This study proposes to examine the recomposition of the practices and notions of social change that are currently used in the World Social Forum (WSF). The alternative globalisation movement is united around the idea of shifting from current societies to “another possible world”. How does the movement envision and implement this shift? Today, the approaches to social change that coexist and interact within the Forums are being completely recomposed, both conceptually and practically. To analyse these evolutions, this paper will study a French group made up of actors implicated in the organisation of the 2003 European Social Forum. The goal of the group is to establish a collective space for self-assessment of the alternative globalisation movement. Since the group lacks an overall vision or political project, it experiences the present as a space that it must completely occupy in order to shape and stimulate the recompositions in progress. It seeks to recompose political goals and an overall vision, using as its starting point the host of practices and analyses found in the Forums. In this approach, by establishing consistency between the form and content of social change and between the different levels and domains of action, localised changes are able to connect, circulate and “become part of a system”.

Bio note

Véronique Rioufol is studying social science at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris, France. Her current research focuses on the World Social Forum as a form of political action at the global level.

E-mail : vero@alliance21.org



This paper proposes to explore the practices and notions of social change that are used in Social Forums, as well as their evolution. The alternative globalisation movement, which appeared on the international scene several years ago, is united in the WSF around the assertion that “another world is possible”. This credo provokes two questions: What does this “other world” consist of? How does one shift from current societies to this “other world”? This study focuses on the second question, which as we shall see, is also the starting point for answering the first question. Since the 19th century, left-wing movements and parties have provided two types of answers: revolution, led by an avant-garde that supposedly represented the common masses, which aimed to shift suddenly from one system to another; reform, driven by parties and unions, which aimed to make changes within the existing system. In the alternative globalisation movement, these two models – which survive, more or less revised and modernised – find themselves side by side with other approaches, the origins of which go back to the anarchist tradition or the thinking of “68” (situationists, libertarians, etc.). These other approaches most frequently use the image of chinks or pockets to express the existence of places of resistance and alternatives to dominant forms of social life, which could eventually undermine the very core of the social system. Actors of the alternative globalisation movement prefer this third type of approach. “Change by pockets of resistance” does indeed correspond to the movement’s profound nature and is one of its most innovative contributions. It makes it possible to combine radicalism and non-violence, is rooted in concrete and localised actions, links local action and global thinking, operates by “networks”, and makes possible – or even encourages – diversity of practices and perspectives.

These three major types of modes of social change – reform, revolution, “pockets of resistance” – coexist in the alternative globalisation movement, where they interact with one another and possibly with other emerging modes. These modes of social action are also being recomposed because of such interactions and because they are the subject of reflections and experiments led by various actors of the alternative globalisation movement. Recent, un-structured and very heterogeneous, the alternative globalisation movement is indeed still evolving and striving to define itself; it is thus progressive, heterogeneous and introspective. It is progressive in that it is still extending its scope of action to new groups, new countries and new fields and because it is sensitive to national and international political contexts, as well as to the internal dynamics of its own components. It is heterogeneous because it is made up of a highly diverse group of actors – citizen organisations, unions, international solidarity organisations, ecological movements, feminist networks, media, etc. – that support various issues and who come from many countries, but also because it calls upon each participant’s uniqueness to manifest itself. Finally, it is introspective because a large part of its activity is devoted to reflecting on its own practices and political positioning.

The principle of this study is based on these three characteristics. Progressive and heterogeneous, the alternative globalisation movement can only be studied by privileging a dynamic approach and by focusing on the interactions between its different components and its environment. That is why we have focused on the recomposition of practices and notions of social change. The investigation is based on the study of a French group composed of actors involved in organising Social Forums, whose aim is to establish a collective space of self-assessment about the alternative globalisation movement. This group is just one place, one moment and one component of the alternative globalisation movement. It serves, however, to extrapolate some of the movement’s tendencies and evolutions. In particular, it will allow us to highlight an approach to social change that consists of occupying the present in order to guide the process of rearrangement. We will show that this approach puts practice at the heart of social change and the recomposition of global political aims, and that it also results in “establishing consistency” between form and content and between levels and domains of action.

A place to “turn our plurality into an advantage”

In the course of 2002, several directors of French journals with links to the alternative globalisation movement (Mouvements, Transversales Science Culture, the readers’ society “les Amis du Monde Diplomatique”) came to the same conclusion: the movement is in danger of waning, or even breaking up, due to the growing tensions among its different components. The group pioneers based this analysis on their solid knowledge of Social Forum organisational proceedings and on a long-term vision of the role and history of social movements. They saw the current tensions as a sign of the very same differences that weakened the labour movement in the past, even though they considered the strength of the alternative globalisation movement to reside precisely in its capacity to incorporate an increasingly diverse and ever growing number of actors and issues:

The labour movement and the socialist movement historically tended to develop by decantation, by successive demarcations between different trends: Marxists/non Marxists, revolutionaries/reformists, etc.: it’s a long list! By contrast, the alternative globalisation movement has built up of an aggregation of different cultures and trends and this is actually the condition sine qua non of its existence. It is a historically and fundamentally new process.

For the group founders, the principal challenge for the Forums is to succeed in “turning our plurality into an advantage”. This analysis refers to a conception promoted in particular by the WSF Brazilian Organising Committee, according to which a new political culture was emerging within the Forums. This new culture would be characterised by participation, horizontality, respecting and valorising diversity, and connecting reflection and action.1 Indeed, according to the original version of its Charter of Principles, the WSF is a place of encounter and exchange for all civil society organisations “that are opposed to neoliberalism and (…) committed to building a planetary society centred on the human person” (the revised version of the Charter makes the latter point somewhat differently: “a planetary society directed towards fruitful relationships among humankind and between it and the Earth”). It makes it possible for such organisations to meet one another, to compare experiences and to get involved in joint actions. While a final declaration is lacking, the aim is to avoid having the participants consume all of their energy in an attempt to fit their “cause” into a text, and to ensure that all of their positions are respected.

The founders of the group studied fully subscribe to this approach, which aims to respect each individual’s uniqueness while still providing a meeting place in which confrontation is possible. To deal with the aforementioned tensions, the founders proposed a series of reflection and debate seminars, which brought together different components of the French alternative globalisation movement participating in the preparation of the European Social Forum (ESF) scheduled to take place in France at the end of 2003. The purpose of their work was two-fold: in the short term, to limit the disruptive effect of the differences so that they would not spoil the preparation of the ESF; in the medium term, to strengthen the alternative globalisation movement by encouraging a strategic debate about its goals and functioning and by helping it to “valorise its diversity”. The process they propose is to invite actors of the alternative globalisation movement to examine the movement itself by confronting their different political analyses, modes of action and organisation, and strategies. The hypothesis is that by getting to know one another and by understanding the movement as a whole, this will contribute to regulating the tensions resulting from existing differences. Furthermore, by inviting participants to openly express their differences and by encouraging the confrontation of different points of view, the group founders hope to have participants “experience plurality”, with all the misunderstanding and learning that this entails. The confrontation of different visions should also make it possible to identify collectively the alternative globalisation movement’s specific advantages and weaknesses, and to better define the elements of political renewal that it provides.

The space thus created is conceived of as a place for reflection, offering “time to step back, to look at what we are doing, to compare our positions”. The nature of the group founders can explain this decision to regulate through collective reflection; they are journals (Transversales, Mouvements), a think tank (Espaces Marx) and organisations oriented towards reflection and information (Les Amis du Monde Diplomatique, Babels, CRID, ATTAC, Laboratoire de resymbolisation). Furthermore, the group primarily includes “professionals of the written word” and individuals with a high level of cultural capital (journalists, academics, leaders of voluntary organisations, etc.). Accordingly, the work itself takes the shape of intellectual production designed for wide distribution (book publication,2 posting debates on the Internet3). In addition, this working space is conceived to be in tune with the organisation of the European and World Social Forums. Thanks to its personal and organisational connections to certain key actors, the group is informed of existing dynamics within Forum organisational proceedings, and can circulate its own analyses and reflections within such proceedings. The group also organises open, public debates that all organisations participating in ESF preparation are urged to attend. The group’s activities are thus primarily intended for the most organised component of the Social Forums: the associations, unions, journals, feminist or non-profit economic networks, etc. that have chosen to help organise the ESF and that manage the closely-related logistical and political aspects of the Forum on different levels and in different circles. The group members are therefore not representative of Forum participants and sympathisers. On average they are older, they act in a more “professional” capacity at the Forums (as association, network or union representatives) and they often have a longer and more conventional activist background. Most importantly, they differ from a great number of WSF participants who are motivated by a specific cause in that they are generally driven by an interest in the alternative globalisation movement as a whole, in its political role and its development. In this sense, the reflection that the group proposes is connected to analyses and practices of individuals whose entire activity, or a part of it, concerns Forum preparation and the positioning of the Forums as a global actor.

While the group does privilege debate and the confrontation of ideas as a way of dealing with existing tensions, it does not constitute a “communicative space”. Firstly, because it does not simply consider debate a substitute for violence and power struggles. The majority of the participants do not subscribe to the idea that violence and debate are methods that are completely distinct from politics. They stress that “words can, on the contrary, serve as a vehicle for reinforcing domination” and that “there is no guarantee that, by choosing words, one is able definitively to avoid violence or vice versa.”. This is particularly the case when the group’s space is neither neutral, nor open to all. Like the WSF, the group brings together individuals and organisations that identify with one another in the alternative globalisation movement and that want to strengthen it. This orientation of the WSF is clearly expressed by one of its founders:

The WSF delimits a camp, but within this camp which is, let’s say, to the centre and left, the WSF truly makes great efforts to build diversity and it succeeds; however, this diversity remains within one political, ideological camp. The WSF does not aspire to include the right, Nazis, or fascists. It is not about including all diversity.

Even within the alternative globalisation movement, the group adopts a specific position. In this context, where the main identified tensions are, on the one hand, the risks of exclusion and narrowing, and on the other, the tendency to avoid speaking about “difficult, divisive issues”, the act of affirming that the movement’s richness resides in its diversity and that differences must be expressed amounts to taking a clear stand and drawing a line of potential tension with certain components of the movement.

Born out of a desire to regulate existing tensions and to “valorise the plurality” of the alternative globalisation movement, the group has finally had to conduct contradictory debate about the movement’s functioning, role, strategies and innovative character. Despite being confronted with the absence of a common goal and with the heterogeneity of political ideas and practices that circulate within the movement, the group has not been forced to renounce its desire for an overall vision and overall political goals. Its approach consists of occupying the present to shape the current recomposition of the content and methods of social change.

Occupying the present to shape ongoing change

The group members experience the present situation as a period of uncertainty, which is a source of confusion, but also of renewal. Through their practices and reflections, they embody the idea that social change takes place “here and now” through practices that, while perhaps incomplete, do give life to the values and goals being defended.

A period of ruptures and uncertainties The group members frequently express the feeling of living in a completely novel situation marked by major political, economic, social, cultural and technological changes. They point to the profound transformations in societal and economic forms of organisation, methods of exercising power, lifestyles and forms of subjectivity. With the ideological crisis of the left in the background, they come to the conclusion that classic left-wing goals and modes of action, particularly Marxist, are inadequate. For many activists, these ruptures and uncertainties are a source of doubt and confusion. Most are unable to reconstruct an overall vision of the current situation and the transformations taking place, nor are they able to develop goals or a coherent framework of action. They experience these uncertainties as individual and collective, theoretical and practical (box A).

A- A change in paradigm that is difficult to envision and live through

our difficulty in defining power, does it not stem precisely from the radically new form it has taken on? For example, what is shareholder power at a time when everyone is talking about stockmarket-driven redundancies? Faced with such powers, can we imagine something “outside” of power, “counter-societies” of a new sort? Is this the way we can finally reach the end of the type of logic we are trying to escape? These are just questions, but today, even the right questions are difficult to ask.

Are we experiencing a new sequence of History that began a decade ago? I think so …, which means that certain, material elements have changed, but more fundamentally, the rupture is in subjectivity, in intellectuality and in the way we think about things. The challenge is two-fold: we must identify that which is closed – according to a cognitive process of inquiry and investigation –, and that which is new, building itself up, developing – which is along the lines of action. This is the core of what is at stake during our time. This question of intellectuality’s transformation refers back to Michel de Certeau’s work on anterior languages. Kühn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, demonstrates the difficulty of thinking of a new paradigm when using an old scientific language; in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx refers to the burden of the dead, which weighs on the brains of the living and prevents them from conceiving innovative ideas. All of this has already been thought of, but when you live through it, it is rather complicated.

This period of uncertainties is nonetheless also experienced as a rich and decisive moment, an opportunity for change and innovation. Firstly, such doubts and questionings provide an opportunity for challenge, for reaching out to others and for personal evolution. Indeed, many of the group members left or distanced themselves from the political organisations to which they had long belonged, and complemented or replaced those memberships with involvement in associations and participation in the alternative globalisation movement. They see this period as an opportunity to learn and to change, for themselves, their organisations and the movement in general. Given that their certainties have been deconstructed and that the dividing lines are shifting, it is possible to rebuild common goals, practices and structures. This period of uncertainty and confusion is therefore also notable as a time for emergence and invention: “While things may be confused, this is natural since we do not yet have many solutions or leads, but these will surface precisely because things are confused, which creates potential for innovation, as long as it is undifferentiated.”. Uncertainty provides the opportunity to abandon acquired habits and do things differently, to invent responses to emerging challenges.

Social change, it’s “here and now” Such an approach breaks with classical left-wing conceptions, in particular with those of the Marxist left. It abandons the vision of one central agent in history – the working class embodied in an avant-garde party – and gives up the model of social change that attempts to seize State power through revolution and to implement a (predefined) project for a better society. Instead, this approach is more closely related to the “struggles against subjection” which, according to Foucault, are increasingly overcoming struggles against political oppression and economic exploitation. “The main objective of these struggles is to attack not so much ‘such or such’ an institution of power, or group, or elite, or class, but rather a technique, a form of power” (Foucault, 1982, p. 212). Indeed, it does not seem possible to group under one single objective the multitude of struggles and goals supported by the diverse components of the alternative globalisation movement – ending the market’s grip on society, struggling against imperialism, overthrowing discrimination, etc. –, nor to satisfy them all by taking power from the State. Instead, the idea is to struggle against the many forms of power and to transform the way in which society works:

It is not a question of taking over any power, nor of simply establishing ourselves as an opposition force … On our own modest scale, we are party to … a movement created, neither to take, nor to counter, but to do something else, in a different way, to prove that another world is possible in practice, and that it is already somewhat present to the extent that we are taking action.

Furthermore, some of the components of the alternative globalisation movement – the non-profit economy, citizen participation, free media, etc. – are directly related to the “struggles against subjection” in that they seek to establish a new connection between autonomy and solidarity.

In this type of approach, social change comes from a multitude of practices of resistance and innovation that embody the values and goals promoted “here and now.” These alternative practices exist in “pockets” on the margins of the dominant system and circulate via the re-appropriation of dominant practices. In order to play a key role in modes of social organisation, these new or marginal forms must be disseminated, examined in depth and completed by a multitude of inventions and recompositions. Then the progressive contagiousness and accumulation of micro-changes could provoke larger changes. This approach to social change can be found – in a more or less coherent and articulate fashion – in different components of the alternative globalisation movement (certain feminist networks, cooperative economic groups, the free media, popular education networks, etc.). In most cases it is combined with other forms of action: lobbying, campaigns to heighten public awareness, policy-oriented action, etc. Significantly, this approach relies on the conviction that the reconstruction of old and new, and the expression of what exists and what is feasible, are at once questions to ponder, actions to take and issues to consider within the alternative globalisation movement and within society. It is no longer about producing social change as if we mastered both its object – social organisation – and ourselves. Instead, it is about inciting and reinforcing localised and fragmentary change, changing ourselves, and understanding and shaping the evolutions underway through struggle and resistance and, equally, through creation (Aubenas & Benassayag, 2002). In such conditions, the purpose is to fully occupy the present to encourage the micro-changes underway, giving them form and influence, bringing them up to date and disseminating them. Occupying the present is therefore the way to accompany systemic change and to lead it in the direction of emancipation.

For the group, making social change happen “here and now” means starting with oneself – internal tensions and personal evolutions – and with the modes of action and strategies of the alternative globalisation movement. Making occasional reference to Michel de Certeau’s (1994) analyses of the May 1968 movement in France, and eliminating old structures of thought and action, the group focuses on developing, discussing and testing any new element to help it take its specific shape and circulate. For example, the group contributes to developing and reinforcing the evolution from the anti- to the alternative globalisation movement (altermondialisme). More generally, a part of the group’s work consists of appraising current evolutions in real time and describing “what is closed” and “what is being born”. However, the process of shaping the recompositions is not limited to intellectual activities. It also occurs by modifying practices, modes of organisation and of collective action, and personal behaviour. Indeed, “the new model for society is not just a final goal to be attained, but on the contrary, it begins to form during the very process in which we attempt to create it, in the way we choose our means, methods and immediate goals, day after day” (Mouvements & Transversales Science Culture, 2003, p. 63). Implementing alternative practices therefore contributes to giving form to the changes underway, making them concrete and visible, experiencing them, demonstrating their feasibility and reinforcing them in practice, despite the survival of “previous” forms.

For the group members, Social Forums are the privileged place to develop and disseminate alternative practices and, therefore, to shape the recompositions in progress. The Forums do indeed appear to be the place for collective research and experimentation, a breeding ground for alternative experiences and analyses. Furthermore, they make it possible for these different practices and reflections to meet and exchange, thereby bringing out their specificity and innovative character and integrating them in a more inclusive whole. The group members thus grant the WSF a central place in the recomposition of an overall vision and shared horizons. They also see the WSF as a context in which one can “be involved in politics differently”. Because of its modes of organisation and development, the WSF does indeed contribute to redefining forms of activist involvement, relationships between the individual and the community, modes of deliberation and decision, the nature of expertise, etc. In both its content and its methods, the WSF seems to be a key place to produce and think about change “here and now” .

By privileging an approach to social change that takes place here and now, the participants are drawn to study the multiplicity of practices and to valorise their diversity. Since the group aspires to recompose an overall vision, however, the challenge is to extricate global aims from this multitude of analyses, perspectives and experiences.

Recomposing an overall vision based on practice

Change is inscribed in the multiplicity of experience In this approach to social change, systemic change originates in alternative, marginal, or still emerging practices. It is therefore essential to identify, make known and valorise the many ways of living, thinking, and managing society “differently”. This is the underlying vision that explains the importance given to workshops offered by Social Forum participants. The organisers share the conviction that the Forum’s true wealth resides in the diversity of perspectives, alternative practices and micro-resistance movements (participatory budget, social money, alternative education, struggles for housing rights, cooperative software, ecological footprints, civil disobedience practices, etc.), developed by its thousands of participants. Innovative proposals with the power to transform will emerge from this wealth, which explains why constant efforts are made to increase this geographical, thematic and organisational diversity by “globalising” the Forums and, more particularly, by organising thematic, continental and local forums, by moving the World Forum to India, by supporting Eastern European participation in the ESF through a solidarity fund, etc. This also explains the many efforts made to facilitate expression by the largest possible number of participants with no imposed structure or political leaning, and the efforts made to avoid subordinating certain struggles to issues that could be characterised as central. While they are not perfect, these efforts do result in, for example, the refusal of a final declaration, the possibility given to all Forum participants to offer an activity concerning a theme of their choice, and the current attempt to define the thematic lines of the WSF 2005 via an international consultation open to all.

This approach to social change derives from thinking empirically rather than theoretically about multiplicity. It regards practice as feeding social change, causing it to take root and actualising it. However, by nature, practice is multiple and changes according to the context and perspective. The challenge is to evaluate this multiplicity and to respect its diversity, without reducing it to a whole, which is perceived as being necessarily homogenising and simplistic. The conviction that the multiplicity of experience must be respected has more to do with politico-ethical reasons than pragmatic ones. Firstly, it is a component of criticisms of Marxist theory and of failure to implement “real socialism”, which are accused of subordinating all struggles to the primacy of the class struggle and of imposing a totalising model on all aspects of social organisation. The majority of the group members thus emphasise their distrust of any attempt at homogenisation and their wish to valorise the multiplicity of practices:

can we radically change societies rather than society? I believe that diversity is such, that it is necessary to invent something new based on the historical heritage of each region and each civilisation, something that will never be a model for all the others. There can be common values, but History must be invented by the people themselves.

However, the requirement of multiplicity also has a practical reason: the conviction that, beyond personal and collective differences, the diversity of practices and perspectives reflects the diversity of reality and makes it possible to understand its complexity. Taking diversity into consideration ensures that no practice – potentially bearing innovation or social change – is ignored. It also makes it possible to operate in a complex world by assessing what is currently at stake, the plurality of individual and collective interests and the overlapping of levels and domains of action.

A process of elucidation and confrontation of perspectives In order to recompose an overall vision, the group works by iteration between thought and action. The group considers practice as both the source and goal of its reflection, as well as its foundation, since it aims to establish generalities based on localised and disconnected experiences in order to extricate transversal or encompassing elements. Thinking based on practice also helps to reveal the uniqueness of alternative practices and the role they can have in a new system. Accordingly, the recomposition of a paradigm and an ethical horizon is developed on the basis of practice. Significantly, during the debates, participants frequently begin with their own past experiences or their organisation’s practices and analyses. However, practice is also the goal of the reflection. Referring to the role of the group, one participant points out that it is about “together identifying the problematic issues we think need to be addressed, rather than those issues that we generally believe are important theoretical questions.” This thinking does not aim to be a speculative activity, but aims to enrich subsequent practices, resolve concrete and pressing problems, and understand and transform existing situations. Here we see the characteristics of the work of elucidation “through which man tries to think about what he does, and know what he thinks about”, described by Cornelius Castoriadis (1999a, p. 8). Elucidation “relies upon knowledge, but a knowledge that is always fragmented and provisional. It is fragmented because there can be no exhaustive theory of man and of history; it is provisional because praxis itself constantly creates new knowledge since it translates the world into a language that is at once unique and universal (...) The elucidation and transformation of reality move forward in praxis, in reciprocal determination. (...) However, in the overall logical structure they create, activity precedes elucidation, for the ultimate authority is not elucidation, but the transformation of what is given” (ibid. p. 113). This is indeed the group’s attitude as they focus on collectively growing from personal experiences and from the activities of the alternative globalisation movement, so that its members can understand the political and social transformations, as well as the movement itself in order to reinforce its action.

In addition to elucidation, the group’s method consists of confronting different perspectives to increase participants’ mutual understanding and to take into consideration the broadest range of practices and analyses. Indeed, one of the group’s central references is the notion of “building fertile disagreement” which aims to hear different perspectives on the same subject in order to better identify the diversity of opposing positions, understand the logic of each and identify the points of disagreement. This makes it possible to identify common issues, change perspectives and trigger reconciliation. It also makes it easier to take into account all the elements required to analyse a situation and create action, and it facilitates the gradual emergence of an overall vision:

At one point, that was the trend at ATTAC, where it was said “let’s not discuss Europe because otherwise we will get into an argument.” Well, precisely! The issue is to talk about Europe so that we get into an argument! Well, at least so that points of view are recognised, articulated and confronted with one another. Because eventually, we realised that it was possible to establish wide common ground after having confronted one another on issues that were points of conflict.

For the group members, “building fertile disagreement” is a key practice in the World Social Forum, which precisely seeks to articulate a range of organisations, struggles and proposals that are not always compatible.

As it moves forward by elucidation and confrontation of perspectives, the group is aware that the recomposition of an overall vision will take time and that it requires a highly complex, collective effort of reflection and confrontation. The dominant image used to describe this process is that of marching forward. The general feeling is that the road is built by marching forward, it is a process anchored in practice. The recomposition operates by trial and error and by confrontation:

It’s a bit like the alternative globalisation movement; the path is plotted as it marches forward through contradictions. … I am convinced that what is essential, for us, is to reinvent politics. The social forums are already one way of doing this, not by predefining it, but by trial and error, by confronting one another, getting involved in controversy, discussing, experimenting, elaborating, and taking action.

From this perspective, elucidation and confrontation of perspectives constitute two thought processes based on existing experiences and analyses that try gradually to explicate a common vision and overall political goals.

Social change is seen here as a process, the content and modalities of which are simultaneously being developed and implemented. Such an approach implies establishing consistency by integrating the development of the “form” and “content” of change, and by linking the different levels and domains of action. In addition to the (intellectual) recomposition of an overall vision, multi-dimensional “alignment” (mise en cohérence) strives to connect, spread and systematise localised changes.


The “how” and “what” of social change are connected There is no “political project of the WSF” but its approach to social change situates the modalities of change at the heart of the reshaping of common goals. From this perspective, the “how” of change – the framework for ongoing activity, the modalities of internal organisation, individual and collective behaviour, forms of mobilisation, strategies for social change – is inherent in the “what” of change – goals, values, proposals, achievements. This conception attempts to set the modalities of action – the active role of civil society, practices of participatory democracy, networking, elucidation based on practice, the diversity of actors, connecting struggles without homogenising them, etc. – in correspondence with a way of “being involved in politics differently”. These modes of action embody the values of the alternative globalisation movement – autonomy and solidarity, citizen involvement, plurality, creativity, etc. – while still experimenting with and promoting alternative political proposals – participatory budgets, the non-profit economy, citizen participation, regulation by economic and social rights, etc. In this sense, the “question of how is not simply organisational, but is completely essential to the project itself.” For many of the group members, the alternative globalisation movement today is, above all, invested in building a common framework and scope for action, characterised in particular by the Social Forums that give shape to emerging projects and supply them with content.

The legacy of previous traditions, particularly Marxist, is therefore also questioned in this light. Indeed, the group studied in the project reported on here condemns practices in which the end justifies any and all means and situations in which organisations’ internal modus operandi contradicts the values they defend. Nonetheless, the participants have no illusions about the existence of “old forms” within their group, analyses, modes of organisation and individual behaviour. Time and time again, they refer to them, to complain and to poke fun. Practice therefore remains their reference point for assessing whether the modes of action actually conform to the project and for measuring the true distribution of the discourses and values promoted by the movement.

When asked about the specific advantage of the Social Forums, one of the group organisers made the following comment: “Everyone will tell you that richness lies in plurality and all that. But practice is the real test…” This is why practice not only supports the recomposition of the scope of action and political aims, but also functions as a “test” of them.

The concern to align “what” and “how” is particularly strong within the group, via the attention paid to so-called questions of “method”. This term, which covers a rather diverse set of issues, attests to the group’s will to adopt a self-reflective process, concerning both (internal) working modalities and the (external) modalities of action of the alternative globalisation movement, French organisational activities and the group itself. This preoccupation leads the group to raise the issue whether internal tensions and movement strategies are independent of the political debate. At the group level, the organisers are committed to working on methods of framing debates, of “building disagreements” and of democratic functioning. This they do by reflecting on methods of leading and collective deliberation or by examining diverse forms of expression and communication (“coloured” voting, reflecting on words, theatre-forum, etc.). The group accordingly adopts an attitude of self-experimentation; it sees itself as a “laboratory of its own subject” and the ESF as “a concentration of processes in the process of being created.”

...and all levels of the “how” are “connected” For the group members, the recompositions underway occur at the level of alternative globalisation activists themselves, at the level of the movement as a whole and at the level of society in general, as well as through interactions between these three levels. This connection is perceived as a major break with previous left-wing movements. The current intuition is that “there is a connection between the individual and the collective, the micro and macro levels, whereas 20 years ago we would have had a debate pitting structure against psychology”. In this approach, the recomposition of practices and political notions also occurs through evolutions in modes of functioning, organisational work (equality, networking, etc.) and everyday behaviour (recycling waste, modes of consumption, etc.). Personal practices are crucial since they stimulate theoretical and practical renewal and give it a tangible reality. Furthermore, they spread changes to wider circles and to other aspects of social life. In particular, they force people and organisations to seek consistency in their discourse and actions, their political involvement and private behaviour. These evolutions do not come from a plan to create a “New Alternative Globalisation Man”, but stem rather from the mutual influence between different aspects of social life and between personal, collective and social levels.

For the group studied, the individual and collective evolutions are incontestable. Intellectual positions are, first of all, affected; the group members point to the distance they have taken from their former ideological traditions and insist that all dogmatism be rejected. These evolutions are accompanied by changes in behaviour, notably in a greater capacity to listen to others, to be curious about and to respect them. The group members repeatedly note with satisfaction that, a few years ago, it would have been impossible to bring together in the same room the individuals and political components of the group, not to mention associating them with a project of collective construction. These personal evolutions have been facilitated by the working structure of the ESF, which encourages very diverse organisations to meet regularly and to collaborate for months to prepare the event and develop its content (box B).

B – Personal reassessments... To understand how to construct alternatives to the old alternative and to the current order, we could explain how each of us shifted in terms of his / her own tradition, how we became heterodox and how this made us open-minded. What are the best aspects of the other person’s tradition and what are the worst aspects of our own culture? What reassessment did we conduct de facto, which in fact did little to change us and which explains the continuing suspicion as we question whether the others conducted this same reassessment. … We are still focused on tradition, whereas the next generations already speak another language. For example, the word communism is defunct for me … but well … at my age, I’m going to keep it! The question is: how far are we going, on a personal level as well?

... and changes in behaviour Changes in behaviour, that is obvious. I think that people listen to one another a little more, appreciate one another … well, try to appreciate one another a little more, that is, they are not spontaneously hostile, well, they are not spontaneously hostile each time a certain person speaks. I even see it in my own behaviour! Honestly, at the beginning when (Z) had his outbursts, I said to myself: why waste time with this … well, this jerk! And now I respect him, so ... and it is reciprocal. The proof is that he comes to meetings. He comes to all our meetings! (laughter) ... People who get on board for the first time, they come to sell their line ... but frequently, the very same people who initially came to sell their line, begin to participate in the collective construction after 2 or 3 meetings (of the French Committee for Initiatives), or 4 if they attend the additional commissions. Obviously, when the time comes to designate who is to speak and all that, each person tries to defend his / her interests, but not just as a cartel of organisations keeping an eye on one another. At a certain point, the construction truly becomes collective.

These evolutions also attest to the recomposition of the “sense of play” that underlies the behaviours of people involved in these spaces and which is based on “an infra-conscious, infra-linguistic relationship of complicity” with the social world (Bordieu, 1994, p. 154-9). The alternative globalisation activists develop personal schemes of perceiving and organising reality and adopt a conduct adapted to the social universe that surrounds them. Indeed, in the “alternative globalisation universe” the stated discourse and the modes of collective action valorise certain values and political orientations – participation, plurality, joy, autonomy, etc. – and disqualify others – militant sacrifice, the hierarchy of struggles, etc. They therefore contribute to spreading the former by creating a space in which they are symbolically valorised and functionally effective. On the contrary, other values and behaviour become ineffective, or even counter-productive: “in this group there are a number of us from a certain generation, and it seems to me that we also have to un-learn certain things … we have to un-learn in order to function”. This tendency becomes even stronger since this approach, which strives to produce the goals of social change here and now, also encourages alignment of words and actions and of personal behaviour and collective political aims.

This double conception – “the how is inherent in the what” and “all levels of the how are connected” – produces a shift when compared to classical political conceptions. It requires connecting and creating consistency between conduct and political aims, action and words, content and form, present and future, and behaviour and values, and on the individual, collective and social levels. However, these processes of alignment sometimes require difficult changes, which reveal discrepancies and “maladjustments” and which can provoke resistance and misunderstandings, even within this group that has explicitly made these issues the object of its action. Its criticisms, tensions and discrepancies are therefore particularly revealing of the recompositions at work.

Tensions and misunderstandings reveal a hiatus The group is faced with two types of discrepancies between, on the one hand, its goals and values, and on the other, its practices. In one case, the group detects a “delay” in the implementation of its values and goals; in the other, they detect a “lead”. In both cases, this discrepancy manifests itself in feelings of maladjustment or misunderstanding, in mockery or criticism, or even in tensions and divisions. These reactions indicate that the group experiences the establishment of consistency as both an ethical and pragmatic requirement. They also make it possible to better identify to what degree the individual and collective values and objectives agree with one another, and how they are spread throughout the different spaces and components of the alternative globalisation movement.

As far as the “delays” in the implementation of supported goals and values are concerned, the discrepancies are particularly exposed by the numerous criticisms aimed at the survival of old models of political notions, forms of organisation, intellectual frameworks and personal attitudes. The participants frequently criticise the components and proceedings of the alternative globalisation movement for the lack of internal democracy in their composition, speaking rights, decision making, organisation of work, etc.:

Inside the movement one can observe trends and practices that contradict its powerful democratic effervescence, or that develop simply, unconsciously and out of habit, because it is our natural tendency. We therefore must be very vigilant and reflect upon what is happening here, in order to protect the movement from this real danger.

Significantly, this warning is not so much about denouncing authoritarian attitudes or anti-democratic operations, but about breaching the values and goals supported by the alternative globalisation movement and about the incapacity to overcome acquired habits and operations.

Symmetrically, when the group experiments with innovative working methods or succeeds in embodying a renewed notion of political involvement, it provokes misunderstandings and resistance. This is the case, for example, of the debate initiated on the language of the alternative globalisation movement. Following this debate, one of the participants, a person close to the group founders, complained about the content of the debates. According to one of the leaders, “this person saw it as someone who believes that he is in the alternative globalisation movement, but who is not very rigorous at the ideological level”. For the group members, this is a sign of success for the process and changes taking place:

The disagreement between (Y) and the people who did not think the seminar was very serious is precisely a disagreement, a disagreement between science and politics. Tradition has it that politics is a science and therefore that its words have meaning, whereas we started with the vision that words are the bearers of different intellectualities, cultures, etc.

(Y)’s attitude is problematic because it consists of saying: I am willing to have external debates, but not internal ones because we need to start with a common ground! In my view, this is a central issue for the alternative globalisation movement; if the movement is suspected of reviving authoritarian practices destructive of freedom, it will implode!

Once again, tensions make it possible to clearly identify the discrepancies between different individual and collective practices and conceptions of political action. They lead to the reaffirmation that consistency is necessary between words and action, internal and external operations and that a break must be ensured with previous political conceptions.


By fully occupying the present as a place for political recomposition, the group studied has adopted a renewed approach to political and social change. Through its various activities and its work of elucidation, it has practices and conceptions similar to those supported in particular by young generations of activists and “new social movements”: autonomy, creativity, social experimentation, localised action associated with global thinking, etc. However, the group is not satisfied with envisioning the juxtaposition of partial and localised changes, and aims to recompose a global vision and global aims. In this view, individuals and organisations will shape social change without controlling it, giving it body and form by investing themselves in localised and incomplete actions. These actions must be spread widely and reverberate within other evolutions by accelerating them or reinforcing them through the process of “alignment”. Social Forums, while they do not cause these recompositions, do contribute to solidifying certain changes underway and to increasing their impact. They provide a structure that makes it possible to “be involved in politics differently” and to develop the recomposition of an idea. Here, social change is based on a practice that already implements the aims and values it promotes, but also on “micro-changes”: intellectual shifts, evolutions of organisational forms, changes in attitudes and body language. This is the lure or potential of inventing a social vision that associates new practices and new social meanings. Even if the recompositions in progress do not succeed in being embodied in their specificity, and fail to generate systemic change, they will nonetheless have opened a vital space for other possibilities and discussions; they will have introduced shifts in political concepts and in the practices of the individuals and organisations involved in the movement.

However, such an approach to social change is challenged by two major limitations. Firstly, by aiming for multiple forms and networks of power and by renouncing the seizure of the State as a mode of political action, the alternative globalisation movement has difficulty intervening in the traditional political field (representative democracy, international institutions, political parties, etc.) and therefore in spreading and implementing its ideas and proposals. Secondly, the movement is today largely paralysed by the difficulty of recomposing meaning and an overall vision. This difficulty stems from the great heterogeneity, fragmentation and occasionally contradictory nature of the proposals and struggles supported by the alternative globalisation movement. In particular, it stems from the political and cognitive difficulty of combining the desire of its numerous components to build a shared horizon, and the will to keep the movement as diverse as possible. The challenge is thus to discover an ethical and political system that will be all-inclusive without homogenising and constitute an unrestricted whole, at once multidimensional, inclusive and progressive.


1. See the special issue of Democracia Viva: “O que o FSM traz de novo como modo de atuação politica?” (What new contributions are made by the WSF in terms of modes of political action?), n° 14, January 2003 (http://www.ibase.org.br (external link)) or the text that was presented to the International Council in January 2004 as part of the Brazilian Organising Committee’s assessment of its action. Some Brazilian founders of the WSF built on these reflections in press articles and interviews. 2. Initially intended to appear as a joint special issue of the two journals, this publication finally took the form of a edited volume, published by La Découverte in September 2003 under the title: Où va le mouvement altermondialisation? … et autres questions pour comprendre son histoire, ses débats, ses stratégies, ses divergences (Where is the alternative globalisation movement headed? … and other questions to understand its history, debates, strategies and divergences) (Mouvements & Transversales Science Culture, 2003). 3. See the section entitled “FSE : analyses et réflexions” (ESF: analyses and reflections) on the CRID website: http://www.crid.asso.fr/fse/reflexions/index.htm (external link).


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