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Roundtable on 'The Problem of Action'
An exchange on How Do We Get There? The Problem of Action

John Foran


As an ecosocialist, a long-standing (and long-suffering) member of the Green Party of California, and an ardent supporter of 350.org, I have always argued that the answer to Paul Raskin’s one big question—Just how do we get there?—called for the formation of the biggest, baddest, most inventive global social movement the world has ever seen, and this is probably not far from what Paul has in mind with the Global Citizens Movement.

But as a scholar of twentieth-century revolutions and twenty-first century movements for radical social change, I have started to come around to the idea that the urgency of the crisis in which we find ourselves, and the lack of adequate action on all sides (myself very much included) means that we need to consider the necessity of imagining something akin to a new kind of party, as well.

We are called, but to what we do not know exactly. In the face of the Anthropocene and the climate crisis, militarism, inequality, and a widespread lack of political voice, it is hard to know what to do. Very hard.

Yet it is precisely this question, this existential challenge, on which we must now focus our imaginations and love, in search of the greatest transformation we are capable of conjuring up—a Great Transition of all our systems—to something whole and nourishing for the planet and for the generations of Earthly creatures to come.

The good news is that millions—perhaps billions—of us know the score, and are ready to rise or already rising to the call. Transition initiatives, intentional communities, networks of educators, activists, and ordinary people, social movements large and small, streets of neighbors, and here-and-there political groupings have all emerged in recent years, determined both to block the machinery of death and to create the means of life.

It is to these beginnings of hope that we should now turn our attention, for to continue with business as usual is to slowly sink into chaos. The time is now and the agents are us, and those around us, in every corner of the Earth. To turn away is to go extinct. We must rise.

What We Might Try: A Proposal that Our Movements Confront the Issue of Political Power, Finding New Ways to Take and Use It

What could be the solution to all of this? What lies in fact between or beyond direct action, prefigurative communities, and meaningful elections? One idea that occurs to me is to combine electing some as yet unknown kind of “progressive” government and forging social movements to push it from below and alongside to make good on its promises, and for the new kind of parties that would lead such governments to make links with other movements, nations, and organizations everywhere. In other words, rather than the dichotomous choice between seeking to change the world through elections versus building a new society from the bottom up, the future of radical social change may well lie at the many possible intersections of deeply democratic social movements and equally diverse and committed new types of parties and political coalitions.

The political parties of the future don’t yet exist, but we can catch glimpses of them and hopefully learn from such experimental forerunners as the political movement that grew up in Iceland after the great crash of 2008, and the electoral foibles and fortunes of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain (one could reference the Labour Party in Britain under Jeremy Corbyn as trending in the direction we wish, and also, though I know less about it, the much-heralded political experiment under way in Rojava, in northern Syria). Meanwhile, in Latin America, Pink Tide governments have also been working near this intersection. Other struggles that point toward this include the long movement for radical reforms in Kerala, India; the experiences of the world’s Green parties; and the global climate justice movement. Each of these, and perhaps most of all, Podemos, suggests or hints at a new kind of political entity or party, without yet being that party.

What Comes Next?

Instead of these halting if promising precursors, though, what we need is some excitingly new and original kind of party or network or coalition that in each country or case comes out of the social movements that would bring it to power and can then be held strictly accountable by them as it turns the ship of fools we’re on around. Such a “party” (and the name is apt for the convivial connotations it holds) will be the patient, challenging, loving product of the actions of many people, and it will embrace the many, richly diverse threads of the new political cultures of opposition and creation.

Of course, this sounds simplistic and unrealistic, too good to be of practical value. But what have we got to lose? We aren’t winning at present. We need to try something different, something we haven’t really tried before, but which has predecessors in Chile in the 1970s and the Latin American Pink Tide in this century, even though all such electoral efforts to date have been contained by the great countervailing economic and political power of the global one percent, not to mention their own limitations and mistakes.

What if we could harness the people power, radical imagination, and boundless energy of all of these new actors of the future, starting by facilitating discussions among the new social movements, together brainstorming how to fashion some new kind of party to take power where that is possible, and in the process beginning to support and enable all the emerging transition initiatives to co-create radical social transformation from the local to the national level?

So, let’s think about these pieces. The social movements have been introduced above. Not just the Arab Spring and Occupy, but their brilliant, short-lived predecessor, the global justice movement, and their more recent offspring in Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, and many, many other rising voices, the vast majority of them not yet well known.

Meanwhile, Transition initiatives, whether by that name or (more often) some other, have sprouted and are being tended in multiple locations today, from Totnes in the UK to the ZAD in the woods and fields of France. The US Transition Towns Gathering in the summer of 2017 brought together people engaged in this work from all parts of the country. The French film Demain and the accompanying book in English Tomorrow capture the vibrancy and possibility of these movements, across a global space that runs from urban gardens in Detroit; to a zero-waste processing plant in San Francisco; local currency in Bristol, England; a paper factory in France run on the principles of the circular economy; organic farming with solar panels on La Réunion in the Indian Ocean; and a refreshing experiment with village democracy in Kuthambakkam, India.

A valuable recent approach to the problem of making change in the midst of diversity and chaos is that heralded in the title of Adrienne Maree Brown’s 2017 book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. This approach counsels activists to work from the bottom up in an inclusive way to generate a collective analysis that enables all present to focus on articulating their desires and most sought-after outcomes. After starting with an assessment of the current state of relevant issues, an emergent strategy moves on to a visioning exercise to identify our ideal state, follows this with a “change analysis” stage, which outlines what needs to change in order to achieve those visions, and ends with an “action” exercise to identify the projects that group members are most passionate about, with the potential to be put into motion.

If this sounds more evocative than prescriptive, that’s because it’s about attending to process, cultivating relationships, maximizing our diversity, and staying open to learning and deciding in uncertain, unfolding situations, which are skills much more useful to social movements than any step-by-step playbook or list of activities to check off.

Linking Arms, Going Global

What if a future election featured candidates emerging from among the young activists of the new social movements and out of the older ones in the transition initiatives, allied with those members of the Green and other progressive parties that were willing to share the stage, disaffected Sandernistas, and committed and passionate individuals everywhere, from all across the country?

What if those of us in the United States pulled off something spectacular like this? That would surely alter the global balance of power for the better. And this would only be strengthened if others carried out some version of it that made sense in their own contexts. Were such a government to come to power in the United States—against all odds, admittedly—it could work with others in the global North to honor their collective obligations to (1) degrow their own wasteful and harmful economies and slash their carbon footprints (2) cancel the debt of the global South, (3) transfer technology and other assistance to supply clean, abundant energy to all global citizens, (4) pay or make reparations for colonial and imperialist exploitation, (5) de-militarize down to the bone, and (6) guarantee fair and scientifically sustainable shares of the atmosphere and all resources to all. I would add free lifelong education everywhere to the above, along with some kind of guaranteed income or provision of basic needs such as food and shelter. Undoubtedly, many conversations lie ahead in which such lists are compared and synthesized into the powerful manifesto that one day we will craft.

Globally, the climate justice movement might now be the name for the network of these movements all in the service of radical climate justice, in the broadest, most intersectional understanding of the term. One of its sustaining memes was literally carried on a banner by young climate justice activists through the frosty streets of Copenhagen on the occasion of the ill-fated COP 15 negotiations in December 2009, demanding “System Change Not Climate Change.” Let us all exercise our right to imagine new names for our movements, “parties,” and their key demands.

Concluding Thoughts

And if it isn’t clear now, or yet, we are striving to eventually build a future without this system, without capitalism, without endless growth, without obscene inequality, without the violence of militarism, and with democratic participation from bottom to top and back to the bottom again.

We are going to have to leverage the strength and power and beauty of our many movements and ideas into a new kind of entity—a completely new kind of party—that can take political power away from those who hold it, in place after place. In time, these experiments with the unknown would be able to support each other and link themselves together to find and create the pathways to the future we want. The new entities that come out of our movements must be made to live up to their promise and to enact our dreams by us, their only possible guarantors.

Such new parties, if they emerge, and the broader, diverse social movements that must drive and hold them accountable, would do well to link arms firmly with existing transition initiatives and the many more projects of creation that will need to be built everywhere. And they must synergistically support each other’s efforts to fashion the collective power we need for global governance. Then we would see a people’s Conference of the Parties (COP) articulate a “FAB” (fair, ambitious, and binding) universal climate treaty. Then we would be able to tax and legislate the fossil fuel corporations out of business. Then we would be able to take on the legacy of inequality and genocide that the United States has been built on. Then…

I offer these observations in the hope of generating further participation and passionate commitment among the many ordinary people who must rise to our common occasion. Else, after extreme and unimaginable suffering, only nothingness awaits us, which however likely, is simply not acceptable.

As the Zapatistas, those un-professionals of hope, often say, “We want a world where many worlds fit.” That world, somehow containing all our many worlds, will be created and constructed by those who are willing to seek it, to do the hard work (which, let’s not forget, also brings so much joy and purpose), and to embrace hope, imagination, and heart, in equally abundant measure.

The path will be long, hard, dangerous, and difficult, friends, so let’s get going!


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John Foran
John Foran is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on movements for radical social change, both twentieth-century revolutions and twenty-first-century movements such as the Zapatistas, Occupy, and the global climate justice movement. His latest book, Taking Power or (Re)Making Power: Movements for Radical Social Change and Global Justice, will be published in early 2018.



Cite as John Foran, "Contribution to 'Roundtable on 'The Problem of Action,'" Great Transition Initiative (December 2017), http://www.greattransition.org/roundtable/problem-action-john-foran.




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