The World Social Forum at the Crossroads

Mar 07

A new stage in the evolution of the global justice movement was reached
with the inauguration of the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre,
Brazil, in January 2001.

The WSF was the brainchild of social movements loosely associated with
the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil. Strong support for the idea was
given at an early stage by the ATTAC movement in France, key figures of
which were connected with the newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique. In Asia,
the Brazilian proposal, floated in June 2000, received the early
enthusiastic endorsement of, among others, the research and advocacy
institute Focus on the Global South based in Bangkok.

Porto Alegre was meant to be a counterpoint to “Davos,” the annual
event in a resort town in the Swiss Alps where the world’s most
powerful business and political figures congregated annually to spot
and assess the latest trends in global affairs. Indeed, the highlight
of the first WSF was a televised transcontinental debate between George
Soros and other figures in Davos with representatives of social
movements gathered in Porto Alegre.

The world of Davos was contrasted to the world of Porto Alegre, the
world of the global rich with the world of the rest of humanity. It was
this contrast that gave rise to the very resonant theme “Another world
is possible.”

There was another important symbolic dimension: while Seattle was the
site of the first major victory of the transnational anti-corporate
globalization movement — the collapse amidst massive street protests
of the third ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization —
Porto Alegre represented the transfer to the South of the center of
gravity of that movement. Proclaimed as an “open space,” the WSF became
a magnet for global networks focused on different issues, from war to
globalization to communalism to racism to gender oppression to
alternatives. Regional versions of the WSF were spun off, the most
important being the European Social Forum and the African Social Forum;
and in scores of cities throughout the world, local social fora were
held and institutionalized.

The Functions of the WSF

Since its establishment, the WSF has performed three critical functions for global civil society:

First, it represents a space — both physical and temporal — for this
diverse movement to meet, network, and, quite simply, to feel and
affirm itself.

Second, it is a retreat during which the movement gathers its energies
and charts the directions of its continuing drive to confront and roll
back the processes, institutions, and structures of global capitalism.
Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, underlined this function when she told
a Porto Alegre audience in January 2002 that the need of the moment was
“less civil society and more civil disobedience.”

Third, the WSF provides a site and space for the movement to elaborate,
discuss, and debate the vision, values, and institutions of an
alternative world order built on a real community of interests. The WSF
is, indeed, a macrocosm of so many smaller but equally significant
enterprises carried out throughout the world by millions who have told
the reformists, the cynics, and the “realists” to move aside because,
indeed, another world is possible…and necessary.

Direct Democracy in Action

The WSF and its many offspring are significant not only as sites of
affirmation and debate but also as direct democracy in action. Agenda
and meetings are planned with meticulous attention to democratic
process. Through a combination of periodic face-to-face meetings and
intense email and Internet contact in between, the WSF network was able
to pull off events and arrive at consensus decisions. At times, this
could be very time-consuming and also frustrating, and when you were
part of an organizing effort involving hundreds of organizations, as we
at Focus on the Global South were during the organizing of the 2004 WSF
in Mumbai, it could be very frustrating indeed.

But this was direct democracy, and direct democracy was at its best at
the WSF. One might say, parenthetically, that the direct democratic
experiences of Seattle, Prague, Genoa, and the other big mobilizations
of the decade were institutionalized in the WSF or Porto Alegre process.

The central principle of the organizing approach of the new movement is
that getting to the desired objective is not worth it if the methods
violate democratic process, if democratic goals are reached via
authoritarian means. Perhaps Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas
best expressed the organizing bias of the new movements: “The movement
has no future if its future is military. If the EZLN [Zapatistas]
perpetuates itself as an armed military structure, it is headed for
failure. Failure as an alternative set of ideas, an alternative
attitude to the world. The worst that could happen to it apart from
that, would be for it to come to power and install itself there as a
revolutionary army.” The WSF shares this perspective.

What is interesting is that there has hardly been an attempt by any
group or network to “take over” the WSF process. Quite a number of “old
movement” groups participate in the WSF, including old-line “democratic
centralist” parties as well as traditional social democratic parties
affiliated with the Socialist International. Yet none of these has put
much effort into steering the WSF towards more centralized or
hierarchical modes of organizing. At the same time, despite their
suspicion of political parties, the “new movements” never sought to
exclude the parties and their affiliates from playing a significant
role in the Forum. Indeed, the 2004 WSF in Mumbai was organized jointly
by an unlikely coalition of social movements and Marxist Leninist
parties, a set of actors that are not known for harmonious relations on
the domestic front.

Perhaps a compelling reason for the modus vivendi of the old and new
movements was the realization that they needed one another in the
struggle against global capitalism and that the strength of the
fledgling global movement lay in a strategy of decentralized networking
that rested not on the doctrinal belief that one class was destined to
lead the struggle but on the reality of the common marginalization of
practically all subordinate classes, strata, and groups under the reign
of global capital.

What Constitutes “Open Space”

The WSF has, however, not been exempt from criticism, even from its own
ranks. One in particular appears to have merit. This is the charge that
the WSF as an institution is unanchored in actual global political
struggles, and this is turning it into an annual festival with limited
social impact.

There is, in my view, a not insignificant truth to this. Many of the
founders of the WSF have interpreted the “open space” concept in a
liberal fashion, that is, for the WSF not to explicit endorse any
political position or particular struggle, though its constituent
groups are free to do so.

Others have disagreed, saying the idea of an “open space” should be
interpreted in a partisan fashion, as explicitly promoting some views
over others and as openly taking sides in key global struggles. In this
view, the WSF is under an illusion that it can stand above the fray,
and this will lead to its becoming some sort of neutral forum, where
discussion will increasingly be isolated from action. The energy of
civil society networks derives from their being engaged in political
struggles, say proponents of this perspective.

The reason that the WSF was so exciting in its early years was because
of its affective impact: it provided an opportunity to recreate and
reaffirm solidarity against injustice, against war, and for a world
that was not subjected to the rule of empire and capital. The WSF’s not
taking a stand on the Iraq War, on the Palestine issue, and on the WTO
is said to be making it less relevant and less inspiring to many of the
networks it had brought together.

Caracas versus Nairobi

This is why the 6th WSF held in Caracas in January 2006 was so bracing
and reinvigorating: it inserted some 50,000 delegates into the storm
center of an ongoing struggle against empire, where they mingled with
militant Venezuelans, mostly the poor, engaged in a process of social
transformation, while observing other Venezuelans, mostly the elite and
middle class, engaged in bitter opposition. Caracas was an exhilarating
reality check.

This is also the reason why the Seventh WSF held in Nairobi was so
disappointing, since its politics was so diluted and big business
interests linked to the Kenyan ruling elite were so brazen in
commercializing it. Even Petrobras, the Brazilian state corporation
that is a leading exploiter of the natural resource wealth of Latin
America, was busy trumpeting itself as a friend of the Forum. There was
a strong sense of going backward rather than forward in Nairobi.

The WSF is at a crossroads. Hugo Chavez captured the essence of the
conjuncture when he warned delegates in January 2006 about the danger
of the WSF becoming simply a forum of ideas with no agenda for action.
He told participants that they had no choice but to address the
question of power: “We must have a strategy of ‘counter-power.’ We, the
social movements and political movements, must be able to move into
spaces of power at the local, national, and regional level.”

Developing a strategy of counter-power or counter-hegemony need not
mean lapsing back into the old hierarchical and centralized modes of
organizing characteristic of the old left. Such a strategy can, in
fact, be best advanced through the multilevel and horizontal networking
that the movements and organizations represented in the WSF have
excelled in advancing their particular struggles. Articulating their
struggles in action will mean forging a common strategy while drawing
strength from and respecting diversity.

After the disappointment that was Nairobi, many long-standing
participants in the Forum are asking themselves: Is the WSF still the
most appropriate vehicle for the new stage in the struggle of the
global justice and peace movement? Or, having fulfilled its historic
function of aggregating and linking the diverse counter-movements
spawned by global capitalism, is it time for the WSF to fold up its
tent and give way to new modes of global organization of resistance and
transformation?

 


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