How do we explain the wave of rebellion occurring around the world since the financial crisis of 2008? In his typically brilliant recent article “Trouble in Paradise” (London Review of Books, July 18, 2013), the social theorist Slavoj Žižek notes that analysis of the demonstrations occurring around the globe face both an epistemological and an ontological dilemma. First, it is not obvious how to interpret the mobilizations. Second, and the second leads to the first, the marchers themselves are not entirely clear on what unifies them. Žižek notes that the answer to the second query depends on an ongoing political process; he himself contends that the common dragon that links far-flung mobilizations — whether the Green Revolution in Iran, the protests in Greece, the Arab Spring, Taksim Square in Turkey, the uprising in Brazil, and Occupy Wall Street, is that “they are all reactions against the different facets of capitalist globalization. The general tendency of today’s global capitalism is towards further expansion of the market, creeping enclosure of public space, reduction of public services (health care, education, culture) and increasingly authoritarian political power.” Is Žižek correct?

Despite his many insights he misses a key aspect of the mobilizations: activists around the world are not simply fighting against economic deprivation, the enclosure of public space and the reduction of public services. More significantly, they are battling for their right to participate in determining economic priorities, choosing public space and influencing the content of public services such as health care, education and culture. The innovation of the protests does not lie simply in their criticism of neoliberalism, but in their escape from an illusion and their consequent demand for substantial participation in their political systems.

In Another World is Possible: popular alternatives to globalization at the World Social Forum, William F. Fisher and I looked at the various proposals and manifestos put forward by social movements from around the planet that had gathered in 2002 at the second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre to discuss alternatives to neoliberal globalization. We sought to discern what linked this diverse planetary cast, and we concluded that the universal in the particulars was the call for a fundamental democratization of all sectors of society. That thesis continues to be true in our post-Soviet world, and it is in reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which remains, even more than 9/11 or the financial crisis, the ghost that continues to haunt our generation.

Contemporary mass mobilizations are all critical of neoliberalism but not necessarily of capitalism — with the most obvious case being Brazil which has economically benefited from its state-driven engagement with global capitalism — and thus the solution that they all agree on is the need for more public participation and representation in decision-making. From one angle these movements are primarily reformist but from another they are not: they recognize that both the state and the market are potentially authoritarian and the only way to democratize them is to increase public participation in all major political and economic decisions. The call for genuine democratization — which began years before the financial crisis — is what unifies and inspires social movements participating at the World Social Forum, Tahrir Square, Zucotti Park and Taksim Square.

Žižek offers the valuable observation that progressives should engage neither in false radicalism — ignoring current reforms in order to focus on the “real” problem — or false gradualism — shelving radical solutions for the sake of addressing “immediate” problems. Progressives have to do both; that is, not lose sight of the cup in the distance — a liberatory democratic civilization that fulfills humanity’s material and spiritual needs — while struggling for solutions to current, pressing challenges.

Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo: Simon Plestenjak/flickr

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Thomas Ponniah

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, was a Lecturer on Social Studies, Assistant Director of Studies, and Faculty Associate of the Project on Justice, Welfare and Economics at Harvard University from 2003-2011. He...