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And now, World Social Forum?

by Chico Whitaker

It has been nearly eleven years since the first World Social Forum happened, in January 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Seen as a light of hope - new and strong - in a locked horizon, this political initiative led the Le Monde Diplomatique newspaper's Director, Ignace Ramonet, to say, in its January editorial: "the new century begins in Porto Alegre".

Since then the WSF entered in the agenda – at the beginning each year, later every two years – of many of the organizations that are struggling, in the world, for an egalitarian, fair and peaceful society. It originated many continental, regional, national or local Social Forums. The linkages that it made possible transformed it in a continuous process. However, some organizations are no more coming to all Social Forums at the world level, others even moved away. That is why one or two seminars about its future are always organized in the last five WSFs. 

It is therefore suitable the question proposed as title of this article: and now, World Social Forum? For me its continuity is fundamental, adapting itself to new situations, in a “way that we make walking ", without disfigurations or bureaucratizing it. If this is possible, its "walk" actually barely started...

The emergence of the WSF

To justify this position it is essential to recall the historical moment of the World Social Forum emergence. The world had lived in 1989 an event that changed substantially the history [1]: the overthrow of the "Berlin wall", a symbol of the victory of the capitalist system over the "real socialism" of the Soviet Union. Free of barriers to its expansion, created until then by the antagonistic military-political force that was defeated, this system began to impose to the entire planet its logic, the one of the "market", as the single mechanism for the functioning of the economy. That was what was saying Thatcher, the British First Minister of the eighties, with the word TINA - abbreviation of the English expression "there is no alternative". Under the name of neoliberalism, capitalism went on to command, with the force of a tsunami, named "globalization", a new stage of the integration of the Earth’s peoples. 

However, the market logic, driven by the unstoppable search for money and profit, by an insatiable consumerism of "having" always more, and by competition, began to create new problems, such as the increasing concentration of wealth, in the poor countries as well as in the rich ones. After some time the protests of those who had overcome the perplexity caused by the fall of the "Wall" - and still had the dream of equality and justice - arose. They then began to resist to the action of the main instruments of the system – the WTO [2], the IMF [3] and the World Bank - and to refute the Summits of the powerful countries leaders who wanted to rule the world – the G7 that became G8 when they incorporated the ex-enemy Russia. Nevertheless, if their mobilizations multiplied and grew, repression also increased, to silence the unsatisfied. 

Then the World Social Forum proposal appeared, as a major world event aiming to show the existence of alternatives to the capitalist logic of the market. In this event, social movements would present and discuss these alternatives, in a "globalization of solidarity", in substitution of the one of capital. They would overcome the single protestation, to enter in a stage of propositions, saying that "another world is possible" – phrase used to launch the mobilization towards Porto Alegre.

This proposal included naturally an operation of communication, in face of the media entirely dominated by the ascending capitalism: the World "Social" Forum would take place exactly on the same dates of the World “Economic” Forum of Davos, Switzerland – periodical meeting of the new owners of the world. It was an attempt to break the centrality of Davos in world news, and draw attention to the alternative to the dominant economic model. 

Organizations that, throughout the world, were building these alternatives were then invited to this new Forum. The proposal proved very well timed: surprisingly, more than 20,000 people from many countries, instead of the planned 2,500, met in the first WSF. As a new wind, it in fact revived the political environment. It became evident that more meetings of that type were necessary. The following Forums proved their interest: gradually they had more and more participants, reaching 150,000 in 2005, which could be summed up to those who met at other levels. In addition, the rising "anti-globalization" movement was soon called "alter-globalization", influenced by the mobilizing phrase of the WSF.

However some challenges to the WSF, existing in fact since its beginning, remain. I indicate here three of them, related to the three roles that render it, in my opinion, an irreplaceabletool in the struggle to overcome the problems created by the domination of money: the dissemination of its message of hope throughout the world; the affirmation of civil society as an autonomous political actor; the effective construction of a new political culture. 

Expansion and communication

The growth of the struggle against capitalism has not yet decreased the impetus of this system. The force with which its logic seized China – demographic giant today immersed in a tough state capitalism - shows the depth with which he stabbed the Socialist alternative. And it is minimal the social resistance to the penetration, across the planet, of an exacerbated consumerism – condition of generating profits by the industrial machine of production, whose overwhelming growth creates, with their environmental consequences, an increasing threat to the continuity of life on Earth. Organizations and Governments that advocate capitalism incorporate, in their discussions and decisions, some themes raised in Social Forums. Nevertheless, they do it to decrease their weaknesses and better confront their opponents.

The message of hope that "another world is possible" arrived however, still, in very few places in the world. There are regions where it is literally unknown, as in countries that experienced the "real socialism", where it would be particularly useful. On every continent, the vast majority of people have an inadequate or distorted version of the nature and goals of the WSF. 

Many alternative means – and the use of new social networks - try to break through the walls of the main communication means. Nevertheless, we do not arrive to make sufficiently known the Forums that are performing. For instance, very few of the millions of passive spectators connected to TVs to follow football games, manipulated by capitalist competition, knew that 70,000 people from all over the world met in Senegal at the beginning of this year, to exchange experiences and plan actions towards the new world. In this case, it was perhaps worse because the WSF was held, for the first time, on a different date from Davos. Very modestly we began to use the Internet, during the Forums, to link its participants with those who could not come. But we are still a very small voice, almost imperceptible inside the big amount of information that invade the world. With the publicity and the big media means - and the Internet - bombarding uninterruptedly minds and hearts with the events and values of the old world, the large majorities cannot even imagine that a new world is possible. Still fewer believe, as we do, that it is necessary and urgent. 

Another type of "expansion" of the WSF process is permanently necessary to incorporate new issues that arise. Fortunately, this expansion happens almost naturally, thanks to the WSF format. The activities taking place in it, freely organized by its participants – an option that was one of its attractions - opens the horizons. This happened for instance with the struggle for peace in 2003 – leading to the great mobilization against the war in Iraq; with the search for issues for the economic crisis as well as for the environmental problems; with the indigenous “living well" proposal, in face of the crisis of civilization – in the 2009 Forum in the Amazon region; or more recently, with the land grabbing question, at the 2011 Forum in Senegal, where the "revolutions for democracy" in the Arab countries had also great impact.

Civil society as a political actor

The second challenge to face is the radical change that is necessary in the way of seeing the political action of civil society. The decisions about the WSF nature and format were directly influenced by events that preceded it: the Zapatista movement, which emerged in 1994 in Mexico, and the Seattle anti-OMC mobilization in 1999. The first one criticized traditional models of political action, leading the WSF to highlight its autonomy in relation to parties and Governments and to the traditional methods of political action. The second one made evident the political force that civil society can have. This vision led to define the WSF as a civil society Forum, which had not, until then, meeting opportunities at the world level. Both events also led to value in the WSF the horizontal networking organization, which depends of people’s conviction and not of imposed discipline.

In fact, these options were among the more interesting innovations in the beginning of the WSF process. However, they are today those that are leading many organizations to stand back: the ones that would prefer to turn the WSF into a social movement with a strong direction and its own program of action, or couple it with parties and Governments. 

Many still maintain the illusion that by taking political power we can build a new society. The frustrations caused by Governments elected with this goal but then subjected, to survive, to the logic of capitalist development, or being neutralized by corrupt oligarchies, still not convinced them that taking the political power is not enough.

For others, civil society – characteristically diversified, heterogeneous in composition, and fragmented in its actions – would have political force only if structured as a pyramid of hierarchical power, as the Governments, parties, armies, movements, churches. Thus, the WSF is for them a waste of time, energy, resources as it is not able to fulfill the mission – actually impossible – of leading civil society to act as a single body towards some specific goals. 

In fact, this way of seeing civil society reduces it to a mass of people supporting Governments, as in Fascist regimes, or being used to throw them down, and ignores the immensity of the challenge of building the "other world possible". To make it effectively possible a huge variety of changes of all kinds and at all levels is required, in the structures of Government, in laws, in minds, in behaviors. It is a gigantic task that cannot be performed by a decree from the top down, suddenly, as if political power could domesticate the economic power and make appear, automatically, a new culture. On the contrary, it requires a long process with the most varied types and levels of resistance, creative initiative and transforming action.

It is within this perspective that the civil society - exactly because of its diversity, heterogeneity and even fragmentation - appears as the single political actor that can really promote an effective change of the reality. Only the action of organized citizens, acting below, above, inside and outside Governments, can reach all the meanders in all the ruptures that are necessary. What seems to be its weakness is in fact its strength. It is worth remembering one of the proposals that have arisen in the WSF process, in the publication named Turbulences: none David will use a sling as well as to unbalance the giant in one blow. What we need is to multiply to infinity swarms of bees continuously attacking the monster, by all sides.

The construction of a new political culture

The third challenge to face in the continuity of the WSF process is perhaps the most difficult: to build a new political culture – really democratic, egalitarian and respectful of diversity. We have to do it inside a world that practically lived always under hierarchies and authoritarian systems of governance. Its history is told to us as the one of the victories and defeats of its leaders.

The aimed change in this aspect is very deep. It touches all the traditional methods of political action. What we see everywhere – even among organizations participating in the Forums, when they are acting outside it – are disputes between those who should make alliances, or struggles for power or hegemony. In this competition it is even adopted the perverse principle establishing that the ends justify the means. We need to review entirely the functioning of the parties, which are one of the main instruments of political action. We need to question the teachings disseminated throughout the last century among those who fought against capitalism. 

However, the need for such change is perhaps the deepest intuition of the WSF process. Without doubt it is the most daring, in claiming that a new political culture is a sine qua non condition to make our action lead effectively to the overcoming of the logic of capitalism. One of the strongest inspirations of that intuition was the formula "lead obeying", invented by the Zapatistas. It has its roots also in the contribution of many thinkers and anti-authoritarianism social movements of the last decades. 

It implies on one side the acceptance of the role to give to civil society, to which I referred above. On other side it leads to the adoption of organizational options entirely new in the political world. The Forums are, in this sense, a laboratory of experimentation and learning of these options – especially for those who organize them. 

Accordingly to such options, the WSF has no leaders, spokespersons or even coordinators, as well as its events are not structured based on sectors of social activity or using the traditional representative pyramids – from the local level to the global. It intends to be only an open space – a “public square”, as I use to say - for the horizontal meeting of all those who come to it, everyone having the same importance, to learn from each other, to identify convergences and to build joint actions based on mutual trust. Furthermore – and this was really a great novelty in relation with Forums, Assemblies, Parties Congresses and meetings in general – it does not have a "Final Declaration" intending to express a united and single commitment of all its participants. Neither has it opened the possibility of "motions", such as those adopted in the inattention and fatigue of the final moments of the assemblies...

At the beginning, we were not so aware of all the transforming potentialities of such options – neither of the resistances they would provoke, among those that saw the WSF as a new movement, or as the "movement of movements", or simply assimilated it to the alter globalization movement. In fact, they would prefer to see the Forum acting as a subject, rather than waiting for the participating organizations to define their own commitments and accomplishthem, in the multiplicity of their struggles. 

However, from the adoption of a Charter of Principles, drafted after the first Forum and from its lessons, to ensure that the next Forums would have the same success, these options knew a consolidation and unfolding, around the basic principle of the respect of diversity. One of these developments, to which I have already referred, was the decision to program the Forums with activities self-organized by its participants, following the same Principles of the Charter. Another one was the fact that the Forums’ organizers began to call themselves “facilitators”, to avoid any “direction” role.

The dynamics of the succession of Forums allowed the emergence of increasingly new networks, associating autonomously organizations with common goals that could unite respecting their diversity – a type of union that do not homogenize and do not castrate the capacity of initiative. Freed from the obligation to "converge" around a single program of action, in the end of each Forum, they discover multiple "convergences" and common interests. These new networks acquire then their own life, consolidating themselves in the so-called "process" of the WSF, as a way to build an articulated civil society at the planetary level. 

The real existence of these new "networks" was evident with what happened at the 2011World Social Forum, in Dakar, Senegal. The problems faced by its organizers transformed it into a genuine chaos, on the first day of the self-organized activities. The existing networks however took the initiative and, from bottom to top, made possible the accomplishment of the Forum, which included over thirty final assemblies to plan joint actions. Who went to the Forum not integrated in networks came out dissatisfied. Overall, however, the final feeling was that, despite this wearing, it was absolutely necessary to continue the process, with a new WSF in 2013.

Actually, the problems faced by the Dakar organizers derived exactly of the disrespect of the basic rules of the WSF format. Their collective body should have had an open and diversified composition, could not be "controlled" by a few people, its decisions should be taken accordingly to the rule of consensus – one of the richest experiences throughout the process, that learn us to listen - and it should function as a facilitator and not as a directing body. 

The same type of difficulty – with the same reasons - is being lived by some Forums as the European, which began with force in 2002, has held already six editions but today is almost tending to extinction. As it is what occurs with Forums – specially Local or National ones - that were "kidnapped" by political forces seeking to put it at the service of their own objectives. That is to say, the WSF process, as a genuine common good of the humanity, languishes when privatized.

By way of conclusion

Despite the weight of these challenges, the WSF is knowing a positive dynamic in strategic regions like North America and the Arab countries and continues to navigate – e la nave va. A new and dangerous trend appears however now, paradoxically as consequence of the Forum process success: networks born in it, having now their own force, no longer "need" the WSF events to deepen and expand their alliances and struggles. They tend then to leave the boat, amidst the violence of the waves still caused by the capitalist tsunami.
Such perspectives can discourage those aware of the still long way to walk in the World Social Forum adventure. However, we cannot mislead ourselves. As I said at the end of the book I wrote about the WSF in 2004: if the resistances to the WSF options and to the new political culture that is being built with the contribution of the Forum, could prevent its continuity, we must adapt ourselves to this simple truth: everything has its time.

July 18, 2011


[1] This change of direction even led the north American economist Fukuyama to write a widespread article on what he called "the end of history".

[2] World Trade Organization

[3] International Monetary Fund


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