Alternative Futures of Globalisation

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* Dissertation: Alternative Futures of Globalisation. A Socio-Ecological Study of the World Social Forum Process. José María Ramos. May 2010


Submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. To Queensland University of Technology Division of Research and Commercialisation. May 2010


"Inspired by the initial World Social Forum in Porto Alegre Brazil, over the past decade over 200 local and regional social forums have been held, on five continents. This study has examined the nature of this broader social forum process, in particular as an aspect of the movement for 'another globalisation'. I discuss both the discourses for 'another world', as well as the development of an Alternative Globalisation Movement. As an action research study, the research took place within a variety of groups and networks. The thesis provides six accounts of groups and people striving and struggling for 'another world'. I provide a macro account of the invention and innovation of the World Social Forum. A grassroots film-makers collective provides a window into media. A local social forum opens up the radical diversity of actors. An activist exchange circle sheds light on strategic aspects of alternative globalisation. An educational initiative provides a window into transformations in pedagogy. And a situational account (of the G20 meeting in Melbourne in 2006) provides an overview of the variety of metanetworks that converge to voice demands for global justice and sustainability.

In particular, this study has sought to shed light on how, within this process, groups and communities develop 'agency', a capacity to respond to the global challenges they / we face. And as part of this question, I have also explored how alternatives futures are developed and conceived, with a re-cognition of the importance of histories and geo-political (or 'eco-political') structures as contexts. I argue the World Social Forum Process is prefigurative, as an interactional process where many social alternatives are conceived, supported, developed and innovated into the world. And I argue this innovation process is meta-formative, where convergences of diverse actors comprise ‘social ecologies of alternatives’ which lead to opportunities for dynamic collaboration and partnership."


Prologue: Emergence of a Planetary Self

Chapter One: The World Social Forum Process and Alternative Globalisation Movement

Chapter Two: A Theoretical Framework for Social Complexity in the Alternative Globalisation Movement

Chapter Three: A Journey of Action as Inquiry for Social Change

Chapter Four: Hegemonic and Counter Hegemonic Contexts of the World Social Forum Process

Chapter Five: Analysis of Fieldwork

Chapter Six: Social Complexity in the WSF(P) and the Movement for Another Globalisation

Jose Ramos:

"In the next chapter I offer some of the conceptual foundations for understanding this area of inquiry. I begin by looking at discourses for alternative globalisation. To begin to understand the WSF(P)-AGM complex, we must begin with the discourses that help frame the debate. I thus look at nine models for AG. I then develop a constructivist understanding of embodied cognition and the WSF(P) epistemology, which shows the way in the WSF(P) expresses its positions in relation to neo-liberal globalisation. I further develop the idea of the WSF(P) as domain development, in particular as counter public sphere. I develop the explanatory and analytic framework used throughout this thesis, based on five interrelated windows that address socio-ecological dimensions of the study. These five dimensions are: of cognitions (knowledge systems and epistemic considerations), of actors (and their expressions of agency), of geo-structures (the structural coupling of geography with political-economy-culture), of histories (‘ontogenies’ / histories of becoming), and of futures (aims, visions, teleologies, and prefigurations).

In Chapter Three, I discuss the methodology I have used in this research project. I begin by explaining the disciplinary domains the research has drawn from: Critical Futures Studies, Critical Globalisation Studies and Community Development, and the trans-disciplinary basis of the inquiry. I provide some epistemological grounding interests in scholar activism. I explain the initial design of the research, which was instrumental in identifying and developing ‘Alternative Globalisation’ as a key discursive domain. I go on to explain my approach to field research, informed broadly from the Action Research tradition. I discuss the approach and process I have used in documenting the field research, forming textual accounts. Finally I discuss the various groups I have worked with and the accounts themselves.

In Chapter Four, I set the historical context for the thesis. I trace the historical origins of the WSF(P) by looking at the key factors that led to its development, the hegemonic context of neoliberal globalisation which the WSF was an initial response to, and the history and social processes of the actors that form much of the initial tapestry of the WSF. I then examine the processes by which the WSF was invented, including what it was intended to do, and its birthing experience. Next, I explore the processes of innovating a WSF, including factors that have led to its success, and ways that it has been modified and transformed by stakeholders, constituents and participants. Through this I describe the emergence of a WSF as process – the ‘WSF(P)’.

Chapter Five of the thesis analyses the projects and processes I’ve been part of. The analytic framework developed in Chapter Two is used to shed light on dimensions of the accounts: 1) the agency of actors, 2) their cognising processes, 3) the histories that they embody, 4) the futures they struggle for and represent, and 5) the geo-structures they are implicated in. I analyse each account and correlate across the accounts looking for patterns and insights. Using this framework I analyse five accounts: the Melbourne Social Forum, Plug-in TV, Oases, Community Collaborations and the G20 Convergence.

In Chapter Six I return to my original concerns. I ask, what are the possible futures for a WSF(P) and what implications does this have for the AGM? I develop four scenarios that help to integrate and synthesise many of the questions, tensions, concerns and issues that run through this thesis. These scenarios and the concluding discussion aim to contribute to a broader understanding of themes that emerge in the thesis project."


Prologue: Emergence of a Planetary Self

Melbourne May 31st 2010

José Ramos:

"I wrote this prologue as a way to convey how this study emerged personally. For those familiar with integral thinking / studies, you may find parallels and concurrences. Life is (among many other things) process and journey, and this intro shows some of the lines and traces of this journey. It is said we are wounded into this world so that we may heal ourselves through our healing of our worlds. This expresses my qualified (both successful and unsuccessful) attempts to heal myself and the alienation I have experienced through (both successful and unsuccessful) attempts to heal the world (and an engagement with the transcendent). The introduction extracted from chapter one gives a basic conceptual overview of how the World Social Forum Process is related to the Alternative Globalization Movement, and what they both are. This is potentially useful in reading the next two instalments!

To the reader,

I’d first like to describe to you the journey that I have taken in writing this thesis, which has entailed work in community development, as an activist, as an action researcher, as an academic, and as a human being at the dawn of the 21st century. Hopefully this short introduction will provide a better context to understand how this thesis emerged.

I was born into planet Earth in the Christian year 1971. At that time, there were 3.8 billion of us. I was also born into a nation with great faith in the future, boldly and audaciously creating a science and technology that would establish the architecture for a new global era. And yet that same nation was locked into a Cold War struggle against the Soviets and others, engaged in fighting multiple proxy wars, and furthering its commercial interests and lifestyle priorities to the exclusion of many of the world’s peoples and ecosystems. This schizophrenic narrative reflected my own emerging identity, which in the language of my family was ‘Mexican American’ or ‘Chicano’. In school I would learn about how the USA had civilized North America and brought democracy to the rest of the world, while at home I would learn how the US committed genocide against Native Americans (of which I was one), and exported imperialism to the far corners of the Earth.

The locale of my early years also expressed this schizophrenia. Los Angeles epitomized a hyper industrial, mechanized and consumer oriented culture. Sustained by global trade, ‘good’ weather, and a vast network of aqueducts displacing water from various parts of the western states, LA was an island of suburbs constructed and superimposed on the semiarid grasslands, hills and chaparral of Southern California.1 And yet this is where an emerging sense of alienation was born, and where the inklings of intuition moving me towards social and ecological consciousness began. LA, more than other locales, held the past and the future together in its present with great tension, multicultural mixing and diversity with segregation, the excesses of industrialisation with the birth of the post-industrial, consumer culture with counterculture, nationalism and global consciousness.2

These were the ‘cracks’ that prompted me to deeply question life in LA, and led me to travel elsewhere. Having completed a BA in Comparative Literature, I eagerly packed my bags and relocated to Japan. There I was confronted with an ancient culture that I didn’t understand. Ironically, Japan helped to teach me that I too came from a culture, and I began to question more deeply what it meant to come from the place and time, California at the end of the 20th century. It was in Japan where my preconceptions about the world began to unravel in the face of the empirical evidence before me, both an emotional and intellectual unravelling. As I journaled each morning reflecting on the short expanse that was my life up until that time, I began to ask existential questions, such as what was my purpose here, what is important and who was I on this small planet?

Over the next several years I discovered a number of seeds within myself that were calling to emerge. I found that I wanted to study the future, though at the time I didn’t know much about what this meant. I also found that I wanted to express my love and desire to create art and music. I found that I wanted to not only live in ‘other’ cultures, but as well to learn ‘their’ languages and ways of life. Finally I discovered I wanted to work in solidarity with a global network of people, but as well did not really know what this meant.

These new orientations began to manifest themselves with increasing clarity and specificity over the next several years. Living in Taiwan was another turning point, learning not only about Taiwan’s culture and languages (and the people’s generosity of spirit), but how it has suffered: it’s implication in the Cold War struggle, the ecological consequences of rapid industrialisation and the effects of cultural imperialism. It was in Taiwan where I learned about the ‘Battle in Seattle’ against the WTO and police brutality against protesters there. I later learned about a planned ‘World Social Forum’ (WSF) that would bring together people and organisations struggling to change the global system. I was inspired by the WSF declaration ‘Another World Is Possible’ and its call for the creation of a ‘planetary society directed toward fruitful relationships among humankind and between it and the Earth’ (Sen, 2004, pp. 70-71).

I began to study the future formally over the next several years, in Houston, Taiwan and later Melbourne. Futures Studies taught me about the great challenges we face, of long yet uncertain time horizons and of great complexity, both in their diagnosis and in their potential resolution, ‘tsunamis of change’ (Dator, 1999) sweeping over diverse demographies; as Slaughter argued, they come together to represent a ‘civilisational challenge’ (Slaughter, 2002b). These included learning about an emerging wealth/health polarisation between peoples (Amin, 1997; Singer, 2002). It also included the threat to the world’s ecosystems (Brown, 2000), the threat of climate change (Spratt, 2008) and threats to the world’s oceans and forests (Mitchell, 2008). Connected to this was the emerging potential for resource wars and inter-state rivalry. Another threat was the globalisation of crime networks and shadow economies in arms trade, child smuggling, illicit resources, illicit tax havens and drugs (Nordstrom, 2004). This ‘civilisational challenge’ was manifest in transformations in technology (informational, biotechnological, nanotechnological) and the need to apply a precautionary principle to their development, as well the revolution in modes of communications and the challenge of creating ‘global cognitive justice’ (Santos, 2006, pp. 44-45). I increasingly learned about challenges to democratic institutions and practices and the disproportionate influence of corporations in dictating policy in many political contexts (Greider, 1992). Finally, there were challenges to human values, the loss of community, atomisation and hyper-individualism (Bindé, 2004), unsustainable consumerism (Robinson, 2004), and the corporate colonisation of the media-scape and, with this, our inter-subjective life-worlds (Lasn, 2000). All of this was underlined by a growing understanding of the systemic nature of the challenges we face. Having read books like Kenneth Boulding’s The World as a Total System (Boulding, 1985), I began to see how global problems and challenges cannot be segregated into single issues, they are interconnected in intricate and complex ways.

To be honest, learning about all of these global / futures issues filled me with a sense of crisis, punctuated by moments of despair and overwhelm and I began to look for ways forward amid this landscape of challenges. I relate strongly with work done by Macy on despair (Macy, 1991) and the scholarship done by Hicks. Hicks examined the psychological process of learning about global / futures issues (Hicks, 2002), arguing we are affected by feelings of despair or frustration when facing issues that seem too big, too abstract, which can bring on a feeling of powerlessness and overwhelm, ‘psychic numbing’, avoidance and alienation. He argued we must move ourselves and students through five stages: cognitive, affective, existential, empowered, and action-oriented. While not an exact correlate, I experienced these ‘stages’ or dimensions: overwhelmed by strong emotions, despair, and anger, then grappling with my own identity and place within this new context of issues and challenges, looking for sources of hope and new pathways of change and entering into communities and projects that address these challenges. This process of re-integration has been as fundamental for my own health and wellbeing as it has been for anyone else or thing that may have benefited from my shift.

I was particularly concerned about how people in every walk of life and in various locales, most removed from centres or structure of ‘global’ power, could express agency and enact change in dealing with the global pathologies and challenges that increasingly affect us, and the structures that give rise to these pathologies. People across the world’s communities, in just facing their own ‘local’ challenges, face unprecedented complexity and scale. How does the fisherman off the coast of India face the threat of global warming and overfishing? How does the Indonesian factory worker face the impact of IMF mandated structural adjustment programs? How does the Australian, US or German farmer deal with the cross-pollination or ‘contamination’ of their crops by neighbouring genetically modified (GM) crops? I was interested in grassroots collective agency in addressing common global / trans-local challenges and shaping futures self articulated as just, peaceful and sustainable ones.

This led me toward becoming both an organiser and inquirer within the World Social Forum (WSF) process. Before I began this thesis, I participated in the WSF and became an organiser for the local Melbourne Social Forum. I saw social forums as enabling community agency in shaping a new globalisation, or ‘another globalisation’, and this gave me some faith and hope in our capacity to respond to the challenges that we face as communities. I carried the hope that I would be part of the construction of a global movement for social change that could effectively address the myriad problems that the world is facing today. After this, I embarked on this thesis project and made the decision to use my experiences in this process as the basis for an inquiry into how social forums and other alter-globalisation platforms and processes contribute to creating a better world; to look at social forums communities and network formations as platforms for envisioning and enacting alternative globalisations, as well as the substance of the visions of these alternative globalisations.

I quickly found out that understanding both the WSF process and literature on alternative futures of globalisation was not going to be so easy. On the one hand, I found that the actors, organisations and people that come to social forums embodied great diversity in their histories, organisation, practices of enacting change, ideological orientations and their visions for ‘another world’. The discourses at the academic level for making sense of the WSF process and articulating alternative globalisations were equally diverse. Trying to define the WSF process through only one perspective would not do justice to the richness that it represents, as the actors within the process itself articulate what they do through a variety of perspectives. I found that I needed to honour the various ways of knowing which concern themselves with understanding the WSF process, as well how they articulate a ‘different’ globalisation and I thus began to map these. I came to see that the composition of the WSF process and the body of literature on alternative globalisation as a whole was typified by complexity, in the sense of holding or containing immense diversity within common physical and conceptual space and I began to inquire into the nature of this complexity.

In the tradition of action research my methodological approach to the investigation was to be an engaged participant in the process. This entailed both participating in several WSFs, as well as organising within the Melbourne Social Forum and a number of other projects connected to the WSF as a process. This fieldwork was a process of immersion into different types of activism and community development work aimed at both sustaining and enabling networks, groups and organisations that work to create change. What I hoped to learn was how people in various communities who want to or who must grapple with 'global' challenges can participate in the transformation of our world, how popular participation extends agency into planetary issues and concerns. I aimed to understand how we might create a democratic and participatory planetary governance, so that global issues are not just the preserve of power and privilege, but the 'unqualified', the local and marginal find empowerment in this new 'planetary' complex of issues.

I entered this thesis to look at how the WSF could provide some answers to these concerns. I wanted to know what enabled popular empowerment and action for people addressing the global issues that impact on their locales and hoped the forum process would give me some answers as well as the practices and strategies for enacting change. I wanted to understand what agency means for ordinary people in grappling with the complex and often overwhelming challenges they / we face, and the visions for transformation that emerge through people in it.

My journey of discovery has been both challenging and rewarding, and I invite you to join this exploration with me. I would be honoured if you would accept."


See: The Emergence of a Planetary Self


See: History of the World Social Forum and the Alterglobalization Movement


See: The Future of the Alterglobalization Movement