain which particular year to should be chosen to symbolize it. But the wave of protests that began with the Arab Spring in 2011 have demonstrated a good deal of coherence with regard to their local and global causations, and so for now 2011 seems like a good choice. World revolutions have become more frequent and so they now seem to overlap one another. Arguably the anti-IMF riots of the 1980s (Walton and Seddon 1994; Podobnik 2003) were the first skirmishes of the revolts and rebellions against neoliberal corporate capitalism. 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 in the United States.  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 that came to power in the United States.

            Many of the participants in the contemporary movement of movements are unaware or 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. 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 has engaged in a manifesto/charter-writing frenzy as those who seek a more organized approach to confronting global capitalism and neoliberalism attempt 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 economist, wrote a short discussion entitled “Toward a fifth international?” in which he briefly outlines 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).

            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. Some of this has been inherited from important tendencies within the world revolution of 1968. As argued by Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (2011: 37-8) the New Left of 1968 embraced direct democracy, attacked bureaucratic organizations, and was itself unwilling to create new formal organizations that might act as instruments of revolution. This is seen as one of the important lessons of earlier waves of class struggle and decolonization. As Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein (2011:64) point 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.

The resistance to politics as usual, competing for state power, has also been very salient in the world revolution of 2011. It is based on a 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 which then reinforced and reproduced the global capitalist system and the interstate system. This abjuration of formal organization is reflected in the constitution of the World Social Forum as discussed above. And the same elements were strongly present in the Occupy movement as well as in the several popular revolts that have constituted the Arab Spring (Mason 2013).

            Paul Mason’s (2013) analysis 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. As is well known, the world revolution of 1968 was also composed of a large stratum of college students who had emerged on the world stage with the global expansion of higher education since World War II. John W. Meyer (2009) explained the student revolt in terms of the extension of citizenship to new and politically unincorporated groups demanding to be included, analogous to the earlier unruliness of men of no property and women who were eventually allowed the rights of citizens.

            Mason points out the similarities (and differences) with the world revolution of 1848, in which a large number of the activists were educated but underemployed. He also argues that the current world revolution (here called WR2011) is heavily composed of highly educated young people who are 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 also points out that the urban poor, especially in the global south, and workers whose livelihoods have been attacked by globalization are also important constituencies in the revolts that have occurred in the Middle East, Spain, Greece and Turkey. And Mason also focusses on the importance of the internet and social media for allowing disaffected young people to organize large protests. He sees the netizens “freedom to tweet” as an important element in a new level of individual freedom that is an important driver of those middle class graduates who enjoy confronting the powers-that-be. This kind of individualism is also understood as another reason why the movements are reticent to develop their own hierarchical organizations and to participate in traditional political activities.

The Multicentric Network of Movements

Just as world revolutions in the past have restructured world orders, the current one coluld also do this. But in order to do this a significant number of the activists would need to agree on the nature of the most important problems, visions of a desirable future or notions of 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.[1] 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 2 (Chase-Dunn, Petit, Niemeyer, Hanneman, Alvarez, Gutierrez and Reese 2006).  Figure 2: 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 2 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 the same survey carried out at the World Social Forum meeting in Nairobi in 2007. The findings show a few changes but the main network structure was very similar to that found in Porto Alegre. This means that there is a rather stable global network structure of movement connections 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 in 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 and cosmopolitan united front approach that pays attention 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.

North-South Issues

            The focus on global justice and north/south inequalities and the critique of neoliberalism provide strong orienting frames for the transnational activists of the World Social Forum. But there are difficult issues for collective action that are heavily structured by the huge international inequalities that exist in the contemporary world-system and these issues must be directly confronted. The survey of the attendees of the 2005 World Social Forum 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 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 were significantly more likely than those from the Global North 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.

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. Ulrich Beck’s (2005) call for “cosmopolitan realism” also ends up supporting the formation of global democratic institutions. Monbiot also advocates 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. He also proposes 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 advocates abolition of the U.N. Security Council, and shifting its power over peace-keeping to a General Assembly in which representatives’ votes would be weighted by the population size of their country.

Monbiot also points out 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 can 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 it appears to be slowing in the non-core. The global human population is predicted to peak and to stabilize in the decades surrounding 2075 at somewhere between eight 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 are not 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.

Huge global inequalities complicate the collective action problem. First world people 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, 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 current world revolution. 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 (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, or in consumer decisions are the relatively mild forms of individualism that have become widely accepted by both those who have opportunities to express themselves and by many 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. 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 individualism asserts the right of each person to decide regarding the issue of social debt – what one owes others, society and nature.[2] Graeber points out that socialists and the 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’s individualism assumes a natural human tendency toward sociability, sharing and friendship. And he implies that the institutions of direct decision-making that were seen in the processes developed by the Occupy movement are the best guarantee of individual rights in collective decision-making (Graeber 2013.[3] 

A Global United Front

As mentioned above, Paul Mason stresses the importance of unemployed but educated youth in the world revolutions of 1848 and 2011. Is this just the recognition of the general fact that is well-known to students of social movements of the past that the most 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? Or is there more to Mason’s claim? He also argues that middle class radicals often turn against the urban poor and workers if a strong radical challenge emerged from these groups. He attributes part of the defeat of the revolutionaries in 1848 to this process. And he contends that one reason why the middle class radicals in the current wave of global protest have kept their radicalism is because the urban poor and workers are relatively weak. Another reason why the middle class radicals may be more militant now than they were in 1968 has to do with perceptions of the availability of future middle class jobs. 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 contends that the current wave of protest is likely to melt away if the global economy is successfully reflated. But he also tells the story of the 1930s, when the Global Left started off as a squabbling bunch of purists, but were driven to find allies in a popular front by the rise of fascism. In the current moment he sees horizontalism and prefiguration as going nowhere. But he thinks the proponents of protests on the Left may be forced from below to form a united front that contends for power within existing institutions. What would drive this would be continuing economic fiascos and the rise of fascism. Mason (2013:295-6) says:

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 more pragmatic approach would involve a greater willingness to collaborate with progressive national regimes such as that in Bolivia, or those that may emerge from future encounters with reactionary core powers and/or from progressive social movements within. The efforts of the National Security Agency and its defenders to scare the middle class in to continued support for the erosion of civil liberties in the United States is an important test of the commitment of citizens to the protection of privacy and human rights. Mason calls for the radicals to engage in “physical politics” by which he means contention for power within existing institutions and I agree that this is what the New Global Left must do if it is to have an important impact on the human future. But this can be done while appreciating some of attitudes of the 68ers and the current wave of protests. The new individualism can be embraced while also searching for more humane and sustainable forms of collectivism.

            And with regard to bureaucratization, the oligarchical tendencies of political parties and all other formal organizations are well-known to sociologists of organization. But it was Thomas Jefferson who said that a revolution is needed about every 20 years. Voluntary associations have gotten easier to start since Jefferson’s time. The global activists carry neonatal NGOs around with them in their back packs.  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 an organizational instrument with enough muscle to challenge the powers that be.

            Will the current world revolution have enough muscle to challenge neoliberal capitalism and to provoke enlightened conservatives to bring in a new era of global Keynesianism that is more sustainable than the capitalist globalization project? Or will a perfect storm of environmental disaster, hegemonic decline, interimperial rivalry, ethnic violence, and neo-fascism produce so much chaos that the 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? Either way a strong United Front that brings the progressive elements together will be needed.



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[1] The survey and other results are available at .

[2] 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.”

[3] This is related to the anarchist notion of delegation, as opposed to representation, in the relationships among larger and smaller groups.