The World Social Forum (WSF) has recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Between 25 and 30 January 2001, more than 20,000 activists from all over the world took part in the first edition of what was soon to become one of the defining gatherings and symbols of the alter-globalisation movement.
The movement itself is not much older than the WSF and dates back to the 1999 Battle of Seattle, when the alter-globalisation world began attracting the attention of the media. Tens of thousands of protesters from a myriad of different organisations, including faith-based NGOs, anarchist collectives used to head-on confrontations with the police and “angry grandmothers”, managed to disrupt the conference held by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by occupying the hometown of corporations such as Microsoft and Boeing. A few years earlier, on 1 January 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) coordinated an uprising to protest against the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), dispelling the myth of “the end of history”.
From Chiapas to Porto Alegre, not to mention Seattle, Florence, Cancun and even Genoa, in just a few years, the alter-globalisation movement managed to throw a spanner in the neoliberal agenda. Two decades have gone by – a blink of an eye for a movement that was built around the assertion that history was still in the making and that alternatives (and another world) were not only necessary but possible.
The way forward seemed clear and we were unmistakably filled with hope. The increasing number of mass gatherings, combined with renewed forms of protest (the famous “carnivals of resistance”), kept the flame alive.
The turn towards left-wing governments in Latin America delineated an alternative to the war against terror, orchestrated by the United States and backed by most Western countries. It was not without a certain lyricism that we let ourselves be won over by the belief that we could change the course of things – and each success (some of which were not insignificant – as short-lived as they might be) reinforced our conviction.
Sadly, however, this hope has fizzled out. Although it was revived by the 2011 protests (the “revolutions” of North Africa and the Middle East; the Indignados movement and the Occupy movement; the Y’En à Marre (“Enough is Enough”) movement in Senegal; etc.), the flame has slowly flickered out.
Clouds on the horizon
Twenty years later, much has changed – and the Covid-19 pandemic is only the latest manifestation of it. The 20th edition of the World Social Forum (WSF) was held entirely online and only managed to attract a few dozen participants. It was not only that people were not able to come together in person, form a critical mass and embody a political approach that was not merely logocentric; the whole discourse had changed. The outlook itself has shifted: we are no longer organising with the perspective of emancipation, but rather to avert disaster. Biodiversity loss, the constant rise in greenhouse gas emissions, the increasing number of extreme weather events and increasingly well-founded doubts as to whether global warming can be kept below a danger line – all these issues only reassure those that are already predicting that collapse is inevitable.
Yet collapse is not inevitable, but one narrative among many others, built around doomsday figures and data. The question is knowing how we wish to collectively address this issue and how we can pay attention to the opposing signs and dynamics at play. This outlook should also be qualified, as there are a great number of mobilisations around right now, and they’re gaining massive traction: these include climate strikes (over seven million people around the world took to the streets in September 2019 – about the same number of people that took part in the global protests against the war in Iraq in February 2003), protests in Algeria, Chile, Lebanon, Hong Kong and Catalonia, and the yellow vests movement. The year 2019 and early 2020 (up until lockdowns began to set in around the world) saw a resurgence of mass protests.
By looking at social and political activism of the last two decades – from the early days of the alter-globalisation movement to the protests addressing the possible “extinction” of the living world, new perspectives can emerge. It’s important to analyse the factors that made the alter-globalisation movement so enormously successful in such a short period of time in order to get a better grasp on what has changed since, so that we can etch out a strategic “road map”.
The alter-globalisation movement took off – growing almost exponentially – by articulating three elements: a period of social and political mobilisation, in-depth theoretical work and intense formal innovations.
At first glance, the alter-globalisation movement may be defined as a period of social and political activism: protests, blockades, occupations and strikes often addressing specific demands yet which were systematically connected to one another. The social aspect of the alter-globalisation movement – through international, regional and national social forums (as well as forums focussed on certain themes) and counter-summits – enabled people to create networks and ties. At the time, there was criticism of the large number of activists travelling to various cities around the world – Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Nairobi, Manila, Cancun and Genoa, to name a few – seen as the emergence of an alter-globalisation “elite” who travelled around the world, from one social forum or counter-summit to another. Yet these trips were also a way to foster a sense of belonging, the feeling that activists formed part of a larger movement that didn’t stop at national borders.
This period of action was backed by narratives reconstructing chains of causality and responsibility, which was a way to empower people to denounce injustices in the era of neoliberal globalisation: the Zapatistas showed how a free trade agreement would impact the lives of indigenous communities in Chiapas; the Via Campesina movement showed how subsidies granted to large-scale farmers in Beauce, France as part of the Common Agricultural Policy plunged a Malian family of farmers into poverty; Focus on the Global South demonstrated that WTO trade agreements were causing starvation in the Philippines, despite their abundant food production.
All these actions were part of an intense cycle of formal innovations – the WSF being only the most striking manifestation of it. Alter-globalisation activists experimented with horizontality and consensus-based decision-making in completely new ways: assemblies held in a number of different languages brought together individuals, delegates of organisations, members of collectives refusing to let anyone speak on their behalf, etc. They spent long hours drawing up plans for upcoming actions and defining key words and slogans. Moreover, these innovations weren’t limited to a logocentric approach: creativity was also a key strategy – particularly when it came to the way in which different alliances employed “tactical diversity”, occupying the streets and forcing the world’s most powerful leaders to meet in places that were increasingly isolated and barricaded – embodying the slogan “There are eight of them, but there are thousands of us.”
Local alter-globalisation struggles and actions came together in the international arena: alter-globalisation sociability and solidarity was thus inherently transnational. This meant that, despite the intentions of its activists, the alter-globalisation movement produced deterritorialised forms. The alter-globalisation arena was, therefore, not that different from the institutional arena: it was a common occurrence that activists who were able to take part in international gatherings crossed oceans in order to contribute to discussions that would be identical no matter where they were held.
More recent actions – including “climate camps” (and their ensuing action such as the occupation of coal mines in Germany), occupations to protect land from development projects (such as the Zone to Defend [ZAD] of Notre-Dame-des-Landes), and the 2011 mobilisations – took a different approach. They were rooted in the local, and there was undoubtedly less emphasis on abstract, deterritorialised rhetoric. These actions and struggles, based on local realities, built social ties and solidarity that were not so much transnational as translocal.
This new strain of activism, which was more anchored in local realities, included theoretical work focussed on creating new frameworks in which to express and interpret injustice. The Indignados and Occupy movements were thus able to highlight the central role of debt in producing injustice. The alter-globalisation horizon was one where different forms of activism converged: it was about building a common outlook with all those who came together in this space. However, this approach, based on the idea that there was no hierarchy between causes, also had its shortcomings. As the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos pointed out, this approach overlooked those who were “absent”: it was based on building a common approach with those that were present. This resulted in a sort of shift – from a convergence of actions and movements towards intersectionality and an awareness of the fundamental role played by those primarily affected. Activists of the Global South were, of course, central to the alter-globalisation movement as were groups that had long been pushed to the periphery of the social change movement. But there is a more consistent back-and-forth dynamic to contemporary social and political activism that swings between “generalisation”  and individual situations. This should, in theory, ensure that certain struggles, experiences and narratives are not invisiblised.
There have been some serious tensions within the alter-globalisation movement, particularly in regards to extractivism (and productivism in general). Some organisations, especially unions, believed that certain industries, including the extractive industry, needed to be developed in order to finance redistribution policies and guarantee employment, while grassroots’ and indigenous movements wanted to promote alternatives to development rather than alternative development.
Formal innovations continued and became more comprehensive. For example, there was a much more in-depth exploration of the idea of consensus in Occupy camps than there was in alter-globalisation arenas. Relocalising struggles and perspectives, as a contrast to alter-globalisation deterritorialisation, was a way to reposition prefiguration as one of the key forms of struggle.  The Social Forums were almost all entirely dedicated to people having their voices heard: if the 2,300 activities (workshops, seminars, etc.) planned for the five days of the 2005 WSF had taken place one after another, the last person to speak at the 2005 WSF would have done so 120 days after the first speaker opened the discussion. Speaking out is of course also central to movements such as Ende Gelände (occupation of coal mines in Germany) or in local hotspots of social and political activism, but the politics driving their work is not all rhetoric. Experimentation also plays as key role.
In many ways, discourse has not been a feature of recent climate action. Young climate strikers often appeal to people to listen or read what has already been said or written, although prefiguration is largely absent from the climate strike landscape.
One disaster follows another, yet we’re unable to confirm, once and for all, the argument of those who believe in “enlightened catastrophism” – the idea that the inevitability of catastrophe will eventually force us to take action. Their view is that the “straw that will break the camel’s back” will eventually come, a moment when we break away from a “business as usual” mentality and collectively take a new direction. Yet as the trajectory of climate change plays out, it seems unlikely that there will be any great unifying event that would enable people to transcend divisions and bring everyone together around a common ethical imperative: to do everything within our power (and more) to prevent the impending disaster (or failing that, mitigate its impact).
We are thus faced with two options. The first is to see democracy as being incompatible with climate action and biodiversity, as the decisions that have to be made for the good of the climate will clearly be unpopular. This option represents a strategic impasse. Although an increasing number of climatologists, experts and even activists are veering towards this approach, it would mean giving up (at least, temporarily) any hope of emancipation and would involve sacrificing justice, equality and fundamental freedoms in order to fight climate change.
The second approach is one based on collective organisation, and would involve continuing (and rebuilding) the actions that made the alter-globalisation and “translocal” movements so successful. It would require coming together to build a series of actions and create new interpretive frameworks and formal innovations based on resistance and prefiguration – the two structural pillars of current climate justice activism.
Climate justice activism is focussed on the importance of preventing the world from being destroyed (what Naomi Klein calls Blockadia). The Paris Agreement, if it can be taken seriously, implies a commitment to ban fossil fuel infrastructure and accelerate the closure of existing infrastructure. More recent climate actions have targeted specific projects: activists seek to prevent, at least temporarily, an airport or coal mine expansion project, the construction of a new oil pipeline, etc. in order to thwart the business-as-usual mentality. But blockading actions are more than just activists physically standing in the way. They also involve divestment campaigns (appealing to individuals and institutions to stop investing in fossil fuels) that seek to build a wide-reaching movement committed to no longer cooperating with climate-harming industries. Other than one or two boycott campaigns, non-cooperation tactics haven’t been a big feature of the alter-globalisation movement, which has opted for more traditional forms of confrontation and protest.
The anthropologist David Graeber explains that direct action is “a matter of acting as if you were already free.” He reiterates the importance of prefiguration as a form of struggle and resistance: taking action without systematically relying on the state to implement the changes we wish to see (which is inevitably what happens when actions take the form of demands). When combined with the principle of care, prefiguration delineates a direct alternative to the idea of collapse: while doomsday narratives relate to the hypothetical world of the near future, care and prefiguration relate to the urgency of the present and are based on a refusal to sacrifice what Corinne Morel Darleux calls the “dignity of the present” for the sake of victories that are increasingly uncertain.
This is where contemporary activists can draw inspiration from the alter-globalisation movement. In the face of disaster, it is very tempting to shrug off other options: the long lists of relocation practices, non-market trade, tactics to regain control over production and consumption – all too often these approaches don’t seem to be good enough. Inventories, proposals and experiences all placed next to one another like a few drops of water thrown vainly at a raging fire: they won’t do anything to put it out.
Yet we could move away from such a response, acknowledge that it is doomsday narratives that produce this sort of reaction. Twenty years ago, at the height of the alter-globalisation movement, these “catalogues” were largely seen as the sign of a healthy counteractive force: there was a teeming number of alternative options, and the fact that there were so many diverse things going on was a sign of the movement’s strength. It gave hope that because not all these initiatives could be weakened, controlled or contained, activists were etching out a bottom-up equality-based political agenda. In the face of disaster and the increasing sense of urgency, perhaps we should pay more attention to the different counteractive forces, which don’t all go down the road of collapse but are proof that alternative practices are alive and well. These demonstrate that there are many different ways of building a community, of taking care of oneself, of human beings and of all other forms of life. An effective strategy could indeed be connecting a number of different fronts and coming in from different angles rather than focussing on one specific fight.