Articulating the web of transnational social movements

Chris Chase-Dunn, Anne-Sophie Stäbler

Ian Breckenridge-Jackson and Joel Herrera

Institute for Research on World-Systems

University of California-Riverside

To be presented at the World Congress of Sociology in Yokohama, July 17, 2014. An earlier version was presented at the Global Studies Conference March 1, 2014 Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies; University of California, Santa Barbara. This is IROWS Working Paper #84 available at 

draft v. 7-25-14; 12060 words

Abstract: How can the New Global Left coalesce to once again address emergent global crises? Our research on transnational social movements and global civil society investigates the potential for a network of radical social movements to come together to play an important role in world politics in the coming decades. The histories of united and popular fronts are particularly relevant to contemporary and near-future situations. The world-systems perspective sees the evolution of global governance and the capitalist world economy as driven by a sequence of world revolutions in which local rebellions that are clustered together in time pose threats to the structures of global power. Our study seeks to understand how this is happening in the early 21st century.

 This paper studies the potential for transnational social movements and progressive regimes to transform the capitalist world-system into a more humane and democratic world society within the next fifty years. In order to investigate this potential we focus on the interconnections between existing movements and the processes by which movements have merged, collaborated and articulated in the past.  We also discuss the potential for the formation of capacious organizational instruments that can have consequences for the nature of the world-system in the next decades. The general logic of coalition formation is considered and the literature on coalitions within and among social movements is reviewed.  The focus here is on the whole world polity, but the much larger literature on movement coalitions within national societies is considered with an eye to implications for understanding processes of convergence and divergence among transnational social movements.  The histories of united fronts and popular fronts are considered as to their relevance to the contemporary and near future situation.  The contentious relationship between antisystemic social movements and reformist and antisystemic governments is also considered. And we hazard some guesses about which of the existing social movement coalitions might be able to forge a more formidable assault that could seriously alter the existing institutions and structures of the world-system.

            The comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective studies the emergence of complex and hierarchical human societies over very long periods of time, comparing small-scale regional world-systems in which all the humans are nomadic hunter-gatherers with the global networks and complex institutions of the contemporary system (Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014). Social change has always importantly involved social movements. [1]  New cults emerged to redefine ontology and the moral order, to construct new forms of authority or to contest or resist authority.

Norman Cohn (1970; 1993) contends that millenarianism and eschatology emerged first with Zoroaster and then diffused through Judaism to Christianity. But studies of cargo cults and revitalization movements such as the ghost dance DuBois (2007) suggest that apocalyptic beliefs may have already existed in at least some small-scale societies as part of their repertoires of contention.  Chiliastic stories about the old world coming to an end and the new world beginning are powerful motivators of risky behavior of the kind that makes social movements go, both in the past and in the present.

            Social movements are hard to study because, even more than other social phenomena, they are complicated and messy. Todd Gitlin (2012:141) puts it this way in his 2012 study of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

Movements are social organisms, living phenomena that breathe in and adapt to their environments, not objects frozen into their categories while taxonomists poke and prod them. They come, go, mutate, expand, contract, rest, split, stagnate, ally, cast off outworn tissue, decay, regenerate, go round in circles, are always accused of being co-opted and selling out, and are often declared dead.

            In this paper we will focus on transnational social movements in the context of global civil society in order to investigate the potential for a network of radical social movements to come together to play an important role in world politics in the next few decades. We know that important institutional changes in the modern world-system have been spurred by social movements in the past.  The New Deal was given a powerful shove by the labor movement, including socialists, communists and anarchists, in the 1930s.  The problem addressed here is how a powerful coalition of antisystemic movements[2] might once again become an important force in the context of the crises that are emergent in the 21st century.

            The world-systems perspective sees the evolution of global governance and the capitalist world-economy as importantly driven by a sequence of world revolutions in which local rebellions that were clustered together in time posed powerful threats to the rule of the “great powers” and predominant global elites (Wallerstein 2004).  Successful contenders among those global elites who wanted to maintain their privileges and power, or those that sought such heights, had to figure out how to organize a modicum of world order in the context of often-powerful rebellions from below. The Protestant Reformation was such a world revolution in the 16th century and it played an important part in the rise of Dutch hegemony.  The world revolution of 1789 included the French Revolution, but also the successful independence struggles in the United States and Haiti, and then in most of the colonies in Latin America.  The world revolution of 1848 broke out mostly in the capitals of Europe to challenge monarchies and to assert the self-determination of nations, but it had echoes in the new Christian sects that emerged within the United States and even as far as the Taiping Rebellion in China. The world revolution of 1917 included the Russian revolution, but also the Mexican and Chinese revolutions, the Arab uprising of 1916, and gave impetus to the great wave of decolonization struggles in Asia and Africa that climaxed after World War II. In the world revolution of 1968 students mobilized in the U.S., Mexico, France, Italy and China to protest both the Old Left and the middle class values of the welfare state and consumerism (Gitlin 1993; Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014).

            In 1989 important movements in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China challenged Communist regimes in the name of democracy. And, starting in 1994 with the Zapatista revolt in Southern Mexico, another world revolution has emerged to contest global justice, continued warfare, autocratic rule, and corporate capitalist austerity policies. This last may end up with the moniker of “2011” when the Arab Spring swept through the Middle East and on to Spain, Greece and the Occupy Wall Street Movement (Gitlin 2012; Mason 2013). [3]

            The focus of this paper is on the New Global Left, which is a component of the larger global civil society of actors who are consciously participating in world politics. Some players within the New Global Left are trying to change the nature of world society as a whole, while others are simply trying to defend themselves against larger forces. And a significant group is trying to create local communities that are constructed to redress some of the problems that global capitalism has created.  The New Global Left is just the latest incarnation of a global left that has been engaging in world politics for centuries.

Each world revolution reflects the nature of contemporary contradictions, the ideological heritages of earlier world revolutions, and the institutional structures that are predominant during its historical period.  World revolutions are complicated because local and national struggles have different and often unique characteristics due to the different histories of each local community and national society, and because people in different zones of the larger system, e.g. in the Global North and the Global South, often have different interests and experiences.  Nevertheless, each world revolution takes on a particular character of its own that is due to the nature of the constellation of movements that make it up, and the nature of contending movements and the actions and ideologies of the authorities that are challenged. And the nature of each global left is a moving target that must be reassessed as the world revolution proceeds.

            Contemporary “global civil society” is composed of all the individuals and groups who knowingly orient their political participation toward issues that transcend local and national boundaries and who try to link up with those outside of their own home countries in order to have an impact on local, national and global issues (Stäbler 2014).[4] The New Global Left is that subgroup of global civil society that is critical of neoliberal and capitalist globalization, corporate capitalism and the exploitative and undemocratic structures of global governance (Santos 2006; Steger et al 2013). The larger global civil society also includes defenders of global capitalism and of the existing institutions of global governance as well as other challengers of the current global order. The New Global Left is the current incarnation of a constellation of popular forces, social movements, global political parties and progressive national regimes that have contested with the great powers and global elites for centuries. The existing institutions of global governance have been shaped by the efforts of competing elites to increase their powers and to defend their privileges, but also by the efforts of popular forces and progressive states to challenge the hierarchical institutions, defend workers’ rights, access to the commons, the rights of women and minorities, the sovereignty of indigenous peoples and to democratize the local, national and global institutions of governance (Chase-Dunn and Lerro 2014).

            Our notion of the New Global Left includes both civil society entities: individuals, social movement organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), but also political parties, party-networks and progressive national regimes. In this paper we will discuss the relationships among the movements and the progressive populist regimes that have emerged in Latin America in the last two decades. These regimes are an important part of the New Global Left, though it is well-known that the relationships among the movements and the regimes are both supportive and contentious (Chase-Dunn, Morosin and Alvarez 2014; Herrera 2014).[5]

            The boundaries of the progressive forces that have come together in the New Global Left are fuzzy and the process of inclusion and exclusion is ongoing. The rules of inclusion and exclusion that are contained in the Charter of the World Social Forum, though still debated, have not changed much since their formulation in 2001.[6]

            The New Global Left has emerged as resistance to, and a critique of, global capitalism. It is a coalition of social movements that includes:

·       old social movements that emerged in the 19th century (labor, anarchism, socialism, communism, feminism, environmentalism, peace, human rights) along with

·       more recent incarnations of these and movements that emerged in the world revolutions of 1968 and 1989 (queer rights, anti-corporate, fair trade, indigenous as well as

·       even more recent ones such as the climate justice movement, slow food-food rights, global justice-alterglobalization, anti-globalization, health-HIV and alternative media.

The explicit focus on the Global South and global justice is somewhat similar to some earlier incarnations of the Global Left, especially the COMINTERN, the Bandung Conference and the anti-colonial movements. The New Global Left contains remnants and reconfigured elements of earlier Global Lefts, but it is a qualitatively different constellation of forces because:

o      there are new elements,

o      the old movements have been reshaped, and

o      a new technology (the Internet) has been used to try to resolve North/South issues within movements and contradictions among movements.

There has also been a learning process in which the earlier successes and failures of the Global Left are being taken into account in order to not repeat the mistakes of the past. The relations within the family of antisystemic movements and among the populist regimes are both cooperative and competitive. This needs to be brought out into the open in order that the cooperative efforts may be enhanced so that global collective action for restructuring the world-system may be more effective.

Collective Action and Coalition Theories

            Many theoretical approaches in social science are relevant for understanding the process of coalition formation. Exchange theory predicts that parties that benefit one another should be more likely to engage in cooperative behavior. Balance theory predicts that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Balance of power theory predicts that coalitions in a triad of competing players are most likely to form among the weaker players in opposition to the strongest player.  All these theories presume a level of unified rational action that is unlikely to be present when the subjects of analysis are social movements. But they are nevertheless suggestive.

            A good summary of the main elements involved in coalition formation among social movements is that by Sidney Tarrow (2005).  Regarding coalitions within and between social movements, Tarrow contends that the most common purposes of these are to combat a common threat or to take advantage of an opportunity; hence, the often-temporary nature of coalitions. The common threat or existence of opportunity is what gives rise to the coalition and allows it to exist (see also Van Dyke 2003; Van Dyke and McCammon 2010). According to Tarrow four elements are necessary to maintain a coalition:

1.                  Members must frame the issue that brings them together with a common interest.

2.                  Members’ trust in each other and believe that their peers have a credible      commitment to the common issue(s) and/or goal(s).

3.                  The coalition must have a mechanism(s) to manage differences in language,

            orientation, tactics, culture, ideology, etc. between and among the collective's

            members (especially in transnational coalitions).

4.                  The shared incentive to participate and, consequently, benefit.

Cooperative action and coalitions vary in intensity and longevity. At one extreme are mergers that involve covenants in which the former parties lose their separate identities and create a new integrated and structured organization. At the other extreme are temporary alliances for specific limited purposes in which the parties maintain their separate identities and organizations. 

Zald and McCarthy (1987) use organizational analysis, especially based on the necessity for social movement organizations to obtain resources, to consider the factors that are involved in conflict and cooperation among social movements. They make an important distinction between inclusive and exclusive social movement organizations and discuss how this affects competition and cooperation.  Social movement industries are defined as congeries of social movement organizations that pursue the same or similar goals (Zald and McCarthy 1987:161). They also distinguish between sympathizers and constituents and between beneficiaries and altruistic benefactors. And they consider the situational and organizational  factors that affect cooperation and competition among social movement organizations.

Transnational social movements have big challenges that more local movements have to a much lesser extent.  There is a global culture in formation (Meyer 2009; Chase-Dunn 1998), but many big cultural differences between nations, classes, and ethnic groups remain. People in different parts of the world-system have different problems and different interests. Thus all transnational movements have huge problems of communication and value differences, differences in modes of political expression, differences in the relative importance of issues, and differences in the availability of resources. All these factors undermine identification and trust. These differences exist within each social movement industry (Zald and McCarthy 1987), and between social movement industries. Nevertheless transnational social movements emerged in earlier centuries when these problems were even more daunting and yet they managed to form powerful coalitions that were significant players in world politics. The current availability of less costly technologies of communications and transportation has proven to be a great opportunity for organizing movements internationally.

Ruth Reitan (2007) addresses the issue of types of solidarity among global activists.

Conscience constituents are direct supporters of a social movement organization who do not stand to benefit directly from the accomplishment of that organization’s goals (McCarthy and Zald 1977). According to Reitan two forms of solidarity emerge among those distant from the immediate consequences that are the focus of the movement: altruistic solidarity and reciprocal solidarity.  Altruistic solidarity occurs when “sympathy with the suffering of others who are deemed worthy of one’s support seems to be the prevailing affective response among those who choose to act” (Reitan 2007:51). Altruistic solidarity is characterized by low risk activism that may be largely apolitical, suppress contentious action, and even reproduce inequality. In her research on emergency food providers, Poppendieck (1999:231) argues that charitable altruism is “a gift, offered with condescension and accepted in desperation, that is necessitated by incapacity and failure” and maintains social distance between the giver and receiver. Further, Poppendieck (1999:9) identifies the “‘moral safety valve’ function of charitable programs [in] relieving the discomfort of the privileged and thus the pressure for more fundamental action.”

            On the other hand, “reciprocal solidarity” emerges when “a perceived connection between one’s own problems or struggle and that of others tends to lead to empathy with another’s suffering and a sense that its source is at least remotely threatening to oneself” (Reitan 2007:51). Reciprocal solidarity is characterized by pluralism and mutual cooperation between conscience constituents and beneficiary constituents in pursuit of structural change. Conscience constituents engaged in reciprocal solidarity may attempt to unpack privilege in order to understand their position(s) in larger systems of power that tend to recreate themselves in social movements (Eichstedt 2001; McIntosh 2007; Paulsen and Glumm 1995). These stark distinctions, however, are largely analytical, as “movements today are comprised of identity, reciprocal, and altruistic solidarities alike, in different mixes towards different outcomes” (Reitan 2007:56).

Reitan recognizes the importance and validity of both altruistic and reciprocal solidarity, but also considers their limitations. She tells the story of Jubilee 2000, a coalition of churches in the Global North who began a campaign of debt relief for countries in the Global South who had become hugely indebted to banks in the Global North in the last decades of the 20th century.  Jubilee 2000 was based mainly on altruistic solidarity with somewhat weak participation from the Global South. But, when the campaign succeeded in bringing banks to the table for negotiations about debt relief, the leadership of Jubilee 2000 made compromises that were seen as betrayal by the activists from the Global South, who then formed their own organization, Jubilee South.  This story is meant to show the limitations of altruistic solidarity and the necessity for activists from the Global South to have their own autonomous organizations.  A related issue is the sometimes contentious relationship between NGOs (organizations with budgets and paid staff) and social movement organizations that rely on mass memberships and volunteer (unpaid) leadership.

Reitan (2007) tells the story of Via Campesina, a global union of small farmers, that rejected participation by NGOs after these were seen as attempting to steer the organization. Via Campesina opted to restrict membership to farmers only, even excluding friendly participant-observing sociologists as well as NGOs.

            Related to the discussion of altruistic solidarity is the discourse about cosmopolitan identity. Yanacopolous and Smith discuss this as follows:

As organizations increasingly working across national borders and addressing transnational issues – such as development – NGOs could be seen as the expression of a key cosmopolitan norm. In seeking to communicate global ideas and persuade individuals to respond to the welfare of the 'distant other', development NGOs could be seen as promoting a post-national cosmopolitan agenda which challenges difference and which seeks to change dominant attitudes and dispositions. Underlying these connections is a contestable notion of NGOs as values-based organizations seeking 'alternatives' which better address poverty and injustice” (Yanacopolous and  Smith 2008: 301)…. ...despite the apparent resonance between NGOs and cosmopolitan norms, NGOs' cosmopolitanism is currently somewhat ambivalent.” (ibid: 303).


 Perhaps more significant is the critique of the ways NGOs - and the development industry more generally - has proclaimed universal values that are in effect firmly rooted in the particular Western liberal traditions and histories from which NGOs have emerged. This, then, reproduces Van der Veer's (2002) notion of a colonial cosmopolitanism in which the desire to empathize and understand the 'other' is part of a system of controlling and managing the 'other'. A second problem with this proclamation of universal values allied to an engagement with the distant 'other' has been the way it has largely been realized in terms of charity towards the 'other' as opposed to justice (Yanacopulos, 2007) (Yanacopulos and Smith 2008:307).

            There has been a lively debate within the cosmopolitan tradition concerning the relative merits of charity vis-a-vis justice-based approaches. Obviously, one of the problems with NGOs and their adoption of global civil society since the 1980s is that it fits nicely into the neoliberal New Policy Agenda (McIllwaine 2007; Eschle and Stammers 2004). In the US context, the nonprofit industrial complex (the domestic version of NGOs) has been criticized for depoliticizing potential activists by turning them into passive service recipients. On the other hand, service provisioning can also be understood to “improve the daily lives of constituents, as well as to build solidarity, political analysis, self-determination, and loyalty” and therefore complimentary or constitutive of activism (Luft 2009).

        More recently Reitan (2012a:324) has discussed the 'frayed braid' composed of the three strands of the historic global left (liberalism, marxism, and anarcho-autonomism), pointing out that in the current setting, these strands have not broken apart as they did in previous world revolutions. Reitan contends that the different strands of the braid have learned from the past.  She also says , there is “a desire for building intermovement solidarity and broader alliances while retaining intra-movement identity and autonomy.” (Reitan 2012a, 324). And further

activists are reflecting on and debating together, hybridizing, experimenting with and challenging the limits of these traditions in unique ways. Groups and individuals inspired by each tendency hone their tactics, refine positions, and strengthen identities, while simultaneously seeking alliances, coordinating actions, and articulating nascent strategies with a wide range of others. Throughout this mobilization cycle they have sought to dialogue, build trust, craft consensus declarations, and act in coalitions when possible or in parallel affinity blocs when not.  While tensions are ever present, activists make ongoing efforts to mitigate, manage, bridge, or downplay them toward joint action—or at the very least to not work at cross-purposes.” (Reitan 2012a, 325)

            Reitan (2012b) also addresses the issues involved in the upscaling of transnational social movements – moving from the local to the transnational level of organizing.  She says

rather than simply an exodus—i.e. ‘spillover’ or ‘spillout’—from one movement to another, or a distinct transnational movement arising spontaneously, key bridge-building organizations have proven crucial in shifting down to harness nascent activist energies by brokering new ties and reinvigorating old ones as well as frame extending between emerging and extant concerns, in order to scale back up as a broader transnational movement for Global Peace and Justice (Reitan 2012b, 337).

Reitan writes that:

the process of transnational coalescence entails bridge-builders...who, when faced with a new bellwether or trigger issue, temporarily scale down (i.e. internalize, or loop back) to the local, national, or macroregional levels, but with the aim to scale up again to the transnational level of contention as a broader movement. To do so, they use various framing tactics while brokering new ties and diffusing information among existing and new activists, particularly frame extension, in order to foster transnational coalescence...between ‘new’ and ‘old’ issues and movements (Reitan 2012b, 338).

Reitan also discusses the “rooted cosmopolitans” named by Sidney Tarrow (2005:42).  These are activists “whose relations place them beyond their local or national settings without detaching them from locality.” “Thus, rather than being rootless cosmopolitans these bridge-builders are among the most committed and seasoned activists, with expertise, leadership experience and ready access to domestic-level material and symbolic resources” (Reitan 2012b:339).  These are the activists featured in Keck and Sikkink’s (1998) analysis of “transnational advocacy networks” and they pinpoint one of the motives for upscaling (going transnational). This is the so-called “boomerang effect” in which social movement activists use their ties abroad to bring pressure on reticent local or national authorities.  

This discussion also reminds us of Wallerstein’s (2004) mention of the importance of ‘synergists” who participate in, and link, different social movements with one another, as well as the study of such bridgers by Carroll and Ratner (1996). 

Justice Globalism as an Ideological Constellation

Manfred Steger, James Goodman and Erin K. Wilson (2013) present the results of a systematic study of the political ideas employed by forty-five NGOs and social movement organizations associated with the International Council of the World Social Forum. Using a modified form of morphological discourse analysis developed by Michael Freeden (2003) for studying political ideologies, Steger, Goodman and Wilson analyzed texts (web sites, press releases and declarations) and conducted interviews to examine the key concepts, secondary concepts and overall coherence of the political ideas expressed by these organizations as proponents of “justice globalism.”  Steger et al see three main contending ideological constellations for the contemporary “global imaginary”: market globalism (what others have called neoliberalism), political Islam and justice globalism.  Their study is mainly about the conceptual and policy content of justice globalism but, since several of the key concepts are also used by market globalists, (democracy, justice, human rights, development) the ways in which the uses of these terms are distinguished from their meanings in the neoliberal discourse are an important part of the efforts made by justice globalists to clarify their approach. Steger et al also utilize Freeden’s (2003) notion of “decontestation” whereby central concepts are reinforced by metaphors and narratives that establish greater consensus about their meanings.

            The key concepts of justice globalism extracted by Steger et al (2013: Table 2.1 pp. 28-29) are:

·       participatory democracy,

·       transformative change,

·       equality of access to resources and opportunities,

·        social justice,

·       universal rights,

·        global solidarity and

·       sustainability.

The meanings of each of these concepts have emerged in an on-going dialectical struggle with market globalism. Steger et al discuss each of these and evaluate how much consensus exists across the forty-five movement organizations studied. They claim that there is a relatively impressive degree of consensus, but their results also reveal on-going contestation. For example, though most of the organizations seem to favor one or another form of participatory democracy, there is also awareness of some of limitations of participatory democracy, and different attitudes toward participation in representative democracy.

The important notion of “horizontality” is not examined in detail, but it is well-known that networks of equal and leaderless individuals are preferred to formal or informal hierarchy within movements.

Some of the organizations studied by Steger et al eschew participation in established electoral processes, while others do not. Steger et al highlight the importance of “multiplicity” as an approach that values diversity rather than trying to find “one size fits all” solutions.  They note that the Charter of the World Social Forum values inclusivity and the welcoming of marginalized groups.  But Steger et al do not give much attention to the issue of prefiguration --“building the new society inside the shell of the old,” though this stance has found wide support from many important global justice social movement organizations.  The Zapatistas, the Occupy anarchists, and many in the environmental movement are engaged in efforts to construct the sustainable alternative world that they want to see rather than trying to change the whole system. Also not much attention is given to the notion of community rights in the human rights discourse, nor to the idea that nature (“mother earth” has rights as proposed by the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2010. The discussion of global solidarity emphasizes the centrality of what Ruth Reitan (2007) has called “altruistic solidarity” – the identification with poor and marginalized peoples – without much consideration of solidarity based on common circumstances or identities.  Steger et al do, however, mention the important efforts to link groups that are operating at both local and global levels of contention. 

Steger et al also designate five central ideological claims that find great consensus among the global justice activists:

These assertions shape the policy alternatives proposed by global justice activists. The Steger et al study is a useful paragon of how to do research on political ideology and it provides important insights into what we have called the New Global Left.

The Social Forum Surveys

            Our research on the World Social Forum has produced maps of the network of movements that are involved in the social forum process (see Figure 1).  This is probably a fair representation of the structure of the left wing portion of global civil society.  The University of California-Riverside Transnational Social Movement Research Working Group has conducted four paper surveys of attendees at Social Forum events. [7]

We used previous studies of the global justice movement by Amory Starr (2000) and by William Fisher and Thomas Ponniah (2003) to construct our original list of eighteen social movement themes that we believed would be represented at the January 2005 World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. We also conducted a survey at the WSF in Nairobi, Kenya in 2007 in which we used most of these same movement themes, but we separated human rights from anti-racism and we added eight additional movement themes (development, landless, immigrant, religious, housing, jobless, open source, and autonomous). We used this same larger list of 27 movement themes at the US Social Forum (USSF) in Atlanta in 2007 and in Detroit at the USSF in 2010.

We studied changes and continuities in the relative sizes of movements and changes in the network centrality (multiplicative coreness) of movements. Relative movement size is indicated by the percentage of surveyed attendees who claimed to be actively involved in each movement theme.  We asked each attendee to check whether or not they identified with, or were actively involved in each of the movement themes[8] with following item on our survey questionnaire:

(Check all of the following movements with which you (a) strongly identify with and/or (b) are actively involved in:

(a) strongly identify:                                        (b) are actively involved in:      

1. oAlternative media/culture                                      oAlternative media/culture

2. oAnarchist                                                                  oAnarchist

3. oAnti-corporate                                                        oAnti-corporate

4. oAnti-globalization                                                          oAntiglobalization                                            

 5. oAntiracism                                       oAntiracism   

6. oAlternative Globalization/Global Justice             oAlternative Globalization/Global Justice

7. oAutonomous                                                            oAutonomous

8. oCommunist                                                               oCommunist

9. oDevelopment aid/Economic development      oDevelopment aid/Economic development

10.oEnvironmental                                                        oEnvironmental

11.oFair Trade/Trade Justice                                       oFair Trade/Trade Justice

12.oFood Rights/Slow Food                                        oFood Rights/Slow Food

13.oGay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer Rights     oGay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer Rights

14.oHealth/HIV                                                              oHealth/HIV

15.oHousing rights/anti-eviction/squatters              oHousing rights/anti-eviction/squatters

16.oHuman Rights                                                         oHuman Rights

17.oIndigenous                                                              oIndigenous

18.oJobless workers/welfare rights                            oJobless workers/welfare rights

19.oLabor                                                                        oLabor

20.oMigrant/immigrant rights                                      oMigrant/immigrant rights

21.oNational Sovereignty/National Liberation         oNational Sovereignty/National Liberation

22.oOpen-Source/Intellectual Property Rights         oOpen-Source/Intellectual Property Rights

23.oPeace/Anti-war                                                       oPeace/Anti-war

24.oPeasant/Farmers/Landless/Land-reform            oPeasant/Farmers/Landless/Land-reform

25.oReligious/Spiritual                                                 oReligious/Spiritual

26.oSocialist                                                                   oSocialist

27.oWomen's/Feminist                                                 oWomen's/Feminist

28.oOther(s), Please list ___________________   oOther(s), Please list _________________


Figure 1: The Network of Movement Linkages at the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi

The UCINet QAP routine produces a Pearson’s r correlation coefficient that shows the degree of similarity between two dichotomized affiliation network matrices. The Pearson’s r coefficient varies from -1 (a perfectly negative linear relationship between two variables) and +1, a perfectly positive linear relationship.  The Pearson’s r correlation coefficient between the USSF 2007 and the USSF 2010 movement affiliation matrices was 0.74.  This is a rather strong positive correlation and is slightly larger than was found between the World Social Forum meeting in Nairobi and the U.S. Social Forum meeting in Atlanta, which was 0.71 (Chase-Dunn and Kaneshiro 2009). It is unsurprising that the Atlanta USSF network would be more similar to the Detroit USSF than it would be to the Nairobi WSF, but the surprise is that the national and global affiliation matrices are so similar. This implies that there is a fairly similar structure of network connections among movements that is global in scope and that the global level network is rather close to the network produced when activists from grassroots movements within the U.S. come together. This is the movement of movements within which we hope to help construct a more effective instrument. [9]


The history of broad-based left wing movement coalitions in earlier periods is relevant for understanding articulation processes in the contemporary world revolution.  The 3rd International (COMINTERN) was a complex of red networks assembled to coordinate the political actions of communists in the years after World War I. It was in this context that a transnational group of communist intellectuals claimed to lead the global proletariat in a world revolution that was intended to transform capitalism into socialism and communism by abolishing large-scale private property in the means of production (Hobsbawm 1994).

The COMINTERN adopted its own statutes at its second congress in 1920. It was led by an Executive Committee and a Presidium. The statutes stated that congresses with representatives from all over the world were to meet “not less than once a year.” The COMINTERN also organized and sponsored a number of other “front organizations” – the Red International of Labor Unions, the Communist Youth International, International Red Aid, the International Peasants’ Council, the Workers’ International Relief and the Communist Women’s Organization (Sworakowski 1965; COMINTERN Electronic Archive).

The COMINTERN was founded in the Soviet Union, the “fatherland of the proletariat,” and so it is often depicted as having been mainly a tool of Soviet foreign policy. There is little doubt that this became true after the rise of Stalin. In perhaps the most blatant example, Stalin tried to use the COMINTERN to get Communist Parties all over the world to support the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. But during Lenin’s time the COMINTERN held large multinational congresses attended by people with at least forty languages as their native tongues. The largest of these congresses had as many as 1600 delegates attending.  Sworakowski (1965:9) says,

After some attempts at restrictions in the beginning, delegates were permitted to use at the meetings any language they chose. Their speeches were translated into Russian, German, French and English, or digests in these languages were read to the congresses immediately following the speech in another language. Whether a speech was translated verbatim or digested to longer or shorter versions depended upon the importance of the speaker. Only by realizing these time-consuming translation and digesting procedures does it become understandable why some congresses lasted as long as forty-five days.[10]

            The COMINTERN was abolished in 1943, though the Soviet Union continued to pose as the protagonist of the world working class until its demise in 1989.  Paul Mason (2013) reminds us of the importance of threats from other social movements that pose challenges that drive former sectarians to try to be more inclusive.  The United Front originated as an effort by Communists to create an alliance with other socialists, peasants and all workers.  The Popular Front was an even broader coalition that included all those who were willing to oppose fascism, including capitalists and their parties.  These efforts have usually been seen as manipulative moves by communists to infiltrate and control other movement organizations, but David Blaazer’s (1992) study of Popular Front leaders in Britain shows that many of the non-communist participants were not ignorant dupes of the communists. They were committed democrats and socialists who were willing to work with communists in order to mobilize the fight against fascism (see also the essays in Graham and Preston, 1987).  The anti-anticommunism of the New left in the world revolution of 1968 was another example of an inclusive social movement that was willing to overlook a bad history in order to combine forces with former competitors (Gitlin 1993).  So the unfrayed braid observed by Reitan had earlier incarnations.

But the general point made by Mason stands. The forces of divergence in the global left of the 1930s were partly overcome by the clear and present danger of the rise of a great wave of fascism (Goldfrank 1978). Of course in the midst of all this cooperation the Trotskyists proclaimed a Fourth International in 1938 (James 1997).  And after the demise of fascism that resulted from the outcome of World War II, the left fragmented again in most countries.  Maoists in China managed to put together a coalition strong enough to beat the Nationalists and to govern the new Peoples Republic.  But in other countries this produced a new fissure between the Maoists and other elements of the left.

            Does this history of fronts have implications for the present and the near future? Might there be a 21st century functional equivalent of fascism that could drive elements of the New Global Left closer together, or serve as a driving force for the organization of new capable instruments of global political activity?  Here we should distinguish between what social movement scholars call counter-movements[11] versus other contending movements that have goals that are very different from the New Global Left but are not responses to it. Counter-movements are movements that emerge to counter-act and oppose the efforts of other movements (Snow and Soule (2010:82)  William I. Robinson (2013) contends that recent developments in response to the growth of resistance from below and the disarray caused by the various contemporary crises of global corporate capitalism constitute the rise of “21st century fascism” in the guise of a globally coordinated police state. Others have spoken of “surveillance capitalism” and the “national security state.” Such a development could become such a large threat that the divergent elements in the New Global Left might be forced to forge a strong and organized response. Some of the horizontalists and prefigurers would need to compromise their principles in order to put together more pragmatic and better organized instruments with which to counter 21st century fascism. 

            Regarding contending movements from below, the obvious candidate mentioned by Steger, et al is political Islam.  Interestingly, there has been little discourse within the New Global Left regarding political Islam. Cosmopolitans want to uphold the freedom of religion and to protest racist attacks on innocent Moslems. The New Global Left has, at least so far, been willing to let the neoliberals carry the ball regarding gender discrimination, female genital mutilation, and other issues. But the events in Egypt and the other Middle Eastern Arab Spring situations make it obvious that the issues involved must eventually be confronted. Inclusive diversity and multiplicity must eventually reach their limits. That said, it is unlikely that political Islam will play a role analogous to that of 20th century fascism in provoking a stronger alliance of movements of the New Global Left.

States and Social Movements

Our concern for capacity (and muscle) in world politics suggests the importance of a discussion of the contentious current relationship between antisystemic social movements and reformist and antisystemic regimes such as those that have been elected in many Latin American countries. We agree with Patrick Bond (2013) that many of the semiperipheral state challengers to the hegemony and policies of the United States (the so-called BRICS)[12] seem mainly to be trying to move up the food chain within the capitalist world-system rather than trying to produce a more democratic and sustainable world society. Revolutions are needed within these polities to produce regimes that will be effective agents of transformative social change. This said, transnational social movements should be prepared to work with progressive regimes that emerge in order to try to change the rules of the global economic order (Evans 2009; 2010).

 It is well-known that many transnational movement organizations scorn politics-as-usual and resist efforts by progressive regimes to provide resources and leadership to movements. Autonomism makes this a basic principle and the World Social Forum Charter proscribes individuals from attending as representatives of governments.  This is part of the anti-elitism of the culture of grass roots movements.  President Lula of Brazil and President Chavez of Venezuela had to give their speeches at a venue near to, but not part of, the World Social Forum meetings in Brazil.[13] When nineteen prominent leftist academics tried to issue a declaration in the name of the World Social Forum at end of the meeting in Porto Alegre in 2005  they were widely denounced as elitists.  This is related to the horizontalist stance that has been strong in the Social Forum process since its emergence. The activists want leaders to “bubble up from below.” The Zapatistas of Chiapas take this position. Similar elements were widespread in the student movements of the 1960s (Gitlin 1993). Facilitators were preferred over grandstanders. The New Left critique of the Old Left was heavily based on a rejection of the goal of taking state power, which tended to become an end in itself and to corrupt the transformative projects of movements. This shows an awareness of what Robert Michels termed “the oligarchical tendencies of political parties.”

The “leaderless” discourse of the Occupy Movement was another incarnation of horizontalism. Horizontalism is constituted by a strong commitment to the value of each unique individual, and the equality of individuals, and to the empowerment of marginalized groups. In this sense it is redolent of the global moral order described and analyzed by John W. Meyer (2009).  Radical individualism has been an important feature of millenarian religious and political movements since medieval times (Cohn 1970).

A comparative world historical perspective on state/movement relations would stress the importance of the effects that earlier world revolutions had because of the emergence of regimes in the semiperiphery that explicitly challenged and the existing world order and the global rule of capital.[14] The rise of the Bolshevik Regime in Russia, as well as strong labor movements within the core states,  spurred the New Deal and social democracy to save capitalism by reforming it. In the world-systems perspective states are organizations that claim sovereignty but that are actually interdependent parts of a larger polity – the interstate system. A movement that attains state power in a modern national state has not conquered the whole system. It has taken over an institution that is part of a larger system.

This explains much about the policies of the so-called communist states that came to power in the 20th century. They engaged in semiperipheral protectionism in order to industrialize and they invested huge resources on military capability in order to prevent conquest by capitalist core states.  It is entirely understandable why social movements should seek to maintain their autonomy from states, but the ideology of non-participation in “politics-as-usual” could benefit by recognition of the functionality of coordination between radical and reformist social movement organizations.  Radical movements that threaten to transform the whole social order increase the likelihood that enlightened conservatives will make deals with less radical and more legitimate social movement organizations and NGOs.[15]  This is how it has worked in the past and how it is likely to work in the future.  Awareness of this dynamic should be useful to social movement organizations, promoting greater tolerance and collaboration between radicals and reformists. 

The Global Class Structure

            Analysts of an alleged global stage of capitalism contend that a transnational capitalist class has recently emerged and that global capitalism is also producing a newly transnationalized working class (e.g. Sklair 2001; Robinson 2006). This analysis has the implication that class struggle should now be occurring at the global level. World-systems analysts have been studying the system-wide configuration of classes over the past several hundred years (Wallerstein 1974; Amin 1980) but whether or not recent changes are seen in long-run perspective, there have obviously been important recent changes and these have implications for analyzing potential movement that might emerge in response to recent crises. The analysts of global capitalism have talked about “the peripheralization of the core” as a way of describing the attack on core workers and unions that has been carried out by neoliberals. The casualization of labor and the growth of the informal sector has been an important phenomenon in both core and non-core countries since the rise of Reaganism-Thatcherism.  Beverly Silver’s (2003) study of waves of labor unrest shows that the export of the industrial proletariat from the core to the semiperiphery produced militant labor movements in the new regions of industrial manufacturing in the semiperiphery.

Savan Savas Karataşlı, Sefika Kumral, Ben Scully and Smriti Upadhyay ( 2014) study the recent wave of unrest that spread around the globe from 2008 to 2011, building upon Silver’s (2003) studies of labor unrest using  protest and labor unrest data coded from major news sources.  They provide a useful review of efforts in the social science literature to analyze this global cycle of protest. They note that most analyses underplay the significance of the role of wage-earners in these protests. They use their coded protest data to examine the extent to which this recent wave of protests indicates a recurrence of past forms of unrest or whether the current period represents a different pattern.

Silver (2003) divides labor protest into two categories: Marx-type and Polanyi-type. Marx-type unrest refers to offensive struggles of new working classes in formation, whereas Polanyi-type unrest refers to the defensive protests of workers whose previous gains are being undermined as well as resistance against proletarianization (Karatasli et al 2014).

The authors find that, along with a mix of Marx-type unrest[16] and Polanyi-type unrest[17], which are part of the older cyclical process of capitalism making and unmaking livelihoods,[18] a third type of unrest, driven by what Marx called stagnant relative surplus population[19], also played a large part in the protests of 2011 and presents a “secular  trend in which capitalism destroys more livelihoods than it creates over time.” The growing number of this third type of worker, composed largely of those who can work but are unable to be absorbed by the productive capacity of the economy, and their presence in protests and social movements that have continued in the aftermath of 2011, gives credence to the idea that the problems faced in regions of unrest are chronic and enduring. This growing excluded segment of the population is an important force in these movements and the secular increase in this section of the working class poses a critical challenge to the capitalist system.[20]

Karatasli et al 2014 criticize those who focus discussion of “the precariat” (e.g. Standing 2011; see also Korotayev and Zinkina 2011)) of middle-class workers whose job conditions and incomes have declined and on educated young people who cannot get a job commensurate with their expectations and face large education-related debts (“graduates without a future”)[21]  It would seem that both these and the less educated young who cannot find employment could be understood as different parts of the stagnant relative surplus population. Karatasli et al (2014) strongly demonstrate that workers have played a large role in the 2011 protest wave, and they correctly note that this has often been overlooked by other analysts of these protests.

Contenders for Articulation

Which of the existing transnational social movements and movement coalitions that have come out of the Social Forum process could plausibly emerge as central to the formation of a more capacious coalition of the New Global Left that could strongly challenge the global rule of capital in the 21st century? We agree with Steger et al that a coherent ideological framework already exists. And our survey findings support the optimism from Ruth Reitan and Jackie Smith (Smith and Wiest 2012) regarding the existence of already functioning collaboration within the Social Forum process and elsewhere. But we also see the need for stronger and more capable instruments to play a role in world politics in the emerging period of crises.  Where might such a force for articulation come from?

Workers (Again)

Could a reconfigured movement based on workers rights and global unionism come out of the global precariat that has been produced by neoliberal capitalist attacks on labor unions and the welfare state? Peter Waterman has proposed a Global Labor Charter that is intended to mobilize such a coalition and Guy Standing (2014)  proposes charter for the precariat.  Mike Davis (2006) has suggested that the informal sector workers of the Global South might step forward as a historical subject, and William I Robinson (2006) has theorized the emergence of a transnational working class that has been created by the processes of global capitalism. Austerity politics by neoliberals might provide the basis for such a movement, and elements of an anti-austerity coalition seemed to be operating in the European Summer and the Occupy Movements. Perhaps a reconfigured version of the Old Left notion of the world working class as the midwife of a possible other world might yet be able to articulate the anti-systemic movements. Social movement unionism and experiments in cross-border organizing have had some successes as well as notable failures. But in a deepening crisis these efforts might yet pan out.

            The precariat also includes the unemployed educated seen by Mason as the main participants in the recent waves of popular protest demonstrations that have emerged since the Arab Spring. The educated unemployed (or underemployed) are also burdened with large debts incurred when neoliberals shifted much of the cost of public higher education on to students. In the context of growing levels of income and wealth inequality within many core countries (Picketty 2014) this would seem to prepare the ground for social movements in which radicalized middle class elements might once again ally with the urban poor and workers, as they did in the world revolution of 1848 (Mason 2013).


            Maria Mies (1986) argued that women and the marginalized peasants and workers of the Global South formed an exploited and potentially revolutionary subject that could rise to challenge global capitalism. Ecofeminists have emphasized the complementarities of a kinder gentler approach to nature and the politics of women. Socialist feminists have noted the growing important of female labor in all the world’s regions and the leadership shown by global feminists in confronting and partially resolving North/South differences among women (Moghadam 2005).  Anarchists such as David Graeber (2013) have noted that many of the processual innovations that were utilized in the Occupy Movement came out of feminist practices.[22]  Feminists have links with many of the other movements, as shown by the results of our research on the network of social movement connections in Figure 1 above. 

Climate Justice

            Arguably the most imminent crisis produced by contemporary global capitalism is the onrushing arrival of anthropogenic climate change. The environmental movement has strong links with some elements of the labor movement, with global indigenism, and with feminism (mentioned above). Patrick Bond (2012)  has written convincingly of the emerging centrality of the climate justice movement. Climate justice emerged from the environmental justice movement, which was a combination of environmentalism and human rights and anti-racism.  It has long been noted that the poor are the first to suffer the effects of pollution and environmental degradation. Steger et al (2012) devoted an entire chapter of their study of justice globalism policy implications to the “climate crisis” and Ruth Reitan and Shannon Gibson (2012) studied three climate activist networks that participated in the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, supporting the notion that climate justice has great potential as a unifying framework for the New Global Left.

            Of course there are other possibilities for the role of articulator.  We have cited Reitan’s (2012b) consideration of the peace movement. The emerging context of crises will be an important set of forces that will favor some frames over others. The order, speed of onset, and interaction of different kinds of crises will also favor either a more reformist global Keynsianism  versus a more radical restructuring of political and economic institutions.


          As a famous East Asian revolutionary said, ‘the situation is excellent.” Capitalism is in crisis again and the forces of progress are moving to try to create a more humane, democratic and sustainable world society.  A coherent social science perspective exists with which to analyze the structures and institutions of the system (the comparative evolutionary world-systems perspective) and a coherent political ideology, justice globalism, has come out of the Social Forum process. What is needed now is organization. Climate justice, feminism or a new version of the workers’ movement could be frameworks for uniting those who want to build a new society within the skeleton of the old with those who want to reorganize the whole system. That would be a serious instrument.


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[1]               Snow and Soule (2009:6) define social movements as follows: “social movements are collectivities acting with some degree of organization and continuity, partly outside institutional or organizational channels, for the purpose of challenging extant systems of authority, or resisting  change in such systems, in the organization, society, culture, or world system in which they are embedded.” 

[2]Antisystemic movements include a diverse “family of movements” working to advance greater democracy and equality. According to Wallerstein, “to be antisystemic is to argue that neither liberty nor equality is possible under the existing system and that both are possible only in a transformed world” (1990:36)

[3] World revolutions are named by a symbolic year in which some of the major events that indicate the nature of the revolts occurred.

[4] Some definitions of global civil society exclude advocates of armed struggle, but these should be included because they sometimes have important effects on world order.

[5] Our categorization of reformist and antisystemic regimes in Latin America from 1959 to 2012 is contained in the Appendix to Chase-Dunn, Morosin and Alvarez (2014) which is available at

[6]  The charter of the World Social Forum discourages participation by those who attend as representatives of organizations that are engaged in, or that advocate, armed struggle. Nor are governments, confessional institutions or political parties supposed to send representatives to the WSF. See World Social Forum Charter

[7] Our project web page contains the WSF05, WSF07 and USSF07 and USSF 10 survey instruments. See . All network calculations employed the UCINET 6.130 software package (Borgatti, Everett & Freeman 2002)


[8] What we call “movement themes” include both ideological constellations (e.g. anarchism, communism, etc.)  and topical issues. The latter groupings of social movement organizations around their goals have been called “social movement industries” (Zald and McCarthy, 1987; Snow and Soule 2010:152).

[9] Our survey data will allow us to compare individuals who are active in several social movements with those that are active in only one or two. We think this may be a window that will allow us to better understand the nature of synergists – activists who bridge a number of different movements. Are they more or less radical than other activists? Are they more or less globally oriented? Could they be key players in articulation?


[10] Participants in the World Social Forum process know the complications involved in such efforts to convene global meetings of this sort.

[11] This term is used in a very different sense in the literature on Karl Polanyi’s “double-movement” in response to marketization.

[12] The BRICS are Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

[13] Despite these anti-statist stances the World Social Forum has received important support from Pink Tide regimes in Latin America.

[14] All of the three hegemons of the modern world-system (the Dutch, the British and the United
States)  were former semiperipheral states and the Chinese and Russian revolutions of the 20th century occurred in semiperipheral countries.

[15] Zald and McCarthy (1987:168-169) discuss how competition between radical and reformist movement organizations is exacerbated by the greater likelihood that the reformists will be granted legitimacy by authorities, but they also mention “the functions of the radical fringe.”

[16] Marx-type unrest occurred among “the working classes that have been formed in those East and South Asian countries that are undergoing economic transformations. These new working classes are putting forth offensive demands and, in doing so, have made East and South Asia global centers of labor unrest (Karatasli et al 2014).

[17] Polanyi-type “protests belong to working classes that are currently being unmade in one way or another: Public-sector workers are losing their previously gained rights and privileges due to austerity politics. Workers are resisting the closing down of factories, mines, or state-owned enterprises, and are protesting the restructuring of the pay scales that jeopardize overtime pay, bonuses, and special allowances” (Karatasli et al 2014; see also Burawoy 2012).

[18]we find protests of working classes being unmade in declining centers of production, and protests of working classes being made in rising centers of production, with localized mixes of the two found across the world economy” (Karatasli et al 2014).


[19] “These are workers who, because they are superfluous to the needs of existing capital, have extremely irregular employment and thus demand primarily ‘more jobs’ “(Karatasli et al 2014).

[20] Mike Davis (2006) has also pointed to the significance of the huge portion of humanity that has been by-passed by the capitalist accumulation process.

[21] Other research lends support to the notion that the Occupy Movement was strongly supported by “graduates without a future” (Milkman, Luce and Lewis 2013; Curran, Schwarz and Chase-Dunn 2014).

[22] Of course an early and powerful critique of leaderlessness was written by feminist Jo Freeman (1970).