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After a decade of neoliberal indoctrination that ‘There is No Alternative’ to capitalism, there emerged a backlash in the 1990’s and a new actor appeared in global politics, whose precise definition and contours may be indeterminate and disputed, ‘but whose presence is not: global civil society (GCS).’ One network of activists was the transnational social movement (TSM) the World Social Forum (WSF), which is often cited as one of the most vibrant and potentially productive articulations of an emergent GCS. First held in Porto Alegre (2001), the WSF arose as a counter-summit to the neoliberal project represented by the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Despite its multifaceted goals, it is a forum offering a self-conscious effort to develop an alternative future through the championing of counter-hegemonic globalization and will thus be an essential component of the ensuing essay. The global implication and radical politics of TSMs such as the WSF are empirically and theoretically destabilizing the explanatory potential of the mainstream theories of IR.
The essay first overviews the various theoretical approaches to TSMs and introduces fundamental concepts to assess the shortcomings in the literature. It then explores three challenges that TSMs pose to mainstream theories, using the WSF as a demonstrative example and also as a paradigm to address the pitfalls in the previous literature. Ultimately, it concludes that TSMs, evidenced most acutely by the WSF, fundamentally challenge the core of traditional theories. However, it also advocates moving past one homogenous paradigm of analysis.
Mainstream IR scholars, generally considered to refer to Realists and Liberals, have an aversion TSMs.
Mainstream theories are Positivist/Rationalist theories, concentrating on grand state-centric politics and the anarchic architecture of the world – fundamentally opposing the core of GCS. Indeed, mainstream scholars claim that TSMs, such as the WSF, have little meaningful impact. However, Cox elucidates the reasoning for this dichotomy, asserting that mainstream theories are ‘problem-solving theories.’ Realists and Liberals in particular respond only to the short-term and Cox correctly identifies that this is based on a false premise entirely because they look at problems in isolation and fail to appreciate the larger picture, favouring pragmatism over all else. However, as Cox argues, TSMs conversely operate with long-term visions, and reject short-term pragmatism because to act within the restraints of the status quo implicitly also accepts these very constraints. In the meantime, however, he argues that the Left should continue to participate in electoral politics and industrial action, but this is by no means central to his argument. Moreover, despite the pervasive nature of Realism and Liberalism, the epistemological simplification they impose on a complex social world creates distinct blind spots – for example, critical theorists predicted the Arab Spring while mainstream scholars were oblivious. This is an example of how a ‘grand theory’, like Realism, can fail to predict an event because of its ignorance of context-dependency. Mainstream theorist’s own assumptions are the reason they fail to consider the validity of TSMs.
Constructivism is however increasingly considered a mainstream theory and provides an interesting intersection, and a credible challenge to neorealism and neoliberalism. Constructivists focus upon the social construction of our world and thus bring an inter-subjective dimension to IR, a concept that has been transferred to studies of TSMs. Likewise, Pluralists have likewise contributed significantly to the conceptualization of TSMs, civil society, and market agents. However, both fail to explain the change, implications of TSMs, overlook connections between power and theories of hegemony, and fail to move the sole focuso sub-state actors.
Post-Marxist and critical theorists, however, which are conversely Post-Positivist and reflectivist, regularly study TSMs. Post-Marxist scholars such as Cox, Mittelman and Chun have drawn heavily on Antonio Gramsci’s writings to understand the hegemony of neoliberalism, which provoked a series of crises and counter-movements, such as the WSF. The pertinence and applicability of Gramscian theory to TSMs is best noted when considering his concepts of the emancipatory potential of civil society and counter-hegemony. Gramsci recognized civil society as providing a possible realm in which a new social order could be founded, against the status quo or hegemonic world order. Moreover, he emphasizes a ‘bottom-up’ approach as opposed to a ‘top-down’ strategy, yet this must be driven from the intelligentsia focusing on the long-term revolution. In this respect, GCS is regarded as a counterhegemonic tool of emancipation – the rasion d’être of the WSF.
While scholars have effectively used Gramscian theories in the context of anti-globalization movements, there are two gaps in the literature. 1) They operate on the false assumption that the short-term impacts of TSMs are unimportant and have no bearing on the long-term. 2) The focus on theory and intellectuals comes at the expense of the individual, which silences the voices of many who are not deemed intellectuals yet play crucial roles in grassroots activism. Conversely, in recent years, the study of TSMs, their goals and their effects and the implications of this have been flourishing in the realm of Sociology.  Thus, this essay advocates a constructive approach, in the hope of merging the gaps between the short-term and long-term strategies, the theoretical and the physical and the intellectual and the individual.
The most crucial way that TSMs challenges mainstream IR theories is that mainstream theories operate synchronically; they are static models based on stability, while TSMs operate diachronically and advocate flexibility. Neoliberalism triumphantly claims that ‘There Is No Alternative’ – ‘denouncing capitalism seems to many people a bit like criticizing the weather. Perhaps we can patch the roof to keep out the rain, but there is not much point in railing against the storm itself.’  This is due to the pervasive nature of neoliberalism, promulgated through hegemony. Mainstream IR theorists profess to best manage the conflicted system in which they find themselves. The seeming impossibility of the system is a dilemma; change is difficult because we are already involved, we are subjects trying to confront a system, of which we are a product. Thus, articulating something that is not envisaged within our system, something for which there is literally no language, there is a risk of becoming unintelligible. TSMs however, in true Gramscian practice, argue that ‘Another World is Possible’ and envision a world outside the system, which mainstream scholars fail to comprehend because they work within the system, which is why scholars such as Cox have emphasized the long-term over all else.
The WSF follow the Post-Marxist normative commitment to emancipation and demand alternatives outside what is generally imagined, or within the spectrum of ‘acceptable opinion’; however, the WSF has also been productive in looking at both the short and long-term. Nawal El Saadawi outlines some of the primary aims of the WSF, asserting that the WEF is not a world forum but a forum for a few individuals who own multinationals and advocate free markets, which the WSF reject. This is at the heart of the WSF – a rejection of neoliberalism and the false democracy it produces. Moreover, the WSF have radical visions for the future – the WSF broadly envisions a critical democratic utopia, alternatives to hegemonic capitalist globalization and it fights for a type of ‘negative universalism.’  This revolution of pluralism also encourages, above all, critical reflectivity and a diverse approach to strategy. For example, every year the forum receives hundred of proposals as to how to move forward and these are continually discussed and workshopped.  Additionally, there is a commitment to respectful communication, solidarity, prioritizing visions and strategy as well as analysis, while also stressing the continued importance of grassroots activism and a non-hierarchical structure. Arturo Escobar also asserts that there have been critical changes in recent years that indicate a move to some form of pluralist society. Escobar forefronts the role of digital technologies and cyberspace which he argues is a platform for collective intelligence, multiplicity and pluralism.  Indeed, for the most part, cyberspace is an enactment of a decentralized, non-hierarchical, logical, bottom-up self-organization, which is arguably an example of a visible macro-behavior structure that reflects the type of society WSF fights for.
TSMs help capture the growing interconnectedness of the world that mainstream theories are blind to, and the WSF’s conscious integration between the short-term and long-term strategies is somewhat revolutionary when the two concepts are usually seen as at odds with IR theory. Moreover, TSMs, particularly the WSF, exhibit complex adaptive behavior, they are diverse and dynamic and thus, so too should be our theories when studying them. Thus, the static, synchronic models of mainstream theories are incapable of understanding the complexity of TSMs.
The ensuing section addresses the false premise that the following concepts are dichotomous: Theory and Practice, the long-term and the short-term and the intelligentsia and the public. There have always been tensions between the concepts of Theory and Practice; the two are supposed to be separate realms, connected through abstraction and application – an idea very much a product of Enlightenment thinking. The debate inevitably leads to contradictory and incongruent practices. Although IR theorists specialize, evidently, in Theory, this discussion has larger implications. For example, it has an impact on the IR dichotomy between long-term theories and short-term or ‘problem-solving theories’, because Practice is associated with the short-term realities of the world. Likewise, there are certain implications that the intellectual pursuit is part of a long-term paradigm while the public is rather associated with short-term more practical paradigm. For example, Realism and Liberalism are both theoretical and both recognized as academic/intellectual pursuits, however in accordance with Cox’s problem-solving theory, Realism is a short-term based theory; while Liberalism, broadly, has longer-term goals. TSMs however, are often considered to be to be practical, and ideological are also thought to be part of a short-term paradigm, largely driven by the public and not the intelligentsia. This misconception of TSMs is one of the reasons TSMs are so understudied in IR discourse.
Conversely, TSMs have the potential to become a conduit, merging the gaps between the intelligentsia in their ‘ivory towers’ and the public. Both Gramsci and Cox have stressed the importance of the organic intellectual over the public. Similarly, Thomas Ponniah writes about the WSF: ‘what then is the role of a writer in the contemporary search for global justice?’  If the intelligentsia / writer and the public are both fighting for emancipated GCS, why should the two be considered separate pursuits? The WSF vigorously and constructively engage in merging the gap between the intelligentsia and the public; attendants of the Forum come from both aspects of society, the intelligentsia and writers are continually producing material on the WSF and its visions for GCS, while intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky praise the work of activists, working in the short-term, such as La Via Campesina movement.
This integration of approaches also addresses the central question – how do TSMs achieve their visions of reform or revolution? While it is true that GCS can only be achieved through changes in language, the type of constructive engagement we see from the WSF indicates that the short-term impacts of Practice are equally important as Theory. For example, the WSF have had many victories; in 2003, there was the defeat of World Trade Organizations Doha round, from which the organization has never recovered. Additionally, there was the defeat of the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the significant policy changes won on equality, for example, the new land laws in Bolivia and Brazil’s Zero Hunger and poverty eradication programmes.  While these do not constitute a ‘GCS Revolution’, the impacts of the WSF are more important to the long-term picture than Cox or Gramsci would perhaps theorize. Thus moving away from Post-Marxist readings of TSMs severely destabilizes mainstream IR theory’s explanatory potential; Theory and Practice, the intelligentsia and the public, the long and the short-term, need not be the antithesis of one another.
John Agnew’s The Territorial Trap: The Geographical Assumptions of International Relations Theory destabilizes state-centrism in mainstream IR.  Agnew identifies three false assumptions made by IR scholars; conventional thinking, firstly relies on state as the fixed units of sovereignty and analysis, the next geographical assumption made is that there is an apparent bipolarity of the domestic and the foreign, and lastly, mainstream IR theories operate on the premise that states are containers of societies. This has equated to what Agnew deems the ‘territorial trap’. In idealizing the territorial state, we cannot see the world in which its role and meaning change, it becomes a fixed social ‘truth’. Agnew aptly asserts that ‘its as if territorial space in IR has conquered time’ and only historical-geographical consciousness can release us.  However, Constructivists, such as John-Gerard Ruggie, have also critiqued state-centrism, primarily because it neglects to consider how identity and interests of actors are constructed.  However, Constructivists fail to change the ontological unit to the sub-state actor, whereas Agnew does. TSMs challenge the Realist, Liberal and Constructivists sub-state actors due to their relevance to global politics, and their independence from the state, forcing theorists to consider that there is much more to IR than merely grand state-centric politics.
The WSF has also severely challenged the artificial construct of the nation state. Janet Conway theorizes that WSF’s politics of difference and diversity encourage plurality and that the WSF recognizes the specificities of struggles arising from particular places all over the world which are expressed on a variety of scales, and that this is both acknowledged and valorized at the WSF.  Indeed, in 2013, the forum attracted delegates from more than 4,000 organizations, representing 120 countries, each facing different struggles and with different ideals.  This indicates a reinvention of the spatial praxis for emancipatory social movements that transcends any nation-state analytical framework. The trans-scalar characteristic of the WSF reasserts the ‘local’ as an important part of the global and has argued for their interconnectedness.  The WSF is thus arguably moving away from globocentrism, invoking socio-spatial imagery of a ‘movement’ rooted in the local, that is increasingly and diversely networked as opposed to being one unitary counter-hegemonic movement. Indeed, this combination of the global and local has led to Nawal El Saadawi coining the term ‘glocal.’  This slight change in discourse sees short-term strategies and theoretical writings in combining to create the change they seek. Although the transcendence of the nation-state is a traditional post-Marxist view of GCS, incorporating sections of the Pluralist paradigm and even a critical-geographical paradigm is a more productive way to understand the WSF and TSMs more generally. These networks between the local and global space equally allow room for a focus on the shorter term, not just abstract theoretical long-term discussions.
The implications of this research also have three broader impacts. Firstly TSMs challenge the ‘nation,’ both conceptually and as the ontological unit of analysis – thus simultaneously challenges even the name of the discipline itself. Although radical, renaming it would reflect a renewed geographical-historical consciousness and empirical evidence of the visible effects of TSMs. Secondly, TSMs reveal the incapacity of mainstream theories to explain some of the crucial aspects of contemporary world politics. TSMs have the potential to destabilize almost every key hegemonic ‘truth’ claim that mainstream IR scholars advocate and could also lead to deeper understanding of the social aspects and bonds governing international relations and politics. Thirdly, if there is a continued discourse surrounding a bottom-up GCS from both the intellectual and the public and TSMs continue to have real-world traction, and are taken seriously in academia and not dubbed ‘idealistic’, then TSMs have the potential to create the society that they seek. In this way, TSMs would challenge mainstream IR theories in the most profound way – by destabilizing their validity entirely.
Ultimately, despite many claiming that GCS is a leftist utopia, many of their central criticisms seem more appropriate than ever: economic polarization and job insecurity in many developed societies have deepened; capital increasingly constrains the activities of states and communities; giant corporations dominate the media and cultural production, and politics in many capitalist democracies is ever-dominated by money, unresponsive to the concerns of ordinary people.  Moreover, while many have dismissed TSMs as irrelevant to IR, this essay has proven that these claims are unsubstantiated. TSMs have had dramatic effects on the world system; they de-center the state, challenge conservatism, provide for the individual and challenge the claim that ‘There Is No Alternative.’ Although this has not constituted a ‘revolution’, this is not to say they cannot achieve ‘revolution’ as they empirically and theoretically destabilizing the explanatory potential of the mainstream IR theories. Moreover, although systemic change is the ultimate goal, the short-term demands and actions of TSMs are not consequently invalid. The short-term processes themselves help configure and refine visions of GCS. Currently, no singular theoretical model within IR is capable of capturing the complexity of GCS. Thus, an intersectional and interdisciplinary approach can take the discipline a long way in conceptualizing the emerging reality of TSMs and GCS.
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