Finding Pathways to a Better Future: Part 1: Where Have We Been?

Unlike other ecosocialists, I have long argued that the path to radical social transformation called for the formation of the most inventive social movement the world has ever seen.  But as a scholar of twentieth-century revolutions and twenty-first century movements for radical social change, I have started to come around to the idea that the urgency of the crisis in which we find ourselves, and the lack of adequate action on all sides (myself very much included) means that we need to consider the necessity of imagining something akin to a new kind of party.  What if we rejected the binary between movement and party, elections and direct action, acted upon the urgency of the mandate for thinking in new ways, and embraced a creative synthesis of the two?  This essay will explore our predicament and the prospects for ways out of it along these lines.

The world as we know it is crashing around us.  The signs are evident, and they are everywhere:  intense, extreme storms, floods, drought, heat, rain, fire, and winds – nothing is as it was.  Politicians don’t know what to do, and the actions of so many of them seem downright cruel, vacuous, or incompetent.  The devastation of war, military operations, policing, lethal drones, and physical attacks roll over populations entirely innocent of any crime.  The slow grind of debt, privation, and daily exploitation wears on more than half of Earth’s human inhabitants.  Non-human creatures are dying out in record numbers as Earth’s systems are polluted, contaminated, and wracked by the endless extraction of fossil fuels, minerals, and the loss of healthy soil and water.

We are called, therefore.  To what, we do not know exactly.  In the face of the Anthropocene and the climate crisis, militarism and inequality, and a widespread lack of political voice it is hard to know what to do.  Very hard.

Yet it is precisely this question, this existential challenge, to which we must bring our imaginations and love, in search of the greatest transformation we are capable of conjuring up – a Great Transition of all our systems – to something whole and nourishing for the planet and for the generations of Earthly creatures to come.

The good news is that millions – perhaps billions – of us know the score, and are ready to rise or already rising to the call.  Transition initiatives, intentional communities, networks of educators, activists, and ordinary people, social movements large and small, streets of neighbors, and here and there political groupings have all emerged in recent years, determined both to block the machinery of death and to create the means of life.

It is to these beginnings of hope that we should now turn our attention.  To continue with business as usual is to slowly sink into chaos.  The time is now and the agents are us, and those around us, in every corner of the Earth.  To turn away is to go extinct. We must rise.

Naming the Enemy

A sober look at the root causes of the present crisis points unambiguously to the normal workings of capitalism as an economic system and a way of life as a (and perhaps the) prime reason for the interconnected ills that beset us.  Underlying this, we find the patriarchal and racial hierarchies that capitalism’s elites thrive on, the history of their colonial plunder and the dysfunctional operation of neoliberal globalization, and the militarism, violence, and lack of participation that permeate and poison our cultures.  On top of it all, the climate crisis, made by the endless search for profit over people, the planet, and life itself, now condemns us to a future of extreme weather in ecosystems that will not recover for an eternity of generations to come.  To be clear, it’s the interconnected nature of the economic, political, and cultural crises of our times with the climate crisis that is at the root of our predicament in this century.

What is more, the governments and the economic elites of the world do not have this steadily worsening crisis under control.  The Paris Agreement signed by 195 nations of the world in December 2015 offers no chance of containing global warming under the thresholds that science suggests must not be passed. The Agreement is weak because it is not legally binding, and the pledges, even if all met, would still raise global temperatures in this century by around three degrees Celsius, well past the “extremely dangerous” two degree threshold.  The casual stinginess and blinkered selfishness of the wealthy nations of the global North which refuse to pay their climate debt with generous financing of the renewable energy revolution required by the under-resourced countries of the global South greatly magnifies the problem.

Meanwhile, the proven reserves of the fossil fuel corporations and oil-exporting countries propel a business model that entails burning more than five times the amount of fossil fuels that the Earth can handle.  If one wants to hold to the more stringent, far safer limit of 1.5 degrees, and have a better than 80 percent chance (Russian roulette odds) of staying under that, we have less than nine years left till the planet runs the risk of passing the tipping points that may trigger runaway climate chaos.

What could the solution be to all of this?

Political Cultures of Opposition:  A Brief History of the Twentieth Century

Let’s step back for a moment and look at the broad course of human-made radical social transformation in the twentieth century. After promising beginnings, the great revolutions of the century – in Mexico, Russia, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, and in many former colonies – all failed to realize the dreams and visions of those who made them.  For the most part, these were led by men and fought by means of armed insurrection, two fatal (if arguably necessary) flaws which led to the construction of new revolutionary states that were long on repression of speech and short on accountability to the people they ruled.  This is not to deny, at all, the great material gains that were made in some places, and the notable improvements in the lives of millions of people.  Nor is it to minimize the daunting challenges of providing a decent life in societies ravaged by colonial and imperialist domination, often threatened with force of arms by global powers like the United States.  In the one place where revolutionaries came to power in free and fair elections, under the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970, the “Chilean path to socialism” was ruthlessly crushed by the military and the United States.  The list of interventions by the United States between 1945 and the present includes several dozen instances of such fatal meddling.  Attempts at radical social transformation were everywhere met by nearly overwhelming force across the twentieth century.  Where a people survived, as in Cuba, the substantial gains that resulted were paid for dearly with a lack of political voice and other freedoms.

If we return to the original impulse that animated these grand, tragic attempts at deep social change, and ask what drove them, against all the odds, we see in every case strong and vibrant political cultures of opposition and resistance (PCOs) that proved capable of bringing diverse social groups to the side of movements. These political cultures originated in people’s experiences and emotions and were expressed in complex mixtures of popular, everyday ways of articulating grievances – whether in terms of fairness, justice, dignity, or freedom – and more consciously formulated radical ideologies such as socialism, nationalism, liberation theology, and anti-colonialism.

Figure 1      The making of twentieth-century political cultures of opposition in the Mexican, Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Iranian, and Nicaraguan revolutions

In any given society, there usually exist multiple political cultures of opposition, for people do not necessarily share the same experiences, speak similar idioms, or respond as one to the call of formal ideologies. The most effective revolutionary movements of history found ways to tap into whatever political cultures emerged in their society and to bridge the gaps between them, often through the creation of a clear and concise common demand such as “the regime must step down” or “the foreign powers must leave.” When this happens, a movement’s chances of growth and success are considerably increased.

The forging of a strong and vibrant political culture of opposition is thus an accomplishment, carried through by the actions of many people, and, like revolutions themselves, such cultures have been relatively rare in human history.

Political Cultures of Creation:  A Brief Survey of the Present

Those who would bring about deep social transformation in the present century have proceeded in some crucially different ways from their forerunners in the twentieth, above all by their stress on non-violence and deep participation.  The most encompassing of these include the global justice movement, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movements across the world, and today’s global climate justice movement.  Today, a vast, loose network of movements involves many thousands of local initiatives, movements, and campaigns.

In the twenty-first century, movements for radical social change[1] – a term more suited for purpose to this century’s great social movements than revolution – have themselves changed, as activists, reformers, dreamers, and revolutionaries globally have increasingly pursued nonviolent paths to a better world, intending to live and act as they would like that world to be.  That is, the ends of justice are no longer held to justify the means of violence, but the means of non-violent resistance reflect and guarantee the ends that they seek. In this, they embody and illustrate the virtues of ‘prefigurative politics’ and in particular horizontalist ways to realize them.

In this way, today’s movements, in addition to political cultures of opposition and resistance, also place strong emphasis on what might be called political cultures of creation ” (or PCOCs, which may be conveniently read out loud as “peacocks”!). This recognizes that movements become even stronger when they add a positive vision of a better world to a widely felt culture of opposition and resistance, thus providing an alternative to strive for that could improve on or replace what exists.[2] In this sense, some of the differences between old and new movements for radical social change include the attempt to get away from the hierarchical organizations that made the great revolutions of the twentieth century and move in the direction of more horizontal, deeply democratic relations among participants; the greater expressive power of popular idioms than appeals to ideology; visionary narratives and compelling stories using all manner of media; the growing use of civil disobedience and militant nonviolence; the building of intersectional coalitions as networks that include diverse outlooks; and the salience of political cultures of creation alongside political cultures of opposition and resistance.  And to be fair, the great social revolutions also possessed political cultures of creation, in their own fashion, more aligned on ideologies of socialism, nationalism, and anti-colonialism.

Figure 2   The emergence of “new” political cultures of opposition and creation in the twenty-first century (dotted lines indicate relationships that are more loosely connected):  the Zapatistas and the Global Justice Movement are bolded so as to stand out from the italicized Pink Tide of elected left governments in Latin America, with commonalities in plain text

The obvious political question is:  Can all our new political cultures of opposition and creation produce – or at least contribute to – the type of global transformation that is needed to deal with a world in crisis?  Twenty-first century movements for radical social change have shown an ability to move beyond ideology in favor of the strengths of popular idioms and powerful, strategic memes demanding social justice (e.g. Black Lives Matter! and Water is Life!).  But how to fashion large-scale popular spaces for democracy, and how to articulate the discourses that will bring together the broadest coalitions ever seen onto a global stage constitute great challenges.

The left has achieved state power in an important set of Latin American countries but it has not possessed the will, internal support, or in some cases the global room for maneuver to decisively redirect resources to the poorest sectors of society.  The desultory experiences of Obama and the European Center-Left have shown rather clearly the limited room for maneuver and the dimming prospects for significant reform, domestically or globally, through these parties, locked as they are inside the straitjacket of neoliberal capitalist globalization.  The Zapatistas have registered dramatic communal gains on a local level, but they have not been so successful at generalizing these accomplishments beyond Chiapas.  The global justice movement raised significant opposition to neoliberal institutions like the World Trade Organization in Seattle, but it was unable – perhaps understandably – to reverse the tide of neoliberal capitalism, especially after George Bush’s invasion of Iraq forced much of it to evolve into a peace movement..

What, then, is to be done?

[1] “Movements for radical social transformation (or change)” are characterized by actions which move in the direction of greater economic equality and deeper democratic participation.  This is thus an umbrella term covering both the great social revolutions of the twentieth century and the movements of this century which concern us here.

[2] This is an argument increasingly being made by Naomi Klein in No is Not Enough:  Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need (Chicago:  Haymarket, 2017), Charles Derber in Welcome to the Revolution:  Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times (New York: Routledge, 2017), George Monbiot in Out of the Wreckage:  A New Politics for an Age of Crisis (London:  Verso, 2017), and Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics:  Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2017), not to mention Paul Raskin’s Journey to Earthland:  The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization (Boston:  Tellus Institute, 2016), as well as the work of The Next System Project at

To Be Continued…

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission