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Die Relevanz des WSF für die Kämpfe für soziale Gerechtigkeit in Indien

Überlegungen zum Symposion "Der Kampf um soziale Gerechtigkeit im heutigen Indien: Wie wichtig ist das Weltsozialforum?" (Konferenz in Delhi / Indien am 30./31.08.2008 organisiert von CACIM) - in englischer Sprache

(by ALF GUNVALD NILSEN, Wordpress)

On August 30/31, I participated in a symposium organized by CACIM (Critical Action - Centre in Movement) in Delhi, which aimed to reflect on the state of struggles for social justice in India today, and the relevance of the World Social Forum to these processes. The symposium offered a welcome chance to reflect on a theme of considerable importance and urgency, as well as to listen to and engage with interesting presentations from seasoned activists and scholars such as Gabriele Dietrich, Vinod Raina and Uma Chakravarty, as well as research papers on the WSF presented by CACIM’s Forum Fellows of 2007-8. In these notes I present a slightly elaborated version of my summary and discussion of the main streams of the arguments that unfolded during the symposium.

The context of CACIM’s symposium was set in a brief discussion note that drew up a broad-brushed picture of the context in which struggles for social justice unfold in India. Contemporary India, it is argued, is witnessing a great intensification of popular struggles for social justice, which is often reactive in character - that is, reactions by particular communities against the depredations of neoliberal restructuring and the upsurge of communal and fascist forces. Simultaneously, popular struggles are encountering an increasingly repressive response from above, which further reinforces the reactive character of many of these struggles. However, India is also witnessing "greater collaboration and convergence of different movements and campaigns for social justice, as a part of this rising assertion". This scenario parallels with "the invention and the institutionalization of the World Social Forum" as a potentially crucial development in the crystallization of resistance against neoliberalism and for an alternative world order. CACIM notes that the WSF was heralded in these terms in India since its inception there World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004. Nevertheless, something seems to have gone wrong - not only was there significant criticism against the WSF from radical quarters when it was introduced in India, but more recently, activity around and interest in the WSF and the wider Forum process has been at a low, thus raising the question as to how relevant the Forum actually is to popular struggles for social justice in India today.

I share in much of CACIM’s diagnosis of the state of popular struggles in India today. However, possibly as a result of the bias that flows from my own research over the past six years, I would add that popular struggles in India have also witnessed some crucial defeats in recent times. A key example here would be the Narmada Bachao Andolan; despite its many substantial achievements - the empowerment of adivasi communities in relation to an unresponsive and coercive local state, the politicization of dams and displacement, the successful campaign against World Bank funding of the Sardar Sarovar Project and corporate investments in the Maheshwar Hydroelectric Project - the movement nevertheless failed to achieve its key goal, which was to stop dam-building on the Narmada River (see other posts on this blog). The very fact that the strategies of a movement that had so much going for it, not just in terms of organizational strength and impact, integration into transnational activist networks, and international attention, but also in terms of the burden of proof against its opponent, ultimately foundered should indeed be an issue of concern to activists everywhere as dispossession assumes increasingly virulent and violent forms in India. This is the context, then, in which the WSF has to render itself relevant - on the one hand, an intensification of struggles, but on the other hand also defeats and increasing levels of state repression.

How has the WSF tried to make itself relevant to popular struggles for social justice? By being an open space - that is, a space in which movements, activists and other progressives can come together and share their experiences of struggle. Now, in and by itself, there is nothing new in this; it is quite simply what activists and movements tend to do per definition. It is through such sharing of experiences that movements come into being, and if they extend their reach and scope beyond the immediate locale of resistance and come to fight wider struggles for social justice, this is the activity which drives that process. Indeed, it is through such sharing of experiences that movements come to build the capacity to change the world - as they have done at several conjunctures in history, even when they have been defeated.

Yet, there is a crucial difference between the sharing of experience as a part and parcel of activist praxis and the way that it is practised by/within the WSF. When activists come together to share their "lessons learnt", this tends to happen with a view towards "joining the dots" between issues and struggles so as to facilitate joint action. In other words, such sharing is done with a view towards figuring out who the common enemy is, defining a common identity, and chalking out a common strategy. In its refusal to do just this - i.e. to work towards the development of political platforms and strategies - the WSF stops short of this kind of action-orientation, and in listening to the various presentations at the symposium, this seemed to be key to the concerns expressed about the relevance of the WSF to struggles for social justice in India today.

For example, Gabriele Dietrich argued that whilst there was substantial enthusiasm for the WSF initially, it had gradually waned as it became clear that the practical impacts and implications of the process were relatively limited. In her view, the WSF often worked in such a way as to secure a degree of attention around issues that activists are engaged with, but little more - issues become known globally, but they are left unresolved locally as the power relations from which they stem remain intact. Vinod Raina pointed out that one of the great promises of the WSF was that it would facilitate greater horizontal integration between movements at a time when it was highly needed. Although a certain level of horizontal integration had been achieved, it had, however, proven to be transitory and had not been sustained by the Forum process. Finally, Uma Chakravarty criticized the kind of "rainbow coalition" mentality that tends to be fostered by the open space strategy for failing to provide an analysis of how issues of class, caste, gender and imperialism are interlinked, and how single issues are integrated into a greater structural totality.

Similar themes emerged in the papers of the CACIM Forum Fellows. Mamata Dash’s paper on how movement groups view the WSF pointed out that in the case of the struggles of forest people, the Forum had contributed to the initiation of dialogue amongst movement groups both inside and outside India, resulting in greater coordination of campaigns for the right to the forest and forest resources. This was a rare example, however - the exception rather than the rule. As movement activists see it, there have been few practical outcomes of the WSF, and its ambit of active participation has often been restricted to leaders and movement intellectuals rather than the grassroots "rank and file". Mayur Chetia’s paper on the relationship of the left to the World Social Forum raised similar issues in pointing out that much of the left perceives its operational mode as limiting the ability to craft common perspectives and strategies between movements. Finally, Susanna Barria’s paper on the main debates around the 2004 WSF argued that one of the reasons why the Forum has had limited resonance among movement groups in India is quite possibly that its mode of operation and its ambition to craft a "new politics" is quite alien in the Indian context, where "old" forms of oppositional politics still remain strong.

Now, there is of course an obvious rejoinder to such arguments, and that is that the perceived lack of relevance stems from movements and activists expecting to be the WSF to be what it ostensibly is not - a kind of co-ordinating committee for action. Consequently, the question of relevance can be resolved with a readjustment of expectations, so to speak. But I think this would be an inadequate and indeed unfortunate response to the WSF. Whereas a rejoinder of this kind is valid on its own terms, it would nevertheless, I think, amount to turning one’s back on activist needs and concerns, and, moreover, to an abdication of accountability and responsibility towards the strategic imperatives of the hour.

The World Social Forum came into being at a time when open spaces were highly needed. Two decades of defeatism and fragmentation had passed, in which the powers that be rejoiced in the mantra that "there is no alternative". With the emergence of the WSF it was again possible to say that "we are everywhere" and proof was in hand that "another world is possible". But where are we now? There is no doubt that the global alterglobalization movement has been crucial in eroding the legitimacy of institutions such as the WTO, the G8, the World Bank and the IMF, and that the neoliberal state is experiencing a crisis of hegemony. It is the lack of popular consent that leads the neoliberal state to resort to surveillance, gagging, imprisonment and liquidation - precisely because it has so little else to offer social majorities after decades of daylight robbery of social wealth and public goods. In spite of this, we are facing a powerful enemy, and this is evident in the ever-widening scope and intensity of dispossession and imperialist warfare. Hence, perhaps it is time to get beyond the celebration of another world being possible and our presence being everywhere and move towards more fecund forms of theoretical production and strategic propositions that can move us beyond what is arguably a stalemate and towards a viable plan for progressive oppositional action. And if the WSF wants to be relevant to such a process, there are several issues that could be usefully discussed and reflected upon.

One of those issues is the very obvious and very simple fact that being perceived as relevant often flows from being perceived as effective. I say this partly on the basis of my experience with research on the Narmada movement. The Narmada Bachao Andolan was of course one of the main drivers behind and participants in the National Alliance of People’s Movements in India - a network that united several hundred movement groups around an agenda for alternative development. Although this was a significant achievement, what struck me in interviewing activists in adivasi villages was how faint the NAPM was to their lifeworld - the NAPM was somewhere the leaders went to hold discussions, it was not something directly relevant to them and their everyday plights. What would be talked about in great detail, though, was their participation in the trade union Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, a precursor of the NBA, which struck at the heart of the everyday tyranny exercised over these communities by local state officials, and which did so with considerable success. In other words, a grassroots experience of relevance is likely to flow from a grassroots experience of being able to win victories that modify or transform power relations in a tangible way. Without such impacts, the reach and relevance of networks, alliances and indeed open spaces is quite likely to remain limited.

Another issue relates to the WSF’s ambition of crafting a "new politics" and how this relates to the issues and forms of power faced by movements. The basic point is that many of the issues around which struggles for social justice crystallize are ostensibly "old" in character. If anything, it is dispossession which occurs again and again as a theme in these struggles - dispossession not only of land, but of forest and water resources, of agricultural livelihoods and factory jobs, of squatter housing and coastal zones, and of hard-won rights and entitlements. And dispossession is as old as capitalism itself; indeed, it is the dispossession of social majorities of the productive resources that sustain their livelihoods that the fires of accumulation are fed - there is nothing new about this. Moreover, the state is deeply implicated in advancing dispossession - not only by promoting neoliberal agendas and policies, but also by smothering popular opposition through the deployment of the coercive apparatus at its disposal. The state, then, is blatantly a capitalist state, and there is nothing new about this either. I am neither saying this in an attempt to argue that there is nothing new under the sun, nor in an attempt to absolve the "old" politics of its shortcomings, but in an attempt to encourage, perhaps, a greater degree of humility amongst those who argue for a new politics and an ability to recognize that "old" forms of politics may not be completely devoid of virtues. What is more, I think it would be regrettable if the convergence of contemporary struggles for social justice, and with it the WSF process, was to descend into trench warfare over the supposed fault lines between "old" and "new" social movements. Such a development can only be detrimental to popular resistance, and the option of dialogue and cross-fertilization between political traditions is a far more preferable avenue to pursue.

Perhaps, then, it is time to re-think the mode of operation of the WSF in relation to activist needs, concerns and ambitions. Perhaps it is necessary to consider whether it is possible for the Forum to move from being an open space to being an infrastructure of resistance that is capable of supporting and sustaining engagements in theoretical production, strategic propositions and practical action. If the World Social Forum is, as it purports to be, a process, then surely the possibility of such change should not be inimical to its character.


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