Abstract: After providing a brief overview of the global justice movement history, this article analyzes the main argument raised by its activists to oppose the neoliberal ideology, as notably asserted by the shifts in the discourses of some G20 leaders. Activists however call attention to the gap between the speeches of the G20 leaders and the measures actually implemented. Accordingly, global justice activists have decided to focus on seeking concrete outcomes through the following: specialized advocacy networks, empowerment at the local level and alliances with progressive regimes.
Keywords: alter-globalization, financial and economic crisis, G20, neoliberalism, poverty reduction, US Social Forum, Washington Consensus
Between June 22 and 27, 2010, Detroit hosted the second US Social Forum with some 15,000 activists in attendance. Since the first World Social Forum in 2001, “Social Forums” have become major events of the global justice movement (also called “alter-globalization”). Similar meetings have been organized at the local, national, continental, and global level. They allow activists to share their experience, successes, and challenges, to discuss alternative practices or policies and to elaborate common strategies on issues ranging from local community life to global warming and finance regulation.
The first US Social Forum (USSF) was held in 2007 in Atlanta. Some 10,000 activists attended it from a wide range of political sympathies, including the non-profit sector, local movements, alternative liberals, anarchist networks, and a strong participation of minorities (Smith & Juris, 2008). This time one thousand workshops had been organized in Detroit with 14 major thematic axes, including “capitalism in crisis,” climate justice, indigenous sovereignty, migrants, communities’ empowerment, labor movements, media, transformative justice, war and human rights. Social, economic, and environmental challenges all found a specific resonance in Detroit. The city is not only devastated by a massive de-industrialization process and by the consequences of the sub-prime crisis. It is also the host of numerous alternative projects:
Detroit has a rich history of alternative strategies and alternative economies. We hear about economic collapse, foreclosures and the lack of education here. People will come here and really see what’s going on. This will be a national conversation and out of that conversation will come other actions.
The USSF meeting took place in a context of major global crises: the most severe economic crisis since the 1970s, of which the full social and economic consequences are still not clear, and an ecological crisis that threatens the sustainability of the planet.
The global justice movement has passed through three periods up until now. Local and national mobilizations against neoliberalism occupied the first period, with “water and gas wars” in Bolivia (De la Fuente, 2000) and South Korean workers’ movements (Park, 2009) as well as the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico and the Indian farmers struggle against the WTO. The globality of the movement was readily apparent, particularly during mobilizations organized around global events, the most publicized of which was in Seattle, protesting the third ministerial of the WTO in 1999. Committed intellectuals also played a major role in alerting the public to the social consequences of free trade and challenging the hegemonic Washington Consensus. They initiated civil society networks, which became a feature of the global justice movement, such as ATTAC, Global Trade Watch, the Transnational Institute and Focus on the Global South. Other global coalitions created during this period include the World March of Women, Jubilee South and Via Campiness, which claims to bring together over 100 million small farmers (Desmarais, 2007).
These heterogeneous actors gathered at the first World Social Forum (WSF), held in Porto Alegre in January 2001. It marked the beginning of the second phase, as the movement became organized around Social Forums at the local, national, continental, and global level. These meetings were oriented less towards resistance than to bringing together global justice activists from different parts of the world, in some cases with the aim of developing alternative programs. The 2002 European Social Forum in Florence, the 2004 WSF in Mumbai, and the 2005 WSF in Porto Alegre marked three high points of this period of the global justice movement. They were remarkable for their size, their openness to a wide range of civil society sectors and political cultures, and for the active participation of grassroots activists involved in both global justice organization and discussions dealing with thematic issues.
Although many columnists proclaimed the movement dead in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, maintaining that the “War on Terror” had replaced economic globalization as the central issue, this period was a golden age for the global justice movement. From 2000 to 2005, it grew rapidly on every continent. There were 50,000 demonstrators in Seattle in 1999. A year and a half later, 300,000 marched against the G-8 in Genoa in July 2001; the same number in Barcelona in March 2002 at a European summit; a million in Florence in November 2002 at the closing of the first European Social Forum (ESF); and 12 million worldwide against the war in Iraq on 15 February 2003, a global day of action initiated by global justice networks. The number of participants in the yearly World Social Forum climbed from 12,000 in 2001 to 50,000, 100,000, 120,000, and 170,000 successively until 2005. After its success in Brazil, the World Social Forum moved to India in 2004 and the Social Forum evolved to spawn many hundreds of forums at the local, national, and continental levels. While global justice activists opposed the war in Iraq between 2002 and 2004, the struggle against neoliberal ideology remained their top priority. The global justice movement managed to win over public opinion in several countries and, surprisingly, some right-wing politicians and representatives of the World Bank asked to take part in the WSF in Porto Alegre.
After an impressive ascendant phase from 1995 to 2005 – albeit with setbacks and retreats – the global movement, after several unsuccessful events, entered a hesitant phase. The global justice movement has expanded geographically, but at the same time the 2006 “Polycentric” WSF held in Bamako, Caracas, and Karachi and the 2007 WSF in Nairobi were in many respects less successful than previous events. With a reduced audience (15,000 to 50,000 fewer), these forums were also less socially and economically diverse. The integration of grassroots activists diminished, while NGOs and activists who supported formal political actors and regimes became more prominent. Some major global justice organizations disappeared (e.g. the “Movimiento de Resistencia Global” in Barcelona) or were less active (e.g. ATTAC, many social centres in Italy and the Wombles in the UK). Paradoxically, global justice actors had a difficult time adapting to the new skepticism about neoliberalism they had brought about. In addition, the ever-increasing use of the internet led to a decline in the importance of civil society organizations. The movement now mostly relies on loose-knit networks of groups, small organizations, media sources, and individual activists.
The geography of the movement has evolved considerably. New dynamic poles have emerged, while some of the former Western European strongholds have declined. The social forum dynamic has been reinforced in regions that are symbolically or strategically important (North America, the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa, South Korea). An enthusiastic acceptance of the global justice ideas and forums has not diminished in Latin America, as is attested by the adoption of anti-neoliberal policies by several heads of state in the region and the participation of 130,000 activists in the WSF held at Belem, Brazil, in January 2009. This forum, held in the Amazon region, also provides an illustration of the growing importance of environmental concerns in the global movement, which have become stronger before and during the World Summit on Climate in Copenhagen and then the “People Summit against Global Warming” in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Twenty-five thousand people from 147 countries joined the conference called by Evo Morales, among which were many indigenous people.
Since the mid-1990s, global justice activists have contested the neoliberal ideology, questioning its axioms and its efficiency. Dominant since the elections of M. Thatcher and R. Reagan, neoliberalism became hegemonic in the Gramscian sense – i.e. able to impose itself as “natural” and “without alternative” – in the early 1990s. It then set forth its view concerning the meaning of globalization, connecting the progressive transition to a global society to the image of a self-regulated global economy, beyond intervention by policy makers (Albrow, 1996). Neoliberalism and its “Washington Consensus agenda” (Williamson, 1989) promote free capital movements, monetarism and a minimal state (see Held & McGrew, 2007: 188). It favors the implementation of a purely economic rationality, liberated from all obstacles stemming from regulations designed to moderate the economic system.
Global justice activists saw that the battle against neoliberalism plays out primarily in the realm of ideas and that ideological change is the basis for sustainable social transformation. “From the point of view of development, it is not so much money which counts, as ideas.” Their success in challenging the dominant ideology is based on testing whether neoliberalism has lived up to its own values of democracy and scientific rationality.
Global justice economics moves from a discursive emphasis on poverty and suffering to an analysis of economic inequality, focusing on the logic of social conflict and social agency. Poverty is thus not fatal, but a consequence of the dominant economic model – i.e. capitalism – and the unequal distribution of wealth that “impoverishes” poor and working people around the globe. Global justice activists insist that poverty need not be endemic and suggest relatively inexpensive ways to alleviate or eradicate it. They assert for example that poverty reduction and the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals only depend on political will.
Global justice activists attempt to re-insert social and political questions into issues treated by neoliberal economics as solely involved with the maximization of efficiency. They denounce the imposition of neoliberalism by non-accountable experts and barely democratic institutions. Nobel prize winners Kydland and Prescott (1977) and Barro (1986) indeed argued that experts are more trustworthy than politicians because they act from a long-term perspective. Following these recommendations, elected officials have handed over a multitude of negotiations and decisions in international trade and economics to independent administrative bodies of experts. Activists reject this position as undemocratic (Teivainen, 2002): “It is a matter of re-conquering the spaces lost by democracy to the financial sector” (ATTAC International Platform, 1998). They seek to create spaces of debate in many spheres, ranging from economics to new technologies (GMOs, intellectual property, trade etc.). They likewise encourage citizen participation in political discussion and decisions. To build a fairer world, they argue for a notion of active rather than passive citizenship, requiring a public familiar with scientific knowledge and debates, especially in public economics. As major bodies managing the transition to a more global society, the G8, G20, World Bank, IMF, and WTO are the core targets of global justice activists. To their mind, these institutions have come to embody both the neoliberal ideology and the technocratic aspect of current global governance. The most telling criticisms relate to the technocratic, opaque, and undemocratic way these bodies function: voting is rare, countries are unequal, and World Bank, IMF or WTO delegates are unaccountable to their populations.
Sociologist of science R. Boudon (1989: ch. 9) maintains that the “truth” of economic theories has more to do with their capacity to forge a provisional consensus than with their always highly debatable scientific validity. Deconstruction of “neoliberal rationality” and the scientific basis for the Washington Consensus is essential in any challenge posed to its hegemony. Global justice activists attempt to demonstrate the irrationality of a global economy dominated by laissez-faire market behaviour and financial speculation. They see contemporary capitalism as both dysfunctional and aberrant. The irrationality of neoliberal policies, the influence of non-proven axioms and the failure to test facts have led global justice activists to denounce Washington Consensus precepts as failing to comply with scientific criteria: “The economic reasoning is in reality ideological and political and not scientific.” (F. Müller, a German global justice expert, WSF 2001). Global justice activists oppose “the myth of the dominant economy, which lives on fictions” (R. Passet, talk in Paris, 2002).
Poverty reduction figures among the essential elements of the World Bank’s mandate, notably through its “Poverty Reduction Strategy.” Promoters of the free flows of capital have framed their approach as the best way to decrease poverty, claiming that freedom of capital flows means more resources at the disposal of developing countries (IMF 2007; Animat, 2002). Global justice activists argue that economic growth does not necessarily lead to the satisfaction of the needs of the greatest number. Thus the United Nations Development Report for 2006 showed that, outside China, poverty has increased in the world, in spite of the economic growth of the 1990s (UNDP, 2006: 263; Wade, 2008; Held & Kaya, 2008). For global justice advocates, growing poverty results from the rising inequality in three decades of neoliberal policies (e.g. Passet, 2003: 37). Rather than the pursuit of maximal profit or GDP growth, global justice economists define economy as an “instrument” to reduce poverty and satisfy human need. This central idea is expressed in slogans to be found worldwide, like “People, not profits.”
Economic and financial stability is the core objective of the IMF. Here too, global justice activists draw up a damning account of the policies that have been pursued. The succession of financial crises throughout the 1990’s contradicted the claim that free flows of capital necessarily bring greater financial and economic stability. The founders of ATTAC link its birth to a “diagnosis: the confirmation, in the Asian financial crisis, of the malignancy of markets and of their hegemonic role in neoliberal globalization.” (Cassen in ATTAC, 2000a: 12). To global justice activists, “the market is no longer self-regulating, it amplifies instabilities” (ATTAC, 2001a: 39). The scale of the global crisis in 2008 and 2009 appears to prove them right. Activists consider the crash in 2001-2002 Argentina as another proof of the failure of neoliberal policies. In the 1990s, the country was regularly designated as “IMF’s darling” (American Prospect, 28/02/2002) for its careful implementation of the IMF recommendations to open, liberalize and privatize. It eventually led it into an unprecedented economic crisis. The UNDP calculated that the average annual income per resident dropped from US$ 8950 in 1997 to US$ 3194 in March 2002, plunging half of the Argentinean population under the poverty line in 2003. Exports fell from 26.7 billion dollars in 2001 to 10.8 billion dollars in 2003. Global justice economists emphasize how successive economic and financial crises afflicted countries that adopted neoliberal policies, such as Mexico, Turkey, Argentina, as well as the Asian crisis of 1997 and the recent US subprime crisis (Kalinowski, 2009) that resulted in a global financial, economic, and social disaster.
While they do not consider economic growth to be an objective in itself, global justice experts emphasize the limitations of neoliberal policies even on this level. A quarter century after the Mexican turn towards neoliberal policies in 1982, and 15 years after the entry into force of NAFTA, an analysis of the main indices of the Mexican economy leaves little doubt: “GNP growth rates are roughly half of the level for the previous period; real manufacturing wages in 2004 are only 70% of their level in 1980; and unemployment and poverty clearly increased” (Cooney, 2008:15). Certainly, NAFTA facilitated recovery from the monetary crisis of 1994 and 1995; but NAFTA made Mexico one of the most vulnerable countries to international crises, as shown by the 7.1% fall of its GDP in 2009. 
Global justice activists also consider as false or obsolete some major axioms of classical economics on which neoliberal precepts are based. They challenge Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage, Say’s notion of nature as “free good” (that is, available in unlimited quantities and without cost), and more generally the economic “externalities” that are falsely removed from the realm of economic calculations  (e.g. environmental damages, radioactive waste treatment, etc.).
By demonstrating the irrationality of neoliberal theories, global justice intellectuals have deconstructed its scientific claims and the idea of a free market economy as inherently rational. The current financial and economic crisis vindicated much global justice analysis, proving it correct on many points, including the urgent need for stronger regulation of the financial sector and of the global economy (Kalinowski, 2009). However, even before the crisis, many social scientists had already argued that the decades dominated by neoliberalism had ended (Held, 2005; Touraine, 2005; Stiglitz, 2008).
Many of the international institutions that supervised trade liberalization and encouraged Southern countries to adopt neoliberal policies are now discredited. The WTO has experienced a series of setbacks in Seattle (1999), Cancun (2003), Hong Kong (2005) and Geneva (2008). South American governments even buried the Free Trade Area of the Americas project at their 2005 continental summit (Hakim, 2006). All over the world, political leaders have recognized the importance of state intervention in the economy (cf. Cardoso, 2008), acknowledging the defects of the self-regulating market and of neoliberal policies. Some of the G20 leaders have not hesitated to appropriate global justice’s slogans. The right wing French President Nicolas Sarkozy has appropriated alter-globalization slogans: “the ideology of the dictatorship of the market and public powerlessness has died with the financial crisis.” State intervention in the economy, the need to regulate speculation and global capital flows and the problems of tax havens have all become consensual elements in the discourse of G20 leaders, including Barack Obama.
While celebrating the fact that states have recovered a larger role in the management of the economy, global justice activists call attention to the gap between the promises and speeches of the G20 leaders and the measures actually implemented. Tax havens were presented as a major target of the G20, but action against these strategic spaces of a deregulated global economy remains limited. Activists were dubious when the G20 summit in London decided to shore up the IMF by tripling its budget (from 250 to 750 billion dollars) in order to help stabilize the economy and the markets. Activists wondered, “Being the source of many problems, it is curious how the G20 and the IMF can project themselves as a solution too” (interview, April 2009). Activists criticize the fact that “measures taken by governments against the crisis have tended to support the actors who, in part, originated the crisis, particularly through plans to save the banks” (an English activist protesting against the G20 summit in London, 02/04/2009). “The only preoccupation of the US government is to go back to ‘business as usual’ and to start again as before the crisis. They are convinced that the system will recover soon and they don’t talk about reform” (an activist in Boston, March 2010). In the meanwhile, global warming, the food crisis, and increasing poverty have underlined the importance of global challenges and the need for more effective economic regulation and global governance (Held & Young, 2009). In Europe, after spending billions on saving the banks, the states started worrying about their deficits and enacted austerity plans, cutting off their spending in a way very similar to what they did in the 1990s, the golden age of neoliberalism.
Like Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2009), one of the leading global justice intellectuals, many activists thus wonder:
Some people say, “Neoliberalism has come to an end.” But we don’t know what that really means – if it has really come to an end, then what is after that? In any case – whatever it is, it’s not very hopeful, but it is clear that it is not going to be the same type of free trade orgy that used to be the case in the past.
Indeed, the financial crisis was hardly over before the traders’ bonus system was back in action. Once the European states expended billions to save banks, they reaffirmed budget cutting, and reduced social legislation. With climate change and the economic crisis at hand, and with little reform and economic regulation adopted since the start of the financial crisis, global justice activists are particularly concerned that a return to the same financial and economics practices and policies will inevitably lead to an even deeper crisis. “In the absence of effective measures against financial speculation, [current measures to address the crisis] will contribute to creating new bubbles – the American treasury bonds bubble is swelling before our eyes. And financial history teaches us that bubbles always end up bursting” (Zacharie, 2009).
Activists have abandoned their hope that the crisis would result in quick and deep changes in dominant economic policies. The October 2009 WSF International Council report stated that “None of the opportunities for [social transformation] will come out of the crisis by themselves, without interventions.” However large it is, the crisis in itself does not generate structural changes in the dominant economic policies. The latter will depend on the capacity of social movements to bring out the questions posed by the historic situation (Touraine, 1984; Kaldor, 2003) and to advance alternative political visions and economic rationality. During the 20 months following the crash of Lehman Brothers, the global justice movement did not have that capacity, but the battle is far from over. Ten years after the famous slogan on a wall of Seattle “We are winning,” activists rather state that “We won’t win the struggle by ideology itself. We need concrete outcomes.” Activists have thus concluded that the focus should now be set on concrete alternative outcomes.
Global justice activists now believe that it is time to focus on implementing concrete alternatives. There are three views of how to implement alternative policies and programs.
Citizens’ and Experts’ Advocacy Networks
One view holds that concrete outcomes may be achieved through efficient single-issue networks like food sovereignty, Third World Debt, or financial speculation and volatility. For example, from an imposition of limits on financial transactions, it is possible to move on to broader question relating to a new world order. Through the issue of water protection, for instance, activists raise the question of global public goods, oppose some activities of global corporations and promote the idea of the long-term efficiency of the public sector. After several years of intense exchanges between citizens and experts focusing on one or another particular issue of this nature, the quality of arguments within these thematic networks has increased considerably and they have become the core of recent social forums. Even without much media attention, these networks have often proved effective. During the autumn of 2008, the European Water Network influenced the City of Paris to re-municipalize its water distribution, which had been managed previously by private corporations. Political commissions in Ecuador have adopted debt cancellation arguments and some of the movement’s experts have joined national delegations to major international meetings, including the Geneva WTO negotiations in 2008.
A Focus on the Local Level
Another perspective on how to affect change stresses a less thematic and inclusive approach, namely, participatory, convivial, and sustainable values in daily practices, personal life and local spaces. The Zapatistas (Pleyers, 2009) and other Latin American indigenous movements focus on community development through local autonomy, participatory self-government, alternative education systems, and improvements in the quality of life. This view finds acceptance in movements in Western countries as well. “Relocalization” movements promote a wide range of local experiments aiming to reduce consumption and increase production, while building community resilience in response to climate change and seeking to preserve and promote local knowledge and culture. Urban activists appreciate the convivial aspect of local initiatives and the fact that they allow the implementation of small but concrete alternatives to corporate globalization and mass consumption. The movement for “convivial de-growth” reflects this tendency and aims for a lifestyle that reduces waste and imposes less strain on natural resources. Other “convivial” urban movements include associations promoting the use of bicycles and local initiatives to strengthen social relations within neighbourhoods.
Food coalitions have emerged from the global justice movement that link these concrete practices of consumption with a broader concept of social transformation “from below.” Local “collective purchase groups” and community-supported agriculture networks organize collective buying from local producers. Their goal is to make quality food affordable, to bring an alternative to processed food in supermarkets, and to promote local social relations. In May 2009, some 3,000 activists attended the grassroots organized “Brooklyn Food Conference.” In Detroit, over 80 workshops focused on food issues during the US Social Forum. Activists from the “Brooklyn Food Coalition” or the international “Slow Food Movement” consider food practices to be at the heart of major societal challenges, such as public health issues (diabetes, obesity) and lack of access to healthy food in poorer neighborhoods (the “urban food deserts”). They are fostering convivial relationship among communities (e.g. with collective gardens or shared meals) and the struggle against global warming and the domination of global corporations and industrial farms (Lappe, 2010).
Supporting Progressive Regimes
A third component of the movement believes that broad social change will occur mainly through progressive policies implemented by key actors: national policy makers, governments and institutions. Alter-globalization activists have struggled to strengthen state agency in social, environmental and economic matters. Now that state intervention has regained legitimacy, this more “political” component of the movement believes that the time has come to support progressive political leaders’ efforts. These have notably included President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and President Evo Morales in Bolivia. Alternative programmes and projects are implemented both through national social and economic policies and through international alliances between progressive regimes. New regional projects and institutions have been launched on this basis, like the Bank of the South, which has assumed the main tasks of the IMF in the region. For reasons of history and political culture, Latin American and Indian activists are accustomed to working closely with political parties and leaders. Similar developments have also occurred recently in Western countries. For example, in the United States the impetus produced by the first national Social Forum in 2007 was largely redirected towards the presidential campaign of Senator Obama.
Alliances have emerged between global activists and some progressive head of states to advocate for strong measures to be taken at the UN climate change negotiations. It was more than a symbol for governmental delegations of Bolivia, Venezuela and Tuvalu to temporarily leave the UN Conference to join the climate justice activists’ “Peoples’ Assembly” in Copenhagen. The “Indigenous Environmental Network” clearly stated, “We marched out in support of our brother, President Evo Morales of Bolivia, and his demand that the rights of Mother Earth be recognized in the negotiating text here in Copenhagen.” Boundaries between social movements and some progressive political leaders’ initiatives appear to have become somewhat blurred. With his proclaimed objective to “build a worldwide movement for life and for mother earth” and his initiative to organize a “Peoples’ World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth,” Evo Morales borrowed from the repertoire of action of global civil society and in particular from the global justice movement.
These three tendencies within the global justice movement are based on distinct conceptions of social change. The different political options they propose have animated countless debates among activists in the last few years. They may be seen as complementary strategies in many respects. Taken together, they offer concrete guidelines for a global and multidimensional approach to social change and poverty reduction that acknowledges simultaneously the key roles to be played by local communities and grassroots social actors, global citizens’ activism, international institutions and national political leaders. By debating rarely discussed issues, the global justice movement has undoubtedly contributed to defining a global public space, stronger global consciousness, multiplication of activities on a global scale and more active citizenship at local, national, continental, and global levels.
 “Association pour la taxation des transactions financières pour l’aide aux citoyens,” in English: “Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Benefit of Citizens.”
 The New York Times editorialist Thomas Friedman was among the first ones to develop this idea in the September 19, 2001, edition. On September 26, 2001, Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf labelled the movement “violent anarchists” – those who blame the attacks on the “US promotion of global capitalism.” Meanwhile, Silvio Berlusconi, who faced intense criticisms over the policing of the Genoa protests in July 2001, put the alter-globalization movement in the same category as the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks (The Guardian, 29/9/01).
 G. Massiah, a French intellectual and activist influential among the European alter-globalization movement and the International Council of the World Social Forum. Talk at the “European Citizen Congress,” 2001.
 Their questioning of GDP as a pertinent indicator of a population’s wealth and well-being, developing positions echoed by Stiglitz, Sen and Fitoussi’s (2009) report of the “Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.”
 Cited by the daily La Nación, Buenos Aires, 17/04/2002, p.3.
 According to figures from the Argentinean Ministry of the Economy and Production.
 See for example Milani (2009).
 An organizer of the 2007 and 2010 US Social Forums, Left Forum 2010, New York.
 Quoted in “The iron fist of the market versus iron in the soul of the social movements,” A. Petermann & O. Langelle, Z Magazine.
 Local elected officials take an active part in thematic movement networks, for example on water management. Many initiatives and positions taken on the climate change issue actually confirm the ongoing redefinition of the relationship between alter-globalization activists and some progressive political leaders and heads of state.
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