Reflections on the Current Social Forums Process
by Gustave Massiah
This paper does not intend to provide an exhaustive analysis of the relationship between the processes of the WSF and the changing global situation, rather it will put forward some reflections on the subject. In order to do this I will begin with the events associated with the social forums process that we became aware of at the WSF in Dakar in February 2011, and those that are planned for 2012, in advance of the next World Social Forum in 2012. Forty two events were flagged up by the organizers, and these appeared on the WSF website.
The social forums process is changing. Whilst it continues to broaden and gain depth, it encounters successes as well as difficulties, and the questions and contradictions that emerge should be taken on board. In doing this, it is useful to analyse the events linked to the process, as this provides a kind of internal view of the process itself. This should be considered alongside an analysis of the impact the processes have had on a global level. This analysis will be the subject of the political debates that the International Council has decided to put in place as of its next session. An analysis of the events linked to the process is useful as it provides an opportunity for those who want to participate, to verify facts and talk with organizers and participants to do so. The International Council in Dhaka decided to set up a focus group intended to follow and analyze all the events linked to the Social Forums process. It is open to all members of the Council who wish to take part.
In order to evaluate the current state of the process within a global context, after first reviewing the events linked to the process, I will examine the following: The relationship between the process and the movements, the current state of the process in each broad region, the way in which the crisis is viewed and its political influence.
Events linked to the process
There has been a marked increase in the number of events linked to the process. These events are, at first glance as numerous as those that took place at the WSF in Belem, and the WSF in Dakar. However, they have diversified, and become much more specific than those that were the subject of the Global Year of Action in 2010. As the crisis has continued to worsen since 2010, movements have responded accordingly; with newly established movements finding different forms of mobilization.
In terms of the events linked to the process, we can highlight the proposals of the convergence assemblies for action from the WSF in Dakar. These include: the Social Regional and National Forums, (Thematic and Local), the activities associated with the process and activities which did not result directly from the process, but which are linked to it.
Proposals put forward by the convergence assemblies for action
Social Regional and National Forums, both Thematic and Local
Several Social Regional and National Forums have taken place, such as the Mesopotamian Forum, the North African Social Forum, the Bas Saint-Laurent Social Forum in September 2011, the Southern Africa Social Forum, the Peoples' Summit in Nioro, Mali and the South Asian Social Forum. Others are planned such as the Iraki Social Forum, the Maghreb-Machrek Social Forum and the sixth Pan-Amazonian Forum in Bolivia.
Thematic Forums will take place such as the Forum International d'Economie Sociale et Solidaire, in Quebec, the Thematic Forum in Porto Alegre, the Migrations Forum in Oujda, Morocco, the Forum de l'education pour la transformation, the World Forum for an Alternative Media, the World Forum for Science and Democracy and the Forum for Peace and Demilitarization of Sarajevo.
The Social Forums taking place on a local level in some countries should also be mentioned: In Brazil the Social Forum in Sᾶo Paolo was launched in October 2011, and in France a meeting of the local social forums of which there are about sixty has been planned for July 2012.
Events associated with the process
Many of the events associated with the process represent the link between the various mobilizations and the forums process. The events are organized as part of the process itself, or alternatively at the international events. This was the case for the International Seminar on the Altermondialist Movement that took place in May 2011, Paris, the Genoa International Assembly in July 2011, and the Summit celebrating 10 years of Social Forums in Europe that will take place in Florence 2012.
Many of these events take place at the same time as international negotiations, either in the form of alternative summits, or opposition summits. Only those that are organized by movements which make explicit reference to the social forums process and which take into account the social forums process are accepted. This includes for example the demonstrations and peoples' summits organized in France, one in opposition to the G8 at Le Havre in May 2011, and another in Nice(November 2011) in opposition to the G20. In addition to this, the Alternative Summit for Urgent Climate Action in Durban (December 2011) and, in preparation for Rio +20, the alternative Water Summit in Marseille (March 2012) and the Alternative Preparation Summit for Rio +20 in June 2012 which will be prepared for at the Thematic Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2012.
There are also various other noteworthy events which are not directly linked to the process, but whose organizers have made explicit reference to the process and have requested their registration on the WSF website. These are evidence of the spread of the social forums process. The International Conference against the War in Iraq, the ICAE World Assembly in Malmö in June 2011, the OCLAE Conference in August 2011 and the Free Music International Festival in Porto Alegre in 2012 are all examples of such groups. The link between these events (and numerous others), and the social forums process will be examined.
Current social movements
Citizens and social movements have been gaining strength since 2008. They remain confronted with the question of political change, which depends on the situation in each country and in each region. The following section will focus on the changing relationship between these movements and the social forums process. With this in mind, it is possible to identify those movements that remain at the heart of the process, those which were present at the beginning and have now distanced themselves, and those new movements which are not (yet!) strongly involved in the process.
At the heart of the Social Forums process there lies a core group of movements that has taken shape over the last ten years, and that continues to carry the Social Forums process forward. These movements organized the World Social Forums in Porto Alegre, Mumbai, Bamako, Caracas, Karachi, Nairobi, Belém and Dakar, and play and active role in the International Council. Also included in this core of movements are the organizers of the Regional Social Forums which often take place in conjunction with large International Council sessions, such as those in Abuja, Montreal, Parma, Rabat, Mexico, Copenhagen, Paris and most recently in Dhaka.
Debate between the movements is wide-ranging, covering topics such as the direction the process should take, and in particular the direction of the social movements, the role of NGO's, relations with political parties, evaluation of the role of governments and the relationship with new movements.
Some movements which to start with had played an important role, are now less actively involved. Others which were anchored to regions where the process first began, in Latin America and Southern Europe for example, find themselves less at ease with the linguistic and cultural diversification that is taking place. Others such as the Confédération Syndicale Mondiale and the Via Campesina are in tune with current global debates within specific worldwide networks. They are divided over their international positioning meaning that they are involved in various different trades union and peasant movements. And there are others yet, that are considering the possibility of the end of the World Social Forums cycle in favour of newer movements.
The question of the relationship between old and new struggles and the movements is key. Five separate movements can be identified that require closer examination:
Firstly the movements in Tunisia and Egypt, the Arab Spring and all the struggles relevant to the Maghreb-Machrek region. The World Social Forum in 2013 will provide a key meeting point.
Secondly, the 'indigné' movements, particularly in Spain, Portugal and Greece there are many points in common, particularly in terms of rhetoric and political culture. Searching for these common denominators goes hand in hand with reflecting on how these movements are changing, and how they can aid in the task of implementing democratic objectives.
Similarly the Occupy movements, principally Occupy Wall Street and the 53 other American towns that participated, (as well as Occupy Montreal, Occupy London, Occupy Tokyo) all raise questions about the possibility of mobilizing people around capitalist financing issues. Given this, the lessons learned from the United States World Social Forum, and the importance of prioritizing a grass-roots approach is a principal common cause.
Lastly, it is important to note the large-scale youth movements in schools and universities across Great Britain, Chili, Croatia, Senegal and Togo which are just beginning to react to the damage that is caused to young people today by increasingly widespread neoliberal policies.
These newer movements serve to push forward and renew the altermondialist movement. The response to this challenge may require a change in structure of the whole movement, and this is something we should be willing to accept.
The current process within each broad region
The process has grown and diversified according to each region, though it has not gained as much ground in terms of visibility on a worldwide level. Indeed, for the international media it has to an extent lost some of its importance; it has become a common reference and has lost the element of surprise it possessed ten years ago.
In Latin America, the process remains very much in action in Brazil, Andean America and Mexico. Two issues dominate the debate. The first is the question of the relationship between the movements and their governments, governments which define themselves as working closely with the altermondialists, or as maintaining a 'progressive' position, (Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela). The second concerns the Latin American left's appreciation for the Arab Spring. On one hand these uprisings are seen in connection with the USA and NATO, and on the other hand their radical nature is diminished due to the absence of revolutionary parties.
In North America, the movement is becoming more established. The social forums process works in parallel with the Occupy movements. The issue they are facing is that of the growth of the neoconservative movement and in particular the Tea Party movement. Furthermore, there is the question of the decline of American hegemony, which does not at all necessarily imply a similar thing for American imperialism, which may continue. The Canadian government is developing aggressively neoliberal policies. The social forums process is very active in Quebec, and there are plans for a Canadian social forum.
The forums process has gained much ground in the Maghreb-Machrek region. It has gathered pace in Palestine since the World Education Forum in Palestine and the Day of Solidarity with Palestine events that also took place. In Kurdistan the process is also very active thanks to the Mesopotamian Social Forum, and in Iraq preparation for an Iraqi Social Forum is underway. The process is not so evident in Turkey, however it is very prominent in North Africa. The 2013 World Social Forum in Tunisia or Egypt will provide an opportunity to further reinforce the social forums process, and to strengthen links with the Arab Spring. In 2012, a series of events associated with the sub-Regional and Thematic Forums should prepare the way for widespread mobilization.
In Africa, many events took place following the World Social Forum in Dakar, such as the Southern African Forum and the Peoples' Summit in Niori, Mali. It is also worth noting the strong links between the movements in North Africa and those in Sub-Saharan Africa which were reinforced by co-operation between the African Social Forum and the Maghreb-Machrek Social Forum.
In Europe (Italy, France, Greece, Spain, Portugal and the UK), the situation over the last two years has been characterized by the existence of very strong resistance movements and certain key struggles. There was an aggressive attack on financecapitalism which in imposing neoliberal policies risks a serious recession in Europe. Privileges have been safeguarded and the Euro crisis, after repeated bank bail-outs, is now becoming a public debt crisis. European disenchantment results from a combination of financial and economic crisis, and a close examination of geo-political issues. Movements which support the forums process are divided over how to react to social regression and the rise of the extreme right. The 'indignés' movements that began in Spain are evidence of a renewed ability to resist and a thorough investigation of forms of emancipation.
Asia must be divided into various sub-regions:
In South Asia, the South Asian Social Forum showed that the process is strongly influential in Pakistan and Bangladesh, as well as in Sri Lanka and Nepal. India played a major role in modifying the process with the Mumbai Forum. Over the last few years, these movements have remained strong, but have lost some of their prominence, due to the changes taking place in Indian politics. In South-East Asia, we do not have a lot of information on the current state of movements linked to the process, despite there being active movements in Malaysia , the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.
In Japan, there are several movements which refer to the social forums process. They were very involved in the mobilizations which followed the tsunami and the events at Fukuyama.
In China, there are strong social resistance movements, even though they do not take the same form as those in other countries.
This is the central question and the raison-d'être for the social forums process.
In terms of the ecological crisis, there was large scale mobilization, with demonstrations and the alternative Climate Summit in Durban during the Climate Conference. As things stand, the negotiations ended in failure, and are evidence of a regression in terms of the measures that need to be put in place. Forthcoming mobilizations include the Alternative Water Summit, due to take place in Marseille 2012, and the Rio+20 Peoples' Summit in June 2012.
Concerning the current geopolitical crisis, the Alternative G20 Summit in November 2011 fed into a debate around toppling the current geopolitical world order. This debate examines the current crisis in US hegemony and the growth of Western imperialism. One discussion in particular focused on the rise of what are referred to as 'emerging' countries (Brazil, China and India) and the role they might play in the international arena. It asked what role social movements within these 'emerging' countries might play, and investigated the idea of the beginning of a new phase of decolonization.
In terms of a current democratic crisis, the establishment of democracy has been at the forefront of the social forums process from its outset. Debates surrounding democracy are now more heated than ever, with renewed interest from stemming from the indignés movement. Elections are of particular concern: Whilst some expect elections to bring about change with the transfer of movements into parties, for others (who acknowledge the tactical strength in this) elections do not represent their main focus nor are they the solution to solving everyday problems on a grassroots level.
The nature of the relationship between the forums process and politicians and governments is a question to which we return often. This is a question that is relevant to all movements, and that occurs in various forms according to the level of functioning. On a global level, how can how can successful political policy be put in place in the wake of the end of neoliberalism and the crisis? Especially now that financial markets that instrumentalise the US have tightened control over international institutions.
In terms of broad regions, there has been more progress on a cultural level than a political one, and it is on this level that the movements can play a key role. It is on a national level that political current affairs are debated, and the relationship to government and political parties takes shape. Movements are divided differently within each country depending on the current situation.
The social forums process has proposed numerous ideas, and has constructed a space for debate and for building alternatives. One aspect of these ideas concerns the immediate measures that should be taken in light of the financial crisis and neoliberal hegemony. Other aspects refer to immediate measures that would lead to progress on a grassroots level, and that could be adopted by the modernist fractions of 'the establishment' who are aware of the dangers of neoliberalism. However, the most important debate to be had in the social forums process is that which discusses proposals that pave the way to finding an alternative to capitalism. This thought process has progress significantly since the Belém World Social Forum in 2008, and it is representative of a renewed social forums process.