New Formulation

February 2003, Vol. 2, No. 1


Reply to Chuck Morse, "Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement"

by Jeremy Brecher

I thank Chuck Morse for his critical review of Globalization from Below—I consider a good critic to be one's best friend.(1) The book's prime objective was to provoke discussion about the goals and practices of what’s often referred to as the anti-globalization movement, and in this case we clearly succeeded. In the interests of continuing the discussion, I'd like to respond at three levels: clarifying what I advocate; responding to Chuck's specific critiques; and adding my two bits to the questions of revolution and utopia.

Jeremy Brecher
Jeremy Brecher

In what follows, I'm not interested in proving that I'm right, let alone that Chuck or anyone else is wrong. I'm interested in finding ways to work together with other people so that we may all survive and thrive.

My Perspective
We are living in the midst of a concatenation of catastrophes: The basic underlying processes that support the biosphere are threatened along with virtually every microenvironment on the planet. Devastation by war, waste of resources by militarism, and the potential of omnicide become more threatening day by day. Control of the world’s wealth by conflicting power centers is causing lethal levels of impoverishment for the majority of the world’s people. The effort to maintain and expand such control is strengthening authoritarian forms of social control all over the world. The burden of these catastrophes falls most heavily on the least powerful social groups, further exacerbating already existing inequalities of race, gender, and ethnicity.

I believe the necessary condition for countering these catastrophes is a global movement that links the interests of the great majority of the world’s people in reversing them. I see the movement that our book calls “globalization from below” as a starting point for that effort. Globalization from below is not a single movement but rather a convergence of many different movements and social interests that are discovering they can only fix their particular problems by a joint effort to change underlying structures and dynamics that are causing them all.

The result, I anticipate, is not a single type of social organization but rather the opening of social space that will allow people a far greater freedom to experiment with diverse solutions to their problems. I cannot imagine that this result can be achieved in the framework of a global economy based on competitive accumulation for private gain (aka capitalism) but I expect that were the constraints of the present system reduced, people would probably experiment with a wide range of alternatives.

I’m afraid this perspective doesn’t fit very well into either a conventional “reformist” or a conventional “revolutionary” perspective. As a result, some people might conclude, as I think Chuck does, that it isn’t revolutionary and therefore it must be reformist. I’ll return to the question of revolution, but for now I’d just like to propose that my view is less well described in the dichotomous categories of “reformist” and “revolutionary” than it would be in the category “other.”

Chuck’s Critiques
Most of Chuck’s criticism concerns what is left out of Globalization from Below (in brief, the revolution), but he makes two specific criticisms of its approach to social change, which as he aptly summarizes, is based on people’s organized withdrawal of cooperation with dominant arrangements, which prevents the reproduction of the social order and therefore enables the movement to impose its own norms on society as a whole.

The first problem Chuck raises with this is that we “do not explain why a people may develop norms that contradict the status quo, and thus cannot explain why they would want to withdraw their consent from the prevailing social relationships in the first place.” While a fully adequate explanation would require interpreting the whole of human history, I’ll just do it quick and dirty.

People have interests, like not being killed by bodies of armed men, not being incinerated by nuclear weapons, not having their biosphere destroyed, and not having the world’s resources monopolized by a fraction of one percent of the world’s people. Such interests may first be perceived by individuals, but individuals are unable to actualize them alone. So they communicate with other people and try to formulate their interests as common interests, aka values. To realize their interests, they need to get people to act in ways that realize these values. So they define norms (standards of behavior) that would realize their values. In short, the reason “a people may develop norms that contradict the status quo” is to help implement interests that contradict the status quo.

Chuck's second criticism is: "Their assertion that society is always defined by a truce between the powerful and the powerless could characterize any social formation from the birth of society to the end of history, and thus lacks any historical content. However, if we wish to retain this transhistorical principle, then we must conclude that social movements can only strike a new balance of disempowerment at the very best."(2)

If we actually wrote that “society is always defined by a truce between the powerful and the powerless,” I would now agree to put on a dunce cap and go sit in the corner. But what we actually wrote is, “At any given time there is a balance of power among social actors.”(3) We add, “When the balance of power is changed, subordinate groups can force changes in these rules and practices.”(4)

I don’t see, and didn’t intend, anything here that establishes a limit on how far those changes can go, given agreement on objectives and adequate mobilization. I don’t think there is anything in this formulation that would contradict, for example, the abolition of private property or the state or the introduction of direct democracy.(5)

Chuck wrote, “Above all we must link the anti-globalization movement to a broader revolutionary project in a way that is coherent, concrete, and irrefutable.”(6) I understand his central criticism to be that we fail to do so.

I’ll freely admit that making such a linkage was not the goal of Globalization from Below. As it happens, the book I’m working on right now could be described that way, although I would put its goal more modestly. I have to confess that I find it an awesome task.

Hoping to purloin some ideas from others, I wrote Chuck (who I didn’t know before receiving his review) and said I’d like to read anything that made such a link. I was struck by his reply: “I am unsatisfied with attempts that I have encountered to link the anti-globalization movement to a broader revolutionary project and can only advance speculations of my own. Above all, I am not sure what constitutes a revolutionary project these days: certainly the socialist tradition (in its communist as well as anarchist variants) has been a massive failure according to its own standards and, even if this were not true, it seems necessary to reinvent the project in light of the massive social changes we are living through.” I was disappointed that there wasn’t somebody somewhere who had figured all this stuff out, but I was also relieved to learn that I am not quite alone in my failures.

I agree entirely with Chuck’s excellent summary of the problems of developing a conception of revolution for today. With that in mind, rather than defending my own failures, let me contribute a few thoughts for the ongoing discussion.

Chuck notes that the word “revolution” “has been subject to considerable and ongoing debate.” He indicates two interpretations as normal in Left discourse: “a sweeping change in political, economic, and cultural relationships,” and “the moment when one historical epoch gives birth to a totally new landscape of historical experience through a process of contradiction, collapse, and renewal.”

There are some other common definitions as well:

  • A change in what class dominates and organizes society.
  • A discontinuity in the state in which a different social class or other group takes control of political power.
  • The liberation of a social group from oppression (for example, abolition of slavery or wage slavery).
  • A change that realizes the hopes of a social group that seemed impossible under previous arrangements.

There is also considerable variability in what might be considered a “moment.” The Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917 took about three days. The replacement of feudalism by capitalism in Europe took about five centuries. Both are frequently and not inaptly referred to as revolutions.

Let us start by agreeing that the present world needs a change that is really big. I mean really, really big. In fact, just to provide for the future survival of the earth’s biosphere, the elimination of the threat of military omnicide, a redistribution of wealth that allows basic biological health for all the members of our species, and basic human rights as defined in such a mainstream document as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, will require change more profound than the Bolshevik seizure of power, the rise of the bourgeoisie, or any of the other changes typically described as revolutions. The term “revolution” is hardly adequate to indicate the scale of change that we need.

That raises the question of whether the historical events generally referred to as revolutions provide us with good models for thinking about how to achieve such changes. The rise of the bourgeoisie in Western Europe and the replacement of feudalism by bureaucratic state tyranny in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe are not very good models for what we need today. I would think such doubts would be particularly strong from an anarchist perspective: It is hard to recall any revolution that did not have the ultimate effect of establishing a stronger state power.

There is another reason that “actually happened” revolutions are problematic as a model for today. Despite the internationalist rhetoric and intention of some revolutionaries, in fact revolution has been overwhelmingly a national phenomenon. In 1848 and again in 1917, there was some tendency for revolution in one country to inspire movements elsewhere, but these were nothing like a “world revolution.” I’ve been looking recently at the post–World War I global crisis, trying to glean lessons for the global movement of today. But what I’ve discovered is that while the one attempt to link these, the Third International, started with a vision of world revolution, by 1920 (!) it was already opposing revolutionary movements on behalf of the emerging state interests of the Soviet Union. So there was never really a “world revolutionary movement” from which we can learn lessons for the era of globalization. Globalization from below is way ahead of previous “internationalists” in creating a truly global movement.

The dominant Left tradition for conceiving of social change is based on the idea of an organized group, usually a political party, that wins state power and then implements changes. This perspective is shared both by the revolutionary Leninist and the reformist social democratic traditions. But there is another tradition, in which I would include (with some ambiguities in each case) Albert Parsons, the IWW, Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, George Sorel, Gandhi, the original (pre-parliamentary) Greens, and the Zapatistas. In this tradition, the basis of social change is self-organization of the oppressed and their taking control of their own activity. That process leads to conflict with those in power, whose means of power (such as the state) need to be dismantled. The result is that power is not further concentrated in the state but rather absorbed by the self-directing self-organization of the formerly oppressed.

Those in this tradition have had a variety of ideas about how people should organize themselves: The IWW’s industrial unions, Pannekoek’s workers’ councils, Gandhi’s self-sufficient villages, the Zapatista’s indigenous communities. Most of them include forms of direct democracy, but most of them also recognize the need for some kind of larger-scale coordination.

I’d throw out, as a hypothesis, that models for such a development today might involve forms of direct democracy such as have emerged with the Zapatistas, the recent unemployed and neighborhood councils in Argentina, the affinity groups of the anti-globalization protests, municipal councils and budgets a la Porto Alegre, etc.(7) These are all forms we should be studying, discussing, and experimenting with. I’d also hypothesize that the various forms of transnational social movement networks that have developed as part of globalization from below might be the kernel of large-scale social coordination, playing something of the role envisioned for the IWW’s industrial unions or Pannekoek’s workers’ councils in earlier theories.

Such a process might be called “revolutionary” because of the scale of change it entails. But it might be called non-revolutionary because it does not necessarily involve “the moment when one historical epoch gives birth to a totally new landscape of historical experience through a process of contradiction, collapse, and renewal.” It just doesn’t fit very well into a conventional dichotomy of “revolution” and “reform.”

These ideas are not spelled out in Globalization from Below. But that doesn’t mean they are in some way contradictory to it. As we wrote in the introduction, the book was not meant to be “a universal guide for social change.”(8) And as we said in the book’s final paragraph, “Ultimately, the problem is not to ‘solve’ globalization. The problem is to develop social practices that can address the evolving challenges of life on Earth. We envision globalization from below eventually melding into a more general movement for social change.”(9)

Transformation and Utopia
Chuck criticizes our work for lack of a utopian vision. I freely confess that Globalization from Below does not present a utopia. Neither does the anti-globalization movement, aka globalization from below, as a whole. As we wrote, the movement’s vision “is not a shared utopia. Images of the good society range from a realization of the positive aspects of modernity in a democratic, scientifically and technologically developed, ecologically sound, and socially just world order to a return to the life patterns of indigenous peoples, with many others in between.”(10) Acceptance of that diversity is crucial if the movement is to maintain the unity necessary to act effectively.

Fortunately, envisioning an ideal society (“utopia”) is only one possible method for developing thought about social change. An alternative is to take existing reality, including its contradictions, and envision a future produced by a sequence of transformations of what currently exists. Concrete interests, for example in eliminating war or providing resources for those who need them, can motivate action to achieve such transformations. Grounding in concrete interests rather than an image of an ideal society doesn’t mean that such transformations aren’t real or deep.

There’s nothing wrong with elaborating utopias as a heuristic stimulus to thinking about social change. But there is a problem with a utopian methodology that tries to realize a perfected whole whose character is envisioned before the process of creating it begins. Such a methodology has no means of developing our understanding of what the end should be through an open process of discussion and experimentation. And it has no way of proceeding through a sequence of actions that allow us to use trial and error to correct our mistakes. We should keep in mind that in the past the Left has made some whoppers.

Fortunately, another way is possible. It is expressed in the beautiful phrase of the Zapatistas: “Asking we walk.”(11)


  1. This article expresses my own views and not necessarily those of the book’s coauthors, and refers to the book review by Chuck Morse, “Theory of the Anti-Globalization Movement,” New Formulation 1, no. 1 (November 2001): 22–31. Due to space limitations, I have not been able to address all of the concerns raised in the review.
  1. Chuck is right that this formulation “lacks any historical content.” Its function is to refute the dominant ideology that tells people they are powerless and empower them by explaining that the whole of society depends on them.
  1. Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith, Globalization from Below: The Power of Solidarity (Boston: South End Press, 2000), 23. This is an exception to Chuck’s usually scrupulous summarizing of what we say. Another exception is his statement: “They want to build a world less dominated by the culture and values of global capital, even if it is still constrained by them.” This passage (ibid., 122) is actually not about what kind of world we want to build but rather about the potential benefits of “participation in the movement.” In both cases, the distortion seems to result from an effort to fit our views into a concept of “reformism” that is produced by Chuck’s dichotomous construct, rather than by the content of our position.
  1. Ibid., 23.
  1. I realize in retrospect that a confusion may arise from the way I use the term “limit.” I often say things like, “The movement’s goal is to limit the drive for capital accumulation.” This could be read to mean it’s okay with me for the drive for capital accumulation to continue as long as it is limited. Actually, I intend the term “limit” to be interpreted in its mathematical sense, in which the limit could be zero. Similarly, a “balance” could be at zero. The abolition of slavery produced a balance of power between slaveowners and slaves in which slaveowners had zero power over slaves. (Unfortunately, the balance of power between ex-slaveowners and ex-slaves was far from zero.) I’ll try to avoid this possible confusion in the future.
  1. Chuck also wrote, perhaps a bit harshly, that our “basic theoretical commitments are fundamentally antagonist to the goal of revolutionary transformation,” and that the authors “do not want such a transformation.”
  1. The emergence of these councils in Argentina is discussed and welcomed in the new edition of Globalization from Below (Boston: South End Press, 2002).
  1. Ibid., xiii.
  1. Ibid., 122.
  1. Ibid., 62.
  1. Cited in John Holloway, Change the World without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 215. Holloway in his provocative new book comments on this phrase, “The openness of uncertainty is central to revolution. . . . We ask not only because we do not know the way (we do not), but also because asking the way is part of the revolutionary process itself” (Ibid.).