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Planetary Transformations: A Progressive Quest

20 May




[Prefatory Note: Below are three texts: a paper by the widely respected writer and progressive

scholar, Val Moghadam, that describes what it might mean to have a left transformative movement of planetary scope; followed by a short explanatory essay by Paul Raskin, who exercises intellectual leadership of the Great Transition Network (GTN), a project of the Tellus Institute, that has been supporting the general idea that the existing system of organizing the planet is outmoded and dangerous, and the social creativity should be encouraged to envision preferred alternatives, not in the spirit of utopian speculation, but as political projects to be realized by a dynamic mix of commitment, imagination, and struggle; the third text is my comment on Moghadam’s paper. A sampling of the stimulating array of invited comments canbe found at this link– ]




Planetary Transformations: A Progressive Quest

Valentine M. Moghadam

The Historical Conjuncture

In January 2020, as I was writing this essay, Americans celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose message of social equality, economic justice, and peace is as relevant today as ever—arguably more so. That month, the US and Iran (the country of my birth) seemed to be on the brink of war. Australia was experiencing climate change-related disaster, the opioid crisis continued to devastate communities and families across the US, and refugees and migrants still faced exclusion and disdain. Income inequality in the US and in many other countries grew ever wider, as the power of capital over labor remained strong. Across the globe, the rightward march of populist politics continued apace.

This is only a small list of the world’s problems, some of which are common to humanity and some specific to nation-states and communities. To echo Lenin, what is to be done? For an answer, we can echo Dr. King: “planetize our movement.” [1] But what is “the movement,” and how can it be planetized?

The World Social Forum, launched in 2001 to assert that a “another world is possible,” attracted civil society organizations and social movements from across the globe, many of them associated with what scholars called the global justice movement, or “the movement of movements.” [2] Then came the global financial crisis, followed by the Arab Spring demanding the fall of authoritarian and corrupt regimes, the European summer of anti-austerity protests, and Occupy Wall Street (OWS), with its rallying cry against the privileged 1%.

A decade later, we face a weakened and increasingly irrelevant WSF, the modest harvest of the Arab Spring along with failed states, the demise of OWS, entrenched neoliberalism, and unabated militarism. These developments have wreaked havoc on communities in the Global South, generating the refugee and migrant waves that resulted in the right-wing populist backlash. Meanwhile, right-wing populist leaders have appropriated some of the grievances and even language of the Left—especially the very early critiques of neoliberal capitalist globalization, as well as the unions’ despair over labor’s displacement and stagnating wages—to win over citizens in country after country.

From a world-historical perspective, we are living in a period similar to the early twentieth century, during which the British Empire was losing its global hegemony. [3] That period led to inter-imperialist rivalries, the Great War, the expansion of socialism and communism, the fascist reaction, and the Second World War. Today, US hegemony is similarly in decline, and the transition and chaos we experience include growing powers challenging that hegemony (China, Russia, Iran); military adventures and the destabilization of states by the US and its allies (e.g., Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003, Honduras 2009, Libya 2011, Syria since 2011, Yemen since 2015); right-wing populist political parties and governments; and the ecological crisis.

The moment is ripe for an alternative. Labor unrest has grown around the world, encompassing industrial workers, teachers, health workers, janitors, and others across the Middle East and North Africa, in Latin America, and even in the US. Indeed, we may be nearing a classic Leninist “revolutionary situation,” which could be the culmination of “the world revolution of 20xx.” [4] If so, the Global Left should be better prepared to meet the challenge.

The good news is that there is a “new Global Left” that enjoys a multitude of emerging movements, including climate justice groups led by young people. [5] The rich array of activist groups and the dynamism and passion they display excite a sense of possibility. However, the very diversity of movements and their weak interconnection could constrain the Global Left’s ability to achieve meaningful change. [6] Without consensus around a common agenda, how are we to make the great transition from an entrenched global system based on capitalist profit, top-down decision-making, war, and environmental degradation to a world where people and the planet take center stage in politics and policy? Surely we need not only resistance on a multiplicity of grounds, but also agreement on a clear, coherent, and feasible alternative to the unjust, undemocratic, and unsustainable status quo.

A Missing Global Actor

The socialist and communist movements and parties of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries pinned their hopes on the capacity of a united working class, defined as a largely male industrial laboring class (“the proletariat”), to tame and challenge capitalism. In the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, the nature of that class changed, now encompassing a broader spectrum of working people, such as those in public and private services (including care workers) who labor under the supervision of highly paid managers and administrators, along with the precariat and gig economy workers. On the Left, however, many do not regard that more inclusive working class as a central actor, despite its composition spanning race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, and gender. [7]

Instead, today’s movements—certainly in the US—seem to define actors based on particular identities and interests. Rather than the singular actor of yore (the working class), today there is a multiplicity of actors across numerous movements. The question arises as to whether such a multiplicity of actors can generate the necessary coordination and craft a strategy to challenge the powers-that-be—economic and political elites situated in national governments; in the financial, corporate, and military sectors; and in institutions of global governance. If those elites are so well connected, why is it so difficult for our numerous movements to coalesce around a shared identity and agenda?

In my estimation, the Left has lost sight of the proverbial forest for the proverbial trees. It has gotten far too caught up in culture wars and battles over identity, forgetting the centrality of political economy to the hidden injuries not only of class, but also of race and ethnicity, women’s subordination, the destruction of the commons, and inter- and intra-state rivalries, violence, and war. This strategic shift away from political economy has removed the Left’s traditional constituency—the working class in all its breadth and diversity—from a meaningful role. The shift also has confused the Left’s priorities. For instance, we cannot truly address the problems of racism and discrimination without giving urgent attention to the systemic problems of class: low-income communities devastated by precarious employment, the loss of public investment, dirty air and water, poor-quality schooling, and bad health.

The politics of class cannot be divorced from those of race and of sex, because class is imbued with race and sex, and race and sex are themselves imbued with class. Under patriarchal and racist capitalism, there is no class exploitation without racial and sexual oppression. The separation of the three intersecting dimensions across unconnected movements—often lacking in understanding of and solidarity with each other—is among the unfortunate outcomes of our times, caused to some degree by partial, segmented internal politics, but largely by the relentless and effective political, cultural, and ideological campaigns of the ruling elites.

Catalytic Action Now

In the wake of the global financial crisis, it became clear that the world needed a new economic system. Change did not come about, however. To offer a viable alternative to financialization and runaway “shareholderism,” movements need to stand for workplace democracy and shared management, and for long-term rational and people-oriented planning over short-term profit. Although breaking up huge corporations should be the goal, taxing them adequately and using the revenue for societal needs and rights, not for continued militarism, can steer society in the right direction in the interim.

At the same time, we also need to think bigger. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that socialist and communist experiments all ended in failure, I believe that there is a lot we can learn from them. Indeed, this “failure literature” lacks balance and historical accuracy. The great socialist, communist, and liberation movements of the past may not have accomplished all that they could have or intended to, but they were very effective providing education and culture for the poor and imparting the legacy of equality, economic justice, and women’s advancement. The Communist movement had its shortcomings, but it promoted women’s equality and racial equality, supported numerous liberation movements, and checked capitalist and imperialist expansion.

In contrast, our recent movements have failed even in the short run. They may have changed the subject—certainly OWS highlighted the problem of income inequalities and helped reintroduce capitalism and its flaws into the national conversation in the US—but they could not compel change of the system itself, much less dislodge its major actors and beneficiaries. Unlike the progressive movements of the late nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century that gave us socialism and social democracy, an end to British colonialism, Third World development, and the demise of authoritarianism in southern Europe, the movements of the twenty-first century have not been able to make headway in structural or systemic terms. Instead, the collapse of world communism—celebrated across the globe—actually generated new crises and chaos.

One response to the crisis has been the new municipalism, which aims to implement localized democratic practices and people-oriented resource allocation. In one promising example, the administration of the Communist mayor of Santiago, Chile, has created a “people’s pharmacy,” offered cheap eye-care and glasses, increased public housing, and embraced leftist approaches to community safety, among other progressive people-oriented initiatives. [8] But localism is not enough, as many of our problems are global in nature. The recklessness of the financial sector has had ripple effects across borders; the obsession with economic growth and capital accumulation has generated a massive, global environmental crisis. That brilliant experiment in radical democratic feminist municipalism—Rojava in northern Syria—was overturned in October 2019 by a brutal Turkish invasion facilitated by the Trump administration. Thus, we must heed Dr. King’s message to “take the nonviolent movement international” and to planetize it.

The Global Left and its infrastructure remain fragmented and disconnected, except for periodic mass rallies against the most egregious actions of global capitalism and imperial states. But it wasn’t always so. Once, vibrant Internationals were organized to guide and promote a worldwide movement. The influential First International, initially called the International Workingmen’s Association, was formed in 1864, but contention between the anarchist and socialist wings led to its demise in the late 1870s. Its successor, the Second International, had great success, but fractured in the run-up to World War I. The Third International formed after the Russian revolution to unite socialist and communist groups from across Europe and Asia, but later, under Stalin, became corrupted into the highly centralized Comintern. [9]

Both the successes and the failures of these internationals offer vital lessons: a powerful worldwide movement could be premised on both a global political organization with a union UGET and the many young supporters of the Front Populaire call for planning and a strong welfare state. Around the world, women have come together around a more inclusive, transformative vision of feminism, which some call “feminism for the 99%.” [10] The “left nationalism” of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Kurds is also part of the new Global Left and could help constitute a global movement against capitalism, militarism, and oligarchic states.  strategy for change and the strength of plural and diverse movements that call the status quo into question. To move forward, we need to look back at the old Internationals and, at the same time, not give up on the World Social Forum. The crises and injustices of our times call for both a coordinated “united front” and a loosely aligned “popular front.”

Some say the language of the past—socialism, communism, planning—is outmoded and unlikely to resonate. And yet, many young people embrace the term socialism; in the US, they rallied around Bernie Sanders’s call for “democratic socialism,” and in the UK, they coalesced around the Labour Party’s left-wing faction, Momentum, and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. In Tunisia, where young people are losing hope in capitalist democracy because of high unemployment and other economic difficulties, the left-wing student

The world’s injustices as well as new possibilities for alliance have inspired calls for coordinated forms of organizing. The deceased Egyptian Marxist economist Samir Amin, for instance, called for a Fifth International. [11] But to balance the complementary needs of global coordination and plural autonomy, as Moghaman two internationals may be needed, one that remains horizontally based—the movement of movements—and the other vertically organized, drawing inspiration and lessons from the old Internationals.

What might this mean in practical, strategic terms? To start, we should revitalize the World Social Forum. [12] It encompasses diverse grievances, identities, and interests; it remains the site for dialogic discussion and the cultivation of solidarity across movements; and it has resisted the authoritarian impulses and practices of capital and the state. It can remain an open space for dialogue among place-based and identity-expressive movements. Building up the Global Left and helping advance a Great Transition, however, requires a global political organization to do the necessary cross-movement “translation” work and deliver a plan for structural change at national, regional, and global levels. Accomplishing this will be an arduous task, but we can’t afford to wait.

Whether it is called the Fifth International, the United Front, the Progressive International, or the World Party, such an organization would be vertically organized, along the lines of the earlier Internationals but with the involvement of anti-imperialist feminist groups such as Code Pink, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Marche Mondiale des Femmes, and the new Feminist Foreign Policy Project. This planetized formation would encompass progressive parties, anti-neoliberal unions, and anti-war movements across the globe. It would practice democratic decision-making and offer a clear vision and mission of an alternative system of production, social reproduction, trade, and international relations. It would revive the 2011 Arab Spring call, “The people want the fall of the regime,” and create a powerful message demanding a re-enactment of what occurred in 1989/1990, but in reverse: “The people want the fall of the ruling capitalist elites.”

Such a plan calls for a renewed emphasis on the working class, expansively defined and represented. Unions could organize the unorganized, carry out the necessary political education work among their members, and create broad coalitions with progressive political parties and unions across borders. [13] It is worth noting that unions of teachers and nurses have been taking to the streets and making demands in Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Tunisia, Chile, and France, as well as in the US. Such parallel developments are ripe for cross-fertilization and coordination.

We should take the best from the past—planning, coordinating, internationalism, and action—and move forward with a common agenda for systemic transformation. To move forward with an International, veterans of past, more centralized movements and organizations might take the lead in organizing an initial meeting, to convene in a country that has felt the devastating effects of neoliberalism, such as Argentina or Greece. Another venue could be Tunisia—now the only genuinely democratic country in the Middle East/North Africa region. Our movements need to coalesce to make the present moment of populism and hegemonic decline an advantageous one for a Great Transition—this time toward a global socialist-feminist democracy built through the synergy of a new International and a revitalized WSF.

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (New York: Harper and Rowe, 1968), 34.

[2] See the GTI forum on the World Social Forum: . See also Donatella della Porta, ed., The Global Justice Movement: Cross-National and Transnational Perspectives (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2007); Jackie Smith, Marina Karides, et al., The World Social Forums and the Challenge of Global Democracy (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008); Valentine M. Moghadam, Globalization and Social Movements: Islamism, Feminism, and the Global Justice Movement, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

[3] Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver, Chaos and Governance in the Modern World-System (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).

[4] Christopher Chase-Dunn and Sandor Nagy, “Global Social Movements and World Revolutions in the 21st Century,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Social Movements, Revolutions, and Social Transformation, ed. Berch Berberoglu (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019): 427–446; Beverly Silver, Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[5] Christopher Chase-Dunn, Richard Niemeyer, Preeta Saxena, Matheu Kaneshiro, James Love, and Amanda Spears, “The New Global Left: Movements and Regimes,” IROWS Working Paper 50 (2009), University of California–Riverside, Institute for Research on World-Systems, .

[6] Valentine M. Moghadam, “The Movements of Movements: A Critical Review Essay,” Socialism and Democracy 33, no. 1 (2019): 19–27, .

[7] Marxist theorist Goran Therborn has written despairingly of labor’s prospects: “Class in the 21st Century,” New Left Review 78 (2012): 5–29. For an alternative view, see Victor Wallis, Red-Green Revolution: The Politics and Technology of Ecosocialism (Toronto: Political Animal Press, 2018), esp. ch. 8: “Intersectionality’s Binding Agent: The Political Primacy of Class.”

[8] Daniel Denvir, “A Communist Major in Chile Explains How to Govern Locally from the Left,” interview with mayor Daniel Jadue, Jacobin, April 26, 2019, . Thanks to Silvia Dominguez for bringing this to my attention.

[9] Although the Comintern ended in 1943, communist parties remained in close contact until the late 1980s, providing support and solidarity for progressive organizations and movements.

[10] Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (New York: Verso, 2019).

[11] Samir Amin, “Toward a Fifth International?,” in The Movements of Movements: Rethinking Our Dance, ed. Jai Sen (New Delhi and Oakland: OpenWord and PM Press), 465–483 (originally written in 2005), and “It is Imperative to Reconstruct the International of Workers and Peoples,” International Development Economic Associates (July 3, 2018), available at .

[12] Valentine M. Moghadam, “Feminism and the Future of Revolution,” Socialism and Democracy 32, no. 1 (Summer 2018): 31–53; and “What is Revolution in the 21st Century? Toward a Socialist-Feminist World Revolution,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 47 (2019).

[13] Although Ronaldo Munck dismisses both the Internationals of the past and the WSF as relevant models, he does call for a central role for labor and unions, in “Workers of the World Unite (At Last),” Great Transition Initiative (April 2019), . See also Stephanie Luce, Labor Movements: Global Perspectives (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2014).


Monday, March 2, 2020

Dear GTN,

Our March discussion bookends a long GTN series on movement streams that kicked off in November 2017 with a framing discussion on “the problem of action.” That initial discussion was introduced by my How Do We Get There? The Problem of Action , which I encourage you to review along with the rich GTN commentary it generated. Now, we return to the overarching question of how to envision and catalyze a coherent global movement matched to the task of Great Transition.

The title for the March discussion—PLANETIZE THE MOVEMENT!—is from Martin Luther King, who understood the need for systemic solidarity for systemic change. Val Moghadam, a global movement scholar, starts us off with an opening essay (soon to arrive by email as well). Val counsels us to draw lessons and inspiration from left history as we fashion a uniquely twenty-first century strategy, intriguingly calling for “two Internationals.” Her essay sets the structure for our discussion:

The Historical Conjuncture
The character of our fraught globalized moment and the systemic change agents it spawns

A Missing Global Actor
Movement fragmentation, the basis for common cause, and the contours of a unified movement

Catalytic Action Now
Strategies for building a global movement and specific initiatives for getting the show on the road

I look forward to your comments, brief or extended (but less than 1,200 words), through April 1. Then Val will respond, and, as usual, we will assemble a public GTI Forum sampling the internal GTN discussion.

Over to you,


Richard Falk


I found Val Moghadam’s “Planetize the Movement!” a masterful effort to demonstrate the continued diagnostic and prescriptive relevance of Left traditions of thought and practice in responding to the urgent systemic challenges currently confronting humanity. She also offers perceptive comments on the emergence of distinct social movements seeking a better future in distinct spheres of activity, citing especially ecologically oriented activism, feminism in various forms, progressive anti-globalization initiatives, and forms of radical opposition to income and wealth inequalities. Without minimizing obstacles and adverse trends, Moghadam usefully anchors her hopes for the future on two central propositions: first, in her words, “the moment is ripe for an alternative;” and second, planetizing the movement depends on a political economy critique of neoliberal globalization coupled with the advocacy of a new progressive vision that draws heavily on socialist and communist experience and thought of the twentieth century.

I find this a stimulating overall point of departure, and accept the relevance of her innovative formulation of “two internationals,” a horizontal network of progressive social activist initiatives, which I have characterized as “globalization-from-below,” and a vertical mechanism that builds on the experience of the four internationals periodically established over the past 150 years, as well as acknowledging Samir Amin’s proposal of a Fifth International to allow leftist influence to resume its vital presence in the aftermath of the Cold War. [1] While Moghadam is sensitive to the argument that reviving Marxist and neo-Marxist interpretations of her call to action has been widely criticized as passé, she remains confident of its catalytic relevance to the present historical conjuncture, citing the responsiveness of American youth to the overtly socialist message of Bernie Sanders. I am not sure about this: while fully agreeing that a movement for the planet must relate centrally to political economy, I am more skeptical about supposing that we can achieve the understanding we now need from the old left class and labor-oriented revolutionary rhetoric and worldviews. For one thing, the digital networking that underpins globalization and creates new potentialities, dangers, and risks is not easily accommodated, and however hard one tries, the realities of a post-industrial labor market are increasingly as deeply threatened by automation and artificial intelligence as by exploitative elites. This suggests to me a qualitative change that requires a new vocabulary to describe the plight of many individuals, being threatened not only on the level of material livelihood, but also by dehumanization in relation to a meaningful life experience.

Moreover, I am not convinced that the mainstream left traditions are very mobilizing with respect to planetizing ambitions regarding the unprecedented bio-ecological-species challenge. This challenge exposes a missing dimension in most versions of leftist thinking that is as vital as the reintegration of political economy preoccupations into progressive thought and action. It is worth noticing in this regard that it is the admonishing voice of Greta Thunberg indicting the established order for its failure to do what is needed to address climate change before it is too late that has had the most pronounced impact on public consciousness in this century. Her declaration of an ecological emergency that dooms the future unless drastic action is taken, including of course against the excesses of capitalism, is oriented far more toward an Enlightenment insistence on heeding the scientific consensus than on rekindling class warfare. Her essential plea is to be guided by facts and evidence, and not by narcissistic material interests of the beneficiaries of the established order.

Because of its focus on class conflict and economistic commentary, I believe that most left thinking fails to attribute enough responsibility for the evils of our world to “modernity” in addition to damage wrought by capitalism, or for that matter socialism. It is due to the modernity paradigm that we have long enthroned ideas of national sovereignty, tribal nationalism, and state-centric world order, which fosters militarism, imperial geopolitics, and prolonged civil strife. The modernity mindset is more responsible for these features of world order than even the rapacious private sector fondness for bloated military budgets, arms trade, and arms races. In the West, particularly, it is from the individualist ideologies of modernity that we derive this confusion of endowing economic growth and technological innovation with limitless horizons of progress and the bestowal of high degrees of personal contentment, while almost forgetting the lost achievements of premodernity with respect to collective identities and cohesive community. It is notable that even the canonical formulation of human decency in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1950) was expressed as rights of the individual, and complementary obligations of responsibility were ignored altogether. Political economy is crucial, yet also insufficient unless coupled with comprehensive ethical and cultural reframing of the societal norms associated with the modernity paradigm. For instance, the acceptance of limits, so crucial to constituting a balanced habitat connecting human activities with their natural surroundings, is as absent from traditional left thinking as it is from mainstream secularism and modernist rationalism.

Finally, I have some thoughts about Moghadam’s proposed two internationals. While directly responsive to the central theme of planetizing the movement, such a framing seems to neglect the importance of the global normative order, particularly international law and the United Nations, as a primary element of a world transformed in accordance with a progressive worldview. Given global-scale challenges, the need for humane structures of global governance is obvious, which implies regulatory and coordinating mechanisms based on a logic of equality rather than as at present, reflecting the geopolitical realities of inequality. The UN and international law currently exhibit the deficiencies of the established system of world order, especially double standards, victor’s justice, and geopolitical governance. Only the five winners in World War II (75 years ago) have impunity when it comes to upholding international law and respecting the UN Charter, only the losers or weak states are held accountable for adhering to international criminal law, and only the leading political actors retain discretion to engage in coercive diplomacy by way of threat, sanctions, and intervention, which, if countered at all, depends on war endangering countervailing geopolitical encounters. To place these remarks in the setting of Moghadam’s approach, I would insist that there is a need either for a broadened conceptualization of her “second international” or the addition of a “third international” assigned the mission of establishing a more democratized and autonomous United Nations and an international legal order based on the fundamental principle of treating equals equally, whether the unit of concern is a state, a group, or an individual. Such a transformative emphasis on the normative order of regulation, rules, and institutions serving human and global interests as transcending the claims of national interests seems to me to be an integral part of a progressive planetary movement.

[1] Richard Falk, Predatory Globalization: A Critique, Cambridge, UK, 1999.