Roundtable on 'The Problem of Action'
First of all, as we focus on the future, it is essential to look at the past. As Paul Raskin eloquently notes, we are united by a shared future, but we are united by a shared past as well. This shared past had two phases, both of which had major impacts on society.
The first is era of the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal creed, which became la pensée unique as of 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. History was at its end, or so the acolytes of this newly dominant creed hoped. This, in turn, created an unprecedented counter-mobilization, with the World Social Forum as a prime example. Nearly 100,000 people paid the costs of travels and hotels to be together, to share the same identity of resistant to the pensée unique, and declare that another world was possible.
In the subsequent two decades, nearly everyone was trained and conditioned to make greed the most important individual value. It took that time to find out that macroeconomic indicators did not catch the social and structural damages that neoliberal globalization was creating. The 2006 conference of the Bretton Woods institutions, where the IMF, WB, and IDB, started to reclaim the role of the state, marked, as I see it, the end of the credibility of Washington Consensus (although it maintains its hold in the corridors of power).
The sense of global community in those two decades went exactly in our direction. Then the financial crisis hit, first in the US in 2007 and then in 2009 in Europe. And since then, fear has been the common mobilizer—mobilizing people in a different direction. After the Western interventions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, in which Europe sent bombs and they sent back refugees, the fear about the future has resurrected nationalism, populism, and xenophobia, which were only fringes before.
So what does this mean for the prospects of a Great Transition, and what should we be doing?
First, we need to go beyond the academy and link up with new actors. After nearly thirty years, the idea of social movements has lost its shine. The WSF is in a deep existential crisis. Why? Because the keepers of the Talmud (those who did not want to change a comma of the original chart of principles) made every effort to separate WSF from any political engagement for fear of contamination. It thus became little more than a kind of spiritual exercise: you meet, you meditate, you make spiritual exercise, and you go back better and with deeper engagement, after having met many people like you.
Second, we need to do a better job of connecting existing social movements. Sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos coined the concept of “translation” in the context of the World Social Forum. How can you translate the feminist movement into the indigenous movement? They have different priorities: the feminist movement’s goal is to end patriarchy; the indigenous movement’s focus is securing the respect of their space, identity.
At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, two kinds of movements emerged. On one hand, there were those who found their legitimacy in fighting the system, as they did in Seattle during the WTO protests. The others where those focused on themes in the UN space, like human rights, environment, development, etc., and they got their legitimacy from the UN, who recognized and legitimated their activism. The two sides took two years to coalesce, and tensions between the social movements and the NGOs never really ended.
A Global Citizens Movement can only form if a work of translation is done, and such different kinds of movements can coalesce. Individualism in is very strong in the activist world, and it is difficult at first to elicit such cross-movement commonality.
How to go forward? I believe that it is important to make clear that we all have a common enemy, so that everybody will identify with a concrete task on which to engage. But this is not possible if we do not find a way to ask them to engage, and an academic approach is far from their language and their immediate concern. We must engage with people on their own terms, with the language they understand.